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Minnesota poet and composer win inaugural Genesis Prize for choral compositions

Kyle Pederson, left, and Brian Newhouse have composed the new choral work "Call Across." Provided

When choirs stop performing, they also stop needing composers to write new music for them to sing.

That has been the situation for more than a year now, as the coronavirus pandemic has decimated arts activity across America. The nation's choral composers have seen one commission after another canceled or put on hold to some unspecified date in the future.

That is where the Genesis Prize stepped in. The brainchild of the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA), the competition invited composer-poet teams to write a piece "that responds to times of crisis and suffering, and to fill some of the void left by the pause in our choral singing."

From a highly competitive field of 65 entries, two winning partnerships were chosen, including one from Minnesota: composer Kyle Pedersen and poet Brian Newhouse, whose piece "Call Across" will premiere online at 7:30 p.m. central Wednesday, March 17, on the eve of ACDA's National Conference. (The other winning piece is "Holding Our Breath," by Carlos Cordero of Austin, Texas, and Julie Flanders of New York City.)

The Genesis Prize was in some ways an unusual competition, in that initial applications were made as a written proposal, not a finished piece of words and music.

"You were essentially competing for the right to write," Pedersen says. "All told, we came up with a three- or four-page proposal, including details of what Brian wanted to say as the poet, and what I would like to do with it musically."

"Winning" the prize involved the pair's proposal being accepted in September and a commission being paid by the ACDA for the piece to be actually written.

"The thrill of winning was huge, but there was only about three months to get the work written," Pedersen says. "That ratcheted the stakes up, and from that point on it was full-on freak-out for me to get it done."

The text for "Call Across" by Newhouse, the former director of Classical MPR, has no fewer than three narrators speaking across the eight minutes of the piece's duration.

A female shepherd in Norway — where Newhouse's family comes from — calling to her cattle, and to fellow shepherds across the hills, is one of them.

The piece then cuts to a Zimbabwean Bira ritual, where family members call on a deceased ancestor for guidance and intercession.

Finally, it moves to present-day America, where a lonely voice explores "the brokenness, disjointedness and tension brought about by pandemic, racial inequity, polarization and political violence."

Newhouse initially worried about the validity of someone in his position "empathizing" with people from other races and nationalities, with different life experiences.

"I mean, who is a middle-aged white American male to say anything about the life and fears of a Shona tribesperson of rural Zimbabwe?" he says.

But both he and Pedersen consulted experts in ethnomusicology and have woven into "Call Across" transcriptions of Norwegian "kulokk" calls used for herding and snatches of authentic text from Zimbabwe's Shona people.

Pedersen has also suggested an unusual panoply of instruments — a djembe drum, handpan, electric guitar, bass and marimba are among the options he offers — to accompany the singers, lending a pan-continental feeling to the music.

The theme of the call — "calling out from isolation to connect, calling across to others" — is what binds the piece together, he says.

"And in the last two and a half minutes, where all the melodies from earlier come back and the words are 'What beauty can we make if our voices join?' — I wanted that to be a final moment of affirmation for both the listeners and singers."

Winning the Genesis Prize is an honor in itself, of course, but there are considerable bonuses attaching to success in the competition.

One is that the nationally renowned choir Conspirare has made a virtual recording of "Call Across" for the online premiere, led by artistic director Craig Hella Johnson.

"You have to look really hard across the whole of America to find a better choir than Conspirare," says Newhouse, a former semi-professional singer himself.

"Call Across" also is set to be published by Hal Leonard as part of its Craig Hella Johnson Choral Series — a major fillip for Petersen, who calls himself "not yet a common household name" as a composer.

He hopes that publication will encourage choirs returning to live concerts after COVID to perform a piece he rates as technically "really quite accessible."

"I like my work to be sung by all sorts of choirs," he says. "And the average high school choir or above could tackle 'Call Across' and sound varying degrees of awesome."

There will, additionally, be a video element to the March 17 premiere, staged in "a digitally created fantasy world" by filmmaker Andrew J. Timm.

But the main point of "Call Across," Pedersen says, is to do what the Genesis Prize invited its composers and poets to do in the first place — write a work that somehow speaks meaningfully to the distracted times we live in and looks toward a better future.

"I wrote 'Call Across' as an anthem of hope, resilience and connection, where perhaps at some point in the story people can say I have felt this kind of isolation," he says.

"And then to leave people with an empowering message of hope. Despite all that we are experiencing at present, I do know that art is one of the things that helps get people through."

Event Details

Premieres of Genesis Award Compositions
When: 7:30 p.m. central Wednesday, March 17
Tickets: Free, with optional RSVP
This is a virtual event.

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