Wall Street JournalBy Vipal Monga | November 18, 2014
Photo by Adrienne Grunwald for The Wall Street Journal
An arts school that had no formal classes, where it was hard to tell who the teachers were, where the students made their own shoes.
Such a place existed nearly 60 years ago in the South: Black Mountain College produced true influencers—composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham and the painters Cy Twombly and Robert Rauschenberg.
Starting on Thursday, the school is being celebrated at another cultural powerhouse—Brooklyn Academy of Music; the Brooklyn Youth Chorus will present the world premiere of “Black Mountain Songs,” a collection of choral works, for four evenings at the BAM Harvey Theater.
“It’s a combination of invoking the place and the idea the place represents,” said Richard Reed Parry, a member of the Grammy-winning rock group Arcade Fire. He organized the performance with Bryce Dessner, the guitarist for indie-rock band the National.
Located near Asheville, N.C., and open from 1933 to 1957, Black Mountain College has acquired mythic status over the years because of its unique approach to education—free expression, individual artistic development and experimentation—and the extraordinary talents it produced.
That idea of learning while doing in an isolated, communal atmosphere appealed to Mr. Dessner, who came up with the idea for the show.
“I was drawn to that idea of self-determination,” he said. “The goal was to inhabit the community aspect that Black Mountain symbolized.”
“Black Mountain Songs” is largely Brooklyn-grown.
Three years ago, Brooklyn Youth Chorus founder Dianne Berkun-Menaker approached borough resident Mr. Dessner to create an evening-length work for her singers, who range in age from 12 to 17.
This is the third evening-length piece that Ms. Berkun-Menaker has commissioned for the chorus’s 50 singers.
They worked with the composers, who included Nico Muhly and Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw, experimenting with the songs and the show’s staging during a March weekend retreat at Mr. Dessner’s cabin near Woodstock, N.Y.
“It’s like watching your child grow up,” said Sarah Sotomayor, 15, who has been with the chorus since 2010.
The songs range in style from ethereal meditations on art and nature to foot-stomping invocations about the passage of time and whimsical word play about bubbles.
The show is intentionally intergenerational and multidisciplinary as well, said Maureen Towey, an Arcade Fire collaborator who is directing “Black Mountain Songs.”
Choreography by the recent Brooklyn transplant Jenny Shore Butler features Gus Solomons Jr., a 76-year-old dancer who worked with Mr. Cunningham, as well as 28-year-old Adam Gauzza.
“Their dance gives another outlet to the human character and emotion of the songs,” said Ms. Butler.
The composers, for their part, are taking their roles as teachers and collaborators seriously, not treating the students as merely singers.
John King, who has worked with Kronos Quartet and New York City Ballet, has asked the chorus—and Ms. Berkun-Menaker, who will be performing with them publicly for the first time—to sing both together and as individuals for the show opener, but only when the spirit moves them.
“They tend to move in packs at that age,” Mr. King said. “The challenge was to get them to understand and encourage their individuality.”
That attitude of treating the chorus members as equal participants is perhaps the main goal of the commissions, said Ms. Berkun-Menaker.
“The composers are investing themselves and their time in this, which is transformative for these kids,” she said. “To have the experience of being respected for their work by people they admire will take them very far in life.”
For some of the students, the show has already achieved its aims.
“Having this experience is going to change our characters,” said Jake Montagnino, 16, who has been with the chorus since 2008. “We’ll be able to take that with us, and it will come out when we make our own art.”
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