IT WAS NEW YEAR’S EVE, and Resonance Ensemble Artistic Director Katherine FitzGibbon’s cellphone beeped. Her friend and colleague Damien Geter was texting, not to wish her a happy 2017 — that possibility had pretty much ended with the results of the previous month’s presidential election — but to tell her about an idea.
Another Black American, Philando Castile, had been killed by white police. America’s first Black President had been replaced by his antithesis: an incendiary apologist for racism who overtly courted white supremacist support and advice.
Geter, an accomplished singer with Resonance and various opera companies, had heard about and experienced racism all his life. And as 2016 turned into 2017, the continuing cascade of racist killings and the country’s apparent turn away from equality had finally brought him to the boiling point. He knew now that he had to address racist violence. He wanted to do it in his chosen art form, music, and singing Madame Butterfly wouldn’t do it. He wanted, he told FitzGibbon, to create a musical response to America’s long epidemic of racist violence. He wanted to write an African American Requiem.
“I felt like I needed to do something more as an artist,” he told ArtsWatch in 2020. “I love Nina Simone, and she said it is the artist’s duty to reflect the times they are living in. 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’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.”
He texted FitzGibbon, and the journey began.
This Saturday, FitzGibbon’s Resonance Ensemble, the Oregon Symphony (led for this program by the eminent American conductor Bill Eddins) and other choral and renowned solo singers at last bring Geter’s An African American Requiem to life at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
You can read much more about Geter’s Requiem in ArtsWatch’s 2020 three-part series, here, here, and here. Featuring an 80-plus voice choir, four stellar vocal soloists, and a full orchestra, it’s such a massive achievement that it’s hard to believe it’s actually Geter’s first major composition.
“The idea of writing a requiem was sort of a springboard for what I could do as a composer,” he says. “I thought, why hasn’t there been one of these before?”
Since then, his long-incubating career has blossomed. It’s one of those pandemic paradoxes that the work that actually started him on this journey is being performed only after a series of subsequent compositions to be performed in the past year, one of the most prolific short stretches any emerging 21st century composer has enjoyed.
In the meantime, Geter has become one of America’s hottest rising composers, and also involved in classical music’s grudging evolution toward greater diversity, equity and inclusion. In the process, he’s learned a lot about music, about social change — and about himself.
GETER IS NOW WINNING ACCLAIM for writing music, but he started off with piano and organ lessons during his southern Virginia childhood (thanks to growing up in a musical family), majored in trumpet at Old Dominion University, and earned a master’s degree in conducting at Indiana State. “I was always around music,” he told ArtsWatch in 2020 about his childhood. “It just seemed like a natural thing for me to do.”
His rich bass-baritone voice soon attracted attention from college musical friends, and he wound up singing opera in Indianapolis. But he’d been experimenting with composition for quite awhile, mostly short pieces for friends, and taken college composition courses while pursuing his music degrees.
FitzGibbon was the natural recipient for Geter’s text message — and his vision. Not only was he a singer (and soon artistic advisor) for Resonance, they were actually old friends and “musical soulmates,” she says. They’d met while he was teaching high school in Indianapolis, in her home state of Indiana, in 2011 — the same high school where her brother taught.
“When I’d go home to visit, he’d say ‘I have this friend who’s a really good singer and you need to meet him,” she recalls. “So when I was in town, we’d all go out and shoot the breeze.” When a position opened at Portland’s Catlin Gabel school, naturally he called her for advice. “If you’d ever like to sing with Resonance,” she told him, “I’d love to have you.”
She wasn’t the only one. Soon his warmly expressive bass baritone was sounding from opera stages in Seattle, Tacoma, Eugene, and Portland. He was even cast as an actor in a Portland production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, only to have playwright Edward Albee’s estate quash the performance because the script called for a blond, blue-eyed actor.
