Mending Wall – How PRISM Saxophone Quartet Joined Forces with Soprano Tony Arnold for a Unique Musical JourneyBy Chris Ruel
This article has been updated from the original published on Mar. 6, 2020.
In February 2022, PRISM saxophone quartet will present the long-awaited world premiere of “Mending Wall,” a fully staged production that examines the meaning of walls and the questions surrounding identity, community, division, and freedom. The performances will be presented in Pennsylvania at the Bryn Mawr Performing Arts Center on Feb. 12, 2022 and in New York on Feb 14 at New York City’s Roulette.The original premiere was scheduled for March 2020 but was postponed because of the pandemic.
The program features soprano Tony Arnold and pianist Arturo O’Farrill, who serve as narrators, reciting poetry before joining PRISM in musical performances of four works: “Mending Time” by Martin Bresnick, “Where Her Eye Sits,”by George Lewis, “Unsung Lullaby” by Juri Seo, and “Something to declare? (yeah, fuck your wall)” by Arturo O’Farrill. The commissioned works are based on the poems and legacies of Robert Frost; South African poet and activist Keorapetse Kgositsile; Syrian-Brazilian writer Waly Salomão, and Mexican poet, Guillermo Gómez-Peña.
PRISM’s Executive and Co-Artistic Director Matthew Levy described “Mending Wall” as the quartet’s most elaborate project to date because of its curatorial scope, production scale, and interdisciplinary breadth.
In a written response to questions about the production prior to the show’s 2020 postponement, Levy stated, “‘Mending Wall’ is ambitious because it provides a platform for all of the artists involved to address the consequential nature of walls, which may serve as both objects and symbols of division.”
He went on to quote composer Martin Bresnick’s words in the program notes, writing, “…Walls and barriers must also have a passage through them or what lies within and without them will surely starve and die. For the great PRISM Quartet, I have written ‘Mending Time,’ a sounding wall to help, in a musical way, to light the lamp beside the golden door.’ Martin’s metaphor of a “sounding wall” beautifully captures our intent for the entire project.”
Levy pointed back to the days following the 2016 election and the Trump administration’s intention to build a wall along the southern border of the United States as the genesis of the project. During a discussion with Bresnick, Levy asked the composer if he had ideas for a new piece, and Bresnick expressed interest in exploring themes underlying Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall,” one of Levy’s favorites.
Frost’s poem presents walls as complex, serving both as symbols of hatred while at the same time affording protection from oppression. They block views but also provide a canvas upon which art can thrive. “Mending Wall” embraces the ambiguity.
After Bresnick and Levy’s conversation, PRISM pulled together a team of nationally prominent artists, making a conscious decision to depart from their sphere of regular collaborators and bring in all new people who represented distinct points of view, musical styles, and orientations towards history and culture.
“Mending Wall’ is PRISM’s first project centered around an extra-musical theme, as well as the first to incorporate text, voice, stage direction, costumes, and lighting design,” Levy stated.
A Look at George Lewis’ “Where Her Eye Sits”
Composer George Lewis was personal friends with South African poet Keorapetse “Willie” Kgositsile (1938 – 2018). The two met in Chicago where the poet lived in exile during the apartheid regime. Lewis views his contribution to “Mending Wall” as an homage to Kgositsile, who, after returning to South Africa, went on to become the country’s Poet Laureate.
“The content of the poem, ‘Where Her Eye Sits,’ related to PRISM’s theme of mending walls, the demise of apartheid and that regime, and the construction of a new vision of society,” Lewis told OperaWire in a February 2020 interview. “[The poem] is like a libretto and directs what happens in the piece. In this case, I wanted to look at the imagery of the poem and have sounds that would relate to that. I also wanted to give a sense of distress, foreboding, horror–things that come out in the poem. I wanted to have a sense of dynamism about the saxophone music and the voice blending to express in a way the meaning of the words. When you see a word like ‘blood,’ what does that bring up in your mind? It’s important to do that.
“I just wish he were here to hear it. Close friends will be able to hear it and they’ll appreciate keeping his work before the public and honoring him and his enormous place in the world of letters, the world of activism, and his courage; the courage with which he fought apartheid and overcame it through the power of words and his love of music. That’s why I did it.
“‘Mending Wall’ is part of a larger curatorial framing, delivering new works that tell a compelling musical story about our own time, place, and conditions,” Levy wrote. “Our instrument’s history speaks to ‘Mending Wall’s’ exploration of community, boundaries, and hybridity. The saxophone was invented for the 19th-century military band as a cross between woodwind and brass. A historical outcast in classical music, it has been championed and elevated by African American artists and embraced by music-makers around the globe. ‘Mending Wall’ reflects our need to continue growing, and reimagining what a concert experience can be.”
Guest artists, Soprano Tony Arnold and pianist/composer Arturo O’Farrill, serve as what Levy describes as the musical protagonists at the center of the action.
Arnold is known for championing contemporary music and as a force within the realm of chamber music and art song, while O’Farrill comes from the world of jazz. In 2007, he founded the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance and traveled regularly to Cuba as an informal cultural ambassador.
In addition to Arnold and O’Farrill joining with PRISM to create “Mending Wall,” the production represents the first time the ensemble has engaged a stage director, costumer, and lighting designer to present a large-scale work.
The company worked with opera director, Jorinde Keesmaat, who is Director in Residence at National Sawdust. In a Pew Center for Arts & Heritage interview, Levy noted that Keesmaat’s style is akin to that of a jazz musician, saying, “Her experimentation with different formations and movements are like spinning out variations on a musical theme to find its best iteration.”
Separation and Ambiguity
The idea of separation is part of the “Mending Wall” multi-sensory experience. Levy speaks of separation and the breaking down of barriers within the performance space as a “quadraphonic effect for the audience,” as they experience sights and sounds from multiple directions.
Levy and PRISM embraced the ambiguity of walls, allowing the composers to consider their meaning in any manner they chose.
With its musical tapestry and embracement of walls as ambiguous structures, “Mending Wall” remixes musical and cultural traditions that Levy describes as a celebration of coming together, of embracing the stranger, and of the restoring the generosity in interpersonal encounters.