Eric Funk’s vocal elegy to Bridger fire to be performed Oct. 24 by Intermountain Opera
By Carol Schmidt, MSU News
BOZEMAN — Like most people in Gallatin County over the 2020 Labor Day weekend, Eric Funk was shocked to see fire ravage the nearby Bridger Mountains.
But unlike most people who watched the towering, billowing smoke from the Bridger Foothills fire, the composer and teaching professor in the Montana State University School of Music had another sensation. He heard music.
The result of those first notes became the foundation for Funk’s “Requiem for a Forest,” a short oratorial composition for four a cappella voices. Lyrics for the piece are based on a poem also written for the event by Richard Powers, a novelist who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2019 for “The Overstory.” The piece will be performed Oct. 24 in a pop-up event held by the Intermountain Opera in the Bridger Mountains that inspired the piece.
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the company will perform the piece three times before 50 socially distanced people in an outdoor location. Reservations for the performances were filled within minutes of being announced, according to Michael Sakir, interim artistic director for the local opera company.
“Commissions of new works rarely move this rapidly,” Sakir said. “I think it’s a testament to how desperately Eric and Intermountain Opera wanted to respond to the destruction and tragedy while offering hope. There is nothing like the human voice to heal hearts and bring people together.”
Funk said he became involved in the project when Thomas Thomas, a member of the opera’s board and the organizer of BozemanArtsLive!, a local platform for virtual performances, asked Funk if he’d be interested in quickly writing a piece about the Bridger fire to launch the opera’s new season of small events. Thomas is also a non-traditional student studying advanced piano at MSU.
“I jumped at the chance,” Funk said. “That was Sept. 21.”
Funk said that he immediately drove up to Stone Creek to look at the burned forest. He said he noticed that blades of green grass already rising from the scorched soil.
“Because the forest replenishes itself, it seemed a metaphor for what is going on today in our society. I realized I needed to write something hopeful,” Funk said. “Very clearly music showed up. I came home and started mapping it out.”
Four days later Funk met with Sakir and Thomas and two other board members, a first draft of the composition in hand. The piece was based on the ancient form of passacaglia, which involves music occurring over a repeated, multi-measure bass line.
When Thomas and Sakir asked about the lyrics, Funk said, “How would you feel about me contacting Richard Powers?”
Funk and Powers met in about 2010 when Funk was teaching a class for MSU WonderLust, now the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, on baroque music. Powers was living in Bozeman at the time and working on the novel that would become “The Overstory,” a book about several characters whose relationship with trees bring them together to address the destruction of forests.
When Funk emailed Powers, now living in the Smoky Mountains, and asked if he’d be interested in writing a short poem for his composition, Powers agreed, even though he was putting the finishing touches on his next novel.
“As with everyone who has ever spent time (in Bozeman), I fell in love with the extraordinary beauty of the region,” Powers wrote in an email last week. He said that he, too, was devastated by news of the fires and the scars they have left on “one of the loveliest places on this continent.”
“When Eric contacted me about preparing a text for his forest requiem, I knew in a heartbeat that I wanted to connect my private mourning to a shared and communal remembrance. And I knew that any act of remembering would have to include a prayer for recovery.”
Powers quickly wrote a 32-line poem with short stanzas that could be fit to the form of the passacaglia. He said he tried to keep the poem “simple, traditional and almost archaic in its rhythm and religious impulse.” He incorporated a line from the ancient liturgical Mass for the Dead: “Death and nature will be amazed when the creatures rise again!”
Powers said that the line was resonant because anyone who lives in western Montana knows about serotiny — seeds that release and germinate in response to external triggers, especially fire.
Powers said he got chills thinking: “That’s what will happen to the Bridgers. The plants and animals will literally rise again from the charred burn, sooner than many think.
“I think our requiem is also a prayer for the fires to trigger something in us.”
With Powers’ poem in hand, Funk recruited four voices to sing the composition, all with connections to the MSU School of Music. Elizabeth Croy, professor of music, will sing the soprano part. Lukas Graf, also a voice instructor and choral conductor in the school, will sing tenor and his wife, Jessica, who teaches music at Longfellow School, will sing mezzo-soprano. Frederick Fry, a professional opera singer who lives in Helena and is a frequent instructor at MSU, will sing bass.
Funk said he hopes that after its Oct. 24 premiere, the piece will be performed elsewhere.
“This project has such lift and promise and reaches well beyond our immediate local tragedy,” Fund said. “And it’s not false optimism for the sake of optimism but a much larger view of time, wherein we can really see further. Perhaps it will touch people throughout the West and even further.” •