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Arts & Life

Missouri-based Ensemble Honors Pioneering Women Aviators In Streaming Concert

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America's national parks provide spectacular theaters for the American Wild Ensemble.

American Wild Ensemble will honor legendary pilots Amelia Earhart and Bessie Coleman in "American Aviatrix," premiering online starting Dec. 10.

As we've grappled with isolation these long months, many folks escaped to nature. The Missouri-based American Wild Ensemble — which has often used the outdoors as its stage — took to the skies.

Using works by composers from Kansas and Missouri, which honor the legendary women pilots Amelia Earhart and Bessie Coleman, the group will premier a new production, "American Aviatrix," online starting Dec. 10.

American Wild Ensemble, known as AWE, started in 2016 with a series of concerts in honor of the National Parks Service centennial. That ambitious initial project — Music in the American Wild — resulted in 11 new works for chamber ensemble and a 17-stop tour through six states. One of the first concerts was in Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, 30 stories underground. Their next took place 6,000 feet above sea level, in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Emlyn Johnson and Daniel Ketter — musicians on the faculty at Missouri State University in Springfield — founded AWE. They started it as a way to stay connected with former classmates at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., now scattered throughout the United States.

“When we chose the original musicians for this project, we tried to choose people who we thought would be up for something crazy and would be okay hiking around with their instruments and being in unusual circumstances,” Johnson says. She plays flute in the group, which also includes clarinet, horn, percussion and string quartet.

“To be honest, we were worried on our first tour that we were just going to play weird music out in the forest and nobody would come listen,” says Ketter.

But people did come, or happened upon the concerts and stuck around to listen. Music in the American Wild found eager and willing audiences all over the country, which extended to a tour of Hawaii in February.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MWrxzasGjMc

“We were really surprised by the positive response that we got from all kinds of different people,” says Ketter, assistant professor of cello at Missouri State. “They were able to spontaneously connect their own experience in the parks with the music. If we were playing just in a regular concert hall with no context, those same people might have been kind of alienated or discouraged from connecting with the music in the same way.”

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American Wild Ensemble
Some performances in the wild require a hike to the destination.

Since the concerts are often in hard-to-access locations, like mountain sides, caverns, and lava fields, the ensemble always documents performance and has developed a dense video library.

Videographer Jorge Arzac travels with the group, creating films that meld environment and music. “He’s a wizard,” says Johnson.

With a laugh, Ketter agrees. “There’s footage that looks like it was made by a drone and it’s just him with a camera on a stick."

While they started with the idea of performing in the parks as a unique concert experience, they’ve learned their musical offerings “amplify the mission” of the parks service, says Ketter. The ensemble expanded its scope to include concerts at historic sites and music that celebrates extraordinary Americans and American wildlife.

Ranger Denise Shultz, chief of visitor service at North Cascades National Park Service, worked with AWE during its 2016 tour. She invited the group back in 2018, for North Cascade’s 50th anniversary.

“After one of their outdoor performances, a music teacher came to me, in tears, about how powerful the experience of hearing the music through the trees and along the trail had moved and inspired her so much,” Shultz wrote in an email. “Hearing that performance reignited her passion (for teaching).”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Irv6XkPrdMg

AWE has received financial support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Mid-America Arts Alliance and several state arts agencies, including in Missouri and Kansas.

In 2018, the ensemble initiated a project to honor women’s suffrage with a performance at the Women’s Rights National Historical Site, in Seneca Falls, New York. The concert included “Solitude of Self” by Caroline Mallonne, inspired by Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

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American Wild Ensemble
Park rangers have become some of the American Wild Ensemble's biggest fans.

The project expanded when Johnson and Ketter moved to Missouri. “We wanted to continue in that vein, thinking about our local and regional communities here and start focusing on important female figures in the area,” said Johnson.

The result is “American Aviatrix.” AWE commissioned two new works featuring pioneering aviators and activists Earhart and Coleman. The musicians had planned to go on tour in April, but were halted by COVID-19 restrictions. Then an outdoor show in October was canceled due to rain. But the production now takes shape as a filmed concert and includes interviews with the composers.

University of Kansas professor Ingrid Stölzel was inspired by Earhart, while University of Missouri professor Carolina Heredia chose Texas-born Coleman, the first African American woman and first Native American to hold a pilot’s license, though she had to train in France to earn it due to racial barriers in the United States.

“American Aviatrix” doesn’t focus on the women's thrilling stunts or tragic ends. Rather, it contemplates their legacies as leaders in gender and race equality, exploring the “social resonance” between people pushing for women’s suffrage and those breaking boundaries in aviation, says Ketter.

Stölzel, a long-time Kansas resident, first visited the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum in Atchison, Kansas, in the early 1990s, when she was newly arrived in the United States from Germany. She was surprised to learn Earhart was not only a famous aviator and outspoken advocate for women’s rights, but also a lover of poetry. Stölzel explores this facet of the famous Kansan’s legacy in “Livid Loneliness of Fear,” words taken from Earhart’s poem “Courage.”

As our society stumbles through another round of pandemic restrictions, this concert -- and the musicians who produced it -- offer a reminder that, despite solitude and fear, adventures continue.

American Wild Ensemble performs “American Aviatrix” December 10, 2020, streaming on both the University of Missouri and Music in the American Wild YouTube channels, as well as Facebook. The video will be available on the American Wild Ensemble webpage.

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