Shawn's piece "Resignation" will be performed on Saturday August 18 at the 560 Music Center as part of the program "RISE UP: Sounds of Protest". He has a deep and multi-faceted connection to this work.
Tell us a little about your path to becoming a composer.
I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and started Suzuki violin at age 7. In high school, I studied with the concertmaster of the Louisville Orchestra, and attended the Youth Performing Arts School, where I played in orchestra and took classes in music theory and jazz improvisation. I started composing to figure out how music worked. I still vividly remember the first time I put together a basic chord progression by ear—it was exhilarating, as though I’d cracked a secret code. My mother worked in computer education for the public school system, so I was also fortunate to have a computer at home with music notation software in the mid-1990s, which, in Louisville at least, was unusual. By the time I was 15, I was pretty adept, so my mom arranged for me to teach an inservice training session for the public-school music teachers on this software.
The theme of this year's Gesher Music Festival is Voices Rising. How would you describe your musical voice? And how do you see the voice of an artist in today's social, political, and cultural landscape?
Place is central to my musical voice. Much of my music is inspired by the people and cultural practices of my native state of Kentucky, particularly Appalachian folk balladry and hymnody. I view art as a (spiritual) practice: the discipline, listening, and honesty required make me a better person. It’s a privilege to address an audience in sound, and I take it seriously. Following Pauline Oliveros, I want my art to be beneficial to myself, and all who experience it. I want to be vulnerable, and to create space in which others can be vulnerable, too. My primary subjects—place, grief, prayer, spiritual ecology, community—reflect these beliefs. Wendell Berry writes: “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.”
What can you tell us about your piece, Resignation?
“Resignation” takes its title from the American folk melody of the same name, better known as the tune for the Christian hymn, “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need,” with words, by Isaac Watts (1675-1748), paraphrasing Psalm 23. My song is built of fragments of text and music from the hymn, which are freely re-ordered, then frozen and repeated. As re-ordered, these fragments form a kind of litany or lament, in protest against our 45th President.
I wrote the song in early 2017, when Trump’s first travel ban was being implemented. Watts’ text is one of solace and comfort: the overriding message is “You will be provided for.” Basically, I take all the things Watts says we don’t have to worry about, and say, “You have to worry about these!” This was my response to the ban's callous indifference to suffering, as well as an expression of my despondency and anger as the new administration became increasingly brazen. Seen in this light, the title word, resignation, not only refers to the eponymous folk tune, but also connotes the frustrated acceptance of something undesirable, as well as the act of giving up political office.
Your music is included in a program entitled Sounds of Protest, and includes music by Shostakovich, Rzewski, and Ilse Weber. How do you think you as a composer fit in with this theme?
“Resignation,” for me, is definitely a song of protest, so I am grateful to be included on this program, alongside composers whose music I greatly admire. That said, the words, which are a re-working of a historical text, don’t mention any specific dates or names, but instead suggest a general atmosphere of fear and anger that isn’t specific to the situation—Trump’s travel ban—that was the impetus for writing the song. In this way, the song resonates beyond the specific situation from which it arose, but it loses specificity and clarity, as a result, and maybe thus needs more extra-musical explanation (like this) to explore its meanings. Then again, one could say the same thing about Shostakovich’s quartet.
Your wife, long-time Gesher superstar Lucy Dhegrae, will be singing this piece on the festival. Was it written for her? What can you tell us about Lucy's relationship to the piece?
I wrote this song for a recital Lucy gave in the spring of 2017. She, knowing how much I love folk music and hymns, suggested that I look at the tune Resignation—a favorite of hers since childhood. This was in December, 2016, shortly after Donald Trump was elected. I was struck by the music’s beauty and words’ solace. The contrast between this beauty and solace and the absence thereof in the political world we were entering at that time was the starting point for my song. Because Lucy knows the source material well, I think the piece is meaningful for her. It’s very simple and repetitive music (unusual for me), which leaves lots of space to communicate with and reflect on the words—something I think Lucy does especially well.