That memory and music are often and easily intertwined is a notion few will contest. That a composer’s work will reflect, directly or indirectly, their own network of memories and influences is similarly understood. Representing the memories of others in a work of music, on the other hand, is a less intuitive project. This was the concept behind the Quintet of the America’s Memory Project, a trio of new works composed around the memories of seniors at three community centers in Queens, New York. Beginning with personal interviews and culminating in a multimedia program featuring video and presentations by the composers, the Memory Project took a multi-faced approach to contextualizing new music, placing the audience’s experience at the very center of the performance.
CMA spoke with Matt Sullivan, oboe, and Barbara Oldham, horn, about the benefits of connecting the audience with the composer, the Quintet’s journey from Bogota, Colombia to Queens, New York, and the many ways that memory can shape musical experience for performers and listeners alike.
CMA: Can you discuss how the Memory Project was conceived initially?
Barbara Oldham: The idea originated when our clarinetist, Nick Gallas, suggested a composer named Lembit Beecher as a prospect for a commission. Nick mentioned that he had performed a piece by Lembit that was based on the memories of his grandmother—post-World War II memories that were very vivid and historically fascinating. And according to Nick, the piece had a very strong impact on the audience. I remember thinking: ‘memories, our seniors, a memory project…’
Matt Sullivan: We’ve had an ongoing relationship with the various centers that eventually presented the Memory Project. Audience members would often come up and say “Oh, I remember when I heard that piece at the Philharmonic, or I remember when I heard this on the radio.” Those conversations sparked an interest in how memory related to the pieces in our programs—an interest also rooted in our own histories and influences as musicians and composers. Initially, we had actually referred to the project as the ‘Grandmother Project,’ because of the influences we each cited in our relatives and in the older people we grew up around—mine included. My grandmother was a pianist and a composer, and she influenced my life heavily—not only in terms of my path to becoming a musician, but in helping me to appreciate music as a marker of our lives.
Our goal was that the audiences would have ownership of the pieces—which I think they did. They listened with the idea that there was something of them within the music, even if the connection was indirect.
CMA: How were the composers selected, and how were they paired with the three centers?
MS: I think it was important to us to pick composers who could not only write appropriate music—appropriate being in quotes—but who could also really communicate to an audience. We knew that they were going to write what they loved, but we also knew this project would require a unique kind of engagement, and that each of the centers was somewhat different. Bayside had many people who had been to the Philharmonic over the years, who had seen concerts of the highest level. People at the other centers, generally speaking, hadn’t been exposed to that world of music—though they’re always willing to keep an open ear, I think. Fortunately, these audiences are so hungry for experience that we’ve never had, if you will, a negative response to contemporary music. They recognize the high level of performance and they recognize our enthusiasm. It’s moving for them—and for us.
CMA: How was the material related in the interviews translated into music by the composers?
BO: The quintet met at each of the three centers and played a concert of music in which each short piece had some kind of special meaning—significance relating to our youths, or to our cultural backgrounds. We did this to demonstrate to the audiences the kind of effect we were interested in. We wanted to know their memories, to hear what musical pieces or events were important to them and their backgrounds. Then we conducted and filmed interviews with the composer present. The composers had free reign with the materials; they could quote from the videos, or just use them as inspiration in a more general sense—the connection could be as direct or abstract as they wished. We did the interviews in the fall, and the composers had until June to finish the compositions. All three pieces were performed in each center, preceded by an edited video.
CMA: Obviously, a composer’s own memories and history will inform his or her work, but did the composers remark on any difficulty in the task of representing those of others?
MS: I actually think one of the incredibly beautiful things about this project was the common ground that was found between the memories of our participants and the composers. The inspiration was mutual, I think. Each of the composers of course wrote from their own personal perspectives, but they were undeniably struck by the profound beauty of the interviews. They became catalysts for one another. It was very exciting—for them, and for us, the performers.
CMA: Were there specific stories or moments from the interviews that stuck with you?
MS: I’m reminded of a man named Sam I’d been interviewing at Bayside Community Center. He’d come back from the War to work and grown very fond of the music Duke Ellington. When he mentioned Ellington, I immediately grabbed Nick, our clarinet player, and asked him to come and play for Sam. He played “In a Sentimental Mood.” And, as he played, Sam leaned back and went into a state of complete bliss, or so it appeared to us. It was extremely moving. You could tell he’d been transported to another point in his life. That moment showed us very clearly that we were on the right track.
