At North Carolina’s Black Mountain College, erstwhile commune and artistic playground of John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg and many others, a spirit of radical democracy prevailed. Students and teachers shared roles and work, boundaries between disciplines dissolved, and art bled into life, nurturing an atmosphere of unfettered creative collaboration.
In Black Mountain Songs, performed by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, commissioned and produced by BAM and Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and curated by Bryce Dessner and Richard Reed Parry, that collective thread is renewed. Seven composers—Dessner, Parry, Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw, Nico Muhly, Aleksandra Vrebalov, John King, and Tim Hecker—collaborate with filmmaker Matt Wolf (Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell) to create an expansive choral and visual work that celebrates and rekindles Black Mountain’s utopian spirit.
Brooklyn Youth Chorus
Choral director and conductor Dianne Berkun-Menaker
Created by Bryce Dessner
Co-curated by Bryce Dessner & Richard Reed Parry
Directed by Maureen Towey
Music by Bryce Dessner, Tim Hecker, John King, Nico Muhly, Richard Reed Parry, Caroline Shaw, and Aleksandra Vrebalov
Film design by Matt Wolf
Set design by Mimi Lien
Costume design by Sarah Maiorino
Video & projection design by Grant McDonald
BRYCE DESSNER (creator, co-curator, composer) is a Brooklyn-based composer, guitarist, and curator who is also a member of the Grammy Award-nominated band the National. In addition to his work with the National, Dessner has made a name for himself as an acclaimed composer, working with some of the world’s most creative and respected musicians. Dessner’s recent commissions include pieces for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the National Audiovisual Institute of Poland, the Grammy Award-winning Kronos Quartet, and the new music ensemble eighth blackbird, among others. The first recordings of Dessner’s compositions, performed by Kronos Quartet, were released in 2013 by Anti on an album entitled Aheym. In 2014 Deutsche Grammophon/Universal Music Classics released St. Carolyn By the Sea; Suite from There Will Be Blood, which features three of Dessner’s orchestral works performed by the Copenhagen Philharmonic and conducted by André de Ridder. Dessner is also the founder and artistic director of the MusicNOW Festival in Cincinnati, OH, which will present its 10th season this March. In addition, Bryce and his brother Aaron produced the Red Hot Organization’s extensive AIDS charity compilation, Dark was the Night, which has raised over $2 million for AIDS charities. Dessner is a composer-in-residence at Muziekgebouw Eindhoven.
RICHARD REED PARRY (co-curator, composer) is the red-headed musical polymath at the heart of the inventive art rock band Arcade Fire, but his work and story reach far beyond. Born in Toronto and raised in a community of ex-pat British isles folk musicians, Parry studied electro-acoustics and contemporary dance at Concordia University. As well as contributing to Arcade Fire’s success over the past 10 years, he also released his debut album as a composer this year entitled Music for Heart and Breath on Deutsche Grammophon. Parry has also written commissioned works for Kronos Quartet, yMusic, and Bryce Dessner, and his chamber works also have been performed by the Calder Quartet and Who’s WhoWho’s Who Warhol Dervish. He has also formed many contemporary instrumental ensembles, Bell Orchestre with Arcade Fire violinist Sarah Neufeld, and the sonic folk trio Quiet River of Dust. He has also collaborated and performed with artists like David Bowie, The National, the Unicorns, Neil Young, Mick Jagger, Sam Amidon, Nadia Sirota, Colin Stetson, Little Scream, La La La Human Steps, and Islands.
MAUREEN TOWEY (director) has been recognized as an AOL/PBS MAKER, a Princess Grace fellow, a TCG Leadership U fellow, and a Fulbright scholar in South Africa. Towey has worked as creative director for Arcade Fire on their Grammy Award winning album, The Suburbs. Highlights from that campaign include collaborating on interactive video The Wilderness Downtown, working with Terry Gilliam for a livestream concert at Madison Square Garden, and managing a number of Arcade Fire’s charitable projects in Haiti. Towey has also directed concerts for musicians Ray LaMontagne, tUnE-yArDs, the Walkmen, and White Denim. As an ensemble member of Sojourn Theatre, she leads radical community engaged arts events including Throwing Bones, Finding Penelope, and most recently, The Islands of Milwaukee. Finding Penelope inspired a documentary (currently touring festivals) and a book, co-written by Towey, to be published in 2015. Additional theater highlights include The Saints Tour (River to River Festival), Three Sisters (Working Theater), Emergence (Foundry Theatre), Swallow What You Steal (ubom, South Africa), and multiple productions with Boise Contemporary Theatre. Towey has assisted Michael Rohd, Brett Bailey, and JoAnne Akalaitis. She is a native New Yorker and a graduate of Northwestern University.
JHEREK BISCHOFF (composer) is a Seattle-based songwriter, producer, performer, and composer. A finalist for the Stranger’s Music Genius Award in 2013, Bischoff has composed music for dance and orchestral performances, and elegantly produced records including Casiotone for the Painfully Alone’s critically-acclaimed Etiquette and Parenthetical Girls’s Safe as Houses. Bischoff serves as both full-time member and guest musician/arranger for the Jason Webley Quartet, as well as experimental pop crews the Dead Science, Xiu Xiu, and Parenthetical Girls. He was born in California and currently lives in Los Angeles.
