We're All Here
for mixed chorus and ten instruments (or) piano (2002 / 2008)
SATB / piano
version with ensemble
23 October 2002
First Unitarian Society, Madison, Wisconsin
The Brookfield Central High School Chorus / Present Music / Philip Olsen
version with piano
11 May 2008
Trinity Lutheran Church, Madison, Wisconsin
Wisconsin Chamber Choir / Robert Gehrenbeck
SATB, flute, oboe, clarinet, marimba/vibraphone, piano, 2 violins, viola, cello, contrabass (or) piano
Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robert Frost, James Fenimore Cooper (E)
I. Pied Beauty (Gerard Manley Hopkins)
This autumnal piece is cyclic in shape, a gentle meditation on mortality that ends with rebirth. There's a good deal of nostalgia for my Wisconsin childhood in it. Inasmuch as there is a program, I imagine it performed outdoors on a beautiful, cool, early autumn evening on the rolling lawn of a prairie-style home somewhere along the shores of Lake Mendota, the smell of grilling brats, newly-fallen leaves, lake water, and Leinenkugel beer mingling in the air. There are children everywhere.
— Daron Hagen, 2002
Soul is hard to define, but you know it when you hear it. It filled our ears, our hearts and the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist on Sunday as Present Music played its annual Thanksgiving concert.... [giving] the premiere of Daron Hagen's We're All Here, for mixed choir and large chamber ensemble. Hagen's setting of poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robert Frost and James Fennimore Cooper has a sense of autumnal sunset about its sentiments and colors, but We're All Here is not about the dying of the light. Its golden hues glow brighter as the music passes, from murmuring embers driven by tremolo chords on the marimba to a bonfire of familial warmth at the end of the Fennimore Cooper poem, which gives the piece its name. The harmonies build to searing heat and the volume rises, but the music remains light and transparent. The climax does not crush; it glows and pulses with joy colored by a yearning for a world filled with pure and all-embracing love.
— Tom Strini, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 11/24/03
The Milwaukee-born composer has a special relationship to Madison. He wrote and premiered his first opera, Shining Brow, for the Madison Opera in 1993. The work was a hit and changed his life in ways that he still feels deeply today. The powerful and quite beautiful opera about the life of Frank Lloyd Wright has been revived several times, and Hagen has almost completed a recording of it. (See accompanying story) He says he feels his new piece reflects the way he has grown as a person and an artist, a growth that started with Shining Brow. 'Ever since then, I have understood the importance of music connecting with a community of some sort,' Hagen says in a recent phone interview. 'I've become more demanding on myself as a composer and more selective in the commission projects I choose.' He's in the middle of writing a series of three concertos: a work for piano left hand for the gifted but disabled pianist Gary Graffman; a double concerto for violin and cello for the husband-and-wife team of Jamie Laredo and Sharon Robinson; and a trombone concerto, which is still in the planning stages. The first concerto, for Graffman, is based on the seven last words of Christ on the cross. The double concerto is called 'Pieta,' named for the famous Michelangelo sculpture of Mary holding her dead son at the foot of the cross. The trombone concerto will deal with no less than the end of the world. 'The trombone will be the lead voice, but the orchestral trombones will signify the four horsemen of the apocalypse,' Hagen explains. 'I want to create a cathartic situation for the audience, the players and me.' He recounts that Graffman 'wedded himself to his concerto. I had a lot of people hugging me after that premiere. It was post 9-11, and it gave me a sense of community and being deeply connected with the people. I'm not even associated with any organized religion, but I want these works to be faith-based. I want music to mean something to people.' The new piece's themes are less overtly religious, but it continues Hagen's striving for spiritual connections. He says all he has left of his immediate family is a sister-in-law, and he no longer comes back to Milwaukee for the holidays.
'I thought there was a really strong sentiment for families coming together despite their fights and differences,' he says. 'My father died last year and we left a lot unsaid, of course. The piece is a gentle meditation on mortality that ends with rebirth. We're All Here is about everybody you've ever known, living or dead, and how they can all be present in some way in an act 'I realized I could still find some community there,' he says. I talked to the choir director about collaborating with Present Music. I love the idea of giving high school students a chance to work with professional musicians.' The piece will feature the chorus with the acclaimed Milwaukee ensemble and is based on three literary texts. The first is 'Pied Beauty,' an impressionistic poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins that celebrates 'all things counter, original, spare, strange,' among animals and humans. Hagen will use this to honor people who are 'different in lifestyles, and different in the best way, creatively,' he says. The work is dedicated to victims and survivors of AIDS, among whom Hagen counts many friends. The second poem is Robert Frost's 'Gathering Leaves,' which signifies for the New York-based Hagen his nostalgia for autumn in Wisconsin. 'Raking leaves seems endless, and the leaves seem slight and valueless,' he says. 'But it's a necessary cleansing rite to prepare for seasonal renewals.' The final verse setting is 'We're All Here,' which is a frontispiece from James Fenimore Cooper's novel Wyandotte, a tale of colonial life similar to Cooper's better known The Deerslayer. 'In my setting of Cooper's poem,' Hagen says, 'I progressed from a feeling of remembrance and mourning to acceptance and ultimately back to the joyful spirit of Hopkins' poem.'
