Westminster Choir, the high profile 46-member ensemble at Westminster Choir College of Rider University, adds a new dimension to concert-going in a performance on Monday, January 30, at Richardson Auditorium. Home from a tour of five southeastern states, the choir gives Princetonians a present by repeating the program presented on the road. Tickets are free, but seats must be reserved. The conductor is Joe Miller, director of choral activities at Westminster, who manages its eight different singing ensembles. The concert is part of Princeton’s Memory and the Work of Art initiative involving many area organizations — the goal is to cut across the boundaries between visual and performing art by focusing on a common theme.
The Westminster Choir has embraced the Memory and the Work of Art initiative by devising a novel way to intensify the musical experience through promoting a sense of community between performers and listeners. Miller, along with Anne Sears, director of external affairs, and Jessica Franko, creative services manager, have christened their approach “Giving Voice to Community.”
Sears explains: “Each time we perform we create a new community — a community composed of the choir and the audience. For those few hours we share an experience, a connection, a moment in time. We may enter the concert hall as strangers, and we may never see each other again, but for those few hours we are a community connected through music.
“In a concert you don’t find out about other audience members. They might be cancer survivors, or people who just wanted to have good time. But they share an experience. And during a good performance those former strangers are breathing together,” says Sears in a conference call with Miller from Knoxville, Tennessee, the next-to-last stop on the southern tour, and as it happens, Miller’s hometown.
The inspiration for “Giving Voice to Community,” they explain, comes from two sources, the “Anthropological Wordsmith Picture Show,” a project at Trenton’s “Art All Night” event last year and “StoryCorps,” a National Public Radio project, where individuals talk about meaningful experiences in their past (the recordings are archived in the American Folklife Center at Washington’s Library of Congress).
Artist/photographer Andrew Wilkinson and portrait photographer Benoit Cortet, the creators of the “Anthropological” project, invited “Art All Night” attendees to be photographed with one word of their choice. They provided no instruction as to what the word should represent. The resulting photos, a rapid-fire series of still images with single words, created a mood of vibrant, teeming humanity.
Miller devised a way to use the methods of the “Anthropological” project to support Westminster’s commitment to Princeton’s “Memory and the Work of Art” theme. “I was intrigued by the Anthropological Project,” he says. “I couldn’t believe the reaction.” He began to brainstorm how to incorporate it into a choral concert.
“We’re trying to define memory through sound,” he says. “We’re trying to have choral music be part of the community. We want to have no wall between performers and the audience.”
During the choir’s southern tour, Miller extended the “Anthropological” recipe. Here’s how it works: “We ask people, as they come to the concert, to reflect on life, and to boil it down to one word,” Miller says. “It’s interesting to see the commonalities of words, and to see how people describe themselves along lines like ethnicity and age.”
Before each concert, and at intermission, members of the audience are invited to participate by writing on paper a single-word description of themselves at the time of the concert. Choir members have also participated.
Each person is photographed with his or her chosen word. All the photos are shown in a slide show in the lobby as concertgoers leave. The slide shows are uploaded to the Westminster website.
Details about making final, archival versions of the slide shows have yet to be worked out. The intention is to create a video from the slide shows and to add excerpts of music from the concert program. The editor of the slide shows has not yet been designated.
A final video is planned to be uploaded to YouTube and the Westminster website. “We tell the participants that we’ll notify them when the story is posted,” Miller says. “We’re being Kodaly and Bartok.”
“The single word is very expressive,” Sears says. “Some participants write in an unusual script. They hold the paper with their word differently. They have different facial expressions. One person chose the word ‘defiant.’ There was no doubt after seeing how he held the paper with the word, that he was defiant.”
Those who have not yet joined in by intermission may select their word at that time. However, the present rules of procedure do not permit changing a word that has been chosen before the beginning of the concert.
As for the “StoryCorps” connection to “Giving Voice to Community,” Miller says, “Even though (StoryCorps) participants use an event, rather than single word, you come away with a single impression. It’s like boiling the experience down to one word — like meeting someone and feeling the essence of that person. When we step out on stage, we get sense of who we are — when you leave the experience, you have a single sense of it.”
Miller sees the completed video as useful not only for breaking down the barrier between performers and audience, but also for dissolving the distance between choral music and society. “Choral music,” he says, “comes from the community, rather than from a composer in isolation. The primary use of the videos will be to fulfill the mission of breaking down the wall between the choir and the community.” He sees the completed video as an artwork in its own right.
Titled “Light of a Clear Blue Morning,” the program draws on sources from our global heritage for its first half. The second half focuses on the American experience. The title comes from the Dolly Parton piece with which the program concludes. “The piece talks about healing and creates a southern American landscape,” Miller says. “That’s why we chose it for our southern tour.”
Except for two pieces, the entire program is sung without instrumental accompaniment. The instrumentalists, when needed, come from the choir. Piano, piccolo, and percussion are used.
The program includes two pieces by choir members, “Passion” by Daniel Elder, and “Love and Light” by Thomas La Voy. Elder, a graduate student in composition, sets a text that depicts the crucifixion, as experienced by Jesus. An experienced composer, he has written for a variety of musical combinations. His 2011 piece for the Westminster Choir was picked up by Britain’s Abbey Road recording studio, founded in 1931. Elder is one of eight winners of the Abbey Road Studios 80th Anniversary Competition.
La Voy, a junior composition major, uses a poem written by his mother. The text tells of the vulnerability of a parent who comforts a child at night.
The Westminster Choir is selected by audition from students at Westminster Choir College. It has been the chorus-in-residence for the Spoleto Festival USA since 1977. This season it sings with the New York Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic, and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Miller’s program notes for the January 30 concert show a perspective that goes beyond an evening’s entertainment. “This concert seeks to connect us in a way that goes beyond words,” he writes. “Music has the power to bring people together, even though our politics, language, and customs are diverse.”
Westminster Choir, Westminster Choir College, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Monday, January 30, 7:30 p.m. “Light of a Clear Blue Morning: Sound and Memory,” a welcome home concert, is conducted by Joe Miller. Audience members will have the opportunity to participate in “Giving Voice to the Community,” a project that explores the relationship between music, memory, and community. Free but register. 609-921-2663 or www.rider.edu.