The Anchoress by David Serkin Ludwig and Katie Ford

Soprano Hyunah Yu, the PRISM Quartet, and Piffaro, The Renaissance Band present a new one-woman monodrama that combines voice with modern saxophones and period instruments, inspired by a real historical phenomenon: the medieval Christians (mostly women) who became “living saints” by sequestering themselves in permanently sealed “anchorholds” (cells) attached to churches. The Anchoress “conjures a time of medieval mysticism, but the social dynamic it highlights—one that honors women only by relegating them—is not bound by any era” (The New Yorker). This monodrama, created by poet Katie Ford and composer David Serkin Ludwig, is a work of deep meaning enriched by “unusual, if not unique… effect[s] made beautiful” (The Philadelphia Inquirer).

The Anchoress explores struggles with faith, alienation, gender, and social power through the imagined person of a Medieval anchoress. Anchorism as a movement lasted throughout early Christianity to about the time of Shakespeare; and though it was a gender-neutral practice, at its height women anchorites outnumbered men four to one. An anchoress would permanently sequester herself into a small cell attached to a church. She had one small window through which to speak to townspeople coming to her for guidance. Her daily life resembled a prayerful funereal rite, as she would remain in the “anchorhold” until her eventual passing. By withdrawing from the world and choosing a form of death, she became a “living saint” in the eyes of the Church.

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Poet Katie Ford writes, “With the surge of Christian nationalism in America, I believe more than ever we must have writings that display a diversity of Christianities—not one crystallized creed but a great variety of thought and practice, a variety that has historically been present since the very first moments of the early Christian period. I hope The Anchoress can be one such writing. Further, I believe readers are tired of ironic renderings of faith and doubt, and since poetry will always be a locale in which language presses as far as it can until it reaches the unsayable, and then stands in reverence of the unsayable, a sincerity of posture is warranted. The anchoress, in her confusion and bewilderment, is sincere. She knows she is limited in her knowledge, and she deems the delivery of empty promises an enormous trespass. Her questions are existential, and just as people travel to her cell to seek wisdom through her window, Americans flock to therapists’ offices, they seek the advice of their priest, rabbi, imam, spiritual advisor, life coach, and so forth. Many such forms are secular, but the impulse is the same. We need each other. We need the wisdom another person might be able to offer us.”


The Composer: David Serkin Ludwig

David Serkin Ludwig‘s music has been described as “arresting and dramatically hued” (The New York Times) and “supercharged with electrical energy and raw emotion” (Fanfare).

Ludwig has written for many prominent artists, including Jonathan Biss, Jennifer Koh, the Dover and Borromeo quartets, eighth blackbird, ECCO, and orchestras including the Philadelphia, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, and National Symphonies. In 2013 his choral work, “The New Colossus,” was selected to open the private prayer service for President Obama’s second inauguration. In 2012 NPR Music selected him as one of the Top 100 Composers Under Forty in the world. His 2017-18 season highlights included the premiere of a concerto written for pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, commissioned by the Bravo! Vail music festival in honor of their thirtieth anniversary.

Recent highlights include a violin concerto written for his wife, acclaimed violinist Bella Hristova; the concerto was commissioned by a consortium of eight orchestras across the United States. Other recent commission and performances include Titania’s Dream for the KLR Trio, Swan Song for Benjamin Beilman commissioned by Carnegie Hall, and Pictures from the Floating World commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra for bassoonist Daniel Matsukawa and conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Born in Bucks County, P.A., Ludwig comes from several generations of eminent musicians including grandfather Rudolf Serkin and great-grandfather Adolf Busch. He holds degrees from Oberlin, The Manhattan School, the Curtis Institute, The Juilliard School, and a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. Ludwig serves as the director of the composition faculty of The Curtis Institute of Music, and is the Gie and Lisa Liem Artistic Advisor and director of the Curtis 20/21 Contemporary Music Ensemble.


