Sounds, Words and Meaning

On Feb. 11, Interlochen Arts Academy Creative Writing students teamed up with the Arts Academy Band for a unique exploration of song and word.

The program, titled “Sounds, Words and Meanings” was developed by Interlochen Conductor of Band Dr. Matthew Schlomer. “I’ve alway been fascinated with the relationship between sound and meaning,” said Schlomer. “I decided to invite my colleagues to join my exploration.”

Schlomer pitched his idea to Director of Creative Writing David Griffith, who had also long been fascinated by the topic. “Writers are always weighing words against one another for sound and meaning,” said Griffith. “There’s an inherent drama in the sound of words.”

Schlomer and Griffith created a program for the evening that wove together readings by creative writing students, performances by music students and discussions of the topic by Schlomer and Griffith.

Griffith and Schlomer recorded podcast-style audio segments that played during the transitions between each piece. The recordings helped to give context to each piece on the program and to guide the audience’s reflections.

Olivia Elerson opened the program with “Three Beats for Beatbox Flute.” Afterwards, Schlomer and Griffith discussed the sounds of language, including a discussion of Monty Python’s famous sketch, “Woody and Tinny Words.” The discussion then segued into an explanation of the next piece, “Geographical Fugue” by Ernst Toch, which utilizes the sounds of placenames to create rhythms rather than meaning.

As the band—sans instruments—finished performing the vocal fugue, creative writing students took the stage for the first time that evening. “I Take a Melody Between Us” intertwined three poems by Ray Kearns, Rachel Litchman and Annalise Lozier. Although written at separate times and with separate themes, the three poems wove together perfectly to create a new poem. After “I Take a Melody Between Us,” the Band performed a poem of their own: “Poem for Flute and Orchestra” with guest soloist Nancy Stagnitta.

While the stage crew reset for the next performance, Griffith and Schlomer continued their discussion, turning to the “feelings” of words. Griffith explained how writers choose the word that creates the right emotional effect in both meaning and sound. As an example of the concept, Cookie Dutch presented Lewis Carroll’s whimsical poem Jabberwocky, which uses the sound of nonsense words to create an emotional experience for the listener.

Griffith and Schlomer continued their pre-recorded discussion after Jabberwocky, this time discussing storytelling through music. “Writers love music because it doesn’t use words, but conveys meaning,” explained Griffith. Schlomer then introduced the next piece, Milhaud’s La creation du monde, a program piece that uses sound to tell an African creation narrative.

Cookie Dutch then returned to the stage, accompanied by fellow creative writer Maxine Ewing to present a poem written by composer John Cage. “Cage realized that music is more than melody; it’s silence too,” explained Schlomer during the program. “The silences, and what’s in them, becomes part of the performance.”

Usually performed by one reader, Dutch and Ewing performed Lecture on Nothing in tandem, finishing each other’s sentences and adding their own dramatic flare to the presentation.

Lecture on Nothing was followed by “Pitch Black” by JacobTV. Like “Geographical Fugue” earlier in the performance, “Pitch Black” stripped the meaning from words, utilizing their rhythmic and percussive quality instead. The piece takes the audio from an interview with jazz trumpeter Chet Baker and rearranges segments into a percussive accompaniment to a saxophone quintet.

The penultimate piece on the program was an original spoken word piece by creative writer MoAde Jagusah called “Rhetorical Diversion Tactic: African American.” Olivia Elerson returned to the stage to accompany Jagusah with more beatbox flute.

The highlight of the evening was a world-premiere performance of an original piece by Interlochen Arts Academy Music Theory Instructor Dr. Thomas Childs. Childs’ piece was inspired by the life and writings of St. Augustine of Hippo and combines classical music, poetry and hip-hop music. Childs collaborated with Detroit-based hip-hop artist Sareem Poems, who wrote and performed the accompanying rap during the premiere.

“It was an evening of asking questions and using art to answer those questions,” Schlomer said.