all classical portland

Vanport Mosaic’s flood of memories

ArtsWatch Weekly: A festival to remember, theater heats up, All Classical's leap forward, whither Europe, Chachalu steps up, more

MONDAY IS MEMORIAL DAY, a national remembering of soldiers who have died while on duty, and this is a week for other meaningful anniversaries, too. Tuesday marked a full year since George Floyd was murdered at the knee of a Minneapolis policeman, setting off national protests, accelerating a nationwide battle over race and cultural and political life, and reverberating through the presidential election and the failed Capitol takeover of January 6.

And Sunday will be the 73rd anniversary of the Vanport Flood, which on May 30, 1948, burst through a a 200-foot section of railroad berm just north of Portland on land where Delta Park and its surrounds now sit. Floodwaters from the Columbia River poured in, inundating the wartime city of Vanport, sweeping away its infrastructure, killing at least 15 people, and leaving 18,500 homeless. It was a sudden cultural reshaping with historic consequences. Built in 1942 to house workers at the Portland and Vancouver Kaiser shipyards and their families, Vanport had a population of 40,000 at its height, making it the second-largest city in Oregon at the time. It was also, for its few years, the most racially and ethnically diverse city in Oregon: Wartime workers came from all over, creating an instant city that looked and acted very differently from the Oregon of its time, and more like the multicultural nation that the United States is becoming in the 21st century.

A few of the faces of Vanport, Oregon’s most racially diverse city before floodwaters washed it away in 1948. Photo: City of Portland Archives

SIX YEARS AGO THE VANPORT MOSAIC FESTIVAL sprang into being, building on the memories of Vanport to expand upon its meanings in contemporary life. Created by Laura Lo Forti and Damaris Webb, it began as a Memorial Day Weekend event at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, with a historical display, play productions, and other events. It’s grown since into a citywide event lasting several weeks in various venues, including online. This year’s festival, which involves about 200 artists, activists, historians, collaborating groups, and others, began Wednesday and continues with both virtual and in-person events through June 30. 

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Radio Rejuvenation

Portland's All Classical Radio's new initiatives bring more diverse music to more diverse audiences

Classical music radio: dated music for old people, written by dead white European males, out of step with a demographic growing younger and more diverse.

All Classical Portland, the city’s 24-hour classical music radio station, is blowing up that stereotype of contemporary cultural irrelevance. Last month marked the second anniversary of ICAN (International Children’s Arts Network), the station’s new, separate radio station aimed at the very youngest listeners: kids and teens.

Host Christa Wessel with children from BRAVO Youth Orchestra

ICAN is only one aspect of an ongoing reinvention. The station has been offering more sounds from today’s Oregon (for which it recently received an NEA grant) as well as music from film and other contemporary sounds, including shorter, pop-influenced works. And now it’s taking an even stronger leadership role in rejuvenating classical radio. This week, the station announced the first recipients of its new Recording Inclusivity Initiative: commissioning and recording new and older neglected music by composers of color. And it’s planning to take that diversification effort nationwide. 


THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series


These initiatives show All Classical Portland, established in 1983, serving a higher purpose than entertainment: it’s providing a new and unexpected avenue for arts education for old and new listeners alike. They’re invigorating an institution previously synonymous with “old” with its opposites: “young” and “new.”

ICAN is only the latest All Classical program to focus on young listeners. Begun several years ago, the station’s weekly On Deck with Young Musicians show, created, hosted, and produced by announcer and Communications & Technical Liaison Christa Wessel, profiles young musicians and explores musical opportunities for young people in the Pacific Northwest. It also features new contributing hosts and producers Raúl Gómez-Rojas, Metropolitan Youth Symphony music director, and Amy Faust, an established broadcaster whose career includes nearly two decades of co-hosting the “Mike and Amy” show.

ICAN and RII, the inclusivity initiative, are part of All Classical’s JOY (Joyous Outreach to You/th) program dedicated to promoting equity and inclusivity in the arts, started in 2017 after Suzanne Nance took over as president and CEO. It also includes:

• an Artists in Residence program that provides selected young and professional musicians with access to All Classical Portland’s tech facilities

Where We Live, which spotlights community arts organizations  that explore the intersection of art and social issues

• The Rising Tide Grant, awarded annually to small arts organizations that enrich the artistic landscape and strengthen the community.