Geter’s decision to write a requiem arrived at a propitious moment. Resonance Ensemble had just then decided to pivot its programming emphasis to music that addressed today’s pressing social issues. ArtsWatch has extensively chronicled Resonance’s efforts in this direction. FitzGibbon discussed the impetus behind the pivot with ArtsWatch in 2018, and Daryl Browne wrote about its recent manifestations here.
FitzGibbon still knew Geter primarily as a splendid singer and teacher, so she was surprised when he offered, in fall 2016, to arrange a favorite spiritual, There’s a Man Going Around Taking Names, for Resonance to perform as part of a program about experiences of race in classical music. The title had multiple symbolic significance, from white enslavers literally taking away the birth names of their victims and replacing them with their own, to white authority figures asking Black people for their IDs. She happily accepted, and that arrangement later formed one of the seeds of a movement of the Requiem.
Performing a spiritual arrangement was fine, but a full requiem from an unknown composer represented a big stretch. “Up till then, Resonance hadn’t done anything on a symphonic scale,” FitzGibbon says, “but I believed so much in Damien and what the piece is doing and the stories it’s telling and the real likelihood that it can move the needle in tangible and profound ways how we think about racial justice, Black suffering and Black joy. I feel this piece is needed in the world. I think Damien is a visionary, brilliant and beautiful composer.”
Flood of Feelings
Most composers start small — a sonata or quartet, maybe, and maybe, decades later, accumulate the resources, musical and otherwise, to craft a big choral-orchestral piece. Geter started there. And yet once his anger was stoked by what was happening in the world around him, it was as though the past few decades of stored-up musical creativity finally reached a combustion point, giving him plenty of the accumulated fuel to sustain the massive effort required to compose for such expansive forces. Given the constant assault on Black bodies that had been happening in America for decades, it felt like he’d been writing it all his life. Sketches for some of the 20 movements emerged in a day; others took weeks, but he never flagged.
“The music just came flowing out of him,” FitzGibbon remembered. He began sending her PDFs of various sections in progress, asking for feedback. What had started out as maybe a 20-minute chamber orchestra and choral work soon demanded more expansive space and forces. “He was hearing it as this big orchestration in the line of Verdi, Britten’s War Requiem, and other works in the classical tradition — and also bringing in his own musical styles, including influences from Renaissance composers to Verdi to Shostakovich to John Adams.
“Damien is writing in this huge symphonic requiem tradition,” says FitzGibbon, who’s done plenty of academic research in that area. “It’s such an important text in choral music history and there are many examples of requiems on this massive scale. There are ways in Damien’s music where he hints at some of these requiem histories — chromatic Bach moments, thinking about Monteverdi, definitely echoes of the great Verdi and Britten requiems. He uses that requiem structure as scaffolding, but even with all that, it’s still Damien’s musical voice. He’s a singer, so the vocal music just sings itself. His compositional style is like nobody else’s I know. There are these chords that appear and I say, ‘that’s a Damien chord.’ He’s thoughtfully interweaving spirituals, influences from the Gullah people. And then the words — the last words of Eric Garner (“I can’t breathe”), African American people’s stories — Damien chose which words happen when, and how they map on to the requiem framework.”
Geter told Artswatch in 2020 that he also draws on popular music like Anita Baker and Commodores and other faves from his childhood, plus Black gospel, spirituals, and other church music. You can find a thorough account of the inspirations for, influences on, and creative process involved in African American Requiem in the first installment of Charles Rose’s fascinating 2020 ArtsWatch series, Black music is the centerpiece of American culture.
”I don’t think of myself as one who goes out in the streets and protests,” Geter explains, “but I thought this was a way to use my voice in a different way.”
Preparing the Ground
WHILE GETER COMPOSED his Requiem, FitzGibbon and her colleagues turned to the realities of getting it staged. First, they needed to raise funds to pay the artists and produce such a massive project. Resonance grant-writing efforts paid off in support from Oregon Community Foundation ($100,000) and the Miller and Collins Foundations ($20,000 each), plus many other donations from the community. They also began auditioning for the big choir needed to realize Geter’s expansive vision, augmenting the core Resonance singers by drawing on regional choirs, including Kingdom Sound gospel choir.
