“Are there a lot of musicians in your family?” That's the question people usually ask after my sister Michel and I perform together.
The answer is yes, but also farmers. We were raised on a dairy farm in north-central Wisconsin, part of the younger generation of two large Catholic families of Czech and German descent. I recently learned of the Czech saying that basically translates to "Every Czech is a musician," and find it to be pretty accurate in our family. My first voice teacher was my aunt, my grandfather played tenor sax for over sixty years, my uncle records, writes, and plays in rock and roll bands, and many other extended family members play instruments or sing. Our parents are supporters and lovers of music but not musicians themselves. They run an agricultural feed mill that serves local farmers. One of the first performances my sister and I gave was for a goat farmer, Esther. We rode alongside our Dad in the dusty, loud delivery truck to her little goat farm. After unloading goat feed and visiting with the goats, we performed a song or two for Esther in her cozy farmhouse living room.
My sister and I are close. We earned our music degrees at the same universities, Viterbo University and the UW-Milwaukee, and have continued to perform together as I pursue my doctorate in music performance at UW-Madison. When it was time for me to plan my dissertation project, I knew I wanted to perform with my sister and create a more personal work, so I set out to commission a new song cycle for us to perform.
I wanted to find texts that would reflect our rural roots in some way and be interesting to a wide audience. My voice teacher, Paul Rowe, suggested checking out the archives in the Wisconsin Historical Society for material. After reading some interesting, but not quite music worthy writings by turn-of-the century Wisconsin women, I read about Nellie Kedzie Jones, a suggestion by archivist Lee Grady. Jones wrote a home-making column for The Country Gentleman, a popular agricultural magazine, while living on a dairy farm in central Wisconsin. This immediately peeked my interest. She compiled a particular series of articles into a book manuscript that can be found on the Wisconsin Historical Society’s website. In this series, Jones writes to an imaginary niece, “Janet” as “Aunt Nellie.” The letter format was immediately appealing to me for creating songs. The more I read, the more I became enthralled with this woman and her quest to make a science out of house work. I felt nostalgic and homesick reading these old articles, so it was clear I had found something with personal meaning.
I already had a Wisconsin composer in mind for this project, Paula Foley Tillen. I sang Paula’s music with the Milwaukee Choral Artists, where Paula was a founding member and composer in residence until the ensemble’s final season in 2013. I knew Paula’s music to always be sensitive to the text, with a colorful and universally appealing quality. As a pianist and singer herself – and just a really cool person – I was extremely happy when she agreed to take on this project with me.
I sent Paula my initial selections from Jones’s manuscript and she has artfully crafted a song cycle using what worked well and spoke to her. Whether it’s something simple, like decorating the dining room, or amusing tidbits like “Janet” gossiping about a snoring deacon at Sunday mass, or “Aunt Nellie’s” more profound statements on life and individuality, the texts used for these songs will induce smiles as well as deep contemplation. This summer, I successfully crowdfunded this project and am preparing to share it with the world.
On September 25th, Nellie’s Letters: Songs for the Homestead will be premiered in the dining hall of UW Extension’s Lowell Center. Some of you might be thinking, “wait, it’s not in Morphy?” As someone who has worked with music groups that like to think and perform outside the box, like Milwaukee Opera Theatre, I wanted to place my premiere in a non-traditional venue that would add meaning to the project, and maybe even entice people I don’t know to check it out. Jones has ties to the School of Human Ecology and she also headed the UW Extension Service from 1918 to 1933. The dining hall in UW Extension’s Lowell Center has a piano, presentation equipment, and plenty of light and seating. Also, the second song happens to be all about the dining room, so there you have it! I hope to see many friendly faces there when I present my final project at noon on the last Sunday in September.