Dylan Thomas' poetry will soon be translated into a new medium--music.
Celebrating the centenary of the poet's birth, Thomas' first published poem "And Death Shall Have No Dominion," will become a live participatory singing event for a synchronized headphone choir on June 21, conceived by Welsh composer Peter Wyer.
Using an app that contains the accompaniment and synchronizes their mobile devices, participants set-off along 45-minute walking routes through lower Manhattan, singing the words of the renowned poet across the landscape of his final days.
The performers begin their walk individually, singing just one part. Little by little, as routes converge, the song is revealed in its fullness until eventually, everyone assembles together for a grand choral finale accompanied by the Asphalt Orchestra, at the gazebo in Rockefeller Park.
John Schaefer, New Sounds, WNYC describes the event as "a really beautiful work and when you get to Rockefeller park, your reward is that you get to sing alongside this great "Bang On A Can" stationary marching band [Asphalt Orchestra]" Welsh actor John Hywel (Broadway, West End) will be on site to read the poem.
Participants are invited to reflect on Thomas' words that famously declare triumph over death in the context of their own personal journey. Anyone can take part -- it is unnecessary to read music or to have sung in a choir previously. Additionally the event is still signing up singers, (especially tenors and basses). Non-signing participants are encouraged to capture the event on video, especially the moments before signing begins, as singers walk and then converge and upload the footage to the event's website or social media page.
And Death Shall Have No Dominion is an arrangement of a Dylan Thomas poem set to music for the world's first synchronized headphone choir. Imagine I am a participant (which I actually am signed up to be). How does this work? What can I expect when I arrive on the 21st? Do I have to be a singer or can anyone sing?
PW: We begin by being spread out all across lower Manhattan. You can choose to walk one of the four pre-set guided routes with our professional singers (Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass) or choose to walk your own individual route. Once you have decided your starting point you'll need to be there at latest by 10:45 a.m. Starting points and further info. is pasted below for the pre-set routes.
At exactly 11:00 a.m. the app that has been developed for the project (and which you have downloaded along with the music) will automatically begin playing a backing track (there will also be a 'Plan B' for systems that aren't compatible). This is your cue to begin your walking route across Manhattan to the assembly point at Rockefeller Park.
As you walk, you will be singing in tune and in time with a larger chorus. My hope is that as you walk, little by little as the routes converge, the chorus grows until we are finally one big assembled chorus down in Rockefeller Park, where we finally take off our headphones and sing together.
For me there is a metaphor within the piece: we begin singing individually and perhaps the words -- on such a profound subject -- have specific meaning for us, my hope is that the piece gives an opportunity for both a personal introspective experience and a shared one -- in my ideal version, when people arrive there has been an element of contemplation that deepens the experience of singing together, that gives a sense of our deep connectedness that I feel gets so easily overlooked.
I do want to stress that this is a piece for everyone -- it's not about being a great singer (I wish I was, but I'm certainly not) it's about bringing your own voice and being a part of the song -- it's about the ritual of singing together.
What was your first introduction to Dylan Thomas and what inspired this particular piece of work based on this particular poem?
PW: I think for me, like many it was "Under Milk Wood" and "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" -- funnily enough I first encountered "And Death Shall Have No Dominion" through the romantic comedy Truly, Madly, Deeply where it was part-quoted, I looked it up: as soon as I read it I promised myself I'd set I it to music -- and, 23 years later, when I learnt of the centenary of Dylan Thomas's birth, I did. I always felt like I was saving the poem for a special occasion.
I set it to music at the Blue Mountain Centre on a residency in 2013 -- but it came too easily -- I sat down and sang and played it almost immediately after I arrived, so I left it on the piano for four weeks and kept glancing at it and playing it and thinking "this can't be it... surely." It slowly dawned on me that actually this was "it"; it didn't need laboring (rather typical of the way these things go, the actual music probably took 5-10 minutes to write, the remaining months of work have been all the necessary paraphernalia around it).
This event is a marriage of music, poetry, technology and some would say, site-specific theater. How do you identify this event and is it reflective of other works you may have staged?
PW: For me this is a new way of performing choral music, that's what really excites me -- through the ages the rituals of singing together have often been theatrical and used the technologies of the day, but in the 21st century extraordinary things are possible and I like the idea of using technology to bring singers together in a way that is still richly 'human' - I am struck by the irony of being better connected than any people in the history of the planet and yet in many ways more isolated and fragmented. So I'm drawn to works that invite a wide and diverse audience towards what I see as our innate connectedness.
