For 150 years, the Yale Glee Club has existed as an institution; it is part of Yale University, also part of New Haven, Connecticut. In writing this piece, I wanted to express the questions faced by a YGC singer living in today's New Haven. Is it a divided city? To which community (or communities) is a Yale student responsible? How do these local questions relate to the geopolitical education a student comes to Yale to receive? Does a musician in the Glee Club - or a composer writing for the Glee Club - have the ability to communicate their experience in New Haven through music?
I was drawn to a passage from Parallels and Paradoxes, a book of conversations about music and society between Palestinian-American theorist and cultural critic Edward Said and Argentine-Israeli conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim. This exchange took place in New York in 1996:
SAID: One thing that is going around in this country, unfortunately, is a sort of amnesia about the fact that the United States is really an immigrant society, and always has been. And the attempts made recently to declare that America is one thing and not another, and the quarrel over what is the American tradition, and what is the canon, and what are the unifying aspects of America is a conversation that makes me deeply uncomfortable, because it can turn into a kind of imported sense of nationalism... It has very little to do with the quite volatile and turbulent and finally, to me, deeply attractive aspects of America, which are that it's a society continually in a state of flux, continually in a state of unsettlement, rather than something that is given and formed once and for all... [P]laces like the university or the orchestra - those places in the arts and sciences where one's life is given over to an ideal - should be places of exploration rather than places of simple affirmation and consolidation...
BARENBOIM: ...How can you explain that market globalization makes everything the same?... And yet political conflicts and national conflicts are deeper and pettier than ever before. Why is that?
SAID: Well, there are two reasons. The first is the reaction against global homogenization. One way to defend yourself against the sense of an all-encompassing global atmosphere - represented by America, to most people - is to return to comfortable symbols of the past. In the Islamic world, for example, more people are wearing traditional dress, not necessarily as a form of piety, but as a way of affirming an identity that resists this global wave.
Second is the legacy of empires. In the case of the British, whenever they were forced to leave a place, they divided it up. It happened in India. It happened in Palestine. It happened in Cyprus. It happened in Ireland. The idea of partition as a quick way of solving the problem of multiple nationalities. It's like someone telling you, "Okay, the way to learn a piece of music is to divide it into tinier and tinier units, and then suddenly you can put it all together." It doesn't work that way. When you divide something up, it's not so easy to put it all back together.
Both of these factors have produced xenophobia and identity conflict, which are endemic to modernity and very dangerous.
Said's pronouncements about social partitions are as true as they are vague: "When you divide something up, it's not so easy to put it all back together." The piece I have written opens with a setting of this text that is very repetitive, but begins from the middle of the phrase and gradually works its way outward: "easy... easy... so easy.... not so easy.... not so easy to...." This opening movement is put together through a pronounced cutting and pasting of short fragments of material - including one bombastic chord lifted from Mahler's 9th Symphony and dropped into the texture over and over. (Mahler of course had his own bit of New Haven history, having conducted at Woolsey Hall in 1910).
The second movement departs from Said and focuses instead on a found text - the names of streets and businesses collected while traveling a 1.5-mile stretch of road in New Haven last summer. This route goes from one end of town to the other through several different neighborhoods, culminating at Hendrie Hall, the building on campus where the Yale Glee Club rehearses. These places go by without much feeling, as if being passed in a car. Gran Rodeo is next to Porky's Bail Bonds, next to Arroyo's Package Store. Avellino's Apizza is down the street; Zolio's European Deli is blocks away; Harold's Formal Wear and the Public Library are on the other side of the train tracks. The music gets louder as we reach Hendrie Hall - this is where the singing happens.
The third movement sets Said's words about music itself: "It's like someone telling you, 'the way to learn a piece of music is to divide it up into tinier units, then suddenly you can put it all back together.' It doesn't work that way." I found this to be an ambiguous comparison because sometimes this is precisely the way to learn a piece of music! (After diligently practicing small passages, you are indeed better prepared to put them all back together, but Said seems to be implying the magic of the whole piece can only be achieved by learning it as a unified item.) Here, the orchestra trembles and swells on a single quiet chord, a texture made up of each instrument repeating its own short phrase at a different speed. The choir sings only nine chords, divided up and sequenced in different orders. By constructing this movement as an assemblage of tiny movable parts with no “correct” order, I intended to explore the ambiguity of Said’s statement about the relationship of music to political conflict.
The fourth movement sets texts from the same New Haven route - this time starting at the other end of town and leading along a thoroughfare back to Hendrie Hall. This movement is more of a walking tour. Melodic musical fragments with soulful inflection are set against stacked vertical sonorities, punched out in a repetitive rhythmic pattern. Just as urban design plans of the past have been undertaken on top of each other, resulting in a unique and sometimes awkward cultural patchwork in these neighborhoods, these sonorities are made up of overlapping units that shift note- by-note throughout the piece.
The final movement features the choir divided in two, slowly and evenly repeating the same word: easy. In the middle of this movement, the double basses take on the challenge of fusing an imitative passage into a single unified rhythm.
New Haven is certainly a segregated city, but because of the presence of a massive research institution (Yale), it is as studied in segregation as it is segregated. There is a certain kind of academic focus on these issues that, even while aggrieving the socioeconomic divisions within a city, nonetheless serves to strengthen them. To assume the role of examiner is to be inherently divisive, even when (especially if?) your stated goal is to "understand" the root cause of such divisions, or "work toward" their loosening.
I know that when I lived in New Haven I was a textbook embodiment of this contradiction. There were neighborhoods to which I hardly ever went, and I was very conscious of that fact, very conscious of economic disparity, very conscious of the relationship between the town and the gown. It was almost as if that consciousness was enough to make me feel like I was actually participating; but of course, I wasn’t. It only increased my passivity, and strengthened the partitions in my own head.
the YGC and YSO will perform "partition" April 8 in Carnegie Hall.
visit http://www.tedhearne.com/ for more.
design for amazing graphic above: Emily Weidenhof