By Cassy Sottile and Erica Quinones
Spoken word and music merge to tell the stories of wounded veterans in the upcoming production of the Ensemble Galilei project, “Between War and Here.”
The upcoming performance on Nov. 6 in Hotchkiss Recital Hall is a partnership between the Starr Center, The Elm, Department of Music, and the Rose O’Neill Literary House. There will be a panel with the performers and journalists following the performance.
“Between War and Here” features the early music band Ensemble Galilei and NPR combat correspondents Neal Conan and Anne Garrels, opened in November 2018. It is based off a book of poetry by violin de gamba player Carolyn Surrick and tells the stories of veterans who Ensemble Galilei interacted with at the Walter Reed National Medical Center in Bethesda.
Surrick became involved with wounded veterans in the 1990s. Living in Annapolis, she used Walter Reed as a practice venue for the group’s Christmas concert at St. John’s College.
Sitting in a corner, playing her music, she discovered that patients enjoyed the music. Soon, she invited the other members to play with her.
The music calmed patients and helped them sleep through restless nights.
“If you had said to me sitting around playing Irish, Scottish, and Renaissance music for guys who had been veterans, I would have said you are so funny,” Surrick said.
The ensemble grew close to the veterans by playing for the patients. They began learning their stories, which Surrick decided to write down.
Keeping the veterans’ privacy through nondescript characters and omitted first names, she created postcards of their lives.
However, the book exists somewhere in the inbetween. Neither poetry nor prose, creating it was like editing the text for what catches the eye, according to Surrick.
Finding places that are not wrong, but do not sit right. Finding spots of inelegance in a broader work to bring the work together without hitting a spot too dark to continue.
All of it is tied together by the music which goes through a similar test. The ensemble members put the composition together through the “Goosebumps Test,” a trial and error process in which members suggest and play different songs with the stories. If the entire ensemble does not receive goosebumps upon the song’s selection, it is denied and they try again.
The spoken word and music do not exist separately. Rather, they combine like lyrics, essentially becoming singing, according to Conan.
Their combination amplifies the emotions of the stories, making a performance more beautiful than they imagined, according to Surrick.
“Noticing the absence and presence of sound [amplifies emotion],” Surrick said. “Spoken word is like another kind of music. It is like we are all in the same medium when we are not.”
The audience members are not the only ones affected by the emotional power of the piece.
Conan said that the show is more personal than other collaborations he did with Ensemble Galilei. “Between War and Here” comes directly from the collective experience of Surrick and the veterans. Due to Garrel’s and his time reporting on war, he himself relates to the stories told.
Helping non-combatants relate to veterans is the goal of “Between War and Here.”
“Because less than 1% of people in America are serving, you can go through everyday not seeing someone who is in the Armed Forces or has been in the Armed Forces and that is a terrible thing, because that means the people who are sending us to war may not understand,” Surrick said.
The performance and book are important for both the general public and those it was written about. Veterans at Walter Reed connect to the nondescript nature of the book, because they feel they know who it is about, according to Surrick.
Pinnacle experiences of Surrick, Garrel, and Conan gave insight into what the veterans went through while deployed and allow them to tell their stories with a degree of authenticity and understanding, according to Conan.
“Especially having been around in combat, some of the bonds that form are quite similar. You understand some of the terrors and fear. Everyone’s experience is different, but it changes you,” Conan said. “Having undergone a few experiences like that, it gives some insight into what these people have been through. Obviously I have not been through the injuries some of them have experienced, but I understand their spirit, resilience, and courage.”
That is what the performance is about, according to Surrick.
They are not just stories of wounded warriors.
The stories within “Between War and Here” are “about courage and resilience and inner strength and frailty. They are really deeply about humanity,” Surrick said.
“[The panel] is a moment for everyone to be engaged as a citizen,” Conan said.
Program Manager for the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience Michael Buckley started a series of interviews entitled “Voices of the Chesapeake Bay” 20 years ago for the WRNR 103.1 FM rock music station. Through this series, Buckley met and became friends with the members of Ensemble Galilei through Surrick.
Buckley, who has seen the performance, said that the stories told are necessary for people to hear.
“The world belongs to the students at WC and all across the country. They need to have a grasp on decisions made about wars, especially long wars that go on for over 20 years,” Buckley said. “We need to be able to present ideas and present stories that help us ease that suffering that goes on in people’s lives that are close to us.” The proceeds from performances go to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, a group that helps surviving children of special operations forces who are killed in training or battle. They assist with post-high school education fees like college tuition or technical school.