Students explore creativity through collaboration
By Karin Dienst
Princeton NJ -- This spring, the vocal group Anonymous 4, which is best known for its medieval music, is collaborating with Princeton students in an Atelier that explores the development of American sacred vocal music. The quartet, which has a wealth of recordings and a long chronology of performances, is giving new expression to the creative process.
The Atelier involving Anonymous 4 is a special milestone for the four-member ensemble, which after 17 years is embarking on its final touring season. It also is a return visit to campus for the singers, Marsha Genensky, Jacqueline Horner, Susan Hellauer and Johanna Maria Rose, who collaborated with MacArthur Fellow and Princeton Professor of Music Peter Jeffery on an Atelier here three years ago.
"We formed our ensemble in part so that we could explore certain musical repertoires together, so that we could create programs and steep ourselves in the historical, cultural, literary and religious contexts in which these repertoires were created and sung," said Genensky. "What we're trying to do in our Princeton Atelier is to provide an opportunity for participating students to make an experience like this for themselves as well."
The Atelier attracted senior religion major Emily Crozier, who sings with the student a cappella group the Tigerlilies, and who will be teaching English in Vietnam after graduation before starting medical school. "We started our study with mid-18th-century New England music and have traced its development to the present," she said. "I was interested in learning about this early form of a cappella music from academic and musical perspectives."
The Atelier includes weekly guest lecturers who discuss a specific tradition within American sacred music and then lead students in singing songs from that period. Recently, the Atelier included a member from the African-American female quintet Sweet Honey in the Rock. Princeton faculty members Peter Jeffery, Cornel West from religion and Daphne Brooks from English also participated in a discussion on lyrics.
"Currently, each student is selecting a song from a period we have studied to research its evolution and the different forms it has taken throughout the periods," said Crozier. "In looking for songs, I've discovered a lot of lyrical and tune sharing among composers or arrangers. A song might appear in the late 18th century with one set of words, and 100 years later those words could appear again but set to a different tune."
The Atelier will culminate in two concerts: Anonymous 4 will debut its recording and concert program, "American Angels," on April 29, and the students will perform songs from their research on May 7 (see sidebar).
The Atelier program was created in 1994 by Toni Morrison, the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities, who was inspired by her own experience collaborating with other artists. The current co-director of the Atelier, Paul Muldoon, the Howard Clark '21 University Professor in the Humanities, regards the program as a "crucible for artistic collaborations that have a life beyond campus." He has taught an Atelier with the composer Daron Hagen on writing librettos.
"What is particularly exciting about the Atelier program is that it gives the entire community, and most particularly students, the opportunity to work on projects involving collaboration," said Muldoon. "It brings high-quality, often internationally famous artists who are working on a project together with people they haven't worked with before. There is an element of uncertainty, which is exciting."
Khalil Sullivan, a junior who is majoring in English and earning a certificate in theater, is participating in an Atelier led by the novelist and screenwriter Richard Price. The experience is reinforcing Sullivan's ambition to study playwriting in graduate school, preferably in New York City, where he also would like to live while composing songs in the hopes of getting a recording contract.
"We are helping Richard Price workshop a screenplay adapted from his 1998 novel 'Freedomland,'" said Sullivan. "It's always great to have the writer on hand to add insight into the motivations and objectives of a character. Richard talks and thinks like a writer, creating rich metaphors on the spot. It's exciting."
Previously, Sullivan participated in an Atelier led by the poet Yusef Komunyakaa, professor in the Council of the Humanities and creative writing. "Komunyakaa wrote a series of poems about the 19th-century African-American sculptor Edmonia Lewis, working with the composer William Banfield to transform the poetry into an opera," said Sullivan. "The students also worked in poet-composer pairs to create short pieces. It was a great experience, and I got to practice my guitar for four hours a day and say it was 'homework.'"
Felice Kuan, a junior, also is breaking new artistic ground by partici- pating in an Atelier led by Toni Morrison and the composer Richard Danielpour, who are writing an opera based on the life of Margaret Garner, the historical figure who inspired Morrison's novel "Beloved."
Kuan, who is majoring in mathematics and working toward a certificate in piano performance, takes on the roles of poet and composer in this Atelier, while working with three other students as well as three composers from the Philadelphia-based Curtis Institute of Music.
"Collaboration is definitely a new experience for me," said Kuan. "It's crucial that we make each other understand the meanings we intended so that the music and lyrics reinforce each other."
While Kuan plans to continue studying math after Princeton, her passion for the arts is prompting her to "first commit a year or so to performing and writing to see if I hit something big enough to make it my living."
Excitement in the artistic endeavor
Ellen Goellner, associate director of the Atelier program, explains that several students have met with success in the arts after participating in the program, but that is not its primary goal.
Involved with the program since 1996, Goellner knows that its real achievements are found in the artistic endeavor itself. She remembers the excitement created by an in-residence visit of the percussionist Evelyn Glennie, "who came to campus with 52 huge crates of instruments." She also recalls the inspiration brought to Princeton by the young visual artists from the Moscow School of Conceptual Art, most notably Irina Nakova. "She collaborated with 13 students to explore issues of domesticity by turning a University-owned duplex into a single installation space," said Goellner.
The fourth Atelier offered this semester was led by members of the Pig Iron Theatre Company of Philadelphia. They collaborated with students on a new work, "The (Unauthorized) Lucia Joyce Cabaret," which was performed in March.
To add more sparks to the creative impulse on campus, Muldoon hopes to "make the Ateliers even more engaging and more likely to be part of life for more students."
One idea being considered is to offer Ateliers over the entire academic year. "Right now they are huddled in the spring semester, and it's feast or famine," said Muldoon. "Spreading them over the academic year might allow more students to participate."
The Bulletin is published weekly during the academic year, except during University breaks and exam weeks, by the Office of Communications. Second class postage paid at Princeton. Postmaster: Send address changes to Princeton Weekly Bulletin, Office of Communications, Princeton University, 22 Chambers St., Suite 201, Princeton, NJ 08542. Permission is given to adapt, reprint or excerpt material from the Bulletin for use in other media.
Subscriptions. The Bulletin is distributed free to faculty, staff and students. Others may subscribe to the Bulletin for $28 for the academic year (half price for current Princeton parents and people over 65). Send a check to Office of Communications, Princeton University, 22 Chambers St., Suite 201, Princeton, NJ 08542.
Deadline. In general, the copy deadline for each issue is the Friday 10 days in advance of the Monday cover date. The deadline for the Bulletin that covers May 19-June 1 is Friday, May 9. A complete publication schedule is available at deadlines or by calling (609) 258-3601.
Editor: Ruth Stevens
Calendar editor: Carolyn Geller
Staff writers: Jennifer Greenstein Altmann, Steven Schultz
Contributing writers: Patricia Allen, Karin Dienst, Jerry Price, Eric Quinones
Photographer: Denise Applewhite
Design: Mahlon Lovett, Laurel Masten Cantor, Margaret Westergaard
Web edition: Mahlon Lovett