Thursday, July 16, 2015

I Had To Go Down In The Mines To Climb Up To The Sky

By Lois Herbine

I Had To Go Down In The Mines To Climb Up To The Sky is an aural memoir for solo piccolo with a ghost choir of 16 recorded piccolos, performed as an accompaniment to an exhibition of photography. Howard Hersh composed the work for me based on the life of my great, great grandfather who perished in the pit in the great coal mining explosion of 1867 in Wales. His widow remarried and traveled to Pennsylvania with their two small children and another on the way. The music is in service of the bravery and anguish of America’s great immigrant experience. This living history connects two worlds for me- my love for the piccolo as a solo instrument, which involves reaching new audiences outside the orchestra, and my love of ancestral research.

While uncovering more information about my ancestry, I have also been busy this winter in the studios of East Room Recording, located in Kensington, Philadelphia, recording Howard Hersh’s score one piccolo at a time. Side by side, the eleven-minute solo and accompanying parts are the equivalent of three CDs worth of music. This is the largest work I have ever recorded. During these sessions, I read from a score that is two sheets tall, attached to a sheet of poster board; this allows me to stand in one spot and not have to turn pages. I find it best to read from the score so I can view how the part I am recording fits with the other parts, both dynamically and musically.

The sections sometimes blur from tonality to atonality, as I picture the miner facing peril trying to get out of the mine or trying to escape the anguished echoes of the lost miners’ voices. Hersh’s composition sometimes pits the soloist against the other voices that group in cordial clusters or beat a driving rhythm. At other times, all is at peace as I imagine a quite acceptance ensues and envelops the soloist as the accompanying voices are in chordal harmony. The act of blending multiple piccolos reminds me of voicing and tuning an orchestral string section. Listening back to the recorded tracks is a unique experience- the timbre and ensemble is reminiscent of the flute stops of an organ.

Sound engineer Drew Taurisano records, mixes and balances the 17 voices. A soundscape installed at the Anthracite Heritage Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania, is currently in the design phase, placing all 17 tracks through speakers that surround the room. This will be accompanied by a visual presentation of images from the museum’s collections. I am very excited about this and for a future live performance at the Lackawanna County Anthracite Heritage Festival!

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