TIM HECKER (composer) is a Canadian-based musician and sound artist, born in Vancouver. Since 1996, he has produced a range of audio works for Kranky, Alien8, Mille Plateaux, Room40, Force Inc, Staalplaat, and Fat Cat. The New York Times has described his work as “foreboding, abstract pieces in which static and sub-bass rumbles open up around slow moving notes and chords, like fissures in the earth waiting to swallow them whole.” His 2006 album, Harmony in Ultraviolet, received critical acclaim, including being recognized by Pitchfork as a top recording of 2006. His sixth full-length album, Ravedeath (1972), won the 2012 Juno Award for Electronic Album of the Year. His most recent album, Virgins, was recognized by The Wire magazine as one of 2013’s top five records. In addition to his own work, he has collaborated with Christ of Migone, Martin Tétreault, Fly Pan Am, Aidan Baker, and others. His body of work also includes commissions for contemporary dance and film scores sound-art installations.
JOHN KING (composer) composer, guitarist and violist, has received commissions from Ethel; Kronos Quartet; Bang on a Can All-Stars; Mannheim Ballet; New York City Ballet/Diamond Project; Stuttgart Ballet; Les Ballets de Monte Carlo; and Merce Cunningham Dance Company. His string quartets have been performed by the Secret Quartet and Crucible Quartet, which he leads. He has written four operas: herzstück/ heartpiece, based on text by Heiner Müller, which premiered at the 1999 Warsaw Autumn; la belle captive based on text by Alain RobbeGrillet, which premiered at Teatro Colon/CETC in Buenos Aires; and Dice Thrown, based on the Stéphane Mallarmé poem, which premiered in April, 2010 in Los Angeles. King recently completed SapphOpera, a work based on the text fragments of Sappho, translated by Anne Carson. He has written seven compositions for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. He received the 2014 Music/Sound Award from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts and was the recipient of the 2009 Alpert Award in the Arts for Music. He was music curator at The Kitchen (1999—2003) and was a co-director of the music committee for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (2002—11).
NICO MUHLY (composer) is one of today’s foremost composers with a wide scope of work for ensembles, soloists, and organizations including the American Symphony Orchestra, Boston Pops, Carnegie Hall, Chicago Symphony, countertenor Iestyn Davies, violinist Hilary Hahn, choreographer Benjamin Millepied, New York City Ballet, New York Philharmonic, Paris Opéra Ballet, soprano Jessica Rivera, and designer/illustrator Maira Kalman, and Brooklyn Youth Chorus’s 2011 production of Tell the Way at St. Ann’s Warehouse. Among Muhly’s most frequent collaborators are his colleagues at Bedroom Community, an artist-run label headed by Icelandic musician Valgeir Sigurðsson. Bedroom Community was inaugurated in 2007 with the release of Muhly’s first album, Speaks Volumes. In spring 2012, Bedroom Community released Muhly’s three-part Drones & Music, in collaboration with pianist Bruce Brubaker, violinist Pekka Kuusisto, and violist Nadia Sirota. In September 2014, Nonesuch Records released a live recording of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Two Boys, Muhly’s first opera.
CAROLINE SHAW (composer) is a New York-based musician appearing in different guises. She is a Grammy Award-winning singer in Roomful of Teeth, a busy freelance violinist, and in 2013 became the youngest-ever winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music for her enigmatic composition Partita for 8 Voices. She will make her solo violin debut in 2015 with the Cincinnati Symphony (MusicNOW Festival), and she is the inaugural musician in residence at Dumbarton Oaks as well as the composer in residence with Vancouver’s Music on Main. Shaw has also performed with ACME, Signal, Trinity Wall Street Choir, Alarm Will Sound, Mark Morris Dance Group, the Knights, and many others. Recent commissioned projects include new works for Carnegie Hall, Carmel Bach Festival, Cincinnati Symphony, Guggenheim Museum (FLUX Quartet), the Crossing, and Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Other personal projects include the development of an evening-length theater work, Ritornello, and a slowly-evolving ambient electronic album.
ALEKSANDRA VREBALOV (composer) has written more than 60 works, ranging from concert music and opera to modern dance and film music. Her works have been commissioned or performed by Kronos Quartet, Serbian National Theater, Carnegie Hall, Moravian Philharmonic, Belgrade Philharmonic, and Providence Festival Ballet. Vrebalov is a fellow of MacDowell Colony, Rockefeller Bellagio Center, New York’s New Dramatists, American Opera Projects, Other Minds Festival, and Tanglewood. Her awards include the American Academy of Arts and Letters Charles Ives Fellowship, Barlow Endowment Commission, MAP Fund, Vienna Modern Masters, Meet the Composer, and Douglas Moore Fellowship. Her works have been recorded for Nonesuch, Innova, and Centaur Records, and Vienna Modern Masters. Vrebalov’s most recent collaboration, with director Bill Morrison, Beyond Zero (1914—1918), was commissioned and premiered by Kronos Quartet at Berkeley’s Cal Performances and had its European premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival this year. Vrebalov is currently setting Charles Simic’s poetry for a song cycle commissioned by ASCAP/Kingsford Fund and is collaborating with architect Ronit Eisenbach on a site-specific sound installation at the Washington College in Maryland.
