‘Rooms of Light,’ song cycle about photography, to premiere at Montclair State

From left, Jonathan Estabrooks, Rebecca Faulkenberry, Gabielle Starvelli, Kathryn Guthrie and Michael Winther in "Rooms of Light."

From left, Jonathan Estabrooks, Rebecca Faulkenberry, Gabielle Starvelli, Kathryn Guthrie and Michael Winther perform in “Rooms of Light.”

Pianist and composer Fred Hersch says he’s always been fascinated by photography. “In a way, it’s like (musical) improvisation,” he says. “You have to have all your technique together, so when the moment arrives, you can just be there with it.

“Photography, like music, is very technical, but in the long run, it’s capturing an image, or capturing an emotion, or making the audience think or feel something.”

“Rooms of Light: The Life of Photographs (A Song Cycle),” a collaboration between Hersch and poet/playwright Mary Jo Salter that explores various aspects of photography, will premiere at the Kasser Theater at Montclair State University as part of the Peak Performances series, Oct. 15-18.

Jonathan Estabrooks, Rebecca Faulkenberry, Kathryn Guthrie, Gabrielle Stravelli and Michael Winther will perform the songs, with backing by the Fred Hersch Ensemble. No photographic images will be projected onto video screens, or anything like that.

“There was a time where we wanted something much fancier and multi-media,” says Salter. “And then we decided we really wanted to focus on the songs. And the understated drama of having a few people singing, and a relatively small band. And I’m hoping, also, that the lyrics will start conveying what some of those pictures look like.”




Hersch and Salter first met an an artists’ colony in New Hampshire, where they were working on different projects. They became friends and, about a year later, collaborated on a song called “I’ve Got Your Picture,” about ex-lovers who were left with only one photograph of each other.

They then started talking about the idea of writing more songs of photography.

“We just sort of stumbled on the idea,” says Salter. “But once that happened, we both realized that we were sort of obsessed with photographs, and that we felt that photographs were emblematic of all sorts of changes in the last 150 years.”

In 2007, some of their co-written songs were performed at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. But various factors, including a serious health scare for Hersch (documented in a previous Peak Performances commission, “My Coma Dreams”), put “Rooms of Light” on the back burner until now.

The song cycle goes back to the early days of photography, with one song about family members posing for a portrait and thinking, “This is the only photograph the future will have of us.”

“It goes from this notion of recording who we are, very stiffly, perhaps once, to being people who take pictures of our dinners, and post pictures of everything that we see and everything that we do,” says Salter. “The fact that something like a third of us now meet our partners online: We have a song, for example, about that. We have a song called ‘Photoshoppers,’ which is about two people putting images of themselves that have been doctored, online. And they’re each singing about their ideal, both of themselves, and the other person.

“And it’s also about using photography for so many other uses. We have a song, for example, called ‘The Medical Waltz,’ in which one person has bad news in an X-Ray, and another person has wonderful news, in a sonogram, that she’s pregnant. We have a song about undersea and outer space exploration, in terms of photography. And we have a song about pornography. So there’s no aspect of our lives, from fairly comical ones to very serious ones, that hasn’t been affected by photography.”

“Rooms of Light” will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 15 and 16, 8 p.m. Oct. 17 and 3 p.m. Oct. 18; visit peakperfs.org.

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