Other works that perhaps illustrate this approach are the large scale 'Simultaneity' from 2004, which made simultaneous recordings from all around the world and played them back across multiple speakers (for example one recording featured 40 people in 23 countries recording anything marking the hour - clocks, train announcements, church bells). It was described as a 'God's ear perspective of the world'
I also developed a system, the Omnio 360, that has been used many times called 'Time Structured Mapping' - it's a very simple mapping system that synchronizes 'events' over a time period - so, for example, in 2009 I used the system to create 'Insomnia Poems' based on the poetry of Steve Dalachinsky for BBC's Jazz on 3 show - we had a very diverse team of musicians: a laptop player, a French 'chanteuse', the poet himself, guitar, piano, contrabass clarinet... each player had disparate skills, but what I loved about it was that the end result felt like a composite of both (my) composition and what each individual brought, the system allowed ways for each 'voice' to combine in a meaningful way and, for me, it really didn't sound like any genre (the system has been used with full orchestras, dance-theatre-music works and educational projects alongside many concert works)
How do you, as a conceptual artist begin to dream of concept?
PW: Ha! Am I a conceptual artist? Someone needs to tell me! I am mostly described as a composer and that is how I've earned my living for the last 14 years but I find I am often drawn to music to facilitate the idea - one feature years ago read: 'Pete M. Wyer, Composer with Time and Space' I loved that, it had me reaching for a mail-order Star Trek uniform.....
To answer the actual question, for me it usually begins very intuitively, I don't sit down trying to figure it all out, often the most interesting ideas come from a walk: I don't have any 'process' but I do get fired up by ideas and that enthusiasm usually sustains me through the agonizing process of turning an idea into reality. I also try to indulge ideas, I'm quite reckless about it - I've written screenplays, stage plays, novels, books of poetry - I have a company that makes 16 (independent) speaker immersive sound systems and I regularly scribble any number of ideas out that have nothing to do with art - it's not that I dream of being a great novelist or whatever, it's just that I feel I should honor the ideas, sort of welcome them in and give them a home.... and just occasionally, the dots join up and something becomes a piece.
Tell me about your music background? How did you begin making music?
PW: In my early teens my brother brought home a songbook of The Eagles and I learnt chords from the pictures - I didn't know the tunes so I made up my own (no doubt they were hilariously bad). I formed a band at school and the other guitarist studied classical guitar - everyone kept saying his playing was great, so I taught myself to read music and learnt the pieces he was playing (I wasn't trying to compete, it just seemed that was a good way to learn). Then, some time later, I left my chemistry degree to go off on a rock and roll tour.... and never came back.
Favorite significant locations that the audience will be walking through?
PW: Well the singers are free to choose their own routes, of course, and there are many significant places for Dylan Thomas in New York.
If you are choosing this self-guided option, a good place to start when planning is to look at the wonderful "Dylan Thomas Walking Tour of Greenwich Village, New York" written by Peter Thabit Jones and Aeronwy Thomas (the poet's grand-daughter).
Our soprano route starts very near the literary haunt, the White Horse Tavern that was a favorite of Thomas'. This route also passes the Church of St Luke's in the Field, on Hudson St, where Dylan Thomas' memorial was held after he died. Our mezzo (Alto) route also starts on the south side of Washington Square Park, famously associated with Thomas.
Of course, aside from Dylan Thomas himself - to sing the words of this poem may have different meanings for different people and it's impossible to ignore the fact that we are holding the event so close to the site of 9/11.
Any video or music tracks you can share with us as a preview?
PW: This one actually has singers in the streets and perhaps gives the best glimpse of what the piece might be like:
AND DEATH SHALL HAVE NO DOMINION
Date & location:
Saturday, June 21st 2014 at 11 am at various points (see below for The Routes)
The event culminates at the gazebo, Rockefeller Park (Battery Park City) at 11:45am for the grand choral finale with accompaniment by the Bang On A Can: Asphalt Orchestra
To register, download the music & synch your phone:
This is a FREE event but registration is recommended.
Please register here.
• Sign-up for further information regarding the walking routes and synchronizing your smartphone
• Listen and download the music to your smartphone
For those who wish to you can also download the sheet music:
Conceived & composed by Pete M Wyer
Based on the poem by Dylan Thomas
Recorded at the London Recording Studios (formerly Sarm East Studios)
Recording Engineer: Murillo Sguillaro
Music Consultant: Peter Wilkinson
Soprano: Gweneth Jeffers
Alto: Hyacinth Nicholls
Tenor: Ed Hughes
Bass: Adam Green
Live Performance Artists New York:
Soprano: Eleanor Taylor
Alto: Kathryn Krasovec
Tenor: Glenn Seven Allen
Bass: David Schmidt
Live accompaniment: Asphalt Orchestra
Sponsorship & Outreach: Kathleen Wyer Lane
Graphic Design: John Lewis
Smartphone App Design: David Reeder
Creative Producer: Maedhbh Mc Cullagh
And Death Shall Have No Dominion is co-presented by Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Make Music New York and Poets House, in association with American Opera Projects as part of the River To River Festival 2014.
The project has been made possible thanks to the generous support of the British Council and was developed during a residency at the Blue Mountain Center. Additional support and thanks to Andy Horwitz, Owen Sheers, Ralph Samuelson, Visit Wales and the Welsh Government.
Follow the event on Twitter:
@petewyer #ADSHND @R2RFestival @makemusicny #r2rfestival #mmny2014