Donald's Seven Responses Blog: Volume 1

Seven Responses was conceived two years ago, initially to answer my co-founder Jeff's nagging for me to find a way for The Crossing to be heard in some early music. "Yes," he'd say, "we are a new-music group, but we'd be killer in that stuff." I couldn't disagree, I just always have my head - and ears - pointed forward, so it took some time to hear him and to turn my ears back a few hundred years to consider some new possibilities. When I did, Seven Responses was born. This blog - my first (and a rare venture into 'publicness' for me) - will follow the project through its final nine months and into its true birth as audible music. 

My idea: to engage an iconic 17th-century response to suffering - Dietrich Buxtehude's Membra Jesu Nostri, sung with baroque orchestra - as a starting point and inspiration for seven new works in which we hear 21st-century compositional voices respond to the seven cantatas of that work, sung with our friends at ICE.  Jeff’s response: “It’s brilliant and completely insane.” (He also vigorously jumped to work and embraced it.) 

But, after this initial light bulb moment, we slowed down to think this through. I had some conversations with friends who I trust in their attempt and ability to describe our lives in art. I went back to words of David Lang (that, I now believe, had been in the shadows of my thoughts for some time and the seed for this concept) discussing The Little Match Girl Passion: “You look around and realize how much of your life is made possible by ignoring the suffering that goes on around you. That we live in a way which makes it possible to live by saying, 'that person is starving, I'm going to make believe I don't see that right now. That homeless person, I'm not going to see that. That country in disarray, I'm not noticing that today, so I can get up in the morning and live.'”

And, I had a conversation with Peter Sellars, who I had originally hoped could be part of the project (but he was off staging Missa Solemnis in a cornfield in Russia or some such thing): he encouraged us to reach as far as possible across land and cultures. Knowing this was to be a long-awaited reunion collaboration with ICE, there were limits to that, but I understood that he was describing something that was already inherent in the project but not yet articulated. It was then I decided to reach all across Europe and the U.S. to invite composers with a wide range of ages and cultural backgrounds, and to dispense of my initial proposal for one project librettist instead inviting each composer to fashion a libretto of their liking in response to Buxtehude's – either their own words, or those of others.

It's amusing to think how far the project evolved in such a short time - the distance had already traveled from 'an excuse' to hear our group sing some early Baroque music, to a project that was taking on deep meaning for me personally and for all those it had so far touched. Of course, the process and responsibility of assembling all these composers and getting them on board - with librettists collaborating ensembles, venues, lighting and technical directors, crazy schedules, individual needs (the percussion list alone is a wonder!) – all in order to craft our proposal to the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage in the hope that the Center would see the potential and worth in our project exploring so many aspects of our inner and outer lives, our history and our future.

Between the time we submitted (and tweaked and resubmitted and tweaked and resubmitted) that proposal to PCAH and the announcement of grants, we lost Jeff.  If that sentence reads like lead, it’s because it still feels like it: three one-syllable words: we lost Jeff.  And so, on that amazing day when I received the word from Pew that we had a green light to move forward with Seven Responses, my first phone call was to Becky, Jeff's partner. How ironic, painful, and somehow strangely beautiful that this project, which began with Jeff's itchy nag to hear his group sing some early music using our style and personality, was going to produce seven substantial new works by some of our leading composers, pondering issues that we face in the news and in our own emotional lives every day. Few conversations in my life have been so emotionally complex and confusing: once again I was reminded of A.R. Ammons’ poem “Guide” that Lew Spratlan set for us in his Hesperus is Phosphorus

how I said can I be glad and sad: but a man goes
from one foot to the other:
wisdom wisdom:
to be glad and sad at once is also unity

and death:

No one needs me to ‘blog’ about how loss is felt deeply in all levels of the social stratum and the world. While art may not be universal, grief certainly is. The artists of The Crossing 2014 will probably spend the rest of our lives navigating the loss of Jeff. Seven Responses is an unexpected gift to do so with the same anticipation and joy, the same excitement and child-like wonder, as I heard in Jeff's voice the day I called and said, "OK, so, I have this idea about Buxtehude..."

We will be blogging weekly and welcome you along the journey to Seven Responses.