Fearless females honored at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music’s 50th
“It’s really easy to hide behind a camera,” Deborah Luster says, when asked how she became a photographer. The Louisiana native goes on to explain that she took up the hobby as a means of honoring her mother’s memory and re-engaging with the world, after she was murdered by a hired hit man in April of 1988.
Twenty-four years later, the resulting photos and Luster’s incredible life story have inspired a musical composition, which will debut as part of a larger work, entitled “Hidden World of Girls: Stories for Orchestra,” at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music on July 28 and 29.
Luster’s story was one of several that caught the attention of the Kitchen Sisters—Santa Cruz’s own Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson, who got their start on KUSP in the ’70s—who were developing a radio series for National Public Radio (NPR), called “Hidden World of Girls,” in 2009. Created for the purpose of sharing the stories of women who blazed a trail or changed a tide, the series features a diverse group of ladies, including a lesbian in Pakistan, a science fiction writer, a transgender activist, a photographer in Tehran, and many more.
So, when Ellen Primack, executive director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, pitched the idea of a multimedia project that would combine the “Hidden World of Girls” series with orchestral music, Silva and Nelson jumped at the opportunity. And what better time to unveil the world premiere than during opening weekend of the 50th anniversary of the festival this week.
“The stories of ‘Hidden World of Girls’ are really the story of the human spirit—they reflect differences in cultural norms and expectations of girls and women, but also amplify our commonalities across diverse cultures and experiences,” says Primack. “These are stories of struggle and triumph, perseverance and success, and of great creativity and joy. I believe there is truth in the idea that ‘music is the universal language,’ and bridging these two powerful vehicles gives everyone a way in to an experience that promises to be moving and thought-provoking.”
Inspired by the stories of women and composed entirely by women, the resulting evening-length interdisciplinary work, “Hidden World of Girls: Stories for Orchestra,” is the largest commission to date, and a fitting way to mark the festival’s milestone. After all, throughout its 50-year history, a number of women have served as the backbone to its success.
From Sidney Jowers—who, along with her husband Vic, co-owned the Sticky Wicket coffee house, which began hosting concerts in 1961 that would eventually become the genesis for the Cabrillo Festival—to Music Director/Conductor Marin Alsop, who celebrated her 20th anniversary last year, to Primack, the festival would not be what it is today without fearless females.
“It marks a real advancement for women composers,” says Laura Karpman, the lead composer and creative director for “Hidden World of Girls.” “It’s a celebration of women—go forth and do more.”
“It all started with an obituary we saw for Lula Mae Hardaway,” Silva says, remembering the origin of her and Nelson’s “Hidden World of Girls” series. “She was born to a sharecropper, and was abandoned by her family, she was later forced into prostitution, she was a single mother, and her blind son was eventually discovered while singing on the streets in Detroit—Stevie Wonder. … I remember thinking, if this is Stevie’s mother’s story, what are other women’s stories like?”
That curiosity motivated the pair to explore the idea on NPR, where they eventually opened up a phone line for people to call in and share their stories. Those phone messages are now a fundamental part of the “Hidden World of Girls: Stories for Orchestra” work, which will debut at the Cabrillo Festival.
One such story about the Brave Heart Women’s Society at the Yankton Sioux/Ihanktonwan Oyate Reservation in South Dakota struck a chord with Silva.
“One call that came in was from Brook Spotted Eagle, and she told us about a coming-of-age ritual that her tribe does on the banks of the Missouri River,” she recalls. “They invited us to come witness it and we were able to spend four days documenting it.”
According to Silva, the girls in the tribe are not allowed to touch food or water for four days as part of the ritual. During that time, their mothers feed them, as they did when they were children. They are then taught how to set up their own teepee, they learn how to work as a team, they study herbal remedies, they learn life lessons from their elders, and then, on the last day, they’re taken into the teepee, where they’re bathed, dressed and given a new name.
“The series points out just how much we need these rituals and rites of passage,” says Silva. “There are lots of old traditions, but we can take those ideas and make them mean something today.”
Aside from giving trailblazing women the credit and recognition they deserve, the Kitchen Sisters intend to promote education and tolerance with their series.
“By telling these stories and histories, the hope is that people will look at things in new ways,” explains Silva. “The more we listen to each other’s stories, the more we learn and understand.”
While the Kitchen Sisters have shared the stories of many already-established artists and familiar figures, the idea that everyone has a tale to tell has motivated them to seek out the stories of women of all ages, backgrounds, and cultures.
Silva cites her grandmother as an example. “My grandmother came over from Portugal at 12, had an arranged marriage at 13, and had five kids by 20 years old—how difficult it must have been for her to raise such a family on her own,” she says. “It’s not just about the well-known people, but the everyday stories.”
