The SpotLight

Story G. E. Light

Renowned composer, arranger, pianist Mark Hayes recently spent a long late-February weekend in Starkville, leading workshops on choral singing at First Presbyterian Church and a piano workshop at Mississippi State University. He followed it all with a choral and piano concert at FPC sponsored by the church, MSU, The J. W. Criss Foundation, the Golden Triangle Music Forum and the Starkville Area Arts Council.

Hayes, a magna cum laude graduate of Baylor with a degree in piano performance, has produced more than 1,000 published works for solo and multiple piano, small instrumental ensemble, solo voice and chorus. While best known as a composer of non-secular music, Hayes’ music touches gospel, blues, jazz, pop, folk and classical. He has toured and taught extensively on six continents.

Saturday morning Hayes met with a group of 80 or so volunteers from local church choirs and community choruses to workshop five of his own compositions and arrangements for a performance the following evening.

Later that afternoon, the indefatigable Hayes repeated the process on campus with student pianists from MSU as well as interested locals. There he focused on the art of piano improvisation.

The capstone of this weekend was a gala concert also held at FPC. The program alternated between the combined community choir performing Hayes’ compositions and arrangements and Hayes himself giving various bravura piano performances, including a striking duet of “O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus” on single piano with one of the events’ two coordinators, professor of music Rosângela Sebba. The choir opened with a world premiere of “How High Can I Fly?” The next choral piece “Grace” set the text of “Amazing Grace” to the Scottish folk tune of “O Waly Waly” (more commonly known as “The Water is Wide”). The final choral piece featured a solo by baritone Forrest Blackbourn. Intermittently, Hayes would introduce pieces from in front of the choir or at the piano bench with tales of their inspiration or what compositional tasks he set himself to achieve.

MacArthur Genius Award Winner Terrance Hayes recently spent time on the MSU campus as writer-in-residence under the auspices of the College of Arts and Sciences Institute for Humanities. A professor of English at The University of Pittsburgh, Hayes won the 2010 National Book Award for Poetry for his collection Lighthead and received such accolades as the Whiting Writers Award, the National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim Fellowships and the United States Artists Zell Fellow for Literature.

Hayes’ often autobiographical poetry spans a plethora of topics including race, pop culture, history, as well as the literary tradition. During his week in Starkville, Hayes met with students individually and in groups, participated in a creative writing class and held an informal discussion with students in the African-American studies program.

The highlight of the visit was a public poetry reading. A large receptive crowd filled MSU’s McCool Hall Taylor Auditorium. Hayes roamed through his poetic output from five books with a special focus on two types of poems: list poems and his pièce de résistance, one sentence poems. The latter relied heavily on apposition, and while perhaps the strictest grammarian might question their syntactical purity, no one in attendance could doubt their effectiveness, their wit and wisdom, nor their artistry. Throughout Hayes’ careful and passionate readings his recurring mantra, “language has value,” struck home, be it through the use of clever internal rhymes, striking images or repeated rhetorical cadences.

A lively post-reading discussion displayed Hayes’ ability to connect with and inspire college-age students in a fashion both elevated and vernacular. The lanky former scholarship basketball player, in introducing selected poems and answering a series of questions about his poetic influences (ranging from Keats to Gwendolyn Brooks), demonstrated a searching autobiographical and analytical bent: “You write poems so some can tell you something you don’t know about yourself.”

Ben Rosenkrans’ “A Southern Perspective” (West Point/Clay County Arts Council’s March/April exhibition at the Louise Campbell Center for the Arts) focuses on the West Point artist’s continuing work in pen and ink, watercolors and mixed media, capturing the particular essence of a disappearing Southern landscape.

He focuses specifically on structures like barns, disused cotton gins, covered bridges and no longer extant structures like the Old Oktibbeha County Courthouse, plus some more whimsical prints like a street car in NOLA, a famous roadside sign in Meridian or a cluster of clothespins dangling on a line. These items represent the older, more rural South fast disappearing due to infrastructure collapse and demographic migrations.

The details of his drawings shine through particularly in his delicate pen and ink or pencil crosshatching. The latter can be seen to best effect in one of his nature studies of a red-tailed hawk. The mixed media works generally involve a skillful overlay of watercolors on a pen and ink or pencil sketch like the exhibition’s postcard featuring “Mountain Cabin.”