And they’d need an orchestra. FitzGibbon approached the best one around, which Geter had criticized for its lack of programming inclusiveness right here in ArtsWatch. In spite or because of that, the Oregon Symphony signed on to be the band and provide the performance venue — its downtown home, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
In keeping with its mission, Resonance invited real participation from many communities, forming an advisory council composed of representatives from diverse groups.
”It was important in our planning process to incorporate the people whose stories we’re sharing,” FitzGibbon says. “We wanted to make sure we’re really intentional and aware of nuances in the ways different members of different communities want their stories told or not told. We’ve developed relationships over the years with different community partners. So rather than just saying ‘thanks for coming,’ we’ve been engaging and working with those partners to help determine what sort of calls for action you want the audience to leave with. We set up an advisory council with leaders in Portland’s Black community, so they could tell us how to amplify the impact of this work for the Black community and those who want to be allies.”
The committee contributed to extensive surrounding programming. “They’ve been sharing the need to provide preparations for the performance and healing experiences afterwards, especially those community members who’ve experienced ancestral, generational trauma, or even in their own lifetimes,” FitzGibbon says. “There’ll be post concert discussions, information in the programs about resources people can access. We don’t just want you to come and feel all the feelings. You can be galvanized into action.”
Another crucial partner, Portland’s All Classical Radio, also pitched in, with its savvy director Suzanne Nance using her connections to arrange a national simulcast of the premiere with one of the nation’s leading classical and new music stations, New York’s WQXR. (Read about the station’s recent diversity initiatives here.)
Resonance applied some of those resources to a remarkable series of educational materials for students in Portland Public Schools and others, especially those new to classical music. Several hundred students from Black student unions around the Portland metro area will be able to attend for free, thanks to generous anonymous donations. Like every recent Resonance show, the premiere will be more than a performance — it’s a community connector too.
Guided by its poet in residence, Portland writer and “creative revolutionary” S. Renee Mitchell (who’s also written a poem to be read as part of the performance), “we devoted a lot of thought and intention and care from the beginning to how to tell the story of this work, how to prepare people (especially students) for what they’re going to experience, and how to process it afterwards,” FitzGibbon explains. The premiere performance will feature lobby tables staffed by partnering organizations that will provide audience members information on available resources, and give them a place to sit and talk and draw pictures. The week after the event, Mitchell will host a healing event for community members who attended. The week of the performance includes a roundtable discussion among some participants that will be filmed and released after the concert to give further opportunities for reflection on the Requiem’s messages and impact.
“We didn’t want to just check the box and stop there,” FitzGibbon declares. “We want this work to have long-term echoes in our community.”
Composition and preparation proceeded apace, the Requiem was complete by the end of 2019, the premiere was set for March 2020, and Resonance had just begun rehearsals when the pandemic arrived, and everything shut down. As racial violence escalated with the police murder of George Floyd and the killings of Brionna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and so many, many more, the ideal new classical music work to respond to them would have to wait for its debut.
While his Requiem remained in limbo, Geter’s career soared. In the past five years he’s received more than a dozen commissions, furiously composing symphonies, operas, string quartets, song cycles, choral works and more.
He also took on administrative work, trying to nudge classical music’s notoriously pale, male and stale repertoire toward diverse and inclusive programming in a variety of venues. Along with his artistic advisor and director roles with Resonance, he was named interim music director at Portland Opera.
“One of my goals is to make sure [the Opera is] looking at things through a lens of equity,” he says. “Not just onstage, but also offstage, in the boardroom — any decision. My goal is to make sure we tell stories important to our community, make sure we consider the whole picture when making these decisions.”
As he’s extended himself into the broader national classical music scene, he’s had to broaden his expertise beyond music. “Normally I’d show up with my music and sing a song. Now people are always asking me about recommendations. How would I handle this situation? I’ve gotten a lot of people work, and that’s important. I’ve learned a lot about administration.” But he says he’s not applying for the permanent job, having learned that he prefers to devote his increasingly limited time to composing and singing rather than administrative work.
