“This will be our reply to violence: To make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly, than ever before.” -Leonard Bernstein
Last month, I had an epiphany in the shower: Instead of writing the ensemble piece I was asked to write for St Louis students, I would write a piece related to the recent shooting of the St Louis teenager Michael Brown. The topic spoke to me more than what was originally planned, and when artists can do what they want, rather than what they are asked, the work is usually more meaningful. Presumptuous?
I began researching the events and discovered Michael Brown’s rap songs. Many of them were vulgar, but I decided to take a melody he had used and based an entire piece around those eight notes. The aim wasn’t to glorify his crude raps, but to represent him aurally. The hope was that teens from all over the city would perform it and the whole community could come together across racial and socioeconomic lines to reflect on the situation in a healing and thoughtful way. Audacious?
Two weeks later and I had something…something I am very proud of. There is a reading by Du Bois to contextualize the racial aspect, and I gave players the option to raise or not raise their hands as they finish playing, in the hope that they could have a conversation about their choice. The fact is, people of good faith can -and do- have differing opinions about Ferguson, but I felt everyone would appreciate what I was trying to do. Naive?
But my perspective as a New Yorker didn’t anticipate just how tense and divisive things in St Louis are right now. And there are so many factors involved in having teens perform: Administrators, teachers, students and parents all have to be for it. Then there are all sorts of considerations for the presenting organization: Will we alienate members? Be seen as taking sides in this polarizing issue? How will the media portray this (e.g. “Presenter Showcases Vulgar Rap Song”)? We fought the good fight, even changing aspects of the piece to assuage objections (this is a whole other subject), but in the end, the difficulty in getting it performed as conceived became overwhelming. Failure.
UPDATE: So when at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. I went back to the drawing board and through luck, grace, and the hard work of certain individuals I’m grateful to, the piece will be premiered by Duo Noire at the Alliance of Black Art Galleries in St Louis. Now the real work can begin. Redemption.