Composer Joanne Forman explores moral questions of the day

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Joanne Forman's recent work choral work, 'A Corridor of Bones,' concerns a young widow and her little daughter in a stroller who set out from Central America to walk to the United States.

W hile most of us are getting used to social distancing and staying at home in response to the global coronavirus pandemic, Joanne Forman said she hasn't noticed much of a change in her daily life. The Taos composer is used to spending most of her time at home, and she is keeping to her regular routine.

"I try to work every day. At the age of almost 86 I no longer can spend five or six hours at the piano, but I do try to work every day, usually in the morning," said Forman in a phone interview from her home.

Forman's most recently completed work is "A Corridor of Bones," a choral drama for soprano, chorus and piano.

"It's about migration," said Forman. "It's a cross between a cantata and an oratorio … I made up a story of a young widow and her little daughter in a stroller. She sets out from Central America to walk to the United States."

Forman said her story was inspired by two images she saw. The first was of a woman who was a refugee. She was sitting in front of a pup tent in the mud with a 5-day-old baby in her arms. The second picture was of two young mothers from Central America with toddlers in strollers. They were setting out to walk to the United States.

The title of Forman's piece is a reference to the immigrants who die in the effort to come to the United States seeking asylum. "As you probably know, ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] has found about 3,000 sets of bones in the Sonoran Desert of people who died trying to get to the United States," Forman said.

These stories of immigration touch Forman deeply.

"My great-grandparents came to the United States in 1881, one step ahead of the screams of 'Kill the Jews' from Russia. My maternal grandmother was literally born on the boat," Forman stated.

Forman said that she began piano lessons at the age of 7. At age 16, she announced that she was going to be a composer.

"Everyone from my parents to my teachers to my schoolmates said, 'Girls can't do that,' " Forman recalled.

Then, she proudly said, "This girl does."

Forman said she has composed and written the lyrics for 10 one-act operas and a musical called "Jonah." She has composed two orchestral works, one 45-minute ballet, chamber music compositions, more than 100 piano pieces and countless musicals for children.

She has also composed song-cycles with words by Yates, Rilke, Lorca, Shakespeare, e.e. cummings, Conrad Aiken and others. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Maine State Arts Commission and the New Mexico Humanities Commission and was one of six from a field of 200 to receive a scholarship to the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida.

Forman was also a puppeteer for 27 years traveling around the United States and Southeast Asia, and had a long career in journalism including as arts editor for the Taos News for nearly four years.

These days, Forman spends most of her time at the piano, reading or listening to her favorite radio station, KCEI 90.1 FM Cultural Energy. She hosts a classical music program on the station on Saturdays at 3 p.m.

Forman said she is a member of the American Heritage Archive at the University of Wyoming, and sends copies of all of her manuscripts to the archive. She has also sent some works of hers to the University of New Mexico's music library and the Thoreau Institute, among other places.

Over the years, Forman's music has been performed by many Taos-based music groups. Her opera "The Sweater" was performed at the Taos Jewish Center (2007), and received so much attention that a second performance was scheduled.

"The story on which I based 'The Sweater' was told to me in Albuquerque by a [Holocaust] survivor. He's long gone now. He was an old man when he told me the story. His father died in the camp."

I asked Forman if she has been writing or composing about the coronavirus pandemic.

"Not at the moment," Forman replied. "What I'm doing at the moment is going through the remaining folders in my filing cabinet and weeding. … I look at some projects and say, 'I'm really not interested anymore.' But, some do remain of interest.

"Of course, what has happened is all projects in the arts now have been put on hold, because of the pandemic," said Forman. "I feel sorry for all of us in the arts, because having done it many times I know what it takes to organize any artistic or performance project. It's so much work, and then not to be able to do it. … When the pandemic really sank in for me was when I heard that Broadway shut down, which to my knowledge has never happened before."

Forman has lived in Taos since 1978. She says her favorite composers are Maurice Ravel and George Gershwin. Her favorite living composer is Stephen Sondheim, whom she considers a genius of the American musical theater. She pointed out that he is older than she is.

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