Jessica Meyer

Halcyon Skies

Jessica Meyer

Halcyon Skies

About the Piece

The song we know as "America the Beautiful" originated as a poem, written by a woman in her 30's named Katharine Lee Bates.  While she was teaching at Colorado College, she and her colleagues took a trip up to Pikes Peak via prairie wagon and mules in July of 1893.  Having traveled across the country by train to get to this teaching post, she was already taken with the variety of scenery our country has to offer.  Though exhausted, once the summit was reached the words started flowing and she began to write this iconic poem.  

The phrase "halcyon skies" appears in the first line of the first version, but was replaced by "spacious skies" in the song version.  The poem became quite well known, and more than 75 others have set it to music.  The melody we sing today was written by Samuel Ward of Grace Episcopal Church in Newark, NJ, also written while traveling - this time on a ferry from Coney Island to New York City.

When pianist Min Kwon commissioned me to write a variation of this tune, it was during a time of great conflict in America in 2020.  A line from Katharine's original poem, "Till selfish gain no longer stain" is painfully still relevant as the disparity between rich and poor, white people and people of color, men and women, all alongside the inappropriate conflation of science and politics, is on full display for all to see during the Covid-19 pandemic.  Most of the famous melody is enmeshed within the texture, stopping at the lyric of "brotherhood" since there are countless examples of people acting very selfishly at the moment.

Katherine Bates experienced her fair share of sexist prejudice and discrimination, sometimes having to write under a male pseudonym and making the decision not to get married, for it would strip her of her hard-earned professorship at Wellesley College.  As a war correspondent for the NY Times and author of many periodicals, she witnessed the ravages of the industrial revolution in both America and Britain, having seen urban poverty and misery first hand.  In addition to being an author, she was a social activist interested in the struggles of women, workers, people of color, tenement residents, immigrants, and the poor.

It was her wish for an all-inclusive American community that inspired the poem, and which also serves as the inspiration for my variation.   During the same week in July that Katharine visited Pikes Peak over a hundred and twenty years ago, my family was recently able to get out of NYC for just a few days to a house on Lake Ontario.   The expansive, ever-changing skies and the resonant overlapping harmonies that only windchimes provide gave me the sonic inspirations for the work.  The emotional ones come from trying not to fall apart while reading the news throughout the summer of 2020 - instead, refocusing myself to find wonder and hope again in the beauty of our halcyon skies.

About Jessica Meyer

With playing that is “fierce and lyrical” and works that are “other-worldly” (The Strad) and “evocative” (New York Times), Jessica Meyer is a GRAMMY® – nominated violist and composer whose passionate musicianship radiates accessibility and emotional clarity. Her first composer/performer portrait album recently debuted at #1 on the Billboard traditional classical chart, where “knife-edge anticipation opens on to unexpected, often ecstatic musical realms, always with a personal touch and imaginatively written for the instruments” (Gramophone Magazine). Meyer’s compositions viscerally explore the wide palette of emotionally expressive colors available to each instrument while using traditional and extended techniques inspired by her varied experiences as a contemporary and period instrumentalist. Since embarking on her composition career only six years ago, premieres have included performances by acclaimed vocal ensembles Roomful of Teeth and Vox Clamantis, the American Brass Quintet, cellist Amanda Gookin for her Forward Music Project, Sybarite 5, PUBLIQuartet, NOVUS NY of Trinity Wall Street, and a work for A Far Cry commissioned by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Her orchestral works have been performed by the North Carolina Symphony, the Nu Deco Ensemble in Miami, Vermont Symphony, Sinfonia Gulf Coast, and the Studio Orchestra at Peabody Conservatory. Recently, she was just announced the winner of the 2nd Annual Ellis-Beauregard Foundation Composer’s Award, which will fund a commission for the Bangor Symphony in 2022-23. Upcoming orchestral engagements include performances by the Charlotte Symphony, a concerto for herself with the League of Composers Orchestra to be premiered in Miller Theatre, and interactive performances in Carnegie Hall and around the country as part of their nationwide Link Up Program.

Recent chamber works include commissions by the Juilliard School for a project with the Historical Performance Program, and by the Lorelei Ensemble for a song cycle that received the Dale Warland Singers Commission Award from Chorus America. 2021-2022 features include being the Composer-in-Residence at Spoleto USA; a premiere at the National Gallery of Art; and works for the St. Lawrence String Quartet, flutist Allison Loggins-Hull for her “Diametrically Composed” project at National Sawdust, and for Sandbox Percussion with vocal duo Two Cities called “20 Minutes of Action” – which was awarded a commissioning grant from New Music USA.  As a solo performer, Ms. Meyer uses a single simple loop pedal to create a virtuosic orchestral experience with her viola and voice. Drawing from wide-ranging influences which include Bach, Brahms, Delta blues, Flamenco, Indian Raga, and Appalachian fiddling, Meyer’s music takes audience members on a journey through joy, anxiety, anger, bliss, torment, loneliness and passion. Her solo shows have been featured at iconic venues such as BAMcafé, Joe’s Pub, and Symphony Space in NYC, the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, in Paris at Sunset Sunside, in addition to venues in Singapore, Switzerland, Vietnam, the Emirates and beyond. At home with many different styles of music and an ardent collaborator, Jessica can regularly be seen performing on Baroque viola, improvising with jazz musicians, or collaborating with other composer-performers.

Photo Credit: Dario Acosta

Score Photos by Laura Migliorino
Score Photos by Laura Migliorino

About Discovery Composers

As the artistic director of Center for Musical Excellence, I am always on the look out for new and undiscovered talents.  They come to me, sometimes, by my colleagues’ recommendations and other times through young artists’ own research about our organization.  Tyson Davis and Andrew Bambridge are currently on our roster of CME Young Artists, whom we mentor.  Patricio Molina is a CME alumnus. Theo Chandler, Ji-Young Ko, and Daniel Newman-Lessler applied for our Grant program, and I got to know their work through that process. I decide on young artists when I notice a deep passion and drive within them, plus a certain kind of sparkle in the personality and lots of humility.  In addition to musical talents, I believe these are the qualities that will take the young artists far.  CME’s motto is "Moving Musicians Forward".  I’ve chosen our Discovery Composers based on these qualities,  whom we felt we could easily move forward.

- Min Kwon