In this Q & A with Classical91.5 FM, composer Loren Lioacono previews her new work celebrating the legacy of the Erie Canal.
Last summer, David Alan Miller (conductor of the Albany Symphony), approached me with a crazy, ambitious idea. It turned out that the 200th anniversary of the Erie Canal (construction started July 4, 1817) was rather close to the 300th anniversary of Handel’s Water Music (the premiere was July 17, 1717). David’s idea was to have the orchestra float down the Erie Canal on a barge, performing Water Music in various canal communities. On top of that, he wanted to pair emerging composers with local arts organizations to create all-new, half-hour long companion pieces. As a young composer, writing for orchestra is always a dream come true, let alone writing a large scale work! I’ve always wanted to write for dancers as well, so when I found out I would be paired with a Brockport-based choreographer, Mariah Maloney, the entire project just clicked.
What can we expect to hear?
I drew inspiration from actual folksongs and poems that were performed on and along the canal in the 19th century. You’ll hear several of the canal songs performed, either by the locally-based Golden Eagle String Band, or even by the dancers themselves, alongside orchestral re-imaginings of those songs. Some of these quotes are explicit, but others are a bit more hidden.
For example, the second movement depicts a hot muggy summer evening on the canal, onboard a packet boat (from what I read, these sounded almost like the 19th-century Erie Canal equivalent of a cruise ship). For this scene, I used one of my favorite canal songs, “The Raging Canal”. It’s a sailor’s ballad about the perils of life on the Erie Canal, and one particularly dangerous journey from Albany to Schenectady. Anyone who’s lived along the Canal will immediately get the song’s central joke: the Canal is hardly the raging ocean depicted in the song. The Canal at that time was barely more than 4 feet deep, and boats traveled at about 3 miles an hour on average. So the audience will hear the “Raging Canal”, but it’s slowed down to a snail’s pace, and rewritten in such a way that it sounds as if it’s melting, to reflect the experience of the packet boat tourists during a New York summer.
What’s the instrumentation? How long is Canal Tales? Are there featured soloists?
The piece shares an instrumentation with Handel’s Water Music, with a few notable exceptions. There will be way more percussion than Handel would have used, and instead of a harpsichord or other Baroque keyboard instrument, we’ll have an electronic keyboard. There will also be a folk band (the Golden Eagle String Band) playing the folk songs as interludes, and a troupe of dancers, several of whom will have featured roles. The entire piece clocks in at about 30 minutes.
How does history or culture inform the piece?
I wanted to be sure that the piece did justice to both Brockport and the history of the canal, so I did a lot of research before starting the piece. I worked with several historians (Bill Andrews and George Ward), who provided me with detailed histories about the town of Brockport, and about the canal’s construction and heyday. The real starting point for the piece though, was the Golden Eagle String Band. William Hullfish, the group’s founder and director, has spent years researching, performing, and recording local and canal-related folksongs and lore, which he shared with me. These songs ranged from romantic ballads to menacing children’s taunts to ironic sea shanties. It was such a rich tradition, I had to include them in the final piece!
That said, I wanted the historical ties to go deeper than quoting the songs. It was a challenge to find a way to make those connections with dancers: dance is so much more abstract than text, and a lot of the local history is rather subtle. I didn’t think I could tell those specific stories without losing the subtlety that made them special. Instead, I decided to portray life on the canal from different perspectives, as an amalgam of all the different accounts I’d read. The first part depicts the workers who built, and then sailed, the canal, and the hardships they faced. The second part depicts those packet-boat tourists on the “Raging Canal”. In the third and final part, I wanted to focus on life in the towns along the canal, through the history of Brockport (with shout-outs, or more appropriately dance-outs, to a few local heroes), and the way the town grew out of the canal’s prosperity.
Will you be at the premiere?
I will! I’ve been in Brockport this week, teaching some surprisingly mean-spirited canal-era children’s rhymes to the dancers.
What made this project unique when you consider from past commissions?
By far, the most unique aspect of this commission has been the amount of collaboration involved. For other commissions I’ve had, especially with orchestral pieces, the composition process has be very solitary. For this project, there was a huge amount of collaboration and discussion at every step. There were conversations with the various historians, with David and the Albany Symphony team, with Bill Hullfish and the Golden Eagle String Band, and of course, with Mariah, all of whom was hugely influential in how I approached the piece.
Please tell us about your current projects. What can we look forward to hearing, and where?
After this week, I’m flying to the Aspen Music Festival, where I’m a fellow this summer, to have a viola piece premiered. This fall, I’ll have pieces performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, by the Argus String Quartet on a recital in New York, and another piece by the Albany Symphony this October for their Opening Night concert.
You’re the development director of Kettle Corn New Music. Why “Kettle Corn?”
Kettle Corn New Music grew out of listening parties my friends and I had while we were in music school together. There was a kettle corn vendor who would set up on the street outside the dorm, so we’d buy a big bag of kettle corn and some beer, and just sit around for hours, sharing our favorite music with one another. After we graduated, we wanted to bring that experience to a wider audience, so we started the Kettle Corn New Music concert series. The concerts bring top performers to a casual, inviting environment. And of course, we serve kettle corn! We just concluded our 5th season, and it’s been a blast. So far we’ve presented clarinetist Anthony McGill, the Attacca Quartet, cellist Ashley Bathgate, Sandbox Percussion Quartet, and many other exciting performers.
Do composers eat kettle corn?
Kettle Corn New Music actually has an ongoing video series about exactly this question: Composers Eating Kettle Corn. I highly recommend watching to find out the answer (we also ask a few more serious questions of composers like John Luther Adams, David Lang, Andrew Norman, and Unsuk Chin)
Did you eat kettle corn while writing Canal Tales?
Definitely, but not exclusively. I’ll confess- sometimes I switched it up and had white cheddar popcorn instead.