In Silva’s eyes, the “Hidden World of Girls: Stories for Orchestra” work is an invaluable opportunity to spread the stories they have compiled to a new community via the Cabrillo Festival. And, rather than simply listen to each individual’s personal journey, audience members will be able to experience a visual representation and live music at the show. “I think it’s a lot like a quilt; All these things coming together—the visual, multimedia, and music—and bringing new material to these stories,” she says. “All of the women involved had a personal connection to the project.”
For Deborah Luster, “Hidden World of Girls,” is more than just a radio series or a multimedia concert—it’s her life. And beyond that, it places one of her most painful yet defining memories in the spotlight.
Following her mother’s murder, Luster was terrified that her life could also be in danger. “[Photography] was my way to get back into the world,” she remembers. “It focused everything for me; it was a tool to make my way through.”
For years she searched to no avail for a project that would address the loss of her mother and the violence she experienced. But it wasn’t until she was invited to photograph the poverty in Northeast Louisiana that she found her muse—entirely by accident.
“I kept driving around and all of the houses were abandoned; everyone was in prison,” says Luster. “So I knocked on the gate of the prison and the warden came out. I explained what I was doing, and he invited me in. I thought, ‘This is it; This is what I’ve been looking for.’”
And so, her acclaimed collection of photographs, entitled “One Big Self,” was born. Between 1998 and 2003, Luster took roughly 25,000 portraits of inmates—many of whom were convicted of violent crimes—inside of three state prisons in Louisiana.
Characterized by few props and little more than a black background, each photograph is soulful and compassionate, with a quiet intensity.
“They’re very personal photos,” says Luster. “At Angola (Louisiana State Penitentiary), many of the inmates are there for life, and since they blur the security mirrors, the inmates don’t really have an idea of what they look like. So, many of the inmates ended up sharing [the photos] with friends and family.”
While she claims she did not necessarily have a goal for the project, she took on a Dorothea Lange quote as her mantra: “The best way to go into an unknown territory is to go in ignorant, as ignorant as possible, with your mind wide open, as wide open as possible—not having to meet anyone else’s requirements but your own.” Taking that message to heart, Luster did not study prison statistics prior to her visits, nor did she ask what brought each inmate to prison or their crime. All she knew was their sentence.
“I didn’t want to see the prisoners, but the people,” she explains. “I wanted to erase the prison and just see the people. I would just photograph as fast as I could. I wasn’t trying to find the most beautiful photograph or the most interesting inmate, rather, I wanted to suggest the high numbers of incarcerated people—quantity over quality. I was trying to keep my mind blank, because I didn’t want to absorb the politics.”
Though Luster says one can safely assume that at a prison like Angola, inmates are there because they’ve committed murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, or a crime of that nature, she refused to let her personal trauma impact her project. “I didn’t have any problem with it,” she says. “Instead of a burden descending, it lifted.”
With that same positive outlook, Luster will head to the Cabrillo Festival, where she will see and hear her story come to life, along with many others at “Hidden World of Girls: Stories for Orchestra.” “I’m thrilled,” she says. “It’s such an undertaking!”
Laura Karpman has a way with words. When asked how she would describe the music for “Hidden World of Girls: Stories for Orchestra,” Karpman said with a laugh, “radio on acid … or hyper radio.”
The four-time Emmy Award-winning composer may have been slightly exaggerating, but when you consider that her role in the “Hidden World of Girls” project was to craft a 90-minute piece of music, with the help of three other composers (Clarice Assad, Alexandra du Bois, and Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum), that would help bring the Kitchen Sisters’ stories to life, and suit a live orchestra of 80 people, the analogy seems oddly appropriate.
And for someone who has had a fruitful career in film, television, videogame, concert and theater music, the task was hardly out of Karpman’s wheel house. In fact, she was able to draw upon her past experiences when crafting the piece.
“Working with these stories was exactly like scoring a film—it’s oddly related,” says Karpman. “It’s about finding the drama, and where music should and shouldn’t be; it’s challenging.”
In addition to composing the underscore (or “background music”) for each story presented in the piece, Karpman chose to compose the music to accompany Luster’s story. It was Luster’s “One Big Self” collection that drew her in.
“What interested me most about her photographs was the sense of frozen time; they almost look like 19th century [photos], but completely contemporary,” says Karpman. “When you hear about her photos, you have an idea of what the prison photos must be like—but there is celebration in them, hope, freedom, intimacy, sentimentality.”
While Karpman has not met Luster yet—the two will officially be introduced at the festival, when Luster hears the work for the first time—she found inspiration for the piece by admiring her photographs. But not every second of Luster’s story needed music, according to Karpman. “The part of the story with her mother is greeted with silence,” she says. “Her telling of that story is so moving, you don’t need underscore for that.”