 • Youth Roving Reporters arts journalism mentorship program, in which the station’s on-air hosts provide selected teens guidance and insight on what it is to be a broadcaster and arts leader in their community.

Youth Roving Reporter Belise Nishimwe

Some other public radio stations (many affiliated with universities or other large institutions) boast similar programs, but I can’t think of another dedicated primarily to classical music that reaches so far beyond its narrow core mission and audience in so many creative and forward-looking ways.

“I think All Classical Portland has seized the opportunity to influence the future,” Nance told ArtsWatch. “We want to make sure children feel like they have a home in classical music, a place in the concert hall. All our initiatives are aimed at amplifying young voices and encouraging them to tell stories of their communities.”

Audio Playground

In 2018, Nance was looking to further expand the station’s connection to young audiences and realized that “our HD2 channel was just sitting there, silent.” She recognized a need — and an opportunity. They’d discovered through surveys and anecdotal evidence that the station already enjoyed more younger listeners than most classical outlets. “And with arts education resources slimmer than ever,” she recalls, “we wanted to make sure children had access to a safe space, an audio playground where they could listen to and learn about music, poetry, and literature, [and] develop social and emotional literacy and cross cultural awareness.” 

To head the initiative, Nance tapped Sarah Zwinklis, a colleague she’d met in her previous job in Chicago who now serves as ICAN manager, host, and producer. Both were determined to overcome the challenge that seems inherent in connecting young people to old music, especially music that even many adults often say they fear they don’t know enough to listen to. 

“One of the points of building this network was breaking down those barriers,” Zwinklis says, “to open those doors and make kids feel welcome to enjoy classical music, poetry, arts, storytelling. To make them feel it’s a place for them.”

ICAN Program Manager, Host, and Producer Sarah Zwinklis

In devising ICAN’s programming, Zwinklis began by asking: “What does a day feel like?” to a kid. From sleeping to just waking up to eating breakfast and so on, she arranged programs and music into little blocks, including several lullaby-heavy shows for nap and sleep time, plus Dance Break! and Up Beat and Move Your Feet!, which give kids music for moving around and releasing all that kid energy. Nance remembers Zwinklis drawing big charts and posting them and sticky notes all over one of the studio’s walls. The result: a lot more than just a lot of classic tunes. 

Zwinklis approaches programming as much from a kid’s perspective as an educator’s or radio executive’s. “We’re meeting kids where they are,” she explains. Zwinklis and Nance drew extensively on advice from friends with children in the target age group, and from kids and parents who came into record at the station or otherwise got in touch. “We asked for feedback a lot,” Nance says. “‘What did your 10-year-old say? Did they sit and listen?’ We tweaked the programming in real time based on what we were hearing.” 

Nance especially valued input from her sister’s two boys, both under 12. “I would send Sarah a text message: ‘My sister’s listening now and she says this music isn’t working for helping the children get to sleep,’” she remembers. 

Of course, they had access to ideas for musical selections and other programming from the station’s team of veteran announcers. They also invited listeners to recommend pieces — and received plenty of emailed suggestions, from music teachers and other educators, parents and grandparents — and, of course, kids. For a show focused on tales of adventure, they talked to kids, asking them to imagine what an adventure would be like. One 10 year old, Duncan, wanted “an adventure in sound,” Zwinklis remembers. “He’s frightened of spiders. ‘You know what’s scarier than spiders?’ he said. ‘Spiders clumped up in a big snowball, rolling downhill!’” 

ICAN Open House

Such programs show that ICAN is about more than providing a passive soundtrack to days and nights. It also stretches their boundaries by providing ample doses of kid-friendly dance and other music from beyond traditional classical music’s narrow-minded Eurocentric traditions. And it gently teaches kids about the arts — not just music — and inspires their own creativity. Here are some of the station’s offerings so far.

