Many NPR programs have made the jump from the airwaves to center stage in order to gain attention and grow an audience. In the case of Hidden World of Girls: Stories for Orchestra, which kicked off the 50th anniversary season of The Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, the theatrical leap was managed with grace, earnestness, humility, and an eye towards arts making.
Based on the eponymous NPR series, The Hidden World of Girls chronicles the stories of female trailblazers and unlikely heroes through the interweaving of spoken word radio stories, live orchestral accompaniment, and visual projections.
The program’s ultimate goal was to create a work that bridged divided communities, engaged curiosity and conversation, and addressed issues sometimes difficult to broach all while attempting to explore the complex and shifting ways we experience contemporary culture through media. (A tall order and one that inevitably fell short because of its demands on the audience coming in with prior knowledge of the material or a stomach for complicated, cerebral art.)
This ambitious world premiere, the brainchild of Cabrillo Festival execs and radio producers Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva (known as The Kitchen Sisters), was three years in the making and the largest commissioned project in the festival’s history to date.
The bulk of the evening was scored by Laura Karpman, the project’s creative director and lead composer. In building out a team for the project, Karpman invited young female composers Alexandra du Bois, Clarice Assad, and Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum to contribute compositions in response to stories featured throughout the night. The resulting performance was a compelling, perplexing, and, at times, anxious tapestry of competing sonic voices.
In Beneath Boundaries, for example, Alexandra du Bois explored the work of Iranian photographer Shadi Ghadirian. Ghadirian combines and juxtaposes traditional and modern images, as a means of reflecting the complexity of her culture’s gender norms. Du Bois’ work, while at times lush and moving, drowned out these statements in favor of her own opinions. Surging percussive lines, restrained viols, and declarative brass fought form, melody, and key, which stretched the subject of gender identity beyond contemporary art and into social critique. The resulting composition was an audacious political statement on the plight of Middle Eastern women; without use of Middle Eastern instruments or non-Western chords; and ultimately pitied a culture whose customs, while seemingly oppressive, can also be quite empowering.
Clarice Assad, a festival participant in 2004 and daughter of famous Brazilian guitarist Sergio Assad, also skirted the line of editorial overstep in subverting the hidden story of her subject. Her piece, The Disappeared, was by turns contemplative and an instrumentally- explosive, sardonic jaunt that opted to reflect general statements against authoritarianism rather than converse directly with its source material—the story of Claudia and Patricia Bernardi. Assad’s work hinged on a circus theme making for vivid and delightfully expressive moments; but any dictatorial regime under the gun, and even unfavorable candidates in democratic societies, has been painted as clownishness, pompous, unsavory, and violent. Without reflection on the Bernardis’ situation, this piece could have been performed on any stage—to both its benefit and detriment.
Projected visuals were equally misplaced during the performance. Photos and video had been collected by The Kitchen Sisters and redesigned for the concert by Obscura Digital (the design team behindthe YouTube Symphony). Viewing these materials on-screen was difficult due to an obstruction caused by a large window-like installation hanging above the orchestra in front of the screen. Not only was the installation distracting, but when the source material was displayed in and through the installation, media was imbued with unintentional meanings. The work of photographer Deborah Luster, for example, was hailed within The Kitchen Sisters’ radio program for its vulnerability, humanity, and character insight, which is tough to accomplish live when a large window thwarts that view. Luster’s photos came off caged and calloused, which is certainly unintended, as Luster herself was shooting these photos within a Louisiana prison.
[Editor’s note: The installation also called upon the specter of the glass ceiling and, worse, drew comparisons to Laura Mulvey’s objectified female of the cinematic male gaze.]
Hidden World thrived when the potential in its medium was fully realized—or, rather, when some media kowtowed to others to reveal both source and created hidden stories. Double Adventures, written by Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum, was masterfully balanced in this regard. Charming, whimsical, and not too ostentatious given its service in a contemporary music festival, Kroll-Rosenbaum’s piece on childhood sci-fi fantasies was one of the successes of the evening.
The night, however, belonged to Karpman, whose brilliant underscoring showed her cinematic chops through and through. Karpman is a true craftswoman, whose sensibilities in, and understanding of, multimedia served to uncover new emotional dimensions. Her compositions were bold and self-assured; and though she surrounded herself with big names, like Herrmann, Schifrin, Williams, and Bernstein, Karpman certainly proved herself worthy of the associations.
The faults of this program—its competing voices, its many distractions, its missing the mark in spite of heavy responsibilities—are the very issues facing Feminism itself and ultimately distract from the true potency of this program: its ability to take on the typically male-dominated world of symphonic music and create art and advocacy with reckless aplomb and fearless celebration. The potency of this risk is worth commending.
Bold women are making strides every day by flavoring typically male spheres with their own suffragette voices: we bandied about in the health care debate, we petitioned teen magazines to change photo editing practices, we took over major media corporations, and we might even moderate the presidential debates. In Hidden World, we not only advance the medium of storytelling, but mold advocacy in an altogether new and artistic direction.
It may not be a Helen Reddy tune, but Hidden World reminds us of the secret worlds we have already conquered and the many exciting paths we have yet to forge.