Written by Jennie Dorris
This project was the brainchild of Shelter Music Boston, who for the past seven years has offered monthly classical concerts to homeless shelters. (I've joined them as a musician for the past five years.) Founder and artistic director Julie Leven (pictured at left playing with me at one of the shelters), had a vision for a new work to be composed that was inspired by the audience. Two of those movements would be sourced entirely from this week of concerts where the audience composed with us. We would give the materials from these concerts to a composer, who would score out the music. The project was funded by The Boston Foundation’s Live Arts Boston grant.
Planning sessions took place over Skype between Julie (who lives in Boston), myself (I’m in Pittsburgh), and the piece’s eventual orchestrator Danielle Williams (who lives and teaches in the Middle East).
How could we get our audience to compose with us? While we knew that our audience was opinionated -- one of the best parts of a SMB concert is discussing the music with our audiences after the show -- we also knew we didn’t want to put them on the spot. We knew many of them would enter into this process without having played a musical instrument or receiving formal musical training.
We settled on the idea that we would be their “musical jukebox” (an idea that was inspired by my work at the Hillman Cancer Center). We would present different options on our instruments and ask open-ended questions that would let them guide our playing. Their opinions would be heard through us. We broke music into its puzzle pieces -- including melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, timbre, dynamics, and tempo -- to help focus our plans for each shelter.
We also knew that the process would be different at every place we went. Some locations had a separate room, and were quiet. Some enforced substance-free living. Other concerts were given in the middle of their living spaces, abutted by the sounds of running showers and flushing toilets.
Each night we started with what we called a "musical meditation." We musicians would improvise together in a certain key, and we'd explain to the audience that we had no idea what the piece was going to be like before we started playing and reacting to each other. We asked them to keep track of any words or images that came to mind as we played. One of my favorites was: "It keeps the wicked spirits in line." These words guided the mood of each of the compositions.
Next, we'd move into the main focus of the night -- the musical puzzle piece that would begin their process of composition. At one location, we focused on harmonic progressions. We’d play through different lengths of progressions, and let them choose how many chords they thought should be involved in their composition.
Using the chords as the backbone, we had the audience clap in time until they found a tempo they liked. This would be the speed of the melody we wrote over a given chord. We’d improvise a few short melodies and they would choose which one they liked best. We’d play the melody on the different instruments -- did they like it on viola, marimba, or both? Did they want the viola to play high, and the marimba low? How loud should each of our levels be? Should Rebecca Strauss, the violist, use her bow, or pluck the strings? Should I use the loud mallets, the softest ones, or a combination?
We’d play a draft of the composition for the audiences and let them give feedback. In our last shelter, guests told us to play the harmonic progression backwards and then ended up liking that progression best for their piece -- a really good brain workout for us musicians!
After each concert, I'd take the giant notepad home and turn the notes from our score into musical notation we could send to Danielle, our orchestrator. We explained how the audience came up with each of their ideas, and the mood in the room from each night.
Danielle is currently orchestrating the musical ideas from all six shelters into two movements -- one of those movements will be a solo violin piece for Julie, and the other will be a chamber ensemble piece for marimba and strings.
It gets bigger from here! These two movements will join two other movements to become part of a larger suite. The two other movements are settings of the audience's words to music. One has been composed by Danielle, and the other is being composed by Yu-Hui Chang.
In 2018, Shelter Music Boston plans to premiere the full multi-movement work in a public performance as well as at each of the shelters.