For 'The Odyssey,' composer Graham Reynolds goes on a journey with Austin Children's Choir
Graham Reynolds will go just about anywhere, musically speaking. To date, his compositional output includes jazz, rock, funk, and even sea shanties with his band Golden Arm Trio; his own symphonies; operas about Genghis Khan and Baba Yaga for Salvage Vanguard Theater; the soundtrack to Richard Linklater's film A Scanner Darkly; country & western ballads for the Rude Mechanicals' El Paraiso; scores to the silent films Battleship Potemkin and Orphans of the Storm; a violin concerto; big band music; and more than a dozen string quartets. But his latest trip may have even close followers of Reynolds' eclectic musical travels scratching their heads: a choral adaptation of The Odyssey for the Austin Children's Choir.
Really. The composer of the driving polyrhythms with the Samson-esque hair writing songs. For kids.
Actually, Reynolds himself doesn't consider it that much of a stretch. He and his frequent partner-in-musical-crime, Peter Stopschinski, have done concerts with children before, and he maintains that it's been a consistent interest of theirs. "And working with voice and text is totally outside of what I do on a daily basis, but it's something I have been interested in and that I've dived into whenever the opportunity has arisen." As far as mixing the two, Reynolds got his first taste of it with Salvage Vanguard's MotherBone, which featured a chorus of 14 kids in its operatic upgrade of old Russian folk tales, and he was happy to explore it more. "I think voice is the first instrument most kids get comfortable and confident with. It's easier to listen to 7-year-olds sing than 7-year-olds play violins. A string orchestra with kids this age would have been a lot tougher, I think."
At least one other person besides Reynolds figured him and kids to be a good match: local arts patron Sara Jarvis Jones. The Eastman School of Music graduate (class of 1950) liked Reynolds' work well enough to have already commissioned a piece from him for oboe, bassoon, and piano ("The Modal Cycle"), and her position on the board of directors for the Austin Children's Choir gave her another forum in which she might possibly employ his talents. In fact, she had been talking up Reynolds to the choir's artistic director, Kathleen Turner, when Turner hosted a concert in her home – curiously enough, for an oboe, bassoon, and piano piece, though not the one Reynolds composed for Jones – and Reynolds came, giving composer and director an opportunity to meet. Jones was present, too, as was Beverly Bardsley, the poet and translator who would eventually tackle the Herculean labor of condensing Homer's epic poem into a one-hour libretto. "That's when we were all in the same room," says Reynolds. "And Kathleen mentioned, 'Oh, we should work together sometime.' And that's how it all came together."
Reynolds got his first taste of working with Turner when he accompanied the choir at a concert in San Antonio. It was an eye-opening – make that ear-opening – experience in terms of what the composer thought the young singers would be capable of. "Their musicianship was far superior to what I had anticipated," he says. "I sang in choir in elementary school, and we didn't come near the sophistication of the pieces that Kathleen was doing and the polish that she accomplished – without losing that raw energy that kids bring to things."
Once Jones officially commissioned Reynolds to compose a piece for the choir, all began meeting to figure out what the piece would be. "We were looking for something iconic, classic, that came with a structure, but also was ready for reinterpretation," says Reynolds. Jones and Bardsley shared a "deep interest in all things ancient Greek," he adds, that steered them toward that Mediterranean land. "As soon as [The Odyssey] came up, other ideas slid away pretty quickly."
Reynolds and Bardsley got the Homeric ship under sail, though with neither one taking the helm all the time. "It was a real back and forth thing," Reynolds says. "Some things started with text first, some started with music first. I'd bring a bunch of melodic sketches and leave them with Beverly, and she would come up with text and then hand it to me." And each was flexible enough to adapt what he or she had produced to what the other brought to the table. Reynolds describes the pleasure of them sitting at the piano together, getting the music into shape guided by the text or the other way around – a real collaborative effort.
