BRATTLEBORO -- It began as an earnest discussion about the meaning of some Jack Kerouac poems set to music.
Some 25 years later, it takes wing as a series of events aimed at exploring elemental questions that lie at the heart of human experience.
On Saturday, Winged Productions, the creation of Susan and Paul Dedell, begins a year-long examination of profound existential questions: What matters in life? What is the meaning of love? How and why should we serve one another? What happens after death? In what ways are biology and spirituality connected?
Through musical performances, theatrical productions, visual art, workshops and lectures, Winged Productions delves into these fundamental questions with curiosity, humor and thoughtful perspective.
"Our big guiding question is what does it mean to be human?" said Paul Dedell. "This isn’t a performance series. We wanted to have that idea of exploring the sacred in myriad ways."
The series begins this Saturday, with the first of two events exploring the divine chemistry of love. On Saturday, from 1 to 3 p.m., Dr. Lesley Fishelman presents "The Divine Biology of Love: Best Self Practices" in the Education Conference Room at the Brattleboro Retreat. The presentation includes an experiential workshop, time for individual and group reflection and an opportunity to engage in Best Self practices that make maximum use of the brain’s capacity for developing higher levels of awareness, understanding, love, faith and compassion.
The series takes a musical turn the next weekend with a performance of Paul Dedell’s composition "Songs of Divine Chemistry" on Sunday, Feb. 16, at 4 p.m., at Centre Congregational Church, 193 Main St. Performed by the Brattleboro Concert Choir, directed by Susan, four years ago, the piece has been revised and reworked and will be performed by Matt Hensrud, tenor, the Winged Voices, the Jubilee Girls Choir and The Limbic System Percussion Ensemble.
Events continue in April, September and November.
Though they had no idea they’d one day found Winged Productions, the seeds of the series began some 25 years ago, when Paul brought in Susan to be piano accompanist for song settings of some of Jack Kerouac’s "Mexico City Blues" poems for a Vermont Composers Consortium program.
Susan liked the settings, but some of the lyrics, dark and disturbing as they were, chafed at her.
"Although the texts were pretty dark, even a bit disturbing to me, they were handled without exploitation. I liked them very much. Above all, they struck me as the work of someone who valued communication above manipulation. I would say that is the single biggest commonality in our work: It doesn’t matter whether the subject matter is weighty, or whether it is totally goofy and fun -- mutual valuation between communicator and recipient is important to both of us," stated Susan.
"There was the start of the dynamic conversation between the two of us, and it just keeps rumbling," she said.
Eventually, Winged Productions rumbled into being -- but not without significant help.
The dream of creating Winged Productions became a reality when the Dedells were given a generous legacy gift from the late Helen Daly, who sang with Susan and was a dear friend of both. This gift was then supplemented by a grant from the Narthex Foundation.
Winged Productions is hosted by St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, in accord with its desire to address the spiritual concerns of a wider community.
"We are immensely grateful for the generosity and backing we are receiving for our work. What we have talked about for years is leaping forward, thanks to so many others. Pursuing wisdom rather than knowledge, and esteeming poetry as much as fact, Winged Production programs are intended to facilitate access to a fuller level of understanding, through the transcendent mediums of music, art and science," they stated.
Future Winged Productions events include: Three in the Wilderness," an original Mystery Play with puppets by Finn Campman and musical score by Paul Dedell to be presented April 10-13 at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church; performances of John Tavener’s "The Protecting Veil" with Paul Wiancko, cello, and string orchestra, preceded by lecture, "Icons of the Protecting Veil," by Zachary Roesemann on Sept. 27-28 at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church; and Altered States -- chant and music seminars in November.
The intent, the Dedells emphasized, is not to push a particular point of view or dogma but simply to ask questions and inspire people to examine and reflect.
"Both of us, as teachers, want to create an atmosphere of curiosity and of observation and awareness with our students," Susan said.
Paul’s first original theatrical score, "The Great American Hero," won the David B. Marshall award from the University of Michigan in 1979. He was the production manager of the People’s Theater in Cambridge, Mass., for several years, while continuing to write theatrical scores, choral works and songs. His scores for the theater have been heard locally and internationally, most recently in collaborations with Sandglass Theater, Marlboro College, and the New England Youth Theatre. His choral score "Come Life, Shaker Life" received the Alfred Nash Patterson Award.
Susan studied piano with Charles Fisher and Gyorgy Sandor, and was choral assistant to Maynard Klein at the University of Michigan, where -- surprising to many -- she also received an undergraduate degree in biochemistry and worked for a short period of time in research at the medical school.
"I actually miss being a scientist because sometimes musicians are not scientific enough," she said.
Susan moved to Vermont, joined the piano faculty at the Brattleboro Music Center, was rehearsal assistant to Blanche Moyse, and then became artistic director of the Brattleboro Concert Choir. She has been director of chorus at Marlboro College, and founder and director of the Vermont Repertory Singers and the Bach Festival Children’s Chorus. She is also the Director of Music at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church.