I was first contracted to put stories into lyrics for song when the Washington National Opera collaborated with the Ward 7 Arts Collaborative, in November 2009, participating in a project for the program Community In Bloom. For this, the recollections of citizens of Ward 7 were recorded; these reminiscences turned out to span more than a few generations of families, who had been in this particular area of the District, and spoke to a wealth of history slowly being eroded by feelings of disenfranchisement, political avoidance, gentrification, and a shift in community values. The stories were powerful, and I was able to thread several strands into a “scene”, to be set to music, where four characters approached a street corner, each absorbed in their individual thoughts, reflecting their concerns and determinations; they come together, ultimately, and combine to sing of the vision of hope and regeneration they have for the future of their community. The piece was titled Threading Time.
When approached to work on collected stories of Veterans, resident at the Armed Forces Retirement Home, and create lyrics to be set to music for presentation, I thought I was prepared for the energies I would find contained in tales of military service. -Far from it! The AFRH is a unique repository of history, and in my journey to find the most direct connections of lyric to sentiment, and keep intact the visceral content of the veteran’s stories, I am constantly stunned by the ability of these service personnel to speak of the largest canvas of conflict [WWII, the Korean War, Vietnam], with the most individual nuances of understanding, describing the instant of watching life taken, or highlighting the permanent unease with digesting the smell and texture of unaccustomed foods! The stories I’m working with contain the “wonderment” in surviving beyond the ordinary, and often look at the individuals left at home, who will never comprehend what has passed, but will continue in their lives, safe and whole. I went to the AFRH this past Saturday, and was able to meet some of the Vets whose stories are in the collection I was working from; they are enthusiastic at having their tales put to song, and are grateful that years of silence have found connection to the present, offering opportunity of Witness. This will occur on the 9th December 2010, in the presentation called Songs for the Unsung, which will be held at the AFRH, in DC. One example, of the stories involved in this program, is by a soldier who was in an engagement on the Roer River, in Germany, where he watched so many men he knew, drown. That was in 1946. In 1958 he returned, with his wife, to the exact spot. In the story he relates his thoughts, which went back to that day in 1946; attached to the story, his wife has written her own brief paragraph of that moment in 1958, and comments on the gentle German gentleman, on a bicycle, who tipped his hat, and gave a warm “Guten tag” to them as he passed. She had no idea that her husband was not in the same paradigm; no idea that, at that exact instant, he saw the faces of comrades, gone. Being able to present this, as lyric, is incredible opportunity, knowing how music can present both sides, simultaneously, and let the audience feel the shiver, and the tear of the moment. Double Nickels Theatre Company have created the “reminiscence” opportunities for the Vets, and the collaboration with WNO now enriches a narrative of community, enlarging the arena in which the story of song is celebrated and performed.