My Personal Connection to TEST PILOT

By Jocelyn Hagen

Now that Test Pilot is in its final stages of production, and the music and dance has all been learned and revised, people have started asking me what “piece” or “movement” from the work is my favorite. A difficult decision! I have decided that it is, in fact, too hard for me to choose, because I have so many favorite moments. But there is one section that is deeply meaningful to me and more personal than the rest.

One of the main reasons Penny and I were drawn to the subject of flight was because we each have relatives who were flyers themselves. My grandfather, Dr. Louis Theodore Hagen, Jr., was a navigator in World War II. Unfortunately I was never able to meet this extraordinary man. He died when my father was just 10 years old. But he was always somewhat of a legend in my family. His black and white photo in uniform, displayed with his small New Testament bible he kept in his flight jacket and distinguished flying cross hung in a shadow box at my parents’ house. And my dad still loves to remind me that if his dad hadn’t made it home from the war, we wouldn’t be here today. He was a brave man, and he was put through so much. He survived the war, and yet was never really the same again. And I have his eyes, passed down from my dad.


There is one particular story told more than the others, about his life and experiences in the war. He flew over 50 combat missions, but on one particular mission, the radio officer right next to him was shot. Legend has it that the pilot and copilot were also shot, and that my grandfather, the navigator, flew the crew back to safety. Of course, he never really like to talk about these experiences himself, and this family legend may have been exaggerated by the time it reached my ears, but the fact remains: war is brutal. He left in 1942 a strong and bright young man, and returned home 40 pounds lighter and struggled with addiction for the rest of his life. It’s hard to imagine going through something like that. And it’s hard to imagine what it was like to be his wife as well.

The middle section of the opera is a separate vignette, fast-forwarding to WWII. The string quartet plays a piece called “Zero,” (inspired by the Japanese Zeros who were gunning down the B-24 Liberators like my grandfather flew) and the men of Test Pilot don aviator caps and goggles to portray a scene inspired by what my grandfather went through. I think in this moment Penny’s choreography really shines. The music and dance combine to form a truly heart-wrenching moment, that continues to be emotional for me each time I watch it. From there we transition to an intimate song called “Silver Wing,” in which I set a text that was originally a song by folk singer/songwriter Marie-Lynn Hammond. She wrote it about her parents and their relationship before and after the war.

It might seem strange to have this war-time section plugged into the middle of the Wright Brothers narrative, but it was an inspiring and personal bit of history for both of us to explore, and I believe it makes the entire arch of the story that much more poignant.

Listen to “Zero” on Soundcloud:


Performing a DANCE OPERA

By Gary Ruschman

As we count down to the opening of the show, the performers are refining the personality and finer points of movements and musical phrasing. Guided by Penelope and Jocelyn’s integrative and collaborative rehearsal style, the relationship between dancers, band, and singing cast is coming into rapid focus.

Penny’s choreography is physically intuitive, through-composed, and dynamic: it has been a pleasure to build in so much movement into the show for the “singers”—very little has been simplified for the singers, and she has been treating the group as capable dancers. Of course, once movement is decided upon and initiated, the primary challenge becomes one of breath management: keeping the breath low enough to enable healthy singing.

Jocelyn’s music is personal and tuneful. Themes for the personalities in the opera (whether Orville and Wilbur, Katharine, or the airplane itself) weave throughout the narrative, and appear in surprising ways in the string quartet, chorus voices, and in the moments where Katherine sings the story. The performers have had the unusual opportunity to participate in the construction of some musical pieces (including some instrumental playing and consulting on vocal lines). Jocelyn was very open to feedback, so the vocal performances are quite tailored to the individuals in the production.

With all the research we’ve done about flight for the production, it reminded me that some of the principles behind aerodynamic lift are integral to both flight and to singing:

Wings are built into a particular shape, which makes air flow faster over the top than the bottom. Lower pressure is caused by increased airspeed over the top of the wing, so with a higher pressure underneath, the wing is pushed upwards. This particular principle of liquid and gas flow dynamics is named after Daniel Bernoulli who published it in 1738.


For a singer, the Bernoulli Effect is what draws the vocal folds together as air travels through them. This closing creates a pressure. Once they are closed, the air stream creates a pressure against the vocal folds until they are blown apart. As the air rushes through the very narrow opening, it accelerates to get through. This causes a sideways suction, creating a smooth wave pattern that continues till the breath is stopped.  (Description source:

While we won’t be singing about vocal cords, the male chorus does get a chance to represent the math behind lift, as the Wright Brothers are depicted struggling with an equation that contained an incorrect variable. When the brothers hit a wall, the chorus is joined by Katharine, who leads the cast in a song about courage, in the vehicle of poetry by Amelia Earhart. This encouragement gives way to the breakthrough the brothers need to create their workable flying machine.

