Collaboration in concert: Brown composer and poet pen piece for The Lindemann’s opening

“Open again a turn of light,” written by Brown faculty members Eric Nathan and Sawako Nakayasu, will premiere on Saturday, Oct. 21, part of the inaugural public performance at The Lindemann Performing Arts Center.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — When leaders from the Brown Arts Institute and Brown University Orchestra asked Eric Nathan to compose a piece for The Lindemann Performing Arts Center’s public opening, Nathan jumped at the opportunity — but he knew he didn’t want to do it alone.

“Brown, and especially the BAI, so highly values interdisciplinary collaboration,” said the composer and associate professor of music at Brown. “So I thought, what could be better than to have a colleague write new poetry for the occasion?”

Over the last few months, Nathan worked with Sawako Nakayasu, a poet and assistant professor of literary arts at Brown, to create “Open again a turn of light,” a short fanfare for orchestra and chorus that celebrates the University’s brand-new performing arts venue, opening this fall after five years of construction and anticipation. With words by Nakayasu and music by Nathan, “Open again a turn of light” exemplifies the kind of creative collaboration The Lindemann’s state-of-the-art, flexible spaces will enable for students, faculty, local community members and globally renowned artists for generations to come.

The piece is set to premiere publicly on Saturday, Oct. 21, part of an inaugural public performance inside The Lindemann’s main hall. More than 200 musicians, including Brown students and Providence community members, will be involved in the concert, which also includes a performance of the finale from Beethoven’s “Choral” Symphony No. 9 and an appearance from famed violinist Itzhak Perlman.

According to Avery Willis Hoffman, artistic director of BAI, the concert is the culmination of an opening weekend filled with music, forums, food trucks and public festivities happening inside The Lindemann and throughout Brown’s Perelman Arts District.

“The BAI is thrilled to support this inspiring collaboration between faculty members Eric Nathan and Sawako Nakayasu, between the music and literary arts departments, as a showcase for some of Brown's best talent in the arts,” Hoffman said. “It is fitting that the very first notes played publicly in The Lindemann Performing Arts Center when it officially opens will flow from members of the Brown University Orchestra and Brown University Chorus, which also includes singers from surrounding communities.”

Creating a fanfare

Nathan said the composition process began in Spring 2023, when in a faculty meeting he heard Hoffman describe The Lindemann as a “refuge” and a “soul-sustaining light” for those who aim to create art that starts conversations and transforms societies. In subsequent conversations over the summer, he and Nakayasu tossed around a wide range of ideas revolving around the words “open” and “light.” 

“I’m interested in the notion of repetition,” Nakayasu said. “This is one opening, one performance, one moment. But it’s going to happen again and again. People will ‘open’ this space repeatedly by entering and gathering, and the space will become part of so many performances and moments. I wanted to write a poem that speaks to how a building lives and breathes alongside us.”

I think it’s a beautiful thing to connect with others, to collaborate, to share work. You drop the ego a little bit and you figure out where the middle ground is, then you aim toward something you wouldn’t have been able to do on your own.

Sawako Nakayasu Assistant Professor of Literary Arts
Sawako Nakayasu talking to Eric Nathan inside the Lindemann Performing Arts Center

Nakayasu’s final poem repeats the word “open” more than 20 times: “Open the weave, a weft, a fresher warp for the ages,” the first line reads, conjuring an image of loose-woven fabric through which light can shine. “Open a rock to open the light,” it concludes, referencing the hard ground construction crews broke through to make room for The Lindemann’s below-grade practice rooms and studios.

“It's like opening the rock of the Earth to build the concert hall,” Nathan said, “but at the same time, it's like we come to college with one way of thinking, and hopefully, the liberal arts experience opens our mind, opening the ‘rock’ to all different ways of seeing. That’s the lens I took.”

Nathan found that idea all too relatable. He’d approached the composing process with preconceived notions about how the piece should sound, he said. But he opened his mind to different sonic possibilities after reading Nakayasu’s final poem, which touches on the joy, insight and chaos that “openings” can unleash. The resulting composition sounds by turns triumphant, reflective and tumultuous.

“I had maybe too clear an idea of what I wanted to say musically, and I was trying to fit Sawako's text into my idea,” Nathan said. “Then I realized this is not the way a collaboration works. I came back and let her words lead me in new directions. The word ‘open’ comes back again and again, sometimes in luminous ways, other times playful, other times with a darker undertone that’s even a little sad.”

Nakayasu, too, said she’s used to working alone when writing poetry, but she found the co-creating process instructive and insightful. She came to Nathan with three poem ideas, and the pair chose one narrative direction together after some lively conversation.

“I think it’s a beautiful thing to connect with others, to collaborate, to share work,” she said. “You drop the ego a little bit and you figure out where the middle ground is, then you aim toward something you wouldn’t have been able to do on your own.”

Preparing a premiere

Nathan’s openness to collaboration was one of many reasons why Mark Seto, the Brown University Orchestra conductor and a senior lecturer in music, asked him to write a piece for The Lindemann’s opening.

“He knows our departmental ensembles; he is brimming with original, interdisciplinary ideas; and he writes in a colorful, approachable idiom that is perfectly suited to a celebratory occasion,” Seto said of Nathan. “I’m confident that the piece will get audiences on their feet!”

Seto said the orchestra’s student musicians began rehearsing “Open again a turn of light” in early September, giving them several weeks to get to know both the piece and the acoustics inside The Lindemann’s main hall. 

Torben Parker, a cellist and president of the orchestra, said he’s appreciative of one particular passage in which the musicians make improvised rustling and fluttering sounds that sweep from one side of the performance hall to the other, creating an effect that’s reminiscent of a breeze passing through a stand of trees.

“When we musicians imitate wind sweeping through the orchestra, with the orchestra acting as one, I am more aware of the new space we're in,” Parker, a junior, said. “Sometimes I feel that I’m simply playing a piece because I'm asked to play it, not because there's any meaning to it. By contrast, ‘Open again a turn of light’ is a piece that means community and new beginnings at Brown.”

For Frederick Jodry, director of the Brown Chorus and a distinguished senior lecturer in music, preparing the piece has brought an exciting opportunity to unite multiple generations of singers in the University and local communities. In order to match the sound of the large orchestra, Jodry expanded the chorus to include some 20 members of the Providence Singers and a small group of Brown Chorus alumni — some of whom are now Brown parents.

“It will be very fun to see a handful of Brown Chorus singers from the 1990s coming together for a mini-reunion on stage,” Jodry said. “And it’s even more fun that some of the alumni will be up there singing with their offspring, who are now on their own Brown journeys.”

Among the community members joining the chorus is Nathan’s wife, a software developer who has a background in music. 

“It’s very meaningful for me that she’s involved in the premiere of this piece,” Nathan said. “I’m a little jealous that she’ll have one of the best seats in the house when The Lindemann opens — but I’m also looking forward to sitting back and taking it all in from the audience.”