Nancy Luce, a.k.a. the Chicken Lady or Madonna of the Hens, was a 19th century Martha’s Vineyard folk artist, poet, businesswoman, and writer. Known for her passionate love for animals, chickens in particular, Luce’s story often comes across as quaint, kitschy, or bizarre. Thomas LaVoy, a young, artistically driven vocal composer curious about Luce’s eccentricities, discovered there’s much more to her peculiarities than meets the eye.
In 2017, LaVoy, having spent the previous four years earning a Ph.D. in music composition from the University of Aberdeen, returned to the States in order to housesit for his father. “Near the piano, where I spend hours every day, there was a linoleum block print hanging on the wall that my stepmother had picked up at a yard sale,” LaVoy relates. “Over a period of three months, the print invaded my subconscious, becoming something I could not ignore. It had a lady flying through the sky holding a chicken and a poem:
Nancy Luce, the night she died
Called her chickens to her side
Neighbors ran to see them ride
Through the Island sky so wide
“Intrigued, I googled Nancy Luce, and that led me to the print’s creator, Dan Waters.
Which leads us to the Island Community Chorus’ premiere of “In Heaven, Hereafter,” composed by Thomas LaVoy, with lyrics based on the works of Nancy Luce, happening Saturday and Sunday, April 6 and 7, at the Whaling Church.
Dan Waters, an M.V. poet and artist, describes his meeting with LaVoy, saying, “With Internet connections, it’s not unusual for me to hear from a total stranger. Of course I was delighted when I first heard from Thomas, who had been inspired to create music by my print of Nancy Luce. It was obvious that he too was captivated by her quirky, ardent charm.”
LaVoy traveled to Martha’s Vineyard so he could learn more about Luce. He and Waters toured the Island, visiting her grave — which is occupied by permanent and visiting chicken statuary — where LaVoy spent time alone communing with Luce. They also visited the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, where Bow Van Riper provided access to a wealth of research information.
LaVoy, who has already had works premiered around the world, says, “When I begin a composition, I sit at the piano, improvising vocally, adding piano later. I may chant on a single note, adjusting the contour of the line, allowing a sense of the work to appear. Each improvisation has aspects that may or may not become integral to the composition’s construction. For ‘Heaven,’ Luce’s adoration of her chickens definitely entered my imagination in sound, bounding around and influencing the contour of the line.”
Imaginative about arranging performances of his work, LaVoy successfully sought out choruses interested in sharing the commission for this new work. They include the 2019 Island Community Chorus premiere, under the direction of Peter Boak, and six other professional and community choruses based in Britain and the U.S.
Boak, who met LaVoy through Waters, was delighted to have an opportunity for the chorus to learn an entirely new work. Musically, ‘Heaven’ makes for a challenge, as there are no recordings or Internet learning tools available to assist singers in learning their parts. Boak was imaginative in his instruction, devising specific rhythmic exercises designed to help the chorus grapple with the music’s polymetric, complicated rhythms.
Boak was also able to discuss the process with LaVoy along the way. “Thomas and I communicated about the chorus’ progress at least once a week,” Boak explained. “We’d go over how the rehearsal went, sections where I wanted to know more about his intention, how he could help with parts where I felt things weren’t lining up quite right. At one point, we sent Thomas a recording, and he responded with extremely constructive feedback.”
LaVoy, who set the lyrics as well as the music, based the words on Luce’s own writing, subtly adding his own language when doing so would serve the music’s path. He believes at first one thinks of Luce as a character, fanciful, even goofy. Upon reflection, one becomes aware of the profound sense of the mystical that shines through Luce’s work. LaVoy used this progression, from lightweight to thoughtful, as the structure for the music.
Molly Conole is the soloist for this work. “The piece is constructed so that the chorus sings music that has a range of colors with more variety than the soloist’s.” Conole reflects, “My part is designed to possess the intuitive and deep relationship Luce had with her animal friends. LaVoy has done a brilliant job of capturing the contrasts.”
ICC bass Steve Chapman said they recently heard Conole’s part for the first time. “Up to that point, we’d only rehearsed the choral parts, not the music where the soloist sings. The emotion and pathos in this music, and Molly’s compelling delivery, just knocked us all right over. We were mesmerized. Peter, who never misses an entrance, missed cuing our next entrance,” Chapman said.
Boak was presumably mesmerized as well. My guess is, like me, you’ll agree with Waters, who says, “I can’t wait to hear the piece.”
Island Community Chorus presents the premiere performance of “In Heaven, Hereafter,” composed by Thomas LaVoy with lyrics based on the works of Nancy Luce. Saturday, April 6, at 7:30 pm, and Sunday, April 7, at 3 pm at the Whaling Church, Edgartown. Suggested donation $15; students free. Supported by a generous grant from Choral Arts New England.