Gary Ruschman – Tenor
Performer | Educator | Arranger | Arts Consultant

Four Short Years

by Justin Schell

One of the more remarkable facts of the Wright Brothers’ story is that it took them only four years to solve the problem of controlled, sustained “heavier than air” flight.  From 1899, when they were running a bicycle construction and repair shop in Dayton, OH and wrote the Smithsonian for whatever materials they would send them on the investigations of flight, to their own successful flights in Kitty Hawk in 1903, there were many incredible experiments and discoveries along the way. 

One of these that interested me the most was their fundamentally different way of approaching the design and testing of aircraft. For many investigating flight, it was a series of trials and errors, a cycle of building a machine, crashing, building a slightly different machine, crashing again, and repeating, sometimes with catastrophic results. Otto Lillienthal, a German flight pioneer and one of the most important influences on the Wright Brothers, died when his aircraft crashed in 1896. 

The Wright Brothers were determined to do things differently. They emphasized small-scale testing and, in the process, essentially invented the field of aeronautical engineering. One of the most fascinating example of this was their creation of a wind tunnel in 1901 to test various wing shapes (or aerofoils) that they would use for their machines. All of these aerofoils were crafted by the Wrights, each one fitting into the palm of their hand.  They had first attempted this kind of work by placing the aerofoils on an inverted bicycle wheel exposed to outside winds, but found that creating their own wind (via a fan and engine of their own design) could produce more reliable results. While they were not the first to build a wind tunnel (there are examples dating back to the 18th century), they were the first to use it to test the components of their flyers in a more rigorous way.

1 Wind_TunnelPhoto from The Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company

The problem the Wrights were trying to solve was that of lift and drag, specifically which wing shape would have the best ratio between the two. To do this, they crafted a set of balances that could sit inside of the wind tunnel. The aerofoil would then be attached to the balance and wind from the fan would be sent through the tunnel and moved through different “angles of attack,” or the angle at which wind hit the aerofoil. They tested between one and two hundred surfaces, with detailed results recorded for 57 of them. Some were made of steel, others of galvanized iron, some were straight-edged, others with a variety of curved surfaces, and some modeled after bird wings. (These results are collected in McFarland’s two-volume collection of the Wright Brothers’ correspondence.) 

This process answered a key questions for the Wrights: which aerofoil had the best shape for their fliers? The answer was aerofoil #12. 

4 aerofoil12From McFarland, The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright

While some wings generated more lift than others, they had a more severe stall point, which meant the machine could lose altitude much more quickly, resulting in a loss of control and a possible crash. While one with the requisite mathematical skills might be able to see this in the data itself, it can be more easily seen in the graphs the brothers made of their aerofoil tests. 

2 graph2Graph of aerofoils, courtesy of the Franklin Institute

While aerofoils 15, 16, and 17 produced more lift, one can see the much sharper drop once the maximum lift is reached. Compare this to #12: although it did not reach the same degree of lift as 15, 16, or 17, it had a much more stable descent. This aerofoil not only was chosen by the Wright Brothers for their machines, it has been used ever since by the majority of airplane construction. 

Much of the aeronautical engineering materials from the Wrights, including the aerofoils, notebooks, and graphs, were donated to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia by Orville later in his life. Some are in display in “The Franklin Air Show,” their permanent exhibit that details not only the history of flight but also interactively demonstrates the basic principles of flight. I visited the Franklin earlier this year and met with John Alviti, the Senior Curator for the Franklin, to talk about “Test Pilot” and specifically the Wrights’ wind tunnel experiments. After discussing some of the details of the experiments, he asked, “Would you like to see the wings?” Of course, I eagerly agreed. Donning white gloves, I held in my hand the very same aerofoils that the Wrights held in theirs more than a century ago, these small components that played such a large role in solving the problem of heavier-than-air flight. 

3 aerofoilsAerofoils tested by the Wright Brothers, Franklin Institute

Learning more about the Wrights’ experimentations with wind tunnels and aerofoils not only has taught me much about their own process of invention, but also how exacting airplane design is, how much engineering goes into making the planes people fly (and fly in) every day able to get off the ground, stay in the air, and withstand such a wide variety of winds through such a wide variety of conditions. Yet even more it made me appreciate the accomplishments of these two men who never graduated high school and solved the problem of flight that had stymied many for centuries in four short years.  


My Collaborations with Penelope Freeh: A Brief History

by Jocelyn Hagen

Growing up as an only child in the country, outside a small town in North Dakota, allowed me to spend a lot of time inside my head.  Being creative was a part of my everyday life, just as it is now.  Through the years I became very comfortable in my mostly singular creative endeavors.  My favorite collaborators were Ember and Jessie Bopp, the neighbor girls, and my cousins Meggan and Katie.  Fast forward to my twenties.  I live in a big city (Minneapolis), and I’m working hard to create a name for myself as an emerging composer.  My work continues to be quite singular, though I learn the value and enjoyment in nurturing quality relationships with talented conductors and performers.  During this time I also see a lot of dance.  Being a subscriber to the dance series at The Southern Theatre led me to a show called WITNESS, featuring the choreography of Penelope Freeh.  Her work amazed me.  I immediately thought: this is someone I want to work with someday.  Images from those dances remain with me ~ the grown man with a goatee in a large tutu sipping tea, and the delicate coupled dance of two human figures with grotesque gorilla masks.  There was humor there, and a wonderful juxtaposition of the familiar and unexpected: a quality I was beginning to associate with my own work.

A few years later, my husband (who was then singing with Cantus) collaborated with the James Sewell Ballet on a new work composed by Mary Ellen Childs.  At the cast party after the project wrapped, I got the chance to meet Penny and tell her about my love of and fascination with her work.  “I want to work with you!” I told her, and I wasn’t quite sure how she felt about such a statement.

Then in 2010 I was blessed with a McKnight Foundation Fellowship for composition.  (What a thrill!) The McKnight Foundation threw the fellows in every discipline a big party, and wouldn’t you know it, there was Penelope Freeh (2010 McKnight Fellow in choreography).  Our conversation began again where it left off, and soon soprano Carrie Henneman Shaw (also a McKnight Fellow that year in performance) was enjoying our exciting conversation as well.  I remember in the moment, stepping back and thinking: something very special is happening right now.

A few months later the American Composers Forum announced a new grant opportunity called “Live Music for Dance.”  We had found our opportunity!  Penny and I met several times to craft our grant application and brainstorm the kind of piece we wanted to create.  This was really the first time in my professional career that I had ever worked with someone so closely on any kind of application or creative process.  It was strange, and hard sometimes, but I was always excited and intrigued by the fact that I was trying something completely new.  It was uncharted territory, and I had no idea what kind of music I would end up writing.  My goal was to create music the same way a choreographer makes dance: in the moment, with the performers right there during the majority of the creative process.  For those of you who write music, you know how rare that opportunity is, and how potentially nerve-wracking it could be.  But the experience overall was exquisite, and it pushed me in new directions that I didn’t see coming.  Our piece, entitled “Slippery Fish,” a quartet for soprano (Carrie Henneman Shaw), viola, and 2 dancers, debuted in September of 2012 and was subsequently reviewed in the Star Tribune as “completely original in all respects.”

We were so thrilled with our work and the review that we decided we needed to continue our work with a new project.  We were celebrating this success at my husband’s birthday party when the idea of “originality” came up.  Penny’s recent trip to Carillon Park in her hometown of Dayton, Ohio, reminded her of a quote about ingenuity: “through original research the Wright brothers acquired scientific knowledge and developed theories of aerodynamics which with their invention of aileron control enabled them in 1903 to build and fly at Kitty Hawk the first power-driven, man-carrying airplane capable of flight.”  We found their endeavor and success equally inspiring.  We also discovered during that conversation that we both have family members who were fliers.  My grandfather was a navigator on a B-24 Liberator during WWII, and Penny’s great uncle was a pilot whose plane became Air Force One on a number of occasions.  It seemed like the perfect fit.  That was October of 2012.

In January of 2013 Penny and I embarked on a road trip to Ohio to research the Wright brothers and their sister Katharine, who we had by then decided would be the lead character in our dance opera.  Since then we have met 3-4 times a month, often for coffee or lunch at Wilde Roast in Minneapolis (our favorite spot), to discuss this big project, now known as Test Pilot.  We discussed performers, narrative, images, logistics, projections, movement, compositional ideas and budget, among other things.  As our collaborative process grew and developed, so did our friendship.  We are honest with each other, we push each other, and we bring out the best in each other’s work.  We were thrilled when the American Composers Forum granted us another “Live Music for Dance” grant the first year we became eligible again.  And here we are, at our favorite place, in June of 2014, celebrating our second McKnight Fellowships for choreography and composition, also awarded in the first year we became eligible for them.


Test Pilot will be the result of nearly two years of preparation, planning and brainstorming.  As September draws nearer and nearer, we look forward to sharing it all with you.