Besides, just running a busy career as an independent artist — both singer and composer — is tough enough. “I have to be more picky in terms of what I choose with singing stuff,” he explains. As many freelancers know, “there was a time in my life when I felt like I had to do everything, but I don’t feel like that anymore.”
He already had some assets. He’s no procrastinator – he considers himself adept at time management, prioritizing, scheduling and so on, which he had to be to simultaneously manage a full-time teaching job and opera gigs and composition deadlines — but now he faced new challenges.
“The biggest thing I had to learn was a retooling of this skill set, and learning to work with people,” he says. “I’ve learned so much working with different types of people at every level — administrative, artistic, everything. Collaboration is very important. Being a teacher, I knew you have to collaborate with colleagues and students. But when running your own business or you’re at the executive level of a company, it’s different. You’re the person who’s in charge. You’re not working for someone else. Your point of view changes. Decisions you make can have an impact on a lot of people. I had to learn how to negotiate that.”
Geter’s new national perspective has also taught him lessons about why the classical music establishment has been so recalcitrant in evolving to reflect the diversity of 21st century American culture.
“I’ve learned so much in the last year and a half about this business,” he says. “Change is slow in this industry. I’ve always known that, but to be a part of that change, I can’t just do that immediately. Some groups want fast hard change now, but honestly I get why companies don’t get that. The people on boards, and people still running these companies, have a lot of catching up to do. There are so many people doing this work and there’s good intent, but I still feel like people don’t get it. I’m not talking about Portland Opera here, but looking around the country, I see a lot of surface level commitment. But when it comes down to the nitty gritty, no matter how in tune people think they are with diversity and inclusion, it seems like there’s always something done that goes against that. I can think of several examples over last year and half where companies have touted their desire to have more equitable practices, but then [make decisions] that go against what they said about DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] work. It makes me think that nobody has this down — nobody really understands this.”
Geter didn’t have to take on the establishment alone. After participating in a 2020 live talk show with other rising young composers of color, they decided to stay in touch. Winkingly dubbing themselves the Blacknificent Seven, the group (which includes well-known figures such as Jessie Montgomery, Jasmine Barnes, Shawn Okpebholo, and Carlos Simon) now has “a little text chat that we use to talk to each other regularly,” Geter says. “There’s no competition. We always support each other, post each other’s things, run ideas by each other. It feels like a safe space. A couple have become close friends of mine.”
Institutional classical music is a small world that revolves around relationships — who you know. As Geter’s networks have expanded, he’s getting more and more emails and letters of interest in his work, thanks to recommendations by others. It’s one reason he now has four operas to write in coming years. A performance with the Chicago Symphony’s MusicNOW series, for example, led to an acquaintanceship with the great American violinist Hilary Hahn, and his circle of friends has expanded to include singers who regularly perform at the Met. He’s noticed similar growth in opportunities for other Black composers, too.
Awash in Opportunities
A MAJOR TURNING POINT in many professional artists’ lives comes when they leave their day jobs. By 2019, Geter was in such demand as both opera singer and composer that he could no longer maintain his position at Catlin Gabel. Sometimes he’d have to drive back from Seattle or Tacoma after a performance to make it to the next morning’s class. Now, with commissions streaming in, and an appearance at the mighty Met, the moment had arrived. “I’d sold a house, so I had a little cushion,” he remembers, “but it was still a leap.”
Even though his Requiem had yet to be actually performed, all the planning and publicity that went out leading up to the postponed 2020 performance had spread the word about this accessible new compositional voice from the Northwest. An emerging composer’s lifetime of stored-up musical creativity aligned with a classical music establishment finally eager to redress decades of unfair exclusion of African American voices. Soon, offers to write more music began to trickle, and then stream, in.
