When composer Ryan Suleiman read a fantastical tale by Cristina Fries, he knew she was the writer he wanted to collaborate with on a project teaming UC Davis music composition students with creative writing students.
It was new territory for both; Suleiman has written little music for voice and Fries is not a musician. Together, they fashioned “a tiny unstaged opera” titled “Moon, Bride, Dogs.”
“I knew the story had performable elements and I wanted to see it performed,” said Fries, a graduate student in creative writing.
Suleiman, a doctoral music student, concurred: “It’s a very dramatic story – it needed to be an opera.”
Over several months, they created through song a dreamlike world of disorientation and loss. Fries pared the text to make it shorter and singable, a process that made it more lyrical and abstract. Suleiman experimented with musical ideas that expressed the characters and plot. With Suleiman at the piano, they exchanged ideas about how to find the right feel.
“There had to be a broader, more ‘sound-based’ discussion, since it wasn’t possible for Cristina to point to the exact bar number, rhythmic figure or chord in the written musical score,” he said.
“We had to come up with language to talk about it,” Fries said.
Fries and Sulieman are one of six duos from the College of Letters and Science music and English departments that have collaborated on works for voice, piano and some electronics. The pieces will be premiered by the Brooklyn Art Song Society at the “Creative Writing” concert May 10.
“We’re at a university with fantastic programs in music composition and creative writing,” said Kurt Rohde, a professor in the Department of Music. “Historically, there has been so much important, vital, probing and highly valued work produced by collaboration between creative artists. It’s never too early to get such opportunities that hybridize each other in an active, prolonged, intentional manner off the ground.”
“This project gives the students a chance to work on something totally new and to collaborate with a peer working in another form,” said Lucy Corin, an English professor and director of the Creative Writing Program. “It’s a good experience for them.”
Building on other collaborations
The student collaborations grew out of others in the College of Letters and Science.
Rohde had been awarded a composition commission by the Brooklyn Art Song Society and that led to the group working with UC Davis student composers. For his piece, Rohde was using poems by the Diane Seuss, who he met in 2016. The music and English departments worked together to coordinate an on-campus reading by Seuss the same week that Rohde’s piece is premiered. Those discussions opened the door to the writing and composing student collaborations.
Rohde’s “It wasn’t a dream,” a six-part song cycle, draws text from Seuss’ collection Four- Legged Girl.
“Four-Legged Girl struck me since many of the poems recalled a life in New York City in the late 1970s, a life I remember as a young child growing up there,” Rohde said. “Her work offers the best parts of poetry: writing that can be read, or spoken, or sung, that tells a strange story that doesn't make sense while making complete sense, that defies complete intelligibility and tells a wonderfully complicated and weird and beautiful story.”
Four of the six songs will be premiered May 11 at UC Davis, with the entire work being premiered in New York on June 1.
Seuss was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize last year and is author of four books of poetry including Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, published in March. She will wrap up this year’s Department of English Creative Writing Reading Series on May 8.
Expanding the cross-disciplinary approach
Faculty and students in the music and art departments have teamed up in the past, but this is the first writing/music collaboration.
The 2016 hiring of Katie Peterson, a creative writing professor, who is married to and has collaborated frequently with Young Suh, an art professor, also helped build stronger ties between the two areas. (Peterson and Pablo Ortiz, a music composition professor, are also collaborating on songs.)
Last year, writer Madeline Gobbo collaborated with studio art graduate student Emily Clark-Kramer on a project headed by Peterson and Suh. Gabbo is working with composer Sam Clark-McHale on the writer/composer project, and they recruited Clark-Kramer to their “Left Hand Method.”
Clark-McHale and Gobbo, who is also a visual artist, have also teamed up for a performance video for the annual graduate student exhibition opening May 30 at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art.
That exhibition may be the greatest expression of collaboration in the arts at UC Davis with students from art, music, design, creative writing, theatre, art history – and even French – taking part.
Learn more about the UC faculty, student collaborators
— Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science