If you lived at the Good Shepherd Center at 4649 Sunnyside Avenue North between 1907 and 1973, you were either a "fallen woman," a "troubled teen," or a child nobody wanted.
The building for this sorry purpose is a brick and stone beauty, adorned with blooming Corinthian capitals. It is in Wallingford, tucked into some trees. The architect was Conrad Alfred Breitung, a German immigrant born near Munich and arriving in Seattle in the first year of the 20th century. He was commissioned for the task by the order of the Good Shepherd, which had first set up shop on First Hill in 1890—five nuns arrived in Seattle for the purpose by train—and by 1907 needed a proper building for its pious cause. "Poor children!" Mary Euphrasia Pelletier, the order's founder, is said to have exclaimed. "Beaten about in the great tempest of the world, they have known nothing but suffering; they have never experienced the sweetness and charms of virtue."
Residents at Good Shepherd, Jonathan Shipley wrote in 2009 on the blog Vintage Seattle, "rarely left the grounds, could not excuse themselves from the nuns sharing with them those experiences of sweet virtue. Bars were in the windows."
Eventually, the orphanage system became the foster-care system, "loose women" became Pill-takers or dog-tired single moms, and the laundry business funding the center—where all the girls and women had to work—shut down in 1970. The whole center closed in 1973, and in 1975, the building was turned into a community center. Today, the Good Shepherd Center houses nonprofit organizations and schools (Meridian School and Seattle Tilth, for example), offices for things like physical therapists, massage therapists, recovery centers, and parent-support workers, and six units of affordable housing for artists.
But the reason most people go there is to hear music in the Chapel.
Acoustically, it's a dream. Wood and high ceilings and resonance for days. It's also home to the adventurous/"experimental" music organization Nonsequitur, curated by artist Steve Peters, who several months ago invited Seattle composer Byron Au Yong to put on an event for the first time with Nonsequitur's annual Wayward Music Series. Au Yong's response, happening one-night-only on Saturday, is a direct homage to the orphans and the "wayward" women and girls, to "this place all about love, or the absence of love." The concert is called Welladay! Welladay!: Wayward Love Songs.
"Welladay!" is an old-fashioned exclamation meaning "Alas!" Au Yong lifted it from a James Joyce poem the Frye Art Museum introduced him to through a group exhibition based on Joyce's poems earlier this year.
"They're from before James Joyce started to fragment language," Au Yong says. "So I fragmented it for him."
A week before the performance, Au Yong was still writing and editing the score for vocalist and piano trio. In the music, you might hear echoes of the old laundry—blankets being folded, stones being rubbed on water. And love letters being crumpled. Au Yong is personally "in a difficult place with love," he says. And on the flip side, "As an artist, he has a lot of love to share," says Tiffany Lin, the pianist, who has worked with Au Yong before. He tends to inspire loyalty for his thoughtful approach integrating classicism with improvisation, spiritual and emotional exploration with preparedness and rigor. "He explores a lot of different levels of meaning," says violinist Tari Nelson-Zagar.
Au Yong's range as an artist and cultural worker is tremendous. The descendant of immigrants who moved to the United States from the Philippines after having been first chased out of their home country of China, Au Yong remembers his grandfather coming to live with him when he was a teenager. He was studying classical music at the time, and it only annoyed him when his grandfather would pound on the piano. Later, in college, when he studied field recordings from, say, people in Burmese villages who came upon pianos that had been left in bars by occupying forces and played them without knowing "how," Au Yong came to regret not having had the ears to hear any value in what his grandfather was doing.
His career is impressive and unusual. American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco gave the world premiere this April of his opera Stuck Elevator, based on the true story of a Chinese-food deliveryman who was trapped in a Bronx elevator for 81 hours in 2005. The San Francisco Chronicle called it "vibrant... compelling, and eye-opening."
Au Yong has been composing music since he was young, and he is always working. About Welladay! Welladay!, he e-mailed, "Perhaps I'm working on these love songs because my next project has to do with mental health and violence in America. We have a residency with Sundance at MASS MoCA in December to develop TRIGGER, prompted by the Virgina Tech shooting. We hope to premiere at the new Virginia Tech Performing Arts Center in 2017, 10 years after the massacre."
Of course, he signed the e-mail, "Love, Byron."