That spirit of collaboration extended to the kids as well, as Reynolds tested new sections of the work with them. "I would bring it to them and play around with it in rehearsal, where they would hear it changing in the course of that time in the room," he says. "So they experienced the process. Not just, 'Oh, here's a finished piece. Now go learn and sing it.' It was, 'Here's an idea; let's try it. Oh, let's try it another way.' They were part of that organic process in a way that they're not when they normally sing a piece. I'd try to give them direction that lit their eyes up a little bit. When that worked, then you knew, 'Well, I guess that'll be in the piece.' When they start getting bored and not paying attention, then you go, 'Well, we gotta try something new there.' You want them to enjoy singing it."
One part where Reynolds managed to light up everyone's eyes was the one with the guy with only one eye. "The Cyclops section was the most fun for them from the get-go," he says. "It's bouncy and sort of rockin', and they sing percussion parts in it as well as the melodies. That's one of the things we experimented with. You know, singing a percussion part is pretty repetitive, and I think the adults were afraid the kids would be bored. That was the part the kids enjoyed singing the most."
In that segment, Turner can hear the musical qualities of Reynolds that she appreciates most. When she first heard his work, she says, "What I loved was his driving rhythmic sense. Children can be so rhythmic naturally. A lot of us grow up, and where does it go? But they've got it innately. What I learned even more from this commission is, Graham is incredible at writing melodies – melodies that fit the mood of the music and melodies that you leave singing. That was a wonderful observation, because with children you certainly need a melody."
Reynolds credits the fact that he was writing for children with loosening him up in the melody department. "It gives you permission to do things you wouldn't normally do," he says. "I enjoy writing melodies, and I write music with straightforward melodies all the time, but with kids, it really calls for it. You can strip away expectations for superdense chromatic structures because it's not going to work and make it lighthearted in a way that, if it was made for adults, you might not get away with as easily."
That doesn't mean that there weren't adjustments to be made, just like sailors tacking for the wind. "There were incremental steps along the way – due dates for the score for the kids to learn or due dates for the orchestration or the workshop production in the spring – and each of those brought their own challenges and obstacles," says Reynolds. "So you had to overcome them the same way the Cyclops was an obstacle to overcome for Odysseus."
Turner remembers receiving the first draft of the score, with a section that had "at least 32 measures of singing off beats on a syllable. That would be incredibly hard for children to pull off." Then they had the idea of tying the beats to a word – "fallen" repeated throughout the phrase – and the children had "something to hang on to" musically. Turner and Reynolds were always able to chart a new course. "I loved working with Graham in that regard," she says. "We worked very well together in the nuts and bolts of a compositional piece."
Reynolds returns the praise, saying of Turner: "She knows the kids the best, she knows their capabilities, and she'd tell me when it was too easy and boring or too hard. She'd come with ideas for clarity or ideas to help them sing but also strengthen their performance. It was a push and pull but a positive one."
The creators have been pushing and pulling for two years – not quite as long as Odysseus was on his voyage home but still a long time for one project. Too long? Not to Turner. "The whole journey has been worth it, from start to finish," she insists. "I would not change one part of the journey." The time allowed them to give the kids input, to perform a workshop version, to learn what truly worked in the piece. "A lot of what we tried – which the kids learned beautifully, they learned some incredibly difficult things – in the end almost obscured the beautiful melody and the text of the story."
And everyone – composer, librettist, director, commissioner, and kids – wants the beauty of the story to shine through. With the end of the journey in sight (with the 100-member choir and 12-piece orchestra performing the work), Reynolds reflects on where they've been and what they've made: "Everybody thinks of a story in a slightly different way. So it would be somewhat miraculous for everyone to come and experience it the way they read it. Hopefully we've come up with our own way that's a mixture of Beverly's idea and Kathleen's idea and my idea of what the story is, and it'll be a fun, different version for everyone."
The Odyssey will be performed Sunday, Nov. 4, 4pm, at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, 8134 Mesa. For more information, call 486-1221 or visit www.austinchildrenschoir.com.