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UW-Eau Claire music, English faculty write song about pandemic for San Francisco Choral Society

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: B.J. Hollars (left) and Dr. Chia-Yu Hsu are working together to create a song commissioned by the San Francisco Choral Society. The chorus will premiere the piece “To a Lost Year” during its concerts April 29-30 in California. Hollars teaches English and Hsu teaches music composition at UW-Eau Claire. Photo by Shane Opatz)

For years, Dr. Chia-Yu Hsu and B.J. Hollars each have been using their creative talents to tell stories that evoke powerful emotions in audiences around the world, Hsu through her music compositions and Hollars through his books and essays.

Now, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire associate professors are working together on an artistic endeavor, writing the music and lyrics for a song inspired by COVID-19 and related events.

The San Francisco Choral Society will premiere their piece, “To a Lost Year,” during its concerts April 29-30 in California.

Hsu says she is “honored and grateful” that the choral society chose her from nearly 100 composers to write a piece of music that relates to the pandemic, but also touches on social justice, understanding the immigrant experience and serving the immigrant community, all reflecting the passions of the person the choir is honoring with the commission.

From the start, Hsu knew she wanted Hollars — the author of several books and published essays — to be part of the project.

While he initially shared several possibilities for lyrics written by other writers, nothing seemed quite right. Eventually, Hsu suggested that Hollars “take a crack at it,” he says. “Though I’d never written lyrics for anything as formal as this, I decided to give it a shot.”

Hollars was a joy to work with and his lyrics accomplish what she set out to do with the piece, says Hsu, who teaches music composition at UW-Eau Claire.

“I have all the confidence in the world in Chiayu’s abilities, so I remained confident that she’d turn my straw into gold, whatever I gave her,” Hollars says. “But I admit, I was proud — and relieved — to learn that the lyrics were at least enough to allow the song to proceed.”

Hollars was “super prolific,” sharing ideas within hours of learning about the project, Hsu says. “He was also very flexible and a great collaborator in terms of revising materials, so the texts fit the ideas I had for music and how the narrative goes,” she says.

While the lyrics were written throughout the fall of 2021, Hollars recently realized that there are “echoes of lines I wrote back in March of 2020,” the beginning of the pandemic. “So, in some ways, this song has been percolating for two years, but it wasn’t until collaborating with Chiayu that it found its place.”

Hollars says the shared project shows that artists in an array of disciplines can come together to successfully create a single, collaborative piece.

“No doubt I was very much out of my league here, but Chiayu and the choir director took me in, taught me things and helped me grow as a writer,” says Hollars, who teaches English at UW-Eau Claire.

San Francisco premiere

Hollars and Hsu will be in San Francisco later this month when the choir performs their piece for the first time. Both are eager to share the experience with each other and the audiences.

“I’m just giddy at the thought of sitting next to Chiayu as we hear such an illustrious choir sing the fruits of our collaboration,” Hollars says.

Hsu traveled to San Francisco last month to work with the choir during rehearsals, an experience that has her even more excited for the April premiere.

“It was a very emotional moment to hear it for the first time and musicians came to me to show their appreciation of the piece,” says Hsu, noting that some of the singers were so moved by the song that they were in tears. “To hear the piece live is always the ultimate moment for composers after spending months of writing the music.

“I’m super excited for the premieres because it will be the first time that I hear the choir with the string orchestra. It will sound very different than the piano accompaniment. I am also very excited to share great moments with B.J. at the concerts.”

Calling it an honor to work with Hsu, Hollars says the shared project “served as further proof of what can be created when we take the time to get to know our talented colleagues on both sides of the river.”

‘To A Lost Year’

Their song, “To A Lost Year,” has three movements: “To An Uncertain Battle,” “To Those from Other Lands” and “To Hope.”

“Chiayu asked that the first movement reflect a kind of frenzied dissonance, not unlike what many of us were feeling in March 2020, followed by a second movement that contrasted this dissonance with something more closely resembling a lullaby,” Hollars says of finding the words to bring Hsu’s vision to life through music. “Finally, the third stanza was meant to reflect hopefulness.”

Hsu says the first movement “depicts chaotic scenes and expresses unsettling emotions of people at the beginning of the outbreak.” The middle movement is dedicated to people who lost their lives during these uncertain times, especially people who immigrated to the United States. The last movement echoes some of the expressions from the first two movements while leading listeners toward a brighter future.

Since the piece is written for a choir, Hsu wants the tone to reflect a sense of community, a collective voice, rather than an individual one.

“To create the unsettling emotions in the first movement, I used more dissonant sonorities and irregular rhythmic patterns,” Hsu says. “At the same time, there’re passages that sound darker and sad, but there’re also short moments of brighter sound to hint that there’s still hope before the movement sinks back to the darker tone again.”

The music of the second movement has a “more lyrical and delicate singing quality,” creating a lullaby for the victims. “So, there are beautiful singing parts and more harmonious chords, but in this movement there’s also a short moment of march-like passage when text is talking about ‘for the land that we share needs us all,’” Hsu says.

Finally, the music in the third movement’s tone “shows more loving and brighter characters to represent that we always conquer the challenges, and a brighter future is waiting for us,” Hsu says.