SPONSORED BY: Hewlett Foundation and Oregon Community FoundationWilliam Eddins, Conductor
The African American Requiem Choir, featuring Resonance Ensemble, Kingdom Sound Gospel Choir, and members of regional choirs
Katherine FitzGibbon, Chorusmaster
Brandie Sutton, Soprano
Karmesha Peake, Mezzo-soprano
Bernard Holcomb, Tenor
Kenneth Overton, Baritone
S. Renee Mitchell, Poet and Narrator
All Classical Portland will broadcast this world premiere live on 89.9FM and allclassical.org, and syndicate a live simulcast on WQXR in New York City.
Conducted one hour before the performance, the Concert Conversation will feature Composer Damien Geter and All Classical Portland host, Adam Eccleston. Visit orsymphony.org/conversations to watch the video on demand.
An African American Requiem (World premiere)
Work composed: 2018–19. “Dedicated to the victims of racial violence.”
Commissioned by Resonance Ensemble
First Oregon Symphony performance
Instrumentation: soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, and baritone soloists, SATB choir, piccolo, 2 flutes, oboe, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, 2 bass drums, congas, chimes (tubular bells), crash cymbals, ride cymbal, suspended cymbal, glockenspiel, police siren, shaker, 2 snare drums, tambourine, 3 tom-toms, triangle, vibraphone, xylophone, and strings
Estimated duration: 85 minutes
“The marrow of this Nation is in its soil; stained with the blood of the Ancestors.”
After the 2016 presidential election, Damien Geter began to examine his musical and artistic activities. Geter, who currently serves as Portland Opera’s Interim Artistic Director, as well as Artistic Advisor for Resonance Ensemble, has earned a national reputation as an opera singer. Geter is also a busy composer, with works have been commissioned by a number of renowned ensembles.
Geter, a huge fan of singer/pianist/ activist Nina Simone, subscribes to her belief that the artist’s duty is to reflect the times in which they live. After the 2016 Presidential election, “The times felt rather bleak to me as a Black person,” he acknowledges.
In response, Damien decided to write a work of his own. “I’ve been composing as long as I can remember, and I realized I could use my composer voice to say the things I wanted to say.” After much thought, Geter decided to write a Requiem [mass for the dead] in memory of those who lost their lives to racial violence in America. “I couldn’t get it out of my head. From that moment on, I felt like I was on to something. This was the political statement I was dying to make. I started drafting the first movement the next day.”
The African American Requiem quickly began to take shape, and Damien worked on it steadily through 2017–18. Originally, Geter had conceived a work approximately the scope and length of Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem (seven movements, approximately 35 minutes long), but soon realized Fauré’s Requiem was not an adequate model for the ideas Geter was gestating. Eventually, Geter turned to Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem, (20 sections, approximately 90 minutes), as a more artistically appropriate template. Also, Verdi’s epic operatic style in some ways aligned with Geter’s own inclinations as a composer and opera singer.
In addition to the standard Requiem texts, Geter includes words from Black people confronting racial violence. These texts come from civil rights activist Ida B. Wells’ decades-long anti-lynching campaign, as well as words of victims themselves: Eric Garner’s cry, “I can’t breathe!”; a line from a speech by Jamilia Land, aunt of Stephon Clark, killed by police in his grandmother’s back yard in Sacramento, CA in 2018: “We are living in communities that look like war zones;” and a line from a poem written by Antwon Rose, about his fears of being murdered by police: “I am confused and afraid.” (Two years after Rose wrote the poem I Am Not What You Think for his 10th grade Honors English class, he was gunned down by police in Pittsburgh, PA).
Geter also incorporates two spirituals from the Black tradition: “There’s A Man Going Round Takin’ Names,” and “Kum Ba Yah,” (in lieu the Sanctus). The final section, “Walk Together Children,” scored for orchestra and narrator, features words written and performed by African American poet and Portland resident Dr. S. Renee Mitchell.
Whether he’s writing a requiem, a string quartet, or a choral work, Geter’s musical style reflects the rhythmic and harmonic sounds of the music he grew up with, mainly hip hop and R&B. “My music is groovy,” he declares. “It sounds Black. Hip hop and R&B have an influence on everything I write. My sound has a rhythmic pulse you have to jam with, and it also shows jazz influences in the way I use harmonic progressions.” Geter also draws from contemporary classical music, particularly the works of John Adams – “he’s my favorite composer.” In the Requiem, Geter’s sound combines the elegance of extended jazz chordal harmonies with an urgent, vital energy. This is music that both demands and commands the listener’s attention.
Instead of the Kyrie’s traditional Greek, Geter translated the words into English: “Lord have mercy/Christ have mercy.” “That comes from my grandmother and mother saying, “Lord, have mercy,” says Geter, who gave the words to the mezzo soloist “so it has a motherly quality to it.” The Sanctus, whose traditional text “Holy holy holy/Lord God of Hosts/Heaven and Earth are full of thy glory,” is transformed into the gentle words of “Kum Ba Yah,” a song originally brought to America by enslaved Africans. The title, “Come by Here,” and the original verses entreat God’s help for those in need.
Geter pairs the weeping of the Lacrymosa text with a stark funeral march version of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” recast in a minor key. “It’s a throwback to the style of Monteverdi,” he explains. “I wrote lots of chromatic [melodies that move by half steps] to symbolize weeping."
The chorus sings the Agnus Dei unaccompanied, an intimate entreaty to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
In a 2020 interview with the American Composers' Forum, Geter shared what he hopes listeners will take away from the experience of hearing An African American Requiem:
"I have to assume that listeners are hearing my music because it was programmed by a presenter who engages in furthering the cause for social justice ... In a perfect world, my desire would be that my music moves someone to think more deeply about their relationships and to act in a way that supports these causes. In summary, it's less about how I want people to feel and more about how they act after the concert. Whether it's the privileged person who has never experienced racial trauma, or the person who simply doesn't get it. In a concert setting, we are forced to listen to, and take in, not only the music, but the message. Music can be a conduit in that way, bridging the reluctant person's heart to that of a broader human experience."
© 2021 Elizabeth Schwartz
Elizabeth Schwartz is a freelance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, Chamber Music Northwest, and other arts organizations around the country, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media. www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com