GALA in Denver: A Personal Overview
In early July I was in Denver for five days at the GALA Festival of choral music, which happens every four years.
This was my second GALA Festival, my first one being in Miami in 2008. The Festival featured over 100 choruses of every conceivable configuration performing for each other and the public. There were special concerts, morning seminars both artistic and business-oriented, huge mass choral singalongs, and more. Over 6000 delegates attended, including singers, artistic directors, members of boards of directors, and more.
I attended and performed at GALA as a member of Perfect Harmony Men's Chorus of Madison. We performed our set in combination with City of Festivals Men's Chorus of Milwaukee.
I also attended as a GALA composer: someone who had written music that was being premiered at the GALA Festival. In 2011 I was commissioned to write a major new work for Perfect Harmony Men's Chorus, based on the lives and stories of the men in the Chorus. I interviewed many men, and gathered many emails and poems and other materials given to me by the members of the Chorus, then made them into poetry and music, completing a new work entitled Heartlands, in 19 movements in various moods and styles. This was a major commission for me, and work I was pleased to do. We premiered the work in June 2012 in concerts in Madison and Milwaukee, then re-premiered 7 songs from the work at GALA in Denver.
It was a privilege and an honor to have my music performed at GALA in Denver. "Heartlands" puts me among the ranks of composers who have been commissioned by choruses and had their works performed at GALA Festivals, which honors me. An important aspect of the entire GALA movement has been to commission new music: when the movement began in the early 1980s, hardly any music specific to LGBT choruses existed, those stories had not yet been told in music. Now many classics have been written, and performed by many choruses worldwide again and again.
The LGBT chorus movement has been about both affirmation and ambassadorship. Many choruses share similar mission statements, alike in intent if not in exact wording. That mission often reduces to: reaching out to make the world a better place through song. It involves education about LGBT social issues and lifestyles. It presents the movements for equality—and against bullying and other forms of oppression—in their best light, in an almost-unified message of validation and resistance.
(Downtown Denver at night)
The social-justice aspect of GALA Choruses is at times more dominant than the musical aspect. Personally, I like it best when both aspects are in balance. I think the social-justice aspect is best served by being cast as memorable and enduring art. For the same reasons that political poetry often has a short shelf-life, music about a social issue can be topical but not long-lived unless it finds something universal within the personal, and touches an enduring chord within both performers and listeners. Not all GALA Chorus music succeeds in the long haul; but there is a lot of new music still being written, and some of it will most definitely endure.
Meanwhile, many of the social-justice issues surrounding LGBT life remain unresolved, so much of the music will remain relevant until AIDS has been cured, until kids stop committing suicide (at triple the usual rate among teenagers) for having been bullied for being gay, until marriage equality has been achieved, until all states in the union no longer allow businesses to fire you or landlords to deny you a lease, just because you are who you are. In other words, till being different is no longer stigmatized, and all aspects of personal diversity become No Big Deal to the mainstream general culture—which is what the US Constitution promises all of us, at its core.
Heartlands was written to tell the stories of men growing up and living as gay people in the Midwestern heartlands, between the Great Lakes and the Great Prairie. The words and music evolved from many interviews done with the members of Perfect Harmony, and from writings and stories submitted during a process of gathering material. It was my job to then take those stories and interviews and turn them into poetry, then set those words to music. Often the stories themselves gave me a clue as to what style of words and music should be used to tell them: many stories had threads in common with other stories, leading to choral pieces that were many voices singing in unison or in parallel; other stories were distinct and unique, and led to writing either solo songs, or were set as movements for soloists with chorus. The range and style of music and mood across all 19 movements was diverse, and intended to be.
What that led to, at GALA in Denver, was a response that I had hoped for: we were one of the few performances at Festival that included light and dark, anger and sorrow as well as joy and affirmation. In fact, comments made their way back to us after our performance that our presentation stood out in its authenticity, for being "real" about how life really is, in all its complexity. Heartlands also stood out for being genuinely emotional because so many other choruses chose, this Festival, to do sets that revolved presentations of LGBT life as seen in current popular media, many performances notably modeled on or in imitation of the current television program Glee.
