Composer Carol Barnett was reluctant to take on this project. After Jila Nikpay sent an e-mail asking Barnett to set her poetry to music, Barnett planned to say she was too busy.
"But then I looked at the poetry and the photographs and I started hearing music," she says. "So that told me I had to do this project."
Carol Barnett is a veteran Twin Cities composer whose music has been performed by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Minnesota Orchestra and the Dale Warland Singers. In her new work for soprano and harp, "Music for Heroines," she sets five poems from Nikpay's book. Nikpay wanted her verse to convey her impressions of her subjects' trials and spiritual transformation through illness.
The poems accompany Nikpay's black-and-white photographs of Minnesota women diagnosed with breast cancer. Barnett says she was inspired by the photographs as much as the poetry.
"I looked at the photographs as I was composing," she explains, "not only to get the sense of each person from the poetry and their stories, but from the photographs themselves. It seemed to me to be a more effective that way of trying to express each personality through the music."
Carol Barnett wrote "Music for Heroines" with the voice of soprano Janet Gotschall Fried in mind. Like Barnett, Fried teaches at Augsburg College. Fried says each song in the cycle is an intimate portrait of a woman going through breast cancer.
"They're short songs," she says. "Most of them are two and three pages long. But there is a transformation that happens and you experience some part of what the women had to go through with cancer. It's amazing that in a short poem you can experience that part of a person's journey."
Each poem tries to capture the emotional and physical experiences of women with breast cancer. The descriptions are reflected in the music. Harpist Judy Kogan accompanies Fried and says Carol Barnett has written music that requires unusual and dramatic ways of playing her instrument. Kogan hits the strings of the harp, knocks on the soundboard, and runs her fingernail up the length of a string to create a "zip" sound.
"Everybody thinks of the harp as an angelic instrument and there's some very unangelic sounds Barnett has the harpist make," she says. "They help tell a story and create quite a vivid picture."
Earlier this week Jila Nikpay heard Kogan and soprano Fried perform "Music for Heroines" for the first time. Nikpay says she was pleased, adding that the music brings a new dimension to the meaning of her poetry.
"Transformation is a mysterious thing and you don't want to be so literal about it," she explains. "I still don't know exactly how each woman was transformed because words are not adequate for talking about something that happens in a deep psyche. You really don't know why some people go through it."
In preparing Carol Barnett's "Music for Heroines," Kogan and Fried studied Nikpay's photos and listened to stories about the lives of the women portrayed. Even though each song was inspired by individual experiences with breast cancer, they say the music takes the personal and makes it universal.
Fried says listeners who have no experience with breast cancer will find meaning in the music because it's simply about life.
Soprano Janet Gotschall Fried and harpist Judy Kogan premiere Carol Barnett's "Music for Heroines" Saturday evening at the Open Book in Minneapolis. The performance is part of a book release of Twin Cities filmmaker and photographer Jila Nikpay's new collection of poetry and photographs, "Heroines."
"Music for Heroines" will also be performed Tuesday, April 11 during the American Composers Forum "Sound Check" program at the Southern Theater.