Meditations on Music: Lilith

As I left Harper Hall this past Saturday, May 21, I was filled with hope and moved immensely by the performance I had just witnessed—hope for new music, for it being heard, for more acceptance and openness to new music in the community. What instilled this strong sense of hope was the culmination of the musical events I have seen this year, but mainly Lilith, an ensemble that premiered new music that dealt with many issues that are not often reflected in the stiff concert hall.

With recitals and releases from groups such as Levels and Slipstream, I have begun to see a push towards much more new music in the tradition-heavy concert halls at Lawrence. Despite its progressiveness, many involved with the Conservatory—myself included—have criticized the lack of emphasis on new music. Levels and Slipstream—both groups I have covered and have had many conversations with outside of journalism—have challenged this lack of emphasis by focusing on commissioning works from up-and-coming composers that deal with improvisation and a blending of genres, techniques and practices. While it has been incredible to see groups push the Conservatory in this direction, Lilith’s performance stood out in a unique way, brandishing its own power.

The reason Lilith stood in contrast to so many of the norms and traditions in the Conservatory and classical music in general was because it was in fact the senior recital—but not advertised as such—of soprano vocalist Margaret McNeal, yet wildly different from any other vocal recital. Typically, a vocal recital will consist of art songs, opera excerpts and maybe a couple of show tunes, usually all accompanied by a pianist. But McNeal—with the combined effort of her ensemble, their coaches and various other collaborators—put on a multi-medium performance that showcased talents of several artists, not just herself, in untraditional and powerful ways.

With McNeal singing, senior Jon Hanrahan on piano, senior Kyle Stalsberg on viola, senior Dylan Younger on clarinet and Dan Reifsteck ’15 on percussion, Lilith came together naturally with unified goals and sentiments. For the ensemble, playing music that not only was comfortable for them to share but also brought forward issues that warranted further discussion was essential. “This whole year, I’ve been really trying to figure out how to align my artistic practice with my values,” McNeal shared with me. Because of this inner conflict, she led a lot of the artistic direction, born mostly from struggles with her body and a desire to bring issues such as body relationships, gender and feminism into a setting that more often than not condones sexism, objectification and other musical and non-musical traditions that should be changed.

With this performance, McNeal and the rest of Lilith not only challenged traditional music and its subject matter, but put on a beautiful and cohesive work of art that I am sure will be talked about for years after the current student performers graduate and are long gone, inspiring others to go down similar paths. The subject matter—all songs about the body and similar issues—was powerful, yes, but the way it was conveyed through the art of performance was crucial to the overall intent of Lilith. Using not just music but lighting, mirrors, movement and projected visuals—done by Mathias Reed ’15—as well, the collaborative effort explored its themes in a myriad of ways, all of them resonating with me.

Throughout the hour-long performance, I was focused like I never had been before. The anticipation I felt before the first piece in the silence and the dark was prolonged until the end of the concert, when the held applause erupted after a long moment of silence. Never before had I felt an audience hold their breath, stunned like that, at a recital before—possibly even any concert in general. This silence was even more impressive as the audience was huge—Harper was nearly full. I felt paralyzed and could barely write notes, something I also have not encountered. Usually I can write at least a few words for each piece followed by some final thoughts, but Lilith’s performance left me with only four notes, albiet a head full of thoughts and a heart full of emotions. It was overwhelming at many moments, and this concert made me get the chills the most times yet from art in such a short duration. Strangely, while I did not connect to many of the issues relating to the body, I felt distinctly emotional—experiencing opposing feelings at once, but even while writing this meditation a couple days after the event, I still cannot figure out what I felt despite it being amazingly strong and resonating.

I am elated to be able to cover this performance in my last column of the term. I wish all of Lilith’s members and collaborators the best of luck in their future endeavors. Words cannot express the hope, happiness and excitement I have for not only the future of music at Lawrence, but the future of music in the world as well—largely thanks to Lilith.

Lilith will be releasing an album of the five works they performed—four commissions and one pre-existing piece for their instrumentation—midsummer 2016. Keep on the lookout for updates from any of the members’ Facebook pages.