Turning Words Into Music

(l to r) Enid Blount Press, Pamela Sklar and Jim Ferraiuolo performing
Words Into Music for the composition’s virtual premiere

In January 2020, musician Pamela Sklar began a series of conversations with residents in Mount Vernon – the groundwork for a new composition. After almost two years of preparation and anticipation, she will finally present the arrangement with an in-person premiere on November 20.

In 2019, Sklar had received an Artist Initiative grant from ArtsWestchester to create a new work during the 2020 year with community input. “I love to bring people together,” she says.

However, two months and forty interviews into the process, her conversations came to a halt due to the pandemic. Sklar, inspired and motivated, continued to work. Over the following three months, she turned the words from those forty conversations into music, which resulted in a series of four movements titled Words Into Music.

“There were so many poignant moments…I feel like a conduit, where I could feel their fear, their anger, their sorrow, pain, joy, comfort…It’s sort of like alchemy. These feelings go through my psyche, and my heart, and my nervous system, and they come out as music.”

The event will be presented at the historic St. Paul’s Church in Mount Vernon, with limited capacity and required reservations. “It’s a huge step forward for this project because we’re finally doing it in front of an audience.”

In fact, this date was a long time coming. The initial event, scheduled for April 11, 2020, was cancelled. Sklar rescheduled twice – outdoors, to comply with safety guidelines – but both new dates were also postponed due to rain. Finally, the work was performed; but the only audience was a camera, not the diverse group Sklar intended for the piece.  A recording of the performance was posted to YouTube.

“We weren’t having any rapport with people, which was really the crux of the program – collaboration…I want people from different backgrounds to be able to meet each other, come together, and hear the same thing at the same time.”

 These people, after all, are what Words Into Music is about. Some of Sklar’s conversations lasted up to two hours; subjects’ ages ranged from 14 to 83; and almost all meetings were in-person.

She knew the piece would have different “movements,” or categories, each of which depicts a different set of feelings. Part 1 is titled “Searching, Passion, Dreams”; Part 2 features stories of “Loss, Injustice, Hope”; Part 3 is “Calm, Reflection, Comfort, Faith” and the last part is “Adversity, Strength, Pride.”

“I wanted to talk to people about things that were meaningful to them…You make a connection with people when you talk about personal life stories. Everybody shares something.”

The stories Sklar heard ranged from heartwarming to tragic; relayed hopes and frustrations; and revealed passions and hardships. One woman told her about the memory of her parents being shot at as her family crossed the border of Syria when she was an infant. In contrast, a man reminisced that years ago, when his wife-to-be made dolphin sounds as he ordered mahi-mahi, his only regret was that he did not meet her sooner. Another man described the small town in Maryland where here grew up during segregation. A woman in her 80s spoke of raising her family in Mount Vernon, and the places she loves to walk.  The stories were as varied as the people.

The one-hour premiere performance will co-feature Pamela Sklar (flute, bass flute and Native American flute), Jim Ferraiuolo (oboe and English horn) and Enid Blount Press (clarinet and bass clarinet). 

Sklar says of the performance: “the idea is that people wouldn’t need to know each other to feel connected, because the music is meant to do that.”

A version of this article first appeared in the November issue of ArtsNews, ArtsWestchester’s monthly publication. ArtsNews is distributed throughout Westchester County. A digital copy is also available at artsw.org/artsnews.​​​

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