  • Screenshot explores and explains the educational value of digital media, TV, movies and video games through the music written for them. In the 15-minute weekday afternoon program and podcast, kids hear music that they’re already encountering in movies and video games, which Zwinklis (like many of us) consider to be classical music too. ICAN also offers classical arrangements of familiar pop tunes by Lady Gaga and others. The implicit message, she says: “Even though you think classical is stuffy and not cool, you actually hear it all the time in your life.”
  • Audio Book Tour invites young listeners to discover children’s books that help them connect to the world around them.
  • Monthly blog features prompt young listeners to engage online with the monthly theme. April’s National Poetry Month article, for instance, encouraged listeners to submit their original poems, so as to bring more children’s voices to the network.
  • What if World and Adventure Stories stimulate young imaginations with stories, while Colorful Compositions includes music intended to inspire them to create their own art.

I initially worried about the programming coming across as the music-ed equivalent of “eat your peas,” but everything I’ve heard so far has been presented in a concise, non-condescending, and often fun way. In fact, Nance says, more than a few adult listeners have confessed to her that ICAN is now their preferred classical station. That means that ICAN is also helping build an audience for the future. As Looney Tunes was for my generation and several before it, ICAN could become a gateway drug for classical music. 

Diversity and Equity

Like those old cartoons, ICAN is widely accessible. “The station is available to everyone,” says Nance. “It’s free, it’s in the air. You just have to know it’s out there.” Although, like most public radio stations, All Classical depends on donations and grants to pay for programs like this one, any kid or parent can tune in via radio (if in range of one of its seven Oregon transmitters) or internet stream, which reaches a global audience. That means its educational aspects are available to nonprivileged kids who don’t attend affluent private or public schools that can afford strong arts ed programs. And in arts-neglecting 21st century Oregon, that’s a lot of them. 

Moreover, the station has strived to include music, musicians and kids who are “representative of different backgrounds and communities,” says Nance, and to present material “addressing immigration, bullying, race. Sarah has made it a point to have diverse voices telling those stories. As we look to serving and broadening our audience, it’s crucial having that representation on the air.”

All Classical Portland President & CEO Suzanne Nance

ICAN’s educational programming has been especially valuable during the pandemic, which further undermined Oregon’s already underfunded arts education efforts and left kids stuck at home, where they could at least listen to the radio. That impelled Nance to double the program from the initial 12 hours a day to 24. “During the pandemic, we saw a need greater for at-home learning,” she explains. Zwinklis says ICAN benefits even pre-schoolers. “Studies show that brain development during a child’s first five years is faster than at any other time in life,” she explains. “Our 24-hour, commercial-free programming delivers educational content to supplement and support our young listeners’ development, especially when in-person learning experiences remain limited.”

Beyond ICAN’s educational benefits for kids, Nance and Zwinklis believe it will boost future classical music listenership. The environment in which you first learn about it in is important, Zwinklis says: “When you think of learning about classical music in an environment of fun and creativity, it becomes a fun thing,” not just another school requirement. 

The word — and the music — are getting out. Since its first year, the station reports, ICAN’s web traffic has increased 83 percent. Unique web streams on icanradio.org alone have registered more than 1,700 listeners from more than 80 countries every month. And there’s more to come. As part of  the station’s effort to promote the role of the arts in a comprehensive STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, ARTS, Math) curriculum, the team is creating a new program called sARTience that explores “the science of art and art of science,” Zwinklis says. When the show debuts next April, “kids and hosts will talk about how art is process — subjects like how paint is made, how science and art are paired together.”

In future, Nance says, the station might partner with schools and other institutions. “By and large, [ICAN] was created for parents and caregivers,” she says. “As we look to the future of ICAN, we will consider strategic collaborations with schools to take content we created and build out the curriculum so educators can take advantage of it.”

Broadening the Spectrum

All Classical’s interest in broadening its audience and reaching a wider community, so evident in the diversity found throughout ICAN, sparked its latest major project. The Recording Inclusivity Initiative (RII) aims to expand the recorded classical music canon by inviting selected contemporary composers to spend a week-long residency with All Classical Portland and partner N M Bodecker Foundation. During in-studio creative sessions, their compositions will be recorded by a quintet of regional musicians, and the new recordings will be aired on All Classical in the fall, added to the station’s regular playlists (meaning they’ll reach a quarter-million weekly listeners across the Pacific Northwest and millions around the globe), and distributed worldwide by the world’s biggest classical music label, Naxos Records.

Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson

The first-of-its-kind initiative addresses a complaint raised for years on ArtsWatch and around the country: the overwhelming dominance of music on classical airwaves and in concert halls by white and male composers. According to a 2016 study by the League of American Orchestras, African Americans account for less than 3 percent of orchestral musicians and Hispanics for less than 4 percent, while just one in 10 classical musical directors are women. 

Jasmine Barnes

It’s not that there aren’t plenty of women and composers of color writing significant music. A big reason that canon remains so stale and pale is the lack of published scores and readily available recordings for performers and radio stations to deploy. While you can hear literally hundreds of recordings of the same piece by European masters, it can be tough to find even a single widely distributed recording of new music by many contemporary composers of any race, a scarcity compounded for Black composers by systemic racism that has excluded so many from the access channels. 

“If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that classical music as a genre hasn’t always welcomed diverse perspectives or communities, and we see it in the lack of broadcast-ready recordings,” says Nance. 

Lauren McCall

Many have decried this injustice, which deprives not just composers but all music lovers of the opportunity to hear rewarding music. But All Classical Portland is actually doing something about it. This week, the station announced the five inaugural awardees, chosen from nearly 100 nominations.

  • Dallas-based Jasmine Barnes’s Taking Names ”honors women who fought for emancipation, civil rights and the #SayHerName movement.” (Barnes’s Songs for the African Violet was a highlight of Portland Opera’s recent Journeys to Justice program.)
  • Atlanta composer Lauren McCall’s A Spark and a Glimmer was “inspired by visual artist Alison Saar’s sculpture installation Feallan and Fallow, which is based on the Greek myth of Persephone and represents fertility in summer.”
  • Maryland-based Cuban composer Keyla Orozco’s Souvenirs “reflects the music and rhythms of many cities, from Paris and Santiago de Cuba to her ‘inner city.’”
Keyla Orozco. Photo: Gabriel Guerra Bianchini

The three Composers in Residence each receive a $2,500 award and access to the N M Bodecker Foundation’s state-of-the-art recording facilities and its artistic director, Chris Funk, who ArtsWatch readers will recognize from his work with The Decemberists. Along with the recording sessions, expected to wrap up by the end of September, this summer’s residencies include youth outreach opportunities in which the composers will talk to Oregon students about what composers do, panel discussions, and interviews. Oregon Cultural Trust and the Regional Arts & Culture Council (RACC) joined the Bodecker Foundation in investing in the project.

While providing opportunities to today’s composers is probably the most exciting part of RII, I’m happy to see the initiative also including music by past composers of color. Ghettoizing new music not only limits exposure of new composers to listeners who might enjoy them if given the chance, it also deprives fans of older and newer music alike from seeing the connections between them. Fans of Romantic and 20th century sounds can enjoy great music written by composers from those eras whose music never made it onto playlists — or sometimes even publishers’ dockets — thanks to the classical establishment’s systemic racism and sexism. RII this year lifts up piano works by French pianist Mélanie Bonis (1858–1937) and a flute sonata by African American New York composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004).

Mélanie Bonis

 “These recipients offer passionate perspectives that will help broaden classical music and the future of musical education,” said Portland flutist Adam Eccleston, All Classical Portland’s 2020-2021 Artist in Residence, who chaired Recording Inclusivity Initiative’s eight-member selection panel. “Together, we can change America’s playlist as their music is recorded, released and played on All Classical Portland and other radio stations throughout the country.” 

Enriching America’s Airwaves

Nance hopes All Classical’s efforts will extend way beyond the Northwest. RII will issue a national challenge to peer radio stations, encouraging them to adopt future regional inclusivity initiatives. As part of that 2022 campaign, All Classical Portland will provide stations with a free how-to playbook complete with a step-by-step guide designed to help them connect with marginalized communities and replicate RII in their respective regions. Stations in Spokane and Kansas City have already expressed interest.

