Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The Story Behind "New World Waking!"

Today, in Dr. Kathleen McGuire's blog, she posted the personal background story behind the making of New World Waking!

This is from her blog:

Members of the chorus have just returned from our fall retreat. The chorus goes away on retreat twice a year, usually at Camp Newman north of Santa Rosa. Retreats are galvanizing insofar as we spend concentrated time learning our music, and we also spend time getting to know each other. This is especially important for our "newbie" members who joined only a a few weeks ago. The Faux Talent Show on Saturday night is a wonderful way for members to showcase their 'talents' before a loving audience of peers.

Joining us at this retreat was guest clinician:
Dr. Timothy Seelig from Dallas, TX (pictured left - photo by Erwin Barron). Dr. Seelig is an expert in vocal pedagogy and has written several best-selling books on the subject. He is the artistic director in-residence of GALA Choruses, and was the director of Turtle Creek Chorale for twenty years. In addition to enjoying the swimming pool and water slide in unusually glorious sunshine, the members spent rehearsal time with Dr. Seelig as he reinforced some important principles of vocal technique.

It also bears mentioning that Dr. Seelig was particularly impressed with the new music we were rehearsing. He said to me as he left: "I think you've got a hit on your hands." Some have likened it to "the next
NakedMan" (SFGMC's 1996 commission) due to the work's accessibility, the breadth of the material covered, and topics relevant to today's gay and social-justic political climate.


by renowned gay composer/performer
Steve Schalchlin
(The Last Session, The Big Voice: God or Merman?)

This wonderful new pop/rock/folk song cycle will premiere on Monday, December 1, 2008, at Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, commemorating the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus's landmark 30th Anniversary.

Composer Steve Schalchlin wrote the following notes about how the work came to be. There are still opportunities available to sponsor the commission. If you are interested or would like more information, please contact the SFGMC administrative office, ph: 415-865-3650, info@sfgmc.org
Songs on the Road to Peace
Inspired by John Lennon's Piano

by Steve Schalchlin

New World Waking! came together in my mind on the day I was selected by pop star George Michael (and his partner, art gallery owner Kenny Goss) to play John Lennon's IMAGINE Piano in the front yard of a house in Olympia, Washington as part of a photographic project. The piano was being taken to places where acts of violence occurred, such as Ford's Theatre, Dallas, Memphis, Oklahoma City and the kitchen of Alec and Gabi Clayton, where their son, Bill, had taken his life after a gay bashing.

I knew this family, the Claytons, and I had written a song about Bill and the aftermath of his suicide in a song called, "Will It Always Be Like This?" (Now the opening number of NWW, following the Prologue.)

I had been writing the songs over a period of four years, with a general idea of what it was about, but the thing hadn't come together. I didn't know what I was writing. I just knew these songs were making a lot of sense to me. (I've written the scores of both our shows in this Zen fashion, writing without a destination in mind.)

So that sunny day in Olympia, after the truck pulled up and delivered the piano beneath a shade tree in the front yard, I was sitting there looking down at John Lennon's cigarette burns, touching the keys he touched, and thinking about him. What was he thinking the day he wrote this song? How much of a difference did the feel and sound of the piano make in the creation of the number?

I sang "Imagine," remembering that the first time I played it was in a Columbus, Ohio airport hotel lounge the night he was killed. Played it perfectly all the way through that night, to an empty bar, without ever having played it before. My fingers just found the chords and my mouth sang the words. It was like magic, the way the song had imprinted itself in my brain.

And I thought how amazing it would feel to write a song of perfect peace. A song that reaches so far into your heart that it strikes a common chord of yearning we have as human beings for peace and justice (because one without the other is impossible).

That's when I saw the entire song cycle in my mind, as if John Lennon had given me a little gift.


Then, last year, Jim and I were in San Francisco performing our musical, The Big Voice: God or Merman? and I invited Doctor Kathleen McGuire of the SFGMC to attend. Afterwards, I told her I had a song cycle for peace and asked if I could audition it for her. Soon, we sat in a little rehearsal room and, on a tiny, well-worn upright rehearsal piano, I started at the beginning...

"Will It Always Be Like This...", the story of Bill and Gabi Clayton.

I feel like the SFGMC, especially because they were the first gay men's chorus in the history of our planet (well, except for the chorus at the Vatican) was the perfect fit because the thing about John Lennon is that his music and his life were political. His belief in peace and justice, and the open way he advocated and fought for it, his very existence was an activist act.

The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus are political and social activists by their mere existence.
And, I suppose by virtue of my own existence, I became an activist.


