Black music is the centerpiece of American culture

Damien Geter’s "An African American Requiem": Part One of a three-part interview with the composer

Portland-based choral group Resonance Ensemble named its eleventh season after its motto “Programming with Purpose,” an ethos that fits right in with other Portland ensembles that take inspiration from social justice (FearNoMusic being one notable example). The season’s first two concerts—Beautiful Minds and Safe Harbor—featured music dealing with issues of mental health and immigration, and showcased music by Pauline Oliveros and Sarah Kirkland Snider alongside new works by local composers Theresa Koon, Joe Kye, and Brandon Stewart.

Composer and vocalist Damien Geter, performing with Portland Concert Opera.

The season’s final concert–a collaboration among Resonance, local gospel choir Kingdom Sound, singers auditioned from around the area, and the Oregon Symphony–was to be the world premiere of An African American Requiem by Oregon composer and bass-baritone Damien Geter, a full-length choral and orchestral work commissioned by Resonance Ensemble. When the symphony cancelled the remainder of its season due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the premiere was rescheduled for January 22, 2021.

This premiere remains poised to become a landmark achievement both for Portland’s musical culture and for American music as a whole. Radio station AllClassical Portland and New York’s WQXR were both set to broadcast the premiere live. Requiem also includes a speaking part for Resonance’s poet in residence, S. Renee Mitchell, a longtime Portland writer and activist whose career spans multiple media and parallels her work with young artists and survivors of domestic abuse. In a recent post, Resonance Artistic Director Katherine FitzGibbon invited everyone to share their own #requiemstories. Here’s ours–will you add yours?

In part one of three, ArtsWatch talks to Geter about liturgical texts, folk music, and the artist’s duty. The interview was conducted by phone May 20, 2020, and has been condensed and edited for clarity and flow. The complete interview, with musical analysis and score samples, will be published next month in Subito, the student journal of Portland State University’s School of Music and Theater.

ArtsWatch: Why a Requiem specifically?

Damien Geter: The Requiem is the vehicle to honor these folks, and through all my influences that have come across my path, across my forty years of living, I think that I am pulling from all these various places. The Requiem Mass is something I’m pulling from the classical tradition with Verdi and Britten and all those folks. And so that seemed like the most logical way to be able to complete this project. 

AW: What led to the additions of other texts with the standard Requiem mass? 

DG: I wanted to use something that related directly to the black experience and the experience of black Americans that is more contemporary, where the Latin is over there and the subject’s over here. To me that’s the glue that brings it all together, and I chose “I Can’t Breathe” because it’s such a prevalent thing in this world. Whenever someone says it you instantly know what they’re talking about. The reference is there.

And I chose the spirituals as part of my influence because there are things I’ve been hearing since I was a kid, and I thought that “There’s a Man Going Round” paired well with the “Liber Scriptus” part of the Mass, and I chose “Kum Bay Yah” because it’s a little more upbeat. And I didn’t want to use the words of the “Sanctus,” so I substituted it in.

AW: I did get the sense, from the way that you were incorporating the texts together, that the old and the new texts interacted with each other in interesting ways. For me it brought forth the meaning of the Requiem.

DG: I used the English because I thought of how many times I heard my mom and grandma say, “Lord have mercy.” The connection is there as well, and I do think that “Lord have Mercy” has a much stronger effect than saying “Kyrie Elison.”

AW: What common thread do you hear among composers through time, other than being black? It does seem like there are common musical inspirations drawn from things like spirituals or the blues or jazz, common references from William Grant Still, to you, or even Anthony Braxton. 

DG: Part of it is being a black American and having a closer relationship with those styles, but as Dvořák said, this is the folk music of this country. And to use his term, “Negroid music”—that’s where the music of this country goes. I think there is a through line there, but also when you think of jazz and blues, it was still kinda new when William Grant Still was doing his thing. Now that music has seeped into R&B, rap, rock and roll—we just lost Little Richard, who is nothing but the blues. So I think the more contemporary music that I listen to has its roots in spirituals and blues and jazz. Growing up in a household that listened to a lot of R&B, gospel and jazz and things like that, that stuff just influences everything that I write.

AW: What is the “a-ha” moment for you, a song, an album, or a first experience that first made you think that this music thing was something special, something you wanted to do more than other people did? 

DG: The story that I always tell is that my parents grew up in a musical household, my mom was a singer, my dad had a really beautiful voice, and my grandmother was a musician who lived with us as well. Talking about spirituals, that’s where I got all that from, my momma and grandma. They had two records: Tchaikovsky Five and Six, and a Beethoven Sixth. I was always attracted to that music. I don’t know what it was, but when I was a kid I realized that I was attracted to it.

When I was in preschool we used to have these different breakout times where you could choose music or PE, and I would always choose music until the teachers would tell me to choose something other than music. I don’t know if I had an a-ha moment, because I was always around music; it just seemed like a natural thing for me to do. I’m the one who has taken it the furthest. My mom, who’s no longer living, sang in church, but she could sing anything. I heard stories of my grandma and her sisters having a band when they were younger.

AW: What was their band like, when was this? 

DG: My grandmother played piano and sang, her sister played guitar and sang. Funny story, my grandmother knew Ella Fitzgerald because when she lived in New York my grandfather’s brother owned a trucking company, so he got to know Ella Fitzgerald driving her to the Apollo. My grandmother told me stories of knowing Bette Davis. It was a fun life, sounds like.

AW: A lot of people in the area know you as a performer and it’s always fascinating when performers also compose and vice versa. And it’s always interesting to see someone emerge as a composer, at least in a public way, though I assume you’ve always been composing. And how did this become something you do with the Oregon Symphony?

DG: As you say I’ve always been composing, I’ve actually taken composition lessons though I don’t have a degree. I have a degree in conducting, which is where I come to composing, through knowing how orchestras work. The reason why I feel like this is more public is because I felt like this is something I needed to do as an artist. I love to sing, and it’s lovely to sing Puccini, but I was feeling incomplete. This was in 2017 after Trump was elected, and I felt like I needed to do something more as an artist. And it felt like it wasn’t going to happen––at least for now–– through singing, so I needed to take a stand and pull out my compositional voice. I felt like this composition would contribute not only to classical music but also would talk about racial violence.

I love Nina Simone, and she said it is the artist’s duty to reflect the times they are living in. So that was the impetus for me to come out as a composer. I’m not doing this to become famous, I’m doing this because there needs to be a piece in the classical musical realm, where everything is too white and stodgy, that will allow people to hear for once a new piece, but also a subject matter that we all need to come to grips with.

Want to support black lives in Oregon? You can sign Resonance’s open letter to the mayor and governor right here, and you can start learning more about racial injustice and police reform with Campaign Zero‘s #8cantwait campaign and the original Black Lives Matter.

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