“As an independent public radio station with a global reach and a mission to reflect and serve all communities, we’re uniquely positioned to address this deficit,” Nance says about the paucity of recordings of music by women and composers of color. “The Recording Inclusivity Initiative will elevate and amplify underrepresented composers and their music through the new recordings we produce and distribute together. We hope that the work we do through RII has a ripple effect that inspires others to act.” 

For example, she says most stations don’t track the composer racial composition of their playlists. She hopes that RII will encourage them to start collecting that data, as well as beginning to redress the imbalance between what’s being written by diverse composers and what gets played on radio. 

Regardless of how many other stations take them up on the offer, All Classical’s recent efforts have already shown several ways the field can overcome its long and ignoble legacy of exclusion, and maybe its self-inflicted cultural irrelevance. Granted, for all the welcome changes, the station’s playlists remain dominated by the same old dead white European male rep. But what a welcome surprise to find an Oregon arts institution historically mired in the past beginning to address the issues and listeners of today — and tomorrow.

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All Classical Portland streams worldwide at allclassical.org and broadcasts on KQAC 89.9 in Portland and Vancouver; KQOC 88.1 in Newport and Lincoln City; KQHR 88.1 in Hood River and The Dalles; KQHR 96.3 in the Columbia Gorge; KQMI 88.9 in Manzanita; 95.7 FM in Corvallis; and KSLC 90.3 in McMinnville. Tune into the International Children’s Arts Network at icanradio.org.

Want to support Black lives in Oregon? You can sign Resonance Ensemble’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.

Women on the move: These are the days, again

ArtsWatch Weekly: History moves into the forefront, a new series on Indigenous resilience, it's film fest time, a month of culture

ON SATURDAY THE DOOR BETWEEN THE PAST AND PRESENT CREAKS OPEN JUST A LITTLE BIT: After months of coronavirus shutdown and a couple of bouts of vandalism during protests in the South Park Blocks, the Oregon Historical Society reopens its downtown Portland center to visitors on a limited basis, joining such other Oregon museums and historical sites as Salem’s Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Bend’s High Desert Museum, the Grants Pass Museum of Art, and Portland’s Pittock Mansion, which has also just reopened on a limited basis. The historical society will be open noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays until further notice: Know the rules before you go

Abigail Scott Duniway voting for the first time, May 5, 1913, in Portland. The sister of Harvey Scott, the conservative editor of The Oregonian, she was a leading early suffragist and his political foil. Photo: Oregon Historical Society

MARCH IS WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH, and one of the big exhibits you’ll find at OHS is Nevertheless, They Persisted: Voting Rights and the 19th Amendment, which tells the story of the fight by women to win the right to vote. One of the movement’s prime figures in Oregon was Abigail Scott Duniway, a Portland suffragist and the sister of the stolidly conservative Harvey Scott, longtime editor of The Oregonian, whose statue in Mt. Tabor Park was torn down from its pedestal in October and recently, in a mysterious guerrilla art action, replaced by a handsome bust of York, the Black man who was a slave of William Clark and traveled with Clark and Meriwether Lewis on their expedition to the Pacific Ocean in 1805. Among other things, Scott was a steadfast opponent of women’s suffrage. Sometimes, what goes around comes around.

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Looking for light, packing a punch

Fertile Ground 2021: In the brief but powerful "Livin' in the Light," opera singer Onry seeks a space for a Black man to breathe

One morning last June, the opera singer and multi-hyphenate artist Onry could not get out of bed. Amidst the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, Onry says, “I, like so many other African Americans, had a moment. I was afraid, both for my life and for what the world would think of me and view me.” This impasse, Onry recalls, led him to the realization that “I was living in the truth of others versus living in the light of myself.” 


