Music Director Ludovic Morlot leads the Seattle Symphony in a contemporary re-telling of Charles Ives’ New England Holidays on February 2 and 4.
By Andrew Stiefel
Photos by James Holt
“When you’re out on the ocean, one minute you’re on top of the world and the next you’re plunging below the waves,” says Susan. She works with charcoal and tracing paper, drawing a small sailboat awash in boiling waves. “It’s like being tossed around like a cork.”
Susan has experienced some of life’s waves. Not long ago, she had nowhere to call home.
Today as one of three residents at Cascade Women’s Program in South Lake Union, Susan works with Rebecca Aitken, Seattle Symphony Teaching Artist, to share her stories and experiences through art. As the program provides a safe place to live and support for women experiencing homelessness in Seattle, the Seattle Symphony provides a means of expression.
“To convey my message to the audience is a hugely complicated thing,” muses Susan as she works. “It makes it even worse because I’m trans, that’s a story all in itself.”
Susan is a highly creative artist, though she modestly calls herself a “technician.” During the group session with Rebecca, she absently fiddles with a thumb piano she crafted from a scrap of wood, a carabiner and broken bristles from city street sweepers, plucking out melodies and chords.
Susan learned how to play violin while growing up in Los Angeles. She moved on to running sound boards at concerts and, later, worked on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, the inspiration for her current drawing.
“I think the humanness is the message that I would like to convey more than anything else,” says Susan. “My life has been nothing but an adventure and I embrace every moment of it. Being what I am, however, tends to invoke a certain attitude from people that separates me from them.
“I want people to know that I’m human."
Homelessness impacts approximately 10,000 people on any given night in King County. 10,000 people, however, is a statistic. People like Susan are not statistics. Their stories are heartbreaking, funny, human. They are mothers, children, veterans and neighbors. Their stories will now be shared at Benaroya Hall on February 2 and 4 in All of Us Belong, a presentation of the Seattle Symphony’s Simple Gifts project.
The Symphony is collaborating with three community partners — Catholic Housing Services, Compass Housing Alliance and Mary’s Place — to give people experiencing homelessness tools to express themselves through music and art-making. In All of Us Belong, the participants will reimagine and reflect on Charles Ives’ New England Holidays.
A piece written in rural Connecticut more than 100 years ago might seem like an unconventional choice to represent the rapidly transforming urban world of Seattle, but, as Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot shared with participants, “Music that is real will always be contemporary.
“Sometimes as artists we forget how much we can learn from others,” says Morlot. “Through this project we want to tell a story that is true to the emotions and the story of living in Seattle today.”
The movements of New England Holidays are musical evocations of four quintessentially American holidays: Washington’s Birthday (President’s Day), Decoration Day (Memorial Day), Independence Day and Thanksgiving. Each holiday coincides with a season: Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall, respectively.
“These are the most meaningful holidays celebrated by the entire country,” says Elena Dubinets, Seattle Symphony Vice President of Artistic Planning. “Each holiday means something different for each person.”
Ives wrote each movement based on memories of his father, George Ives, and memories of growing up in the town of Danbury, Connecticut. Specifically, Ives said he wanted his music to celebrate “common events in the lives of common people.”
"Ives celebrated the amateur musician as a way of celebrating what it means to be human: to make mistakes, to make art enthusiastically and to experience a range of emotion.” – Rebecca Aitken
He borrowed music from hymns and popular dances, layering them together to create complex textures that express multiple, conflicting emotions at once — the essence of memory.
“Ives was very interested in the idea of community, and in particular, amateur music-making,” says Larry Starr, Professor of American Music Studies at the University of Washington. “When you think about music by Mozart, or Beethoven, their compositions typically are like framed portraits, with everything in place. Ives takes away the frame to invoke the informal, spontaneous, even unruly spirit of community music.”
It was Ives’ interest in community music-making that inspired the Seattle Symphony to choose this piece to spark conversation, inspire reflection and amplify the voice of the participants, while building deeper connections with the Symphony audience.
“Ives celebrated the amateur musician as a way of celebrating what it means to be human: to make mistakes, to make art enthusiastically and to experience a range of emotion,” says Rebecca Aitken.
The Seattle Symphony has been serving the homeless community since 2013 when the organization first partnered with Mary’s Place to help mothers write lullabies for their children. The artwork from these creative residencies hasn’t previously been presented on the orchestra’s main subscription concerts.
“Now,” says Morlot, “we want to put that collaboration center stage and bring the voices of our community into our art.”
Each creative residency began with reflections and discussions inspired by listening to Ives’ music.
“I was surprised by how well the music fits my moods in past and present for this season,” writes Denise, a participant from Catholic Housing Services. “I hear my voice in it.”
The discussions are raw but filled with laughter as participants shared their best and worst memories of the holidays.
“We were kicked out on Independence Day while my son’s dad was in a military hospital after being severely injured in Afghanistan,” shared one participant from Mary’s Place. “But that’s not what I want my son remember.
“I found my strength living in the park and I want him to know he has that strength too.”
Rebecca Aitken’s discussions helped participants turn their memories and stories into visual art. The process began with a portrait that became the foundation for the rest of their artwork.
“The portraits reinforce the identity of the storyteller,” says Aitken. “I wanted to keep the individuality of all the participants as visible as possible.”
Using tracing paper and charcoal pencils, the participants illustrated their stories. The final product is a layered video of their portraits and artwork. Each video provides a brief glimpse into their stories and experiences.
“I was continually blown away, not just by the stories the participants had to tell, but by their storytelling and art choices,” says Aitken. “They came to the workshops sometimes reluctantly, sometimes enthusiastically, but everyone dug in and engaged the creative process.
“Their resiliency, laughter, sorrow and love have inspired me.”
Claudia Castro Luna, Seattle’s Civic Poet, will provide the final piece of the project in a poem about each holiday, her words guided by the stories and art from the workshops. During the project, she asked participants to reflect on what voices were missing in the music.
“Every piece of artwork is missing something,” says Luna. “We can never include it all.”
Now at least a few of those voices will be included when the music, poetry and artwork come together on stage for the first time.
“I want to create a momentary connection with the audience,” says Susan. At the far edge of her drawing is a white island, brilliant and solid against the dark, shifting lines of the water.
“I want them to feel a little of what I’ve experienced in life.”
Thank you to each and every supporter of the Seattle Symphony! Your donations help make programs like Simple Gifts and the presentation of All of Us Belong possible. Every gift makes a difference!GIVE NOW
The Seattle Symphony’s Family, School & Community programs are supported by 4Culture, the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, The Boeing Company, Chihuly Garden + Glass, Citi Community Capital, The Clowes Fund, Inc., the Elizabeth McGraw Foundation, KeyBank Foundation, the League of American Orchestras, Richard and Francine Loeb, Kjristine Lund, D.V. and Ida J. McEachern Charitable Trust, Music4Life, Music Works Northwest, the National Endowment for the Arts, New Music USA, Peach Foundation, the Peg and Rick Young Foundation, Russell Investments, Seattle Pacific University, the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture, The Sheri and Les Biller Family Foundation, Christine and Michel Suignard, Ten Grands Seattle, Tulalip Tribes Charitable Fund, the U.S. Bank Foundation, UW Autism Center, Weill Music Institute, Wells Fargo Foundation, the Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati Foundation and the Wyman Youth Trust.
Posted on January 11, 2017READ MORE BEYOND THE STAGE