Bi-Co Chamber Singers Help Create, Premiere New Work About This Challenging Year
Composer Scott Ordway and Nathan Zullinger, conductor of the Chamber Singers of Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges, met at a concert in early March, just days before the country began to shut down. In a follow-up conversation in May, Ordway proposed an audio-visual project that could be taught and performed completely online, if necessary.
“I wasn’t sure what to think,” Zullinger recalls. “It was such an overwhelming time, but Scott had the foresight to realize that our options for creativity were going to be limited going forward. He chose to focus on the possible, rather than what had been lost.”
Zullinger felt that it was important to engage other schools in the project. Not only would it protect the participating groups against an unknown fall membership, but it would also offer an opportunity for several schools of similar size and scope to work together toward a common goal. By the end of the summer, Hamilton College and Swarthmore College had agreed to join Haverford and Bryn Mawr in the commission. Each school faced their own challenges: Charlotte Botha, conductor at Hamilton, had just arrived for her first year of employment; Joseph Gregorio, conductor at Swarthmore, and himself an accomplished composer, was teaching completely online for the fall semester.
At the start of the fall semester, nearly 100 singers from all four colleges were asked to complete the sentence “One year ago today, I did not know that...”. Ordway then compiled their responses into a final text and completed the composition in early October. The choirs immediately began preparing the music with an aim to finish the recording process by Thanksgiving. Each singer prepared six recordings, aided only by a click track and their intensive preparation with their respective conductor. Gregorio commented that the completed score "allows performers and listeners alike a chance to reflect on the trying, tumultuous year 2020 has been." Many students found the experience cathartic and a means of processing a story that continues to unfold.
From the beginning, the visual element was an important part of the project. Originally, Ordway planned to create the visuals himself and use mostly footage of student performers. But as time went by, it became clear that it would be far more effective to capture the viewpoint of each individual singer. Ultimately, the singers were given a series of eight prompts for which they could shoot original footage or submit videos they had shot at some point during the year. In this way they functioned as authors, videographers, and performers in the same project.
“In a time where our ability to connect with each other has suffered greatly, learning and composing this collaborative piece helped me regain a sense of togetherness,” said Cole Roland ‘21, president of the Bi-Co Chamber Singers. “Even recording alone in my room, I was able to feel the experiences of each person who contributed to the text through their words and the music which accompanied them. The struggles and joys which we have had largely in isolation are shared through the powerful medium of music.”
“As a teacher, I believe that creativity and the creation of new work can be a part of every student's training,” said Ordway, “whether they study composition, performance, education, or a non-musical subject.”
In all, students submitted nearly 1,600 audio and video files, which were processed and edited by Ordway with Frankfurt-based engineer Alexander Brusencev and two research assistants from Rutgers University, Mateo Urgilés and Kimberlee Sibilia. The raw materials were prepared and submitted by the end of November. Ordway and his team then worked tirelessly to assemble the finished work, titled Twenty/Twenty.
In the end, as Hamilton conductor Charlotte Botha noted,”[We were] reaching across vast distances to form a connected, stretched-out ensemble of strangers. Twenty/Twenty is our space of consonance and dissonance; our pain, our pride, our care, and our gratitude.” The idea of connection in a time of isolation was also an inspiration to composer Scott Ordway: “Through this project, we have formed a large community of musicians and designed a structure through which we can directly collaborate with one another in ways that would have been unimaginable just a few months ago.”
“I am very thankful to have been a part of making and recording Twenty/Twenty during this unprecedented time,” said Bi-Co Chamber Singers soprano Jordan Polster ‘23. “In a year in which almost all live performances have had to be canceled, it brought me great joy to be a part of the music-making.”