ONLINE FESTIVAL: FERTILE GROUND 2021


Livin’ in the Light is the title of Onry’s film, which premieres on Saturday, Feb. 6, as part of Fertile Ground’s 2021 online festival of new works. Directed by Hannah Hefner, the short film is a stunning musical journey of self-actualization. It opens on Onry in a cloistered world, which seems to be constructed from dark pink cloths—rays of sunlight are trying to break through. Soon the scene shifts to the outdoors. “A river, a giant field, a forest,” Hefner says, “Each has these particular heavy and beautiful and romantic physical qualities.”

Onry moves through these spaces as if in search of an unknown destination. We see him running his hands through the grass, pausing to admire wildflowers, sprinting through the woods. A chorus sings background to Onry’s solo, (My soul never burned so damn bright / I wanna be livin’ in the light). Eventually, Onry returns to the same closed space from the beginning, but now he’s changed. He looks directly into the camera. He inhales and exhales, his breaths deep and certain. 

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2020 in review: At last, over & out

2020? Perish the thought. The ups, downs, disasters, trends, outrages, and occasional triumphs of Oregon's arts & culture in a tortuous year.

2020? Perish the thought. Good riddance to bad rubbish: We’re gonna wash that year right out of our hair. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. Or, as the old curse has it, “may you live in interesting times” – but not quite this interesting, thank you very much.

The Year That Should Not Speak Its Name led pretty much everyone, including all of us here at Oregon ArtsWatch, on a frantic and astonishing chase. It was discombobulating, because for the most part we were chasing in isolation inside the confines of our own homes, like cats in a cardboard box desperately racing after our own tails. Oh, sure, there were those fair-weather walks through the neighborhood, and the masked-up trips to the grocery store. But, really: Things might’ve been new, but they were far from normal.


LOOKING BACK: 2020 IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR


Normality, of course, is how the year began. Even optimism. On Jan. 1, 2020, a year ago today, ArtsWatch strode brashly into the Brave New Year with the first dispatch in Vision 2020, an ambitious series of 20 interviews over 20 days with a cross-section of Oregon arts figures who agreed to talk with us about how things looked from their corners of the cultural world, and what they hoped to see in the coming year and decade. They had some terrific insights and ideas, and the series makes for some fascinating reading: From Rachel Barreras-Kleeman’s tale of why she teaches dance to low-income kids on the Coast, to Dañel Malan’s vision of creating bilingual arts through Teatro Milagro, to 18 compelling stories in between, you can find all 20 interviews here. But nobody – least of all those of us at ArtsWatch Central, in our eager editorial innocence – anticipated what was lurking just around the corner.

In January Maya Vivas and Leila Haile talked with Martha Daghlian for ArtsWatch’s “Vision 2020” series about the joys and challenges of running an adventurous art gallery on North Mississippi Avenue featuring work from a wide range of artists who identify as QTPoC (Queer Trans People of Color). Because of the Covid-19 crisis, their Ori Gallery has since shifted to an online presence. Photo courtesy Ori Gallery

And how could any of us have? Yes, news reports buried on the inside pages of the newspapers alerted us to some new virus very far away, but it didn’t seem like much to get alarmed about. Then things began to build, until, come March, the virus was all very real, and all over the place, and in spite of a determined right-wing campaign to persuade people that it was all fake news and the disease was a hoax, the world began to shut down.

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Music 2020: Streaming through the shutdown

Watching music at the end of the longest year

When the pandemic struck last spring, leaving shuttered venues and canceled tours and performances in its wake, it seemed unlikely that there’d be much news to report about music. Nevertheless, musicians persisted, using their creativity to find though new ways to connect to listeners. As you’ve read in our unabated music coverage, many Oregon musicians and institutions regained their balance after the staggering blows of winter and spring, turning to online presentations–including several embedded in this year-end news wrap–to keep the music flowing. Thanks internet! Remember, we paid for it.


LOOKING BACK: 2020 IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR


For me, regular video offerings by 45th Parallel, the Oregon Symphony, Portland Baroque Orchestra (and its Great Arts. Period program that gives other music presenters access to its advanced streaming tech) and more initially kept me feeling connected to our homegrown music scene, albeit at a distance. They were soon joined by Third Angle New Music (whose John Luther Adams show last month might have been my favorite music streaming event of the year), Chamber Music Northwest, and others as the year unfolded. Here, you can watch this year’s version of PBO’s annual Messiah, albeit reduced (to singers, string quartet and organ) and distanced like so much else this year.

