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Thursday, November 6, 2014

Bryce Dessner and Dianne Berkun-Menaker Discuss Black Mountain Songs

by Susan Yung

Between 1933 and 1957, Black Mountain College in North Carolina was a model of progressive interdisciplinary learning that posited the importance of the arts. Brilliant thinkers from many genres spent time there: Buckminster Fuller, Anni and Josef Albers, John Cage, Merce Cunningham. The rich collaborative spirit of the college suffuses Black Mountain Songs, a suite of commissioned songs by eight composers curated by Bryce Dessner and Richard Reed Parry, sung by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, directed by Maureen Towey, with a film by Matt Wolf and sets by Mimi Lien. The composers are Dessner, Parry, Caroline Shaw, Nico Muhly, Aleksandra Vrebalov, John King, Jherek Bischoff, and Tim Hecker. Dianne Berkun-Menaker directs the chorus and conducts.

We asked Dessner (curator, musician, songwriter, composer, and member of The National) and Berkun-Menaker (chorus director and conductor) about the project.

Black Mountain College. Photo: Hazel Larsen Archer

Where did the inspiration come from to honor Black Mountain College?

Bryce Dessner: I have been interested in Black Mountain College for many years. I went to summer camp in North Carolina as a kid just a few miles from the site of the college and actually learned to play music in those same mountains that spawned some of the greatest artists and art movements of the 20th century. I first learned about Black Mountain College through the well-known and incredibly long-running John Cage and Merce Cunningham collaboration, which was in its early years at Black Mountain (both were teachers at the college). I learned more about the college later in reading about the many profoundly important visual artists who came through there either as teachers, visiting lecturers or students (Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, Franz Kline, etc.).

But the decision to create a staged work for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus reflecting on Black Mountain actually was born out of a more recent exploration of the school of Black Mountain Poets. Poets like Robert Creeley and Charles Olson (who was also the last rector of the college) were integral to the Black Mountain story and were hugely influential American writers. My original idea was to set poems by the Black Mountain Poets and this idea expanded to embrace the ethos of community and collaboration which was so essential to the college. The spirit of learning through doing and emphasis on self-exploration for both teachers and students seemed like a perfect vehicle to create a collaborative work that would be meaningful to both the young singers of the chorus, as well as the creative community of composers we embraced for the project.

Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Photo: Elizabeth D. Herman

How was that concept conveyed to the composers when they received the commission?

BD: Because the identity of Black Mountain was so diverse and creatively expansive, we allowed each composer and collaborator to explore the ideas and characters of the place on their own. In the spirit of the college we wanted this process to be inspiring for each composer and to reflect a process of self-discovery in each individual case. The music was written over a three-year period and commissions were rolled out on different timelines, which allowed us to steer artists towards exploring different ideas and texts based on what others already covered. For instance, once we had a couple of Cage and Creeley-inspired works we suggested that other composers look elsewhere. In the end we touched only a fraction of the vast community of the college. The songs woven throughout the show set texts or ideas from John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Josef and Anni Albers, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Buckminster Fuller, Robert Duncan, Fielding Dawson (including a song set in Franz Kline's studio), Ruth Asawa (who inspired the stage design), and MC Richards.

Have you been able to rehearse with any of the composers present? If so, how has that experience been?

Dianne Berkun-Menaker: The Chorus has been rehearsing with composers throughout the entire process, beginning with them sitting in on rehearsals to experience our sound and our range. Often this changes the composer’s direction before they’ve begun putting pen to paper because the vitality and vibrancy of the chorus’ sound and the level of difficulty they can handle surprises them. It also allows for a bit of bonding to take place—we want the composers to hold us in their ears as well as their hearts when they are writing for us.

Working directly with composers is really the name of the game for us. The singers have greater investment in the music because it is written for them, shaped on them in the rehearsal process, and because they have input into the final product. As each of the composers share their inspiration for their music— be it the text or the subject matter—the pieces take on greater meaning. The composers provide a context.

On one early visit with Richard Reed Parry, he brought up the list of 10 Rules for Students and Teachers, [by Sister Corita Kent,] popularized by John Cage. There’s one that says “Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for a while.” That line was woven into the text of one of the pieces. Richard talked about how the music connected generation to generation, and teachers to students, and he as a composer to the each of the singers in a truly deep and personal way.

Bryce came in and read the writings of Fielding Dawson and introduced many of the prominent figures from Black Mountain College. He welcomed everyone into the project as a journey in the spirit of "learning by doing."

