Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Bay Area Reporter on "'New World Waking!"


Just posted: A terrific article by Richard Dodds in the Bay Area Reporter on New World Waking! When we did the interview I wasn't sure I was making any sense at all. It was my first time to discuss the piece and I felt completely inarticulate. But, happily, Richard managed to make sense of my ramblings and actually made me sound like I knew what the hell I was talking about.

Go to the website, but just in case it doesn't stay on the website forever, I'm copying it here.

Music as an alternative to violence

'New World Waking' premieres in a
World AIDS Day concert

Published 11/27/2008


Steven Schalchlin sitting at John Lennon's piano, with a picture of Bill Clayton, who inspired one of the songs in New World Waking. Photo: Caroline True




Somehow, it was the cigarette burns on the piano that made it real for him. Steve Schalchlin was sitting at the piano at which John Lennon had written "Imagine," but the context – a suburban front-yard in Washington State – didn't conjure up the historical import of the instrument. But the cigarette burns were physical evidence that Lennon's fingers once touched these keys. It was also this moment that clarified for Schalchlin what he had been working on for the past few years.

"The way I work is to start writing songs, and at some point they come together and make sense to me," Schalchlin recently said from his home in Los Angeles. "Not only was I writing songs for this piece not knowing where it was going to be done, I wrote it before I even knew what it was going to be."

But with a clarity brought about by his experience at Lennon's piano, trucked to the home of a mother and father whose teenage son had committed suicide after a gay-bashing, Schalchlin could envision a structure and a connecting message among the songs. Before long, he had a sponsor in the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, a title, and an engagement at Davies Symphony Hall.

New World Waking, with music and most lyrics by Schalchlin, will have its world premiere on Dec. 1 as part of a World AIDS Day concert that also marks the chorus' 30th anniversary. Veteran actress Piper Laurie, a personal friend of Schalchlin, will provide narration during one of the musical sections, while Jennifer Holliday will join the chorus during "My Rising Up," the pull-out-the-stops finale.

"When I heard that the chorus had gotten Jennifer, I was jumping through the roof," Schalchlin said. "We're going to tear the place apart. It will be like Hurricane Jennifer hit the building."

"My Rising Up" is written in a southern gospel style, the kind of music Schalchlin heard growing up as a Missionary Baptist in Texas. Later he became a member of Top 40 bands before becoming a piano-bar performer and the co-author of the musicals The Last Session and Big Voice: God or Merman?. The musical styles of the dozen or so songs in the 45-minute piece represent his diverse background: pop, rock, folk, jazz and doo-wop. But the concluding section definitely favors a gospel flavor, "because that's the sort of inspirational sound that choruses sound so great doing."

The SF Gay Men's Chorus in
Davies Symphony Hall.
And it also helps convey the political, social, and spiritual message of the overall piece. New World Rising comes with a manifesto that notes that religion and politics are failing to provide role models of peace, before stating that "music can cross all boundaries, all customs, all languages, and all creeds."

Schalchlin said he "walked a very delicate line" in trying to make the songs resonate whatever the faith a listener may hold. "I made a very specific decision that each of the songs, whether or not it had a religious connotation, could be heard with equal meaningfulness whatever one believed, secular or otherwise."

The three sections that make up New World Waking are subtitled "Violence at Home," "Violence in the World," and "Awakening Suite." Religious or not, many of the songs do touch on subjects involving violence and discrimination directed toward the LGBT community.

The opening song, following a prologue, is titled, "Will It Always Be Like This?," and it was a song that Schalchlin performed at John Lennon's piano in the front yard of Alec and Gabi Clayton's home in Olympia, Wash. Their son's suicide, and their reaction to the tragedy, inspired the song. A happier ending comes in "William's Song," based on the successful efforts by Carolyn Wagner to protect her son from officially tolerated homophobic harassment in high school.

On several songs, Schalchlin turned to outside lyricists. Music historian Paul Zollo provided the lyrics for "Brilliant Masquerade," a song about the famed jazz musician Billy Tipton, who was not revealed to have been a biological female until his death. Peter J. Carman, pastor at the Lake Avenue Baptist Church in Rochester, NY, provided the lyrics for several songs, including the AIDS-related "Lazarus Come Out."

That song gives thanks for friends and caregivers who have helped HIV-positive people, an issue that has long been a focal part of Schalchlin's life. He began the long-running online diary Living in the Bonus Round in 1996 to chronicle for friends and relatives what he thought were to be his final days. Now, instead of his own illness, Schalchlin is likely to be writing about his musical projects as well as health and political issues that face the queer community at large.

Guest star Jennifer Holliday.

His personal experiences with AIDS also provided the basis for The Last Session, a 1997 musical written with creative and personal partner Jim Brochu about a dying musician's efforts to record a final song before taking his own life. Following a New York run, the musical has been staged by numerous theaters, including the New Conservatory Theatre Center in 2001. Schalchlin and Brochu themselves brought their autobiographical musical Big Voice to NCTC in 2007. A member of the audience one night happened to be Dr. Kathleen McGuire, artistic director of the SF Gay Men's Chorus, and later Schalchlin told her about a piece he was creating.

"So we sat down in a little room with a little broken-down piano," Schalchlin said. "It was kind of like doing an old Tin Pan Alley audition."

McGuire quickly gave Schalchlin the green light to proceed, and she has written the arrangements for the 200-plus-member chorus and orchestrations for the accompanying Community Women's Orchestra. The evening will also include a collection of holiday songs, a performance of Kim Kuzma's new single "Guardian Angels," and an encore appearance by Jennifer Holliday singing "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going."

Schalchlin is expecting New World Waking to have a life beyond its Dec. 1 premiere. That performance will be recorded for a live CD, and he's already heard from other choruses interested in the project. "All the songs can be lifted, so other choruses can perform them collectively or individually," he said. "I'm looking forward to spreading it around."

And he doesn't see the material as necessarily restricted to gay audiences. "We have witnessed the events through our eyes, and we propose that music can be an alternative to violence," Schalchlin said. "To me, this is a message from one gay man and one gay chorus to the world."

The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus 30th anniversary concert will take place at 7 p.m., Dec. 1 at Davies Symphony Hall. Tickets are $20-$100. Call 865-2787 or go to www.sfgmc.org.

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