Rise

words and images behind the music

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  1. Rise, a collaboration with the poet Tameka Cage Conley, bears witness to civil rights in America at a fraught moment in our history. A six-movement reflection on the journey from Selma to Ferguson and beyond, the work is at once a celebration and a reckoning, the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century refracted through the unimaginable triumphs and horrors – the election of the first African-American president, juxtaposed with the deaths of young Black men at the hands of law enforcement officers – of the 21st.

    Scored for double choir and chamber ensemble, Rise takes its title from Dr. Cage Conley’s text, as well as from resonances found in the writings of Michele Norris (The Grace of Silence, a memoir) and the late Maya Angelou (her poem, “Still I Rise”). Among other influences, the music draws inspiration from two of my heroes in art and activism, Nina Simone and Stevie Wonder, and from Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, the choreographer’s signature dance set to African-American spirituals.

    Rise
    was commissioned by the Cantate Chamber Singers for their 30th anniversary season, to be performed in conjunction with Howard University’s Afro Blue on April 19, 2015 at Washington, DC’s historic Metropolitan A.M.E.Church. Special thanks are due to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where I first met Dr. Cage Conley and later worked on this music, and to Dr. & Mrs. Eli and Toni Adashi, for commissioning Dr. Cage Conley’s poetry.
  2. (Mouseover images for captions)
  3. I'll be posting images & more leading up to this 4/19 premiere. Hope you'll follow & repost!
    I'll be posting images & more leading up to this 4/19 premiere. Hope you'll follow & repost!
  4. My collaborator on "Rise" is Tameka Cage Conley, PhD, a literary artist who writes poetry, fiction and plays. Tameka and I met as first-time fellows at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in the summer of 2013, where we had many late-night conversations about race and politics. When I realized that my forthcoming commission about civil rights in America called for the words of a young poet who had lived through the highs and lows of our recent history, I knew exactly who to call. Her original poems for this project -- six visceral reflections on the journey from Selma to Ferguson and beyond -- are the beating heart of "Rise." Photo by Mario Epanya.
    My collaborator on "Rise" is Tameka Cage Conley, PhD, a literary artist who writes poetry, fiction and plays. Tameka and I met as first-time fellows at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in the summer of 2013, where we had many late-night conversations about race and politics. When I realized that my forthcoming commission about civil rights in America called for the words of a young poet who had lived through the highs and lows of our recent history, I knew exactly who to call. Her original poems for this project -- six visceral reflections on the journey from Selma to Ferguson and beyond -- are the beating heart of "Rise." Photo by Mario Epanya.
  5. "Rise" was commissioned by Washington, DC's Cantate Chamber Singers to mark the occasion of their 30th anniversary season. I've had the privilege of working with this ensemble since 2003, when I won their Young Composers' Contest. Cantate has been directed with great conviction by Gisèle Becker since 1994. Her vision of a multi-choir, intergenerational piece was central to the conception of "Rise."
    "Rise" was commissioned by Washington, DC's Cantate Chamber Singers to mark the occasion of their 30th anniversary season. I've had the privilege of working with this ensemble since 2003, when I won their Young Composers' Contest. Cantate has been directed with great conviction by Gisèle Becker since 1994. Her vision of a multi-choir, intergenerational piece was central to the conception of "Rise."
  6. Given the opportunity to suggest a second ensemble for a double choir commission, I immediately thought of Howard University's Afro Blue, and was thrilled when they agreed to take part in "Rise." I had heard them on NBC's The Sing-Off (alongside my old college singing group, the Yale Whiffenpoofs!), and was blown away by their sound. Led by their extraordinary founder and director, Connaitre Miller, Afro Blue specializes in sophisticated jazz arrangements, but excels in any idiom. As a predominantly African-American group from a Historically Black College, their involvement in this project adds a meaningful, necessary dimension to the words and music of "Rise."
