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HER SIDE OF THE STORY: Giving Voice to the Bible’s Nameless Women

August 10, 2012

One of the pieces featured on VOX 3 Collective’s Veiled Faces program, “Hope and a Hem,” is the kernel of a new song cycle in the making, called Nameless, with text by Chicago poet Aaron DeLee and music by Artistic Director Brian von Rueden.  This round table discussion lends insight into the origins of the piece, the preparations for performance, and future steps as more songs are written—and the singers Meghan Guse and Gretchen Adams prepare to record the material.

Q: Let’s begin with the text.  Aaron, how would you characterize the difference between your “Biblical Women” series of poems and your other work?

AD: I enjoy writing persona poems in general; it’s really interesting to get into the mindset of another person and look at the world through their experience. In a way, it’s my poetic version of playing a part like an actor.   Also, I often focus on queer themes and/or femininity, so writing about biblical women doesn’t stray much from my other work. However, one of the differences is that, while writing about these characters now, I have it in the back of my mind that the poem might be set to music.  This changes some things slightly: how form might aid or hinder the writing, or perhaps a word choice here or there.

Q: How did you decide to turn these words into song?

BVR: I had asked Aaron to consider writing a few poems about female characters in the Bible, knowing that VOX 3 Collective was preparing a program on the subject, and that we wanted to include several new compositions.  Having a wide range of texts at our disposal was important—one never knows what words will invoke the muse.  “Hope and a Hem” struck me as the basis for a perfect song.  The simple images and even phrases very much lent themselves to music, and the story has been a favorite of mine for some time.  The idea of incorporating this poem/song into a larger work came later, as we realized how many compelling tales of nameless women abound in the Bible.

Q: What is your creative process, when writing about these familiar characters?

AD: I like to reread the passages these women come from, do some research about them, fit the context in my mind and go from there.  I’ll cling onto an image and run with it: what they’re holding, what they’re aiming at, what they’re suffering, or a phrase they might say.  There’s often so much to be unpacked from a few short verses.

Q:What was the compositional process like, in creating these pieces?  

BVR: I’ve never really thought of myself as a composer.  I briefly dabbled in writing musical theatre in my angsty teenage years, and I later wrote some small liturgical settings for special occasions—baptisms, weddings and so forth—but otherwise I’ve restricted myself to performing.  Somehow, though, finding these texts flipped a switch.  I remember sitting in a church pew one Sunday morning, and the spark hit.  I spent the afternoon plunking at the piano and had a finished draft of the first song by evening.  Later pieces were constructed on more complex poetry.  Accordingly, I spent much more time discussing the text with the poet, and letting the musical ideas simmer a while.  I think the overall cycle will reflect that—and mirror the lives of these nameless ladies: there are impulsive moments of passionate inspiration, offset by contemplative passages of deep thought and reflection.

Q: Ladies, what were your initial thoughts when asked to sing on a concert of Biblical Women? 

MG: Excited seems a trite word for the occasion, but…I was excited! I feel like most of the most-discussed figures in the Bible are male, so it was nice to be given the opportunity to represent some of the important female figures. I was especially excited to be portraying an “Unknown Woman,” one of the myriad of followers who were touched by their association with Jesus. She didn’t need to be famous, or well-known (like Mary or Esther, some of the other characters featured on the concert), but she was important enough to mention.

GA: When I first learned about VOX 3’s Veiled Faces concert, I was interested to learn what the program would feature.  I was very interested in the diversity of the characters and music styles included in the program.  The contrast between the new pieces and the old, coupled with a common thread weaving the genres together made for a very cohesive and thought-provoking program.

Q: What is your goal, or your “take” on these ladies?  Is there a story or character that particularly resonates with you?

BVR: To me, “Hope and a Hem” is the core of this Nameless cycle.  The character of the Hemorrhaging Woman in Luke 8:42-48speaks to the very heart of the silent suffering endured by many women, sometimes even in the name of religion.  But the message of the story is one of hope and faith.  In a college Bible study, a friend shared this as a passage that was very meaningful to her in dark times.  I think that we can all relate to that need to hope and believe.

“Lot Leaving Sodom,” Woodcut, 1493
Lot’s wife (middle) is transformed to a pillar of salt.

AD: I’m always taken with Lot’s wife.  I think she is such a sympathetic character, with a heart-wrenching story.  People often think of the Sodom and Gomorrah story as a sort of condemnation of homosexuality, but I first think of Lot’s Wife when I hear that passage.  Why shouldn’t she be able to look back at her home?  To me, the passage concerns matters of obedience and disobedience; an extension of Eve’s story, in a way.  I’m interested in portraying women’s struggles to be a little more equal, and the tribulations they face for that.  And, I’m intrigued by how faithful and devout women prove themselves in these texts, many times more so than men—but somehow seem to be completely overlooked.

GA: It seems these women have much richer stories than are portrayed in The Bible.  Their stories are stated, but there is rarely any background to give the reader an idea of the characters’ motivations.  As I investigated Lot’s wife and read others’ commentary about her choices, it seems that people are very quick to judge her as a weak person.  To me, that seems unfair.  I think she, as well as many other female figures featured in The Bible are far more complex than they are portrayed in their stories.  These Nameless pieces give us a chance to explore different sides of these characters.  We get to relate to them as human beings, and think about who they were and what motivated them to make the choices they did.

Q: What can you tell us about the music?

