There are a few things that stand out to me about Steven. First of all, he has an incredibly tender relationship with his sister. This is evident when he speaks of her, as well as in his writing. His latest novel Potted Meat, which is dedicated to his eldest sister, reflects that relationship clearly, and when asked about the book Steven says, "to me, that book was about her." Secondly, Steven acts like a microphone for people around him. He spends much of his time either trying to help other people find their own voice (eg. He teaches writing workshops for veterans) or trying to get other people's voices heard (eg. Creating an anthology of works written by refugees, veterans, veterans' spouses, and immigrants in the Denver area and then doing a book tour with those writers). The final thing that stands out in my mind is Steven's childhood. He grew up in an abusive environment, and as an adult has had to grieve the relationships from that time. He speaks of those relationships in a loving and caring way, while also acknowledging the difficulty that comes with realizing that a relationship is not what he needs it to be.
This piece opens with a violent timpani motif that is continually repeated under a dysfunctional chord progression in the strings. This is an overt reference to Steven's childhood. It is meant to be unsettling and put the listener on edge. This then gives way to a soft section of vocals and Dobro (accompanied softly by strings), which is a nod to Steven's efforts to let others' voices be heard. I must thank Allie Merrill, Tucker MacDonald, and Danette Ver Woert for their stellar vocal work here. The structure of this segment is very standard 12 bar blues, a warm, stable, and comforting structure that provides respite from the previous unease. This is a reference to Steven's relationship with his sisters, which seems to have acted as a refuge for him throughout the years.
One of the new ideas I tried out with this piece was to add spoken words under the music itself. When thinking of the idea of Steven letting others' voices be heard, I was reminded of the great Pablo Neruda's "Las Vidas" (If you are not familiar with this poem, please go read it; it is haunting). The idea of having yet another voice on the track made perfect sense with this motif, and since the poem was originally written in Spanish, I decided to add the voice of Sebastian (yes, the very same Sebastian from the first collection by The Neighborhood Arts Collective) reciting portions of this poem. Interestingly enough, Steven at one point had considered becoming an architect, which is an unexpected connection between him and Sebastian (an architect himself).
The portions of the poem that I used are:
"Golpeo con peso de piedra, porque tengo mil manos (I strike with the weight of stone, because I have a thousand hands)."
"Miles de rostros que no puedes ver, miles de pies y pechos que marcharon conmigo, que no soy, que no existo (thousands of faces that you cannot see, thousands of feet and hearts that marched with me, that I am not, that I do not exist)."
"Solo soy la frente de los que van conmigo, que soy mas fuerte porque llevo en mi no mi pequeña vida, sino todas las vidas...y ando seguro hacia adelante porque tengo mil ojos (I am only the front of those who go with me, that I am stronger because I bear in me not my little life, but all lives, and I walk steadily forward because I have a thousand eyes)."
"Y mi voz se oye en las orillas de todas las tierras porque es la voz de todos (and my voice is heard on the shores of all lands because it is the voice of everyone)..."
Going back to the abusive environment, the dysfunctional progression returns in the strings, this time without the timpani. The unease here is created by a lack of rhythm and predictability; the chords change without a perceptible meter. There is also an eerie sound produced by a wind gong being played with a bow, which can be heard under the strings (it is also present in the opening section, but more noticeable here). This is meant to add a non-tonal quality to the section, which is unsettling. Most of us are very accustomed to hearing music that follows certain patterns and gravitates to one tonal center, and we unconsciously expect music to follow those patterns. To have a non-pitched percussion instrument played in such a way disrupts that expectation.
The vocal blues line returns with the Dobro to again shed light on the incredibly caring relationships between Steven and his sisters. This time the progression is repeated, but embellished each time. At 3:02" all strings drop out except for two cellos. One is playing the soprano vocal line, and the other is restating a previous line from the earlier dysfunctional chord progression, a holdover of the pain from that time. This does not represent anything concrete, but I do love the melancholy feeling it lends to the end of the piece. I was so impressed with Steven relating how he has developed empathy for his own parents as an adult, and showing veritable compassion toward his mother in particular. At the same time, he speaks of how many stories of poverty end on a triumphant note. That, however, is not real life for many people; in his words: "I don't think there's any transcending that...for me, 'cause there's still guilt involved."