large chamber ensemble • small chamber ensemble • vocal art song
The New Motive Power: A New Opera
Libretto by Susan Bywaters
Written for seven voices and full chamber orchestra / fully-staged premiere: 2020
The New Motive Power is a chamber opera in three acts adapted from the life and texts of John Murray Spear (1804-1887). Spear worked as a Unitarian minister, active abolitionist, and liberal whose life’s work initiated the Spiritualist movement. In the opera and in Spear’s autobiography, Spear was visited by the “Association of Electricizers,” who instructed him to build a machine that would be the new Messiah and connect it via invisible wires.
Written for full chamber orchestra / premiered by Illinois Modern Ensemble (2018)
See-through, for chamber orchestra, was composed throughout 2018; a year of 308 mass shootings and counting in the United States. It seems as soon as one incident takes place, another is close to follow. As guns and violence have become omnipresent in our culture, select schools have begun to implement see-through backpacks as one form of a safety for their students. However, this has nonetheless proven ineffective, since a clear view of a child’s possessions does not penetrate the opacity of their minds, or of their suffering, or, of their potential violence. The looming anxiety created by this disparity is emulated in this piece by a repetitive eighth-note motive played by vibraphone accented by tutti orchestra. This line continues steadily throughout a majority of the work, later augmenting, returning in vibraphone, and emerging in drum set out of a chaotic sound mass structure. The orchestra then slows to a near halt before approaching its climax - a musical representation of the nation’s violent nature projecting onto shooters and taking lives over, and over, and over. This penetrating repetition reminds us that each victim is unique: special to someone, inherently valuable, and yet, to the greater society, another name in an ever-lengthening list.
Photo by John Spoerl
Photo by Jessie Ragsdale
Texts compiled by Susan Bywaters and Elizabeth Gartman from Mary Tudor’s graduate thesis in 1939, later made public by the University of Iowa and a public domain article by San Jose Mercury News. Additional text written by composer. (2018)
The composition Monster Study takes aim at the dangerous power of labels. In this horrific study, it was the fraught label of “stutterer” that caused the orphans in the 1939 study (including those with and without speech difficulties) to struggle to speak. Mary’s test subjects heeded her terrifying instructions too well: “Don’t speak unless you can do it right.” Many chose, as a result, not to speak at all. Mary, herself a 22-year old female student scientist in the notoriously misogynistic 1930’s, was assigned this experiment and this process by her older male professor; nevertheless, her resulting label—“monster”—completely ended her budding scientific career.
Both the orphans and Mary were silenced by this dangerous study. In 2003, Gretchen Reynolds of the New York Times reported: “Only now, at a remove of decades, can we begin to digest and appreciate what the Tudor study tells us about the origins of speech defects, as well as the ethics of science, the brittleness of children, and the egos of driven men.”
It Is the End of Time
Text by Susan Bywaters
Written for soprano/tenor and piano / 2018
Summer Songs (Four Movements)
Texts by Emily Dickinson
Written for chamber orchestra and soprano / piano and soprano (2017)