Mending Wall – How PRISM Saxophone Quartet Joined Forces with Soprano Tony Arnold for a Unique Musical Journey

By Chris Ruel

On March 21- 23, PRISM saxophone quartet will celebrate its 35th anniversary by presenting “Mending Wall,” a fully staged production exploring the meaning of walls in our world. The performances will be presented in Pennsylvania at the Bryn Mawr Performing Arts Center on March 21 and 22 before coming to New York’s Roulette on the 23rd.

Soprano Tony Arnold and pianist Arturo O’Farrill are the principal narrators of the production, both reciting poetry throughout, and then joining PRISM in musical performances of one work each: Arnold singing George Lewis’ piece, and O’Farrill joining the quartet on piano, playing his own composition. Other composer collaborators include Juri Seo, and Martin Bresnick. The commissioned works use the poems of Robert Frost, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Waly Salomão, and Guillermo Gómez-Peña.

Opera stage director Jorinde Keesmaat and lighting designer Aaron Copp round out the creative collaborators for what PRISM’s Executive and Co-Artistic Director Matthew Levy described as the quartet’s most ambitious project to date due to its curatorial scope, production scale, and interdisciplinary breadth.

In a written response to questions regarding the production, 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.”

Genesis

Asked about the genesis of the 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. During the discussion with Bresnick, Levy asked the composer if he had ideas for a new piece. 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. Consider the Berlin Wall as an excellent example of a wall that became a space for public art. “Mending Wall” embraces the ambiguity.

Over the course of the year following the discussion with Bresnick, PRISM pulled together a team of nationally prominent artists. Levy stated that the ensemble made a conscious decision to depart from their sphere of regular collaborators and bring in all new people representing distinct points of view, musical styles, and orientations towards history and culture.

He went on to point out that “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.

Composer George Lewis was personal friends with South African poet Keorapetse “Willie” Kgositsile (1938 – 2018), having met him Chicago while in exile during the apartheid regime. Lewis recalled how he had worked with Kgositsile’s poems for many years and views his contribution to “Mending Wall” as an homage to his friend, a man who went on to become the Poet Laureate of South Africa.

“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 an 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.

 

 

Embracing Ambiguity

The cultural implications of wall-building is top of mind among many in the United States, but of all the programs PRISM might have assembled to mark the ensemble’s 35th anniversary, the decision to focus on the topic of walls arose out of saxophone quartet literature being dominated by mid-20th century French conservatory music with little connection to contemporary American life, Levy wrote.

“‘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,” he stated. “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 her championing of contemporary music and as a force within the realm of chamber music and art song.

O’Farrill comes from the world of jazz. In 2007, he founded the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance and has traveled to Cuba regularly 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. In this case, the company will be working with opera director, Jorinde Keesmaat, who was named Director in Residence at National Sawdust – New York this past February and has taken on a wide range of repertory that spans Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte” to contemporary operatic works such as composer/librettist Angélica Negrón’s “Chimera.” Keesmaat’s style is akin to that of a jazz musician, Levy stated in a Pew Center for Arts & Heritage interview. “Her experimentation with different formations and movements are like spinning out variations on a musical theme to find its best iteration.”

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 creating a “quadraphonic effect for the audience.” As a production, “Mending Wall” will have sights and sounds coming at the audience from multiple directions while Gina Colacci’s costumes consist of matching wigs and overstuffed suits placed over harnesses. Levy describes these as being Stephen Sondheim meets Stephen King.

Levy and PRISM embraced the ambiguity of walls, allowing the composers to consider their meaning in any manner they chose.

With its musical tapestry, “Mending Wall” remixes musical and cultural traditions. Levy describes “Mending Wall” as a celebration of the power of coming together, of embracing the stranger, and the restoration of generosity in interpersonal encounters.

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