Bourland/Hall: Hidden Legacies (1992)

May 20, 2007

Hidden Legacies (CD cover)

Music by Roger Bourland, lyrics by John Hall
Performed by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, Jon Bailey,
For men’s chorus, 4 synthesizers, bass and drums
Live performance at the Wiltern Theater, April 1992.

1. Before the storm

2. The Nightmare

3. Give us a death undiminished

4. Left Behind

5. Dinosaur

6. Hidden Legacies (Lullabye)

7. We sing

[Lyrics can be found at John Hall’s website.]

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

[These notes were written by me (RB) in September 1992.]

Background: Roger Bourland is the Chair of the Composition program at the UCLA Department of Music. In September of 1990, he was commissioned by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles to compose a major choral work that dealt with the AIDS crisis. The lyrics were written by his UCLA colleague, John Hall. The work was premiered at UCLA’s Royce Hall on April 11, 1992 and was subsequently performed at the Wiltern Theater (L.A.), Pomona College, Myerson Hall (Dallas), Boetcher Auditorium and Buell Auditorium (1992 GALA conference, Denver). Over the next 2 years, the work was performed by nearly every large gay men’s chorus across the US to standing ovations and sold-out halls.

The commission
Jon Bailey, the artistic director and conductor of the chorus, stipulated that for this commission he did not want a requiem, or a work that only dealt with grief and despair, but rather a work that was truly life affirming. My friend and colleague John Hall agreed to write the lyrics for the work but realized what an enormous responsibility it would be to try to speak for the 165 men in the GMCLA, who has already lost over 70 members to the AIDS epidemic. The collaboration that took place over the next year evolved into “Hidden Legacies” — a 40 minute cantata in seven movements scored for four synthesizers, fretless bass guitar, drums, and men’s chorus.

The story
Hidden Legacies is a tribute to those who are living with HIV, those left behind, and those who have offered help in times of intense sorrow. The first two movements are historically based upon what occurred just before and just after the discovery of “the gay cancer.” The following five movements are from the various points of view of the chorus itself.

The work opens with “Before the Storm” which paints a picture of the sexual liberation movement of the late ’70s. In the second movement, “The Nightmare,” the virus enters the picture and all around us gays are mysteriously dropping dead. The media latches on to the new “gay cancer” and spreads the news with all its journalistic bravado. Politicians try to sweep it under the rug. The third movement, entitled “Give us a death undiminished,” is the angriest lyric of the piece which is ironically set in an almost sacred musical setting: “…So give us death with dignity. A final breath, infinity awaits. We’re at the gates; and with our death please signify that we were here. No need to cry, just look us in the eye!”

“Left Behind” is the fourth and middle movement of the cantata. It is a poignant look at those people who have been left behind and a salute to those who have helped us in times of need. The fifth song, “Dinosaur,” is a kind of scotch and soda, smoky voiced solo reminiscence of a man who has lost all of his old friends who knew him when he was young, kind, witty, “even pretty.” And now they are gone. The only thing that the world sees now is a bitter, tired, overweight queen. Swirling the ice in his drink, and exhaling a lungful of smoke, he laments: “…I know how she felt, that last brontosaurus.”

The penultimate movement is the composition’s namesake: “Hidden Legacies (Lullaby).” It is set at the bedside of a dying lover who is told of the legacies that he has left behind, and that although they may not be visible, they are nonetheless life changing for the survivor. Although the lyrics are devastatingly sad, we are profoundly touched by the strength of the consoling companion. It is exactly this strength that is the foundation upon which our emotional and spiritual survival depends. The final movement, “We Sing,” is a song of hope, strength, and courage. The chorus acknowledges that although its songs can not bring health, strength, or peace, “…our songs have changed us. If our songs can change us, could they change you?”

The question of style
In that my musical intention in “Hidden Legacies” was to speak to as wide of an audience as possible, I took a post-modernist stance, and a definite risk by incorporating influences from a variety of musical languages. Acculturation (the embracing of aspects of another aesthetic or culture by an outsider) taught me that when one culture (or artist) imitates or borrows from another, it rarely sounds like the original. So even when I draw on a musical aesthetic outside the mainstream of contemporary ‘classical’ music, it never really sounds like the source. If it does, then it degenerates into style composition. What follows is a list of influences that I drew upon while composing “Hidden Legacies.”

