Race for the Sky began as an idea in March 2002, following a visit to the exhibit Missing: Streetscape of a City in Mourning by the New York City folklore institution City Lore at the New-York Historical Society. The Missing exhibit displayed a wide selection of the makeshift shrines, artifacts, messages, candles, artwork, prayers, photographs, and poetry that were on the NYC streets directly following the attacks.
I became involved with City Lore and the New-York Historical Society, and began going through their collections and archives for material associated with 9/11 and this artistic expression. From scraps of paper found near the garbage in Union Square, to letters and drawings sent from children in Tasmania and New Zealand to the children of New York City, I have been looking and marveling at the scope of expression with which people felt compelled to create following 9/11.
I selected three of the poems that were found on the streets and asked composer Richard Pearson Thomas to set them to music. I engaged Richard because his music has a theatrical, accessible tonality and sensibility, yet also possesses the broad formal architecture of classical music which some of the more sophisticated poetic structure demanded. We (City Lore, Richard, and I) originally hoped to raise money to create a very large musical work which would encompass texts from a variety of poems and would utilize the musical forces of chorus and orchestra. We hoped to present the work at the biennial People’s Poetry Gathering in 2003. However, it proved to be difficult to find money for artistic projects at that time, as most organizations were badly hit by the economic crisis following 9/11 and their first priority in giving funds was, most appropriately, towards the families directly affected by the attacks.
Once Richard Pearson Thomas had agreed to the project, I set about finding the poets of the poems and securing their permission to set their words to music. We intended on premiering something on the first anniversary of the attacks, September 11, 2002.
I was unable to find any leads on the author of the first poem, “To the Towers Themselves.” The poem was left anonymously on the city streets, probably near Union Square, and was saved by the personnel at City Lore from being swept up into the city trash.
Hilary North, the author of the second poem “How My Life Has Changed,” was known to Steven Zeitlin of City Lore as she had contacted him regarding some of her visual art which she had created after the attacks. In their conversations about her visual art, Hilary shared with Steven this poem of litany which she wrote as she tried to make sense of why she had been delayed at the election polls in Brooklyn that day, leaving her to survive the attacks when so many of her friends and coworkers at Aon Corporation had not.
The third poet, of the poem “don’t look for me anymore,” was difficult to find. The poem had been retrieved by City Lore from the Wailing Wall in Grand Central Station, and was signed merely “A. Vasquez.” Well, you can imagine how many “A. Vasquez” names are in the New York City telephone books! And with the posting of the poem at Grand Central Station, the great commuter and journeyer nexus of New York City and its greater area, there was a strong possibility that the poet had come from great distances to share this poem at the Wailing Wall.
After many attempts, I despaired of finding the poet against those odds. We decided to go ahead on faith and set the poem to music regardless, hoping for the best, since our premiere date was fast approaching.
Richard composed Race for the Sky the summer of 2002, adding the emotional voice of the violin. He was inspired by Juilliard student and violinist William Harvey’s account of playing for hours on September 17th to Ground Zero clean up workers and the Famous Fighting 69th Division of the Army at The Armory in lower Manhattan.
William’s famous story spread rapidly across the Internet after 9/11, particularly in musician circles. In his account, he tells of playing everything he knew, from Tchaikovsky concerto to Turkey in the Straw, to the point where his intonation and bow control were shot – and how he came to understand the transformative power of music, and how, when trying to communicate the unimaginable, “words only go so far – and even music can only go a little further from there.”
Richard felt Race for the Sky needed voice, violin, and piano to encompass the ideas and emotions of the poems. He inserted an additional “Meditation” movement for violin and piano only, just before the lullaby “don’t look for me anymore,” the last song of the cycle.
During the time we were working on composing the songs and finding the poets, the exhibit Missing: A Streetscape of a City in Mourning finally closed at the New-York Historical Society.
This turned out to be regrettable, for it was after the closing that I finally managed to find “A. Vasquez” and unfortunately was unable to invite the poet to see her poem mounted in large graphic display at The New-York Historical Society. Alicia Vasquez was uncovered by the medium that was breaking geographical boundaries – the Internet. After extensive searching on the Web, I stumbled upon a poem that sounded like the voice of the author of “don’t look for me anymore,” was written in a similar style – and I was stunned and excited to see the name “Alicia Vasquez” attached, with an email address!
I remember my heart pounding. I quickly sent an inquiry by email, asking if she might be the poet of the moving “don’t look for me anymore” that had been posted on the Wailing Wall at Grand Central Station. She replied that she was, and wondered how I knew of it, and how I came to find her. It was very exciting.
I met with both Hilary North and Alicia Vasquez on separate occasions. I took them out for lunch, and explained my vision of this musical project Richard and I had begun to call “Race for the Sky.” Both poets were extremely reluctant to lend their permission to this, or any other, project. They were both wary of the possibility that someone would try to monetarily capitalize on the tragedy. There was an extreme amount of sensitivity involved. After meeting me and hearing my explanations, my passion for their poems, and what a song setting might mean for future generations, they quietly granted me the permission to have the poems set to music, and for me to perform them.
So Race for the Sky, a song cycle for voice, violin, and piano, was premiered on the first anniversary of the attacks, on September 11, 2002 at the New-York Historical Society in Manhattan.
Preceding the music was a slide presentation and lecture on the Missing exhibit by the Executive Director of City Lore, Steven Zeitlin. I sang, with Kirsten Davis on violin, and composer Richard Pearson Thomas at the piano. This performance was unforgettable, as we three New Yorkers mustered our best attempts to literally minister to the psychologically and emotionally “walking wounded” of New York on this most meaningful of days. We ourselves were feeling just as stricken and numb with memory as the audience. It was a unique moment of unity, a feeling we were all “in the same place” and caught up in the same tides of emotion.