    Given the opportunity to suggest a second ensemble for a double choir commission, I immediately thought of Howard University's Afro Blue, and was thrilled when they agreed to take part in "Rise." I had heard them on NBC's The Sing-Off (alongside my old college singing group, the Yale Whiffenpoofs!), and was blown away by their sound. Led by their extraordinary founder and director, Connaitre Miller, Afro Blue specializes in sophisticated jazz arrangements, but excels in any idiom. As a predominantly African-American group from a Historically Black College, their involvement in this project adds a meaningful, necessary dimension to the words and music of "Rise."
  7. Thanks to our special guest, renowned journalist Gwen Ifill (Washington Week, PBS News Hour), "Rise" will premiere at the historic Metropolitan A.M.E. Church in Washington, DC. The church, a gothic structure in the heart of the city, was built by free blacks and former slaves; funerals were held there for Frederick Douglass and Rosa Parks.
    Thanks to our special guest, renowned journalist Gwen Ifill (Washington Week, PBS News Hour), "Rise" will premiere at the historic Metropolitan A.M.E. Church in Washington, DC. The church, a gothic structure in the heart of the city, was built by free blacks and former slaves; funerals were held there for Frederick Douglass and Rosa Parks.
  8. One of the most important voices in "Rise" isn't actually a voice. The flugelhorn plays the opening "Invocation" with the piano, and returns at key moments in the 3rd and 5th movements (the latter passage is called for by Dr. Cage Conley's words: "A horn tells us, / a brother has fallen, again..."). I was inspired to use the instrument in part by the local musician in this photo, who plays his horn at the corner of Calvert and Baltimore Streets when the weather is warm enough.
    One of the most important voices in "Rise" isn't actually a voice. The flugelhorn plays the opening "Invocation" with the piano, and returns at key moments in the 3rd and 5th movements (the latter passage is called for by Dr. Cage Conley's words: "A horn tells us, / a brother has fallen, again..."). I was inspired to use the instrument in part by the local musician in this photo, who plays his horn at the corner of Calvert and Baltimore Streets when the weather is warm enough.
  9. The narrative of "Rise" begins with Tameka Cage Conley's poem "Edmund Pettus Bridge, March 7, 1965": Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. The poem bears a gospel chorus as its epigraph: "I know it was the blood / I know it was the blood / I know it was the blood for me / One day when I was lost / He died upon the cross / and I know it was the blood for me." Pictured in this photo from the nonviolent march for voting rights is a young John Lewis, the future Congressman from Georgia. A state trooper struck Lewis in the head with a billy club, fracturing his skull. As he recently recalled: "I thought I saw death. I thought I was going to die."
    The narrative of "Rise" begins with Tameka Cage Conley's poem "Edmund Pettus Bridge, March 7, 1965": Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. The poem bears a gospel chorus as its epigraph: "I know it was the blood / I know it was the blood / I know it was the blood for me / One day when I was lost / He died upon the cross / and I know it was the blood for me." Pictured in this photo from the nonviolent march for voting rights is a young John Lewis, the future Congressman from Georgia. A state trooper struck Lewis in the head with a billy club, fracturing his skull. As he recently recalled: "I thought I saw death. I thought I was going to die."
