For the past several weeks, as part of a Seattle Symphony project, composer Alexandra Gardner has been working with young people at New Horizons youth shelter and the YMCA, cooking up a score to be performed by symphony musicians in the lobby of Seattle Art Museum at 2 p.m. Saturday.
The atmosphere at New Horizons is about what you’d expect from a fully functional, 20-year-old youth shelter in Belltown: as utilitarian as a bunker (fluorescent lights, plastic chairs, a lingering fragrance of bodies and disinfectant) with bright flourishes of humanity (sincere and smiling staff, big murals on the walls, vibrantly colorful bathroom doors that look like they were painted by an earnest non-professional).
On May Day, a few well-intentioned people from Seattle Symphony Orchestra — including Alexandra Gardner, the symphony’s current composer in residence — showed up at the New Horizons drop-in center to roll butcher paper across tables and set up chairs. For the past seven weeks, as part of the symphony’s Prism Project, Gardner has been working with young people at New Horizons and the YMCA, cooking up a score to be performed by symphony musicians in the lobby of Seattle Art Museum.
Everyone was primed and ready for that morning’s workshop.
There was only one missing ingredient: the young people.
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“Well, every day is different,” Gardner said. She had a four-movement score, based on input from the participants, nearly complete — but young homeless people lead complicated lives, she explained, and attendance had been a bit of a revolving door. The professionals at New Horizons told her she shouldn’t worry.
“Apparently,” Gardner said, “among this age group, that’s sort of the way things roll.”
She looked around the room hopefully, as if a small crowd of eager participants were about to burst in and smiled through a small sigh: “We’ll see what happens.”
The symphony’s community-engagement initiatives have been simmering for years, but hit full boil in 2015, when then-Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine declared formal states of emergency about homelessness. The symphony responded by convening a round-table lunch to ask local nonprofits (Mary’s Place, Path with Art, others) whether deploying the tools at its disposal (composers, musicians, a big public platform) would be helpful or just a hollow gesture.
“We asked, ‘is it appropriate for us to step into this space?’” said Laura Reynolds, who helps run the symphony’s education and community department. The answer, she said, was a resounding yes. “They told us that homelessness isn’t going to solve itself, can’t just be solved by social services, and in whatever way we can bring our assets to the table, please do.”
So they did — by formalizing the Simple Gifts program, which pairs composers with members of various homeless demographics (mothers, LGBTQ youth, veterans) to make music. (The Prism Project is this year’s iteration.)
On May Day, the first non-symphony person to walk through the door was New Horizons coordinator Kim van der Giessen. She seemed sanguine about the lack of prompt attendance. A few former participants might have flaked out, but others were attending to more urgent business.
One of the regulars, she said, had gotten a job and was working on a place to live. (New Horizons has 22 beds, but has been at double-capacity recently.) Another regular was at a job interview. Gardner nodded: “That is a totally respectable reason to not show up.”
Goddess, an eager early participant, had recently left for Hawaii where they’d found stable housing. (Many of the participants identify as LGBTQ and prefer they/them pronouns.) “If we find a bed for a client for three stable months,” van der Giessen explained, “New Horizons will buy the plane ticket. Maybe they’re sitting on the beach, eating coconuts — that’s the Goddess life!” (Later, Goddess texted van der Giessen a photo of them smiling in the shade, with a tropical bird on a nearby perch. It looked like the Goddess life.)
Others, van der Giessen said, were probably marching for May Day: “A lot of clients get all excited for that. They feel good getting out and advocating for their rights.”
A few minutes later, three young participants trickled in: Laylonzio, Olivia and Maven.
Everyone gathered on couches and Gardner talked through the score, which begins with a “welcoming” section where musicians (and, ideally, young participants) would walk around SAM’s lobby, ringing the little bells you’d find on a diner or library counter.
Olivia seemed interested. Laylonzio did too, but their eyelids started to droop. Olivia and Gardner moved to a nearby table to talk about Olivia’s recent computer compositions, inspired by video-game scores, while Laylonzio slowly sagged into the couch cushions to sleep. “Gosh knows what had happened to them in the past few days,” Gardner said later. “I’m just glad they felt safe enough to fall asleep.”
The participants, she said, never wanted to talk much about whatever traumatic back stories they’d brought into the room. Instead, they wanted to make music about love and hope. “In one way or another, they all said ‘just because we don’t fit into other people’s boxes doesn’t mean we’re not people — we have a lot of love to share.’” Once the musicians got the score, she added, “some were surprised that it was very sweet and beautiful — not the angry, thorny experience they expected it to be.”
The leitmotif and title for the piece (“Stay Elevated”) came from a participant named Natalie, who wrote a short song with the lyric: “You don’t have to love me, ’cause I love myself/I stay elevated with no one’s help.”
Gardner coaxed and cobbled together the score from workshop improvisations — some that didn’t, at first, seem especially musical.
One morning, she’d asked how participants greeted people on the street, then gathered them around a keyboard and played musical impressions of what those greetings sounded like.
“So-and-so has a particular way of saying ‘good morning,’” Gardner said, “so I asked them ‘how would you sing that?’ When we went to the keyboard to play it, they were like: ‘Oh! Oh! It’s music!’ They got sparkly about it.”
In another instance, someone suggested a didgeridoo sound. The orchestra doesn’t have a didgeridoo, so Gardner conjured one by scoring a short section for bass, cello and bassoon. Later, she quizzed a participant named Dakota about what kind of instruments they liked.
“Tenor sax!” Dakota said. “That’s great,” Gardner answered. “A lot of people don’t like the tenor sax. They prefer alto.” Dakota shrugged and smirked: “To me, alto sax sounds like a dying duck.”
Two weeks later, Gardner and symphony musicians gathered in the lobby at SAM for a rehearsal of “Stay Elevated.” Every snippet of music was, in some way, created or suggested by the participants, from the leitmotif to musicians improvising rain sounds by tapping on violins and horns. The final movement suggested by the participants, “Moods/Awakening,” had the soft, fluttering sound of dawn’s first birdcalls. The effect was gorgeous — pretty and haunting.
There was only one missing ingredient: the young people who’d helped create the score.
That seemed par for the course but, van der Giessen said later, was no reason for disappointment. Young New Horizons clients, some in pure survival mode, live with a different metabolism of schedules and needs.
“A lot of nonprofits come in to work with us with great vision, which is wonderful,” she explained. “Then they learn how it works, they hit the disappointment curve, and then they get it. At the end of the process, they’ve redefined ‘success.’ It’s not about big numbers, but having inspired at least one person to pursue something they hadn’t thought about, inspired someone to create and feel like they’re seen. That’s not easy to measure, but that’s our work.”
“Stay Elevated” by the youth of the Prism Project and Alexandra Gardner, Seattle Symphony Orchestra musicians with Pablo Rus Broseta conducting. 2 p.m. Saturday, May 19; Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave., Seattle; free; 206-215-4700; seattlesymphony.org