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.