January 24, 2021

A Girl, a Bird, and a Gardener

First a poem, then a book, and now a musical composition on the cusp of its world premiere
By Ross Boissoneau | Nov. 28, 2020

An unlikely trio of characters from the pen of a local author has inspired a concert-length musical composition by the author’s husband. After delays caused by the pandemic, the piece will receive its world premiere, online, Dec. 4. And it all stemmed from events of 100 years ago.

Laura Cobb was turning 50 when she stumbled over a troubling statistic: The life expectancy for women a century earlier was only 55. She started to imagine what life had been like for women then — a time when women didn’t even have the right to vote until the 19th Amendment was passed in 1919, around the time her widowed grandmother Rose had come to this country, pregnant and with a two-year-old.

“I think that’s where the seed was planted,” Laura Cobb said. “The women before me, and the challenges they had to go through.”

Reading about the suffragettes and the silent sentinels, Laura Cobb was inspired to write a poem. But she didn’t stop there; she fleshed out the concept into a book. The result was "The Lesson of the Lark: Celebrating the Centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment of the United States of America," an imaginative interpretation of the struggle for women’s voting rights, targeted for readers ages 10–16 and told through the characters of a girl, a lark, and a gardener. 

She immediately began receiving accolades for the book, including from her husband, Jeff Cobb. He had been at her side throughout the writing and editing process. The head of the music program at Northwestern Michigan College, Jeff Cobb took inspiration from his wife's work and wrote a musical composition of the same name.

“Laura was working on the book for a long time. We sat down to read it together, and I thought this has to be a concert-length [musical] piece,” he said. The various movements feature a jazz orchestra, soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists, chorus, and a narrator. 

Jeff Cobb said the rhythm of the text inspired him to create a jazz suite. “The lark’s lines were like a bebop solo. The girl is sassy, like a blues tune. The book finishes with text that sounded like gospel. It was the first [part] I wrote,” he said. 

They were off and running. As Laura Cobb scored appearances at various conferences throughout the Midwest to celebrate women and their hard-won right to vote, Jeff scheduled rehearsals, with the performance of the piece set for April.

We all know what happened next. The pandemic hit, scuttling Laura Cobb’s appearances and Jeff Cobb's concert. Yet in the time of COVID-19, the spirit of innovation and the ubiquitous presence of the internet means that the project didn't have to die; it simply morphed into the online space. It's first virtual performance is scheduled for Dec. 4.

Jeff described the composition as a jazz suite, with the various movements showcasing different styles. “Each movement is different: a jazz waltz, blues, an ode to free improvisation, Latin with salsa and boss nova. It follows the arc of the story,” he said.

The music features members of the Northwestern Michigan College Chamber Singers, Grand Traverse Chorale, and Canticum Novum (all of which Jeff directs), faculty from the NMC Music Department, and others from local music and arts organizations. In keeping with the restrictions on gatherings, which prompted NMC to shut down all of its planned music programs for the year, the performances were recorded individually by the performers, then edited together by students from NMC’s Audio Tech and Visual Communications programs. Local musician and music engineer Jack Conners —not-so-coincidentally a former NMC faculty member — has been doing a lot of what Jeff calls “the heavy lifting” of editing the audio.

“It’s been a great collaborative partnership,” said Jeff about the way the composition has come to life, from the initial writing of the piece based on his wife’s book to the performers’ efforts to the NMC students using the work as part of a credited course. 

 “It’s a really powerful text. The lark and the girl are the soloists. The choir is the garden,” said Jeff Cobb. And for the plum role of the narrator, he didn’t have to look far: It will be performed by none other than Laura Cobb.

One of the challenges in the time of the coronavirus was recording all the parts when people couldn’t get together. NMC low brass instructor Mike Hunter suggested to Jeff that it might be easier for him and fellow NMC faculty members Laurie Sears and Josh Wagner to record all the horn parts. “Instead of 13 people, it would just be three,” he said.

Jeff agreed. That meant Hunter (trombone) and Wagner (trumpet) had to master and record 32 separate parts, one for each of the four parts in their sections across eight movements. For Sears, it meant 40, for first and second alto, first and second tenor, and baritone saxophone.

Hunter said they followed a guide track that Jeff Cobb provided. In his case, that meant practicing the parts enough to get familiar with them, then recording the videos. He recorded the actual audio parts separately, feeding them into his Logic software to make sure he hit all the markers at the right time. Using the software meant that if he made a mistake, he could go back and re-record that section, rather than do the whole part over.

It’s all more than Laura ever anticipated. “We’ve collaborated on things before,” she said of working with her husband. “I was surprised he wanted to take it on. It’s been such an amazing opportunity. It gives us this passion and forum when we could be distracted by the negatives in the world.

“We focus on the message and hope for the future for women, our daughter. She is 17, and our son is 21,” said Laura Cobb. She said, to them, the thought that there was a time when women couldn’t vote is appalling.

She believes there’s still more work to be done, noting that the first draft of the Equal Rights Amendment was in 1923. In March 1972, it passed both chambers of Congress before being ratified by several states — but not enough to pass. “Then it sat for 40 years,” she said — until Nevada passed it in 2018, Illinois a year later, and Virginia this year. A portion of sales of the book goes to Equal Means Equal, an organization dedicated to the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. 

With 90 percent of the population favoring it, she’s hopeful that the amendment will finally be approved, and that her book will provide some additional momentum. “I hope the message gets out. The job is not completely done. It’s so important for future generations to not forget this,” she said.

“The Lesson of the Lark” will premiere Dec. 4 at 7pm on the Northwestern Michigan College Facebook Page. Free tickets are available through www.mynorthtickets.com. 

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