“I always want to find ways for listeners to have their own rich experience of knowing a work deeply and being moved by its unique language and expression.”
-Craig Hella Johnson
Managing director Ann McNair recently asked artistic director Craig Hella Johnson what he would tell listeners about The Singing Guitar: How Little You Are, Conspirare’s upcoming concert series and recording. These are some of his thoughts.
AM: Why did you feel compelled to bring How Little You Are back for both performance and recording?
CHJ: As a conductor, I have the opportunity to get to know a piece really well – through a long period of study and preparation, repeated playing of the score at the piano, and countless readings of the texts. So I always want to find ways for listeners to have their own rich experience of knowing a work deeply and being moved by its unique language and expression.
My initial source of musical inspiration for How Little You Are was the extraordinary polychoral sound that had its roots centuries ago at Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. I invited Nico Muhly to compose a work that harkened back to that amazing music with its dynamic antiphonal dialogue, but with guitars and voices. His elegant solution was to compose for three guitar quartets and a vocal choir.
Because of the guitars and the gentle vocal settings to balance them, How Little You Are isn’t a piece that cries out for attention; it communicates its beauty and wonder more subtly, more gently. In the performances, listeners will experience its detail, delicacy, and immediacy. Later, it will be particularly special to listen to the recording, perhaps repeatedly, in quiet, private spaces. These parallel but different experiences will take the listener deep into the piece.
AM: Tell us more about the world premiere by Kile Smith, set to a Native American text, and about the piece by Reena Esmail.
CHJ: I feel Kile’s passion about this piece every time we speak! He writes beautifully for voices and knows how to set text in a way that feels utterly natural and speaks directly to the listener. The Native American text was written in the late 1800s by Sarah Winnemucca, the first Native American woman to publish an English language narrative. It tells a powerful story from a very different perspective than the pioneering women whose texts are used in Nico’s piece. Finally, Reena’s compositions explore the spaces that divide and unite Indian and western classical music. She arranged her piece When the Violin for voices and guitars especially for this program, and it is a jewel.
AM: While you chose these works primarily because they speak to you artistically, do any thematic components feel especially relevant?
CHJ: Yes – stories and struggles of women. Sarah Winnemucca’s text especially addresses the significant divisions in our human family. Our country and our musical offerings are still greatly challenged in terms of representing women. It is a major Conspirare priority to commission and perform works that contribute to the forward movement of equality and justice for all.
And of course, threading through the entire program is the guitar, as both instrument and symbol. Poets and songwriters have long recognized the guitar’s distinctive, plaintive emotional qualities, and people feel an immediate closeness to it – particularly here in Texas, where it’s at the core of so much of our expression.
Reserve your seat today for the Austin performance on November 2 at the beautiful Austin ISD Performing Arts Center, and on November 3 in Houston at St. Luke’s at 7:30 pm. Tickets begin at $20 & $10 for students. The Singing Guitar program webpage has all the details!