“We never in our wildest dreams imagined that this concert would happen two days after the election of Donald Trump,” explained pianist Idith Meshulam prior to Ensemble Pi‘s thirteenth annual Concert for Peace on November 10, 2016. She described the first Concert for Peace, which had taken place right after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and went on to discuss the present concert, dedicated to the Black Lives Matter movement in solidarity with those who experience systemic racism, violence, and police brutality. The mood in the room was solemn, with many people (myself included) still stunned by the election results. Meshulam offered a glimmer of hope as she assured us that “no matter what will happen, we will keep doing activism and music.” The concert, which featured seven compositions by people of color, was interspersed with a series of “letters from Black America” read aloud by moderator Terrance McKnight. As the spoken word flowed into wordless sound and then back again, the evening swept us along in a exquisite multi-temporality, allowing for events and figures of the past to mingle with glances to the future and the unbearable melancholy of our present.
The concert began by two arrangements of African American spirituals performed by the full ensemble and conducted by Marlon Daniel. Baritone Damian Norfleet’s voice was firm yet fervent as he sang the words–“I want to go home”, “Where is home?”–of Jessie Montgomery‘s 2016 arrangement of the Southeastern U.S. spiritual I Want to Go Home. During the arrangement of There Is a Balm by Trevor Weston (also of 2016), sustained tones and an air of tonality were sprinkled with meandering piano lines, lumbering horn lines, and a pinging vibraphone. Another Trevor Weston piece, Shape Shifter (The Angry Bluesman) (2011) for solo cello, was expertly executed by Alexis Gerlach. Furious dives into low range, followed by repeated notes in the upper register, were followed by a wide array of textures: pizzicato passages, low rumbles, hands slapped on the side of her instrument, a foot stomped against the floor, and shrill, stratospheric ascents into the highest registers of sound. According to Weston, the piece is meant to “create a piece in what I imagined to be an inherent musical language created by machines,” with inflections of blues–like “the solitary itinerant Bluesman” who remains a stalwart (yet seemingly forgotten) contributor to American popular music.
Alvin Singleton‘s Jasper Drag (2000) is similarly meant “to be a marker on the collective memory.” The title refers to an incident in Jasper, Texas, in which three white men chained a Black man to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him to his death. Mehsulam’s repeated piano lines were paired with Airi Yoshioka’s sawing violin and Moran Katz’s breathy clarinet lines, coalescing into an airy, almost pointillistic cloud of sound. Valerie Coleman‘s Wish (2015) for flute and piano began with fluttery, soulful sounds that quickly derailed, becoming more and more frantic until Meshulam was banging on the piano and Barry Crawford was stabbing out piercingly high notes on the flute. Continuing in this frenetic vein was Meshulam’s impassioned if not polished interpretation of a series of Courtney Bryan‘s piano works (Piano Etudes; Secondline for Black Love; Carnival for Unity, all of 2003). Meshulam had her hands full with the complex sequence of works, her hands leap frogging across the keyboard and both harmonic and rhythmic dissonance spilling from her fingertips.
The final work on the program was an excerpt from Sidney Marquez Boquiren‘s chamber opera Independence Eve (2016), with text by Daniel Neer. The 20-minute scene, titled “Stop and Frisk,” was sung fluidly and movingly by Damian Norfleet and tenor Brandon Snook, and accompanied by the skillful musicianship of the full Ensemble Pi. The scene conveys the story of two friends no longer capable of communicating with each other. While the white friend, Joe, sings of “preparing a report for Murdoch” and “being a foodie,” his Black friend, Sean, describes getting stopped and strip-searched by the police in vaulting melodic lines and excruciating detail–“when they found nothing, they said not a word.” Joe cannot understand what this feels like, to have one’s body violated solely based on the color of one’s skin, and naïvely asks, “Well, were you acting normal?” to which Sean responds, “You’re hearing me but not listening.” The staccato piano, melty woodwinds, and tromping horn underscored the tension between the two men and their two realities, until finally their two voices came together in unison as they sang of “living in a fantasy world.” The final words were spoken with no musical accompaniment, leaving a strand of hope as Joe insists he’ll show up for Sean’s court dates.
Terrance McKnight’s “letters from Black America,” ranging from words by Martin Luther King, Jr. to James Baldwin’s uncle to W.E.B. DuBois, were an incredibly powerful interjection, reminding listeners of uncomfortable and tragic realities that continue into the present, as the prevalence of police brutality against Black bodies persists. In the face of the police murders of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and countless others, it is easy to feel helpless; concerts such as this one remind us of the significance of artists and activists in speaking out (and singing out) against injustice.