Percussionist and composer Maria Finkelmeier's favorite instrument is the marimba.
“All of the keys are made of wood,” she gushed, so it actually creates this really warm sound.”
The marimba's bars that Finkelmeier strikes deftly with mallets remind her of the wooden Hatch Shell on Boston's Esplanade. It has hosted free concerts for decades, most famously the Boston Pops on the Fourth of July. That huge public event – along with so many others – were cancelled over the past year because of the pandemic.
But now, after being quiet and dark for months, the open-air amphitheater is coming back to life – in the dead of an especially isolating winter – through a light and music installation Finkelmeier created. It's called “Hatched: Breaking Through The Silence.”
Warmth And Light
Finkelmeier, who also teaches at Berklee College of Music and founded MF Dynamics, has a passion for bringing art to public spaces. Warmth and light were two things the Esplanade Association asked the composer to conjure at the Edward A. Hatch Shell when it commissioned her for the multi-sensory, public piece in September. To celebrate the organization's 20th anniversary its members wanted to cut through the dark, gaping maw of a winter like no other.
Finnkelmeier recalls them saying, “We want to create some joy, a moment for our community, we want to use our space.” She's worked with the association in the past and welcomed their question: “what would you do?”
The artist/composer set out to channel feelings of togetherness and optimism by projecting animated illuminations inside the Art Deco, wooden Hatch Shell that would be paired with an original score.
Finding Inspiration In The Music-Drenched Venue
First she studied the 80-year-old structure's storied history. It was designed by architect Richard J. Shaw and debuted in 1940. All genres of music have filled the Hatch Shell ever since. Finkelmeier visited the half-dome along the Charles River at different times of the day and reflected on its long life as a venue.
“I really started to think about the amount of music that this shell has absorbed over the past 80 years. There's this archway that's looked down on performers, and been this place of musical expression for such a long time,” Finkelmeier said. “So many incredible artists have stepped foot on that stage.”
Including Finkelmeier, who's played there with her ensemble. She remembers looking out at the faces in the audience and is mourning the loss of music events over the past year.
“Just seeing strangers sitting next to one another feels so foreign and crazy to us right now,” Finkelmeier said. In the before times she took that sense of communal warmth for granted. “I hadn't had the understanding that that could go away,” she said.
“We at the Esplanade Association miss that, too,” executive director Michael Nichols said. “We missed the Boston Pops and the July Fourth concert in the park. We missed the Landmarks Orchestra last year.”
The association launched a music series for Boston artists and music producers of color that was scheduled at the Hatch Shell, but it had to go virtual this past year.
Now Nichols said its members are excited for “Hatched” and its potential to bring people back together again to gather on the Esplanade safely. He added it's the most complex piece of public art the association has taken on. Partners including the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, the local group Luminartz and Epson America, Inc. – which provided the laser projectors that are housed in weather-proof boxes – got on board.
Finkelmeier said, “You know that the world needs this type of art right now when you don't even finish your sentence and people are like, 'yeah, we're into it, we'll help.' ”
The Visuals Came First
With plenty of inspiration, Finkelmeier began looking at her collection of percussion instruments from above – taking the Hatch Shell's perspective. She saw them as circles, square, rectangles and triangles and wondered, “What if we took these shapes of musical instruments and placed them in the shell itself, as if the shell were projecting that music and that sound and those visuals?”
So Finkelmeier enlisted a team of talented local musicians, artists and technology specialists who – like so many other creatives – were hungry for work during the pandemic. They filmed instruments including marimba, drums, strings and clapping hands against a green screen. Then – with some movie magic – they transformed the imagery into colorful, shifting, abstract projections with pieces that sometimes fan open and closed, like a kaleidoscope.
“For me, the idea of a puzzle or a kaleidoscope, those bring joy,” Finkelmeier said. “They they make us think about childhood, right?”
Then, The Music
Next came the score. Over 20 minutes “Hatched: Breaking Through the Silence” unfolds in sync with the visuals, like a story.
“It starts with this sound design of breaking ice,” she explained, “that I want to feel frozen.”
Finkelmeier hopes that sensation taps into the trapped feeling brought on by the pandemic that's even more amplified now that winter is here.
“We are all isolated,” she said, but the cracking ice in the piece conveys a few hopeful messages. “We're going to break through and hopefully see our community from a socially distanced standpoint. We're breaking through a New England winter. And also, we are a team of predominantly female-identifying artists breaking through in this way.”
Finkelmeier is grateful for the chance to create again with a team, and feels the weight of concern for so many out-of-work artists.
“It's been pretty grim,” she said.
In the early days of the pandemic Finklemeier didn't touch an instrument for months. She focused on taking care of her toddler because there was no childcare. Her creative energy disappeared. Now it feels good to be collaborating with her friends and colleagues.
The six musicians she signed on to the project couldn't all play in the same studio, so some recorded their parts separately for Finkemeier to mix together. She included strings in the project because they connect with the Hatch Shell's orchestral legacy.
“I actually played all of the percussion parts,” she said, “so I spent a lot of time in the studio playing and recording myself.”
Finkelmeier said her composition's first musical motif is mysterious and asks, “What are we watching, what are we seeing, where are we going to go?” Her marimba drives that section, which she layered in post production so it sometimes sounds like four instruments playing at once.
Next, the musician wanted to bring some joy and relief. “And for me, that's when the strings come in,” she said, “and you just get this lush, like big sound.”
For the second half of “Hatched,” Finkelmeier knew exactly where she needed to take her audience.
“We have to party,” she said excitedly. “It's drum, it's electronic music, it's groovy. We're smiling, our shoulders are rested. We're like connecting with one another.”
Now That It's Ready To Go
Michael Nichols of the Esplanade Association said Finkelmeier's visually stunning work, which can been seen from Storrow Drive and adjoining neighborhoods, exceeds the organization's expectations. He called the soundtrack enchanting.
“If you just heard the music and didn't see the visuals I think you could have a really wonderful experience,” Nichols said. The piece will run every night through Feb. 21 from 5 - 9 p.m. and is timed to restart every 20 minutes. “The beautiful thing of it running on a loop through the 30 days is that people will be able to enjoy it at different times, on different days, with different weather.”
He imagines bundled-up visitors taking it in on a tranquil winter night, or while snow is falling on the Hatch Shell's dome.
Finkelmeier hopes friends and families will put one of the more than 300 opportunities to experience “Hatched” on their calendars.
“I feel like the human psyche needs those points of check-in, of like passing of time,” she said of setting a date to create a new memory together outside of our homes. “We haven't had those markings in a long time because every day has been so the same.”
Hearing The Soundtrack, From A Distance
The “Hatched” soundtrack won't be played through speakers at the Hatch Shell. To reduce crowding around the amphitheater people can scan QR codes on site with their phones to stream it live, or they can download the music beforehand.
Accessibility is important to Finkelmeier. She said if visitors choose to download the soundtrack it's theirs to keep so they can listen to the score anytime they need a break from the winter doldrums. And if they do that, she hopes people will be brought back to their chilly night at the Hatch Shell that was warmed up, even for 20 minutes, with music and light.
“Hatched: Breaking Through The Silence” runs from Jan. 22 - Feb. 21 nightly from 5 - 9 p.m.
This segment aired on January 22, 2021.