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Thomas Jefferson was a fiddler. Harry Truman played piano. Bill Clinton works the saxophone. But choral conductor and educator Judith Clurman makes them all sing.
Clurman commissioned 16 contemporary composers to write short choral pieces based on the words of American presidents for a cycle she calls Mr. President.
In celebration of Presidents' Day, NPR Music will premiere all 16 works, newly recorded by Clurman and her Essential Voices USA choir as a part of her February residency. A new presidential song will be posted on these pages throughout the month, beginning Monday, Feb. 7th. You can also hear interviews with Clurman and the composers about each piece.
The seeds of Mr. President were planted just two days after the September 11th attacks, when Clurman found herself at a New York City firehouse leading a choir singing "America the Beautiful."
"Tears were streaming down our faces," Clurman recalls. "I was very moved." But something else began stirring inside Clurman, who has always loved American music and politics.
"I realized that the songs that we just sing naturally, like 'My Country, 'Tis of Thee,' 'America the Beautiful,' 'God Bless America' and American folk songs, had deep, deep meaning for people."
So Clurman approached the Library of Congress in Washington with her idea.
"Wouldn't it be fun," she asked, "if I had some of my [composer] friends take words written by the American presidents and write simple canons, so high school kids could learn new music — studying a new piece by a living composer, and at the same time studying the presidents?"
Clurman signed up composers like Jake Heggie, Samuel Adler, Paul Moravec and Nico Muhly and others. Their assignment was to write a canon (think of a round like "Row, Row, Row Your Boat") and keep it to about 90 seconds. Not all composers complied.
"Suddenly I got these pieces for soprano, alto, tenor, bass, with real mega-ranges," Clurman says. "Some of these pieces were just too difficult for high school kids to sing. Believe me, I wasn't shy. When I didn't get the traditional round, I would come back and I would scream."
Still, not everything she got was a perfect canon. Clurman says some composers handed her 18 pages of music, others handed her one line. But she insisted on keeping things simple.
"I've always loved canons, because little kids can sing them and adults can sing them," she says. "They teach people how to listen. You don't have to be a perfect singer and you can still sing a great piece. I remember speaking to a couple of the composers saying, 'Hey, wouldn't this be great, even if people can't sing, they should be able to sing your piece. Isn't that wonderful?'"
Clurman's favorite ended up coming from the late Milton Babbitt, a fiercely intellectual serialist composer she befriended during her tenure as director of choral activities at the Juilliard School, where Babbitt also taught. There are no Arnold Schoenberg-style tone rows in Babbitt's piece. It's a perfect canon, or "Round" as Babbitt titled it, based on words from President James Madison. Babbitt was the only composer Clurman allowed to choose his own text. All the others were assigned.
"The great Milton Babbitt told me he had to do Madison because he grew up — if I remember correctly — on Madison street," Clurman says. "He went to Princeton, he taught at Princeton, James Madison went to Princeton, and the Madison building holds the music collection at the Library of Congress."
Clurman had help from her politically savvy son Ari Ruben when it came to picking the presidents and their words. After that, she tried as best she could to match the personalities of the composers with the presidential texts. The result, she says, is a miniature portrait of a president in music.
"In recording them the other day, I saw their faces in front of me as I was conducting each piece. I couldn't help, when we did JFK — 'The best road to progress is freedom's road' — to think, 'Wow, those words are really amazing.'"