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Collaboration as Modern Narrative: A Conversation with Members of the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum

By Cherie Z. Hu, Contributing Writer

As much as I have enjoyed writing my “Artistic Matchmaker” column throughout this semester, I have found its tone to be frustratingly speculative. The takeaway of each post has been limited to “these two people ‘could’ work together” or “these interdisciplinary projects ‘could’ be amazing,” without any evidence of such a project really coming to fruition. For this reason, when I first heard about “battle hymns,” a collaboration among the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum, the Boston Children’s Chorus, and the Harvard Dance Project, I was eager to delve more deeply into this real-life example of the type of partnership I had been exploring only on a more theoretical level. Through its amalgamation of dance, history, architecture, visual art, and music, “battle hymns” combines everything I have written about in this column so far—art as a different reality, as a metaphor, as social commentary, and as a force of change, as a universal language, as a recontextualization of time and space—into a single artistic undertaking that truly showcases the creativity and intellect of the Harvard community and whose motivations and merits should not be ignored.

“battle hymns,” which will take place on May 2, is the second installment in a three-part concert series given by the Holden Choruses called “…unfinished work…” which commemorates the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War. “…unfinished work…” is interdisciplinary collaboration at its most consummate, combining not only different art forms but also distinct academic circles. Distinguished Harvard faculty members such as professors Timothy McCarthy and John Stauffer helped develop the narrative of the concert series by gathering primary source documents from the Civil War, including letters and petitions written by members of the Harvard community. These faculty members have been listed as “creative consultants” in the concert program, signaling a genuine intersection of artistry and academia toward which Harvard’s arts scene seems to be trending, particularly with its new Theater, Dance, and Media concentration.

One of the cornerstones of “battle hymns” will be David Lang’s “after stephen foster,” a work for mixed chorus, children’s choir, and dance ensemble. This unique combination of performers invites a reflection on the connections between music and dance, which the members of Collegium understand well. “Singers often forget that singing is a physical activity, just like dancing,” explains Collegium member Taylor E. Weary ’16. “Although singing can seem unnatural—just standing in one place, having sound coming just from your mouth—it really does require your whole body. I think working with more kinesthetic artists like the Dance Project has really helped to bring that out for us.”

Collegium manager Lauren E. Goff ’16 expands on this idea by recounting a memorable moment in the second section of Lang’s piece, set to Stephen Foster’s poem “Was My Brother in the Battle?,” in which individual dancers enter into the personal space of the singers onstage and make eye contact with them. “While the singers are verbally asking this question of ‘was my brother in the battle?’ the dancers then express that feeling more physically and almost ask it back to the singers,” says Lauren. Such moments indicate a literal breakdown of the boundaries between ensembles and between art forms, enabling unique interactions between groups and individuals.

The interdisciplinary nature of “battle hymns” helps drive the concert’s underlying historical narrative. “The integration of dance and singing is part of this bigger narrative that we’re trying to paint,” says Collegium member Lijia Xie ’17. Deviating from what Lijia calls a “sing-bow-clap type of concert,” or a traditional concert consisting of a routine performance and applause, this collaboration presents instead what she describes as “a larger story told visually and orally, with the goal of challenging our audience to think about what might be missing or misrepresented in this narrative.” Clark adds that the Harvard Dance Project, directed by Jill Johnson, has brought incredible insight to Collegium and to their repertoire through their “use of art-making to ask really important questions about ourselves, about society, where we are, and where we’re headed.”

Indeed, in its effort to incorporate modern perspectives, this narrative is not only historical but also current and forward-looking. The concert will take place in Memorial Hall, highlighting the venue’s often-overlooked role as a Civil War memorial and as an emblem of a complicated, unreconciled racial and social history at Harvard. The phrase “…unfinished work…”, taken from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, suggests that the work to which Lincoln referred over 150 years ago is still unfinished today. In this vein, Collegium member Daniel J. Hellstrom ’18 hopes “battle hymns” will extend Lincoln’s mission and encourage audience members to “think more about the ‘unfinished work’ not just in our own society, but also in other places around the world.” Collegium member Michael C.A. Leonard ’17 adds that one of the most pressing issues in this concert is addressing the unheard voices in Memorial Hall’s commemoration of Civil War martyrs: “Memorial Hall makes no mention of Confederate soldiers, black soldiers, or women … Our hope with this concert series is to get people to think about those missing voices more.”

Through its resolution to transcend both artistic disciplines and time periods, “battle hymns” is likely to be an engaging event for both the performers and audience members and serves as a sign of equally exciting artistic projects to come within Collegium and in the Harvard arts community at large. “As someone who has been careful or skeptical about the notion of interdisciplinarity, this has been a transformational experience for me to see how exciting and meaningful it is for the chorus to connect with scholars and with other artists,” Clark says. “I’m hoping that this is just the beginning of rethinking and redefining the work that we do.”

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