Twenty-eight percent of the 1,498 young people experiencing homelessness in King County identify as LGBTQ, according to last year's point-in-time survey. A majority of those queer youth, about 60 percent, report a history of domestic abuse or partner abuse, and a lot of them get kicked out of homes in the first place for coming out to their parents.
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They need housing. They need stable employment. They need help with moving costs. But like anyone else they also need a place to process heartbreak, to elevate the ordinary through art, or even just to dick around after a full day of applying for jobs and housing—after a full day of trying to get by.
In response to that need, the Seattle Symphony partnered with Accelerator YMCA, New Horizons, and Youthcare to create a program called The Prism Project, which pairs the symphony's composer-in-residence, Alexandra Gardner, with self-selected participants from those organizations. The goal: create an original symphonic composition from scratch.
After nine weeks of workshops, Gardner and a rotating group of queer homeless youth created Stay Elevated, which premieres under John Grade's living sculpture of an old growth cedar in the lobby of the Seattle Art Museum this Saturday at 2 p.m. The concert is brief—about 30 minutes long—and will feature a visual score inspired by the music.
Though it's a small program, Gardner says the workshops had a big effect on the dozen people who chose to participate. I called her up to ask how she was able to transform these teens and twenty-somethings into symphonic composers.
Tell me about Stay Elevated. How did they compose the song?
We did it over the course of several workshops—once a week over nine weeks. I had to harness my superpowers of improvisation to help them harness their superpowers of improvisation, so we did lots of creative exercises to harness those powers.
Rhythmic exercises, creating melodies using bells and other instruments.
How did you begin to shape all that energy?
We talked about what the piece might be about overall, a general vibe for the piece. I asked them questions like, “What do you want people to understand about you that they don’t?”
Everyone said basically the same thing to that question: “We don’t fit inside your boxes, but we’re still good people, and we have a lot of love to share, and we’re smart.” They clearly don’t feel respected or seen by a lot of people.
What do you think they meant by “fitting inside of boxes?”
They’re young people who fall outside a lot of norms of your average 18 to 20-year-old. Some are trans, some are queer but have young children—there’s all kinds of different situations.
How did you translate all that into a song?
One of the participants had a really good singing voice. I asked everyone to make up a melody, and she had one she’d already been working on. The lyrics to it were, “You don’t have to love me because I love myself. / I stay elevated with no one’s help.” Everyone liked that, and the melody that went with those lyrics turned into the primary melody of the piece. And they liked the term “stay elevated.”
We also made melodies based on how they greet people. One person had a really distinctive way of saying “good morning.” [I asked Gardner to impersonate the melody, and she said “good morning” sort of like the second “good morning” in the chorus of “Good Morning” from Singing in the Rain.] Somebody else liked to say “namaste,” so we made that into a melody. Those are in the piece.
Once we had a bunch of melodic material, we started thinking about the structure of the piece. It has four sections. They really wanted a welcoming section, so we made a welcoming section. To start organizing the other sections I asked them to write about their typical day, or a recent day they had. Then they chose what they felt were the four most significant words from that writing. They all picked words and started pairing them together.
What kinds of words did they choose?
A lot of them were about weather. Sun and rain and wind. They picked significant words from what they’d written, and we arranged them into sections for the piece. They had interesting ideas about which words went together. One pair of words was pretty symbolic of the whole experience.
They paired the words “arrive and leave” for the middle of the piece. I said, “That’s interesting, why are we doing that?” And they said, “It’s just that way. Arriving and leaving. That’s just the way it is.” They wanted a crescendo with the “arrive,” and they wanted the “leaving" to fade out. That’s how the whole project went. They’d arrive to a workshop in a burst of glory, and then I wouldn’t see them for a while. Quick arriving and quick leaving was how their lives seemed to go.
Were you working with the same people the whole way through?
There was one person who stuck with it the whole way through. A few others came for several sessions, but then they’d stop. They’d stop coming because they had job interviews, or they got jobs, or they got housing, or their lives changed for good things like that. We were working a lot with New Horizons, and they seemed to be really on top of helping these youths get their stuff together. Several got jobs quite quickly after I started seeing them.
What does the music sound like?
The piece starts off with a lot of bells. It’s very sparkly. Some of the musicians were like, “Oh it’s so beautiful and sparkly, I thought it would be more angry,” but it’s not at all. There are some ever-so-slightly dark parts. Overall the feeling they wanted to communicate was not about their past experiences, which may have been very dark, but rather a hopeful future. And I think that really speaks to the participants' resilience and imagination.
What do the other sections sound like?
Well I don’t want to ruin it, but the second section is called Sun/Rain. It’s the weather section, and it’s got some jazzy celeste. The third section is my personal favorite. It’s called "The Magic Carpet” section. We were messing around one day, and a lot of them were really into ambient music, and so I asked if we wanted to create all these layered drone sounds. They were into it, and it sounded like you were flying around on a magic carpet. So I asked where they’d go if they had a magic carpet. Everyone answered, and we incorporated those sounds. So it’s a very lush, multi-layered section where everyone’s playing these swells of different pitches.
And the finale?
The last section is called “Mood Awakening.” They wanted it to come back to the beginning so that it felt like a loop. There’s an ever-so-slightly grumpy section—someone had contrasted happiness and depression in the words they chose about their day—so there’s a moody part that shifts into a sun-shiny, awakening-to-a-new day part.
How many young people did you work with?
I’d say 10 to 12 total, but there were usually more like two to four at a time.
What were the drawbacks and benefits of that?
It was hard. The small number of people was challenging, but it worked out well. I was hoping for more people, but the small number of people was easier to have longer conversations and spend more time on things. It was harder on me, because if you’re expecting ten people and you have three, you blow through activities much faster. I wish there were more that had been able to stay through. But it worked out, everyone who showed up participated.
The music was done early, so after that we worked on a graphic score. We had big 16-foot butcher paper they drew on. I’d play them the computer mock up of the music, and they would draw stuff that they felt was representative of what they heard. That will be on display during the concert.
What drew you to the work?
My experience teaching in workshop situations is with a younger group—under 24 years old, high school and college age, mostly. And I’m gay myself, so I wanted to connect with that community.
Was that helpful at all?
I think it was helpful that I could relate to them maybe a little easier than someone else, but we didn’t talk that much about LGBTQ issues. It was just that my baked-in experience helped relate to the youth more than someone else maybe.
Some people say, “Oh come on, what are the arts really going to do to help the homeless?” What’s your response to that?
I think providing any time for someone to feel free and safe enough to be creative is helpful. Everyone is creative, and creating an environment where these participants can be creative is really important to their well-being. It may not look to some like helping, but actually it’s helping a lot. They’re going to come out of here with more confidence, knowing they did something they enjoyed that felt satisfying, that gave them a shot of strength to go forward in whatever they’re doing.