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Imagining a Better World:The Music of Oliver Caplan

Updated: Oct 17, 2022

By Richard Knox

When Oliver Caplan first encountered “Cloud Anthem” – Richard Blanco’s poem reimagining humans as clouds, rain, lightning, fog, hail and rainbows abiding “as one together in one single sky” – he felt it as a physical experience. “It just made my whole body resonate,” Caplan says. “I felt, ‘I just have to set this to music.’”

That’s the kind of thing that moves Caplan to compose these days. His music expresses a yearning toward oneness that’s especially piercing at a time when our political weather tears at the possibility of unity.

Caplan’s themes dovetail with the New Hampshire Master Chorale’s mission. In recent years the Chorale has performed other pieces from his expanding choral output and commissioned him to compose new works.

Master Chorale director Dan Perkins says Caplan’s music is “quite tonal, perhaps neo-romantic.” The composer considers that a fair characterization: “I’m definitely a melodist with a romantic sensibility,” he says. He gravitates to poetry with strong imagery, as in “Cloud Anthem,” that gives him scope for colorful musical text-painting.

The idea of pulling together a concert showcasing Caplan’s music has been incubating for several years. The project is a collaboration with Juventas New Music Ensemble, of which Caplan is artistic director. These performances are the first of four “Stories of Our Time” concerts Juventas is planning to address critical issues -- mental health and healing, racial injustice and visions of a better, more peaceful world. “That’s a good description of Oliver – his life, his music, his style,” Perkins says.

Caplan has been composing professionally for 13 years, but it wasn’t until five years ago that he started grappling with socially and politically oriented themes through his music. The spark was racial violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. He was shocked to see such an open display of white supremacy. “It was a turning point for me as an artist. Merely voting wasn’t enough anymore; I needed to speak up.”

The first result was “We Exist,” a Master Chorale-commissioned piece that ends these concerts. With lyrics by Oregon-based writer Naseem Rakha, it’s a paean to positivity – to the power of collective action.

After its 2018 premiere, Caplan recalls, “a high school student came up to me who was transgender. This kid said how much it meant to him when the chorus sang ‘all genders’ – how much that made him feel seen. That was worth the entire effort!”

“We Exist” was the closest Caplan had come to what he calls “the third rail of politics.” It no longer feels as risky. It’s now a major part of his artistic identity.

But writing and performing music that alludes to in-the-moment issues requires a judicious balance -- between the deeply felt and the sentimental, thought-provoking and didactic, timely and enduring.

“Whatever we intend to convey has to be genuine, it can’t be preachy,” Perkins says. “I am full of so much anger, frustration and conflict about many things these days, as I suspect many people are. Inhabiting these poems and their musical settings is a partial antidote to that.”

Here’s a rundown of the pieces in this program:

“Cloud Anthem” sets a 2019 poem of that name by Richard Blanco, a Maine-based engineer-turned poet whom Barack Obama invited to compose a poem for his second inaugural – the first immigrant, Latino and openly gay poet chosen for that honor. The inaugural poem, “One Today,” is kin to “Cloud Anthem” in its expansiveness; it captures the infinite mosaic of a day in the life of America under “one sky,” and the way it adds up (we like to think) to one nation.

In 41 densely packed lines, “Cloud Anthem” unfolds a reverie that imagines how humans might coexist as the shifting shapes of clouds and multitudinous states of weather do. The key word is “until.” Until “we soften our hard edges,” until “we… band together,” until “we learn to listen to one another,” until “we tame the riot of our tornadoes,” and so on. Only then, Blanco writes and the chorus sings, will we be able to

…move boundlessly without creed or desire

and share

…a kingdom with no king, a city with no walls, a country with no name, a nation without any borders or claim.

“I wish our national anthem could be more like ‘Cloud Anthem,’” Perkins says (with tongue firmly in cheek). “But it would take too long to sing at sporting events.”

“Night Migrations” is the newest composition on the program, completed earlier this month. The lyric is by poet Hannah Fries, who grew up in New Hampshire. It shares the aerial perspective of “Cloud Anthems,” in this case evoking the long-distance migration that birds undertake twice a year, sensing microsecond-by-microsecond changes in the Earth’s magnetic field to stay on course. It’s a totally ordinary yet magical phenomenon unseen and usually uncontemplated by sleeping humans below.

“I wanted to convey the sense that birds could do this remarkable thing, migrating at night, thousands of miles,” Fries says, “despite whatever obstacles we keep throwing at them, despite whatever else is happening in the human world.”

