When I first started work on this unique collaboration, I received a voluminous amount of poetry and prose – a loose bundle of work by seven of the finest writers currently working in and around the Southern voices of American literature. As I slowly made my way through these stories and stanzas, I began to understand something I had already intuited – these writers all know one another. And one way or another, the people that inhabit their writings all seem to know one another, too. Their voices, their characters, their almost-forgotten-but-now-remembered friends and family – they all seemed to live in proximity to one another, in varying degrees of familiarity. With this thought in mind, Family Secrets: Kith & Kin began to emerge as a series of loosely related portraits – from small and faded snapshots to larger-scale paintings, with even a comical caricature or two.
As I began sketching out these portraits, two shapeshifting figures gradually came into focus: the first, a Mother/Daughter character, whose singing voice would serve as the piece’s laughing, lamenting, testifying, and atoning protagonist; and the second, a Friend/Neighbor, whose speaking, yarn-telling voice would be the work’s narrative engine. The resulting musical drama soon took on a fundamentally hybrid form – musical drama soon took on a fundamentally hybrid form – an opera on top of chamber music, or a song cycle inside a monodrama. Now, after several wonderfully different productions, I sometimes just call it a chamber opera, but I’m still not entirely sure what it is. And, ultimately, I hope that ambiguity might be felt as part of the work’s underlying message – we live, love and die in close relation to one another, but the textures of those relationships shift over time and resist easy definition.
Like the characters onstage, the instrumental ensemble here speaks with an accent, most pronouncedly with the twangy banjo that lurks and lilts beneath the score’s surface, but also in striding piano riffs and high-lonesome fiddle solos. And like the piece’s dramatic structure, the ensemble also seems to be several things at once- a motley front-porch pick-up band but also a reimagined Baroque orchestra that took a wrong turn somewhere across three centuries and two continents. For reasons I still can’t explain, when I was writing for this ensemble, the poignant intimacy of the Bach cantatas always seemed to be in my mind’s ear, perhaps most obviously in Randall Kenan’s bloodstained parable of the Great Migration in Scene 5: “Chinaberry Tree,” but also in the breathlessly long melodic lines that meander through Allan Gurganus’ full-throated epilogue and Frances Mayes’ brooding Scene 2: “Net.”
Uniting the many disparate elements that run through the work, there’s one voice that has been the guiding spirit here – a many-hued voice I first heard and admired a few weeks after leaving North Carolina in the late nineteen-nineties and which belongs to someone who has since become a cherished collaborator and friend. To be sure, the ability to write for an artist like Andrea Moore is one of the greatest gifts I can be given as a composer, and working with her closely on this project has been a real joy. On behalf of all of us who have collaborated on this endeavor over the years, I thank her for inviting us to create a world together – and for rendering us all kith and kin.