Folk Hero: Wayne Horvitz evokes a revolutionary spirit through music

Folk Hero: Wayne Horvitz evokes a revolutionary spirit through music
by Gavin Borchert

Seattle Weekly
27 Oct. 2004

Timely historian Horvitz.
(Robin Laananen)

When Wayne Horvitz began work on Joe Hill three years ago, he didn’t
intend it to be an overtly political piece. As a musician, he’s more
interested in storytelling, in re-creating a period, a mood, a life; as
songs get too focused on a specific message, he feels they move into
territory where words alone can do a better job anyway. Or as he puts
it, “I always felt Joan Baez’s ‘I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill’ was the
moment in the movie Woodstock to go out and get popcorn.”

Yet the political climate in America has moved Horvitz to think harder
about the issues Hill and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)
raised: questions of economic justice, the disparity of wealth, the
lives and aspirations of the working class. A history buff, Horvitz’s
first attraction to the subject was its mythological, folktale aspect:
the fiery labor crusader accused of murder and executed after a
blatantly unjust show trial, despite worldwide protests and calls for a
retrial from Woodrow Wilson on down.

Joe Hill: 16 Actions for Orchestra, Voice, and Soloist, to be premiered
on Saturday, Oct. 30 (i.e., three days before the election), at Meany
Hall, is a 90-minute song cycle with a dash of opera; unstaged, with
just a light narrative frame. Vocalists Danny Barnes and Robin Holcomb
represent, or allude to, Hill and the feminist crusader Elizabeth
Gurley Flynn (1890–1964), an activist for Hill’s release who visited
him on his last night in prison. Performance artist Rinde Eckert
narrates and takes other roles as needed. “Oratorio,” if it didn’t
connote Victorians in evening dress singing Bible stories, might be the
best term.

Horvitz chose lyrics from the IWW songbook and reset them to original
music, placing them alongside traditional songs like “Spike Driver’s
Blues.” The scoring for chamber orchestra (two dozen players, drawn
from the Seattle Symphony and other orchestras), otherwise fully
written out, includes a prominent improvised part for guitarist and
long-time collaborator Bill Frisell. The partly sung, partly spoken
text linking the songs and instrumental interludes was written by Paul
Magid (best known as one of the Flying Karamazov Brothers). Composer
and librettist came up with the idea of a Joe Hill piece separately; a
friend brought them together. For both men, American labor history and
family history intertwine: Horvitz’s father and grandfather were
involved in labor negotiations, and Magid’s grandfather, an Armenian
immigrant, was himself a Seattle longshoreman and IWW member.

Distinguished from his jazz improvisations, Horvitz’s recent
through-composed works (a much better term than “classical”) reflect a
deep love for traditional blues and mountain music. Spare and serene,
they make me think of Ives at his least aggressive and gimmicky, Virgil
Thomson without his occasional self- consciousness and sense of
“writing down,” and, in their airy, unopulent textures and mood of
reverence, Arvo Pärt. Like Bartók, Horvitz evokes a vernacular spirit
without outright quotation. His settings of the IWW texts, his
deconstructions and reharmonizations of their original tunes, are a
mirror image of Hill’s practice. Hill and other contributors to the IWW
songbook took familiar hymn tunes and added incendiary new lyrics.

Horvitz does use one original song by Hill: “Rebel Girl,” an epithet
which became Flynn’s nickname. In a curious irony, Hill’s music comes
straight out of the commercial, “cultivated,”
sheet-music-in-the-piano-bench tradition; it’s Horvitz’s original music
which, drawn from a vernacular source, seems to more authentically
reflect the story’s folktale element—especially as sung by Barnes and
Holcomb, powerfully emotive singers in the blues-folk style.

Joe Hill’s single Seattle performance will be coproduced by Earshot
Jazz and Meany Hall, moving laudably beyond presenting to
co-commissioning new work. A second performance in Burlington, Vt., is
scheduled for next year; beyond that, Horvitz plans to shop the piece
around. It should be attractive to conductors with a taste for
adventure—although anyone looking for “crossover” pops-concert material
in the manner of Edgar Meyer (who does it cleverly and engagingly) or
Mark O’Connor (who does it cheesily) probably ought to look elsewhere.
Horvitz’s music is less a matter of reconciling two musical worlds than
of creating his own, drawing from the same fundamental humanist spirit
that is the common source of honest, heartfelt music of any tradition.