Toward a Major Work: My Walk With Walt (part 3)

Toward a Major Work: My Walk With Walt (part 3)


When I returned to Los Angeles from South America, my plate was full with other things, including a potential full-time job in Atlanta. The application process became my focus for several weeks, but once that was underway, I had a little breathing room and I got back to Libertad. I remember the day I put the title on paper. The work had an identity, and that was extremely exciting. Even though the political references in my text were about North American politics, this South American/Spanish choice had a ring of truth. It was unique, and years later I would learn that Whitman first came across the term when he saw it on a piece of Mexican silver that was part of U.S. legal currency until 1857. It had also been the name of a ship chartered by the U.S. in the Mexican-American War. Today it has ties to a political party in South America that was begun in 2009. Whitman certainly wasn’t using the word in any way that was inconsistent with my intent. (And I had to let this seeming inconsistency go; he used non-English terms in his poetry and writings all the time. If anything, this was an homage to that.)

Having removed the poem that referenced the title, I narrowed down the piece to four movements. The amount of text was much more reasonable, as long as I didn’t allow myself to repeat much of the material (as composers often have to do with shorter texts). Over the course of the compositional process, I am happy to say that very little of the text has changed since it was given a name. With the exception of occasionally dropping a phrase or word in order to better serve the music, the libretto remains the same as it was ten years ago, and is perhaps even more relevant in content today. Another aspect that has made this walk with Walt incredible for me.

Shortly after that trip to South America, I had landed the position of Artistic Director of the Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus. I was the first full-time director, and I’ve been in that position since. Shortly after my arrival and just before the 30th season of the AGMC, the idea of developing a sister chorus of women’s voices began to emerge. We discussed it at length for a time, explored options, and tabled it a few times. Fortunately, someone came along who would prove to be the right fit as founding artistic director, and three years ago we created the Atlanta Women’s Chorus. It was a most exciting time. The ensemble performed a set on one of our concerts as a project, and the following season they were part of what would become Voices of Note, the governing body of both choruses, which consist of people from various communities and identifications. Of course one of the first questions people asked was whether we planned to perform together as an SATB chorus. We will remain separate ensembles with our own season programming, but have agreed that performing together for special occasions would be appropriate. So several months ago we began to discuss the possibility of a collaboration. The idea was exciting to both Melissa Arasi, Artistic Director of the AWC, and myself, and it turned out the singers have had an enthusiastic response to the idea as well.

SCOREWhen the notion of a collaboration first came about, I was naturally drawn back to Libertad. It had been about a year since I’d spent any time with it, so it felt good to revisit. I felt compelled to finish a draft and present it to Melissa for our mutual consideration. The next thing I knew we were moving forward with a premiere.

for mixed chorus, string orchestra, piano and percussion

Music by Kevin Robison
Based on poetry by Walt Whitman

It is slated as the final work in a series of performances by Voices of Note’s first collaborative effort in March of 2016. It is coincidentally part of the 35th season of the AGMC. And while on the surface, another setting of Whitman’s work may seem cliche, I don’t know anyone who has approached his words with the flexibility that I did. I think that makes this work unique, and for that I am proud.

With rehearsals beginning in December of this year, I am working feverishly to ensure that I’m completely happy with every detail before we begin (that won’t happen, but that’s a goal). I mentioned in the first post that if this work was meant to be, I was simply the channel for bringing it to life. By the same token, I feel that the decision to perform it here and now was somehow made a decade ago. I am overwhelmed by that. To know that every hour I have spent on the work has not been in vain—and there were many, many hours—is very emotional and surreal.

I think back to that afternoon in my sunroom skimming through Leaves of Grass and I can’t help but marvel at all that has happened in my life since that day: the move to Atlanta, meeting my partner of five years (my husband of two), owning a home, and establishing instant relationships with some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. All the while, Libertad has been there, as patient with me as I’ve been with her. And as Whitman wrote:

O Libertad—turn your undying face,
To where the future, greater than all the past,
Is swiftly, surely preparing for you.

This stops my breath.

(Read the full text of Libertad here.)


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