  10. The second movement of "Rise" is titled "A Blues, in the Light of Overcoming." Eight days after Bloody Sunday in Selma, President Lyndon Johnson addressed Congress on the subject of voting rights: "What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome." Martin Luther King, Jr., pictured here in an Oval Office meeting with Johnson, reportedly shed a tear in response to the president's use of the phrase. https://youtu.be/MxEauRq1WxQ
    The second movement of "Rise" is titled "A Blues, in the Light of Overcoming." Eight days after Bloody Sunday in Selma, President Lyndon Johnson addressed Congress on the subject of voting rights: "What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome." Martin Luther King, Jr., pictured here in an Oval Office meeting with Johnson, reportedly shed a tear in response to the president's use of the phrase. https://youtu.be/MxEauRq1WxQ
  11. Congressman John Lewis takes center stage in the third movement of "Rise," entitled "O, Light (from Troy to All the Cities)." Both the words and music of this movement -- the song is cast in the spirit of Nina Simone's longer, urgent epics -- are dedicated to Lewis, a lifelong soldier in the Civil Rights Movement. If any one person is at the heart of "Rise," it is this man, who grew up preaching to his chickens in Troy, Alabama. ("I'm convinced that some of those chickens that I preached to...tended to listen to me much better than some of my colleagues listen to me in the Congress. As a matter of fact, some of those chickens were a little more productive. At least they produced eggs.") One of the 13 original Freedom Riders, Lewis is the only living speaker from the 1963 March on Washington (pictured), despite having nearly died at the hands of a state trooper on Bloody Sunday. He isn't always portrayed in the foreground of the movement narrative, perhaps because he doesn't offer the soaring oratory of Dr. King. As Dr. Cage Conley imagines him saying of his own voice: "You ain't got to love it. / I love it. / But you gone listen, / Yesss! / Listen here." https://youtu.be/tSZ1UKD0vYY
    Congressman John Lewis takes center stage in the third movement of "Rise," entitled "O, Light (from Troy to All the Cities)." Both the words and music of this movement -- the song is cast in the spirit of Nina Simone's longer, urgent epics -- are dedicated to Lewis, a lifelong soldier in the Civil Rights Movement. If any one person is at the heart of "Rise," it is this man, who grew up preaching to his chickens in Troy, Alabama. ("I'm convinced that some of those chickens that I preached to...tended to listen to me much better than some of my colleagues listen to me in the Congress. As a matter of fact, some of those chickens were a little more productive. At least they produced eggs.") One of the 13 original Freedom Riders, Lewis is the only living speaker from the 1963 March on Washington (pictured), despite having nearly died at the hands of a state trooper on Bloody Sunday. He isn't always portrayed in the foreground of the movement narrative, perhaps because he doesn't offer the soaring oratory of Dr. King. As Dr. Cage Conley imagines him saying of his own voice: "You ain't got to love it. / I love it. / But you gone listen, / Yesss! / Listen here." https://youtu.be/tSZ1UKD0vYY
  12. John Lewis has said "Barack Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma." "Rise" uses this premise as a bridge to the present, in a short meditation titled "Alpha & Omega." The two choirs participate in a gentle call and response, each phrase punctuated by the word "barack," or "blessing." Lewis and his fellow marchers in 1965 could hardly have imagined the election of the first African-American president in 2008. After Obama was sworn in, Lewis asked him to sign a commemorative photo from the occasion, which the president inscribed with the words "Because of you, John." Here the two men are pictured embracing just after Lewis introduced Obama at the 50th anniversary of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/02/02/the-presidents-hero
    John Lewis has said "Barack Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma." "Rise" uses this premise as a bridge to the present, in a short meditation titled "Alpha & Omega." The two choirs participate in a gentle call and response, each phrase punctuated by the word "barack," or "blessing." Lewis and his fellow marchers in 1965 could hardly have imagined the election of the first African-American president in 2008. After Obama was sworn in, Lewis asked him to sign a commemorative photo from the occasion, which the president inscribed with the words "Because of you, John." Here the two men are pictured embracing just after Lewis introduced Obama at the 50th anniversary of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/02/02/the-presidents-hero
  13. "Remains" is the fifth movement of "Rise." Dr. Cage Conley took Bruce Springsteen's song "American Skin" (written after an unarmed Amadou Diallo was shot 41 times by four NYPD officers) as a point of departure for this poem, which also includes an epigraph from Toni Morrison's "Beloved": "What are these people? You tell me, Jesus. What are they?" "Remains" grapples directly with the brutal deaths of young Black men at the hands of American law enforcement officers. This photo is of Mike Brown, who was killed by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014; his body was left lying in the street for nearly four hours. The final stanza of "Remains" implores: "Oh nation, / can we rise / like air?"
