The Blue Hour:
The Art of Collaboration
Words: Sarah Darling & Rachel Grimes
Introduction: Steve Smith
For the members of A Far Cry, a versatile, celebrated conductorless chamber orchestra based in Boston, collaboration has been been a prime directive since the ensemble formed in 2007. Composition, on the other hand, typically is a solitary art. But Criers, as the orchestra’s members are known, are all about defying expectations and stretching boundaries, a point proved by their latest major endeavor: The Blue Hour, an evening-length song cycle jointly created by the prominent, distinctive composers Rachel Grimes, Angelica Negrón, Shara Nova, Caroline Shaw, and Sarah Kirkland Snider.
The unorthodox collaboration suits the work’s commission: a joint venture by A Far Cry with Washington Performing Arts (which hosts the world premiere Nov. 4), Bucknell University, Hancher Auditorium at the University of Iowa, and Florida State University’s Opening Nights Series. For text, a task force of creators and performers chose “On Earth” from Blue Hour, a 2003 collection by Carolyn Forché, a distinguished poet and the director of the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice at Georgetown University. Giving voice to Forché’s words is the splendid Brazilian-American jazz singer Luciana Souza.
Criers, too, will raise their voices in spoken interludes, as well as enacting stage choreography. The ensemble, citing the poem’s length and its vast range of focus, from the universal to the intimate, offered a statement about The Blue Hour:
“In a time when we are seeing masses of people dehumanized – by war, displacement, poverty – we are looking here at a single life, the beautiful detail of one human existence. There is something precious in that; that through our sense of empathy with this one individual, we are given a lens through which to see our own world with greater clarity.”
Eager to know more about the planning and creative process involved in such a massive and populous project, National Sawdust Log invited A Far Cry violinist/violist and director Sarah Darling and composer Rachel Grimes to discuss the work’s origin and evolution.
RACHEL GRIMES: I thought of a question to kick us off, because I was asked this question and I didn’t know the answer: You all came to us, the composers, with a proposal to create a new piece, and you knew that you wanted a woman to sing it. An onlooker would see a very deliberate choice in creating a piece by women for a woman singer and a collective, collaborative ensemble. I’d love to hear more about that conversation that you all had before we came into the scene.
SARAH DARLING: It’s true that we should have kicked all the guys in A Far Cry out to complete the effect. [Laughs]
That would be sad! But it would be more clean and apparent, I guess.
This is sort of a complicated question, because there’s no one official answer for it. I think that we didn’t actually know what was going to happen. I think we got very, very excited about the sort of basic idea, and then, seeing it every step along the way, we’ve moved sort of from the idea to reality together, without a framework that governs what’s going to happen.
Maybe that’s part of the answer: not knowing.
[Laughs] I think that’s a huge part of the answer, for me at least. This is probably a tension that we both experience a lot.
It makes me think about how for me, as one of the invitees, I wasn’t entirely confident at the outset where we were headed, or whether I was going to be able to truly flow with this kind of ambiguity. I’ve certainly done collaborations before with multiple composers or other art-form creators, but it seemed like it might be too many chefs in the kitchen. It wasn’t clear to me where we were going, or how we would ultimately make some of the tougher decisions. And I think that was the test for us, just this truly collaborative brain that didn’t always have certainty or rules or clarity. We just had to keep pushing the flaming log into the middle of the group and stare at it a little longer to figure out, O.K., are we going with this text? And are we good with spending what amounted to weeks and months on making the adaptation in lots of go-rounds and conference calls and emails, to really make sure we’re covering the bases, the hopes and finer points of what the orchestra was looking for, what the poetry seemed to call for without doing it too much of an injustice – but really keeping an eye on, alternately, this is a piece to be performed for a live audience by musicians, so how do we want that to go? There are so many decisions along the way that we didn’t have certainty about; what we had certainty about was the instrumentation, certain key deadlines. And it was really just a dialogue about the rest of the details, which were plentiful.
Which were plentiful. I know that you’ve been at the absolute center of that, and as somebody who has been as close to the center as you, I am eternally grateful.
Oh, thank you. It was a group effort.
I wonder if what we can do for the sake of this conversation is take a look at some of those decisions as they happened in real time? We could begin back at that meeting we all had, and then I thought it could just be interesting to sort of even do a brief “what was happening in the next three months,” “what about the three months after that?” How did this thing come together, and what were the big salient points along the way? I definitely think it would be fun to talk about that insane and epic meeting that we had, which for me was sort of one of the earliest points where I got a real sense of what we were going for – although for you guys, of course, you’d already been talking way before that point, and had already had this poem sort of in hand. Setting the scene: All of the composers and five of the musicians are sitting on a porch at Sarah Kirkland Snider’s house, and we’ve all driven and flown in from our various directions, with copies of this massive and mesmerizing poem in our hands. So we’re meeting each other for the first time. The group of musicians who’ve just come down from Boston have spent the last hour and a half reading the entire poem out loud, and we’re energized but totally bushwhacked. And we start talking. What was that conversation like for you?
