Composer Spotlight On: Marisa Michelson…Cultivating Spiritual Movement in Music Drama
At the heart of Michelson’s compositional process is Constellation Chor, a process-oriented experimental voice ensemble founded by Michelson, whose mission it is to research and explore “performer as a presence-cultivator, truth-seeker, shaman, and the performance as an invitation to enter into an intimate, heightened, and revelatory relationship with the moment and each other.” Initiated in 2016, she has led this closely-knit ensemble through a series of methods and expressions which include meditation, inner-development, and deep listening as a means to generate new musical material from a place of mindful attention and spontaneity.
Michelson’s 2013 off-Broadway musical, Tamar of the River, was noted by New York Magazine as “One of the most extraordinary new scores in years.” Since that time, Michelson has tackled multiple projects, including Namaah’s Ark, a dramatic oratorio co-written with Pulitzer Prize winning librettist Royce Vavrek, which was commissioned by New York’s Master Voices (formerly known as the Collegiate Chorale). New York audiences will have the opportunity to experience this exciting retelling of the traditional ark story from the perspective of Noah’s wife, Namaah, which will feature Tony-Award winner Victoria Clark this coming June as part of Lower Manhattan's "River to River Festival." Michelson’s latest musical, One Thousand Nights and One Day, co-written with playwright Jason Grote, is a reimagining of Arabian Nights with a contemporary update set in NYC between a Jewish man and a Palestinian woman. Fans of her writing, can catch this new offering which will open off-Broadway Spring 2018.
Perhaps Michelson’s most daring venture to date is her Desire/Divinity Project, an ongoing three piece work scored for fifteen singers, bansuri flute, melodica, cello and percussion. Michelson describes it as a work that lives in between a live music video, an oratorio, an opera, and a ritual. Michelson shares how Part 1 of this trilogy, "Song of Song of Songs," explores the relationship between the sensual and the sacred, the body and the spirit, through an exegesis of the Western world’s oldest erotic poem, Song of Songs. Part II,"Sappho Fragments," works with the fragments of Sappho’s poetry that still remain, and Part III, "The Farnearness," draws from the lives of remarkable women of Christianity in the early part of the eleventh century such as Hildegard of Bingen. Under the expert direction and movement direction of Ethan Heard (Co-Artistic Director of Heartbeat Opera) and Emma Crane Jaster, Parts I and II will be experienced in just a few days, at New York’s Judson Memorial Church February 1-3, 2018.
SIO Chair, Isai Jess Muñoz, recently sat down with Ms. Michelson, who took time to share on her wholistic writing process, that is breaking the boundaries of formal convention, and encouraging audiences to reflect on the complexities of humanity’s relationship with otherworldly discussion.
Sacred in Opera: What does spirituality mean to you in relation to your work?
Marisa Michelson: It means I am an explorer; I am curious. When I am composing, I am communicating differently with Life, with myself, with the other humans in the room, or those who will sing and play the work. I am also committed to social justice, to equal rights, and making the world a better place–– though I don’t often address this in my work directly (for many reasons), those things are somehow connected to my sense of spirituality.
SIO: Why have you chosen to utilize the genres of oratorio and sacred opera?
MM: Terms such as experimental musical, opera, oratorio––they exist on a cultural level. I see them as “fun containers” for a spiritual experience, but I am not attached to these forms. For example, I enjoy oratorio because it is a genre that calls upon the listener’s imagination. In my oratorio, Naahmah’s Ark, we tell this giant, fantastical story with limited staging and set pieces, which requires the audience to actively collaborate and fill in the blanks. It’s no place for the sedentary onlooker, and I just love that!
Some of my pieces may be considered operas, and I appreciate how that term communicates that my works are dramatic, and that music plays the central role. But regardless of the genre I choose to employ, there is always a search for transcendence. I do want to be clear that transcendence for me is not like flying high in the sky––it is deeply rooted, it is connected to reality, it is honoring the full spectrum of what it is to be human.
SIO: When did you begin composing?
MM: I started singing and studying piano at four years old, and at nine years old I was composing piano pieces––which was empowering! I want to acknowledge my virtuosic piano teacher, Eugenie Malek, for encouraging me to follow my musical bliss, even as she gave me a strong classical foundation. As funny as it may sound, I remember that in middle school I felt as though I was at some kind of musical emotional crossroads, and that’s when I began to compose songs with voice and text. It was then that writing began to feel like a portal into an entirely new way of being in time and space. I wanted to be in that space all the time! That’s when the discipline began to have real purpose for me.