The opening movement, “Before the Storm” draws on Stravinsky’s incessant major-minor sparring, rips into something vaguely reminiscent of the Jets music in West Side Story, strolls into a Mexican waltz (but in 5/8), and closes with a good old rockish climax. The opening of “The Nightmare” has its roots in Morton Subotnick’s Four Butterflies. What then follows is mostly Bourland, but draws on the energy of Cream’s famous “Spoonful” jam. The song closes like a kinky-timed Gamelan. The next two movements are both examples of ironic text settings.

The models for “Give us a death undiminished” were Beethoven’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage and Randall Thompson’s “Alleluia.” This is peculiar in that the text is extremely angry, whereas the music sounds like a sacred anthem. “Left Behind” is one of the saddest lyrics of the work. Rather than reinforcing the sorrow, I set it as country-western song. The ironic setting left even my most modernist colleagues in tears.

“Dinosaur” begins with a kind of Kurt Weill-on-acid-at-the-circus type feeling and closes in an impassioned Crosby Stills and Nash flavor. “Lullaby” is pure Bourland, but draws on the contrapuntal technique of the Baroque chorale prelude tradition. “We Sing” returns to the harmonic language of the opening and rallies to a finale that draws on Steve Reich’s Six Marimbas.

Although a few critics slammed me for embracing this post-modernist aesthetic, the response of the director, the chorus, and the audience (gay and straight) confirmed for me that the risk was well worth taking.

Instrumentation and Performance Practice Challenges
Having heard several of my “Portable Rhapsodies” for solo instruments and tape, Jon Bailey specifically requested that “Hidden Legacies” include synthesizers. I suggested that dealing with tape would be a less-stress option that he should consider. He flatly said no and insisted that the work have live synthesizers. Realizing I was about to discover the technological challenges that Philip Glass and Daniel Lentz had already faced, I decided that I would use two Yamaha TX802s, a Roland D50, and a Korg M1. The TX802s offer the whole sonic realm that had been opened up by FM synthesis technology, and the D50 and M1 were both strong and widely available hybrid synthesizers. What I was not interested in was using samplers to replace acoustic instruments. So many synthesizer sounds I hear on television and in movies use the factory sounds that came with the original synthesizer. Although I confess that I used a few factory sounds, I spent three months last summer auditioning some 30,000 sounds for these instruments, out of which I chose a palette of around 300 from which to work. Of these 300 sounds, I only used about 50 – and it is these sounds that give “Hidden Legacies” its unique color.

In an instrumentation such as this, the problem of monitoring is significant. All six instrumentalists need to hear themselves, but also the conductor and the chorus. Budget is usually a primary consideration, but two setups worked quite well. In an ideal setup, the six instrumentalists all have their own monitor. Each synth has a monitor of its own sound, and the conductor, bass and drummer all have a mono mix. The chorus has two stereo monitors on high stands on stage left and stage right — and optimally, two monitors behind it. The house system is then plugged into for the stereo mix of the ensemble. In the best of all possible worlds, the chorus is miked so that its sound can blend with the ensemble’s.
With a low budget setup, four monitors can be used: two that face the chorus (angled to the center) and two that double as house monitors as well as the monitors for the ensemble. In this situation, the chorus is most likely unmiked, so it is imperative that the acoustic sound of the chorus not be overpowered by the synthesizer ensemble.

Responses to Hidden Legacies
Of the six sold out concerts, the piece received standing ovations that would not stop. After the performance the audience was exhilarated, devastated, sobbing, smiling through tears, embracing, consoling, and changed. Never in my life have I had a reception like this. Absolute strangers would come up to me, embrace me and sob on my shoulder. The chorus was overwhelmed. The work had become theirs. They sang it with powerful conviction, and they thanked me for giving them a vehicle in which to express their anger, sorrow, despair, strength, and hope.

Of all the hundreds of stories that I heard about people’s response to the piece, one stood out. A man in the chorus in his late thirties told a story about his father’s response. His father was a bigot of the highest order. “Kike,” “faggot,” and “nigger” were everyday words in this family. The father was, to say the least, not thrilled when his son admitted that he was gay. Begrudgingly, he consented to come and hear Hidden Legacies. After the concert, the father greeted his son with arms outstretched, and hugged him for the first time, sobbing, and asking for forgiveness for ever having hurt him.

Hidden Legacies clearly has changed many people. It has most assuredly changed me. If I were to die tomorrow, I could go knowing that I have done something for this planet.

[CD cover photo by Tom Bianchi for GMCLA’s commercial recording of “Hidden Legacies (now out of print.)

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