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the public domain: Performance Day

Steven Pisano

As I walked up Broadway from the A train on Saturday morning, something felt different. I'd made this walk countless times before, usually rushing to catch a curtain at the Met, the Phil, City Ballet, (or Opera RIP). But, this was the first time I'd made this walk as a performer, and I felt that mix of giddy anticipation and nervous energy that every singer, dancer, musician, or actor feels when they're heading to their first - or in this case, only - performance.

I didn't really have much reason to be nervous. After all, we had prepared for this day for four weeks, some for even longer. We knew the music, we had rehearsed the movements, we even got a sense of what the whole thing would sound like. Now, we just needed to go out and do it.

"It", of course, was the public domain, which we were set to perform in public for the first time on the Josie Robertson Plaza later that afternoon. But, there was still work to do, and all 1,000 of us were told to report to Geffen Hall no later than 11:30 am. A representative from the NYPD told us that rain was in the forecast, in which case the performance would not be rescheduled. He then offered detailed instructions about what to do in the event of an attack, or other unexpected incident. "These are the times we live in, folks." 

IMG_4102Striking a less ominous tone, Jane Moss, Lincoln Center's Artistic Director and the Director of the Mostly Mozart Festival, told us that she had been waiting for this day for a very long time. "Two years, four months, 18 days, and 14 hours, to be exact." She then went on to express her astonishment at how the world has changed since the idea was first proposed. 

"We didn't anticipate the state of our world today, with all of its fractiousness and conflict. Thank you for bringing this new piece into the world, and for embodying its message of brining people together."

She then handed the microphone to composer David Lang, who most of us were meeting for the first time. We greeted him with a raucous standing ovation. 

"That was very sweet," he said. "But, you should really give that applause to yourselves. What a composer does is sit down and try to come up with an idea that's never been done before. Then, you need to try to convince someone to do it - or, in this case, 1,000 people. I didn't think anyone was crazy enough to actually bring this piece into existence. It's really insane!"

We then received some final reminders from Annie-B Parson and Simon Halsey before heading out for the dress rehearsal. Our group was one of the first to leave the hall, burrowing under the plaza and emerging at the parking garage ramp on 62nd Street, adjacent to Damrosch Park. Lizzie Dement served as our spotter, listening on radio for the cue to begin. Promptly at 12:30, she led us out onto the plaza carrying an orange flag. The first thing we all noticed was that it was hot. Triple digits hot.

But, we persevered, making our way through the entire score as Simon circled the fountain and David walked around to get different perspectives. (Glad I had my water bottle.) For the first time, you could hear the spatialization in the music, how one group would echo the next, how the spoken parts were unclear and unsettling, like the indiscriminate ravings of a mob. When we all came together in Part 4, the sound resonating off the three buildings was stunning.

"our passion

our love of music

our skin

our free will"

IMG_4123We were given a two hour break after the dress for lunch, gathering back in Geffen at 3:30. David settled our nerves with his familiar tongue-in-cheek humor, pretending to offer some final instructions on behalf of Simon, who supposedly was too sheepish to deliver them himself. 

"Do this as powerfully and emphatically as you can," he said. "Be as dictionable as you possibly can be. Remember, the most interesting parts are when one strand is doing one part while the next strand is doing the next part. Be louder, more powerful, more committed. Now, I'm going to give the microphone back to Simon, assuming I've told you everything he asked me to tell you."

The only thing Simon had to add was that we should try to deliver an experience like the one Berlioz had after hearing Beethoven's 5th symphony for the first time, at which time he said: "I was so excited that when I went to put on my hat, I couldn't find my head."

IMG_4144There was about an hour to kill before the performance, so a bunch of us lined up to meet David, who was sitting lotus-style on the apron of the Geffen stage. Some just wanted selfies, others wanted him to sign their scores. When I approached, David recognized me from our conversation at the Bang on a Can Marathon up in North Adams two weeks earlier. Now that the day was here, I told him how moved I was by this piece, how absorbed I'd become in the act of performing it. 

"At first, I was preoccupied with just trying to learn the music," I said. "But by the second rehearsal, the words just jumped out at me, hit me right here (I tapped my chest.)"

"Thank you."

"I know the words aren't yours," I said, referring to how David crowdsourced his libretto. 

"Ah, but I chose the words."

"Indeed. Well, I've really been moved by the text. It resonates really deeply with me."

"Well, thank you for doing this. It really means so much to me."

20160813-DSC_1953Steven Pisano

The heat index was still well over 100 degrees when it came time to take our places around the plaza, but that hadn't stopped some 2,000 curious and enthusiastic spectators from turning up. This made for a bit of an issue during the performance, where at one point, we all had to walk clockwise around the fountain, trying to stick with our group while avoiding the audience. (Tony Tommasini describes the experience in the Times.) Maria, our group leader, shouted a series of phrases, which we repeated in a demonstration-like call and response. 

"our time

our civil liberties and our rights

our philosphical framework

our ability to determine our own"

Steven Pisano

Eventually, we made it back to our starting point, just in time to turn and face the balcony of Geffen Hall, where Simon had stationed himself to lead Part 10, the emotional climax of the public domain. It starts with the sopranos singing high over the altos while the men continue to shout in protest (not unlike real life). Finally, the men catch up, with the whole choir singing the same phrase over and over in magical six-part harmony:

"our power to choose."

There are so many layers to that simple phrase. Will we choose the right career? The right partner? Might what seems like a good choice turn out to be horribly wrong? What if we make the right choice, but at the wrong time? In the end, it's all up to us.

At one point, Simon held one of the rests, which my group followed but several others missed, inviting Simon's cold stare. They didn't make the same mistake again, but his reaction felt a bit extreme, given that we'd just sung the phrases "our free will" and "our ability to determine our own." Not to mention we were told repeatedly that it was "no big deal" if we missed an entry here or there: that was part of the chance element of the piece.

IMG_4152After the slow fade-away ending and the extended applause that followed, I met some audience members, including the friends and partners of some of my fellow singers. It felt strange and abrupt to say goodbye, with no more rehearsals or performances to look forward to. Some of us exchanged emails, but deep down we all knew that we probably wouldn't hear from each other.

Inside Geffen Hall, I spotted Simon and thanked him for pulling off a minor miracle, which he immediately credited back to us. I also saw David, who told me he was very happy with how it all came out. 

"So many things could have gone wrong," I told him.

"So many things," he responded. "But they didn't."

"I know. It felt like there was something extra going on out there, some kind of force that was pushing me to sing louder."

"There's strength in numbers."

"Well, at least now you know that it works."

Eventually, I found myself standing alone out on the now-empty plaza. Looking over at the Met, I felt a new and profound appreciation for what those singers do: not just sing incredibly difficult music from memory - usually in a foreign language - but follow complex stage directions and act with conviction. It seems literally impossible, and yet they do it every single day. Same goes for the dancers at City Ballet, or the musicians of the Mostly Mozart Orchestra, who played Geffen Hall later that night. It all takes Passion, Time, Capacity, Determination, Love of Music.

Needless to say, I'll never sit in a plush folding seat the same way again.

More pics on the photo page. Lincoln Center's video on the making of the public domain here.