Local organizations that knew Geter from his stellar regional performances led the way. While waiting for the air to clear of virus-laden respiratory droplets so they could perform his Requiem, Resonance Ensemble commissioned Geter to write a new work for its outdoor streaming Under the Overpass series, a setting of a poem by venerated longtime Oregon Symphony music director James DePreist, After Time Has Gnawed Away the Shield of Dreams, for 16 voices, piano, and flute.
All Classical Portland commissioned him to write a delightful string quartet, Neo-Soul. He ventured into historically performed performance with the tasty morsel Buh-roke for Portland Baroque Orchestra, “a modern nod to the Baroque era” that, Geter wrote, “borrows techniques from that time, but with a funky twist.”
More Geter premieres graced stages farther afield as performances opened up again: Chicago Symphony’s The Bronze Legacy (a setting of a work by Harlem Renaissance poet Effie Lee Newsome); an opera for Washington National Opera; the wind quintet I Said What I Said, premiered in Portland last week by Imani Winds; Cantata for a More Hopeful Tomorrow (premiered by the Washington Chorus, led by former Portlander Stephen Marc Beaudoin and expedited by a contact from FitzGibbon, an old friend of its artistic director); the powerfully dramatic Justice Symphony, a major choral orchestral work that incorporates spirituals such as “Eyes on the Prize,” Bach cantatas, and songs from the civil rights movement, which streamed and premiered last month at the University of Michigan, with Geter, resplendent in turquoise blazer, taking his bows onstage before zooming back to Chicago, where he was singing in another production.
More’s in store. This summer, Geter’s first opera, American Apollo, opens at Des Moines Opera, and his second, Holy Ground, at New York’s prestigious Glimmerglass Festival. African American Requiem reprises at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center May 23, and FitzGibbon will conduct Geter singing his own cantata and a classic by Ralph Vaughan Williams at the Berkshire Choral Festival a month later.
Yes, he’s still singing opera and other classical vocal parts (requiems, masses, oratorios, symphonies) too, and more opportunities have arisen since his performance as the Undertaker in Porgy and Bess at the Met, a pinnacle of any American opera singer’s career, including roles in Reno, Portland, Chicago, Oakland, and his old homegrounds of Richmond, Virginia. He’s working on a commission from Virginia Opera too.
All this seems astonishing — check that, is astonishing – for a composer who started writing music seriously only five years ago. But Geter, now 42, had a lifetime of musical and life experience stored up. “Getting older helps,” he says. “I don’t think I could have written this music as a 20-year-old. When I started, writing music came to me pretty easily.”
The works I’ve heard all display a sense of drama, clear vocal-like melody lines, a welcome use of popular and folk music riches grounded on a solid classical foundation, and a sense of audience outreach. His background as an actor (in TV and stage musicals as well as opera) and opera singer clearly informs his compositional muse.
“I’m sure it’s from being a singer,” he acknowledges. “I have the advantage of not having formally studied composition. I’ve had some lessons but I don’t have the pressure of over-analyzing — my brain doesn’t get in the way. I can just write.”
What’s his dream project? “I don’t know if I could ask for anything more,” he laughs. “I’m doing all the things! It’s very dope. I would feel greedy if I asked for anything else, although if the Met said they wanted me to write something, I wouldn’t turn it down! What I would really love is if Portland Opera did Don Carlo,” referring to Verdi’s formidably massive mega-work.
Geter still wants to do the thing he trained to do — conduct — and that might happen in one of the works he’s writing for his two “home” opera companies, in Portland and Richmond. And he’d like to see a festival of chamber operas, the 20-30 minute works so many composers have been writing in recent years that get a premiere and then are never seen or heard again. He may be a composing star in the making, but he’s still a stone opera fanatic.
So it’s a bit surprising that, unlike so many composers who spend their careers desperate to get an opera written and staged (even when their gifts aren’t necessarily well suited to the form, like Beethoven), Geter — who’s written two already and is an opera singer — doesn’t count opera as his first compositional love.