It was just like all of us being in the woods, but we could see each other. It was so exciting. I love those kind of meetings, where it’s a question of, well, there’s all these things we could do; let’s just throw all the ideas on the table, and what resonates with people? And it seemed like there was a real energy of compatibility right from the get-go. There was enthusiasm, there was fear, there was curiosity. Everyone seemed excited about what we could make, but terrified at how we were going to get there… terrified in a good way! Nobody was being a naysayer about it. We had this beautiful summer day on Sarah’s porch, and we had lunch and this fantastic opportunity that we were all sort of hovering around. It felt as though it had a possibility about it that all of us craved, which was this really communal process.
It’s funny you say that… what I remember so clearly from that day was how comfortable it was for the big group of us, who’d never met before, to immediately start discussing things in detail. What I also remember really enjoying is that often in group situations you sort of become aware of who’s going to jump in too quickly and comment, who’s going to sort of not necessarily be paying attention to all the details. But I felt as though this group of us, who barely knew each other, conversed with such beautiful fluency, really listening to each other. And there was an element of the conversation that I just adored, where one person would immediately pick up on the previous person’s idea, and just sort of continue to run with it. I walked out of that room that day thinking, This is going to work.
We can do this.
We can finish each other’s sentences, and if you can finish each other’s sentences, then these guys can write a piece and we can play it.
It was excitement, and real listening. We were listening to each other. And we were curious and excited and all those things that I think help everybody key in on what’s essential. I can talk about what happened later that day, and later that night.
That’s my big question for you. I’m so curious, I’ve been curious for a year: What did you guys do when you kicked the musicians out and said, O.K., everybody, go home – we’ve got this?
What I remember happening first is we were all still pretty overwhelmed, and new with the poem. I was more familiar with the poem, because with Eric, the bass player, I had been on the “find the poetry” committee. I had fallen in love with the poem months earlier, and I felt more comfortable with it, but it still was overwhelming and too long. So what we decided to do was, the five composers would take a different corner of the patio or go somewhere inside, wherever they want to go, in the yard. And we did – we all went to five little spots – “you go to this lounge chair, I’ll go over here in this tree” [Laughs] – and we spent an hour or something each with the poem. The goal was, find a handful of moments in the poem that you really feel drawn to. Just grab something – it’s not like a final commitment. And then we came back together to share what we’d found. And that was really interesting: almost all of us found different moments. So right away we knew that we weren’t going to have to arm-wrestle over who got what section. This was a good way to let our own personal attraction to certain sections of the poem would help us motivate to find how to work with the text.
That’s adorable. I never knew that. I love it.
The other thing we did that was so nerdy and fun was we sat there at the table making a list of all the things that we wanted to do. And then Shara got up and actually made a chart. Like the teacher, she’s got the big marker and the big piece of drawing paper…
Yes, the oversize Post-It note.
Yeah. We’d been making a list of techniques that we wanted to use, or ideas. Like, right away someone suggested the idea – I think Caroline – of these little, tiny pieces, these little gems that would just be very brief, 30 seconds to 60 seconds, and that that’s something we all wanted to have a chance to do a time or two. Then we talked about the form, and we talked about the form of the poem, but also the music. And the first thing that Shara drew on the big chart was a circle [laughs] and we were all just peeing ourselves, because five women have drawn a circle, and so it’s only fitting to me that we are approaching this project from a yonic position. Of course we see the structure as a circle and not a line, even though it is a line as well. We just kind of wanted to see it more visually, and how do we deal with all the different elements in this story? And then it got pretty craggy pretty fast, because we were just, oh my gosh, this is such an immense text… don’t we need a dramaturge or someone to advise us how to adapt this text? How to hone it down so that we can use it for a musical setting, without losing the spirit of the poem or overlooking some fundamental structural craft moment that we have to have in there, that it would be a total sin not to include.
Right – a.k.a., in this camp, how many refugees, etcetera.
Right. There are these glimmering moments…
Little windows, yeah. You look through a few of them, and then you start to be able to draw a map based on what you see.
