Stirring words set to celebratory music. Two academics collaborating from different disciplines. A performance by students and members of the community.
What better way to welcome a President who loves words, who knows the power of the liberal arts and who wants to bring the campus and community together? The anthem Breath of Days, with music by Garrett Hope and text by M. Nzadi Keita, will premiere at the inauguration of Bobby Fong on April 21, marking the first time a faculty-written piece has been played at an Ursinus inauguration. It will be sung by the Ursinus College Choir directed by John French and played by the Ursinus College Wind Ensemble conducted by Holly Gaines.
Preparing to herald a new era had its challenges. “I wanted to avoid the ‘cheese’ factor,” said Hope, a Visiting Assistant Professor of Music. “Really, to do this, it is easy to slip into that.” Keita, Associate Professor and Creative Writer in Residence, was stepping into new territory. “Poems are funny animals,” she said. “I didn’t want to write this to fit the music. I never start by thinking about metrics, but this time, I did. I was worried about the timing of the words with the music, throwing him off. I was feeling the weight. I was a little panicked.”
A “fan of cross-disciplinary collaboration, and setting choral music,” Hope was naturally inspired by the prospect of an inauguration.
Originally, he thought that he might set to music a poem by Oscar Wilde. Dr. Fong is an internationally known scholar of Wilde, and has edited a volume of Wilde’s poems. But after Hope conferred with the new president, he concluded that Wilde had not written a poem that would lend itself to lyrics for this auspicious occasion. He turned to the Ursinus English department, and Keita was tapped.
Keita, a published poet and essayist, studied journalism and creative writing, and holds a Ph.D. in English. Hope is a composer and bassist, whose doctorate is in composition. His pieces have been performed across the United States and in Europe.
Keita began by running metric patterns through her head and asking herself what kinds of language went with those. It was on a winter break trip to California that it came together, inspired by the ocean, she recalled. “I’m a visual person. The Pacific helped.” At Newport Beach, she saw people watch the sunset, and began to ponder “why we are here.” She thought about “so much unseen.” That was what she needed. Some of the words, such as “small miracles,” come from the water. “I thought about the bigness, but that the small things are valuable to people.”
Keita’s words worked beautifully, said Hope, who had not commissioned a poem before. The single movement work for chorus and wind ensemble is in three parts. The opening stanza sets out images, the middle explores what those mean. His own inspiration was the triumph of the human ability and spirit; celebrating human achievement with expansive musical gestures. Percussion helps create the grandeur.
They see the process itself as a tribute, each taking a risk because each allowed something different to come from their personal contribution. “It’s like putting your baby on the school bus,” said Keita.
Part of a composer’s job is to deconstruct the words, Hope said. “A musician will break a line differently than a poet, but ideally, when music is performed with text, the audience can hear the words as they are meant to be heard.”
The journey has resulted in a piece which they feel conveys the optimism, reflection and new beginnings inherent in a presidential inauguration – a piece that is ultimately, and appropriately, about the inauguration of Bobby Fong.