The four sections of the piece are linked by the sonorous and sometimes uneasy setting of the words “we sleep,” contrasting with the fluttering, buzzing, whistling, avian highway in the sky. The only intimation that all may not be well down on Earth are the lines

…cities curled in grief.

We close our windows,

Bury our faces…

Fill in the blank of that “grief” with your own nighttime worries!

“Roots and Wings” brings us down to Earth with a meditation, voiced by the frequent Caplan collaborator Meghan Guidry, on the meaning of “home.” It’s not so much a place, or not only, but a set of formative relationships and experiences we carry with us through life -- “a heart that lives beneath our skin,” as Caplan puts it. The Handel Society of Dartmouth College, his alma mater, commissioned it in 2018 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Hopkins Center for the Arts.

Caplan says the piece is about growing up and leaving home. “From childhood dwellings to beloved alma maters, it speaks to the bittersweet idea that if a parent or teacher has done his job well, we are always meant to say good-bye.”

For Perkins the piece carries associations of meeting Caplan more than 20 years ago when he was an undergraduate singer in the Dartmouth Handel Society, with Perkins conducting as a sabbatical replacement. “The roots of our friendship have connected us through the years,” Perkins says, “allowing our professional lives to intersect frequently, but now in a big and meaningful way – a homecoming of sorts.”

“Worth the Wait” is the most personal and romantic piece on the program. The lyrics, again by Guidry, was a poetic gift to Caplan and his husband Chris Beagan, read at their wedding in 2015. Caplan set it to music to commemorate their fifth anniversary.

The lyric is a series of snapshots from their relationship, set in lush harmonies and soaring melodies. The title is a clue to a meta-meaning. “I don’t think there are a lot of choral pieces telling the story about same-sex love,” Caplan says, adding that he and Beagan came of age in a time of few role models and plenty of stigma. He came out as a Dartmouth undergrad; during his senior year the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court made same-sex marriage legal. But it wasn’t until three weeks after his marriage that the US Supreme Court legalized it nationally. It was, ultimately, worth the wait.

Now Caplan worries about backsliding. “The overturning of Roe v Wade is a reminder we can’t be complacent about civil rights,” he says. “That makes it even more important to share the message of love.”

In other words, the personal is political, in the broadest sense of that word.

“Great Trees” was inspired by an event both personal and universal: the (ongoing) coronavirus pandemic.

Angelou’s poem equates the death of great trees with the loss of great souls. She wrote it in 1987 after hearing of the death of writer James Baldwin and read it at his funeral as a tribute to him and four other great Black artists. Her estate granted Caplan permission to set it as an elegy for the millions of souls lost to COVID-19.

Their loss has shattered the reality of those who knew and loved them, just as the toppling of a great old tree stuns the very rocks and silences forest creatures. With time, grief recedes, leaving – perhaps – a resolve to honor their memory in our carrying on. That thought is crystallized in the repeated musical phrase:

We can be. Be and be better.

“Every Iridescent Chip of Ice,” for four-part women’s voices, reminds us to hope that even dark and barren nights eventually give way to light and life. The text, by Guidry, evokes the winter solstice, the longest and darkest night, when the “sun stands still.”

Out of this lifeless world, illuminated by distant stars, a “new beginning” is born, “when our world turns to light.”

Caplan’s music is moody, by turns sparse and sparkling, dissonant and sometimes eerie, contrasting with celebratory outbursts of hope. Guidry’s poetry reminds us, Caplan says, “that even in shadows, new light is churning.” For those of us in these wintry latitudes, hope requires patience…and the memory of last spring.

“We Exist” concludes this one-composer show, circling back to the place where Caplan was first inspired to compose with a message. His music paints the text literally, beginning with one voice, adding more and more – and again invoking

…a multitude of murmuring birds flying together

A savant wave of wings

Filling the sky with sound

And human minds with meditations on migrations.

See a pattern here? There are wings, birds, trees and migration. But also ugly words and dissonant tones:

…the blood push of fear

the shrapnel stabs of hate

But in the end, we – young, old, dark, light, all races, all faiths, all genders – exist

…not to divide but to join

not to blame but to build

It’s a fitting way to conclude the arc – the libretto, as it were – of these concerts. Dan Perkins sums it up: “This is how musicians and artists fight injustice.”

Richard Knox, the Master Chorale’s program annotator, sings baritone in the group and serves on its board. He lives in Sandwich.

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