It all began in March of 1996, the day I began keeping what Yahoo/GeoCities designated a "Landmark Website," my online AIDS diary called "Living In The Bonus Round." At the time, I was just trying to keep my family informed of how sick I was so they would know when they could order the casket because I was dying. Fast.

Modern blogs do this routinely, but back then, it was totally unique. In fact, my AIDS diary is the oldest, continuous AIDS diary online. But, again, I wasn't thinking in those terms. I was sick. I just needed help and I wanted to make a statement to the world before dying.

Unbeknownst to me, it became a source of crucial information for doctors, caregivers and medical students around the world who were facing HIV and AIDS for the first time, far from the rest of the world.

I became a sample case study played out in real time, worldwide. One of the first, I later learned. By writing about my treatments, my emotions, side effects, etc. they were learning about the disease on a personal basis. (I even got to meet Dr. Bruce Dorsey, the Merck scientist who created the drug that eventually saved my life).

I was then invited to Harvard University School of Public Health, where my diary was incorporated into the course curriculum materials for that year. The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Club sponsored a concert where I sang the songs from my musical about AIDS, The Last Session.

This continued exposure brought me into doing AIDS education programs for high schools, colleges, universities, churches, synagogues, theaters and other groups all over the country, including the prestigious Jonathan King Lecture at the Stanford University School of Medicine Center for Biomedical ethics.

And that's how I became a health advocate.

But the diary reached into more communities than I could have anticipated.


It led me to PFLAG where I became active online, talking to parents and scared gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons. I corresponded with a young man, for instance, named Jason Hungerford who, at 19, was creating safe spaces for teens at AOL. So, I helped in the creation of, and served as Board Chair of Youth Guardian Services, an online peer support group for GLBT youth and their straight friends. They've now counseled tens of thousands of GLBT youth and saved many lives.

I also, in that first year, encouraged a mother named Gabi Clayton to tell the story of her bisexual son's suicide. She has since become very active in the Safe Schools Coalition and helped found Families United Against Hate, for which I proudly serve on the Board of Directors. We provide comfort to the families of hate crime victims.


As a recovering Baptist, my diary also began attracting those who opposed not just the fact that I was openly gay, but that I totally accepted my homosexuality on a spiritual level. My confrontations with conservative religionists led me to reading the Soul Force principals about how to combat violence with non-violence.

I participated in the historic first March To Lynchburg to protest the hate language of Jerry Falwell.

We were supposed to have lunch with him and his church members. But Rev. Falwell, at the last minute, withdrew his offer of a lunch because, he said, 'the bible' told him not to eat with sinners. So, instead, we sat with his church members and drank water. It was a little like visiting strangers in prison.


The first songs for New World Waking! came from a stack of lyrics given to me by my friend, Rev. Peter J. Carman, the pastor of Lakewood Ave. Baptist church in Rochester, New York.

Peter had taken a bunch of standard "high church" hymns, few of which I'd even heard of since I was raised with a more rural Southern canon. He had written all new lyrics to the old melodies. And since I love writing music to finished lyrics, I took them with me.

Unlike a lot of newer hymns trying to be really theologically neutral, which I think sometimes can feel limp and bloodless, I found Peter's themes and words were deeply emotional and spiritually contemporary without seeming stiff or patronizing. I strung four of them, my favorites, together and played them over and over again.

Then, on New Year's Eve, 2004, I had a vision.

It was about 3am and I was sitting alone in the ship's piano bar playing through these songs when I suddenly saw, in my mind, an image of all the gods sitting around a bar not drinking and not talking to each other.

It felt like a reflection of society and the world's religions. Everyone in their own corners. No one really talking and no one really listening -- and I realized how there seem to be a dearth of role models of peace in the worlds of religion and politics and media.

Then, in my mind, I saw a huge hall. A beautiful piece of music was playing and everyone in the hall, of all ages, races, cultures and creeds, was at one with the music. This was before I played Lennon's piano. But at that moment, I realized that we musicians have the power, as creators of music, to bridge divides and reach across cultures.

I began furiously writing new songs. New lyrics about War. The mass media. Religious violence. But still not knowing what it was all adding up to; just trusting the process.

Fast forward a few years. I'm sitting there beneath and shade tree in the front yard at the Clayton's home in Olympia Washington about to put my hands where John Lennon's hands once were, the instrument whose sound inspired the song 'Imagine', and I knew in that momentNew World Waking! was meant to be:

A simple song of peace from one gay man, and one gay chorus, one gay community, to the world.

And it all starts with "Will it always be like this?"


Bev Sykes said...

Gosh darn it--you went and got renowned when I wasn't looking!

Anonymous said...

this beautifully written, i love it.

its brilliant!