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.

In part two of three, ArtsWatch talks to Geter about representation, calls to action, the legacy of Ida B. Wells, and a curious eBay find. 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.

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Oregon Arts Watch: How do you hope people respond to this piece? Do you consider this a call to action? Or a way to open people up to new ways of thinking? Or a personal reflection?

Damien Geter: All of those things. First and foremost I wrote this for the people who are no longer here, the people who have been affected by racial violence. Secondly I wrote it for people who may have lived through the civil rights movement, or had family members who have been affected by racial violence.

There are people who want to go to the concert and hear Beethoven, and people who want to hear other things. So there’s a residual piece of this, that I think that me being able to contribute this as a part of the classical music realm is a good thing, and it keeps the art moving forward. Like I’m getting to the point now where I hear people sing arias, and I’m like “I don’t want to hear this again.” Where’s the new music, the relevant music? Not that that stuff is irrelevant, but where’s the stuff that makes me think? I think there are moments where you can sit and chill and listen to a Brahms symphony, and if you wanna talk about programmatic versus absolute music that was a debate they were having back then. I feel like it’s very relatable to this. Music for music’s sake versus music with a message.

So is there a call to action? Yes and no. If people want to sit and listen to a new version of a Requiem Mass I think that’s absolutely fine, but I do hope that there is something that sparks something within someone that would inspire them to do something. I’m not going to define what that is, whether it’s to go home and reflect or send money to the NAACP. The one thing I know that I’m tired of is having conversations. I want to see things happen.

It’s very personal for me, and I feel very strongly that I really want to honor the folks who’ve been killed, because this is something we cannot figure out. People are getting shot all the time, and we keep hearing about things that happened months ago. I don’t understand it.

The other thing I wanted to say was that when people go to see this performance, there’s a quartet of soloists who are all black, and it is my hope that little black folks will go to these concert halls and see that they can do this too, because I didn’t have that. So there’s a little piece of me that wants to reach out the younger generation and tell them that they can do this too. My best friend in high school, her uncle said, “You wanna sing opera? Black people don’t sing opera!” I’m like, “what about Marian Anderson, George Shirley, Grace Bumbry? They’re black.”

AW: Like the black composers we discussed earlier. These are names we know, but maybe the general public is not aware of them or their importance.

DG: When orchestras talk about how they don’t want to play certain composers for whatever reason, they’re forgetting that there are plenty of black composers within whatever aesthetic you want to achieve, in terms of your audience. If you don’t want new new music, there’s plenty of old stuff to choose from.

Speaking of William Grant Still, I found this collection on eBay. These are all letters, and there are some handwritten letters from his estate, a couple photos, and they were just sitting on eBay. There are essays, and a letter to a publisher in LA talking about writing a book about opera. I contacted the Smithsonian in DC–I call it the Black Museum, The National Museum of African American History and Culture–seeing if they want it, because it feels irresponsible for me to have it.

AW: A song near the end of the Requiem, “Lynching is Color-Line Murder,” was intriguing to me because of this connection between lynching and modern-day police violence. It seems like the tone of that essay is calling for retribution, which makes it incredibly apt in a Requiem. What was it about that that made you decide for it to be the climax of the piece?

DG: Well I didn’t know how to talk about racial violence without talking about lynching, and I didn’t know how to talk about lynching without bringing up Ida B. Wells, who was this phenomenal figure. I hate this term that she was “ahead of her time.” To be a black woman and a journalist at the time was pretty snazzy. So I had to talk about her, and it was a matter of finding the right speech. She pretty much gave the same speeches as she went around the country, just updating the statistics.

This was probably one of the more famous ones she made, and when I was reading that speech there was so much that paralleled where we are now. The method and numbers are different.

Read a 1909 iteration of Wells’ complete speech here.

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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