In the Spotlight | Ethan Wickman

We sat down recently with composer Ethan Wickman to capture his views on the project and process of creating Ballads of the Borderland.

What are you most looking forward to in collaborating with these groups of artists and soloists?

One of the great rewards of working with professional musicians and ensembles that perform at a professional level is the transparency that exists between the musical score and the performance. In other words, when players and singers have spent enough hours in their career in the ‘woodshed,’ the intent of the music comes through the performance uninhibited. Not only that, but great performers add a final polish of musicality—that ability to shape a line just so, or to stretch the tempo here, or speed it up there—that can’t adequately be expressed in the score, which is at best an imperfect representation of a musical experience.

What is it like expressing such an old city’s heritage and cultural narrative in music?

After the initial excitement that comes from all the ideas that such a stimulating environment like San Antonio can provide, it can feel really overwhelming. This is because it is a very old city, filled with millions of different stories and perspectives. I can’t possibly channel even a small part of what this city has meant for so many families over so many generations. I can relate my experience and the poignant experiences of a very few that were willing to share their family stories with me through interviews and poetry. I chose the texts I did, and the sound of the music I did, in order to draw out the universal experience of migration. No matter where we are from, we all feel a sense of genetic ‘otherness,’ this idea that we have ancestors that at least in part, came from somewhere else—even if that somewhere else is a time where things were very different, and generations had to adapt to a shifting sense of identity and belonging. We’ve all at some point been the traveler, the stranger, the new person.

How will you balance out the distinct character of each musical group participating in the work?

The differences in what each group brings sonically represent one of the great inspirations for a piece like this. SOLI represents this astonishing instrumental virtuosity and power—they are capable of voracious energy, but also delicate atmospheres. The Children’s Chorus brings this beautiful, ethereal sound that will fill the venue space. The CCSA also provides a youthful, hopeful perspective—an earnest innocence and believability. If SOLI is the engine that establishes the momentum, the CCSA offers the work’s spirit and conscience. The chamber choir can be thought of as—quite literally—the adult version of the children, both in sound and in spirit. Practically speaking, they provide a solid vocal core in the lower registers, as well as a deeper coloration behind the children. Tynan becomes the focal point of the spirit of the work, the “word made flesh,” if you will. She gives voice to the intimate, individual stories that are told, and with whom the listener will empathize as they would the protagonist of a drama.

What do you hope to accomplish with this piece?

Listeners will realize right away that I’m not offering up the history of San Antonio in song. I’ve been describing the work to others increasingly as “an anthology of cultural perspectives.” In other words, here are a few stories among many that have emerged from the borderland region. On the surface they are not my personal stories—not genetically, and not culturally—but behind the names and the places are stories that all families know: nostalgia for the simpler time of childhood, regret for missed opportunities, family disappointments and tragedies, but also moral courage, gratitude, and a sense of wonder at the seemingly endless familial strands of which we’re all a part. I hope listeners leave the performance with greater empathy for the experiences of others, and new insight into how our experiences bind us together in ways that are not always apparent and go deeper than we often acknowledge.

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