Carleton choir performance provides opportunity to learn from differing stories

In lieu of its traditional end-of-term concert this fall, the Carleton College Choir pieced together a performance of “#UnitedWeDream,” a composition that raises up a life story involving immigration and the DREAM Act.

18 December 2020 Posted In:
Carleton Choir
A small group of Carleton's choir gathers to practice in an outdoor tent classroom in the Weitz's courtyard.Photo:

In lieu of its traditional end-of-term concert this fall, the Carleton College Choir recorded and pieced together a performance of “#UnitedWeDream,” a composition by Melissa Dunphy and poetry by Claudia D. Hernández.

The composition raises up a life story involving immigration and the DREAM Act. The work is a collaboration between two artists—composer Melissa Dunphy and writer and photographer Claudia D. Hernández—with personal stories of immigration and refugeeism. Hernández is well known for her work founding the project, Today’s Revolutionary Women of Color.

“I selected #UnitedWeDream hoping it would offer the Carleton Choir and myself an interdisciplinary opportunity to learn from life stories that may differ from our own,” said Matthew Olson, director of choral activities. “We are striving to approach works such as #UnitedWeDream with respect and humility, seeking to listen deeply to the life experiences of underrepresented composers and poets, knowing that through their courageous voices, our own perspectives, empathy, and artistry will be transformed.”

Members of the Carleton Choir, both those in-person and those studying remotely, had the opportunity to meet and learn from the artists via Zoom, hearing not only about their creative processes, but also about their families’ experiences as refugees and immigrants in Guatemala, Southeast Asia, Australia, and the United States. Online students also read excerpts from Hernández’s inspiring book, “Knitting the Fog,” to deepen their understanding of the poet’s life story and voice. This led to the idea of incorporating the poet’s photography into the video performance.

The video interweaves photographs by Hernández taken while covering her trips to Guatemala from Los Angeles, where she lives now. She selected these photographs to help bring her poem to visual life.

Carleton choir practice

This recording project was a new and exciting challenge for Olson and audio engineer Matthew Zimmerman. While virtual choir performances that edit together the voices of remote solo singers have become commonplace, the hybrid nature of Carleton’s fall term presented its challenges. With 10 of the choir’s students studying remotely, the 40 remaining on-campus students divided up into small chamber groups of 8-10 singers and rehearsed most of the term while physically distanced in a tent outside of the Weitz Center for Creativity.

“The vocal sections of the choir each recorded individually, and every student wore headphones allowing themselves to hear the tracks recorded by the other sections,” Olson said. “We hoped that this would enable students to intuitively unify pitch and diction while creating an experience that sounded and felt more like singing all together once again. We then added the voice tracks of students learning remotely and edited them together, paired with Ms. Hernández’s beautiful photography.” 

View the performance.