BO: That interview appears in the edited video, and Lembit used motivic bits of “A Sentimental Mood” in the first movement of his piece. So that moment became a strong point of connection in the program. One of Karla’s interviews at Elmcor also really stuck with us. One of the women at the center had been describing the view from her window and how she loved to paint it, and it turned out that these two women sitting together at the table lived in the same building, and had lived in the same building, for nearly 30 years. They had been coming to the same senior center every day, and had no idea until that moment. It was very different from the typical concert experience, where the audience might learn a little something about us—we might speak about our interest in the music, or how the group was formed—but where we rarely learn anything about them.
CMA: Did you see unique reactions from audience members—particularly those whose memories were represented in the compositions?
BO: They loved the music. Our goal was that the audiences would have ownership of the pieces—which I think they did. They listened with the idea that there was something of them within the music, even if the connection was indirect.
MS: It was stunning. The participants who first saw themselves in the videos and then heard the music had a profound reaction. There were people in tears. There were cheers that went up in the audience—and we’re talking people who are 70, 80, 90-years old. Sam was 96—though his caretaker told me that he didn’t want anyone to know because the ladies thought he was in his 80’s. We had never seen such a reaction, frankly, to a project, ever, in our lives, because they were so powerfully engaged. And I’m still kind of in shock about it.
CMA: Can you discuss the benefits of using video in performances, as well as those of having the composer present?
BO: We always feel that if an audience can meet the composer of new music, they’re likely to form a much stronger connection with the piece. They experience a different kind of recognition—that this is a human being—and they hear the piece in the context of the themes the composer introduces. We can play some pretty Avant Garde stuff for people who never listen to new music and not worry that they won’t become engaged. This is the basic thinking behind including a visual element to our programming. In the past, we’ve projected photos thematically related to the work—fabulous photos, of the cosmos, for example—but video proved to be a really wonderful addition.
Again, however, what’s become equally important to the audience is having the composer there—creating the opportunity for these audiences to gain insight into the creative process and to understand what has inspired the work. One particularly powerful instance occurred when we played Tania Leon’s De Memorias. It’s a very challenging piece, for uninitiated audiences in particular, and if we had just gone in and played it without introduction, the audience might’ve walked out. But Tania came and spoke to the audience—in Spanish—about the experience of leaving Cuba, of coming to the United States, the difficulties, the memories, what she missed. And, because of the shared experiences, she had everyone in the palm of her hand. She explained how she had tried to express those experiences in the piece. Everyone was just enthralled because they were then able to connect their own experiences to the music. It allowed them to really connect to what was, truthfully, a long, difficult piece.
CMA: Can you talk a little about the quintet’s curatorial focus? Are there particular insights that have emerged from focusing on the music of the Americas?
BO: The Quintet was formed in Bogota, Colombia. We had a weekly radio program in Bogota with a mandate that we perform at least one Colombian piece each week. Inevitably, we were introduced to a number of Colombian composers. When we reformed back in New York, we had music that nobody else knew anything about, some of which was really wonderful stuff. A few years later we began doing Columbia Artists community tours all over the country, and we would always include some of that music in our programs. Everyone loved it. Contemporary composers who didn’t like anybody’s music but their own liked it. Then, not long after we returned to New York, we took a residency at the Americas Society, and through that began to develop a significant Latino audience here. We always made a point of including pieces that our audiences would know—typically, in this case, folk and folk-influenced music from various places in Latin America. If we had a predominantly Colombian audience, we’d include a few Colombian pieces in the program; if we had a predominantly Mexican audience, we’d include Mexican pieces. Of course, choosing Queens—one of the most diverse counties in the country—as our home county had a similarly strong impact. As we branched out more and more into the community, we began picking up and performing music from other cultures as well.
MS: I joined the quintet in 1981, shortly after three members had returned from Colombia. I loved the name and the theme, and I like very much that we would not be spread all over the place musically, as everyone else seemed to be. Politically and socially, I believe in the idea of the Americas as a borderless place of rich culture, and Queens offered the perfect place to continue the quintet’s work. It’s actually been quite inspiring. I grew up inspired by the music of Ireland—by my grandmother—and I’ve found many connections between the folk music of distant places and cultures. I’m not sure I would know the difference between Villa-Lobos’ Brazillian folk music and the folk music of Ireland.
The Memory Project was made possible through CMA’s Residency Partnership Program, with support from the Chamber Music America Residency Endowment Fund.