Original article published on Sharps & Flatirons here.
Art can heal during times of pain and loss. Long before COVID-19, art was a powerful source of healing during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, still the country’s deadliest virus to date.
One example was The AIDS Quilt Songbook project, a musical response to AIDS from 1993 that still lives on today. Last year, baritone John Seesholtz, CU-Boulder’s director of vocal pedagogy, published the first volume of works collected after 1993 in a collection titled The Lost Songs of the AIDS Quilt Songbook.
Seesholtz then recorded the first volume with the Sohap Ensemble, a Boulder-based start-up founded by CU-Boulder alums in 2020. Their world premiere recording will be livestreamed at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 22.
This publication, more than a decade in the making, has been a career-long passion for Seesholt, He feels excited to finally share his work with audiences and musicians around the world.
“There was a calling inside me to get this work published and out to people,” Seesholtz says. “I feel good about finally having it out there.”
The AIDS Quilt Songbook was inspired by the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, a community art project that commemorates those lost to AIDs. Created in 1985, the project became a powerful tool for raising awareness during the AIDs pandemic, eventually growing to 48,000 panels and more than 54 tons.
Baritone William Parker, diagnosed with HIV in 1986, decided to create a musical equivalent to the quilt called The AIDS Quilt Songbook. He began commissioning art songs for baritone and piano that paid tribute to victims of AIDS. By the early 1990s, Parker had collected and published 18 songs from prominent American composers, including Ned Rorem, William Bolcom and Ricky Ian Gordon.
Since then, The AIDS Quilt Songbook project has continued to grow to more than 100 submissions. Since 1993, however, these newer songs have remained unpublished. Seesholtz began collecting songbook submissions while pursuing his docorate at the University of North Texas. As part of the LGBTQ community, he felt drawn to the music, which he described as a time capsule of the 1980s and ‘90s.
“(The songbook) gives you a window into that time and what it felt like to be gay and to have this disease that others thought you deserved,” Seesholtz says. “People with AIDS went through not only physical pain but also shame.”
Last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, Seesholt decided to revive the project and publish the first volume of The Lost Songs of the AIDS Quilt Songbook. “I wanted the music to be a source of remedy, instead of filling the pockets of editors and publishers,” he says. All profits from the songbook will be donated to AIDS charities.
Unlike the original collection, which focused on pain, suffering and death of AIDS victims, this new collection explores how the survivors cope with loss and move through grief, knowing their loved ones are no longer suffering. The first volume contains five unpublished songs by Douglas Boyer, Craig Carnahan, Daniel Kallman, Evan Kuchar and songbook veteran Gordon.
For the premiere recording, Seesholtz will sing Death Spirals by Kuchar, which he first heard at a 2008 AIDS Quilt Songbook performance in Chicago. Death Spirals explores choosing to live in the present moment and the acceptance of death.
“Kuchar focuses on how we choose to live,” Seesholtz says. “We can either focus on death and the end, or we can be present in the now.”
The other four songs will be performed by soprano Sabina Balsamo, the Sohap Ensemble’s co-founder and artistic director, and mezzo-soprano Christine Li, a CU-Boulder master’s degree student and Sohap Ensemble member.
Balsamo will sing Carnahan’s “Domination Of Black,“ based on Wallace Stevens’ abstract poem about crying peacocks in a fierce storm, and Boyer’s “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep,“ a touching plea for loved ones not to mourn the speaker’s death and to remember the beauty of their life.
Li will sing Kallman’s “When I Am Dead, My Dearest,“ based on a poem by Christina Rosetti about the peacefulness of death, and Gordon’s “The Yoke.“
As part of the LGBTQ community, Li feels excited and honored to be a part of the premiere. She believes the songbook continues to be a tool for activism, by breaking down the stigma attached to those who are currently suffering from, or have lost loved ones to AIDS.
Li hopes hearing these songs will inspire empathy in listeners, even for those not directly affected by AIDS, and might even inspire them to raise awareness in their own communities. “There is this issue with (shunning) groups that are experiencing something tragic or traumatic,” she says. “It’s about having empathy for people that are suffering and struggling even if it doesn’t affect you.”
Despite the themes of grief and loss, she believes the music can be hopeful and uplifting, demonstrating the power of art to reflect the human experience. “There is a lot of hope in the music,” Li says.
“Even when the person’s physical life ends, they live on in a way because people remember them, creating music and art from the impression left on their hearts.”
After the April premiere, Seesholtz hopes to continue expanding The Lost Songs of the AIDS Quilt Songbook with further volumes, which he also plans to record with the Sohap Ensemble. Through their work, he hopes the songbook, like the NAMES quilt, can continue to be an ever-expanding living memorial.
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The Lost Songs of the AIDS Quilt Songbook, Vol. 1
Sohap Ensemble with John Seesholtz, baritone
- Douglas R. Boyer: “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep“
- Craig Carnahan: “Domination of Black“
- Ricky Ian Gordon: “The Yoke“
- Daniel Kallman: “When I Am Dead, My Dearest“
- Evan Kuchar: “Death Spirals“
Livestream at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, April 22, can be accessed here.