As the story goes for PRISM founder Matthew Levy, the latest show for the creative quartet, titled ‘Mending Wall,’ came at an ideal time—mainly because it was inspired by the climate of the world in early 2017.
“Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, I called [composer] Martin Bresnick to share PRISM Quartet’s interest in commissioning a new work,” explains Levy. “We discussed politics and cursed the election of Trump, whose overt racism was symbolized by a wall he promised to build on the Southern border. When I eventually asked Martin if he had ideas for a new piece, he expressed interest in exploring themes underlying Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall.”
“What if the walls between us were made of music?” Martin later wrote Levy. PRISM’s founder, who also acts as the quartet’s executive director and tenor sax player, was on board.
“I loved the idea and thought it could form the foundation of a much larger project involving additional composers, each of whom might take inspiration from a poem of his or her own choosing that also connects to walls,” Levy explains. “The Quartet was also interested forming a dramaturgical connection between all four works by engaging an opera director, lighting and costume designers to present the compositions within the arc of an immersive, fully staged production.”
As Levy puts it: The project was initially conceived as a response to walls as a dehumanizing force used by Trump from the beginning of his 2016 campaign, to the end of his presidency and beyond to exploit his supporters’ tribal fears.
“Divide and conquer—it’s a tactic employed by loathsome political leaders throughout history: Demonizing others as a subhuman threat while undermining the pillars of democracy, all to acquire and maintain power,” the executive director continues.
‘Mending Wall’ was originally planned for March 2020. Then, another colossal life event came to be—and it needs no introduction.
“The written music has not changed, but the boundaries and dramaturgical interpretation of it has,” Levy says when asked how the show has changed since the pandemic. “Our stage director Jorinde Keesmaat and lighting designer Aaron Copp are reworking the production to abide by our pandemic reality, and bring out something new in the music. Originally, the musicians were to interact directly with the audience, and disperse, play, and recite poetry throughout the hall—to break down the fourth wall and put the audience in the middle of the action. The pandemic had other ideas.”
Now, the show will keep its players on the “stage” to avoid singing, speaking or blowing saxophones directly onto audience members, “Which I’m sure they would no longer appreciate,” adds Levy.
As a stage director, Keesmaat is also reimagining her original ideas about the meaning of the project, and how it brings about a brighter future.
She wrote: “Nearly two years after the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the premiere of ‘Mending Wall,’ the production itself has evolved in response to this global blaze. Through new staging and lighting, we are exploring the paradox of personal contact: our simultaneous discomfort with strangers and our intrinsic longing for human connection, the psychological effects of isolation and our basic need for one another’s warmth. ‘Mending Wall’ still examines the complicated meaning of boundaries—physical and invisible—but it’s also about fear giving way to hope.”
For this particular production, Levy explains how Frost’s particular poem brings to light stories of walls as nuanced, complex, and paradoxical. They can serve as symbols of hatred, but can also provide protection from oppression. With those paradoxes in mind, PRISM gave all of their composers the freedom to reflect on the meaning of walls in any way they chose—and they did, spanning genres such as classical post-minimalism to South African pop to Mexican son jarocho.
“All four composers (George Lewis, Arturo O’Farrill, Juri Seo and Martin Bresnick) were known to us, but we went through a kind of vetting process to cast every roll in the project in a way that projected our interest in a diverse range of musical traditions,” Levy explains. “This process was equally important for selecting our stage director and lighting designer, since ‘Mending Wall’ is PRISM’s first fully theatrical production.”
He continues, “Yes, walls are used to separate and divide, but ‘Mending Wall’ is about embracing the stranger, and celebrating how we are all enriched by coming together. In some small way, we hope to restore generosity to our encounters with one another.”
With stage shows finally back, PRISM wanted to step up their immersive theatrical qualities as well. The musical group has worked across disciplines for many years, with ballet and modern dance companies, filmmakers, photographers, poets, and programmers. But ‘Mending Wall’ marks many firsts for the quartet.
“‘Mending Wall’ is PRISM’s most ambitious project, and so we hope the audience will share in, and be enriched by our process of discovery. We’ve assembled an extraordinary collection of composers, guest artists, a visionary stage director and brilliant lighting designer,” Levy finishes. “With the pandemic, I think we’ve learned about the limitations of experiencing the performing arts through computers or home entertainment systems. The resonance of the human voice or a grand piano or a saxophone quartet loses soul, detail, and color when reproduced electronically, even on high end audio systems. In a live concert, there is a directness and intimacy, and personal communication between artists and audiences that we hope to regain.”
‘Mending Wall,’ co-presented by Bryn Mawr College Performing Arts Series and PRISM Quartet, Inc., will take place on Feb. 12 at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. at Goodhart Hall, McPherson Auditorium (150 N. Merion Ave. Bryn Mawr.) For more information, visit prismquartet.com