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There’s a man going around

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

This is the final installment of a three-part interview. Click here for part one, “Black music is the centerpiece of American culture.” Click here for part two, “Tired of having conversations.”

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African-American composers play an important and all too often overlooked role in America’s musical history. William Grant Still and Florence Price were the first major black symphonic composers in America, and Still’s Afro-American Symphony was widely played across the country in the early twentieth century. Ragtime composer Scott Joplin and jazz composers like Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Miles Davis wrote some of the most popular songs in American history. The late twentieth-century avant-garde music of Anthony Braxton, Julius Eastman, George Lewis, and Pulitzer winner Henry Threadgill explores the limits of musical performance, notation, and improvisation.

As we discuss with Portland composer and singer Damien Geter in our interview below, the relationship between an individual artist’s identity and their musical language is complex and multifaceted. The interaction between the European classical tradition and the American folk traditions of spirituals and the blues is equally complex, and has led to some of the most enduring works of American classical music—including not only the work of Still and Price but also Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Copland’s Clarinet Concerto.

The unification of these two musical worlds is apparent in Geter’s An African American Requiem, which was scheduled to have its premiere this spring in an Oregon Symphony concert that has been pushed back by pandemic closures to Jan. 22, 2021. There are clear historical precedents for Geter’s approach to the genre: Penderecki, in his Polish Requiem, combined the usual Latin liturgical texts with other text related to tragedies throughout recent Polish history, including the Holocaust, the Warsaw Uprising, and the Katyn Massacre. On Monday, we discussed how Geter includes contemporary American equivalents, notably the last words of Eric Garner.

In An African American Requiem, the original liturgical texts mostly remain untranslated, with the exception of the “Kyrie” (Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison) which is set in English: “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.” Choosing to translate the first movement after the introduction prompts the listener for further use of English in the Requiem and serves to make the meaning of this particular liturgical text clear to the audience. Many of the new texts are interwoven with the liturgical ones through contrapuntal overlaying or juxtaposition.

The “Liber Scriptus” movement is juxtaposed with the spiritual “There’s a Man Goin’ Round Taking Names,” highlighting God’s judgement upon death. The contrast of Ida B. Wells’ speech “Lynching is Color-Line Murder” with the “Libera Me” invokes parallels between the past and the present, showing how the lynchings of black men and women throughout American history continue to this day in a new form. The vengeful words of the “Libera Me,” combined with the desire for retribution at the end of “Lynching,” connect the spiritual and the material costs of violence.

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In part three of three, ArtsWatch talks with Geter about the nature of programmatic music, his new Justice Symphony, and the role of black music in American traditions. 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.

Oregon ArtsWatch: What are some of the new challenges, or conversely things that were easy for you, building up a large-scale work?

Damien Geter: It hasn’t been hard. I’ve gotten five commissions since this. I count myself to be very lucky, and I’m thinking that I should’ve done this all along. My path as a composer has been very personal, so when I revealed myself it became something that people were interested in. When people ask me, I say that I’m in the commissioning phase. I have things that I don’t advertise, because I don’t know if they’re good or not. I’m just starting from this point and building on.

AW: How did you approach the work’s technical side, things like combining blue notes with contemporary harmony and counterpoint?

DG: Sometimes I build music off of very specific ideas. For the “Lacrimosa,” I was thinking about how Renaissance composers would use chromaticism to indicate weeping, so I used a lot of chromaticism in that particular piece. That was the guide in that one. Some of these are based on things that already exist, and I kinda play around with those. Like in the “Liber Scriptus” and the “Man Going Round” I play around with the melody a bit.

Sometimes if I’m working on a piece, if I’m singing or at a show, it’s not uncommon for whatever composer that is to creep in. I was listening to a lot of John Adams when writing the “Recordare,” so there’s a lot of minimalism there. I was working on Porgy and Bess while writing the “Ingemisco,” so there’s some Gershwin there too.

