Classical Album of the Week: A Gorgeous New Take on "The Star-Spangled Banner" on The Singing Guitar

Oct 29, 2020

October 26, 2020. Guitar quartets, cello, and voices come together in a new album exploring the experiences of pioneering and Native American women. The GRAMMY-winning vocal ensemble Conspirare's recording, The Singing Guitar, includes The Dawn’s Early Light, by Huntingdon Valley composer Kile Smith. He talks with us about the album, his piece, and the fascinating story behind the new rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" within it. 

When Conspirare Founder and Artistic Director Craig Hella Johnson wanted to record Nico Muhly’s work, How Little You Are (commissioned by Conspirare in 2015), he reached out to Kile Smith about writing a piece that would be complementary. 

Muhly describes his work, written for chorus, soprano, and three guitar quartets, as "an extended meditation on the words of pioneer women in the 19th century." 

“They’re haunting texts, really moving,” says Kile. “And so Craig says to me, is there a way we can work with that? Maybe get a different point of view?”

Kile began researching the era. While reading an 1884 memoir, Life Among the Piutes, by Native American Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins, he was struck by her story of learning "The Star-Spangled Banner" from her grandfather, the tribe’s chief, who himself had picked it up when working with white soldiers who were traveling west.

“So she grew up singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" in her Piute tribe. … That was wild enough." But later on, she heard white soldiers singing the anthem with a completely diferent tune from what she had grown up singing. “And I thought, I could do a new setting of "The Star-Spangled Banner"…. I wanted it to really try to make the words live, seeing it through the eyes of this young woman, Sarah Winnemucca.”

The Dawn’s Early Light, for choir, guitar quartet, and cello, is the story of Sarah, who introduces herself at the start: 

Her family has both good and terrible experiences with the white soldiers they encounter. 

And then we hear the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner," sung almost a capella, in a whole new way. 

"It's the only national anthem in the world that's a question," says Kile.  "Are we free? Are we brave? Is the flag still there? That's what the anthem asks."

"And I thought, there's no secret, there's this big controversy over whether we stand for the Anthem,  whether athletes are gonna kneel;  it riles people up. And I thought, I'm, I'm going to jump into the middle of this."

As to how he went about resetting such a famous and emotionally charged piece; one that has played such a role in our history; one to which we relate today in so many different ways.

You have to forget everything about what you think you know about the piece, and look at each individual word and treat it with the greatest respect. If I cannot respect that, then I am not going to set it to music. I have to love every word and respect every word and take it from there.—Kile Smith

* * * * * 

The Singing Guitar is framed by two shorter works. It starts with Reena Esmail’s "When the Guitar." Adapted from an earlier piece, "When the Violin," the text begins, "When the guitar can forgive the past, it starts singing."

It wraps up with "The Song That I Came to Sing," written specifically for this program by Craig Hella Johnson. He describes it as "[reflecting] aspecs of unfulfilled purpose and a longing for intimacy with the Divine represented in the texts set by Nico Muhly and Kile Smith.

The Singing Guitar:

Reena Esmail: When the Guitar with Los Angeles Guitar Quartet

Nico Muhly: How Little You Are with Estelí Gomez, soprano; Los Angeles Guitar Quartet; Texas Guitar Quartet; Austin Guitar Quartet

Kile Smith: The Dawn’s Early Light with Los Angeles Guitar Quartet; Douglas Harvey, cello

Craig Hella Johnson: The Song That I Came to Sing with Douglas Harvey, cello