Lilith: From Senior Experience to Recording an Album
This guest post is written by Margaret McNeal, a 2017 alumna of the conservatory.
The summer of Lilith’s conception was the summer before my senior year at Lawrence. As a junior undergraduate, I was fortunate to be accepted into SongFest’s Young Artist Program, where I sang for the likes of Dawn Upshaw, Lucy Shelton, Martin Katz, and numerous other Grammy-winners and icons in the field. But I was sick, with what I didn’t know—I struggled while bouncing from doctors to doctor, trying to address the root of my inflammatory skin conditions, dramatic weight-loss, food intolerances, and chronic fatigue. I remember embarrassing myself in a SongFest masterclasses with hard-learned grace while grappling with the reality of my physical condition: body as instrument and body shame; mysterious illness; and, as my physical body and appearance felt increasingly out of my control, newfound realizations of gendered expectations both within myself and classical music culture. I was scared and confused. There were many afternoons spent weeping or cutting class to hunt down allergy-free food in Downtown LA, many meditations on privilege and ableism, many nights spent with a dear friend watching Avatar the Last Airbender and trying to muster some inner wisdom, trying to remember why I ever wanted to be an artist.
I left SongFest deeply depressed, seriously contemplating taking a leave of absence from Lawrence, feeling utterly abject and wild, helpless, completely estranged from my bodily self. I asked myself, Do I lose myself in this depression or find a way to make meaning out of this “descent”? Can I find a way to empower myself, to make pain transformative?
Syliva Perera’s Descent to the Goddess inspired me to pursue an idea I shared with Jon Hanrahan (piano, Lilith) to create a contemporary chamber music independent study course and commissioning project. Fortunately, neither of us had plans to apply for graduate school and could devote our time on maximizing our studies senior year. We began emailing ideas and decided to pursue works thematically relating to the human body (dissociation, agency, objectification, transcendence, etc.) as a means of processing my own bodily experience and a joint exploration around sexism in classical music and gender.
Initially, the plan was modest: we would approach Professors Michael Mizrahi (NOW Ensemble) and Erin Lesser (Alarm Will Sound) to supervise our independent study class, apply for funding through the Chandler Endowment for the Senior Experience, and hopefully receive enough money to commission pieces from a few student composer friends. But Jon and I are quite precocious and, as we mapped out the project on my dorm room floor, we thought: why not email the composers of our dreams...? At the very least, it was an excuse to write them love notes. So, we emailed everyone who excited us. We labored over our project’s pitch, crafting email templates that were just vague enough, just confident enough, and that “walked the walk” before we really had a clue what we were doing. And, what a shock it was when two undergraduates got interested replies from our musical idols. We then had the following problem: how can we raise $16,000 for my senior voice recital? When I emailed the Dean to inquire about funding, he politely told me, “I think this is a great idea, but my guess is that the 16k may be a reach. I like that you have a series of back-up options. I would also have a 3k and 4k version, too.” Well.
Jon scoured the Lawrence and Fox Valley grants databases and found several to which we felt we could make compelling pitches. We feverishly drafted applications, procured $13,000, and selected our composers based on the depth of their connection to our Body prompt. Lilith is at its core a conversation; our composers needed this project as much as I did, to grapple with chronic illness, to examine patriarchal power structures within the composer-performer-audience relationships; to meditate on the implications of being male in a sexist world; to declare agency.
While we awaited our commission deadlines, after fundraising, Jon and I used the remainder of the Fall Term to “build ensemble,” e.g., to assemble a group and establish rapport by learning a preexisting piece before getting to work on our commissions. We chose Chris Cerrone’s “I Will Learn to Love a Person” and recruited the necessary instrumentalists. Chris’s piece thereby determined the instrumentation of Lilith and our commissions. In addition to Dan Reifsteck (percussion) and Dylan Younger (clarinet) joining the group, Joanne Metcalf (“Darkening of the Light”) insisted on viola, and so Kyle Stalsberg came into the fold.
IN THE MIDST (PROCESS)
It was obsessive, intense, joyous, a whirl-wind. We rehearsed for countless hours and coached with professors and visiting artists—Jon and I were full-time students in our senior year and suddenly found ourselves in a full-time professional ensemble. At the time, I was taking one day off of school each week to receive IV chelation therapy and treatment for Chronic Lyme Disease, was off the meal plan and (barely) managing extensive dietary restrictions by cooking three times per day. There were lawyers to consult, contracts to write up, dozens upon dozens of room reservations, Doodle polls, hours in the practice room, sketching mood boards, and emailing visual artists. Researching constantly, my personal and musical lives were unbelievably stressful and, to cope with it, Lilith was my life: an escape from the anxiety and illness plaguing me and a space where I could channel all my anxiety, fear, anger, and uncertainties.
