1,000 Voices in “The Public Domain”

I wasn’t there. I didn’t hear it; I didn’t see it. But from what I’ve read, I am sorry I missed it. “It” is “The Public Domain”—a choral work for 1,000 volunteer singers that was performed on the main plaza at Lincoln Center a few weeks ago. It was composed by a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer named David Lang whose goal was to create what he called a “…democratic piece…that invited in amateurs and took as its topic things we all might share.” To develop his text, he used the internet search-engine auto-complete function to see what the phrase “one thing we all share” might yield. Among the phrases he selected: “love of music,” “favorite sandwich,” and “time, until it stops.”

But text and music notwithstanding, what really moved me was the event itself, not just the breathtaking scale of it, but the full spectacle of 1000 people—mostly strangers, of all ages and descriptions—coming together, joyfully and in collaboration, to fulfill Mr. Lang’s utopian musical vision. It was a truly “only in New York” moment. I cannot imagine what it was like to successfully identify, corral, teach, and rehearse a thousand mostly amateur singers in a new composition.

Both Lang and the singers had to have been brave souls, because they were not joining up to perform something familiar, like Handel’s “Messiah,” or easy, like “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” What they needed to master was something altogether new, musically unconventional, innovative, and challenging…something that would require intense focus, commitment, patience, cooperation, and personal time. Moreover, they would be performing in the most exposed of public spaces around the fountain at Lincoln Center with an audience invited to wander among them in order to enhance the democratic spirit of the event. There was a conductor who led a team of 25 other conductors, each placed with a section of the singers. And there was a choreographer as well.

As it turns out, Mr. Lang had no difficulty recruiting singers: more than 2000 volunteered. (You can always count on New Yorkers!) And as it turns out, the performance was a triumph, with four star reviews, even though it took place on one of those sultry, stifling New York afternoons when the temperature was in the mid-90’s and the humidity was out-of- bounds. Over 2,000 intrepid, adventurous, music-loving people showed up and when the performance was over, according to The New York Times, “all the performers and listeners cheered one another.”

Perhaps what most evoked my admiration about this event was its sheer optimism. Open-hearted, egalitarian, and totally collaborative, it vigorously defied the desultory tenor of today’s public life. As Lang said, “We do need each other, we are around each other, we do get something from each other and we are alike.” So when another day goes by—filled with divisive, rancorous rhetoric and yet more terrible news—remember “The Public Domain,” and all it demonstrated about the potential of the human spirit, right here, in the heart of New York City.

Watch the making of The Public Domain:

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