The Poet: Katie Ford

Katie Ford‘s poetry collections are published by Graywolf Press, and include Deposition, which confronts God, violence, and Christian belief; Colosseum, named “Best Book of 2008” by Publishers Weekly, and which explores the theme of ruination and pulls from Ford’s personal experiences as a resident of New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina drove thousands out of their homes; and Storm which continues on the theme of ruination with a focus on the efforts to escape New Orleans in the aftermath of the hurricane. Her individual poems and essays can be found in many contemporary journals and reviews, such as American Literary Review, The New Yorker, The American Poetry Review, The Paris Review, Seneca Review, Ploughshares, Poets & Writers, and Pleiades. Ford teaches at the Department of Creative Writing in the University of California, Riverside.


Hyunah Yu

Guest Artist: Hyunah Yu, soprano

Applauded for her absolutely captivating voice with exceptional style and effortless lyrical grace(Washington Post), Soprano Hyunah Yu has garnered acclaim for her versatility in concert and opera roles of several centuries, for her work in chamber music, for her support of new music written by contemporary composers, and for her recorded and broadcast performances. Known particularly for her performances of the music of J.S. Bach, Hyunah has appeared regularly with esteemed conductors, festivals and orchestras throughout the US, Europe, and Asia. An avid chamber musician and recitalist, Ms. Yu has enjoyed re-engagements with the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, Baltimore’s Shriver Hall Concert Series, Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, the Vancouver Recital Society, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., Musicians from Marlboro, and many others. A highlight of Ms. Yu’s opera career was singing the title role in Peter Sellar’s new production of Mozart’s Zaide in the joint production of the Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, the Barbican Centre and the Wiener Festwochen played in New York, London, and Vienna. She has recorded Bach and Mozart Arias on EMI’s Debut Series and solo recitals broadcast for the BBC Voices program. Hyunah was a prizewinner at the Walter Naumburg International Competition and a finalist in both the Dutch International Vocal and Concert Artist Guild International competitions. Upon the nomination of the pianist Mitsuko Uchida, she received the coveted Borletti-Buitoni Trust Award. Ms. Yu also holds a degree in molecular biology from the University of Texas at Austin.



Guest Artists: Piffaro, The Renaissance Band

Piffaro delights audiences with highly polished recreations of the rustic music of the peasantry and the elegant sounds of the official wind bands of the late Medieval and Renaissance periods. Its ever-expanding instrumentarium includes shawms, dulcians, sackbuts, recorders, krumhorns, bagpipes, lutes, guitars, harps, and a variety of percussion — all careful reconstructions of instruments from the period. Piffaro presents an annual subscription concert series in the Philadelphia region; tours throughout the United States, Europe, Canada and South America; and appears as performers and instructors at major Early Music festivals. Recordings are a significant part of the ensemble’s work, and 18 CDs have been released since 1992, including 4 on the prestigious label Deutsche Grammophon/Archiv Produktion.


Program Notes

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Set to texts by Katie Ford, The Anchoress is inspired by the medieval mystic tradition called anchorism and its relationship to contemporary society. In what may be the first-ever combination of voice, period wind instruments, and saxophones, The Anchoress is...

Set to texts by Katie Ford, The Anchoress is inspired by the medieval mystic tradition called anchorism and its relationship to contemporary society. In what may be the first-ever combination of voice, period wind instruments, and saxophones, The Anchoress is performed by soprano Hyunah Yu; the early music ensemble Piffaro, The Renaissance Band; and the PRISM Quartet.

David Serkin Ludwig writes, “The Anchoress explores contrasting wind ensemble sonorities from opposite ends of Western music history: the ancient, now unusual street band instruments of the Piffaro consort and the versatile and contemporary saxophone quartet. This may be the first work of its kind to bring these specific instruments from antiquity and modernity together into one piece. The Anchoress further offers social commentary. Medieval and Renaissance-era women had few professional opportunities; the anchoritic calling offered a life where scholarly and creative pursuits were a possibility. Accounts of their mystic visions have informed theology for hundreds of years, as meaningful in today’s instantaneous and multi-layered digital world as it was in the spiritual and ascetic culture of the anchorites.”

Katie Ford writes, “I find the particularity of how [the anchoress] has chosen to live out her life profoundly creative, which can remind us that our daily life is a creative act. Creativity isn’t only manifest in art and music. It’s also, perhaps primarily, manifest in how we fashion a life. When we realize this, we know to resist power structures and cultural expectations that put strictures and strangleholds on our creative options. How do you make your life? The 17th century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho voiced it this way: ‘my neighbor,/ how does he live, I wonder.’ It is a question that aches in us all.”

