world premiere Mending Wall performed by Tony Arnold* (soprano), Arturo O’Farrill+ (piano), and the PRISM Quartet (saxophones) music by Martin Bresnick, George Lewis, Arturo O’Farrill, and Juri Seo stage direction and set by Jorinde Keesmaat lighting design by Aaron Copp costumes by Jenna Gove and Jorinde Keesmaat
*Appears in George Lewis’ commission +Appears in his own commission
Mending Wall, premiered in 2022, is a staged concert exploring the meaning of walls in our world by giving musical form to questions about identity, community, division, and freedom. Soprano Tony Arnold and pianist Arturo O’Farrill joined the PRISM Quartet in world premiere performances of works by four visionary composers—Martin Bresnick, George Lewis, Juri Seo, and O’Farrill—who take inspiration from poetry by Robert Frost, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Waly Salomão, and Guillermo Gómez-Peña. Directed by Jorinde Keesmaat with lighting design by Aaron Copp.
From Jorinde Keesmaat, Director of Mending Wall
“Nearly two years after the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the premiere of Mending Wall, the production itself has evolved in response to this global blaze. Through new staging and lighting, we are exploring the paradox of personal contact: our simultaneous discomfort with strangers and our intrinsic longing for human connection, the psychological effects of isolation and our basic need for one another’s warmth. Mending Wall still examines the complicated meaning of boundaries—physical and invisible—but it’s also about fear giving way to hope.”
From Matthew Levy, Executive and Co-Artistic Director, PRISM Quartet
“Walls are a foundational part of our world: they have mythical and poetic resonance, but also material consequences. The project began as a response to the idea of a wall as a dehumanizing force. Although America’s recent zeal for wall-building has counterparts throughout history and across the globe, it represents a specific failure of imagination. As artists, we’re called to build another kind of structure: a collaborative experiment that restores mystery, complexity, and generosity to our encounters with one another. Mending Wall amplifies a range of musical and poetic voices; Our hope is that the project will illuminate and help us to confront and mend fractures in our human community.”
Martin Bresnick’s commission, Mending Time, is inspired by the contradictions in Robert Frost’s 1914 poem “Mending Wall,” in which two neighbors meet yearly to rebuild the structure separating their farms.
“Robert Frost, frequently mistaken for an avuncular, crusty New Englander, actually had a rather dim view of humans and human behavior. He expressed this glum perspective hidden in poems of alluring simplicity. The obtuse neighbor in ‘Mending Wall’ recalls his father’s old saying ‘good fences make good neighbors.’ Frost implicates us in the notion that we, like the sly poet, are smugly superior to that neighbor and his banal expression. Yet without having to mend the wall between them the two neighbors would never meet or talk. In fact bad fences make good neighbors, though by mending the broken wall the neighbors once again build an unnecessary barrier between them. According to Frost we are trapped and doomed by fences to eternal contact and inevitable alienation. But what if the walls between us were made of music?”
Mr. Bresnick composed the following prose poem as a program note for his piece:
Robert Frost thought that poetry was, as he wrote, “a momentary stay against confusion.” In his poem Mending Wall, the inspiration for my piece, Frost famously says “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”
As the always tricky Frost well knew:
A wall may be the strong barrier that protects our young or old from harm.
A wall may be the mural upon which we inscribe the art and the history of our people.
A wall may the sacred, embroidered fabric that keeps us from the cold.
A wall may be the skin of our lovers and the dearest ones we treasure.
And so the barriers and walls between us may be, at last, the special place where we as neighbors meet together if only to repair those walls and build them up again.
But walls and barriers must also have a passage through them or what lies within and without them will surely starve and die.
For the great PRISM Quartet I have written “Mending Time” a sounding wall to help, in a musical way, to light the lamp beside the golden door.
“In Where Her Eye Sits, I’ve set texts by the South African poet and activist Keorapetse Kgositsile (1938-2018), whose work is historically and culturally evocative, textually dense, and intimately perceptive. As a young artist I met Kgositsile (who was familiarly called ‘Willie’) in the mid-1970s, during his long years of exile from the South African apartheid regime. Apartheid was a wall that was more torn down than mended, a key component of oppression that obliged that exiles peek longingly over the political fence that kept them from their beloved homeland. A recent Kgositsile text like ‘Where Her Eye Sits (After reading Cheryl Harris’s From The War Journals)’ conversationally expresses that longing, but here, unbound by apartheid’s baleful memories, Kgositsile, who became a poet laureate of the new South Africa, presents a love that soars far above all walls. The PRISM quartet’s blend of virtuosity and ardent experimentation allows me, via this novel quartet/soprano voice instrumentation, to link a coloratura’s sonic sensibility with the saxophone’s evocation of South Africa popular music via mbube-like orchestration.”