BVR: My style is quite tonal, and I think much of the music reflects the kind of music I like to sing: gratifying vocal lines, well-supported by harmonic structure, with dramatic moments and interesting effects.  Much of the inspiration also comes from the great composers of the past.  I thought of songs, written by the likes of Schubert, Debussy, Brahms, Wolf, Fauré, or even Ned Rorem, that addressed similar characters or situations.  I studied the rhythms, melodic intervals, chordal structures.  And I let those ingredients stew for a while, as I absorbed Aaron’s words.  Sometimes, I even directly incorporated elements of these older works: The bass line for “Hope and a Hem,” for example, is based on a 1617 “Sancta Maria” setting by Claudio Monteverdi, with the rest of the material superimposed above.  That particular piece stuck out in my mind, as the prayer to the Virgin Mary includes a petition “intercede pro devoto foemineo sexu” — “for all the saints of the female sex,” and it resonated as the perfect basis for this song that deals with the silent pain endured by the woman in Luke’s Gospel—and so many other nameless women who followed in her footsteps.

Q:  Did you notice any differences between how you prepared this music – a newly written set – versus other music you have sung?

GA: Preparing for a premiere was a wonderful experience.  It was very rewarding to work so closely with the composer throughout the entire process.  From the moment we received the music to each performance in the concert series, we were able to communicate and collaborate to shape the performance together.

MG: I tend to learn music by listening to recordings (many different versions to make sure I’m not picking up any one singer’s interpretation or vocal quirks). After I listen to the song several times, I usually dive right in and start singing. With new music…that’s not really an option. You have to do a lot more leg work before you get to the singing phase: Rhythm, then text, then notes last.

GA: Working on a new set, there is no “performance practice” precedent, which is very exciting.  We had the privilege of working with a blank canvas while having the guidance of the composer along the way.

MG: Exactly. Especially since these pieces are duets, it can be even harder to put the piece together, as you need to make sure both parts are represented evenly and correctly, while still being true to our own voices.  But that is one of the things that makes new music exciting: your input forms a large part of a completely new work of art, and you can make it your own.

Q:  How has your own religious background affected your work on these pieces, if at all?

AD: I come at these poems with some working background knowledge on the stories of these women.  I was born and raised Roman Catholic, but fell off that bandwagon late in high school. The Catholic community I came from was big on women being able to take on larger roles within the Church, potentially becoming priests(esses); so my angle on equality is probably rooted there.

MG: I grew up Catholic, but we weren’t terribly good about attending church. Consequently, all three of these stories were new to me, so I’m enjoying learning about them and connecting their stories to all women. I can’t help thinking that the reason they weren’t given names is that they were meant to be a bit more universal. Each time I work on a piece, I keep thinking that that character is the one I connect with the most…but then I work on another piece, or do more research, and then I change my mind again!

GA: The particular Episcopal congregation I grew up in was (and still is) very warm and welcoming—never exclusive, judgmental or elitist.  That environment, where everyone was embraced and treated with respect and equality shaped my beliefs significantly.  Thinking about the struggle and injustice that many of these women experienced makes me outraged on their behalf.  Giving them a voice and telling their stories—even centuries later—honors them and gives them the respect they were denied in their time.

Q:  What is it like for you, as a writer, to work with a composer? 

AD: I never really thought of myself as a songwriter before, but this has helped me grow as an artist and exercise my talents.  This has certainly made me a stronger poet for it.  Specifically, it’s good to get some feedback on one’s work. It is also exciting and very rewarding to see what one’s work might inspire in another artist, and how they might interpret it.

Q:  What about the performance? You had four opportunities to perform this piece live – did your interpretation change at all? 

GA: With each performance, I felt more connected to the nameless woman as well as with the audience.  Also, when singing with another person, each additional experience allows you to grow together and play off one another.  Each performance is unique and provides a different take on the piece.

MG: We were constantly refining the performances. Gretchen and I would chat the whole ride home from the concerts, talking about what needed to be improved (usually, “Sorry, that part wasn’t as perfect as I would’ve liked!”), or what went particularly well. As we head to the recording studio, we’re continuing to refine and connect to the piece. As we incorporate the other pieces in the set, it also makes me regard “Hope and a Hem” in a different manner – we’re not just telling one story any more, it’s just a chapter in a larger work.

Q: Several audience members seemed to connect with the piece “Hope and a Hem” – why do you think that is? 

MG: I think it’s a combination of the text, the music, and the performances. The text is a poignant retelling of a Biblical story depicting an “everywoman” character. Not all of Jesus’s followers were famous—some were normal women, suffering through regular human ailments. The music is beautiful to listen to, while still being faithful to the nature of this woman who was desperate to find relief. To me, the soaring melodic opening seemed to all of the unnamed, anonymous women of the Bible crying out for help.

GA: The themes in the text are universal and timeless.  It is a story about the human condition.  The idea that a situation can be so desperate that there is nothing left to lose resonates with everyone—regardless of gender, age or situation.  As human beings, we experience dark times, but are built to believe against all odds. We trust that clinging to the thinnest thread of hope or taking even the smallest action could bring about positive change. Also, I think that the use of second person in the setting of the poem is very direct, and allows for an immediate connection between the singers and the audience.

Q: The rest of the cycle is still being written.  How did this grow from one song into something bigger?  What do you expect from the future pieces?  

MG: I think Brian meant to write more than the one piece, but after each performance, Gretchen and I would constantly beg for more songs! With as many songs as there are about the “Marys” (The Blessed Virgin and Mary Magdalene), it was about time that someone gave the unnamed women a voice as well!

GA: I think that each song in a set influences how the others are interpreted.  I am eager to have the entire picture of these pieces and see how they complement one another in context of the full cycle.

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