    "Remains" is the fifth movement of "Rise." Dr. Cage Conley took Bruce Springsteen's song "American Skin" (written after an unarmed Amadou Diallo was shot 41 times by four NYPD officers) as a point of departure for this poem, which also includes an epigraph from Toni Morrison's "Beloved": "What are these people? You tell me, Jesus. What are they?" "Remains" grapples directly with the brutal deaths of young Black men at the hands of American law enforcement officers. This photo is of Mike Brown, who was killed by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014; his body was left lying in the street for nearly four hours. The final stanza of "Remains" implores: "Oh nation, / can we rise / like air?"
  14. The sixth and final movement of "Rise" is called "MericanAnthem." This is a poem of hope and communion, one that takes several cues from the text of Francis Scott Key's Star-Spangled Banner. Accordingly, I drew inspiration (as I have on other occasions) from what I consider to be the most powerful account of the song: Marvin Gaye's rendition at the 1983 NBA All-Star game. What I've always carried with me from this performance is Gaye's brilliant, sensuous phrasing, each line a work of art unto itself. It is a deeply patriotic version of our anthem, a love song to what our country is and what it can be. "MericanAnthem" is the epilogue to an unfinished story, and I wanted Gaye's beautiful lines to glow beneath its surface. Dr. Cage Conley's poem concludes with a litany, the names of murdered Black men followed by these words: "Resound -- a drum / like faith / that conceived them / in early light." Image by PJ McQuade. https://vimeo.com/5446117
    The sixth and final movement of "Rise" is called "MericanAnthem." This is a poem of hope and communion, one that takes several cues from the text of Francis Scott Key's Star-Spangled Banner. Accordingly, I drew inspiration (as I have on other occasions) from what I consider to be the most powerful account of the song: Marvin Gaye's rendition at the 1983 NBA All-Star game. What I've always carried with me from this performance is Gaye's brilliant, sensuous phrasing, each line a work of art unto itself. It is a deeply patriotic version of our anthem, a love song to what our country is and what it can be. "MericanAnthem" is the epilogue to an unfinished story, and I wanted Gaye's beautiful lines to glow beneath its surface. Dr. Cage Conley's poem concludes with a litany, the names of murdered Black men followed by these words: "Resound -- a drum / like faith / that conceived them / in early light." Image by PJ McQuade. https://vimeo.com/5446117
  15. "Rise" is dedicated to two people. One is Jerry Thornbery, a devoted high-school teacher who sparked my engagement with the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Thornbery's Black History class was a singular and critical experience at my mostly-white private school in Baltimore, as was his speakers' series featuring major movement figures like Fred Shuttlesworth and Julian Bond. The other dedicatee, of both the poetry and the music, is Maze Tru Cage Conley (pictured). In Dr. Cage Conley's words: "My son was two months old when Mike Brown was murdered in the street and left there for hours, a gracelessness that haunts and humiliates...as a mother, I felt there was a clear message to me and to my newborn son: you are not citizens, and your lives do not matter." Maze has been an integral part of this project, and is the embodiment of its necessity.
    "Rise" is dedicated to two people. One is Jerry Thornbery, a devoted high-school teacher who sparked my engagement with the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Thornbery's Black History class was a singular and critical experience at my mostly-white private school in Baltimore, as was his speakers' series featuring major movement figures like Fred Shuttlesworth and Julian Bond. The other dedicatee, of both the poetry and the music, is Maze Tru Cage Conley (pictured). In Dr. Cage Conley's words: "My son was two months old when Mike Brown was murdered in the street and left there for hours, a gracelessness that haunts and humiliates...as a mother, I felt there was a clear message to me and to my newborn son: you are not citizens, and your lives do not matter." Maze has been an integral part of this project, and is the embodiment of its necessity.
  16. "Rise" premieres today, 5pm at Metropolitan A.M.E. in DC!
    "Rise" premieres today, 5pm at Metropolitan A.M.E. in DC!
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