s. renee mitchell

No news like good news

ArtsWatch Weekly: I Am MORE, Broadway Rose's 'Story of My Life,' PDX Jazz Fest, art around Oregon.

A COUPLE OF DAYS AGO MY FRIEND (AND OCCASIONAL ARTSWATCH CONTRIBUTOR) STEPHEN RUTLEDGE, who writes the Born This Day column and other stories for The WOW Report, sent along a YouTube link to an old clip of Sam Cooke singing Good News on American Bandstand. Along with the link he sent high praise for the recent movie One Night in Miami, a fictional imagining of an actual meeting in a Miami hotel in 1964 of Cooke, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and football star Jim Brown to celebrate Ali’s heavyweight-championship victory over Sonny Liston. Rutledge’s note reminded me that, yes, even in traumatic times there is good news, it’s worth singing about, and its triumphs so often are the result of hard creative work and leaps of the imagination.
 

S. Renee Mitchell (left) and, from left, Jeanette Mmunga, Justice English and Johana Amani of I Am MORE.

In Building Resiliency with the Arts, the latest chapter in our occasional series The Art of Learning, Brett Campbell relates another story of Good News, one with deep Portland roots. The poet, activist, and former Oregonian newspaper columnist S. Renee Mitchell, he writes, “had been recruited to Roosevelt High School to teach journalism. But she also helped mentor students with their personal issues; brought in fruit, day-old bagels and cream cheese; revived the Black Student Union; created a Black Girl Magic Club, and invited in community members to perform, speak, encourage and share their wisdom with the school’s low-income students.”

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Building Resiliency with the Arts

Portland's I Am MORE helps traumatized young people heal by sharing their stories

The Portland-based advocacy organization Stand For Children annually awards $16,000 Beat The Odds scholarships for students who “have overcome obstacles on their path to graduation thanks to great educators & school programs.” In November 2018, three of Portland’s four winners — out of 16 statewide —shared something in common. Each were Black teens who had survived various forms of trauma, including food insecurity, homelessness, bullying, and sexual violence. And all had been mentored by the same teacher.

But S. Renee Mitchell was more than an educator. The poet (she’s poet-in-residence for Portland’s Resonance Ensemble), youth activist, and award-winning former newspaper journalist had been recruited to Roosevelt High School to teach journalism. But she also helped mentor students with their personal issues; brought in fruit, day-old bagels and cream cheese; revived the Black Student Union; created a Black Girl Magic Club, and invited in community members to perform, speak, encourage and share their wisdom with the school’s low-income students. 

Co-founders Jeanette Mmunga, Justice English and Johana Amani 

So when three of Mitchell’s Black Girl Magic mentees – Justice English, Johana Amani and Jeanette Mmunga each received a Beat The Odds scholarship, they decided to help other youth tap into their resiliency. Together, Mitchell and the four students, now all attending college, founded I Am MORE (Making Ourselves Resilient Everyday), a nationally award-winning, creative-and arts-based youth development program. I Am MORE has trained hundreds of students, schools, parents, and educators – statewide and nationally – on culturally relevant trauma-informed and social-emotional practices that “increase hope, healing and a sense of belonging,” according to its mission statement. 


THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series


Part of I Am MORE’s programming to help youth share their wisdom and creativity with adult audiences involves the arts. The organization’s 2nd Annual “Resiliency in Rhythm” showcase at this year’s 12th Annual Fertile Ground Festival of New Works includes poetry and rap performances, interviews conducted by Mmunga, one of I Am MORE’s three youth co-founders, and a fascinating discussion that allowed three young Black leaders of Portland’s Black Lives Matter protests to publicly discuss – for the first time – challenges they regularly faced attended public schools and, now confronting racism as college students and within society. 

Providing young people of color with an emotionally safe space for personal storytelling about their often-challenging life experiences proved to be a critical part of their healing from trauma and creating success on their own terms. In working with them, Mitchell discovered that unlocking traumatic personal experiences, and connecting those experiences with opportunities to gain insights could help shape one’s sense of purpose. That discovery not only helped her develop wisdom that improved her own life, but also helps others empower and bring joy to others — students and adults. That need is even greater now, Mitchell noted, with the pandemic’s documented rise in youth suicide and depression rates. 