Like many other young people in their teenage years, I was mesmerized by angsty songs focused on the pain of being alive. I felt a lot, and always intensely; I wrote about the Holocaust, and about not knowing how to trust, and even about nostalgia (funny for a 13 year old). Certainly being Jewish and learning about the holocaust from an extremely young age was a huge part of my upbringing. My father, who is a poet, wrote about the Jewish experience. As a 13 year old, I met Holocaust survivors while traveling around singing in the children’s opera, Brundibar, which had been written in the Terezin concentration camp. My Jewish heritage has been a formative part of my life.
When I was fifteen I attended the NYU Musical Theatre Writing summer program, and that’s when I learned I could write songs for the theatre. I first wrote about a school shooting––Columbine had just happened and the pain of that was living inside me at the time. Shortly thereafter, I wrote my first full-length musical theatre piece about McCarthyism.
SIO: How would you describe yourself today as a composer?
MM: I am an artist who wants to get to know the world intimately. I want to enter each moment with openness and curiosity and be awake to the mystery of the relationship between the vastness of life and myself.
SIO: Other than Sacred elements, are there other connecting threads in the stories you’ve selected to set to music?
MM: I’m often writing about strong women who are at the center of their own stories making powerful choices. This has always been natural to me, though it wasn’t conscious at first. I enjoy making women the center of stories that revolve around one’s relationship to spirit. Often when women are featured it’s in relation to men––and often within the paradigm of heteronormativity. In the Desire/Divinity Project, the women (and men) are sexually empowered humans -- not pop-star sexually empowered, but humans whose sexuality is nuanced and multi-hued, and an extension of seeing the center and fullness of another person. I also play with gender fluidity and explore qualities we sometimes call masculine and feminine, as they live inside of everyone.
I often work with biblical figures that I see as archetypes, because in this way I can get in touch with my own ancestors, and draw from the depths of the past to access something that is beyond myself. Indeed I find that historical narratives broaden my sense of self, so that my perspective widens and I may create material that feels beyond me.
SIO: In the context of art as a reflection of the times, are your works in any way intending to leave very personal, ethical, and moral questions to be answered by the listener?
MM: Perhaps they encourage questions, I don’t know. I am interested in providing an expanded sense of ourselves as humans, and an expanded sense of what we imagine is possible in our future. I am interested in Kairos (as opposed to Chronos) - a sense of time that is less linear. A sense of time which feels at once the ancestors of the past and our ancestors of the future. Who will we become as humans? What does our future feel like? That experience of connection can be become present in listening to music, even if it can’t be articulated or fully understood with words.
SIO: What are some of the things you consider when writing for the human voice?
MM: First there is my own personal process of singing––in addition to composing, I’m also a vocalist, and singing is a central part of my writing practice. I’ve been most influenced by the approach of the Libero Canto School of Singing - It’s a set of guiding principles created by Lajos Szamosi in Budapest, before the Second World War. The thing that fascinates me most about Szamosi’s methodology, is that it asks the engagement of the whole human being: the singer cannot be separated from the person’s emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual life. As someone who chooses to engage with singing in this way as a singer, writer and teacher, I’m looking for what is alive inside of the sound created. When the soul comes out through the singing… that is the most exciting thing. I want to write music that invites the singer’s soul!
SIO: Tell us more on how physical movement influences your compositional process.
MM: Absolutely! I work differently now than I used to. I need to be moving when I’m writing. I’ve also developed a strong need to be portable as a composer. I have a need to interact with the elements of nature. Sitting for hours on a piano bench began to feel too removed from the act of creation itself. I am now calling what I do “composing from the body.” I will often begin by drawing shapes on large pieces of paper and meditating on an idea, a concept, or some sensory stimuli. I try to invite the quality of that essence to imprint itself on my body and mind and I want to know that essence intimately. I then allow that imprint to fuel a vocal gesture. The length of this process varies, but it’s really not about time as much as attention, and about creating an internal space where I’m open to receiving ideas fully. If I’m present, it may only take 30 minutes before ideas come. But the longer I can play in that space, the better. he impulses that often come to me take on greater vitality when I’m moving my body to explore them. That’s why I founded the laboratory vocal ensemble, Constellation Chor.
Little children intuitively understand that there are many ways to communicate, explore, and be in the world––beyond verbal, beyond touch. I am learning to trust my inner child much more again, and I am beginning to understand that all the technical skills I’ve developed over the years are tools, but not the thing itself.
SIO: What are some of the ways you’ve played with notational process that we may be unfamiliar with?
