Assistant Professor LaToya Lain recently participated in the songSLAM Festival with Sparks and Wiry Cries in New York City. In this special interview for “Do the Work Wednesdays” she discusses what it was like to record a newly commissioned piece for the festival, and what this work means in 2021 amidst a pandemic and surge of social justice action.
So what is Sparks and Wiry Cries’ songSLAM Festival? According to their website:
Sparks & Wiry Cries began in 2009 as a podcast and online magazine with a vision to contextualize art song in the sharing of recordings, interviews, and articles by prominent artists and scholars. In 2012, the Casement Fund, Ltd. encouraged co-founders Martha Guth and Erika Switzer to expand their vision and curate an art song recital series based in New York City. In 2015, Sparks received its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status and grew to include the songSLAM competition and a commissioning program. Since 2018, the songSLAM FESTIVAL and Art Song Magazine are actively engaging in current conversations through insightful publishing, programming, and commissioning.
UNC Music: Is this the first year you’ve participated?
Dr. Lain: This is my first year participating. One of the founders, Martha Guth, and I were students at The University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music together. I was very familiar with Sparks & Wiry Cries and was honored to be invited to participate in a commissioned piece.
Music: What was it like working with the composer and other artists when it’s not possible to be together in-person?
Lain: Recording this cycle remotely is akin to driving during a snowstorm and praying that the road is still under you!! As a singer of classical music, collaboration with the pianist is one of the most pertinent aspects of a performance. I’m accustomed to developing a closeness with the pianist throughout the rehearsal process. From that process, I learn a pianist’s “musical language” and he or she learns mine. For example breaths, phrasing, rubato and tempo changes, and text interpretation are all expressive bonding tools we develop during the rehearsal. For this collaboration, the pianist and I had never met and anything we needed musically, had to come from hearing recordings of each other’s prior performances.
Music: This piece is so timely, what was it like reading through it the first time and then learning it?
Lain: When I received the invitation to collaborate with Andrew Staniland and Jessica Care Moore, I knew this project would be something special. After googling, I learned that Jessica was a social activist and her poetry spoke truth to power from the lens of a black woman in America. As we have all experienced, 2020 was a year of shifting. Not only heightened political unrest, but I also gave birth to two amazing humans.…during a pandemic! I was feeling ALL the emotions! I knew she would have the verbiage to express those feelings! Jessica verbalized my emotions in a way that was therapeutic and Andrew’s setting of her words was thoughtful, delicate, and mindful of my voice, but also committed to the expression of the text. There were several opportunities for me to vocally soar in the upper register and it often felt like a “wail” to actualize my joy and to release my grief.
Music: Watching the finished video project, what are some of the feelings it brings up? Both as an artist and as a citizen of the world?
Lain: 2020 was a year of heightened social unrest like no other time in recent history. While black Americans have been unjustly murdered at the hands of white supremacy for more than four centuries, this generation has given us social media, which provides a front row seat to the trauma. This finished video project, the music, poetry, and images, reminded me that nothing in this county, in this world, operates independently from the other. We are all affected by each other’s actions. The composer set the text “news repeats itself therefore is no longer news” in repetition. And each time I restated it, I thought about the images from photographer Brian Day and the images I saw on the news every day as Americans were dying by the hundreds of thousands and it seemed as if the person who was supposed to advocate for us didn’t care. At the conclusion of the video, I sat in silence. Then, I watched it again.
Music: If there’s one thing that you’d like people to take away from this performance, what is it?
Lain: As an artist, I’ve grown accustomed to having multiple opportunities to release this energy through performance, but the COVID Pandemic canceled each and every one. We heavily rely on art-making for so many reasons and those opportunities were no longer there. I felt like a bottle ready to burst and desperate for an artistic release. Collaborating with these artists has been a part of my healing process and for that, I am grateful.
From the composer, Andrew Staniland:
This has been an inspiring collaboration – a composer from Canada, a poet from Detroit, a pianist from New York, a singer from North Carolina have all come together under Sparks & Wiry Cries to make a new song. For me, a song must be strongly rooted in its text – each and every decision I make as a composer needs to come back to the text in a meaningful way. This poem is so rich to set as it is already so full of its own sound and ideas: It is a complete as a work of art, hard-wired with its own musicality and phrasing, making it a joy (and challenge) to set. I set the work in 4 movements:
- I. INTROIT VS DETROIT
- II. Songbirds begin at 4 A.M
- III. Strange Fruit and magnolia trees
- IV. The call to prayer is louder than the death toll
The first three feature sections from the poem, and the last movement features the full poem up front as unbroken spoken work in a powerful pre- recorded track by Jessica. This piece speaks to our now – it is about COVID19, and about Black Lives Matter, and about religion, and about politics. It is about being human. It is about hope and fear, and above all, for me at least, about our capacity to be made anew.