Nebraska Lectures to feature Simon’s ‘Nebraska Songbook’
calendar icon23 Oct 2019 user iconBy Kathe C. Andersen
Lincoln, Neb.--The Nebraska Lectures, the Chancellor’s Distinguished Speaker Series, presents “Nebraska Songbook” on Friday, Nov. 8 at 3:30 p.m. at Sheldon Museum of Art.
“Nebraska Songbook” is an original composition for soprano and piano by Glenn Korff School of Music Assistant Professor of Composition Greg Simon and will be performed by Jamie Reimer, Associate Professor of Voice, and Brenda Wristen, Professor of Piano and Piano Pedagogy. Simon will open the lecture with a discussion of the meaning and inspiration behind the piece.
Wristen originally commissioned Simon for the work on behalf of the Nebraska Music Teachers Association’s 2018 conference.
“’Nebraska Songbook’ is an evocative setting of Nebraska texts that will resonate with anyone who has a connection to this state,” Wristen said. “This project was commissioned by the Nebraska Music Teachers Association, was composed by a UNL professor based on texts by Nebraska poets and will be performed by two UNL professors. The origins, concept and execution of this piece are entirely Nebraskan. For this reason, we are thrilled to share this work at an event that both celebrates research and creativity and marks the 150th year of the university.”
For Simon, it was the first composition he created entirely in Nebraska.
“I was in my second and a half year here at UNL, and I had just finished my backlog of projects that I had brought with me to UNL,” he said. “So when I was thinking about this piece, I realized this was going to be a Nebraska premiere utilizing musicians that I had connections with here in Nebraska, and it was going to be my first piece that I conceived from beginning to end as a resident in Nebraska. So it was going to be my first Nebraska piece, so I had the thought to myself at the time that what I really would love to do with this piece is use it as an opportunity to get to know this place better.”
Simon had a residency at the time with the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center in Nebraska City, which gave him time to explore Nebraska and research poems for the song cycle.
“All these things together led me to the idea of a song cycle that set the text of poets with a connection to Nebraska, either by birth or by heritage or growing up or something,” he said.
After reading hundreds of poems, he discovered a recent anthology titled “Nebraska Presence,” edited by Greg Kosmicki, and published by Backwaters Press.
“I think going into the experience of reading a ton of Nebraska poetry, I was expecting to see a lot of like the prairie, covered wagons, things like that,” he said. “And it was so interesting to open ‘Nebraska Presence,’ which is an anthology of contemporary Nebraska poetry and find almost none of that. That’s not to say that those poets didn’t really actively engage with the landscape of the state and the nature of the state. But all of it is couched in themes of modernity and loss and ephemerality—very contemporary poetic themes that I thought spoke to something that I’ve started to see in Nebraska, which is that there is a tension in Nebraska between the agrarian past and the non-agrarian future of the state. Being able to have that window in what that looks like to native Nebraskans was so inspiring and made me feel like I was a lot closer to the state and what it means to be Nebraskan.”
Simon chose eight to 10 poems with the intention of doing a couple of different volumes over the next few years. This first volume being performed on Nov. 8, includes “Dawn Watch” by Marilyn Dorf, “October” by Shirley Buettner, “The November Hawk” by Stephen Behrendt and “Recent Angels” by Kim Tedrow.
“The narrative, for me, was one of starting in this very simple sort of self-contained world and opening up to these progressive layers of other things,” Simon said. “At the end, you are still in the same place. You’re still in this very beautiful, very lush natural setting. You still have the Nebraska big sky. You still have the open plains. But there’s this feeling at the end of the cycle of complexity and maybe even fragility to the way it’s constructed and what we have seen. There is the Nebraska that we, especially those of us like me who are not from Nebraska, think of, and it’s possible that a certain amount of Nebraskans hold onto that and cherish it. And then there’s the Nebraska that is. That has a great deal of urbanity very quickly, that is facing a lot of interesting things because of climate change and human migration and things like that. It’s not all bad change, but it is adding to this picture a layer of complexity. And to me, these texts really got at that, but they did it on a very human scale.”
For Simon, having his work included in the Nebraska Lectures this year is very special.
“It’s humbling,” he said. “Like many people who are not from Nebraska and who have not spent much time in Nebraska, I think one thing that we all share, us outsiders, is this sense of awe at the amount of pride Nebraskans have in what it means to be from Nebraska. It’s been endlessly inspiring to look around and see just so much pride about not just the Huskers, but about what it means to be a Nebraskan and what the values undergirding that are. That sense of pride and that sense of community in that pride, it is a really special thing to be a part of. And knowing how important the university has been to the state and the people inside it, for someone who hasn’t really been in Nebraska long and still very often feels like an outsider, for my work to be included in that is something very special.”
He is grateful for his colleagues in the Glenn Korff School of Music who are performing the piece.
“Jamie and Brenda sing the piece and play the piece beautifully,” he said. “It’s really special to watch them work together. I think this piece is very emotional. And I think, like much of my music, it’s very colorful and tries to paint a very vivid picture of the world in which the singer lives.”
During his lecture, he will talk about his compositional process and what his relationship to text is, as a composer, especially to these four texts in the song cycle.
“I think by the end of the lecture, my hope is that people are not only going to have heard a work that strikes them as meaningful and complex and emotional and evocative, but also come away from it with an understanding of how a composer like me thinks about those materials and why I consider the act of writing songs to be an important artistic one.”
The lecture, which is part of the expanded, 12-talk series celebrating the university’s 150th anniversary, is free and open to the public. It will also be live webcast at https://research.unl.edu/nebraskalectures.