Press Quotes

  • The New Yorker

    "In the Middle Ages, one way for a woman to achieve the stamp of Christian holiness was to sequester herself in a small, sealed-up cell (known as an ‘anchor-hold’) abutting a church. Sanctified by reclusion and privation, she could then dispense guidance to laypeople from her window. It’s a natural subject for a monodrama, a trick form that requires the composer, and the soloist, to hold the audience rapt with what is essentially an extended soliloquy. David Ludwig and Katie Ford’s one-woman opera (written for the period winds of the ensemble Piffaro, the modern saxophones of the PRISM Quartet, and soprano Hyunah Yu) conjures a time of medieval mysticism, but the social dynamic it highlights—one that honors women only by relegating them—is not bound by any era."

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  • The Philadelphia Inquirer

    "David Serkin Ludwig has an ear for beauty. This may seem like a given for a composer, but somehow, for some, the quality can be elusive. Which is not to say Ludwig doesn’t also use tension and dissonance. But the musical line in his pieces ultimately leads to a kind of going home — harmonically and emotionally ... Ludwig mixed wisely the modern saxes with ancient instruments like lute and delicate winds, opening up sound possibilities that were unusual, if not unique, like a gorgeous rush at the harmonic series from the ensemble in one song, a wheezing effect made beautiful in another. Yu had great stage presence, and her ability to double instruments with dead-on intonation and color match had a powerful effect all its own ... Composer and poet (Katie Ford) were as one, too. The last song unfurls quickly (sighing, waking up frozen, and accepting God despite and even through nothingness) in a text whose meaning Ludwig deepens with great skill. The music floats — sadly, beautifully, and with a small but keenly felt building toward hope as the musicians file off stage."

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  • La Scene Musicale

    "Anchorites (from the ancient Greek ‘to withdraw’) embraced a fiercely solipsistic isolation – a virtually black-box retreat into a mystic binary system of self-alone-with-God ... In The Anchoress, the inner life of one such woman is explored and given potent, fascinating voice ... Ludwig’s is a compositional voice of self-evident sincerity and authenticity ... [His] setting of The Anchoress boasts myriad felicities. Perhaps primary among these is his choice of orchestration. There is almost certainly no direct precedent for Ludwig’s combining of a suite of historical, Renaissance-era instruments (here played by the accomplished Piffaro band) with a quartet of modern saxophones (the members of PRISM), but it proves to be a canny and spot-on correlative to Ford’s synoptic reading of fictitious antique text and contemporary sensibility ... The role of the anchoress was sung by soprano Hyunah Yu with consummate poise, authority and charisma."

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  • WHYY

    "(Ludwig describes his compositional process): ‘These are kind of the bookends of music history,’ Ludwig said. ‘[It's challenging] writing for a saxophone quartet, which in many ways is the most modern acoustic set of instruments, and ancient Renaissance winds, whose histories go back hundreds of years. They have very different tones and colors, but that was something I wanted to make a feature and not a bug.’"

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  • OperaWire

    "‘The Anchoress’ seizes upon an overlooked aspect of medieval culture, and in exploring its possibilities, relates a deliberately-overwhelming abundance of sensation, experience, and inner revelation. Ludwig’s music and arrangement deftly evokes the surrounding world of the middle ages in which the anchoress finds herself; though there are many efforts made to create the medieval traditional sound and feeling, Ludwig’s composition is unafraid to employ novel effects and modern instruments to support, and even censor, its beauty. Hyunah Yu’s treatment of the libretto did much to bring out the abstract, almost nebulous beauty of Ford’s libretto. All of this made for a spiritual and sonorous trip back in time. While ‘The Anchoress’ begins as a tale of enclosure, it proves that what we find by looking inward is truly something to behold."

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  • I Care If You Listen

    "Katie Ford’s poetry probes the ‘spiritual cost of survival’ (New York Times Book Review)—an equally apt description of her latest collaboration with composer David Ludwig. Their new monodrama, The Anchoress, depicts a medieval mystic, who spends her life permanently walled inside a small cell. The piece fuses ancient and modern elements through its narrative and through its orchestration for soprano Hyunah Yu, Piffaro: The Renaissance Band, and PRISM saxophone quartet."

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