On The Steps Of Lincoln Center, A Choir The Size Of An Army

Aug 14, 2016
Originally published on August 14, 2016 11:10 am

Yesterday in New York, something very big happened outside Lincoln Center: One thousand people gathered to sing a new piece by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang. Entitled the public domain, it was a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Mostly Mozart festival.

One of those singers was our very own Jeff Lunden. He offers this story of how such a huge production is put together, from conception to performance.


I've sung at the Mostly Mozart Festival before. We sang, you know, Mozart. But as the name implies, the festival does other things too — so when they commissioned this piece, I signed up immediately.

I asked David Lang what all 1,000 of us would be singing about. Community, he said.

"What are the things that everyone should share? That we all do together? That we all need?" Lang recalls asking himself at the project's outset. "What are the things that bring us together in such a way that we might actually want to sing about it?"

So, Lang did a bunch of Google searches, where he typed, "One thing we all share is ... " And, once he got rid of the porn and other inappropriate answers, he was intrigued by what he found.

"'Our pride.' 'Our favorite sandwich.' 'Our love of music.' One of the most common answers, or types of answers, were about people saying that the thing we have, that we share, is the ability to make choices for ourselves," Lang says.

Once he'd gathered those phrases and begun setting them to music, the next step to gather some colleagues at Lincoln Center to try the work out. Conductor Simon Halsey remembers his first impressions.

"David has written, very imaginatively, quite simple music," Halsey says. "But it gives us the possibility of doing very interesting things with it, because there's an element of improvisation."

It turns out all these simple phrases are building blocks for a very complex piece, with whispering, talking, shouting and singing, all in overlapping waves. But once the music is written, how do you find a thousand singers?

Lincoln Center advertised the piece to choirs, as well as on Facebook. To wrangle the enormous group they'd assembled, Mostly Mozart tapped a very organized producer: Anne Tanaka, who helped put on the opening ceremonies at the Sochi Olympics.

"Well, there are a lot of Excel spreadsheets involved," Tanaka says. "A giant database full of enthusiastic singers."

The 1,000 singers were divided into five groups of 200, or what were dubbed "strands." Each strand was color-coded and subdivided into smaller groups of 40 singers.

I joined the Orange strand, which began rehearsals in June in a stuffy school auditorium in Brooklyn. Strand leader Maria Sensi Selner was charged with teaching the music to a group of strangers, some of them choral veterans, others people who couldn't read a note. Oh, and there was also choreography to learn.

"In a way, it's every choreographer's dream ... Like, when do you get to do these kinds of things?" choreographer Annie-B Parson says of her work on the public domain. "My challenge was to make something very simple, which is, of course, complicated."

Simplicity yielded something pretty cool: We learned gestures like putting your palms up, or pretending to write a phrase over your head. Finally, after about two months of rehearsal, my strand joined two others — or 600 singers in total — for a mini-dress rehearsal. There were moments of complete chaos, and moments where we all sang and gestured beautifully together.

Being in a group this big and this diverse — kids singing with parents and grandparents, people in wheelchairs, clusters of friends and colleagues — was as moving as it was nerve-wracking.

As stage manager Andrew Bryant pointed out to me, there are so many moving parts and only one chance before the performance for all 1,000 people to gather.

"We only get one shot at doing it," he says. "You don't get to do it, see if it works, make it better and go back and try again."

But you know what? We did it. On what felt like hottest day of the year, with thousands of people around us, on the Lincoln Center Plaza, there was a palpable sense of community — especially when we all lifted our voices in harmony to declare "our power to choose."

That moment, says composer David Lang, was thrilling.

And singing in the "the public domain" turned out to be a powerful choice for me, too.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Something really big happened yesterday at New York's Lincoln Center. A thousand people gathered to sing a new piece by composer David Lang. It's called "The Public Domain," and it was written for the Mostly Mozart Festival. One of the singers was Jeff Lunden. He has this story on how you put together such a huge production.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: I've sung at the Mostly Mozart Festival before.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUNDEN: We sang, you know, Mozart. But as the name implies, the festival does other things too. So when they commissioned this piece, I signed up immediately. And I asked David Lang what all 1,000 of us would be singing about. Community, he said.

DAVID LANG: What are the things that everyone should share, that we all do together, that we all need? What are the things that bring us together in such a way that we might actually want to sing about it?

LUNDEN: So Lang did a bunch of Google searches where he typed, one thing we all share is. And once he got rid of the porn and other inappropriate answers, here's what he found.

LANG: Our pride, our favorite sandwich, our love of music. One of the most common answers, or types of answers, were about people saying that the thing that we have is the ability to make choices for ourselves.

LUNDEN: One of the first steps was to gather some colleagues at Lincoln Center to try out the music.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) Our favorite sandwich.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Our favorite sandwich.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) Our own experience.

SIMON HALSEY: David has written, very imaginatively, quite simple music.

LUNDEN: Conductor Simon Halsey.

HALSEY: But it gives us the possibility of doing very interesting things with it because there's an element of improvisation.

LUNDEN: It turns out all these simple phrases are building blocks for a very complex piece with whispering, talking, shouting and singing in kind of overlapping waves. How do you find a thousand singers? You advertise to choirs and on Facebook. And how do you wrangle such an enormous group? You get a very organized producer like Anne Tanaka, who helped put on the opening ceremonies at the Sochi Olympics.

ANNE TANAKA: Well, there are a lot of Excel spreadsheets involved, a giant database full of enthusiastic singers.

LUNDEN: Divided into five color-coded groups, which were then subdivided into smaller groups. My group, the orange strand, began rehearsals in June in Brooklyn.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing).

LUNDEN: Our strand leader, Maria Sensi Selner, began to teach a group of singers the music. Some were choral veterans. Some were people who couldn't read a note.

MARIA SENSI SELNER: (Singing) Our choice.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Our choice.

SENSI SELNER: (Singing) Our pain.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Our pain.

LUNDEN: Over the next month, we did a lot of note plunking - a lot.

SENSI SELNER: (Singing) Our philosophical framework.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Our philosophical framework.

LUNDEN: And did I mention there's also choreography?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: One, two, three, our - two, up, three.

ANNIE-B PARSON: In a way, it's every choreographers dream is to, you know, make something for elephants and a thousand people. Like, when do you get to do these kinds of things? Never.

LUNDEN: Annie-B Parson created the movement.

PARSON: My challenge was to make something very simple which is, of course, complicated.

LUNDEN: But really kind of cool - gestures like putting your palms up or pretending to write a phrase over your head. Finally, after about two months of rehearsal, my strand joined two others, or 600 singers in total, for a mini dress rehearsal. There were moments that sounded like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF DISSONANT SINGING)

LUNDEN: And moments where we all sang and gestured beautifully together.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Our, choice, our, inner wisdom.

LUNDEN: And I have to say, being in a group this big and this diverse - kids singing with parents and grandparents, people in wheelchairs, clusters of friends and colleagues - was really moving, but a little nerve-wracking, too. There are so many moving parts and only one chance before the performance for all 1,000 people to gather. But you know what, we did it. On what felt like the hottest day of the year with thousands of people in and around us on the Lincoln Center Plaza, there was a palpable sense of community, especially when we all lifted our voices in harmony to declare our power to choose.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

LUNDEN: That moment, says composer David Lang, was thrilling.

LANG: After all of this chaos, when people come out and sing in unison what we believe, it actually was very powerful.

LUNDEN: And singing in "The Public Domain" turned out to be a powerful choice for me, too. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.