The last concert I went to was the Shostakovich Eleventh Symphony, which is one of the best I‘ve been to. And I was writing my symphony at the time, so it sounds just like Shostakovich—but I’m not going to change it! When I’m doing oratorio works, I like to sit in the orchestra to hear all those colors and hear how those instruments work. I got a chance to do that, and it changed the way I was writing.

AW: We were talking about the influences of spirituals and the blues in the musical language, and it does seem like there are very different perspectives on counterpoint and harmony that aren’t intrinsically tied to classical music.

DG: We all go to school and take all these theory classes and ear training and it’s helpful, but when you become a big person you just write what sounds good. I’m not thinking about if it’s a Neapolitan sixth chord that resolves in a particular way. I mean, I have this training that’s innate within me, and I’m not thinking about those things. Sometimes I think about a chord progression to figure out how to get from point A to point B so it has some kind of flow.

I don’t like my music to sound too wonky. I just write whatever I feel like. It goes back to all those influences. If I’m writing something and I flatten the fifth, I mean I got it from somewhere and I probably didn’t get that from school.

AW: Are there any particular artists you grew up with who you have a particular nostalgia for? 

DG: For me it’s Anita Baker, and Luther Vandross. I get very nostalgic and I listen to them all the time. Earth Wind and Fire. I mean those are the folks I remember listening to as a kid, and as I was making my own musical decisions I listened to Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Madonna. Remember the band Bush? I used to love them. And remember Poe? I used to love her!

I definitely went through a Nirvana grunge phase, but at the drop of a hat I’d listen to Dr. Dre and Tupac, Snoop Dogg. I’m more of a Biggie than a Tupac person, though. I felt like the East coast was smoother. I really did love Public Enemy. One of my absolute favorite albums is The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. I think my version of hip-hop is in a few of these movements.

AW: American classical music is so indebted to European classical music and American folk music; it seems we’re just taking from these traditions without trying to create a distinctly American music.

DG: Aaron Copland was focused on creating the American sound, and he took from black culture to create his own musical voice. Black music is the centerpiece of American culture. I can think of no form of music that has not been influenced by black music. Maybe groups like GWAR?

AW: Even there. It’s still rock music.

DG: Rock, country, everything. It’s all centered around black music. 

AW: If you were interviewing yourself what would you ask? 

DG: Since there’s such a central topic to this piece, I would ask if all of my music is centered around these kinds of topics.

AW: So is your symphony going to be programmatic?

DG: Well I’m glad you asked! Most everything that I’m writing these days has to do with the black experience. The symphony is called the Justice Symphony, from music of the Civil Rights movement. The first movement is a fantasy on “Eyes on the Prize,” the second is “Precious Lord,” and in the last I used “O Freedom,” “We Shall Not be Moved,” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” And everything that I write pulls from the Black Diaspora.

I wouldn’t call the Justice Symphony programmatic, in the sense that there’s not a program or story that goes along with it. Actually I don’t think anything that I write is programmatic.

AW: It raises the question of whether these lines are irrevocably blurred. Even if it’s a Brahms string quartet, then it’s still about something. 

DG: I don’t know if Brahms would say that. I think it depends on the person. It could be based on a memory. I was having a discussion the other day about art. People pay millions of dollars for a piece of art, and there are people who would never pay that much. It just depends on what you value and what you have in your head. So if you create a story around a piece, then sure it can be programmatic, but if that wasn’t the composer’s intent it’s hard to say whether it is.

It would be interesting to see in a hundred years if this thing has any legs, whether we think of this as nationalist music, or programmatic music, or music for music’s sake. Is what I’m doing nationalism? I’m not very patriotic. I think I’m doing the opposite at this point. 

AW: Perhaps dissent is patriotic.

DG: That’s true. 

AW: I’ve heard people say that the history of black liberation is one of taking the principles of freedom and equality our nation was founded on seriously, where it can’t just be for land-owning white men, it has to be for everyone.

DG: I think that’s true absolutely. I do use the national anthem in a minor key, in the “Lacrimosa.” So maybe that’s nationalism.

Want to support Black lives in Oregon? You can sign Resonance Ensemble’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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