"It's a really long butterfly effect," composer D.J. Sparr says of his long history of friendship and collaboration with Shawn and Karen Strittmatter Galvin of New Music Raleigh. It began when Sparr's wife, Kimberly, played in Pittsburgh youth orchestras with the Galvins, and it has continued through various commissions, grants, and recordings. Its latest manifestation is ...to me from the earth..., an immersive thirty-five-minute work that grows out of White Gold, Raleigh artist Thomas Sayre's installation at CAM Raleigh.
Even though Sparr has never lived in the Triangle—he's from Maryland and lives in West Texas—he seems to have become an important part of its classical scene. His association with New Music Raleigh has resulted in several performances and the 2014 release of an album of his music, 21207. North Carolina Opera performed his opera Approaching Ali in 2015. And a series of unexpected connections led him to score Minnow Media's documentary about Sayre, Earthcaster.
"No matter what the combination of instruments, large or small, D.J. has an unbelievable ability to write music that is meaningful and intellectual while also being comfortable and compact," Shawn Galvin observes.
There are many layers to excavate in ...to me from the earth.... Most immediate are the four massive pieces that comprise White Gold: "Rows," "Tracks," "Thicket," and "Barn." The work is a visceral reflection on cotton and the way its cultivation shapes the landscape of the South, though it largely sidesteps cotton's historic ties to slavery. On three of CAM's walls, arrays of Masonite panels are covered in black roofing tar, pockmarked with bursting white cotton bolls. In "Rows," thousands of flecks are penned in by isometric furrows in a glowing, muddy bronze."Thicket" zooms in closer, the bolls becoming scattershot fireworks in an Abstract Expressionist sky. "Barn" is more austere, with ghostly parallel lines emerging from the tar. In "Tracks," Sayre alludes to his well-known "earthcasting" style, in which he casts sculptures of holes in the ground. The work consists of eighteen small castings of marks made by tires, backhoe teeth, hands, knees, and arms—a catalog of human intervention. But, taken as a whole, the installation feels much more personal and expressive than Sayre's larger earthcastings.
The next layer is David Dominguez's 2003 poem "Mi Historia," which Sayre and CAM director Gab Smith found as they planned the collaboration. Sparr had been leaning toward haiku to complement Sayre's art, but when he read "Mi Historia," he felt its free verse would be a good fit for his work, and one line even became the title of the piece.
The bulk of the poem is about a man's attempt to transcend his past, but its emotive core is a short flashback to his mother working in cotton fields in her youth. The poem addresses many of the major themes of White Gold in simple, direct language, with lines about the narrator's mother picking cotton as she drags a burlap sack through the fields, abandoned barns, and the rumble of a beat-up truck. It's almost as if it had been written for the art (Dominguez is contributing a new poem for the show's catalog, too), with its focus on history emerging from the earth. Smith and Sayre arranged the poem into a kind of libretto, dividing it into sections that are thematically linked to the sections of the installation.
This text, in turn, forms the backbone for Sparr's music, the final layer. CAM's unusual space—physical, acoustical, and psychological—gives him a chance to try out musical ideas he couldn't try in a more conventional concert hall. The piece spreads eight instrumentalists—all members of the North Carolina Symphony, led by Shawn Galvin—and soprano Aundi Marie Moore throughout the gallery.
"It's going to begin with three instruments in the downstairs gallery, playing music that will be heard but not seen. To me, that's actually underneath the earth," Sparr says.
He describes the music as "mystical minimalism of the high plains, Texas," combining the slow-burning, tonal approach of composers like Arvo Pärt and the gnomic fragments of George Crumb within his own melodic sensibilities. Earth returns as a subliminal metaphor, a point of crossing with Sayre and Dominguez.
From there, the sound gradually moves from the earth to the sky, with the players slowly moving around the space. The ensemble will divide and re-divide, passing unsynchronized vignettes around the hall. Even though Sparr, Sayre, and Smith conceived the work in collaboration, these layers should interact in unexpected ways as the music and poetry flow through the art.
"It is hard not to be moved by the strength of the images in Sayre's work," says Shawn Galvin. "I think his art will immediately give the music gravity and context, and that is a special opportunity as a performer."
It's an encouraging sign for the continued evolution of the arts in the Triangle that CAM is actively incubating this kind of cross-media collaboration, searching for terra firma in terra incognita.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Earth Works."