As a result of not having met one another, Karpman was not at all influenced by Luster’s interpretation of her own history or her photographs. Instead, the music is a direct response to Luster’s story. “I wasn’t colored by her vision of it; it was very personal,” says Karpman. “It’s very much about the craft and creating work that responds to that of others—it’s a very feminine approach.”
Though Karpman admits that it was a challenge to underscore the stories with new music by an orchestra and also bridge the three composers’ visions and her own into one cohesive piece, she believes that the act of sharing these untold stories with the world makes the whole project worthwhile.
“[The Kitchen Sisters] go out and find the hearts of these women around the world; that’s what’s so inspiring and dramatic about it,” she says. “This is a part of a shared history we all have.
“And telling these stories is essential to changing the world,” she continues. “Historically, these stories have been suppressed. In the 20th and 21st century, people are starting to tell these stories, but it’s only the beginning of the process. These stories must be told.”
The Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music runs from July 28-Aug. 12. The world premiere of “Hidden World of Girls: Stories for Orchestra” will take place at 8 p.m. on Saturday, July 28, and at 1 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Sunday, July 29 at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium. At 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, July 29, The Kitchen Sisters, Deborah Luster, and Brook’s mother, Faith Spotted Eagle, co-founder of the Brave Heart Women’s Society, will speak more about “Hidden World of Girls” in a separate panel discussion event. For tickets to all festival events and for more details about each, visit cabrillomusic.org.
Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music
50 Years at a Glance
To commemorate the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music’s 50th anniversary, we asked the festival organizers to walk us through its history by naming 50 milestones. Relive the journey:
1961: Robert Hughes comes to Aptos to study with Lou Harrison. Hughes, Sticky Wicket owners Vic and Sidney Jowers, and others present their first concert at the Sticky Wicket coffee house. These concerts become the genesis of the Cabrillo Festival.
1962: Cabrillo College opens its Aptos campus. Faculty choral director Ted Toews and soprano Alyce Vestal joined the Sticky Wicket gang and Lou Harrison to help shape the expansion of the Sticky Wicket Concert Series into the Cabrillo Music Festival.
1963: The very first Cabrillo Festival concert takes place at the Cabrillo College Theater. 300 people attend. Gerhard Samuel, the Festival’s first Music Director, leads.
1969: The Festival commissioned composer Carlos Chávez’ “Discovery.”
1970: Composer Carlos Chávez becomes Music Director, a post he holds until 1973.
1974: Conductor Dennis Russell Davies becomes Music Director.
1974: The Festival commissions and presents Beth Anderson’s “Joan of Arc,” written for orchestra, with four singers, a dancer, and a taped electronic score.
1974: Cabrillo initiates annual concerts at Mission San Juan Bautista.
1978: Aaron Copland is composer-in-residence and conducts “Appalachian Spring” at the Cocoanut Grove.
1979: Virgil Thompson is composer-in-residence; Laurie Anderson performs.
1982: The League of American Orchestra introduces the national ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming of Contemporary Music. Cabrillo wins the top award in the orchestra category (and has continued to win it every year since).
1982: The Cabrillo Festival celebrates its 20th anniversary season with the commissioning and premiere of Lou Harrison’s “Third Symphony”; John Cage returns as composer-in-residence; Keith Jarrett performs.
1986: Festival performances move from the Cabrillo College Theatre to a large tent on the UC Santa Cruz campus; use of the tent continued for three seasons; Keith Jarrett returns.
1987: Twenty-fifth anniversary season was also Lou Harrison’s 70th birthday celebration.
1988: The Festival begins its longstanding relationship with Philip Glass and presents his Violin Concerto. To date, the Cabrillo Festival has presented 19 works by the famed composer.
1989: Loma Prieta earthquake hits Santa Cruz County, and the Cabrillo Festival moves administrative offices from the damaged Sesnon House on the Cabrillo College campus.
1990: Music Director Dennis Russell Davies celebrates his final season with the Cabrillo Festival, culminating a remarkable tenure that spanned 17 seasons, and leaving an indelible mark on the Festival.
1991: Composer John Adams becomes interim Artistic Director. Tom Fredericks and Ellen Primack join the staff.
1991: The Festival moves to the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, and helps revitalize the earthquake stricken downtown.
1992: The Festival closes off Church Street between the Civic Auditorium and City Hall and launches its popular Church Street Fair: a festival of music, art and wine.
1992: Thirtieth anniversary season. Dennis Russell Davies returns for a final performance, including Lou Harrison’s “Last Symphony,” and passes the baton to Marin Alsop as new Music Director/Conductor.
1993: Festival audiences are introduced to the work of esteemed composer John Corigliano, when the Festival presents his “Symphony No. 1” at Mission San Juan Bautista.
