• Jackson Harmeyer

90. Musical Travels in My [Old] Kentucky Home: Bardstown and Loretto


Reverend Nerinckx stands watch at Loretto.

Tomorrow I begin my second year of graduate studies at the University of Louisville. Before that though, I wish to share one last adventure which has brought this eventful summer to a close. On Wednesday, August 9, I set out for Nerinx, Kentucky, a small community approximately an hour south of Louisville where the Loretto Motherhouse is located. Here live the Sisters of Loretto, a Catholic religious order founded in Kentucky in 1812 by Reverend Charles Nerinckx. The education of youth is the chief cause to which the Sisters of Loretto are devoted, and today their ministries extend as far as China, Pakistan, South America, and Africa. Their Motherhouse has become a sanctuary for art: not only do they regularly host concerts at their chapela place with superb acousticsbut the Motherhouse also includes an art gallery and many sculptures scattered outside on the grounds. There is something otherworldly about this place for, walking the grounds, I noticed just how quiet it was compared to the bustle of Louisville but also how loud every little sound became whether the songs of birds, the rustle of wind, or a twig snapping under my feet.


I was brought to Loretto when my friend, James May, who is pursuing his master’s in composition at UofL, told me about his participation in what is called The Loretto Project. For one week each August, the New York-based piano trio, Longleash, consisting of violinist Pala Garcia, cellist John Popham, and pianist Renate Rohlfing, comes to Kentucky for a residency at the Loretto Motherhouse. They bring with them four young composers whose music is rehearsed throughout the week and performed at its close. Three of these composers are, like Longleash, from New York, and one is always a graduate student at the University of Louisville; this was how James became involved. Another, veteran composerthis year, it was Anthony Cheung, a professor at the University of Chicagoalso comes down to mentor the emerging composers. Throughout the week, Longleash hosts events in Louisville, including a concert broadcast live from the WUOL radio studio and a final concert at Bird Hall on the UofL campus. Longleash envisions the Loretto Project as “a week-long celebration of adventurous new music in central Kentucky.”


I wanted to support James, of course, hear his music and the other compositions featured by Longleash, but I also wanted to turn the trip into an adventure of my own! As I plotted my route south, I noticed that Bardstown was on the way. Bardstown, which regards itself as the “Bourbon Capital of the World,” was of more interest to me, however, as the location of My Old Kentucky Home State Park. The mansion here, also known as Federal Hill, was the inspiration for the song “My Old Kentucky Home” by the nineteenth-century American composer Stephen Foster. Foster, a native of Pennsylvania and not Kentucky, was inspired to write this song after visiting Federal Hill where his relatives, the Rowan family, lived. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, set in Kentucky, was also on Foster’s mind, and his song is at once a tribute to the natural scenery of Kentucky and his own statement denouncing slavery. Since 1928, it has been the state song of Kentucky, so let’s just say I’ve heard it quite a few times since arriving in Louisville!


Federal Hill, the mansion which inspired Stephen Foster's song "My Old Kentucky Home"

After exploring Bardstown and My Old Kentucky Home State Park, I arrived at the Loretto Motherhouse where I had a chance to walk the grounds before the concert began at the chapel. Titled “Sonic Meditations,” the concert featured music by Pauline Oliveros, an American composer and electronic music pioneer who passed away last November. Oliveros is remembered for her concept, Deep Listening, which encourages musicians and non-musicians alike to actively practice listening to the everyday sounds around them and observe how these sounds change depending on one’s acoustic environment. In addition to pieces performed by Longleash itself, the trio also asked for audience participation in Oliveros’ Tuning Meditation (1971). This composition, more an exercise, instructs that all present are to play or sing a pitch of their choice for as long as their instrument or voice allows, and afterwards either introduce a new pitch or match that of someone else in the room. In the amazing acoustics of the Loretto chapel, Tuning Meditation made for an unforgettable experience. Then, as we discovered, the piece ends all on its own when the group consensus seems to be silence.


Barn atop a tranquil hill at the Loretto Motherhouse

I caught up with James after the concert, and also had a brief chance to meet the trio and the other resident composers: Peter Kramer, Longfei Li, and Yu-Chun Chien. I would have more time with everyone Saturday evening when the group came to Bird Hall for the performance of the resident composers' pieces. James’ work, Redacted for solo piano (Listen Here!), is about information control, specifically when books or other written works are visibly edited by placing thick, black lines over sensitive text. To translate this concept into music, James substituted silence for certain musical phrases, giving the piece a disjoint feel, and also placed heavy books onto the strings of the lowest octave and a half of the piano, muddying their sound when struck. I thought it was a successful piece, especially in the interpretation given by Renate. Indeed, the entire concert was quite enjoyable.


Afterwards, I joined Longleash and the resident composers for dinner. All of us are about the same age, and everyone was kind and welcoming. Peter, who I learned is a harpsichordist, was interested in hearing about my solo harpsichord work, Tremblement de terre, and I have since shared the score with him. I also discussed with John, Longleash’s cellist, and Matt Ertz, Assistant Director of the Anderson Music Library at UofL, the works of a group of post-spectral composers known as the “saturationists.” Their idea is to build music from complex timbres, sounds which are sometimes so totally saturated that the fundamental pitch itself cannot be heard, leaving only its overtones exposed. Their group includes Raphaël Cendo, Franck Bedrossian, and Yann Robinall three French composers born in the 1970s. This conversation was my first real introduction to their music, and since then I have listened to a number of their pieces. It’s cool stuff, though not recommended for those who can’t handle, or choose not to deal with, what’s mostly screeching noise! Well, after these and other adventures this summer, I believe I’m ready to start the new semester tomorrow. Wish me luck!


JSH 17.08.20


About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a music scholar, composer, and advocate of music. Jackson graduated summa cum laude from the Louisiana Scholars’ College located in Natchitoches, Louisiana in May 2013 after completing his undergraduate thesis “Learning from the Past: The Influence of Johann Sebastian Bach upon the Soviet Composers.” As series director of the successful Abendmusik Alexandria chamber music series from May 2014 to April 2016, Jackson played a vital role in the renewal of interest in chamber music across central Louisiana. This interest has encouraged the creation of the annual Sugarmill Music Festival and the new series Nachtmusik von BrainSurge, both of which Jackson remains active in as concert annotator and creative consultant. He also blogs at MusicCentral where he shares concert experiences, gives listening recommendations, posts interviews with contemporary composers, and offers insights into his own compositions. As a composer, Jackson has worked to integrate the vocabulary and grammar of modern music into pieces which are not only innovative but also engaging to the general listener. In fall 2016, Jackson began graduate studies in musicology at the University of Louisville where he has recently been awarded the Gerhard Herz Scholarship in recognition of his accomplishments. His current research interests include French spectral music and the compositions of Kaija Saariaho. He also sings with the University of Louisville Chorus and participates in the School of Music Composition Seminar. Learn more about Jackson Harmeyer, his scholarship, and his compositions at www.JacksonHarmeyer.com.


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