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The Public Domain: Putting It Together

IMG_3920At the start of last night's rehearsal of the public domain, our strand leader, Maria Sensi Sellner, said that her goal was to run through the entire piece twice in the three hours we had allotted. As it turned out, that was far too ambitious a goal, given that we had several newcomers who were still learning the movements taught to us during our last rehearsal with Annie-B Parson. Even for the rest of us, there's still a good amount of awkwardness to overcome, trying to stay on pitch and in tempo while following the designated movements, the timing of which aren't all pre-determined. Fortunately, dance captain Lizzie Dement was on hand to guide us through the changes, pointing out when to move and when to stand still, how to raise and lower our hands, whether or not we should place our hands on audience members during the penultimate section. (Answer: no.)

Maria assigned each of us to one of five groups within the strand, which she compared to pieces of pepperoni on a slice of pizza. (I've always wanted to be a slice of processed meat.) Our group leader, Ana, has a fair amount of responsibility, introducing pitches, signaling when to crescendo or decrescendo, even determining at times the text we're going to sing or speak. For most of the performance, we'll be laser-focused on her, though Simon Halsey - who will be present at the next rehearsal - will ultimately determine the overall pace of the performance. It's still a bit murky how it's all going to come together: even with just 150 of us, it's nearly impossible to follow directions through all of the clapping and shouting. But, the leaders all seem to have an implicit sense that it will, which is good enough for me. 

For all of you latecomers, there's still time to hop on board the Orange and Yellow strands - especially if you're a tenor or bass! But, you'll have to attend the intensive singer sessions tonight at St. Patrick's Basilica in NoLiTa, and Sunday at Riverside Church in Harlem. Register asap on the public domain website.

The Public Domain: Adding Movement

IMG_3868As if learning to sing a new score from scratch wasn't enough, David Lang's the public domain also calls for the performers to engage in a series movements and gestures, designed by the celebrated choreographer Annie-B Parson. Parson, who was present at Friday's rehearsal, admitted that this was the first time she's worked with 1,000 people, and more than once she seemed frustrated by our collective inability to follow what I'm sure she thought were relatively simple instructions. But, for those like myself who've never done anything like this before, it's a bit like trying to walk and chew gum at the same time: how do you look at the score, follow the conductor, and pay attention to the position of our hands? (It probably didn't help that this was the fifth rehearsal Annie had led this week.)

Fortunately, her Associate Choreographer, Chris Giarmo, did most of the talking, and was warm, funny and encouraging. At one point, while he was demonstrating a gesture for us, Annie quickly stepped in to correct the position of his hand. They argued quietly for a moment about who was right before Annie put an end to it.

"I know. I created the gesture." Ouch. 

Our next rehearsal is next Wednesday, and we were told to really try to get to know the score by then. Believe it or not, there's still time to sign up, with both the Yellow and Orange strands offering a supplemental New Singer Intensive session intended to get everyone up to speed. More info on the public domain website; registration page here.

The Public Domain: First Rehearsal

The Public DomainAside 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. 

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My Lincoln Center Debut: David Lang's "The Public Domain"

Whenever I first meet someone who finds out that I'm the host of a music blog, one of the first questions they inevitably ask is: Are you a musician? Answer: No. Other than childhood piano lessons and the clarinet I stopped playing in high school, I've never managed to pick up any instrument. And, my voice is much better attuned to speaking than singing. Suffice to say, I'm much better at appreciating music than performing it.

But, there's safety in numbers, and so when I heard about David Lang's new choral work The Public Domain, a co-presentation of Mostly Mozart and Lincoln Center Out of Doors, I jumped at the chance. Modeled after Lang's Crowd Out, first performed in 2014 in Birmingham, Berlin and London, The Public Domain is written for 1,000 singers, all members of the general public, whose only requirement is that they enjoy singing. The performance is being led by London Symphony Choral Director Simon Halsey, who in the above video provides just the right amount of encouragement for those of us terrified at the prospect of hearing our voice break during our Lincoln Center debut:

"If you get involved in these things, my experience always is that you begin a bit skeptical, you warm up as it goes along, and then in the end, you think it's the best thing you ever did." 

I'll provide a diary of sorts of my experience over the upcoming weeks, culminating with the performance itself on Lincoln Center's Hearst Plaza on Saturday August 13 at 5pm. Also, there's still time to join if you want to participate - sign up on the website here.

Violinst Francesca Anderegg at National Sawdust

by Nick Stubblefield


It's a rare and magical thing to hear great musicians playing great music in a great space, but that's exactly what audiences were treated to this past week when violinist Francesca Anderegg presented selections from Wild Cities, her latest album release, at National Sawdust in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Geometric shapes zig-zagged across the stage backdrop, suggesting a context for new musical ideas -- fitting, because Anderegg's performance offered contemporary, thoughtful, but highly approachable tunes.

If minimalism is, in the words of composer Philip Glass, "music with repetitive structures," then post-minimalism expands on the idea by embracing those structures, but not letting them confine or define the compositions. Anderegg's opening piece, Ryan Anthony Francis' "Remix," established a rocking, hard-grooving repetitive structure, then playfully defied expectations on each repetition by employing odd timings and rhythms.  

Pianist Brent Funderburk played a role as vital as Anderegg's.  On "Remix," his touch was impeccably light and delicate, his fingers hardly grazing the keys but nevertheless providing crucial counterpoint and a relentless and energetic driving force. 

Clint Needham's "On The Road" offered an emotional tenderness that only a solo violin could bring.  The violin was often weepy and melancholic, but there were touches of rhythmic playfulness throughout the work, too. Anderegg deftly handled quick changes in mood and texture throughout. 

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