I will not lie to you, I did not think our Mass Transmission concerts were going to go well with our Dallas audience. Betty’s Notebook is a fascinating story, set in 1937, about a young Betty Klenck writing in her notebook what she believed was Amelia Earhart’s distress signals. We don’t know for sure whether the distress signals were real, but there are certain details that Betty writes which provide some credence to the notebook’s authenticity through circumstantial evidence. The piece of music itself, commissioned by Verdigris Ensemble and written by Nicholas Reeves, is not pleasant to listen to from an outsider’s point of view. It’s harmonies are gritty, containing many passages of polytonality (chords stacked on top of each other that create dissonant structures that feel alarming and out of the ordinary). The texture is almost always thick with up to 56 voice parts, pre-recorded and live, happening at once which makes it difficult to understand whats going on. The overall feel of the piece kept you on your feet and demanded your full attention for the entire 20-minute duration. Needless to say, in a city that has been exclusively programming beautiful and ear-pleasing choral music for over 25 years, this concert felt like choral punk rock and I thought the project would not be interpreted well. I was wrong.
Coming off of a successful first season comprised of primarily accessible choral music, Verdigris was in for a challenge when we introduced concerts containing new works by living composers like the little match girl passion by David Lang and Anthracite Fields by Julia Wolfe. Seeing the Betty’s Notebook score for the first time, though, was like trying to read a book that contained dense and sophisticated language from start to finish. It was teeming with symbolism and meaning, but you had to read one sentence (or in our case, musical phrase) at least 3-5 times before you began to understand what was happening. This was very intimidating to me and I thought, “If it takes me so long to understand this piece of music, how are we going to make our Verdigris Ensemble musicians understand, let alone our audience?”
It’s true. When singers of Verdigris Ensemble looked at the score for the first time, their first thought was “What in the world is this?” followed by “How in the world are we going to learn this?” It took the ensemble until the dress rehearsal to really wrap their head around the piece and until the first concert to really commit to the character of the music. What allowed them to do this? Human connection.
Don’t get me wrong: score study, efficient rehearsals, intense and specific listening, and dedication were all extremely important in this process. Verdigris Ensemble musicians had to commit many hours of study in order for the piece to be sung successfully. But I don’t think anyone would have committed to this music had they not been able to emotionally connect with it. For many of our musicians, connecting with Betty Klenck’s story was as important as the technical singing aspect of learning the music about her.
This was also (surprisingly) true about our audiences, many of whom had not heard this type of music before. When given a small introduction by composer Nicholas Reeves to Betty’s Notebook and pointers to listen for during the performance, audiences were primed to experience the performance in a completely different way than if they had just come to the concert and read the program notes.
What surprised me the most, however, was how emotional some audience members got. A woman came up to me after one of our performances in tears, saying how emotional it was for her to hear the distress calls of Amelia Earhart. To her, the music served as a vehicle for the text and transported her into the right mindset to experience what Betty and Amelia were saying. Other audience members said they felt like the concert zoomed by because they were so sucked into the soundscape produced by the polytonality and stretched out textures.
Reviewers agreed. TheaterJones reviewer, Richard Oliver, comments, “Utilizing text taken directly from Klenck’s notebook, in which she frenetically jotted down the snippets of messages she received in her living room, the work offers a chilling look into the tantalizing mystery of Earhart’s disappearance. What’s more, Reeves delivers an informative lecture on the piece before its performance, providing context and insight that brings its starkly humanistic character further into clarity.”
What I have learned most from being the Founder and Artistic Director of the Verdigris Ensemble since March 2017 is that people yearn for human connection. Human connection restores perspective, renews gratitude, charges our self-awareness, gives a sense of higher purpose, and reminds us that we are just human.
Given the challenging musical aspects of the Mass Transmission concert, we weren’t altogether sure that our audiences would connect with the human aspect of this performance. This was an enormous risk that ended up paying off in ways that we didn’t even imagine. We learned that this cerebral and dense music could be understood by audiences if it was set up well beforehand. It also helped that the concert performance run-time (without beforehand introduction) was approximately 55 minutes, making it digestible for audiences and singers alike. Audiences not only understood what we were doing, but connected with the music and our inspiration for it.
I was so wrong when I thought this project would not go over well with Dallas audiences. The Mass Transmission concert allowed us, and especially me, to grow by being reminded by our audiences that music is about how it is experienced, not just listened to.