I self-designed six classes while at Lawrence, five of which supported this project my senior year. From Performance Art History (Elizabeth Carlson), Feminism and Music (Julie McQuinn), Arts Administration (Dean Pertl), and Modern Performance Practice (Copeland Woodruff and Margaret Paek), ideas emerged. In truth, I struggled and rebelled quite a bit at Lawrence. I was frustrated with the conservative limitations of classical music, traditional politics, and lack of artistic agency. But, the bottom line is that, with determination, I found the support and resources I needed at Lawrence and ultimately forged my own path.
We also feel unseen because there are no images alive to reflect out wholeness and variety. But where shall we look for symbols to suggest the full mystery and potency of the feminine and to provide images as models for personal life?...Inana-Ereshkigal, Kali, Isis...So I look always for the darker power hidden in their stores—the gorgon aspect of Athena, the underworld Aphrodite, Urania, the Black Demeter...” - Syliva Perera
The name Lilith signifies subversion, the fierce feminine, embodiment, and self-determination. The name, derived from Kiki Smith’s sculpture of the goddess, prompted my interest in the Hebrew Bible myth and immediately appealed to my all-male bandmates, who engaged in our rehearsals with earnest support and curiosity. There was no distinction between theory and practice: our rehearsals invariably became discussions around gender and music and Susan McClary’s theories while we debated gender essentialism...When I told the group that JP Merz (“the be able to be not”) and I wanted to stage his piece using flashlights as a metaphor for the male gaze or that I envisioned Brad Well’s piece (“There are days like this…”) with me singing into mirrors as all four of them stared me down, they were all in. It was and is a marvelous thing to have a conversation about gender with such multiplicity of personal perspectives and, above all, mutual respect and listening.
Tech Week was an insane feat of scheduling between band members, stage managers, video artists, stagehands, and sound engineers, with rehearsals lasting late into the night. When performance day came, I felt the calm of nothingness: the process was much more for us; the performance, some uncontrollable thing. It wasn’t our best run—I was a bit nervous with the choreography, we missed a few lighting cues—but we moved people.
The summer after graduation, Lilith recorded our studio album at Lawrence. Once mastered, we shopped the record around to contemporary classical labels. This took many months, and the wait felt futile—in fact, we were told by quite a few well-meaning mentors that it was futile. During that long period of waiting, I felt impatient and jaded, increasingly needing closure on the project I’d devoted my life to for two years.
Fortunately, Kyle and Dan discouraged me from throwing in the towel by self-releasing on Bandcamp and, after much strategic email-pitching and pestering, we secured a contract with National Sawdust Tracks, of the Contemporary Classical “it” venue National Sawdust in Brooklyn. As recent college graduates, we joined the ranks of Helga Davis, Roomful of Teeth, and John Luther Adams.
With National Sawdust, we got assistance with public relations, remastered the album, and commissioned album artwork—a job which, after a few hired attempts, I ended up taking on myself, with Photoshop editing help from friends Laura Udelson and Sky Speir. I revamped our website. We released our album March 2, 2018.
I am not someone who feels unabated musical passion: at times, the compulsion to create feels infuriating. It’s my restlessness. I am self-critical. It can be terribly burdensome to create at all, vision always ahead of my ability. But Lilith reminds me that music is about much more than the product: that the process is a vehicle for meditation, for discipline and self-betterment, for conversation and community, and practicing the art of listening.
My hope in saying this much, with this much honesty, is not to spin a self-indulgent narrative, but, rather, if by showing our seams, Lilith inspires a new wave of empowered young artists, then that is the greatest outcome I could wish for.
Beyond Talent: Creating a Successful Career in Music, Angela Beeching
Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women, Sylvia Perera
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Margaret McNeal is a Portland, Oregon-based multi-disciplinary creative. As a musician, producer, visual artist, and writer, her work sensitively explores themes of embodiment, identity, ecofeminism, and mythology.
As a vocalist, Margaret focuses on 20th-century and contemporary music, improvisation, collaboration, and non-traditional performance practices. With an expansive and eclectic pool of collaborators, she has sung and contributed text to contemporary chamber ensemble works, improvised music to short films, writhed on the floor in an ensemble of dancing musicians, sung for an experimental folk-rock project, groaned and yodeled for Lucy Shelton, performed Terry Riley’s In C, and traveled to the South of France to study oracular laboratory theatre and extended vocal techniques.
Margaret studied vocal performance at Lawrence University Conservatory of Music, trained with Pantheatre at the Roy Hart Center, and is a SongFest Young Artist alumni.