To be clear where I stand, and with no intent to provoke anything but thoughtful discussion: Glee has many charming aspects, not least of which is that it presents a lot of music performances on any given episode. However, Glee also presents a fantasy of schoolyard acceptance, represents culture as superficially as most contemporary pop music entertainment has often done, and in the end doesn't really stick to the ribs. At GALA Festival 2012 in Denver, the influence of Glee was perhaps too prevalent, as many GALA choruses performed sets direct from the TV show. This produced mixed results. Some choruses performed their Glee-inspired sets with such gusto, such enthusiasm, such vigor and joyfulness, that the audience was totally won over. Other Glee-influenced sets were less impressive, and less enjoyable. A lot of what made a difference was level of performance, and style of presentation: giving to whatever you're singing all of your heart and soul will always help you connect with your audience, and simultaneously giving a technically-excellent performance will only enhance that.
In my personal opinion, the influence of Glee on this GALA Festival was strong, perhaps too prevalent, and not always a good idea. On the other hand, some of the feedback we received about our performance of part of Heartlands was that it stood out all the more because of the context in which it was presented. I think some GALA delegates thought of our set as even more authentic and stand-out because we did a set so very different from many of the Glee-dominated sets. LGBT life out there in the real world is not all unicorns and puppies, folks, and the movements of Heartlands that we presented at GALA Festival made that clear.
There have been numerous similar commissions written for GALA choruses before—but not from a uniquely Midwestern, cornfield-and-small-town perspective. Most similar GALA works, made up from the stories of members of the choruses who commissioned the work, have been made from choruses that come from dominantly urban, coastal areas. I have essayed before that one of the most significant divides within LGBT culture is the urban-rural divide, which I believe is actually a greater divide than many others that create sub-cultures within overall LGBT culture. Heartlands reflects this, with many segments of the work focusing on what it's like to grow up and live as LGBT within small rural towns, on the farm, in those smaller places between the coastal regions of the USA that many people on those coasts dismiss as important, as the "flyover zone." Even within mainstream LGBT culture, which is mainly an urban (or urban ghetto) or suburban culture by its own estimation, the stories of rural gays and lesbians are often marginalized as outsider subcultures. So far as we knew when we began the writing of Heartlands, many of these kinds of stories of LGBT life the rural Midwest had never before been told in song, nor told at GALA Festival, except perhaps in small bits, in passing. Heartlands represents the first major choral work intended to fill in that gap.
As I said, for myself performing my own music at GALA Festival 2012 was a dream come true. I am now a "GALA composer." Perfect Harmony Men's Chorus gained status at this GALA Festival by being one of the small number choruses to present a full set of all-new, all-commissioned music—which put them among the ranks of much larger, more famous choruses such as San Francisco, Portland, Twin Cities and others with much larger memberships and budgets, who regularly commission new music. That our performance set was so very well-received put me on cloud nine for weeks afterwards. (Since I got home from GALA I admit to personally experiencing a difficult level of post-GALA, post-partum depression. I can hardly wait till next Festival, or the next new music commission I am asked to do.) My ambition is to do it all over again: write new music for other GALA choruses, to receive other performances in whole or in part of Heartlands, perhaps by other choruses, and to make this my future career. Nothing would please me more than to be once again a GALA composer.
There are other aspects of my experience at GALA Festival in Denver that I am still integrating, still thinking about, still exploring in my mind. I expect that process to percolate on for awhile. And I'm in no hurry to analyze or conclude. Meanwhile, life goes on, I continue to write new music, new songs, new words, and expect that to continue. Perfect Harmony will performing a short piece of mine this upcoming winter concert, a setting of the "Lux Aeterna." And being at GALA Festival inspired me to write a piece in commemoration of the life and work of Harvey Milk, using his own words as text, "You Gotta Give 'Em Hope." In my life, creative forward momentum continues on, and I hope it continues to do so for a long, long time. So Mote It Be!