BASIL KING (narrator) is a painter and poet, born in England and currently living in Brooklyn. He attended Black Mountain College as a teenager and has been painting for the last six decades. He began to write in the 1980s and since then has practiced both arts. His books include Warp Spasm, Identity, mirage: a poem in 22 sections, 77 Beasts/Basil King’s Beastiary, and Learning to Draw/A History. He recently exhibited his visual art at Poets House in 2010. He is the subject and narrator of the 2012 film Basil King: MIRAGE by the artists Nicole Peyrafitte andMiles Joris-Peyrafitte.
“The composers are investing themselves and their time in this, which is transformative for these kids,” [Dianne Berkun-Menaker] said. “To have the experience of being respected for their work by people they admire will take them very far in life.” —The Wall Street Journal
Dianne Berkun-Menaker, Bryce Dessner and Richard Reed Parry discuss Black Mountain Songs with WNYC’s New Soundshost John Schaefer, with performances by Brooklyn Youth Chorus.
Brooklyn Youth Chorus is featured on Q2’s podcast Meet the Composer, with Black Mountain Songs composer Caroline Shaw. Hear Dianne and Caroline talk about “Its Motion Keeps.”
“Listening to these young voices, whether all of them at once or in smaller chamber groups, was an experience at once delicate, rousing, and sublime. It was easy to get carried away in the pure dynamic beauty of their sound. At times they achieved an elegant airiness, like a meringue, and at other times their collective voices were a ferocious roar.” —Feast of Music
“Inspired by this prolific community and its work, BAM and BYC commissioned composer and curator Bryce Dessner, along with his co-curator Richard Reed Parry (Arcade Fire), to assemble a diverse group of collaborators to work with the chorus, including composers Jherek Bischoff, Parry, Caroline Shaw, Nico Muhly, Aleksandra Vrebalov, Tim Hecker and John King.” —Brooklyn Eagle
Read an interview with Bryce Dessner and Dianne Berkun-Menaker on the BAM Blog.
PROGRAM NOTES FROM BRYCE DESSNER
I’ve been interested in Black Mountain College for many years. I went to summer camp in North Carolina as a kid just a few miles from the site of the college and actually learned to play music in those same mountains that spawned some of the greatest artists and art movements of the 20th century. I first learned about Black Mountain College through the well known and longrunning John Cage and Merce Cunningham collaboration, which was in its early years at Black Mountain (both were teachers at the college). I learned more about the college later in reading about the many profoundly important visual artists who came through there either as teachers, visiting lecturers, or students (Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, and Franz Kline, to name a few). But the decision to create a staged work for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus reflecting on Black Mountain was born out of a more recent exploration of the school of Black Mountain Poets. Poets like Robert Creeley and Charles Olson (also the last rector of the College) were hugely influential American writers and integral to the Black Mountain story. My original idea was to set poems by the Black Mountain Poets; this idea expanded to embrace the ethos of community and collaboration which was so essential to the college. The spirit of learning through doing and emphasis on self-exploration for both teachers and students seemed like a perfect vehicle to create a collaborative work that would be meaningful to both the young singers of the chorus, as well as the creative community of composers and artists who we embraced for the project. Because the identity of Black Mountain was so diverse and creatively expansive, we allowed each composer and collaborator to explore the ideas and characters of the place on their own. In the spirit of the college we wanted this process to be inspiring for each composer and to reflect a process of individual self-discovery. The music was written over a three-year period and commissions were rolled out on different timelines, which allowed us to steer artists towards exploring different ideas and texts based on what others already covered. For instance, once we had a couple of Cage and Creeley inspired works, we suggested that other composers look elsewhere. In the end we touched only a fraction of the vast community of the college. The songs and narration woven throughout the show set texts or ideas from John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Josef and Anni Albers, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Buckminster Fuller, Robert Duncan, Fielding Dawson (including a song set in Franz Kline’s studio), Ruth Asawa (who inspired the stage design), Basil King, and MC Richards. It is particularly rewarding that the piece premieres in the Harvey Theater, considering that Harvey Lichtenstein is a Black Mountain alumnus. Our team has spent the last year immersed in Black Mountain research, visiting the former campus with its beautiful rolling hills, drawing inspiration from its community of hard-working artists. But, perhaps Fielding Dawson said it best: “All the interviewing of former students and faculty are but shallow reminders, dim reflections. It is too bad, and may seem unfair, but so Black Mountain was, and if you weren’t there, you will never know, or understand. Unless you create it. That’s the catch. If you never were there, you’ll have to create it.”