Millennium Brings New Musical Sounds Across America


During her residency, composer Deborah Fischer Teason learns about David City's Czech heritage from area accordionists.  Photo by Ruth Nichols

2000David City, Nebraska (pop. 2,500) is usually a rather quiet place. All that changed when it was chosen to become part of the Arts Endowment's Continental Harmony National Millennium Project, the first-ever, nationwide music commissioning effort. In 58 locations across the country, organizations ranging from local choirs and jazz bands to chamber groups and symphony orchestras hosted composers of their choice for Continental Harmony residencies. Collaborating with local residents and musicians, the composers wrote and helped facilitate the performance of a new piece of music that reflects each community's distinctive heritage and culture, as well as its dreams for the future. David City residents were shocked to discover they were chosen as a site. "At the same time we were delighted and scared to death to be selected," says local organizer Bill Magargal. "This project has been so magical for our town and has given us such a wonderful sense of pride."

School children work with local artist Ruth Nichols to create murals relating to Heartland's themes. Photo by Ruth Nichols

A brass band joins the community choir, a violinist and accordionists for many months of practice before the debut performance. 
Photo by Ruth Nichols

Composer Deborah Fischer Teason got a feel for David City by interviewing community elders, visiting area festivals and even driving a combine. She worked with a group of residents to write the lyrics for their five-movement composition entitled Heartland, which evoked the area's rural traditions. They first came up with objects symbolizing each movement's theme: quilting represents creativity and tradition, the windmill signifies agriculture, the barn illustrates community, mothers' hands show the importance of family and storms convey the residents' enduring spirit. Teason then put their words to music, including parts for a brass band and button accordions, reflecting the community's Czech heritage. A local artist worked with a group of children to create murals representing each movement, which provided the backdrop for performances of Heartland. The $2.5 million Continental Harmony project was created by the American Composers Forum with help from the National Endowment for the Arts. "The support that the NEA gave made it happen," notes the forum's Project Director Patricia Shifferd. "We wouldn't have been able to raise that kind of money without the Endowment's stamp of approval." This cross-country pairing of 58 composers and communities is unparalleled in American history, according to Shifferd, and is being archived by the Library of Congress, in a PBS documentary and on a Web site. Many communities drew on their unique local heritage for the project. The Grand Canyon was the setting for Arizona's composition featuring a combination of Native American and European musical instruments. In Mississippi, the project brought together groups of different races to create music reflecting their agricultural history. Farmington, Maine drew on its Franco-American and classical music traditions to produce a work that included folk music and fiddling. After many months of rehearsal in David City, Heartland made its debut in front of an enthusiastic crowd. "I've never seen such a reaction around here," Magargal says. "The audience just jumped out of their seats to give us a standing ovation, which was surprising because people around here are generally so reserved."