Test Pilot Suite (full score) (printed copy)
This suite of four movements from the collaborative dance opera Test Pilot explores the sensation and wonder of flight.
Instrumentation: string quartet
duration: 23 minutes
Performed by: Alexandra Early and Jean DeVere (violins), Sam Bergman (viola), and Kirsten Whitson (cello).
Test Pilot, an intimate chamber dance opera by choreographer Penelope Freeh and composer Jocelyn Hagen, explores the power and wonder of creativity and invention through the birth of flight and the story of the Wright Brothers. Their sister, Katharine, is an often overlooked member of the Wright family, and her contribution to the family and their success is examined in this work through song and dance. The creators’ personal family legends and aviation heroics are also woven into the oblique narrative.
One of the main reasons Penny and I were drawn to the subject of flight was because we each have relatives who were flyers themselves. My grandfather, Dr. Louis Theodore Hagen, Jr., was a navigator in World War II. Unfortunately I was never able to meet this extraordinary man. He died when my father was just 10 years old. But he was always somewhat of a legend in my family. His black and white photo in uniform, displayed with his small New Testament bible he kept in his flight jacket and distinguished flying cross hung in a shadow box at my parents’ house. And my dad still loves to remind me that if his dad hadn’t made it home from the war, we wouldn’t be here today. He was a brave man, and he was put through so much. He survived the war, and yet was never really the same again. And I have his eyes, passed down from my dad.
There is one particular story told more than the others, about his life and experiences in the war. He flew over 50 combat missions, but on one particular mission, the radio officer right next to him was shot. Legend has it that the pilot and copilot were also shot, and that my grandfather, the navigator, flew the crew back to safety. Of course, he never really like to talk about these experiences himself, and this family legend may have been exaggerated by the time it reached my ears, but the fact remains: war is brutal. He left in 1942 a strong and bright young man, and returned home 40 pounds lighter and struggled with addiction for the rest of his life. It’s hard to imagine going through something like that. And it’s hard to imagine what it was like to be his wife as well.
The middle section of the opera is a separate vignette, fast-forwarding to WWII. The string quartet plays a piece called “Zero,” (inspired by the Japanese Zeros who were gunning down the B-24 Liberators like my grandfather flew) and the men of Test Pilot don aviator caps and goggles to portray a scene inspired by what my grandfather went through. I think in this moment Penny’s choreography really shines. The music and dance combine to form a truly heart-wrenching moment, that continues to be emotional for me each time I watch it. From there we transition to an intimate song called “Silver Wing,” in which I set a text that was originally a song by folk singer/songwriter Marie- Lynn Hammond. She wrote it about her parents and their relationship before and after the war.
It might seem strange to have this war-time section plugged into the middle of the Wright Brothers narrative, but it was an inspiring and personal bit of history for both of us to explore, and I believe it makes the entire arch of the story that much more poignant.