Commissioning Journeys: A Collaborative Meditation on the Civil Rights Movement

With the 2015 premiere of Rise, a cantata about race in America, Cantate Chamber Singers took a collaborative approach to an important issue.

This spring, Cantate Chamber Singers (Bethesda, Maryland) concluded its 30th anniversary season with the premiere of Rise by Judah Adashi with text by Tameka Cage Conley. The piece was part of a longer program evoking the musical heritage of the Civil Rights Movement in collaboration with Afro Blue, the “vocal big band” from Howard University in Washington DC.

Cantate music director Gisèle Becker’s original goal for the concert was to put the group’s classically oriented singers in dialogue with a nimble, modern a cappella vocal ensemble. “Choral music often falls into categories and we are pigeonholed into these individual choirs,” she said. “My interest was to have a cross-generational and cross-cultural sharing of a commonality: music.”


Cantate Chamber Singers

Adashi, who is on the faculty of the Peabody Institute of the John Hopkins University and is a past winner of Cantate’s biennial Young Composers’ Contest, agreed to create a piece for double choir. He suggested that Becker consider collaborating with Afro Blue.

Adashi’s longstanding interest in the Civil Rights Movement fueled his concept for the piece as a journey from the 1965 events in Selma, Alabama through the subsequent history of race relations in America. Realizing that the piece he envisioned would require new words by a young American poet, he approached Cage Conley, whom he’d met when both were in residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, about writing the text. Adashi's parents, Dr. Eli and Mrs. Toni Adashi, generously stepped in to commission the new poetry.

“I got to hear Tameka read her extraordinary poetry in the summer of 2013, and we had many late-night conversations about race and politics in America. Her words are the beating heart of Rise,” he said.

Grappling with difficult issues

One challenge of presenting Rise was the subject matter and its striking resonance with current events. The piece premiered on April 19, the day that Freddie Gray died from injuries sustained while in police custody in Baltimore.

Adashi wrote about the juxtaposition:

"['Rise'] begin[s] on March 7, 1965, with a nonviolent march for voting rights in Selma, Alabama. John Lewis and his fellow marchers were met by state troopers, one of whom struck Lewis in the head with a billy club and fractured his skull. 25 years old at the time, Lewis did not expect to survive, much less become a 15-term congressman serving under the first African-American president. Could he have imagined an eerily similar phalanx of militarized police in Baltimore 50 years later, responding to largely peaceful protests following the needless arrest and death of another 25 year-old Black man?"

The musical texts for Rise are “very graphic and very specific,” Becker said. The opening movement evokes billy clubs striking the heads of marchers on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, and the final movement names black men killed in racially charged incidents—with a hint of the melody from the National Anthem heard underneath.

Not all of the older Civil Rights events that Rise refers to were well known to Afro Blue singers, said founder and conductor Connaitre Miller, an associate professor of music and vocal jazz coordinator at Howard University in Washington DC. “That’s strange, being that we are a historically black college, so we went to the Internet to learn more,” she said. “There was great video footage on YouTube about the Edmund Pettus Bridge that I sent them links to, because the words in the piece are so vivid and I wanted them to understand exactly what it was we were singing about.”

Afro Blue singer Imani-Grace Cooper says being able to spend time with the texts helped her to enter into the piece. “There is this repetition of rise, rise, rise,” said Cooper, whose father is South African and whose mother is an African-American woman raised in the Deep South. “Being a person of African descent in the United States, pretty much all we have known is to rise, to rise through many adversities.”

As part of her program at Howard, Cooper works with young people in urban neighborhoods, a new experience for her, having grown up mostly in the suburbs. “All the things we talked about in Rise—billy clubs and police brutality—are an everyday reality in these neighborhoods,” she says. “So it felt good for acknowledgment and peace of mind, that that is no longer a secret. It was great to be a part of that step, of acknowledging how it really is.”

Jeff Kempskie, a Cantate singer, said there were moments in this piece “that caught me off guard, and were incredibly powerful. Words like, ‘Mister, don’t shoot. My body bleeds like bodies do. Please protect and serve my life too.’”

“I always want a live performance to create a world, an experience. In this case, one that invites the audience to engage with where we are 50 years after Selma. It doesn't offer easy solace or resolution. There is no better story, and no worse story, than the Civil Rights Movement in America. I hope we are creating a meaningful space for everyone to grapple with these realities, as we bear witness to where we have been and where we are going.”   -Judah Adashi

Elizabeth Sullivan, in her fourth season with Cantate, said the singers had to wrestle with the realities the piece presented. “As some of the texts came back from the poet,” she said, “there was a little discomfort, like ‘How am I going to react to this? How is the audience going to react to this?’ It was a process for us.”

Cage Conley’s explanation of the intention behind her poetry helped to set the tone, Sullivan said. “She said she wanted the texts to come from a national voice. We’re not talking just about African-American history. This is American history. I really responded to the inclusive nature of that message.” 

