One year ago today, April 19, Freddie Gray died while in police custody. His death inspired protests in Baltimore; in the following days, these protests would combine with escalating tensions, eventually resulting in the Baltimore Uprising of April 27.
One year ago today, April 19, an extraordinary piece with an extraordinary text was being
performed: Rise. With music by Judah Adashi and poetry by Tameka Cage Conley, the work “bears witness to America’s civil rights journey from Selma to Ferguson” [composer’s program notes].
This evening, Baltimore citizens remembered Gray’s death through words, music, and images as Rise received a full performance in Mt. Vernon Place United Methodist Church.
The Statue Next Door
Mt. Vernon Place UMC is a commonly used venue for events that have a connection to the Peabody Conservatory (Adashi is on faculty at the school), as it is located across the street from the institute’s front entrance. A beautiful, neo-gothic building, the church is also mere steps away from the statue of former Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney.
Laura Kigweba, pastor at Mt. Vernon Place, called attention to Taney’s stony presence in her pre-concert remarks, noting that his rulings continued to deny people of color the human rights that should, indeed, be inalienable. But things do not always remain the same. “Have you ever felt transformation?”, she asked: “This is transformation…you are in the midst of it.”
Art and Activism
Race, activism, and transformation were all key topics in the panel discussion that preceded the concert itself. Moderated by Brittani McNeill, the panel included former pro-Football-player-turned artist Aaron Maybin, actress (of The Wire fame) and screenwriter Sonja Sohn, writer and activist Tariq Touré, and writer, educator, and speaker D. Watkins. Sohn emphasized that “it is the responsibility of artists…to evolve humanity,” and Maybin noted the “symbiotic relationship between art and social movements.”
Integral to the discussion was the question: “How can I help?” This is a complex issue, which the panel readily accessed. All too often, reports surface of would-be helpers swooping into a situation without contacting local advocacy organizations and lacking research and context, potentially leaving suspicion and confusion in their wake. How to reach out, then, when privilege and thoughtlessness have aggravated, as Sohn aptly put it, the pervasive “ancestral trauma” caused by hundreds of years of racism? Watkins emphasized the importance of bridge-building: the answer is not in one-off instances of palliative care, but in fostering relationships, and breaking down our individual egos. Touré advocated acknowledging common cause, but also emphasized the need for continued artistic creation in minority communities: once there are a diversity of artists and a diversity of experiences being represented in poetry, prose, film, and other art forms, then creators and enactors needn’t follow the appointed roles assigned to them by outsider privilege.
Rise is a beautiful example of the potential for such artistic bridge-building. Conley’s texts are potent and expressive, yet crafted with clockwork accuracy to deliver an emotional blow, splitting open a wellspring of empathy to which everyday tragedy has inured us. Adashi’s music is simple (not simplistic); organicism combines with developed subtleties to create a humming harmonic and formal palette. Together, the artists—who met at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts—have crafted a work which upholds the legacy of civil rights and, by creating a community around it, have built a bridge leading towards a better world. As Conley states in the last movement of Rise: “Heaven, a bridge beneath their feet.”
The Beauty of the Protest
The concert itself began with The Beauty of the Protest, a recent work by Adashi for amplified ‘cello, performed by Lavena Johanson. Meditative, but with a slow, thrumming intensity, the work was inspired by photographer Devin Allen, who captured black and white images of the Baltimore Uprising on Instagram. Johanson’s focused and lyrical playing (and voice) combined with Adashi’s modal unfolding to provide a harmonic cornerstone for the evening. A reading of a new poem by Tariq Touré followed, reminiscent in its structure of the Gospel-style rhetoric of King’s “I have a dream” speech, summoning the visage and memory of Freddie Gray. As Conley pointed out following his reading, regarding Gray and the all-too-many young Black men who perished in similar circumstances: “They are here,” in the memories, words, and invocations of the evening.
Rise itself is organized in seven sections, an Invocation and six numbered movements. The work is for chamber ensemble, double choir, and soloists, performed tonight (as well as last year) by the superb group Afro Blue. Conley read the text aloud at two-movement intervals, providing verbal touchstones in the progression of musical events.
Several harmonic progressions and textures act as unifying elements for the work, offset by individual “character pieces.” Movements 1 (“Edmund Pettus Bridge, March 7, 1965”), 3 (“O Light (From Troy to All the Cities)”) and 5 (“Remains”) hint at an undergirding choral texture, homophonic with chromatic-third-relations that provide both stability and color. Movements 2 (“A Blues, in the Light of Overcoming”), 4 (“Alpha & Omega”), and 6 (“MericanAnthem”) each provide a distinct character, though without seeming derivative. Movement 2, certainly Blues-y, has a harmonic richness and verve that engage the listener in the overall arc; Conley’s text in “Alpha & Omega” reveals a keen sense of rhythmic and formal flow, which Adashi skillfully realizes; and “MericanAnthem” gently weaves in triadic hints at our National Anthem, but in a wistful, hopeful strain that effaces any blatant Nationalism.
For me, “Remains” is the dramatic heart of the work. A roughly ten-minute long movement, it incorporates the Invocation’s chaconne-like chordal repetition in the piano and soulful flugelhorn (provided by Roderick Demmings and Christopher Shiley, respectfully) and redolent of the thrumming mass of both The Beauty of the Protest and “O Light (From Troy to All Cities),” replete with ever-so-slightly sour notes between the melodic lines and harmonies. “Remains” examines the heart of loss, the occasional miracles of hope, and the fervent plea: “Nation, can we rise like air?” This question becomes a command in both the title of the work, and in the choir’s fervent chorale that closes the movement: