This drawing may look like a maze or an artist’s sketch, but it’s actually a musical score created by Emmy-award-winning composer Steve Heitzeg.
A few years ago pianist Teresa McCollough received a surprise gift in the mail from Heitzeg: 192 scores titled World Piece. Each score was named for one of the 192 countries in the United Nations at that time and made a political or environmental statement through one chord, or a few notes beautifully expressed through Steve’s evocative drawings.
“World Piece arrived during a very difficult time in my life,” Teresa told me via phone this week. “I couldn’t believe that he had kept the project a secret for so many months. I cried when I opened the package.”
From the very beginning, Heitzeg conceived of the project as a thank you to McCollough. Heitzeg describes the evolution of the idea:
In 2000 Teresa McCollough had a call for scores for her new CD of music for solo piano by living American composers listed in the American Composers Forum newsletter. I submitted my Sandhill Crane (Migration Variations) and fortunately, I was one of the composers selected for her CD New American Piano Music that was released on the Innova label in 2001. Since the release of that CD she has performed my Sandhill Crane numerous times internationally–from China to Canada. She would always send me programs from the performances, too. So, I wanted to send her a thank you for her kindness.
I had been ruminating about composing a piece about world peace. Then, one day while walking through the Barnes and Noble in Minneapolis, I came upon Lonely Planet’s The Travel Book: A Journey Through Every Country in the World. I thought I could honor each country in the world with a brief chord or gesture. The UN works tirelessly for peace and most of the countries in the world are member states, that is why I chose the UN.
I use a single chord or small musical fragments to symbolize the notion that the smallest acts of kindness can change the world in a positive way.
My own discovery of Heitzeg’s World Piece project occurred last year when I saw Teresa perform selections of the work at Roulette in Brooklyn during a concert featuring compositions by Alvin Singleton, Alex Shapiro, and the Wet Ink Ensemble. Seeing each score projected behind the piano as Teresa performed was a memorable experience, and I was particularly struck by how much creative freedom Heitzeg had given to McCollough. (Not every composer is so trusting of performers, and not every performer is up to the task of improvisation). As I talked to Teresa about the evolution of the piece after her Roulette performance, I knew immediately that I wanted to share World Piece with Gwarlingo readers on October 24th: United Nations Day.
Throughout this highly-improvisatory work, McCollough is called upon to play all parts of the piano (the keys, the strings inside the piano, the wood), to whistle, to make animal sounds, whisper and sing into the piano. In the Bhutan movement, she plays a high cluster of chords in honor of “the roof of the world” and the Canadian movement is a tender “song for seal pups.” In a light-hearted moment, McCollough tosses Euros into the piano for the Monaco movement; as a protest to war, she is directed to scream into the piano for the Vietnam movement, which is represented with a black hole in the score.
(NOTE: If you are reading this post in an email and can’t see the below videos, click here to watch the videos on the Gwarlingo website).
Why compose a piece of music for the United Nations? “I’ve always believed in the United Nations,” says Steve. “I was raised by two liberal and democratic parents. My dad still lives on the dairy farm I grew up on. My mom died last year. She was an incredibly positive and hopeful person. She always saw the best in everyone and reminded my sister and me to be kind to and help others and those in need. It was in my junior year in high school that I was able to go on a Know Your Government seminar for one week to Washington, D.C. and New York City. It was my first trip to NYC and I was hooked! We toured the UN and that changed my life.”
“I started the piece on Valentine’s Day 2006 (as sort of a love letter to the world),” Heitzeg explains. “My routine would be to compose a movement for one country each day, consecutively through August, and then research the next country (I went in alphabetical order) that same evening. My wife Gwen is the Director of Public Relations at the Minnesota Orchestra. Our daughter Zadie was born in the summer of 2005, so while Gwen as at work I usually composed these movements during Zadie’s naps right after lunch at noon. Sometimes I would compose the movements in the evening when Gwen was home with Zadie.”
Heitzeg says he was influenced by composer Lou Harrison’s Peace Piece (Nos. 1-3), John Cage’s Litany for the Whale, and nature photographer Jim Brandenburg’s project where he challenged himself to take only one photograph per day between the autumnal equinox and winter solstice.
I asked Steve if the various movements were based on research or more intuitive in nature. “In most cases I researched the country either through The Travel Book, the internet or with books I previously owned. Some movements arose from sheer intuition as you say. I wanted to vary it a bit, so, yes, some are an attempt to draw upon musical styles and sounds of that particular country, while others are more about an imaginative or visual mixed with sonic representation.”
“I did not let Teresa know I was composing this piece for her. I simply mailed it to her that fall right before the December holidays. She called me up and was so gracious and pleased with the piece…I simply wanted her to have a gift of thanks for all of her wonderful dedication to new music and living composers.”
Not only did Steve’s gift help Teresa through a challenging time in her personal life, but the act of recording the scores over a period of three years opened her up as a performer.
“I started with the scores that contained actual musical notes,” Teresa told me on the phone, “and then I moved onto the more difficult pieces. It required a great deal of trust because I wasn’t alone in the room. I worked very closely with a sound engineer during the recording sessions. It was an act of faith to let myself go in front of another person. At times, the engineer would help me by playing an instrument, doing vocals, or giving me feedback on his favorite version of a piece. He would then edit the recordings and send them to me. Steve never heard any of the recordings until they were done.”