One week later, Race for the Sky was the centerpiece of an American Song Concert at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University, with songs by American composers Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Lucy Simon, Maury Yeston and Stephen Sondheim on themes of war, peace, life, and loss framing the Race for the Sky cycle. This concert was performed by myself, pianists LeAnn Overton and Richard Pearson Thomas, violinist Kirsten Davis, tenor Anthony Pulgram, and Karla Moe on piccolo. The entire concert was met with overwhelming appreciation and emotion. We were immediately engaged to repeat the concert again the following academic year, and pianist Gary Klein insisted that we bring the concert next season to his concert series at Park Avenue Methodist Church in Manhattan.
The subsequent winter and spring brought performances of Race for the Sky with new violinists Jordan Hall at St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark, New Jersey, and Sarah Schwartz at the biennial international poetry festival People’s Poetry Gathering, presented by City Lore and Poet’s House, in lower Manhattan. In the summer of 2003, I performed the West Coast premiere of Race for the Sky at Songfest 2003, an esteemed international summer vocal festival at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. For the first time, I performed the songs without the composer Richard Pearson Thomas at the piano. Rosemary Hyler Ritter played piano with the renowned Los Angeles violinist and Hollywood composer Maria Newman on violin.
The performance at Songfest 2003 was the beginning of real national recognition of Race for the Sky. Dr. Gayle Shay, mezzo-soprano and opera director at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, was deeply moved by the songs and sought to acquire a copy of the score and permission to perform them. At this time, the songs were still unpublished, and permission from the poets had been secured only to the extent that I was allowed to perform the songs. I knew Dr. Shay well and was able to open up the circle for the first time to a new singer. Dr. Shay was unable to perform the songs due to scheduling issues until the following year, after she heard them a second time at The Icicle Creek Chamber Music Festival in Washington state in 2004, when I performed them with Canadian pianist Joshua Grunmann and again with Maria Newman on violin. The Icicle Creek performance was a great success, with a standing ovation of a very musically-literate crowd, including Metropolitan opera star Juliana Gondek (who appeared on the same concert).
Directly after the Icicle Creek performance in July 2004, pianist LeAnn Overton, violinist Katie Kresek and myself presented Race for the Sky at the 48th National Convention of the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) in New Orleans, Louisiana. LeAnn Overton, who had previously played the American song concerts with me except for the cycle Race for the Sky (which had always been played by the composer), performed the cycle in New Orleans for the first time, along with new violinist Katie Kresek. This performance was greeted by a stunned, hushed silence following the songs. The audience was comprised of national voice teachers and singers from all over the country. Many people were sobbing. For the remainder of the convention, I was besieged with people who wanted to talk about the songs, the performance, the project, the meaning of it all. It was intensely gratifying and exciting to witness this response.
The fourth anniversary of the attacks, September 11, 2005, marked the occasion of the first orchestral performance of Race for the Sky. The county of Westchester in New York state held a call for submissions of music for the dedication of their 9/11 memorial The Rising, and the first song of Race for the Sky, “To the Towers Themselves,” was chosen for performance with the Westchester Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Paul Lustig Dunkel, with Richard composing the orchestration for the occasion. On that sunny Sunday afternoon at the Kensico Dam Plaza in Valhalla, I performed “To the Towers Themselves” with Katie Kresek on violin, and also sang the national anthem and “God Bless America.” County Executive Andrew Spano and U.S. Congresswoman Nita Lowey were present. November 2005 brought a futher lecture and performance of Race for the Sky at Milbank Chapel of Teachers College, Columbia University.
Just prior to these 2005 performances, LeAnn Overton and I spent two weeks in the sound studio making the CD recording of the concert pieces of Race for the Sky. The CD, self-published in November 2005, contains photographs from the City Lore Missing exhibit, as well as notes on the songs, composers, and artists on the CD. The CD features Karla Moe on piccolo on the Ives song “He is there!”, and Katie Kresek on violin for the cycle Race for the Sky.
One jarring coincidence of the recording sessions was that the day we recorded the song cycle was the day the levees broke in New Orleans during the havoc of Hurricane Katrina. On that particular day, as the three of us attempted to record Race for the Sky, we were all once again swallowed up in the anxiety of national catastrophe. It was particularly painful and poignant for LeAnn, Katie and myself, as our threesome had first performed Race for the Sky as an ensemble at the NATS Convention in New Orleans the previous summer. We deeply identified our ensemble with our wonderful experience in that vibrant American city. In addition, recording engineer Sean Swinney is a New Orleans native, and desperate on that day for news of his family. I think in some ways the strain of the day is revealed in our recording, yet this tension holds true to the spirit of the origins of Race for the Sky.
On September 11, 2008, Race for the Sky opened the 2008-2009 season of the Music at Our Saviour’s Atonement (MOSA) concert series in upper Manhattan to a packed audience. My current hope is that this Race for the Sky web site will make information about the project and the music itself available to a wider population.
Inquiries about Race for the Sky continue. In addition to invitations for performances, I have received numerous requests for the score, so that others might perform the songs. In the summer of 2005, Race for the Sky was published by Classical Vocal Reprints. One of my personal rewards has been expanding the performing circle, welcoming artists from Cincinnati, Boston, Arkansas, Los Angeles, Ohio and other areas into the background and development of Race for the Sky. The CD is being used by high school and university classrooms to explore the roles of music and art in human expression, peace education, and as spiritual contributions to our contemporary life.