Yes, and you see some repetition and some themes. I’m not an expert in any way on poetry, but I really think it is a masterful piece of work, and every time I go to it, I’m in awe at the way she’s crafted it, at the delicacy and intimacy of the writing, how natural and personal yet how incredibly crafted it is. It’s very beautiful and profound, I think.
Absolutely. I’m so frickin’ in love with this poem. Like you, I’ll just go to it just to see what shows up. And almost any line will just swim into focus. You just never know which one is going to do it, and each one is such a complete universe. It’s just extraordinary – I don’t know another poem like it. And poetry is big, but how she was able to inhabit this multidimensional space, where you’ve got each one of these world images, then you’ve got this crazy superstructure. It makes no sense and yet it makes all the sense in the world, because you need a structure – because there isn’t one… or rather, there is another secret one in this life – that she’s saying, hey, guys, life is not linear.
Not at all. It’s so essential. And yet, it makes complete sense. If we’re having this conversation on record, we’re not dead yet, but we know that day will come. Will it be something we’ll see coming? Will we have these moments of reflection, where we think purposefully about our past? But then, won’t there be moments… I think we have them already, in our dreams and in our flashes of this sort of subconscious during the daytime, when we’re doing something else and then suddenly we have a memory from another point in our life. I love that she has found a way, through that idea of flash memory, to actually address the memory of humankind. And that’s her portal into being able to look at the patterns of destruction, of war, the eternal pattern of renewal, of nature, the human imprint on daily life through everything we make, do, eat, form, waste – every little kernel has such a story, such a potential bloom of a story. And, like you say, every single line is a portal into this deep world. There was never, ever a moment – I don’t think anyone felt that we didn’t have something to inspire us. The musicianship of A Far Cry, for one thing, is profoundly wonderful, an ideal type of opportunity to be able to compose for, because you all are so collectively led. That means that we’re really talking to you all about this. We’re not dealing with a hierarchy where we’re submitting music to a conductor who’s then going to interpret that and direct you in that. You all will have your own conversations about how to interpret what we’re making… of course, we’re all going to be in the room together in a week or two, which I’m so thrilled about, and then we’ll have further micro-dialogues about articulations, little moments.
Yeah, right. It’s about to hit that super-intense micro-level, and I can’t wait. So here we are, all nerding out about the poem together… what happened next?
We spent the night at Sarah’s, because Shara and I had had to take a flight. So we spent the night, and that gave us time to… we riffed around on the piano for a little while, we had more kind of abstract conversations into the evening about what shapes certain things could take – does anybody have any initial feelings? That’s kind of what we were doing at the piano. And then we somehow morphed into doing Lionel Richie songs at the piano… that was pretty late. And then the next morning, just a little more follow-up about, how in the world will we do this? We certainly didn’t have anything ironed out, but what I feel like we had was a camaraderie and an idea that we definitely did not want to just take 20 percent of the text and walk off and make our thing and see each other in six months or whatever – that we definitely wanted a co-composing approach to some degree, knowing that at the same time, none of us really wanted to sit down with another person at the writing desk and co-harmonize something. That didn’t seem feasible.
Where we wound up was realizing that we could slice things up into thinner slices, and that way we could align those with movements we were attracted to, slivers of text, and if everybody had one or two 30-second pieces, everybody had one or two three-ish-minute songs or arias, if everybody had sort of an equal number of types of things they were going to write, it would essentially come out in the wash. And it did. And we agreed, too, that day, I think we came up with this idea of a refrain. I don’t remember if that was the day we absolutely said, yes, Caroline’s going to do it – I think so – but we knew that we wanted there to be some musical idea that would help make it stand out as a musical work, also. And a refrain, I think, helps that – the sense of familiarity in a returning motif. And we also said we would have other returning motifs; I think each of us have used musical themes and motifs that occur more than once. And that was another way that we felt pretty sure would give some continuity to the whole… that you walk away with a vague feeling that you got some themes, you got some general harmonic or textural palettes, that you’ve heard enough to remember them or get them under your skin.
I definitely feel that way.
Oh, good. I was in Google Hang for some of the rehearsal, and I definitely felt relieved to hear the whole. It has, also, a world of its own as a whole, but I already feel pretty confident that it’s working within itself pretty well, and then it works as a whole, also.
It’s definitely in the process of creating its own reality. It’s cool. For us, it’s sort of like feeling this stuff in our bodies – it’s amazing to turn the page and see the next letter. The funny thing for us is because each one of you uses a slightly different typeface… we were talking a second ago about harmonic feeling, and as soon as you see the individual typefaces, you’ve got that harmonic resonance sitting in the back of your head. That’s sort of a fun thing for us as music-making bodies to experience. … I wonder if we might talk about Steve’s other quote at all. [Editor’s note: This refers to the collective statement A Far Cry issued about The Blue Hour, quoted in its entirety at the start of this article.]
