Johnstone Fund brings together new music composers, poets to create new works in partnership

Linda Kernohan had tried on a handful of occasions to write a piece about the grief the composer felt after her mother passed away in 2000 following a long illness, but to no avail.

It turns out that she needed inspiration from someone who she wouldn't meet until 2018.

Introduced to Columbus poet Barbara Fant last year by Zoe and Jack Johnstone for a Johnstone Fund project they were organizing that paired composers and poets, Kernohan and Fant bonded over their shared loss of their mothers at a relatively young age, both recalling specific Saturday morning memories from their childhoods. For The Big Score, Fant and Kernohan decided to create their original piece out of those memories.

“I wrote about the loss of my mother and about memory and what do you become when you don't hear her voice,” Fant said. “And also how I find solace or joy in the ways she's still with me.”

“I always enjoy writing music that's very personal and processes experiences I've had, but I find it's very difficult to do in a direct way,” Kernohan said. “Having Barbara's words to grapple with, seeing the similarities and differences in our experiences… sometimes you need something external.”

The resulting piece, “For Our Mothers,” which will be performed by Fant and musicians from a pair of ensembles — Columbus Ohio Discovery Ensemble and Sunday at Central — at the Garden Theater on Wednesday, May 22, is the kind of creative expression the Johnstones hoped for when they conceived the idea for The Big Score.

“It is as much about bridging and building communities as the making of new work, but that's the kind of thing we do, so we put composers with poets and asked them to make new work, new words and new music that was made to go together,” Zoe Johnstone said.

“Those types of interactions are really what make this magical,” Jack Johnstone said.

“When you go to a new music concert, oftentimes you have no idea what it's going to sound like,” said Michael Rene Torres, who will conduct the concert in addition to being one of the composers (with poet Dionne Custer Edwards). “It's brand new art that's coming alive right in front of people. It's alive.”

Combining Columbus' vibrant poet and new music communities provides not just fresh opportunities for audiences, but for the participating creatives as well. Poet and Alive columnist Scott Woods, who wrote “You Are Not Alone” with composer Jennifer Jolley, said he had worked with musicians many times in the past, but never in the context of composed, “new classical” music.

“I had to turn off any inquisition I had about the music and just lean into trusting the process. Everyone's a pro,” he said. “I figured as long as she liked the poem, I was going to be comfortable with surprise. And my piece is dope. It doesn't ‘sound like' my poem at all, but [Jolley] put everything in there I love about classical music.”

“We honor each other with what we do,” Jolley said. “I was very clear that the music would be my emotions, my interpretation, my voice. But in this way we create something better than ourselves.”

Additional pieces on the program were created by Jennifer Hambrick and Mark Lomax (“Circles Against the Spin”), Louise Robertson and Jennifer Bernard Merkowitz (“At the Detention Center for Immigrant Children”) and Jeremy Glazier and Charlie Wilmoth (“In Virgo Veritas”). Some of the poets will participate in the live performance, while others, including Woods, who felt it wouldn't be appropriate for him to be the voice of the #MeToo-related text, will cede those duties in concert. In each case, it was clear that the setting would not be a song, with the text set to melody, but rather two equal works sharing space.

“I've performed with musicians before, but this will be a new experience for both [Kernohan and me],” Fant said. “I've always made art from the perspective of a black artist, a black woman, in America. I think I stayed true to that while finding commonality in service of creating a special moment. That's the gift of art.”

“The music is in dialogue with [Fant's] text. I worked very hard to both change the character of the setting with the text while also remaining consistent musically throughout,” Kernohan said. “Working this way enriched what I was able to do. I would never have written this otherwise.”