“I like to write opera,” he says. “But I love to write symphonies. Orchestra music — that’s my jam.“
Most opera music, after all, is limited by the needs of the singers and the story. “Operas are great because they have everything — orchestral, vocal, choral,” he explains. “But writing for orchestra alone feels very freeing, in a way that writing vocal music doesn’t. My favorite part of writing an opera is the orchestration. There are more colors I can play with, combinations of instruments you can put together that create color and to think about those different sounds and things you can do with them, both as individual sections and together. The palette is much broader. To me, that’s so fun. I get to do all those things.”
Maybe Geter’s ardor for orchestration isn’t so surprising, since he was after all trained in conducting. “I don’t see writing for voices as that much different from writing for orchestral instruments,” he told Portland Opera. “In my music, I always look for the beauty of a phrase or line. That translates well to both voices and orchestral instruments.”
It’s irresistible, if ultimately fruitless, to speculate how the response to the Requiem might have differed if it had premiered, say, in early 2020, before the shutdowns, it might have provided musical context for the police and white supremacist murders of Floyd, Brionna Taylor, and so many others that subsequently happened or came to wide attention that spring. Immediately after Floyd’s lynching, it might have found an audience more receptive than ever to the notion that too many white people still kill too many Black people — that it wasn’t ‘merely’ historical.
But you can make a case that it would have been equally timely had he miraculously finished it soon after Trump’s election, or on January 7, 2021, as white supremacists stormed the US Capitol, brandishing Confederate flags. Or even this weekend, when we’ve not only seen the continuing legacy of racist killings in America extending to just last month, but also the politically opportunistic backlash against racial accountability and historical truth fomented by the Republican Party and its white nationalist base. That kind of hard but essential history inspired and permeates Geter’s Requiem, which resists the attempted erasures aimed at the 1619 Project and other chronicles of America’s persistent racism.
The tragic truth is, An African American Requiem will always be timely. Orchestras will have plenty of opportunities to perform it after the next atrocity, and the next and the next, down the decades to come. Geter’s creation is ever urgent, ever necessary. Yet it’s one he, and many of us, wish he’d never had to write.
Yet he did need to write it. It’s ironic that all these other compositional opportunities arose because of the five-year-old composition that finally makes its belated debut this weekend, the piece that sparked him to take composition seriously.
“It helped me find my voice,” he says. “It allowed me to experiment and practice writing with various styles — kind of like an étude,” but of course on a much more massive scale than usual for that form. “I also learned how to communicate drama through music. I hadn’t written an opera but I had been in a lot of operas. When I look back on it, what I was doing through instinct was creating the drama through music. I was writing very operatically.”
And successfully. “I may have stumbled onto a masterpiece,” wrote the esteemed American conductor William Eddins, who’ll lead Saturday’s performance. “I tend not to use that term loosely. But here was a high Latin mass in all its glory, written with a vivid understanding of that tradition, with a searing critique of the racial history of this country woven throughout from the perspective of the African diaspora. The scope of this work is breathtaking, stunningly ambitious, and brilliantly executed. Damien has managed to create a work which exceeds his original scope – this is no longer an African American Requiem. This is a Requiem, one for all people who have faced the scourge of ‘racial’ discrimination. Although its focus is the history of the African diaspora in this country, its message goes far beyond that. Critically, this Requiem, as all requiems are, is a plea for forgiveness and hope that at some point, even if that’s only at the day of judgment, those who have sinned against their fellow humans will realize their errors, repent, and find peace through forgiveness.”
Geter is proud of his masterpiece (to use the term in its original sense as the work that puts an apprentice on the map as a professional), but of course, he recognizes it as a point of departure. “The Requiem is a good piece that shows off everything I can do,” he says, “but I think I’ve grown since then, and if had to write it tomorrow it‘d be a completely different piece.” He may have gotten a late start, and he may be six and a half feet tall, but Damien Geter the composer is still growing fast.
Damien Geter’s An African American Requiem premieres at 6 pm Saturday, May 7, at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Tickets. Hear excerpts on All Classical’s Thursdays at Three, and stream the premiere performance at the station’s website till May 21. Check out Resonance’s Resources page for more information.