Working sessions with the composers are particularly vital for the pieces that involve non-traditional vocal techniques. The singers really enjoy sound exploration and figuring out how to mold their technique to each desired vocal effect. Aleksandra Vrebalov asked us to sound like bubbles rising in the air and then to give in to the natural laughter that spontaneously erupted from singing a runaway flurry of scale patterns. Caroline Shaw introduced slides and scoops that dip in and out of the vocal fry register and set up choruses of bouncing balls dropping and then gradually losing momentum. John King led the voices to move freely in time creating beautiful washes of overlaid dissonance that ultimately clear in a brilliant sonorous harmony and then slip back into a musical haze.

Ultimately, composer rehearsal sessions are like dress fittings. You try on the piece and hope it fits pretty well, but there’s always a nip, tuck, or embellishment needed, and then the piece gets shaped on the singers. By experimenting with melodic or rhythmic variations, text placement, phrase shaping, and vocal colors, together we lift the notes from the page and go for the magic.

Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Photo: Elizabeth D. Herman

BYC works with a wide range of contemporary composers. Is that fairly unusual for a chorus, particularly for young people?

DBM: Brooklyn Youth Chorus does work with a wide range of contemporary composers, as we thrive on musical exploration. The Chorus’ vocal training program, while grounded in classical technique, embraces the vocal skills required for a wide range of music styles. Our sound is versatile, as is our span of repertoire. There is great music to experience from a wide range of traditions and structures, and each piece of music offers new challenges and opportunities for creative expression. Brooklyn Youth Chorus intentionally avoids categorization and embraces each original song as if we’ve gathered together solely for that experience.

I’m sure we are not alone in championing contemporary music and investing in new commissions, but we are definitely on the leading edge of generating a new body of work that is appealing and relevant to the young people of our time, created by some of the greatest musical minds of our time.

What Black Mountain figures have inspired you, or do you relate to most?

BD: It’s hard to pick one artist from Black Mountain that I relate to the most! I think the place itself is what resonated with me personally. I have made a couple of pilgrimages to the site of the college and just visiting those mountains and water and breathing the clean air you can see part of why the place was such an inspiring and creative community. I learned a lot more about Anni Albers, both as a teacher and artist, while developing this project. Her weaving classes and her own textile works were a major force at the college and some of the most beautiful artistic work to come out of Black Mountain. While lesser known than her husband, Josef Albers (the first rector of the College and its most famous teacher), Anni had an incredibly beautiful vision of the role art and creativity could play in the world. Her ideas are still deeply resonant today. This is one quote from her that I love: “The difficult problems are the fundamental problems; simplicity stands at the end, not at the beginning of a work. If education can lead us to elementary seeing, away from too much and too complex information, to the quietness of vision and discipline of forming, it again may prepare us for the task ahead, working for today and tomorrow.”

Two other big discoveries for me through creating the show were poet Charles Olson and sculptor Ruth Asawa. Ruth Asawa was a student of Josef Albers at Black Mountain from 1946—49 and would go on to become a major figure in American Art. Her own personal journey of living through World War II in forced internment camps with her Japanese-American family, and then going on to found the San Fransisco School for the Arts (now re-named after her), is a deeply inspiring and original American story. Poet Charles Olson (like Josef Albers during the earlier period of the school) was the rector during the last several years of Black Mountain and a very important teacher at the college. His epic poems are formally ambitious—the Black Mountain poets pioneered projective verse form in poetry which has been an influence on my music—and experimental, and deal intimately with the nature of American identity. In his Maximus to Gloucester he writes:

                  An American

is a complex of occasions,
themselves a geometry

of spatial nature.

DBM: Many of the important figures from Black Mountain College are inspiring to me. Josef Albers has said that teaching art was “not a matter of imparting rules, styles, or techniques, but of leading students to a greater awareness of what they were seeing... to open eyes." As a music teacher and conductor, my goal is to open the senses as well as the imagination. We learn to sing by increasing awareness and being attuned to our physical experience in making sound. In learning a new piece of music, there is no past reference as a guide; we have to embrace charting new territory and finding the meaning together.

I am inspired by how artists like John Cage and Merce Cunningham embraced innovation of expression and found a way to turn whatever skill and creativity they possessed into something meaningful. They embraced "chance procedures" and abandoned traditional musical and narrative forms. I think most people, regardless of profession or avocation, would benefit greatly from taking more personal risks and reaching for ways to put their unique stamp on their art, their work, and the world.

Black Mountain Songs is at the BAM Harvey Nov 20—23. 
An edited version of this interview ran in the Oct 2014 BAMbill.

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