Performing the piece in Washington DC’s historic Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, “You get the sense that you are part of something much bigger than yourself,” Sullivan said. “We were juxtaposed with these young people, who are the next generation of leaders, standing on the shoulders of so many who have gone before, who they are singing about. We were honoring in the best way we can as artists the legacy of these leaders, in a community that continues to see the same issues 50 years later.”

The connection between “then” and “now” resonated strongly with the audience. “People were in tears,” Miller said. “Though the subject matter was dark, people could really relate to it because of what was going on at the time.”

Melding two musical styles

Another challenge in rehearsing and performing the piece was melding the styles of two very different choruses. Cantate Chamber Singers is a 28-member chorus, most often performing classical choral works. Afro Blue is made up of nine students, who use microphones to create a big band sound.

“That was probably the biggest challenge as far as organizing our rehearsal time,” Becker said. “We had to allow a lot of time for adjusting the microphones in order to balance the two groups. And we were in a very large venue that was not familiar to us. So there were a lot of sound checks.”


Howard University's Afro Blue

Adjustments also needed to be made to get consistency when the two choirs were singing together, including perfecting the swung eighth notes of a jazzier style—“Cantate is a bit stiff in that regard,” Kempskie said—and matching the color of vowels.

Other challenges included how to communicate clearly the poetry for the piece, which the author requested not be printed in the concert program because of copyright issues. During the performance, the poet and a narrator—PBS NewsHour co-anchor Gwen Ifill, who is a member of the Metropolitan AME Church—read the poetry text in between movements. “The style of the piece was minimalist,” said Becker, “so it was good to give the ear a break with the spoken word and then get back to the music.”

Becker’s hope that the commission would help span boundaries between different choral traditions has borne fruit. The two groups “were able to experience each other and appreciate each other’s style,” she said. In fact, Cooper of Afro Blue will join Cantate for the coming season. “I sang in chamber choirs and classical choirs growing up and missed that,” she said. “It’s great for me to be able to experience many different genres of music.”

As for the larger issue of the racial divide that continues to plague America, Connaitre Miller believes that each person finds ways to cross that divide, and that music is one such way.

“People have different ways of expressing their outrage, their disappointment, the move toward healing,” she said. “And some of that for us is through music. That’s how we express ourselves. We may not be outside with a big sign demonstrating, but we are spending time to prepare something artistically, and every time a work like this is performed it keeps people aware; it crosses racial barriers.”

Words to the Wise: Reflections on the Commissioning Experience

Set some parameters for the commission. Rarely will a chorus tell a composer, “Write whatever you want for us.” Having a theme or an idea that fits with a chorus’s mission or within a particular concert will help focus the collaboration.

For Cantate, the main organizing principle was the melding of two very different vocal styles and the focus on civil rights. Adashi’s early ideas for the commission zeroed in on specific recent racially charged events—the Trayvon Martin shooting and Hurricane Katrina, among them. But after discussions with Becker, the composer’s completed piece took a broader view.

“It was tricky,” said Becker. “We wanted the piece to be realistic, to put it out there, but we wanted to have an element of hope that things will get better, rather than ending in complete despair. Judah did a really good job with striking that balance.”

Practice flexibility. Even with parameters, it pays to have an open mind, Becker said. “The meat of the piece was sung by Afro Blue,” she said, “which was completely appropriate. They are young people that are living this. It is much more their story. If I had had it in my mind to be equal between the two choruses, I think that could really have been a problem.”

Collaboration requires buy-in. “It was a bit hard to imagine during the rehearsal process what the piece was going to sound like in the end,” Kempskie admits. He said it required the singers to “suspend disbelief, suspend judgments, and wait and see.”

Doing collaborations requires “letting go of some control,” Sullivan said. “It’s easier to do things on your own. We do collaborations, not just because they are fun, which they are, but because of the creation of something that has never been done before.”

Working with different groups also yields benefits in exposure to each other’s audiences. “There were a lot of people there who had never heard of Afro Blue,” said Miller, noting that all 75 of the group's CDs sold out. “It was exciting to know we were exposed to a new audience.”

Respect the artistic partners involved. The relationship between a composer and a chorus (and in this case, also a poet) is a creative collaboration that requires a give-and-take. For example, having a poet provide the text required some last-minute fundraising, as that cost had not been part of the budget for the original commission. “But it was the best thing we could have done,” said Becker. Added Adashi, "Tameka and I were incredibly grateful to my parents for making the soul of this project possible."

Links

  • The Washington Post review of Rise 
  • A Storify compilation of the words and images behind Rise put together by Judah Adashi
  • Q&A between Judah Adashi and Tameka Cage Conley discussing the creative process that led to Rise 

Kelsey Menehan is a writer, choral singer, psychotherapist, and frequent contributor to Chorus America's online and print publications. She lives in San Francisco.

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