And Justice For All: An Interview With Mark Koval
What an exciting time for Vox Femina to be offering a concert entitled "And Justice For All". Although there are many issues facing our country right now, Marriage Equality still remains both controversial and (in states like our own) just out of reach. Right now, the California Supreme Court is considering whether the proponents of Prop 8 have legal authority to challenge the ruling that declared Prop 8 unconstitutional. What this means is that currently in California, we have three classes of citizens:
1. Heterosexual couples who are allowed to marry.
2. Same-sex couples who were allowed to marry in the brief months between May and November of 2008.
3. Same-sex couples who are legally prohibited from marrying until the Prop 8 decision is resolved.
To be honest, it's difficult to explain this dilemma to my friends in other states and countries!
That's why this performance of "We the People" means so much to me. For one thing, it's taking place in my home state and my hometown at the same time these important legal decisions are being considered. And in addition to that, it's being performed by Los Angeles' premiere women's chorus under the direction of nationally recognized choral conductor, Dr. Iris Levine.
I hope you will join us for this exciting evening exploring the history—and future—of marriage equality.
Vox Femina Los Angeles recently spoke with Mark Koval about "We the People."
Tell us a little about your inspiration for “We the People” and how the work took shape.
Back in 2003, I was commissioned by the Denver Women’s Chorus to write a song about same-sex marriage. But before I began composing, I did some research by reading a few books on same-sex marriage and the Constitution. And what I learned was remarkable: I learned how little I knew about marriage equality.
Keep in mind that back then, there was a lot of fuss about using the word “marriage” and the word “gay” in the same sentence. There was even a belief among some in the gay community that civil unions were good enough, so why did we need to have ‘gay marriage’? And especially fascinating to me, was learning about the many Supreme Court decisions over the last sixty years, that have repeatedly defined marriage as a ‘fundamental right’. When you look to these precedents as a basis to justify or deny same-sex marriage, it becomes abundantly clear that the whole issue really comes down to one very simple question: How much do we as a nation believe in our own principles of equality as guaranteed by the Constitution?
I realized I had a significant opportunity with this commission to create awareness about marriage equality. So I decided to write a more expansive piece, with narration and staging, that could show audiences why marriage is of benefit to everyone. What started out as just one song blossomed into a forty-minute exploration of marriage equality.
Since you premiered the piece, there has been a great deal of good and bad news regarding marriage equality—approval in Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Iowa, New York and defeats in California and Maine among others. How has the relevance of “We the People” evolved in your mind?
Actually, when I first wrote it, I didn’t think “We the People” would have a very long shelf-life because after Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage in 2004, it seemed like the rest of the country would soon follow. Well, here it is 2011 and we’re still arguing about the definition of marriage. “We the People” has not only become more relevant, it now needs an additional movement to reflect these recent landmark events.
How do you hope “We the People” contributes to the conversation about marriage equality?
There’s been a lot of fear and misinformation coming from opponents of same-sex marriage and so often, their arguments are focused on the ways that people are different. I’ve tried to write a piece that shows how much we’re all alike. Even if we disagree about same-sex marriage, we should all try to have a fair understanding of the facts. My intention with “We The People” has always been to inform the audience (hopefully while entertaining them) so that we can have a more reasonable discussion.
The appearances of same-sex couples and families used throughout the performance is very effective. Why did you include this as part of the piece?
It’s easy to reject people when you don’t know them, because there’s no emotional connection there. The staging used in “We the People” helps to introduce the audience to real people with real families and I think that fosters a sense of empathy. When you’re looking at a loving couple, or seeing them standing there with their kids, it’s a lot tougher to deny them the same rights you reserve for yourself.
What has been the audience reaction so far?
It’s been just great! The piece has been performed in churches and synagogues as well as concert venues and the performances are always well received. There was a threat of some protests for the premiere in Denver back in 2006, but that never materialized. (The chorus was actually disappointed because it would have been great promotion for their concert!) But there’s nothing in “We the People” that’s angry or confrontational and the whole piece is built on the premise that love is all the same. Audiences really seem to resonate with this idea and all the emotion in the piece.
What’s the best audience feedback you’ve ever received about “We the People”?
I think the best audience feedback I ever got was from an older heterosexual couple that attended the Denver premier. This couple was probably in their seventies and after the concert they introduced themselves and told me how the piece had helped them to see same-sex marriage in a different way. We spoke for about ten minutes and by the end of the conversation, they were pulling out wallet photos of their kids. Their response to the performance was especially meaningful to me because, as we all know, opposition to same-sex marriage tends to be strongest among older Americans.
Is there a particular story from the struggle for marriage equality that has especially touched or inspired you?
Yes, definitely. Seeing Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin be married after 51 years together really moved me, although the California Supreme Court invalidated their first marriage and they had to be married again in 2008. But here’s another story that moves me – only not in a good way. Everyone should know about what happened to this couple:
As a composer, what are some of your musical influences in this piece, and in your work in general?
When I was first conceptualizing “We the People”, I kept thinking about Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait”. I remember as a kid when I first heard it I was so moved by the power of Lincoln’s words when they were combined with music. I used that approach as model for the narrative aspects of “We the People” although the narration in “We the People” is much more conversational. I kept the musical style fairly “pop” because I wanted the piece to be accessible to a wide variety of audiences. Critics sometimes describe “We the People” as an oratorio, but I think of it as more of a folk musical with the Narrator as our protagonist and the chorus playing the various roles of society.
You mentioned Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait”. How does “We the People” differ from more traditional choral works that use a narrator?
I guess it’s different because there’s an actual relationship between the chorus and the narrator. The narrator is taking us on this journey of discovery and the chorus is continually responding to that. Unlike more traditional narrated works, the narrator and chorus in “We the People” actually talk to one another!
You also wrote the lyrics for “We the People” and there aren’t many composers who write their own texts. Is it easier or harder to do both?
Being a composer-lyricist is really like doing the jobs of two people. Both roles are quite hard in and of themselves – at least for me – but there are advantages to doing both. Sometimes, a song will get its start from a musical idea and other times, it’s a word phrase that inspires the music. As a composer-lyricist, you have the continuous freedom to let the words and music inform each other as you go along.
Any final comments?
Yes. I’d like to thank Iris and the chorus for taking this music on. “We the People” is not an easy piece to perform. It has a great deal of words and complex pop rhythms and the piece requires a lot of rehearsal time. Iris and the chorus have been working very hard and I think it’s really important to applaud them for presenting concerts that challenge their audiences as well as their members. They are a group that truly lives up to their mission statement of using their voices to create a world that affirms the worth and dignity of every person.