After the Fires (cycle)
music by Lembit Beecher, text by Liza Balkan
1. Animals – mezzo, clarinet and piano
2. Go Bag – soprano, mezzo, baritone, clarinet and piano
3. 26 Goats and a Donkey – soprano and piano
4. Firebreak – soprano, baritone, clarinet and piano
5. After the Fires – mezzo and piano
6. Rebuilding when you are 80 – baritone, clarinet and piano
7. The Canopy is Gone – soprano, mezzo and piano
soprano, mezzo, baritone, clarinet and piano
duration: 27 Minutes
The song cycle “After the Fires” was commissioned and premiered by the Brooklyn Art Song Society on May 6, 2022. The song “After the Fires” was commissioned by Sasha Cooke and premiered by Sasha and pianist Kirill Kuzmin on January 30th, 2022.
In August 2020 a ferocious wildfire ripped through Bonny Doon, California, the semi-rural community where I grew up and where my parents still live. These days fires have become frighteningly commonplace across California, particularly in the late summer and early fall, but this one touched especially close to home. My parents’ house was spared but Bonny Doon lost close to a third of its houses including many belonging to our friends. Elementary school classmates of mine, now grown up, stayed behind to fight the fire with hand tools, walkie-talkies, and improvised equipment, posting updates online. I was on the East Coast during this time, following the events through their Facebook posts, as well as Twitter threads and satellite heat maps, feeling helpless and distant, uncertain of the fate of our house, but in other ways oddly and randomly well-informed. After spending so much time imagining our home burning and worrying about the toll the evacuation was taking on my not-young parents, it was a strange experience to return later in the fall to find the little nook around my parents’ house mostly unchanged except for a layer of white ash dusted across the ivy, ferns and redwoods.
That fall, as librettist Liza Balkan and I began to talk about writing a song cycle together, I sent her all sorts of information about the fires: videos, tweets, interviews, articles, and my own informal writing. Liza then began interviewing my parents, their neighbors, old elementary school friends of mine, and other residents of Bonny Doon, refining, culling, re-forming and combining these words into poems of sorts. Something about this process of retelling seemed right for an event that I myself only experienced second-hand. Though many of us in 2020 and 2021 had to face calamity and great loss straight on, I think even more of us experienced the world in an oddly oblique manner, one step removed, wondering how to make sense of things, imagining worst-case scenarios, marveling both at the fickle nature of the world and the bravery and perseverance of others. Some of the songs in this cycle are about action and the moments of being in the swirling middle of things, but others are about near-misses, being touched only peripherally by the unfolding events.