Portland Chamber Orchestra’s newest world premiere, My Words Are My Sword, underscored by Jasnam Daya Singh’s mellifluous multi-genre music, was a hit with 300 people who saw it– but the spoken-word piece should have had a bigger audience.
Written and performed by spoken-word artist, actor, and self-proclaimed “inspirationalist” Phil Darius (duh-REE-us) Wallace, the Portland premiere delivered a trenchant message about America’s Black history and appalling legacy of racism. Wallace was on stage—rather, among the pews of a cathedral-ceilinged Catholic church—for the 95-minute performance.
But it wasn’t all Wallace, despite his impassioned performance. It included 20 members of the Portland Chamber Orchestra led by maestro Yaacov “Yaki” Bergman, with music by composer/pianist Daya Singh.
The premiere was performed April 9 at North Portland’s St. Andrew Catholic Church in the heart of a fast-gentrifying Black neighborhood, and on April 10 at Portland’s St. Michael’s Lutheran Church after being postponed from a February date when Covid was sweeping through Portland.
A two-year joint effort of Wallace, Daya Singh and Bergman, the piece is also a collaboration between music and spoken words. In this case, the words drove the music; Daya Singh did not write a note until hearing, reading and absorbing Wallace’s text. The community joined in, too. The Oregon Commission on Black Affairs partnered with PCO to provide tickets for 60 Black concert-goers. So collaboration, a watchword of music performance these days, was in the air.
Propelling and underlining Wallace’s piece, which the actor titled, was the power of words and their weaponry to change the world. “Words open up the possibility to get to the truth and bottom of it,” he said in a phone interview from his Memphis home earlier in the spring.
“Words are powerful. Words are the end result of power that’s in us. We have the ability as humans to use words to educate and inspire lives. We’ve been trained to hate each other, based on our skin, on 1 percent of what we are.”
Words brought Wallace, 53, back to life 25 years ago when his mother died of breast cancer. He had a breakdown and ended up homeless in Brooklyn, N.Y. He eventually started reading voraciously, sneaking into bookstores and soaking up wisdom from books. He recovered, and was able in a few years to pursue his acting dream.
The Overture and Postlude, which bracket the piece, allowed the orchestra and music to shine. If you listened carefully, you could hear Daya Singh’s rippling piano-playing. The rest of the program, though underscored by Daya Singh’s music, was focused on Wallace’s strong, physical delivery punctuated by his graceful and vigorous hand movements. He referenced MLK’s sermons and speeches; re-enacted 19th-century anti-slavery activist Frederick Douglass’ childhood; traced Malcolm X’s imprisonment, Islam conversion and assassination. He sang—Wallace’s lustrous voice ranges from bass-baritone to an occasional falsetto note—and recited poetry, mostly his own.
Other poems included Langston Hughes’ “A Dream Deferred Is a Dream Denied,” with the well-known verse, “Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? / Or fester like a sore– And then run? / Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over–like a syrupy sweet? / Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?“
Richard Wright’s impassioned and angry “Between the World and Me” was in the mix. The poem is about a Black man discovering where a lynching occurred. He becomes paralyzed by fear that blocks him from participating in the world. Like Hughes, Wright was a Harlem Renaissance writer and activist who moved the world along.
Balancing the understated music, which could easily be a movie score, with the weight of the words presented the biggest challenge of the performance. The chamber orchestra included trombone, drums, clarinet, trumpet, English horn, oboe, flute, piccolo, vibraphone, a handful of strings, and Daya Singh on piano. St. Andrew’s acoustics created quite a bit of echo and were far from dry, so it was not an easy job for Bergman to manage. The orchestra had to be wary not to overwhelm Wallace’s words. At times, the words were hard to understand, but the passion and energy translated easily.
I’m going to blame on the acoustics the failure of the words to be heard consistently, and on the fact that Wallace delivered his lines from the center of the church floor on the same level as the audience rather than from on high, where the orchestra held forth and the crucifix hung. Wallace was usually moving forward and backward in the floor space, so he had to switch his delivery from side to side in order to reach the entire audience. His enunciation was precise, his delivery sparkled, and he was miked, but like any performance without an elevated stage or perfect acoustics, you couldn’t hear everything clearly.
History of the piece
My Words Are My Sword has been in the works for several years, and most of the process, rehearsing, and perfecting took place on Zoom (read my OAW story here).
The finished piece linked the Civil Rights movement with the brutal lynching of young teen Emmett Till in the mid-‘50s, and with the Black Lives Matter uprising sparked by the modern-day lynching, or choking, of George Floyd. The first draft was “wild,” with strong R-rated language, Wallace said during the March interview. The final draft was toned down for a family audience.
Bergman has directed PCO for 19 years. Finnish conductor Boris Sirpo, who engaged his Portland college Lewis & Clark students as instrumentalists, founded PCO in 1947. Now the group has professional musicians from throughout the Northwest. Though Bergman has conducted his share of traditional classical music, he prefers these days to produce multi-arts pieces by bringing together diverse artistic expressions, genres, voices, and cultures. So My Words was not a big stretch for him to pull together.
Brazilian-born Daya Singh, who calls himself a “melting pot of cultures,” was the obvious composer choice, Bergman said in an earlier interview. PCO had performed in 2017 the Northwest premiere of his 2006 Jazz Concertino for Piano and String Orchestra in which he appeared as a soloist, and Bergman recognized his dual brilliance as pianist and composer “with a distinct voice and musical style that blends Latin jazz and classical styles.”
Daya Singh, 60, who immigrated to the United States in 1987 and resides in Vancouver, Wash., said in a March interview, “My Brazilian roots always end up meshing with American styles.”
Like Bergman, he is a fan of blending different genres and styles, sometimes in the same piece of music. Few examples of typically Brazilian genres such as samba or baiāo surface in My Words, but the African element present in Brazilian music appears regularly. The music features strains of modern and impressionist classical music. Several parts are informed by jazz and hip-hop. Some passages are influenced by Daya Singh’s favorite composers, who include Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Bela Bartók, Sergei Prokofiev, Gabriel Faurė, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Heitor Villa-Lobos, whom Daya Singh calls “a wonderful Brazilian composer who seems to have been a major influence on many Brazilian composers of different generations.”
Daya Singh composed My Words on the piano and computer, and the music had to work as a sensitive underscoring of the text without sacrificing its bold, stylistically diverse, rhythmically rich, and very American style.
That was achieved in the well-received April 9 and 10 performances by too few people, about 300. About 145 people attended each concert, which stopped short of preaching despite its racially- and violence-charged subject matter. It should have a wider audience, but as of now, no plans exist to take it elsewhere.
There’s power in us
The piece started with “the why” of racism: “Why has racism found so much purpose in our lives?” Wallace asked, hands raised. He ended with how we can stem its toxic tide. “We all have the power to soar. Abundance is all around us … There’s power in us that’s greater than the world’s systems in power.”
PCO is on a mission to address social and racial issues with its music. Look for its next concert, the world premiere of “Celilo Falls: We Were There.” It will have three Oregon performances: June 4 at the newly opened Patricia Reser Center for the Arts in Beaverton, Or.; June 5 at Portland’s St. Michael’s Lutheran Church; and June 11 at the Granada Theatre in The Dalles, Or. About the indigenous community’s loss of the falls for fishing, celebrations and other tribal endeavors due to damming of the Columbia River, the piece combines the work of Oregonians cellist/composer Nancy Ives, photographer Joe Cantrell and poet/storyteller Ed Edmo.
A version of this story was published originally in Classical Voice North America.
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