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.

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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.

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