We sort of dipped into it talking about how she did that with the poem: bringing you through the personal lens of a single person’s experience, then you can enter into the wider range of human experience. What’s important, I think, is that the work is uniquely about humanity, the personal and sort of epic sweep of human experience – and it’s not “a piece about women.” I don’t think that’s a fair way to treat this. It’s certainly created by women composers for a collaborative orchestra and a woman singer, but I don’t think the intention is in any way to say that this text, or the meaning of the piece, is solely for or about women, because it’s definitely not. It is a feminine perspective because the person in the poem is a woman, but it has a universality and a humanity to it that I think could be applied to many people. That’s where little moments in the text can bring you so viscerally into the present, through what you have been hearing in the news, what you’ve been experiencing in your own life, what you’ve heard from your mother. I think that’s the universality of it.
Absolutely. It’s a funny thing, and it brings me back to the beginning of this conversation, where I did not have a good answer for you: In a lot of ways, I don’t have a perfect answer, and the group doesn’t have a perfect answer. But I think that it is incredibly important to sort of wrestle with this sort of dual reality, where on the one hand, as women we experience, and I would say also demand, the full spectrum of human experience. I hate the fact that I have to say that, and I’m sort of channeling Virginia Woolf a little bit as I do. But it’s precisely because right now it seems like the best way of achieving that full human experience is to say, well, let’s get together and make some noise, just us, for a little bit, and see if maybe that opens up the door to everything else.
Rather than conveying that what we’re trying to do with this work is put a boundary or draw a definition around the work as it should be perceived, socially and culturally, as being of a political camp. You and I haven’t talked about that, but it was asked of me by a third party. Oftentimes when people ask you about something you’ve made or just performed, it’s not something you’ve ever thought about, and it’s because maybe it’s just not relevant to you as the composer or the performer – it’s something that’s foreign to your way of thinking. Classic interview questions sometimes begin with, “so, some of your music sounds like this, and some of it sounds like this, and has these instruments… would you call your music” fill in the blank with descriptor. And I’m like, no, I don’t do that. I don’t concern myself with what to call my music. So I’m asking you a question like that; I don’t think that you have to know the answer, and I don’t need to know the answer in a definitive way. I think we will be asked…
I do think we will be asked. And we sort of have been asked along the way, and we’ve mostly been like, “Well, we thought this group of people would do a really great job.” I guess what I’m trying to say is that the group didn’t wrestle with this in an incredibly comprehensive way, but rather was excited about what could possibly happen. It was less about surveying the entire question, and more about, like, hey, maybe this would be amazing.
Let’s roll the dice.
There’s a little bit of that, you know: Let’s see what happens if you bring people together who are brilliant, and leave a lot of space.… It was throwing a fairly large ball directly into the center of your court! [Laughs]
It was. And in many ways, I think we are not even there yet, to knowing exactly where we wound up. I think we would have loved to spend more time all together than we got to. Ultimately we didn’t have more than that weekend that we were all five together. Ironically, now we’re going to have three to four days of rehearsal, presentations, dress rehearsals, and a premiere together when the thing is done. But I feel like what we’re going to be doing, really, is learning what it is, finally. And it will feel like it’s still in motion – I feel like we’ll think of things we might want to do and tweak, and who knows? I mean, it’s not going to be anything major, given the number of performances, but it would be just sort of a new plateau for our relationship in a way that being together will afford. I can’t wait!
In so many ways, I feel like we’re inhabiting parts of the structure of this poem. This process that you’re looking forward to in a way has already happened, because it’s allowed you to write the piece, and yet you haven’t gotten to physically experience it yet. But that moment that you’ve written about is coming up.
And it’s gonna be like cake! [Laughs] Cake and champagne. I think it’s going to be really satisfying and exciting for us. We won’t be any longer in this isolated process of trying to get it working as music on the page at our own desks. We will actually be together, where we can talk about the ideas, and interpreting them, and just experiencing them in the sort of juiciness of bringing a piece to life. That’s certainly the fun part.
Luciana Souza and A Far Cry present the world premiere of The Blue Hour at Sixth & I in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 4 at 8pm, with further performances to follow in Lewisburg, PA (Nov. 9), Boston (Nov. 10), Iowa City, IA (Nov. 16), Durham, NC (Nov. 18), and Tallahassee, FL (Nov. 21); complete tour and ticket information here.