Kitty Brazelton
Courtesy photo
Kitty Brazelton

Extremes of feeling

Brattleboro Camerata presents world premiere of work by composer Kitty Brazelton

BRATTLEBORO — The Brattleboro Camerata presents the world premiere of a work by composer Kitty Brazelton on Sunday, April 23, at 4 p.m., at the Brattleboro Music Center (BMC).

“The Want of You: Renaissance Music and the Future” will feature pairs of Renaissance and later works, elucidating the ties between them.

In a BMC media release, Camerata Director Jonathan Harvey notes the choral pieces are “all very emotionally intense - whether filled with religious ecstasy or romantic yearning, they explore extremes of feeling.”

The pairings include Renaissance composers Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Thomas Morley, Thomas Tallis, Tomás Luis de Victoria, and Pomponio Nenna with, in turn, composers of the past two centuries such as Anton Bruckner, Peter Schickele (composer of the works of P.D.Q. Bach), and William H. Harris, and living composers Reena Esmail and Brazelton herself.

Brazelton, a composer, educator, singer-songwriter, spoke about her work with The Commons from what had been a chicken coop her grandmother had built on the family gentleman's farm in Barnstable, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. When she's not composing in her East Village apartment in Manhattan, she composes in this capacious studio, surrounded by memories of childhood vacations spent here(1).

Before retiring to focus on her own work last January, Brazelton had taught composition at Bennington College for more than 20 years.

“Bennington was always the primary reason for my physically spending half my life in Vermont over the last 20 years,” she says.

But another connection is her great-great grandfather, George Green, who hailed from Castleton. He went to Texas for the gold rush and died in New Orleans of tuberculosis.

“I've developed a deep love for Vermont. I love its air, its trees, its green mountains, its cold lakes and ponds, its former farmlands grown back into forest with straggling scars of old stone walls, its calm, its arts, its people who've chosen it,” she says.

“And I've made friends - some of my best friends live in Vermont,” Brazelton continues. “I will continue to remain connected to Vermont for the rest of my life.”

Eclectic musicality

Brazelton grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where her father, the late T. Berry Brazelton, was a pediatrician, an author, and a recognized expert on early child development.

She then attended Swarthmore College as a music major. Though she did eventually finish, she left in 1972, her senior year, just a few credits short of a degree, and headed to New York City to create with her band, Musica Orbis (MO).

An electric chamber music ensemble, MO was known for breaking barriers, fusing rock and contemporary classical with voices and innovative instrumentation from harp to electric bass, marimba to recorders, bells to a Fender Rhodes. The band premiered, among others, works by renowned modern composer George Crumb.

After several years of touring, recording, and forging new ground, the band folded in 1979, she says.

“I was very into medieval. No one else was. What I was so attracted to with early music was the polyphony - I've been indelibly altered by that music.”

In the 1990s, she created Hildegurls, a band dedicated to the much-touted works of medieval composer, Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179). The group played downtown Manhattan bars and lofts; when Brazelton suggested they play Lincoln Center in 1998, they soon did, performing electro-acoustic reinterpretations of von Bingen's 900-year-old works.

Harvey recalls he was drawn to Brazelton, not only for her connections to Vermont and her eclectic musicality, but also because of Hildegurls and its “fascinating work updating and transforming the music of von Bingen, and because of her more recent project, 'Essential Prayers,' which takes old prayer texts from various religious traditions and sets them to beautiful new a cappella harmonies.”

Those pieces, says Brazelton, use “words from prayers I hope are known outside of churches: They're multifaith in choices, but what I wanted was nonreligious.”

Harvey actually sought to commission a nonreligious choral work for the April concert based on the creation of an early-20th-century poet. He sent Brazelton a few poems by two contenders, both women.

Brazelton was taken by the spirit of Angelina Weld Grimké, an African American journalist, teacher, playwright, and poet. The composer chose Grimké's brief but pithy and poignant 1923 “The Want of You” for her Camerata commission:

§A hint of gold where the moon will be;

§Through the flocking clouds just a star or two;

§Leaf sounds, soft and wet and hushed,

§And oh! the crying want of you.

About unrequited - and forbidden - love between two women of color, it touched Brazelton “imagining what Grimke gave up being lesbian because she was already mixed race,” she says.

“There is hot stuff for 1923 in this sexy, completely secular text,” Brazelton adds. “It taps my spirituality, too - which doesn't live in a church.”

In keeping with her passion for early music, The Want of You is written in a Renaissance polyphonic vein, a madrigal for four voice parts.

“I'm interested in what makes melodies tick,” Brazelton says. “The brass ring is to write something easy to sing, then put it together to be robust and polyphonic. If each part of the choir can grok a piece of it - that's when it gets interesting. How can I work a text so singers can bring it to life?”

Having composed in eclectic modes and styles and with divergent influences, Brazelton's merging of periods, styles, instruments, and voices(2), the news release notes, “builds music's power to unite - across genre, across tradition, and across language.”

Hers is music for a wide reach: “If I make music for me, it's not mine,” says Brazelton.

In addition to composing the piece for the Brattleboro Camerata, Brazelton recently garnered a New York State Council on the Arts grant for The Art of Memory, an opera focused on the works of St. Augustine and that early-first-century theologian/philosopher's essential, timely message: “Now is all there is.”

Currently she's working on The World Is Not Ending - We've Been Here Before, a set of six choral pieces created in response to the pandemic to “give my singers something to sing in quarantine.”

The online audio project finds Brazelton mixing with painstaking care; at the same time, she's recording a studio album, The Planes of Your Location, with Los Angeles–based ensemble Isaura String Quartet.

The Brattleboro Camerata is a 16–20 voice chamber choir specializing in Renaissance and Renaissance-inspired music. With Harvey, the Camerata explores “both beloved classics and under-performed gems through innovative and energetic programming and performance,” the media release notes.

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