Riffing on a prayer: Bennington College alumni bands will perform

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BENNINGTON -- Starting this Friday evening, a group of young musicians will be returning to Bennington College, their alma mater, for a weekend of harmony, prayer and a little experimental rock.

The weekend centers around a collaboration between Bennington College composition professor Kitty Brazelton and Trevor Wilson, a former student of Brazelton's who now fronts the New York-based vocal group Anawan. Brazelton and Wilson have joined forces to present renditions of prayers sung a cappella. The project, "Essential Prayers," is designed as a digital experience -- the recordings will be uploaded to the Internet for free streaming when the project launches in spring 2015.

In advance of the launch, Brazelton, Wilson and the other members of the eight-piece chorus recruited to sing the prayers will perform the project live at 4:15 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 27, in Bennington College's Carriage Barn.

Brazelton planned the concert as a way to make the project a tangible and exciting event, she said, rather than just recordings on YouTube, and her collaborators agree that the live performance will allow the audience to experience it in an important, powerful way.

"I think it's one of those things that works best when it's live and you can become really immersed in it," said Wilson. "It's very moving, and when you stand back and hear it from start to finish it's really quite epic. It's like Noah's ark or Lord of the Rings; it takes you on a journey, and I think people will take a lot from it."

The performers for "Essential Prayers" include Wilson and his Anawan bandmates Michael Chinworth, Maia Friedman, Alice Tolan-Mee and Ethan Woods, as well as Brazelton and soprano Judith Shimer. Brazelton found the bandmates of Anawan exciting to have as part of her chorus for their natural sound and chemistry, she said -- they have more of a singer-songwriter feel than a choir.

"They had this rapport that is just so gorgeous," she said. "I've had the good luck to have my work performed by some magnificent choirs, but they're so smoothed out. They're gorgeous and unified, but I wanted that different sound where there is still that rapport, but you can hear the people singing to you."

She isn't religious in the traditional sense, she said, but she has become interested in the power and function of prayer.

"The first one I picked was the Serenity Prayer. I definitely use that to calm down, and it works," she said. "And then you get to the 23rd Psalm, and I think that prayer is about being afraid, and that it's going to be OK no matter what. It says ‘Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil,' but it's so clear to me that of course you're afraid. But to say ‘I fear no evil,' it's so comforting. It's an affirmation."

She has also brought in the Irish Farewell, the Loving-Kindness mantra from Buddhism and several other prayers from Christian, Jewish and even Atheist traditions. She chose texts of many well-known prayers, so audiences could know the words ahead of time.

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"Even though there are a lot of Christian and Jewish influences, it is quite secular at the same time," Wilson said. "I think it allows for a lot of that spiritual introspection that is sometimes only reserved for when you're in church or temple or wherever. But for someone more secular, you can connect to the spirituality of it and not feel alienated."

Before the Prayers concert on Saturday, the visiting musicians will perform their own music in their usual incarnations at Bennington's student center at 8 on Friday night. Both concerts are free and open to the public.

The concert will open with Sneaky Mister, Judith Shimer's solo project, before Anawan members Alice Tolan-Mee and Ethan Woods take the stage with their own projects, respectively called True Lucy and Rokenri.

The group will form again as Anawan to close the event, showing off their five-part harmonies over sparse acoustic guitar, synthesizer and bass accompaniment.

"It's pretty folky and experimental. I'm hoping it will be interpreted as almost a modern day Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young," Wilson said. "We make music that I think has a lot to do with spirituality and community, and we just try to keep it real and stay grounded and be good humans, and the music is a byproduct of all that."

If you go ...

One night, four bands: Bennington alumni perform 8 p.m. Friday in the student center.

Essential Prayers: Bennington composer Kitty Brazelton, a capella prayers sung by members of alumni bands, 4:15 p.m. Saturday in Deane Carriage Barn.

Where: 1 College Drive, Bennington

Admission: Free

Information: (802) 442-5401, bennington.edu


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