What would happen if you were to pair six poets with six composers and tell them to create new poems set to music?
Columbus will get the answer to that question May 22 at 7 p.m. in the Short North’s Garden Theater when six new texted musical works by Columbus poets and composers are given their world premieres in a free concert marking the culmination of the innovative poetry and music commissioning project, The Big SCORE.
Created by Jack and Zoe Johnstone and funded by the Johnstone Fund for New Music, The Big SCORE features new work by poets Jeremy Glazier, Louise Robertson, Barbara Fant, Dionne Custer Edwards, Scott Woods and – in full disclosure – myself, and composers Charlie Wilmoth, Jennifer Merkowitz, Linda Kernohan, Michael Rene Torres, Jennifer Jolley and Mark Lomax II.
The Big SCORE follows on the heels of SCORE, an earlier project created by the Johnstones and supported by the Johnstone Fund for New Music, a musical “speed dating” event among Columbus composers and musical ensembles.
Jack Johnstone credits his wife, Zoe Johnstone, with the idea for The Big SCORE.
“Zoe got the idea, Wouldn’t it be just fantastic to find six poets and six composers and match them up and commission each of them to write a poem and a composition, and have a concert with those six pieces?’” Jack Johnstone said in a recent interview.
The Johnstones created lists of the poets and composers they know and, with the help of advisors, matched them in pairs.
“The purpose of that was to perhaps find a combination of poets and composers that might not have selected themselves,” Jack Johnstone said. “And I think it has worked out just brilliantly, actually, in terms of combining different styles and personalities of people.”
“I’m so excited that we got so many diverse people together,” Zoe Johnstone said. “I just am blown away by the project.”
“Something that is going to pop”
The Big SCORE’s seemingly unlikely pairings have resulted in six new works of texted music (poems set to music) that have surprised even the poets and composers who created them.
Composer Jennifer Merkowitz, associate professor of music at Otterbein University, was paired with poet Louise Robertson.
“Whenever you’re thrown into working with someone you’ve never met, you’re a little bit out of your comfort zone,” Merkowitz said. “So it’s an exciting journey to do the research of figuring out how you could make something that is going to pop.”
Like the five other pairs, Merkowitz and Robertson first had to decide upon a topic to explore in their new work. They decided to write about the separation of immigrant families at the southern U.S. border.
“This as an interesting topic,” Robertson said, “because at points it seemed to have an end, but then it didn’t end as a topic.”
Robertson wrote a series of four pantoums, poems with a set form of repeating lines, each from the point of view of a different inanimate object at an immigrant detention facility.
“I decided to become a witness in the scene without trying to speak for anyone by speaking from the points of view of inanimate objects in the room,” Robertson said. “That way I could rotate the point of view differently and have different slants on things, without trying to put words in somebody else’s mouth, to be as much of an observer as possible.”
In setting Robertson’s poems to music, Merkowitz explored the sound world of the inanimate objects that “speak” through the texts.
The resulting new work, At the Detention Center for Immigrant Children, is full of instrumental sounds that evoke the sound of pulling a shoelace out of a shoe, the buzz of a fluorescent lightbulb and construction work on a hypothetical border wall.
“The togetherness of this piece”
It was composer Jennifer Jolley, formerly on the faculty of Ohio Wesleyan University and now assistant professor of music at Texas Tech University, who suggested that she and her collaborator, poet Scott Woods, explore a different timely subject – the Me Too movement.
“I found the prospect daunting initially,” Woods said, “because it was really important to get this poem right. As a poet, I saw my purpose to be in service, ultimately, to a piece of music.”
Woods says he wrote his poem in the voices of multiple poetic speakers. Jolley set Woods’ text to be recited by the performing musicians.
“I wanted to make sure that multiple people or multiple voices were literally reciting this poem aloud during this piece,” Jolley said. “So just the idea of playing together as an ensemble, the togetherness of this piece is the thing that I wanted to bring to this work that Scott and I were working on together.”
Beyond the Headlines
The Me Too movement and the separation of immigrant families at the southern U.S. border are topics ripped straight from the headlines, but not all of The Big SCORE’s finished works address politically topical themes.
Poet Dionne Custer Edwards and composer Michael Rene Torres explored the juxtaposition of pain and beauty in our society’s challenging social issues. Poet Barbara Fant and composer Linda Kernohan’s new work is about love, loss and the mother-daughter bond that endures even when the mother is gone too soon.
Poet Jeremy Glazier and composer Charlie Wilmoth treated the myths and realities of stars as metaphors for the apparent disparities between actual and imagined truths.
My collaboration with composer Mark Lomax, II explored the timeless and universal theme of the special feeling of childhood friendships – especially those between girls and, later, women – carried into and through adulthood.
After hearing some of the finished works in their first rehearsal with CODE, Robertson says she’s impressed by the results of The Big SCORE’s seemingly unlikely poet-composer pairings.
“All of us work outside of the box all the time as artists,” Robertson said, “but this project was capitalizing on that, and I think it has just bloomed into something really wonderful.”