Dances with oboes

Cue Julie Andrews: According to playwright Delilah Elsen and composer Rudy Davenport, these hills are alive with the sound of music. Or are about to be, anyway.

“The work has regional cultural themes, but the music will attract a broad range of [listeners],” Elsen says of the piece, a song cycle she’s titled Byna: Life Songs of a Southern Appalachian Woman of Cherokee Indian Descent.

“I’m not even calling it a song cycle anymore,” she reveals. This has been Elsen’s work-in-progress for a decade now, since she first began the tale as a one-woman play. But now that instrumentalist Davenport has set the story to music, the playwright is hearing her own words anew. “I’m calling it ‘life songs’ [instead], because it reflects [the title character’s] earliest memories [up] to a short time ago, when her husband died.”

But though this musical adventure delves deep into the Native American and mountain heritage of Western North Carolina, don’t expect the telling to come from the strings of dulcimers, banjos or fiddles. The creators of Byna are dabbling in a totally different palette, crafting a sound they’ve coined “Appalachian Romanticism.”

Banjo-free zone

“I wanted to create a standard work that could be performed everywhere,” explains Davenport from his Austin, Texas, home. “If a classical ensemble in New York [City] wanted to perform Byna, where would they get the instruments?”

Actually, as a young music student growing up in New York, I easily bought a banjo and a build-your-own-dulcimer kit. Not to mention that folk patriarch Pete Seeger still picks his banjo in the Catskills, or that Brooklyn now shelters so many contemporary old-time acts — the WIYOs, the Fandanglers, et. al. — it needs a Web site (www.brooklyncountrymusic.com) to corral them all.

But, regardless of alleged instrument inavailability, pickin’ and grinnin’ isn’t to everyone’s liking — and so when Davenport and Elsen set out to recreate Byna as an ensemble piece, they developed a new idea about the sound that would best capture the Southern mountains.

“I didn’t want to imitate existing tunes,” the composer notes. In fact, “Precious Memories” is the only old-time standard used in the performance. The spiritual is one that Davenport recalls his grandparents singing when he was a child growing up in WNC’s Clay County — roots he shares with Elsen.

“I don’t imitate Appalachian music at all; it’s not about using Appalachian folk songs,” he reiterates. But the musician did rely on the Appalachian environs for his inspiration in creating a soundscape for Byna. Sung by soprano Julia Broxholm, the character ruminates over her rugged life in the mountains.

“When I thought about Byna walking in the woods, I wanted to communicate the environment,” Davenport says. So each classical instrument — cello, piano and oboe — takes on an element of the natural world. “The cello is the dark, rich earth, because of its timbre … the piano represents the rain … the oboe, to me, represents all those beautiful mountain wildflowers and trees.”

A departure from dissonance

So just who is Byna, this woman being painstakingly surrounded by limpid pools of oboe? “[She’s] a representation of a woman in the Appalachian mountains, based loosely on Laura Elizabeth Patterson Ledford,” Elsen explains. Ledford, now deceased, was a friend of the writer’s — but Elsen also interviewed many other mountain dwellers in developing her character.

“She’s a woman who lived from about 1900 to the ’70s or ’80s and had first-hand knowledge of the Trail of Tears,” the playwright adds. “This is a vital connection, because someone living today could not have that memory.”

To create a name for the character — whom Davenport calls “universal” — Elsen says she just started scrawling letters onto a piece of paper. “When I came up with ‘B-Y-N-A,’ I thought, ‘This is it’.”

Elsen’s not shy about talking up her own partial Cherokee heritage, which she claims is one of many reasons she created Byna. “One of our goals is to acknowledge the many people in the area who are of Cherokee descent,” she says. She hopes that by presenting the story via chamber music rather than hoe-down tunes, the message of mountain culture will reach beyond, well, the mountains.

Davenport has an even more ambitious wish for his composition — to appeal beyond the typical classical-concert-going audience. “Classical music that’s been written in the 20th century — people don’t like it,” he says. “If you go to a concert and someone’s going to play a new piece of music, everyone groans. This is my departure from that dissonance. I’ve included melodies and harmonies to make Byna accessible at first listen.”

“We want everyone to journey into the mountains,” Elsen enthuses. “And hopefully, eventually, the music will transcend this area.”

Events concurrent with Byna

If Byna’s fictional life inspires you, check out real-live Cherokee heritage with these happenings at the Porter Center before and after the show:

• Artist Faren Sanders Crews, who designed the visuals for Byna, will show her watercolor and pastel work.

• Basket-weaver Lucille Lossiah will demonstrate her craft, beginning around 1:40 p.m.

• An exhibit of Cherokee Indian baskets will be installed in the Porter Center by the Qualla Arts & Crafts Co-op.


Byna: Life Songs of an Appalachian Woman of Cherokee Descent premieres at Brevard’s Porter Center for Performing Arts at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 20. $15. 884-8330.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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