“‘Echo Chamber’ is a tiny, five-line poem by the Brazilian poet Waly Salomão (1943-2003), translated into English by Maryam Monalisa Gharavi. Despite its brevity, the poem captures something essential about the nature of memory and identity. The evocation of childhood in the opening lines inspired me to begin my work Unsung Lullaby with an intimate song from a parent to a child. The rest of the piece unfolds, like the poem, in a dream-like state: the lullaby grows into a highly ornamented melody that transitions into a climactic sound mass; a fugal exposition and a mutant scherzo culminate in harmonic spectra that blossom in breath-like gestures; another lullaby, quietly dissipating, marks the end. All of the sections are seamlessly connected, with one musical idea transforming into another.
“I am attracted to transitions and transformations, particularly when seemingly antithetical ideas are revealed to be of one nature. I have found that, in order to transform, some imperfections in the materials are essential. When a tone is played perfectly, for example, it does not render itself open to change. However, when a tone is detuned or broken up into multiphonics, it becomes more malleable; it can turn itself into a harmony or a gesture. Exploring the continuity between materials, whether in a single tone or between entire musical styles, has become integral to my creative process. In Unsung Lullaby, this manifests as an obsession with the ambiguous nature of boundaries, at once divisive and unifying.
“I believe that many of the ideas in the music have a parallel meaning in the real world. As an immigrant, I have dealt with some dissonance in my identity, which is divided in two sets of memories, communities, and languages. Music, as well as poetry, provides a place where such contradictions can be resolved. Salomão’s poem investigates the boundaries within the self, between one’s immediate being and one’s memories that transcend time. We build walls within ourselves and between each other, forgetting that what seems antithetical may be revealed to be of one nature. ‘Good’ walls are permeable and flexible; their imperfections allow the warmth of humanity to flow through, just as an imperfect tone splits into a resounding harmony.”
Arturo O’Farrill’s piece, Something to declare? (yeah, fuck your wall), is inspired by “Freefalling Toward a Borderless Future” by Guillermo Gomez-Peña.
“A wall is an ancient solution to an ageless paradox. To keep the unwanted out and to preserve the purity of the internal. A wall can be an inhumane device that divides humanity from itself or a humane device that protects humanity from itself. The same can be said of cultural walls. Music in particular has been used for centuries to delineate high culture from low culture. It has been used to assert nationalism as well as to embrace globalism. Music can be said to be a wall, one that protects and preserves or divides and denies. My piece deals with this contradictory nature of walls, musical or otherwise. This contradiction is inherently part of our human nature which can be all at once embracing as it also rejects and repels that which it does not understand. A structure that lends itself to great expansion is the Mexican genre know as Son Jarocho. It is a simple song form with a lead trovador voice that is supported by 5-6 Jaranas (guitar-like instruments that have different ranges). The PRISM quartet can easily approximate these roles with four voices. The practice of Son Jarocho at the Mexican/American border in San Diego/Tijuana is particularly interesting to me. Jaraneros gather at the mesh on either side and engage in a jam session/celebration called Fandango Fronterizo. Now in its 11th year this festival involves the Son Jarocho and a style of dance called Zapateado. Frequently the lead singer or pregón engages in improvised and highly politicized anti wall/border diatribe and encourages the crowd to enter into a similar verbal celebration of pueblo and a condemnation of the forces that would separate it. The simplicity of the traditional rhythms and harmonic structures of Son Jarocho lend themselves to extended compositional variation and when coupled with a lead voice improvising in the manner of the trovador can be the best possible mix of diverse cultures.”
Staging is central to Mending Wall because it will connect the pieces but also dramatize their aesthetic/conceptual differences—serving a dual purpose similar to the wall in Frost’s poem.
In her immersive multidisciplinary work, director Jordinde Keesmaat plays with the relationship between spectator and actor/musician, and boundaries between classical concerts, opera, and theater. Keesmaat’s goal for Mending Wall is to link the stylistically diverse commissions to one another to form “a dramaturgical line,” enabling audiences to have a complete and immersive experience. She will investigate boundaries between audience and performers, transforming “social discomforts” into abstract visual/theatrical concepts. Check the blog for more details about Jorinde’s creative process as the project unfolds.