Wednesday, June 22nd, 2016
Composer Paul John Rudoi and poet Brian Laidlaw met weekly over dinner with the children and families at the Twin Cities Ronald McDonald House. Premiered by the Minnesota Boychoir in May 2016, their beautiful work “My Friends and I,” focuses on hope, friendship, love, and loss through the eyes of children.
ACF: What was it like getting to know the kids at Ronald McDonald House?
Brian: Even before our meetings with the patients and families at the Ronald McDonald House began, I felt certain that this residency/commission would be a powerful experience – but I was entirely unprepared for how transformative and memorable the process proved to be. My expectations, prior to our first contact with the families, were that Paul and I would be entering into a whirlwind of dark, heavy emotions. I braced myself for heartbreaking conversations with children and parents alike, and thought that our final product – the songs for the Minnesota Boychoir – would likely be a touch somber or mournful. Those expectations, I soon learned, were completely backwards! The kids were unbelievably articulate, energetic, and positive in their outlook; I was struck by the fact that for these young patients, their situation was totally normal. They were accustomed to discomfort, accustomed to doctors, accustomed to a delicately balanced schedule of meals and medications. Whatever sorrow I expected to see in them, I immediately realized that I was projecting it onto their experience – but for them, this situation wasn’t tragedy, it was simply life.
Paul: We were fortunate to visit RMH Oak Street seven times, all in very different contexts. On one visit we spent time with the kids in the mini fair they had in the gym downstairs. Another couple visits were spent playing bingo with the families. We had a music sharing visit where we talked about our instruments (I brought my vocal loop station) and shared our favorite songs: The kids’ obsession with the band Delta Rae gave us the idea of having a bluegrass-type piece for the Minnesota Boychoir. We also had a conversation with the kids and some of their parents out on the playground area, which included some coloring and writing about their experiences. Several of these visits included dinner, and we were able to meet and get to know some of the quieter residents during that time together.
ACF: Who or what else inspired your work during the residency?
Brian: The parents with whom we interacted were similarly inspiring; the most prevalent attitude among them – at least outwardly – wasn’t fear or sorrow, but gratitude. And I could see why: I have never been as impressed by any service organization as I was by Ronald McDonald House. The individuals on the staff were immensely bright and exceptionally dedicated to their work – and the efficacy of the organization on an institutional level is indescribable. They were making impossible things happen for these families; I felt humbled by it, and honored to be a small part of the programming offered at this incredible place.
ACF: After the residency ended, how did you approach the writing stage of your collaboration?
Paul: The wonderful thing about working with Brian is his prolific work habits. He had more material should I have needed it, but I didn’t: His first drafts were perfectly in line with my own thoughts on the residency. His poem Shine to Spare was based on a bluegrass feel, similar to Delta Rae’s songs, and I aimed for an a cappella breakdown with some bluegrass percussion. Because I was writing for the Minnesota Boychoir, a primarily classical organization, I decided to start strong in the bluegrass feel and gradually eliminate different percussion while simultaneously growing more legato and lush, then return to the fun, bright sound at the end of the song. His second poem, Swing By, was a beautifully poignant work focusing on the loneliness that comes from seeing friends move on whether geographically or mortally. A younger choir sings very simple, clean melodic lines, with two soloists from the older choirs singing with the choir at the end. Piano is used to indicate the complexities of the situation, but always supportive of the kids while they are dealing with their emotions. I took a great deal of time to put these pieces together because I wanted to make sure there weren’t any moments that felt “on the nose” or overly dramatic. We both hope that these pieces do justice to the children’s perspective with support from their parents.
Brian: Once our sessions wrapped up, and we shifted gears into writing and composing, I can’t imagine things having gone any more smoothly. It was a delight to put my text together based on the notes, writings, and observations I had made during my visits to the RMH. In my pieces, I wanted to be sure to acknowledge the significant challenges these kids (or, more truthfully, their parents) are going through – but much more importantly, I wanted to highlight the incredible sense of camaraderie, optimism, and playfulness that I witnessed every time I set foot in the building. It felt like summer camp: a wonderland of instantly forged, immensely deep friendships, and a setting where young people were tackling huge challenges with bravery and joy.
ACF: Looking back on the year, what other takeaways can you share from the experience?
Brian: I want to wholeheartedly congratulate and thank the selection committee, not only for choosing me as the poet for this opportunity, but also for pairing me with Paul, who proved to be an ideal collaborator. From our very first meeting, it was clear that we were not merely going to be a good team for this project, but far beyond that, that we would certainly continue to be friends and collaborators long into the future. The Healing and Hope Through Song program was eye-opening and inspiring in countless ways, and I hope it continues with other organizations, poets and composers for years and years to come.
Paul: I’ll never forget working in what was clearly a perfect artistic partnership. I’ll never forget being financially and artistically supported by the American Composers Forum, Ronald McDonald House, and the Minnesota Boychoir as I tried to give voice and do justice to those living with such debilitating illnesses. If I could do it over again, I would, and I will recommend this program to any and all composers I know in Minnesota.
Healing & Hope Through Song (2015-16) Premieres will take place:
Minnesota Boychoir Annual Spring Concerts
Saturday, May 21, 2016 @ 7pm
St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church
900 Stillwater Road
Mahtomedi, MN 55115
Sunday, June 12, 2016 @ 7pm
Ted Mann Concert Hall
2128 Fourth Street
Minneapolis, MN 55455
Website for above performances