MM: Hmmm.. perhaps one example, is a way I’ve scored breathing. I’ve used a symbol that looks like a little dove. I also experiment with scoring “intention.” For example, in one of my scores I wanted the listener to understand that the performers were improvising to create the sound of twinkling starts. Not only did I indicate the pitches, but I drew the music pictorially, so that the image on the page looks like a cluster of stars. I’ve also written about how the intention is just as important as pitches on the page. I have another piece that focuses around a rhythmic “heartbeat” pattern: I drew hearts over the staff and explained to performers that executing pitches accurately but without a feeling of energetic centering in the heart is not the music I wrote.
Notation is a map to get to the thing, but it is not the thing itself. (The map is not the territory.) It’s so easy to remain a pedant and be stuck in the regulations of the score, but to me, it is about so much more than simply what’s on the score. At the same time, I understand how important the score is - it’s where the information lies!
SIO: Are there fears that the future of the work you create may not have a life beyond your interpretations of it?
MM: I have thought about that a lot, and no, I don’t have that fear. I’m constantly asking myself what makes my work worthwhile. Is the work only worthwhile if seen by many people? How many? How long must “buzz” surrounding you and your work last in order for your output to be deemed valuable? I don’t feel like the more one’s work is sung, the more it matters. Who we are and what we do plants a seed. I don’t know how or if my works will live on or blossom into the future. What I know now is that something magical happens when I’m collaborating with people who understand what it is I am trying to say, and help me say it, and that to me is meaningful and important.
SIO: What have you discovered that audiences gain from works like yours that consciously usher in a wholistic practice of body mind, and spirit?
MM: I feel that the act of music making, whether through opera, oratorio, musical theatre… is a sort of ritual, much like praying or intention setting. It’s a way of ritualizing life. Ritual, storytelling, music-making, it’s all essential to how we make sense of our time here being alive. It’s also how we embody the experience of togetherness. This is tricky for me to talk about because language is limiting and it pigeonholes. That’s why I choose to talk about it through music, because music can be less limiting. It’s an invitation; no matter what you believe about ritual or spirit, I hope people can connect with my music in a way that I would describe as, yes, spiritual.
SIO: What would be some compositional or production suggestions that you would offer as guidelines for writing and consequently staging in sacred spaces and other specific spaces?
MM: It’s tricky, especially when text is involved because these spaces are often so ambient. Sometimes I think it would be better to use microphones, but then I miss the unamplified, unadorned human voice. I haven’t figured this aspect out yet, but what I do know, is I’m interested in where we place the audience in the space. How might we situate the audience in a way where they can hear competing polyphonic lines most most clearly? Part of what Ethan, Emma, the Chor and I have been exploring with the Desire/Divinity Project is how to provide audiences with that same experience that performers have of hearing the other singers right up close.
SIO: Is the Desire/Divinity Project the first piece where you’ve played with the traveling audience concept?
MM: It’s been something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time, and we’ve played with this notion in previous iterations. With Constellation Chor, I’ve been interested in inviting the audience to lie down, to sit or walk around, almost as if our concert were an installation where they can experience the sound from different spaces.
SIO: Where do you see your music going from here?
MM: I have plenty of projects on the horizon that I’m excited about. I’m continuing to work on the Desire/Divinity Project. Constellation Chor meets every week, and we continue to experiment with togetherness, listening, and form. I also have a new project, a kind of opera that I’m going to begin. I have not yet written a thing, but it’s a concept that I’m developing with choreographer Chase Brock and playwright Jillian Walker. In it, I wish to explore questions that are super relevant to our time about how we treat each other whose Truth is different from our Truth. I don’t want to say too much, but a major portion of the opera will deal with a faith-based community who must grapple with their convictions.
To learn more about Marisa Michelson’s exciting work visit:
About our Contributor:
Dr. Isai Jess Muñoz, tenor, serves as Chair and Senior Editor of the Sacred in Opera Initiative and Newsletter of the National Opera Association. As an active performer, he has appeared with The New York City Opera, The New York Philharmonic, The American Symphony Orchestra, Alvin Ailey Dance on Broadway, The Israel Philharmonic, The Verbier Festival and more. Dr. Muñoz is the recipient of numerous awards including the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts Career Grant for contributions to the dissemination of Iberian and Latin American Art Song. He holds degrees from the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, The Manhattan School of Music and from SUNY Stony Brook where he studied with W. Stephen Smith. Dr. Muñoz currently serves as Assistant Professor of Voice and Opera at the University of Delaware. He has formerly served on the teaching faculty of Indiana Wesleyan University, The Manhattan School of Music Pre-College Division, and Musiktheater Bavaria. Visit: www.JessMunoz.com
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