One way that humans strive to control uncontrollable realities such as death is by imposing arbitrary rules and structures on the chaotic and inevitable. Another is by participating in the difficult but necessary act of being active members of a community or communities. The Blue Hour, in its conception, its process, and its content, lives and breathes these paradoxes. The work, on its premiere tour this November after a long process of composition and workshopping, is an ambitious collaboration between five composers (Rachel Grimes, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Angélica Negrón, Shara Nova, and Caroline Shaw), a vocalist (Grammy-winner Luciana Souza), and the democratic, self-conducted string collective A Far Cry.
The work uses as its text Carolyn Forché’s poem, “On Earth,” which catalogs the scattered thoughts, visions, and imagery of a life passing ever closer to death, organized through the objective but arbitrary tool of alphabetization. This explicitly rationalized poetic form simultaneously evokes cold modernism and its ancient predecessors in biblical and gnostic abecedaries. The music that sets the poem draws similarly from an eclectic set of influences, at times setting the text quite literally (as with explicit references to Bach and settings that evoke plainchant and Renaissance polyphony), and at times using extended string techniques to create kaleidoscopic sound-paintings of Forché’s moments of fantastical, jarring imagery. The work also gleams with power ballads – unapologetic lyricism and no-nonsense songwriting that is often associated with contemporary non-classical genres but which here contributes to the intimacy and universality of the subject matter. The various movements, each entirely written by one of the composers, access the personal vernaculars and interests of each composer as they pass through the ordered but nonlinear narrative of Forché’s poem, contributing to the scope and scale of the work and its underlying subjects.
When the five composers and members of A Far Cry sat down for a meeting in the summer of 2016 about the possibility of bringing this song cycle to life, the group discussed in depth what justification there was for attempting a collaboration on such a scale for such a deeply personal work. As collaborators shared their own takes on the meaningful urgency of the project, the following statement took hold as a sort of “mission statement:”
In a time when we are seeing masses of people dehumanized – by war, displacement, poverty – we are looking here at a single life, the beautiful detail of one human existence. There is something precious in that; that through our sense of empathy with this one individual, we are given a lens through which to see our own world with greater clarity.
– Program note by Alex Fortes
I Care If You Listen
“The Blue Hour is less about the fact that the five composers are women and more about the shared aesthetic of the five composers—which is emotionally direct, unapologetically lyrical, luminously consonant, and melodically expressive. Snider has previously commented on the challenges of staying true to this aesthetic in new music’s dichotomy of “serious/cerebral/systems-based/complex/masculine vs. less serious/emotional/intuitive/simple/feminine.” However, the sincere, genuine expressivity of the music is precisely the thing that makes The Blue Hour so successful—it serves the text above all else and creates a lush sonic landscape that is reflective of the poetry. The Blue Hour is a remarkable achievement by five of today’s leading composers… The final result of these disparate parts coming together is an incredibly moving work that certainly accomplishes the intent of the project: to elicit empathy and provide “a lens through which to see our own world with greater clarity.”