Aside from having a bit of unexpected free time on my hands, the thing that finally convinced me to participate in David Lang's the public domain was the fact that one of the five groups of 200 singers - a.k.a. "strands" was rehearsing right here in Park Slope, at the northern end of 7th Avenue. But, as I took my seat among the other participants Wednesday night, I felt a sudden sense of unease. Flipping through the relatively simple score, I felt like I was back in college, treading water through a music theory class that I never should have signed up for.
Fortunately, we were blessed to have as our guide Maria Sensi Sellner, founder and Artistic Director of Pittsburgh's Resonance Works opera company and a three-time winner of the American Prize in Opera Conducting. Sellner somehow managed to be both warm and encouraging, yet firm and direct, taking us through the score section by section, offering clear, easy-to-follow instructions for when to transition from one section to the next, when to crescendo or decrescendo, when to raise our pitch a half-step.
the public domain is a new work, meaning that we are all hearing it for the first time. There are no recordings to fall back on, which is both scary and comforting: Sellner told us that Lang wants us to make it our own, to "let the scaffolding show," even if that means making obvious mistakes. Fortunately, much of the work employs chance techniques, such that we are free to alter the tempo, pitch, even the order of the text. At least, until we're told otherwise.