— Kevin Lynch, The Capital Times, 11/22/02
Composer puts poetry to music
It occurred to both composer Daron Hagen and me that 'Driving to Normal' would be a great title for a piece. The subject came up because Hagen, 41, was driving to Normal, Ill., from New York City, when I caught up with him for an interview via cell phone. Hagen, a Brookfield native long transplanted to New York, was passing through Pennsylvania on his way to a four-day residency at Illinois State University. He sensibly pulled off the road to talk, so the headline on this story won't be 'Crashing on the Way to Normal,' which is also not a bad name for a piece. After his stay in central Illinois, he drove to Milwaukee for the premiere of his We're All Here. Present Music and the Brookfield Central Chamber Choir and Women's Chorus will perform it today at Present Music's annual Thanksgiving program. Brookfield Central's Phillip Olson will conduct. Olson also raised funds for the commission.
'I remember singing in the choir at Brookfield Central,' the composer said. 'This piece is no harder than what we sang then. If I were writing for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, I'd have written the same piece. I've never simplified for anyone.' He laughed as he continued: 'Of course, I suspect that they don't like me so much right now. Phil told me that this has been a workout for the kids - they really had to learn the difference between a half-step and a whole step.'
The piece is autumnal in tone and puts music to three poems: Gerard Manley Hopkins' 'Pied Beauty' ('Glory to God for dappled things, For skies of couple-color as a brinded cow, For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim . . . '); Robert Frost's 'Gathering Leaves' ('Spades take up leaves/No better than spoons/And bags full of leaves/Are light as balloons . . .'); and James Fennimore Cooper's 'We Are All Here' ('We are all here!/Father, mother/Sister, brother,/All who hold each other dear . . . '). Olson and his students chose the poems, at Hagen's request. He is delighted with their literary value, their musical qualities, and their fitness to the occasion. The choral part of the opening section involves a slow, sustained counterpoint in which the voices slither over each other in half and whole steps. The aggregates of those voices are complexes of dissonances that shift constantly in the pile up. A marimba, meanwhile, alternates between simple triads that contain all the notes in the choral part. 'It's a way to get a complex harmonic palette with simple materials,' Hagen said. 'They're singing in stepwise motion, and the glue is in the mallet part. The singers can cling to it. The real melodic movement is in the instruments.' 'Gathering Leaves' is couched in floating whole-tone scales. 'Whole tones float -- there's my cliche for the day,' the composer said, laughing in ready admission that they'd been floating about since Debussy's day. Composers continue to use these tricks for good reasons - to capture, as Frost's poem does, the lightness of autumn leaves and the simple pleasure of standing among them. The final movement begins in chorale fashion, with voices singing in straightforward harmony in E major and moving together. But after the first phrase, it begins to transform into a new version of the material from the first movement.
Hagen, like most composers, enjoys the engineering aspects of music - the processes of creating comprehensible structure and solving the problems of form. He emphasized that all of that is the means, not the end. His recent (and second) marriage, to composer Gilda Lyons; their decision to have children (not an easy one in the always economically dicey serious music business); and Sept. 11 have had an effect on his work. 'I've been been turning down a lot of commissions,' he said. 'I've only been doing things I really believe in. I changed the way I see music functioning in my life.'
As examples, his recent piano concerto for Gary Graffman, Seven Last Words of Christ, and upcoming orchestral work in which four trombones will be right up front representing the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. 'Music doesn't mean anything per se, but a composer can create a musical space that invites people to think about serious issues.' In that oblique way, he believes that music can be political. In his mind, the last movement of We're All Here is a memorial to friends who have died of AIDS and about the inclusion and welcoming into the human family of those who have been shunned, though about this is explicit in Fennimore Cooper's 19th-century poem. He regards his song settings of letters from wives and mothers to Civil War husbands and sons in much the same way. 'It's not an anti-war piece,' he said. 'It's a humanizing statement. That's the kind of function an artist can fulfill.'
— Tom Strini, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 11/23/02
We're All Here is an ineffably beautiful new choral work.
— Kevin Lynch, The Capital Times, 3/24/02