7. Holding On
chamber orchestra and recorded audio
poetry by Christopher Santiago
Interviews conducted by Todd Lawrence and Lembit Beecher, featuring the voices of 47 residents of the Twin Cities
instrumentation: 2(II dbl. picc).2.1.2-188.8.131.52-perc-sampler-strings
duration: 35 minutes
Say Home was commissioned by The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra with the support of Jack and Linda Hoeschler and Fred and Gloria Sewell for premiere at the Tapestry19 Festival, February 22-24, 2019 at Ordway Concert Hall in Saint Paul, MN.
Video of the premiere (free but registration required)
Commissioned by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Say Home arose through a collaborative process centered around a basic question: “how do we recognize, define, and create home for ourselves in the 21st century?” At the core of the piece are samples taken from 47 recorded interviews about the idea of home that were conducted specifically for this project in the spring of 2018 throughout Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota. I had previously written a number of works using interviews as source material, including an oratorio based on my grandmother’s stories, but in this project I wanted to expand this approach to a larger community, allowing the voices to speak to each other, sometimes stitched together in chorus and sometimes responding to each other in dialogue. From the beginning I knew I wanted to incorporate two different types of spoken reflections on home: poetry and informal conversation, so the SPCO commissioned a poem from the outstanding Filipino-American poet Chris Santiago, which dealt with identity, belonging, and the many ways that home is defined in both English and other languages. Most striking to me was the way Chris’s poem uses different languages to put the reader in the position of being an outsider to someone else’s sense of home.
To develop an interview script and conduct the interviews, I worked with Todd Lawrence, ethnographer and Professor of English at the University of Saint Thomas, alongside Paul Finkelstein from the SPCO. Todd was the principal interviewer for this project as well as being an invaluable resource, connecting the SPCO and me to community partners and helping us consider ethical questions raised in the interviewing process. We conducted interviews with individuals of all ages and from diverse backgrounds, speaking to people at community centers across the Twin Cities including the East Side Freedom Library, American Swedish Institute, Wellstone International High School, University of Saint Thomas, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Urban Office, the Offices of the SPCO, and the Saint Paul mayor’s office.
The interviews involved two parts: we asked a series of open-ended questions about home and we asked the interviewees to read Chris’s poem, once at the beginning of the interview and once at the end. These readings of the poem became the outer movements while the reflections and stories that emerged in response to the questions inspired the middle movements. As I listened through the interview recordings again and again, I compiled long lists of themes, tracking connections and contradictions across people’s answers. The arc of the piece gradually became the arc of a life, beginning with stories of heritage and ancestry in movement two, earliest memories in movement three, and continuing to stories of old age and death in movement seven.
The interviews were full of fascinating and thoughtful responses, but also cliches—I think it is impossible to talk about home without using cliches—and one of the most interesting things about listening to the interviews was the chance to compare the way different people said essentially the same thing. For example, a favorite line was “home is people not place.” I also loved the nuances of timbre and inflection in people’s descriptions of the food they most associate with home. These sorts of descriptions felt highly specific yet totally universal. I began the writing process by listening to these sorts of short phrases, composing music that either directly doubled the speech rhythms and pitches of the texts, or acted as a connective tissue that tied together multiple speaker’s words into a single phrase.
But as I worked and listened, something else began to emerge in the music. When people speak about home, they often speak in gentle, somewhat superficial terms. But I think this hides a fierceness that characterizes our deepest feelings towards home, whether home is something we treasure or something we seek. I think most of us would go to frightening lengths to protect our homes and those who reside in them and it is easy for home to become an ideal, a sense of what is right in the world, that we must hold on to tenaciously. For me, this thought is both beautiful and terrifying and in writing “Say Home,” I wanted the music to express this deep urgency towards home, at times passionate, insistent, and bold, at times melancholy and desperate, that I felt simmering beneath the surface of the interviews.
After I had composed about 8 minutes of music, the SPCO held a workshop for the piece to which we invited all the interviewees, soliciting feedback about the piece and my use of their words. It was surreal to speak with so many people who had opened up about their lives generously, many of whom I knew only through the sound of their voices (Todd conducted about two-thirds of the interviews alone). Despite being connected to a specific community, I hope that Say Home feels to listeners as immediate and universal as it does to me. I am deeply indebted to everyone who lent their energy, ideas and voices for this project.