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’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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