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Review: Ensemble Pi furthers the conversation on reparations through music and prose

from Seen & Heard International

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United States Ensemble Pi, Reparations NOW!: Various composers: Airi Yoshioka (violin), Alexis Gerlach (cello), Allison Loggins-Hull (flute), Moran Katz (clarinet), Wayne Dumaine (trumpet), Bill Trigg (percussion), Idith Korman (piano & accordion), Damian Norfleet (narrator) / Trevor Weston and Raquel Acevedo Klein (conductors). The Center at West Park, New York. First streamed on 29.10.2020. (RP)

Allison Loggins-Hull – ‘The Pattern’ (world premiere)

Courtney Bryan – ‘Elegy’

Improvisation – ‘Requiem for Elijah’

Georg Friedrich Haas – ‘I can’t breathe’ (In memoriam Eric Garner)

Damian Norfleet – ‘Kendi’s Secret’ (world premiere)

Angélica Negrón – ‘Conversación a distancia’ (world premiere)

Trevor Weston – ‘Pinkster Kings‘ (world premiere)

Ensemble Pi takes on tough subjects ranging from America’s relationship with guns to Black Lives Matter. This concert tackles reparations, a topic that has been around at least since Abraham Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address. Reparations in the US, however, did not work out as one might expect. More often than not the slaves themselves were required to pay for their own liberty.

The argument for reparations in the twenty-first century is set forth in a quote from an article in The Atlantic by historian Ibram X. Kendi, a leading antiracist voice, who leaves no middle ground: ‘To oppose reparations is to be racist. To support them is to be anti-racist’. The legacy of slavery and systemic racism in the US, as Kendi and others see it, is the racial wealth gap; it is estimated that white households own 86 times more wealth than their black counterparts. The mass incarceration of Black males is another lightening rod in the discussion.

Reparations NOW! begins with Allison Loggins-Hull’s ‘The Pattern’. The first sounds heard are a crash or scream followed by a swirl of angry, driving rhythms. These soon yield to beautiful but plaintive melodies played by the flute and later the violin, which are underpinned by evocative percussion accompaniments. The emotions generated by the music alternate between anger and an unsettled calm.

Excerpts from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander are projected throughout ‘The Pattern’. Alexander’s argument, which Loggins-Hull’s music amplifies, is that America’s racial caste system is a present-day reality: America imprisons more Black men than were enslaved before the Civil War. ‘The Pattern’ achieves a climax of sorts, although hardly a resolution, before simply stopping in midair.

Scored for violin, cello, clarinet and piano, Courtney Bryan’s ‘Elegy’ is a response to ‘Strange Fruit’, the Abel Meeropol song made famous by Billie Holiday. Divided into three sections – ‘A lament’, ‘Spirit Journey’ and ‘The Ascent’ – Bryan honors past and present victims of racism by imaging the transition of their spirits from the body to the beyond. There is no anger but rather melancholy, as beautiful melodies weave themselves through Bryan’s sparse, transparent textures. Although the musical ascent of these spirits is frequently interrupted by dissonance, they ultimately land on a plateau of sorts where an unsettling sense of calm prevails.

Requiem for Elijah’, Damian Norfleet read the last words of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old African-American massage therapist from Aurora, Colorado, who died after being placed in a chokehold by police and sedated by paramedics. ‘I can’t breathe. I have my ID right here. My name is Elijah McClain. That’s my house. I was just going home. I’m an introvert. I’m just different. That’s all. I’m so sorry. I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff. I don’t do any fighting’.

Norfleet repeated the words over and over again while the musicians provided an improvised accompaniment. His recitations become angrier and angrier, before frustration gave way to hopelessness. At the conclusion of the work, Norfleet donned a blue face mask, a reminder of the toll that COVID-19 is taking on communities of color in America.

Eric Garner repeated the words ‘I can’t breathe’ eleven times while lying face down on a Staten Island sidewalk on 17 July 2014, after being placed in a chokehold by police. Georg Friedrich Haas composed ‘I can’t breathe (In memoriam Eric Garner)’ for solo trumpet in his memory. The work begins with a dirge, which is quite beautiful until its echo-like sequences begin to deconstruct. Wayne Dumaine made his instrument sing, gurgle, scream and gasp for breath, but it is the lyricism of the piece that makes it so poignant and powerful.

Angélica Negrón’s ‘Conversación a distancia’, scored for piano, clarinet, percussion, violin, cello and accordion, was inspired by the music of Puerto Rican composer Juan Morel Campo and field recordings of music from her hometown of Ponce. Negrón creates a vivid, scintillating musical postcard that captures the rapidly disappearing Afro-Latinx culture of her native Puerto Rico. It is a work full of lively rhythms, exotic music colors, clean textures and placid, pure melodies that only temporarily yield to a more anxious and biting mood.

Earlier in the concert, Norfleet read excerpts to percussion accompaniment from Kendi’s book How to Be an Antiracist. In the final work on the program, Trevor Weston’s ‘Pinkster Kings’, he related the story of the African slaves who built New York, then the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. The work’s title is derived from an anglicized version of the Dutch word for Pentecost, a holiday that the Africans embraced and turned into a weeklong celebration.

The historical texts answer the question of why Africans were brought to the colony of New Amsterdam by the Dutch West India Company. It was pure greed: cheap labor was needed to build, fight and carry bags. Weston’s musical voice lent itself to capturing the boisterousness of the Pinkster celebrations, as well as the bitter history of the Africans brought to the New World.

David Brooks, a columnist with The New York Times, has written, ‘Reparations are a drastic policy and hard to execute, but the very act of talking about and designing them heals a wound and opens a new story’. With Reparations NOW!, Ensemble Pi engages in the conversation and elevates it to a much higher plane through an extraordinarily compelling combination of words and music.

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by Rick Perdian
Thursday, June 11, 2020