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Composer's Symphony Celebrates Bicentennial of Louisiana Purchase - 2003-12-21

In the old seaport of New Orleans, Louisiana, dignitaries gathered December 20 to commemorate a watershed event in American history. Two hundred years ago, in 1803, the flag of France was lowered, and the American flag raised to signify the purchase, for 10 cents a hectare, of land so vast that all or part of 15 states would be carved from it. To highlight the bicentennial of this Louisiana Purchase, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra commissioned a most unusual symphonic work.

Rob Kapilow, 51, was already in great demand as the composer of what is called programmatic music, similar to Swan Lake or 1812 Overture or Peter and the Wolf. It is not just notes on a page, written for their musical value alone. These compositions tell stories and are sometimes accompanied by lyrics. Mr. Kapilow had set Dr. Seuss children's tales to music and composed pieces about such unlikely places as Kansas City's train station. For a subject as far-reaching as the Louisiana Purchase, which instantly expanded the United States westward past the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and north from New Orleans to Canada, Mr. Kapilow did some serious research.

In a dusty congressional archive, he ran across the ideal title for his 25 minute choral and orchestral piece: This New Immense, Unbounded World.

"It seemed to me a perfect expression of the radiant optimism that this new doubling of America would produce for us - the possibility of an America from sea to shining sea," recalls Mr. Kapilow . "So I went off, and I wrote this radiantly optimistic music. And it turns out that I'd gotten it completely wrong - that though the phrase sounded radiantly optimistic, in fact it was in the middle of a diatribe against the Louisiana Purchase! And what he was really saying was, 'The last thing America needs is this new, immense, unbounded world with dollars we have so few of for acres we have so much of.'"

In the piece, Mr. Kapilow mixed the jubilant title with a rendition of a patriotic song that was played 200 years ago at the transfer ceremony in New Orleans.

Unlike the image of an obsessed Beethoven-like figure, hunched over his keyboard in some solitary loft, Mr. Kapilow invites the world to join him in writing his music. He holds informal focus groups with average citizens, and even puts snippets of his work on a website as he writes, seeking feedback from anyone who cares to write. In this case, Mr. Kapilow and Ken Kussmann, the Louisiana Philharmonic's operations director, drove more than 5,000 kilometers across Louisiana, to communities large and small, so Mr. Kapilow could talk with people.

"The good thing about having Rob in the car is, you don't have to worry about falling asleep because he'll keep you awake. He just keeps talking, you know: 'Why don't we do this?' And he has a million ideas, and, Why can't the orchestra do this?' and 'Why can't the orchestra do that?' His mind just never stops," says Mr. Kussmann.

"For many people, the performance in New Orleans was the piece," says Mr. Kapilow. "But for me, the process was the piece. Since my whole mission is to get involved in not only history but also classical music that they think has no connection to them, I found that one of the ways that most connects to them is to show them the actual process, to let them participate in the process. And I wanted people to get a sense that this thing called 'composing' or music is not something that's mysteriously so far away from them that only dead geniuses could do. In fact, one of the key events in my life was when my seven-year-old came home from school one day and said, 'Daddy, Daddy, you can't be a composer. You're not dead!"

Elsewhere, Mr. Kapilow took inspiration from Native Americans, African-Americans, and Acadian French people across the state. "Even though this was, in a way, a glorious, celebratory event for America, to double its size, for many groups it also signaled a kind of end of a way of life, for example for the Indians and for a kind of creole world that existed down there," he says. "And so I created a movement called 'Lost Voices,' which was done in all lost languages, and actually the source music for this was music of the time."

In a meeting with a group of African-American gospel singers, Mr. Kapilow learned of a soothing chant, sung by some of those lost voices, slaves brought to New Orleans in chains from the Bambara region of what is now Mali in West Africa.

A Choctaw Indian verse caught Rob Kapilow's ear. He worked it into the piece. "I tried as hard as I could to find out what it meant," he recalls. "Finally I came across some Choctaw Indians in my travels. I asked them what the words meant, and they said it's kind of like 'Bop-shu-bop-shu-bop' in Indian. It doesn't mean anything. Very often the reason that these words don't mean anything is because they think the music is so powerful that the Creator will understand what you mean, and it doesn't actually matter what the words are."

The greatest challenge of all came in working on the final movement, which Rob Kapilow was determined to devote to the mighty Mississippi River, across which lay this new, immense, unbounded world. He says he and librettist Dalt Wonk spent day and night, walking New Orleans' levees and even flying over the serpentine river, looking for an inspiration.

Finally, well after midnight, he turned to the Internet search engine Google, typed in Mississippi River poetry and came upon a poem by Lucille Clifton, the former poet laureate of the eastern state of Maryland. All of the waters carry yesterday, she wrote. Look at the Mississippi, and you stare into time.

"She phrases it as 'the river in which the past is always flowing. Every water is the same water coming round.' I love that image," Mr. Kapilow says. "To me, it's what the whole project is all about. The past is always flowing. You know, there's a wonderful quote from Faulkner that says, 'The past isn't dead. It isn't even past.'"

Rob Kapilow conducted the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra in nine different performances around the state of Louisiana, incorporating civic and university choruses in each community. The orchestra's executive director, Sharon Litwin, was well pleased. "Getting one's arms around the Louisiana Purchase for a piece of music was not the easiest of tasks," she says. "But in the end I think he has produced a truly remarkable piece. Everybody who's associated with it feels it really has resonance. It really is a remarkable piece of music."

Rob Kapilow's work in Louisiana led to another challenging commission, from the St. Louis Orchestra and other patrons. He is writing another bicentennial story of an adventure that came a year after the Louisiana Purchase, the travels throughout the new territory by explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. And it's already had surprises as well. What began as a musical rendition of Lewis and Clark's journals has turned one 180 degrees into the story of the expedition from Native American eyes. Rob Kapilow says these people do not see the Louisiana Purchase or the voyage of discovery as cause for celebration. To their people, he says, what these momentous historic events portended was an American Holocaust.