One woman, in a quiet alto, remembers the sound of birds. Another woman, her voice rich, remembers “running across the street to my grandma’s house.” A third recalls the smell of baking bread.
The distinct voices, with varied timbres and tempos, are describing home.
They’re speaking, not singing, but in a new piece, those voices become musical. Working with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, composer Lembit Beecher has intertwined 47 recorded interviews with Twin Cities residents, constructing a new orchestral piece called “Say Home.” The interviewees come from different places and often say very different things. Contradictory things.
But sometimes, the voices form a kind of chorus.
“There can be something emotional and expressive and powerful about three people saying, in a row, ‘Home is about people, not about place,’ ” said Beecher, the chamber orchestra’s composer in residence. “Where if you hear one person say it, it sounds less interesting or maybe cliché. Ironically, when you hear a whole bunch of people saying it, it seems to acquire more meaning.
“You start noticing the differences in their enunciation, and you start thinking about what a sentence like that really means.”
The 35-minute piece debuts next weekend as part of a new St. Paul Chamber Orchestra festival called Tapestry19, two weeks of varied concerts that tackle the concept of home — “where, when and how we feel at home in a dynamic and ever-changing world, ” as the SPCO puts it.
“Say Home” is one of several premieres. For this weekend’s program, St. Paul-raised vocalist and pianist PaviElle French created “A Requiem for Zula,” a tribute to her mother and her home, the Rondo neighborhood. On Friday, 17-year-old composer Maya Miro Johnson will debut a work Beecher called “the most adventurous piece on the program.”
But “Say Home,” too, is bold.
“I’ve never seen a piece like this,” said Kyu-Young Kim, the SPCO’s artistic director. “Most storytelling in music either falls into the realm of vocal music or opera, where there are sung words. Or there’s narrated pieces, a single person speaking.
“This is so ambitious in terms of taking, it ended up being 47 people … and balancing those people’s voices and his artistic voice.”
Questions, and a poem
Beecher’s piece draws on 27 hours of recordings — interviews conducted over several months with high school students and retirees. An immigrant who came to the U.S. weeks ago. A man whose family arrived generations ago.
“We had this idea for a piece that would involve a multitude of interviews,” said SPCO artistic planning manager Paul Finkelstein, who led the project. “We’re an orchestra; we don’t do that.”
So Beecher and the orchestra paired up with Todd Lawrence, an English professor and ethnography expert at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. They visited distinct spots across the Twin Cities, from the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis to the East Side Freedom Library in St. Paul.
“We basically decided places to go,” Lawrence said. “Who was there was not up to us.”
Each interviewee began by reading a poem — with words in a dozen languages, including Spanish, Swedish and Ojibwe — that will act as a backbone of the piece, by Chris Santiago, a poet and St. Thomas professor. They read the poem at the end, too.
In between, they answered the same 11 questions about home: “What does home mean to you?” “How can home change over time?” “Have there been moments in your life when you remember questioning where your home was?”
They responded with “this plain-spoken or common elegance,” Lawrence said.
Most people didn’t know “what kind of questions we would ask them,” he continued. The students were from Wellstone International High School in south Minneapolis — “15-, 16-, 17-year-olds, we were just pulling them out of class, completely blindsided, asking, ‘Tell us about home,’ ” he said, chuckling. “Even so, they were really wise in the answers they gave. They said some really, really amazingly insightful things.”
A chorus of voices
On an icy night in early December, a small audience at St. Thomas got a preview of the answers, and Beecher’s piece. It’s fully orchestrated, but on this day, he played sections without instruments. Just voices.
“So my earliest memory,” a woman says, once, twice, three times, becoming a kind of refrain. Other voices describe early memories, too, of dinners and pancakes, birds and bullets.
Beecher has worked with voices before. In one short, funny piece, which he described as “fooling around with text,” he asked a handful of people to describe the plot of “Star Wars.” “There’s this little boy,” a woman begins, as other voices layer over hers. “There’s this dude. ” “A young farm boy.” “Uh, there’s a whiny kid.”
But the piece for which he’s best known uses a single voice — his grandmother’s. In the documentary oratorio “And Then I Remember,” Beecher uses recorded interviews with his Estonian grandmother to build the epic “hard-to-believe” story of her surviving the Soviet and Nazi occupations and journeying across Europe while nine months pregnant, eventually making it to the United States.
Beecher hadn’t planned to turn those interviews into a musical piece. But “I realized I’d love to find a way of sharing it with other people not just because of the content of her story, but because of the storytelling spell she cast,” he said.
“Her voice was really quite musical. It felt like instrumental music would be a natural outgrowth of what was already there.”
With “Say Home,” Beecher said he “tried very hard” not to begin composing until all the interviews were complete. Then he listened to the hours of recordings, transcribing them and sorting them into themes. In the end, the piece’s form mirrors the arc of a life, starting with childhood memories. It ends as it begins, with the chorus of voices reading the poem.
“It’s just a beautiful sound to have one person begin a sentence and have another person end it,” he said.
Hearing an early version at the Ordway, Lawrence was struck by the voices he recorded “echoing around this giant concert hall,” he said. Being an ethnographer, though, he said he hopes that the orchestra will archive the full interviews, too, for posterity.
Home is political
One interviewee, Kanishka Chowdhury, a professor of English at St. Thomas, looked up as his voice came through the speakers at the December forum. Anyone who chooses to leave their home for another country will have some ambivalence, he said: “You never gain something without losing something as well.”
He turned to Lawrence, Beecher and Finkelstein. “You caught me in a moment,” part personal, part political, he told them. “Seeing what’s happening around us today, as people are being tear-gassed at our borders,” he said, “I think about what they’ve lost. … All they want, really, is home.”
“Say Home” doesn’t shy from politics. Beecher has never set out to write a political piece, he said. But if works of art are grappling with the human experience, “those will, at a certain point, become political if you’re exploring deeply or honestly.”
There are 47 voices in the piece — plus one. Beecher’s instrumental music, with short, repeated phrases and growing intensity, reflects the urgency of people’s feelings about home.
“There’s something both beautiful and dark about the lengths we’ll go to make homes for ourselves,” he said. “You see it all around the world … people going to great lengths to protect against a sea of threats to their home. Being wary of outsiders, whether they’re immigrants or people who live right next to you.
“This is a universal truth,” he said, “but it also becomes political very quickly.”