1994: Joseph Alessi performs in the unforgettable West Coast premiere performance of Christopher Rouse’s Pulitzer-Prize winning “Trombone Concerto.”
1996: Marin Alsop brings her group String Fever to the Cabrillo Festival.
1999: The Festival presents Leonard Bernstein’s magnum opus, “MASS.” It is an astonishing success, with three sold-out performances.
2000: Marin Alsop leads the Festival Orchestra in Mark O’Connor’s “Double Violin Concerto,” featuring O’Connor and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg on violin.
2001: Under Alsop’s leadership, the Cabrillo Festival dedicates itself exclusively to the works of living composers, and in doing so, changes its name to the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music.
2002: The Cabrillo Festival undertakes two operas: Philip Glass’s “The Photographer” and Lou Harrison’s “Rapunzel.”
2002: Percussionist Evelyn Glennie makes her Cabrillo Festival debut in the West Coast premiere of Michael Daugherty’s “UFO”
2003: The Cabrillo Festival presents the West Coast premiere of Kevin Puts’ “Symphony No. 2: Island of Innocence,” and begins a long relationship with the then unknown composer (now winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Music).
2003: Lou Harrison dies. The Cabrillo Festival presents a memorial tribute to Harrison. Dennis Davies returns for it.
2005: Maestra Marin Alsop becomes the first conductor ever to receive a MacArthur Fellowship.
2005: The Festival receives an estate gift from the late Ellen Schuck, effectively doubling the Festival’s newly named Artistic Initiative Reserve Fund, a powerful resource that provides the financial stability needed to advance the cause of new music and the work of living composers.
2006: The Festival produces and premieres a groundbreaking multimedia work, Frans Lanting’s “LIFE: A Journey Through Time,” with a commissioned score by Philip Glass and visual design by Alexander V. Nichols.
2007: Marin Alsop makes history when she is appointed the 12th Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the first woman to hold this position with a major American orchestra.
2007: Ellen Primack and Tom Fredericks receive the Gail Rich Award.
2008: The Festival commissions a Concerto for Orchestra by Pulitzer Prize-winner Christopher Rouse, and presents the West Coast premiere of John Adams’ “Doctor Atomic Symphony.” Adams’ relationship with the Festival spans more than 34 years.
2008: Marin Alsop officiates John Corigliano and Mark Adamo’s wedding while they are in Santa Cruz for John’s “Conjurer” with Evelyn Glennie.
2008: The Cabrillo Festival was awarded the first of two three-year Arts Regional Initiative grants from The James Irvine Foundation; Phase I was for Capacity Building.
2009: The Festival is awarded the John S. Edwards Award for Strongest Commitment to New American Music, the top ASCAP award.
2009: The Cabrillo Festival honors the band that sparked a cultural revolution, with Lee Johnson’s acclaimed “Dead Symphony No. 6,” an orchestral tribute to the Grateful Dead.
2009: Cabrillo Festival audiences are blown away by Osvaldo Golijov’s “Azul,” featuring cellist Alisa Weilerstein, hyper-accordionist Michael Ward-Bergeman, and percussionists Jamey Haddad and Cyro Baptista.
2010: The Cabrillo Festival commissions and presents “Symphony No. 3,” a new work by Michael Hersch, one of the youngest recipients ever of a Guggenheim Fellowship in Composition.
2010: A co-commissioner of the work, the Cabrillo Festival presents the West Coast premiere of “On a Wire,” a piece by Grammy-winner Jennifer Higdon, written for the sextet eighth blackbird that begins with the six musicians gathered around the open-lidded piano and playing the interior strings.
2010: Marin Alsop and her then 7-year old son surprise the public with an impromptu street performance on Pacific Avenue. Percussionist Colin Currie joins in.
2011: Marin Alsop celebrates her 20-year anniversary as Music Director/Conductor at the Cabrillo Festival.
2011: Composers Mark Adamo, John Corigliano, Michael Daugherty, Avner Dorman, and Philip Glass create five new short works (called “anniversary nightcaps”) in honor of Alsop’s 20th anniversary season.
2011: The Cabrillo Festival’s Associate Conductor Carolyn Kuan—Conductors Workshop alumna and Alsop protégée—is appointed Music Director of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra.
2012: The Cabrillo Festival turns 50. Mary Solari and Marin Alsop commission a special anniversary work to mark the milestone, called “Women of the Apocalypse,” by preeminent Scottish composer James MacMillan.
2012: The Cabrillo Festival celebrates its 50th anniversary with the world premiere of “Hidden World of Girls: Stories for Orchestra” (the largest project in Festival history), the commissioned work by MacMillan, six world premieres and three West Coast premieres.