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Whatever the music needs, whatever the story needs

Looking back with Katherine FitzGibbon on Resonance Ensemble’s year of provocative choral music

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When I was 17, the conductor of my high school choir stood before the whiteboard and wrote down his top three musical priorities. At number one was a single word: musicality.

Musicality is defined as “the quality of having a pleasant sound; melodiousness,” but that’s a woefully insufficient description. It’s the shaping of the song—the use of dynamics, crescendos and beyond to express the narrative and emotion behind the notes. By ranking it first, my conductor was declaring that technical precision doesn’t matter if a song lacks a soul.

I remembered that while I was talking to Katherine FitzGibbon, the founder and artistic director of the Portland-based choir Resonance Ensemble.

Katherine FitzGibbon. Photo by Rachel Hadiashar.
Katherine FitzGibbon. Photo by Rachel Hadiashar.

“When you’re singing, you are willing to make the story and the emotional commitment to the music be paramount,” FitzGibbon says. “And yes, you have to have good intonation and great rhythm and all the things that are your traditional good choral techniques. But I know that it’s possible to have choirs that do all of those things ‘right,’ but you feel a kind of emotional distance or remove from it.”

Emotional distance wasn’t a problem for Resonance Ensemble in 2021. As the noose of the pandemic tightened, the group became emboldened, bringing their music outdoors with two new series—Under the Overpass and Commissions for Now—and confronting Portland’s houselessness crisis with a blockbuster concert called Home.

To understand the power of the performances that Resonance Ensemble unleashed in the past year—all of which are still available for free on their YouTube channel—I immersed myself in videos of their work and spoke to FitzGibbon about her vision for the group. This is what I learned. 

Under the Overpass and Commissions for Now

For Under the Overpass—which was dreamed up by Elizabeth Bacon Brownson, Resonance’s director of marketing and operations—the choir sang Ysaye Barnwell’s “Wanting Memories” under the Hawthorne Bridge, “Stand by Me” under the Ross Island Bridge, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” under the St. Johns Bridge at Cathedral Park, and selections from Darrell Grant’s Sanctuaries at Dawson Park.

“Doing outdoor music making is great as far as minimizing the risk of COVID spread,” FitzGibbon says. “We set up with really brilliant videographers and sound engineers who could help capture really everybody’s singing well, but also you get a little bit of ambience from the overpass itself.”

Despite battling the limits of muffling masks and cacophonous traffic, Under the Overpass produced memorable and moving performances—especially “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Working from an arrangement by music directors Shohei Kobayashi and Derrick McDuffey, the singers brought buoyant, gospel-style energy to the verdant sweep of Cathedral Park.

For Commissions for Now, Resonance continued to sing and film outdoors, but used original compositions. The first was Jasmine Barnes’ “Normal Never Was,” a piece that explored the folly of a “return to normal” post-pandemic and was filmed at the Barge Building at Zidell Yards, where the singers were surrounded by white sheets that flowed like shrouds

“Normal Never Was” was followed by “We Hold Your Names Sacred,” which filmed at Cerimon House and fused the poetry of author and playwright Dane Figueroa Edidi and the music of classical composer Mari Esabel Valverde. It was envisioned as a requiem for lives lost due to violence against trans women of color.

“It was a really meaningful experience—and a learning experience—to really delve into these individual women’s stories, which were very much a part of the video and part of what we were really keeping in mind as we were sharing this music,” FitzGibbon says.

“We Hold Your Names Sacred” is a piece that Resonance Ensemble might not have performed when it was founded in 2009. The group’s initial focus on themed concerts was expanded partly in response to the racism and rancor of the Trump era, which convinced FitzGibbon to devote her efforts to music designed to promote social change.  

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“We basically just did a complete pivot and changed our mission statement,” she says. “We haven’t looked back. We feel like we’re doing what we’re meant to be doing.”

Home

One of the most powerful works featured in Home is spoken, not sung. In “Outdoor School,” actor Vin Shambry reflects on a childhood of homelessness—and the liberation and fear that attending Outdoor School brought to his life. “When I was a kid, I never cried,” he says. “I never had time to.”

Resonance often mixes singing and speaking. “We always have some kind of spoken word element on our program,” FtizGibbon says. “Music puts you in kind of this emotionally receptive place—and I think it sets the table for people to be listening closely in a way that makes the spoken word have an even greater impact than it might on its own.”

When Home was being performed and filmed at Cerimon House on October 2, FitzGibbon knew that it couldn’t capture every individual’s experience with houselessness. Yet she believed that she could call the audience to action by taking them on an emotional journey.

“I really think about the emotional arc of the concert and what the emotional experience will be for the audience,” she says, adding that she was concerned with “taking people deeper into the experience through being thoughtful about the pacing and the energy of each piece.”

As I watched Home on YouTube, I felt the effects of that consideration. With precision, the first few songs convey the scope of the houselessness crisis, using songs like guest conductor Alexander Lloyd Blake’s arrangement of “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” to make audiences feel the desperation of being unmoored.

That anguish persists, but FitzGibbon and Blake knew that there can be no action without hope. They included pieces later in the concert that offering a vision of a more nurturing future, most memorably the Indian-American classical composer’s Reena Esmail’s “Take What You Need,” which encircles you with lyrics as comforting as a childhood blanket:

Take a moment

Take a breath

Take time

Take care

Take heart

Take hope

Take a stand

FitzGibbon credits much of the concert’s success to Blake, who conducts the Los Angeles-based choir Tonality and has personal experience with houselessness. “He listens for different things than I do,” FitzGibbon says. “For him, the rhythmic structure of everything is really important. The very specific dynamic blends were sometimes a little different than what I would have asked for—in an amazingly inspiring way.”

Alexander Lloyd Blake conducting Resonance Ensemble at Cerimon House, October 2020.
Alexander Lloyd Blake conducting Resonance Ensemble at Cerimon House, October 2020.

Blake’s and FitzGibbon’s approaches may be different, but they are both storytellers. The ideas, emotions and sounds of Home seem inextricable because they don’t see a distinction—and because they possess the “It’s not about me, it’s about the music” attitude that FitzGibbons looks for in singers that she auditions.

“Some of that is maybe intangible, but some of it results in the crescendos being more dramatic or the type of vocal colors that people are willing to use being really varied,” she says. “The people in Resonance…are people who are willing to do whatever the music needs, whatever the story needs—and to listen to each other and be part of a bold approach that I really love hearing and exploring with them.”

Under the Overpass, Commissions for Now and Home are available on Resonance Ensemble’s YouTube Channel.

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Bennett Campbell Ferguson is a Portland-based arts journalist. In addition to writing for Oregon Arts Watch, he writes about plays and movies for Willamette Week and is the editor in chief of the blog and podcast T.H.O. Movie Reviews. He first tried his hand at journalism when he was 13 years old and decided to start reviewing science fiction and fantasy movies – a hobby that, over the course of a decade, expanded into a passion for writing about the arts to engage, entertain, and, above, spark conversation. Bennett is also a graduate of Portland State University (where he studied film) and the University of Oregon (where he studied journalism).

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