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Bringing Environmental Themes to the Concert Hall

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    David Asbury and Bruce Cain record songs from the collection of poems they had set to music. (Photo by Lucas Adams)

Faculty duo commissions and performs song cycle with an environmental theme

Like many other faculty members at Southwestern, Music Professors David Asbury and Bruce Cain share a passion for lifelong education, creative exploration and environmental activism.

The two have combined these interests in a new project they are sharing with audiences across the country.

Asbury, who teaches and plays the guitar, and Cain, who teaches voice and is a baritone soloist, received grants from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Southwestern University to create and record eight new works for guitar and voice. The works form a song cycle that focuses on the environment, particularly the importance of water to creating and sustaining life.  

“Current environmental topics are being explored in the fields of art, theatre and poetry, but not as much in music,” Cain said. “This was an excellent opportunity to connect the world of art music to current issues of the environment. We wanted to bring environmental themes and issues to the concert hall.”

The lyrics for the song cycle came from the archives of River of Words, a California-based organization dedicated to educating young people about environmentalism through art and poetry. The organization holds an annual contest for entrants ages 5-19, and poems were selected from among hundreds in the contest archives.

“We wanted to find sources of poetry that composers at our partner institutions in the Associated Colleges of The South (ACS) could take and set to music,” Asbury said. “As we read the poetry, we were struck by its power. We recognized that these young poets have a special perspective on the environment and a stake in it that is greater than our own. We wanted to make more people aware of it.”

Asbury and Cain commissioned seven different composers to set poems of their choice to music – including Jason Hoogerhyde, associate professor of music at Southwestern. Other composers were Terry Vosbein from Washington and Lee University, John McGinn from Austin College, Brad Osborn from Rhodes College, Daniel Crozier and Susan Cohn-Lackman from Rollins College, and Brian Nelson, formerly of Trinity University.

Hoogerhyde set a poem titled “To Speak to the Dead” by 11-year-old Maggie Gallagher of Berkeley, Calif., to music. Other songs in the cycle are titled “It’s a Letter,” based on a poem by 9-year-old Yolanda Lockett of Lancaster, Pa.; “When No Birds Take to Wing,” based on a poem by 14-year old Jane Jiang of Seattle, Wa.; “Winter,” based on a poem by 10-year-old Kelsey Schlosser of Wasau, Wis.; “Stargazing,” based on a poem by 13-year-old Liz Chadbourne of Mill Valley, Calif.; “Three Haiku,” based on Haikus by three different children;  and “I Can Begin Again,” based on a poem by 7-year-old Joshua Bailey of Tucson, Ariz.

The composers set each of the poems to very different styles of music, ranging from music with a Renaissance theme to music of the Far East. One even used a computer to generate the pitch and duration of each syllable in the poem. He then crafted a harmonious accompaniment that recycles and reuses the same materials throughout the composition – the musical equivalent of the “leave-no-trace” environmental mantra.

“We marveled at the ingenious ways that each composer approached the project,” Cain said. “As performers, it is always an exciting challenge to discover first what the poet has to say, and then what the composer is adding to that voice. Each repetition brings us a deeper understanding and helps us transmit that excitement to our audiences.”

To date, Asbury and Cain have performed the song cycle at Rhodes College in Tennessee, Rollins College in Florida, Austin College in Sherman, Texas, and Southwestern. Future performances are scheduled in Idaho and Washington State, and the two have been invited to perform the compositions at the Kennedy Center in April 2012. They also will perform at the River of Words 2012 awards ceremony to be held at the Library of Congress April 23 and have been invited to perform in Denmark in June 2012.

Asbury and Cain have a contract to record the pieces, and the album is expected to be available for purchase by spring 2012. Clear Note Publications of Columbus, Ohio, has agreed to publish the pieces.

While Asbury and Cain and have collaborated on many performances over the past 15 years, this is the first time they have made a professional recording together. In addition to furthering their own development as professionals, the two say they hope they have helped the field of music broaden its horizons as well.

“Art helps us to define who we are and how we relate to the world. It helps us to discover those things that are most important to us and to shape our beliefs. It is our hope that by initiating this project, the collaborative voices of the poets, composers and performers can become a part of this process,” Asbury said.

−Jasmine SayGan