The past month has been nothing short of outstanding.
I had the absolute privilege to work with the students at Platteville High School and Middle School on a commission director Amelia Armstrong put together from the Wisconsin Arts Board and the Platteville Community fund. (Students, staff, and citizens of Platteville who stumble upon this blog, I hope you know how awesome your music department really is. You have a great thing going, be sure to let them know!!)
Months ago, they asked me to write a piece based on the ghost story of Platteville, known as the “Nodolf Incident”. I jumped at the opportunity knowing how great of a project it would be for my repertoire, but I had no idea how less than 36 hours of music making with young people involving the work would shape my outlook on the rest of my degree.
For the record, I love my school. I love my professors. I love everything I’m learning and the thought of graduating terrifies me. However, what I don’t love is the unwritten pressure to write something big and hard for the sake of writing big and hard just to get noticed. That pressure doesn’t come from my teachers; they encourage me to be me and own my decisions. The pressure just hangs like a cloud in the building, and I feel like I notice it more because I’m a girl. Being a female composer is hard enough, and sometimes I get the feeling like if I ever want to make a name for myself, my music has to be ridiculously hard and good at the same time.
Three days over the course of a month in the countryside may have just changed that.
Platteville, WI rests on the Iowa-Wisconsin border, just 15 minutes away from downtown Dubuque. There is no service at all if you are a wireless customer of AT&T, but the winding backroads and breathtaking views make getting lost completely worth it. The town may be small, but the school offers incredible class options to give their students creative and scientific outlets before heading to college. It was in this small city I learned what a HUNCH program was (you can find more info here), something I had never even dreamed existed. Platteville is also home to a four-year UW school that is a huge draw for students wanting to study engineering, business, and education.
The beauty about a composition residency is that I get to know the performers who will be involved in the premiere. In September, I attended two days worth of rehearsals and got to meet and spend time with the students. They asked incredibly deep questions and really dug deep into the score to get the details right on dynamics, phrasing, and intent. It was a really beautiful process to see these budding musicians really get into a piece of new music. On top of it being a brand new piece, I was asking them to do a lot of strange extra things. I asked them to recreate the sounds of a rain storm using body percussion and wind sounds with their mouths, and I asked them to change the words by stuttering. They embraced these “extended” techniques like champs, a totally exciting thing to encounter.
Outside of rehearsals, I participated in two composer forums, one with the High School and one with the Middle School. We had discussions on what they were writing and working on as well as the tough questions in composing: How do you get inspired?… What do you do if you’re stuck?… How do you decide which instruments to write for?… Is there anything you’ve written that you don’t like?…all of these are questions I face every day in the latter half of my second degree in writing, and these brilliant students were asking them all at the right times and in the right manner. I hope to see each and every one of their names at the top of a piece of music that crosses my desk someday.
Aside from the work at school, Amelia took me on two adventures to see the house where the Nodolf Incident took place and we climbed Platteville’s World’s Largest M. The Nodolf house is an old, stone, abandoned farmhouse that has the weirdest vibe; the perfect vibe for an old ghost story. It was so cool to see the actual place featured in a piece of mine. I knew the story inside and out when composing, but the physical realization of the notes and location made it even more special.
The “World’s Largest M” is just that, a giant M made out of whitewashed stone and set into the side of the mound. After climbing up the 266 steps (MAN was I out of shape!) we could see for miles.
The fields were being harvested, the hills rolled on as far as we could see, and there were no skyscrapers blocking the breathtaking view. I love living in a city, but there just isn’t a substitute for trees that exist without someone having to put them there to “create green space”.
After the two days of work-in-progress rehearsals, composer forums, and adventures, I came back to Chicago for a month to keep working on my thesis and prepare for OperaFest VIII (blogs to come). The second-to-last weekend in October, I returned to Platteville for the premiere.
While I have several large pieces in my repertoire, this was the largest amount of performers I have ever worked with. 160 singers ages 11-18 assembled onto the stage of the Platteville High School auditorium and sang their hearts out. I have never been so proud of young performers in my life, and I am so grateful to them, Marcy, and Amelia for inviting me into this process with them. Thank you SO much to everyone who made this happen!!!! (Pictures and audio to come!!)
Plus, after the premiere, we had cake, and you all know how much I love cake 🙂