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On The Steps Of Lincoln Center, A Choir The Size Of An Army

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang on the balcony of David Geffen Hall while 1,000 people gathered below him on the Lincoln Center Plaza, in New York to sing one of his new pieces.
Noriko Okabe
Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang on the balcony of David Geffen Hall while 1,000 people gathered below him on the Lincoln Center Plaza, in New York to sing one of his new pieces.

Yesterday in New York, something very big happened outside Lincoln Center: One thousand people gathered to sing a new piece by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang. Entitled the public domain , it was a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Mostly Mozart festival.

One of those singers was our very own Jeff Lunden. He offers this story of how such a huge production is put together, from conception to performance.

I've sung at the Mostly Mozart Festival before. We sang, you know, Mozart. But as the name implies, the festival does other things too — so when they commissioned thispiece, I signed up immediately.

I asked David Lang what all 1,000 of us would be singing about. Community, he said.

"What are the things that everyone should share? That we all do together? That we all need?" Lang recalls asking himself at the project's outset. "What are the things that bring us together in such a way that we might actually want to sing about it?"

So, Lang did a bunch of Google searches, where he typed, "One thing we all share is ... " And, once he got rid of the porn and other inappropriate answers, he was intrigued by what he found.

"'Our pride.' 'Our favorite sandwich.' 'Our love of music.' One of the most common answers, or types of answers, were about people saying that the thing we have, that we share, is the ability to make choices for ourselves," Lang says.

Once he'd gathered those phrases and begun setting them to music, the next step to gather some colleagues at Lincoln Center to try the work out. Conductor Simon Halsey remembers his first impressions.

"David has written, very imaginatively, quite simple music," Halsey says. "But it gives us the possibility of doing very interesting things with it, because there's an element of improvisation."

It turns out all these simple phrases are building blocks for a very complex piece, with whispering, talking, shouting and singing, all in overlapping waves. But once the music is written, how do you find a thousand singers?

Lincoln Center advertised the piece to choirs, as well as on Facebook. To wrangle the enormous group they'd assembled, Mostly Mozart tapped a very organized producer: Anne Tanaka, who helped put on the opening ceremonies at the Sochi Olympics.

"Well, there are a lot of Excel spreadsheets involved," Tanaka says. "A giant database full of enthusiastic singers."

The 1,000 singers were divided into five groups of 200, or what were dubbed "strands." Each strand was color-coded and subdivided into smaller groups of 40 singers.

The "public domain" chorus gathers at Josie Robertson Plaza at Lincoln Center on Saturday in New York, NY.
Richard Termine / Courtesy of Lincoln Center
Courtesy of Lincoln Center
The "public domain" chorus gathers at Josie Robertson Plaza at Lincoln Center on Saturday in New York, NY.

I joined the Orange strand, which began rehearsals in June in a stuffy school auditorium in Brooklyn. Strand leader Maria Sensi Selner was charged with teaching the music to a group of strangers, some of them choral veterans, others people who couldn't read a note. Oh, and there was also choreography to learn.

"In a way, it's every choreographer's dream ... Like, when do you get to do these kinds of things?" choreographer Annie-B Parson says of her work on the public domain. "My challenge was to make something very simple, which is, of course, complicated."

Simplicity yielded something pretty cool: We learned gestures like putting your palms up, or pretending to write a phrase over your head. Finally, after about two months of rehearsal, my strand joined two others — or 600 singers in total — for a mini-dress rehearsal. There were moments of complete chaos, and moments where we all sang and gestured beautifully together.

Being in a group this big and this diverse — kids singing with parents and grandparents, people in wheelchairs, clusters of friends and colleagues — was as moving as it was nerve-wracking.

As stage manager Andrew Bryant pointed out to me, there are so many moving parts and only one chance before the performance for all 1,000 people to gather.

"We only get one shot at doing it," he says. "You don't get to do it, see if it works, make it better and go back and try again."

But you know what? We did it. On what felt like hottest day of the year, with thousands of people around us, on the Lincoln Center Plaza, there was a palpable sense of community — especially when we all lifted our voices in harmony to declare "our power to choose."

That moment, says composer David Lang, was thrilling.

And singing in the "the public domain" turned out to be a powerful choice for me, too.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden
Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.