The act of performing Steve’s music was liberating for Teresa in many ways. “Classical musicians are not trained to improvise,” she explained on the phone. “This is a failure of music education. When I was in school, the only people who were doing improv were jazz players, and the jazz world and the classical worlds never met.”
McCollough is a well-respected performer in new music circles and has commissioned, premiered, and performed new compositions by George Crumb, Joan Tower, Alex Shapiro, Belinda Reynolds, Zhou Long, Charles Griffin, David Rakowski, Tomas Svoboda, Henry Martin, and others. Performing Lou Harrison’s Piano Concerto and various works by Atlanta-based composer Alvin Singleton has given her experience with improvising on stage, but Heitzeg’s unique, often ambiguous, graphic scores required Teresa to dig deeper as a performer.
While talking to her by phone from her California home, she unearthed the original World Piece score and flipped through its pages. “There are about eight to ten countries per page. As the score progresses, it becomes more and more artistic and improvisatory. As you move alphabetically through each country, the scores become less about notes and more about pictures and gestures.”
Some countries McCollough knew well, and others she had little or no knowledge of. “Aided by Lonely Planet’s The Travel Book: A Journey Through Every Country in the World I went on my own musical journey, using Steve’s music, the text and images in the book, and my imagination, to interpret the score. Those sessions, which took place over the course of more than three years, represent my creative voice at that time, and as I experienced each piece or country, in that moment.”
Those performances, some of which are included here, capture a unique moment of improvisation. Each time McCollough performs movements from World Piece, her performance is unique.
This was the first time I had been given so much freedom as a performer. A lot of classically trained performers have a hard time moving away from the score. If a composer said, “Improvise for five measures,” I used to find this very hard to do. I thought I didn’t have the skill set or personal freedom. But the more I had to improvise when recording World Piece, the freer I became. The process of making these recordings opened me up, and not just when performing Steve’s music, but when performing other music too. I didn’t worry about whether my performance was “good” or “appropriate.” These recordings became a vehicle for me to learn how to express myself musically.
“I left some of the movements more improvisatory or open to interpretation for philosophical reasons,” Heitzeg explains, “(i.e.–I didn’t want every movement to have my sonic imprint.) It felt too self-absorbed that way; especially when you are trying to honor a country that has a history of being occupied, colonized or dishonored through slavery. Having some movements with more of a visual reference and non-traditional musical notation allows for the performer to make the piece ‘their own’ in a different way. Knowing Teresa’s highly creative and imaginative mind, I knew she would enjoy ‘creating’ these movements sonically.”
McCollough has a special fondness for working with contemporary composers. “There’s more freedom for collaboration when working with living composers. What I like is that I can call them up and talk to them about the performance. I can’t call up Beethoven. Whenever I called Steve and said, “What do you think about this?” he was never like “No. Don’t do that. He was incredibly supportive.”
This week McCollough is performing in a number of concerts at Santa Clara University celebrating the music of John Cage. “Cage was the kind of composer who didn’t have a hang-up about being true to the score. For my upcoming performance of ‘Dream,’ for example, I’ve decided to add an extra instrument and to use a vibraphone. I don’t think Cage would have cared at all. There are some composers who have very precise scores with lots of specific notations. There was a time in new music when the only way you could get the music right was to take the performer out of the equation—Milton Babbitt for example. But now, certain new music composers are embracing improvisation again. Many laptop composers, for instance, are focused on improvising and creating music for a specific moment.”
“I am thrilled that Teresa has performed some of these movements live in performance,” says Heitzeg. “I am also grateful that she has a website and YouTube channel devoted to World Piece. She has been so respectful of me and the piece…It is a true honor to know and work with her.”
McCollough’s vision for this unique composition is to find a gallery or alternative space that would show the scores, while allowing visitors to listen to each musical interpretation using headphones or a cell phone. She also plans to continue posting new videos on the World Piece YouTube Channel until all 192 movements are available to the public.
“It is my hope,” says McCollough, “that World Piece will be discovered and enjoyed by a more diverse audience on the internet, reaching out to many people, and spreading a message of tolerance and understanding to all who listen.”
You can hear Teresa McCollough perform the music of John Cage, John Adams, Olivier Messiaen, and Claude DeBussy in a special series of free and ticketed concerts at Santa Clara University from October 24th through the 27th. For more information about the Musical Mavericks series and the John Cage 100-year celebration, visit the SCU website. You can learn more about Teresa McCollough and her work at her website. Samples and recordings of her work are available here.
Composer Steve Heitzeg is currently working on a trumpet concerto for Charles Lazarus and an anti-plastic symphony. His Symphony in Sculpture was commissioned and premiered last month by the Des Moines Symphony Orchestra and is based on nine sculptures in the new John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park in downtown Des Moines, Iowa. For more information about Steve and his music, you can visit his website. Recordings of his music are available here. You can watch a Twin Cities Public Television interview with Steve in his home in St. Paul on YouTube.
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