William Brittelle’s heartfelt ‘Spiritual America’ featured in Liquid Music opener

Photo by Stephen Taylor
Brooklyn-based composer William Brittelle

In a recent interview with Classical Music Indy, Kate Nordstrum said, “New work is and will always be inherently ‘risky,’ but along with this risk comes the sincerity and humanness that we all find so exhilarating and inspiring. … Heart first.”

If you’ve attended a Liquid Music concert anytime in the past three years, you’ve experienced “heart first” firsthand. These are not always perfectly polished performances. Many are premieres, works in progress, and/or onstage get-togethers among musicians who long to collaborate but wouldn’t otherwise have the chance.

Curated by Nordstrum and presented by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Liquid Music is a window into creativity’s beating heart. And it turns out that Twin Cities audiences aren’t as risk-averse as some might think. Most shows sell out, and the crowds don’t fit a single profile. They include new music fans, SPCO subscribers, gray hairs, hipsters and kids.

The series starts its 2015-16 season next Wednesday, Oct. 14, with what might be its most heartfelt project yet, Brooklyn-based composer William Brittelle’s “Spiritual America.”

In 2004, Brittelle was a lead singer with the post-punk New York City group the Blondes, on the brink of the big time, when he suffered a devastating injury to his vocal chords. There went his singing career. In 2008 and 2010, he released two albums of his own “post-genre electro-acoustic music,” “Mohair Time Warp” and “Television Landscape.” The year 2012 saw the release of “Loving the Chambered Nautilus,” commissioned by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME), and the self-titled debut album by the avant vocal octet Roomful of Teeth, for which Brittelle wrote the wild and thrilling “Amid the Minotaurs.”

Meanwhile, he co-founded New Amsterdam Records with fellow composers Judd Greenstein and Sarah Kirkland Snider. (If Greenstein’s name rings a bell, he was commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra to write “Acadia,” which had its world premiere here in April 2012 and an encore performance in April 2015.) New Amsterdam has since become a leading label for new music unconcerned with traditional genre boundaries.

But all that wasn’t enough. Brittelle had unfinished business with his own past.

“ ‘Spiritual America’ came in part from recognizing that I had cut my life into two halves at age 18, when I left to go to school, and realizing there was something missing emotionally from what I was doing,” he said in a late September conversation in Minneapolis that also included Nordstrum.

“I grew up in a very small town – Newton, North Carolina – and a very religious environment. All of a sudden, when I was maybe 13, my family stopped going to church, with no explanation. It sort of left me hanging, and since then I’ve had this thrust of spirituality to my life without any outlet. It creates a feedback loop inside of you. You’re always searching. For a long time, I told myself to stop searching, and now I’m looking for ways to reconnect, and this project is one of those.”

“Spiritual America” is an exploration of secular spirituality. For Brittelle and many Americans today, organized religion doesn’t hold the answers. Among other things, Brittelle looks to meditation and the principles of Buddhism as “a way to harness that need for a spiritual center in my life.

“For me, it’s about having an accurate view of your importance in the universe and the peace that comes with that.” He has found that for himself during trips to Death Valley. “You feel small. You feel this pleasant lack of importance. … When we’re online, we’re in this world where we’re the target of interest all the time. You’re like God, in a way, because you can find whatever information you want to find. For me, that’s a really unpleasant feeling.

“I want there to be a point in my life where I can just throw my cellphone down. … When we think of ourselves as the center of things, the problems in our lives are outsized. It’s easy to get worked up about something that, in the context of the universe, isn’t important at all.”

Back in Newton, in the past, there was also a girl. The title track of “Spiritual America” was inspired by her. (So was the haunting trailer, which was filmed on a frozen lake in a snowstorm.)

“She was in my math class,” Brittelle said. “She was two years older, but she kept failing because she wouldn’t come to school. … Her dad was an alcoholic and abusive, and when she was 18 he told her, ‘Get out, I’m not going to take care of you,’ and she ended up marrying a guy in ROTC.

“I don’t know what happened after that, but I always wondered – what if I had stayed there? What if we had ended up together? What if I hadn’t broken through the dome? What if I didn’t have that burning passion [for music], or the means to leave, or I had been too scared to leave? And so the song is about the what-ifs, and recognizing that things could have turned out differently.”

The music heard on the video – just over two minutes – is lush and gorgeous and yearning. The lyrics are mysterious and nostalgic: “There are photographs from beneath the waves in your father’s room /There are strange birds on the power lines outside your window/When we walk to town there’s licorice, but you don’t buy it.” Brittelle spent a lot of time thinking about the individual words because “it’s really me. … It was an upwelling of emotion. These are things I wanted to deal with, make real and put out in the world.”

Nordstrum was drawn to “Spiritual America” from the start. “Bill and I have been in dialogue for many years about music and programming and what touches audiences, and we see eye to eye,” she said. “But often we neglected to talk about Bill’s own art, which I love. ‘Spiritual America’ felt right because the emotional quality at its core really speaks to me.” (Fun fact: It was Brittelle who came up with the name “Liquid Music,” during his 2012 visit to Minneapolis to see Greenstein’s “Acadia” at Orchestra Hall.)

Wye Oak

Ultimately, “Spiritual America” will be performed by full orchestra. (The Alabama, North Carolina and Baltimore symphonies are all supporting its creation, along with the SPCO and the Walker Art Center.) We’ll hear a version with nine musicians including Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack of the indie rock duo Wye Oak, with whom Brittelle has been dying to work. Brittelle will play keyboards and electronics.

Composer/violinist/violist Michi Wiancko, currently the SPCO’s “arranger-in-residence” (she’ll perform with the orchestra in mid-October and tour with them to Asia in November), will open the concert with the world premiere of a new piece she wrote for the occasion called “I Have a Map.” This will be followed by a suite of songs from Wye Oak’s latest album, “Shriek” (2014), newly arranged by Wiancko and Brittelle and also heard here first. The evening will end with the world premiere of selections from “Spiritual America.”

In typical Liquid Music style, the concert will feature a pool of talented artists, drawn from all over and given the chance and the freedom to follow their hearts.

Wye Oak and William Brittelle: Spiritual America. With special guest Michi Wiancko. Copresented with the Walker Art Center. Wednesday, Oct. 14, 7:30 p.m. at Aria in Minneapolis. FMI and tickets ($25/$22).

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