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Thanks, giving, the essence of art

ArtsWatch Weekly: Passing the artistic impulse into the future, Josie Seid's America, Don Latarski's wild art, remembering Bruce Browne

AS YOU MIGHT HAVE NOTICED, this week’s ArtsWatch Weekly is a day late (although not, I hope, a dollar short). Usually I start plotting out the column at the beginning of the week, try to get a little writing done on Tuesday and Wednesday, then finish it on Thursday. But this Thursday, of course, was Thanksgiving Day, and quite likely just like you, I was otherwise engaged in the kitchen and at the table, and had been for a couple of days beforehand. This may be the strangest year in our collective memory, and for many of us the oddest of Thanksgivings – what seems the core of the holiday, the gathering together, is precisely what we couldn’t do – and yet, despite the pandemic and teetering economy and social unrest and volatile politics, there was thanking to be done.

When I think about the holidays I think partly of the gifts the past has to offer the present and future: not the stultifying or outmoded aspects of tradition, but the liberating ones. What is good? How do we build on it? This sifting and measuring is intimately involved in the constant reshaping of our cultural and artistic lives: What do we appreciate in the past and present, and carry forward with us into the future?

Some artists embody in their work all three tenses, and looking through what’s happening in Portland’s galleries I note with pleasure and thanks that two of them have exhibitions on view. Both exhibits end on Saturday, so time’s running short, but you can also see the works through the links below.
 

George Johanson, “The Artist’s Studio,” 2020, oil and acrylic on canvas, 36 x 48 inches, in his show “George Johanson – Rising Waters and Quasi Portraits: New Paintings,” closing Saturday at Augen Gallery, Portland.

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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.

Want to read more music news in Oregon? Support Oregon ArtsWatch

Tired of having conversations

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

This is the second installment of a three-part interview. Click here for part one, “Black music is the centerpiece of American culture.”

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An African American Requiem includes, alongside traditional liturgical texts and contemporary poetry, several direct references to recent police killings of black men. Stephon Clark was a 22-year old man who was shot dead in 2018 in his grandmother’s Sacramento backyard; Jamilia Land, a close friend of his family, is a member of California Families United 4 Justice, a community organization dedicated to supporting the victims of police violence and their families. Land’s words, “we are living in communities that are like war zones,” become the text for the soprano recitative of the third movement. Antwon Rose was seventeen years old when he was fatally shot by a Pittsburgh police officer in 2018. Geter sets a repeated line from a poem Rose wrote for his tenth-grade Honors English class: “I am confused and afraid.”

Eric Garner was killed by an NYPD police officer who choked Garner to death on a Staten Island street corner in 2014. His death was filmed by bystanders and widely distributed, becoming one of the major catalysts for the Black Lives Matter movement. Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” became a common phrase heard during BLM protests. As we go to press in June 2020, Geter tells us that he plans on updating the work to honor the recent death of George Floyd, whose final words on May 25 so hauntingly echoed Garner’s.

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Art on the move: responding to crises

ArtsWatch Weekly: The Black Lives Matter movement and the continuing coronavirus challenge are reshaping the arts world

WE ARE IN THE MIDST OF LIFE-CHANGING TIMES, and in the face of multiple crises remarkable work is being done. How do artists fit in? Sometimes, smack in the middle of things. Many news organizations have been doing excellent work of discovering the artists speaking to the moment and bringing their work to a broad audience. Oregon Public Broadcasting, for instance, has been publishing some sterling stories – including the feature The Faces of Protest: The Memorial Portraits of Artist Ameya Marie Okamoto, by Claudia Meza and John Nottariani. Okamoto, a young social practice artist who grew up in Portland, has made it her work not just to document the events of racial violence in Portland and across the United States: She’s also, as OPB notes, “crafted dozens of portraits for victims of violence and injustice.” 


Ameya Okamoto, “In Support of Protest.” Photo courtesy Ameya Okamoto

“People get so attached to the hashtag and the movement of George Floyd or Quanice Hayes,” Okamota tells OPB, “they forget that George Floyd was a trucker who moved to Minneapolis for a better life, or that Quanice Hayes was actually called ‘Moose’ by his friends and family. When individuals become catalysts for Black Lives Matter and catalysts for social change … there is a level of complex personhood that is stripped away from them.” In her work she strives to give that back.

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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.

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