'Hidden World of Girls' premieres July 28 as part of the Cabrillo Music Festival. Photo by Terry Way Photography.

'Hidden World of Girls' premieres July 28 as part of the Cabrillo Music Festival. Photo by Terry Way Photography.

Hidden World of Girls: Stories for Orchestra is a sensory invention of sound, light, story and music involving the combined gifts of two storytellers, one creative director, four composers, one conductor, vocalists, instrumentalists and a digital design team. The project emerged from a PBS series developed by the Kitchen Sisters—oral anthropologists Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson—who gathered the coming-of-age stories of girls from the four corners of the globe.

In a talk with the Weekly, Silva, who lives in La Selva Beach, recalls how it all began. “It all grew out of a Creative Work Fund grant,” Silva remembers. “A couple of years ago Cabrillo had asked us to apply for the funding for a future project that would involve artists from different disciplines.” The result is the Kitchen Sisters' collaborative “stories for orchestra” for the Festival's 50th anniversary. It has been, Silva says, “a fun and joyful thing to do.”

The subject of girls and girlhood is rich, to say the least—interesting enough to catch the attention of Tina Fey, who’s hosted two hour-long specials for the radio version of “Hidden World of Girls.” Interview subjects for the series including trailblazing girls and women of all stripes: the first female Olympic boxers, an octogenarian radio host in Uruguay, New Wave icon Patti Smith.

For such complex subject matter, a lushly textured, multimedia approach seems appropriate.

“I don't think much has been done for symphonic orchestra that includes audio and radio,” Silva says. “We're beginning to see more and more experiments involving symphonic orchestra and multimedia, but I think the idea of live orchestra and visuals merging with radio and narrative storytelling seems exciting and unexpected.”

With composer Laura Karpman underscoring all the stories, composers Clarice Assad, Alexandra du Bois and Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum came to listen to the stories and began writing their own symphonic compositions. San Francisco–based Obscura Digital, which counts among its digital installation clients Google, NASA and the United Arab Emirates, is doing the imagery for the evening.

For the Cabrillo world premiere this weekend, July 28-29, the journey is global. “You'll be hearing from women from the Sahara and their rituals and music, and then to Ireland to hear about the Travellers,” says Silva, referring to the nomadic ethnic Irish who maintain separate language and traditions.  She says she thinks of these narrative strands as “coming-of-age ceremonies and portraits.”

Each of these stories, she confesses, was discovered thanks to a tip. “As we did with our other NPR series (“Hidden Kitchens,” “Lost and Found Sound,” “Sonic Memorial”), we opened up a phone line on NPR and asked listeners to share their ideas of hidden worlds of girls,” says Silva. “Involving the community in the storytelling process has led to so many incredibly rich narratives—stories we might never have come across otherwise.” {pagebreak}


Far-flung Inspiration

The episode “Brave Heart Women's Society,” featured as part of the Cabrillo performance, was inspired by a phone message from Brook Spotted Eagle, who called to tell Silva and Nelson about a coming-of-age ritual on South Dakota’s Yankton Sioux reservation. (Brook’s mother, Faith Spotted Eagle, will be part of the “Stories Behind the Stories” forum on Sunday, July 29, at 3:30 at the Civic.) Another tells the story of Pat Cadigan, well-known cyberpunk and sci-fi writer.

“We chose the stories we did,” Silva recalls, “because the characters compelled us and the ideas and arc of the story were revealing—and often unexpected.”

Visuals count more than one might think. While the Kitchen Sisters deal in radio sagas, Silva says imagery is always a consideration. “I think Davia and I both think of ourselves as making movies—stories you can visualize and imagine through voices, sound and music.”

One of the musical episodes, “The Hidden World of Traveller Girls,” was inspired by a photograph of a housing development for Irish Travellers. “It caught our eye. We knew nothing about Travellers and were just beginning to gather stories for ‘The Hidden World,’” Silva recalls. After a visit to a Traveller settlement, the story emerged. The radio version features a riveting interview with a young mother of two adjusting to life in a “halt,” or government settlement. She and her family still prefer to sleep in their caravan.

The composers selected have woven these stories into their compositions, which are then “all woven together with Laura's music,” Silva explains. What began as an aural collection of rites of passage has “evolved into a project with women composers, each bringing their interpretation of the stories and their own experiences and hidden worlds to the project.”

The composers’ personal stories are fascinating in themselves. Says the Brazilian-born Assad of her upbringing in the politically turbulent 1980s—a time when her rebellious mother’s constant quarreling with her dictatorial grandmother seemed to reflect the greater social unrest—“The fights, the yelling, the combats filled the air daily. And, because of the vast size of the family, it was impossible, as a child, to be heard… At some point I became so frustrated, I stopped talking altogether and just started to sing. From this point forward, whenever I felt conflict was about to arise, I would make music.” {pagebreak}


Still Cookin’

The Kitchen Sisters started at KUSP in 1979, gathering oral history interviews and doing a live weekly radio program. “We were both passionate about documenting the people, history and traditions of the region. It was an eclectic show,” Silva recalls, “everything from Wobblies to elephant seals, farmers, cowboys, Italian grandmothers, filmmakers, politicians, with a lively mix of Cab Calloway, Tom Waits, lullabies and work songs thrown in. Our style of storytelling really grew out of those early years of experimenting at KUSP.”

When a friend sent in one of their stories, “The Road Ranger,” to a new radio syndicate called NPR, their careers were born.

“We did our live show until the early 1980s. That was our test tube. Then we did pieces on NPR—we've been so amazingly lucky to work with NPR and to do these stories,” she says.

Shortly after September 11, 2001, as part of the Kitchen Sisters’ “Lost & Found Sound” series then airing on NPR, they brought together a national collaboration of radio producers, artists, historians and public radio stations nationwide to collect and preserve the stories and sounds of the World Trade Center and its neighborhood.  

“We opened up a phone line with NPR and asked listeners to contribute their voice mails, home recordings and remembrances to this effort to create a kind of sonic memorial,” Silva says. “Hundreds called in with their stories. These recordings, along with interviews gathered by radio producers across the country, were broadcast on NPR during the year following the attack.”

The Sonic Memorial and its website received Peabody Awards, and the project continues online at  The Sonic Memorial Project.

“Now we're doing new KQED stories,” Silva says. “The ‘Making of’ series. We're just starting to gather stories. In fact people can call in and tell us their stories and who we should know about. Here's the number—(415) 553-3362,” Silva says, shamelessly plugging her new project.  “So far we have the making of the Bay Bridge, the making of the iPhone, an opera, a surfboard, a jar of jam,” she laughs. “Everyone is rich with stories.”

And yes, radio discovery is still engaging for Silva, who is excited about reaching out to new audiences with the innovative Hidden World of Girls performances next week. “Pushing all these individuals into collaboration,” Nikki Silva admits happily—“it's truly an experiment.”



Saturday, July 28, 8pm

Sunday, July 29, 1pm and 8pm

“Stories Behind The Stories” Forum Sunday, July 29, 3:30pm

Civic Auditorium

Tickets $32–50 at