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In 1970, Gil Scott-Heron composed a poem of protest titled "This Revolution Will Not Be Televised" (released on "Small Talk at 125th & Lenox"). A socially distanced yet enthusiastic audience witnessed an untelevised yet visionary program "Revolutionary AKA The Civil Rights Project," given by the Imani Winds at Duke University's Baldwin Auditorium. This distinguished woodwind quintet celebrates 25 years of international notoriety and creative innovation, including the third leg of a four-part guest artist residency at Duke. Their programs continue to bravely traverse new expressive, stylistic, and aesthetic territory through their recent performance and recording projects. This particular program featured "Sometimes" by Frederic Rzewski, "Bruits" by Vijay Iyer, "Cane" by Jason Moran, and the Bronzeville Sextet for Winds and Piano by Valerie Coleman. The members of the Imani Winds: Brandon Patrick George, flute; Toyin Spellman-Diaz, oboe; Mark Dover, clarinet; Kevin Newton, French horn; and Monica Ellis, bassoon. Guest pianist Cory Smythe joined the ensemble for Iyer's and Coleman's works.
The program opened with the well-known anthem of civil rights and progress: "A Change Is Gonna Come" by Sam Cooke. The experience of being turned away from a whites-only motel in Shreveport, Louisiana in October 1963 inspired the song. Written in the wake of the March on Washington (and the "I Have A Dream" speech of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.), the song signaled a significant change in Cooke's creative thinking after hearing Bob Dylan's "Blowin' In The Wind" the same year. We remember Cooke's song as the story of "both a generation and a people" who put their freedom, lives, and livelihoods on the line in the pursuit of "life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness"...and civil equality.
"Sometimes" by Frederic Rzewski (1938-2021) is derived from the American Negro spiritual tradition as sung by Paul Robeson, whose "fragmented, deconstructed music" accompanied a profound quotation from Dr. John Hope Franklin's autobiography, Mirror to America, in its opening movement: "We need a new American revolution that will create a new ideology of comradeship in the great enterprise of building a society in which every man, woman and child can face tomorrow unencumbered by the burdens of the past or the prejudices of the present. This calls for a revolution in the hearts and souls of every American. This is what the first American revolution did not have. This is what the new American revolution must have." These words were read as the bassoon played "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child," giving the quotation and its transformed voice a timeless message in this time of struggle for democracy in America. The second movement is an extension of the musical conversation reserved for the woodwind quintet without the spoken word. The fragmented song endured even when subjected to "ensemble explosion" between five instrumental timbres and dramatic gestures. The closing movement of "Sometimes" turns to Langston Hughes' mournful poem, "God To Hungry Child." The poem was recited live in the concert, but soprano Janai Brugger sings the setting to haunting ironic effect on Imani Winds' recording of this work:
"Hungry child, I didn't make this world for you.
You didn't buy any stock in my railroad.
You didn't invest in my corporation.
Where are your shares in standard oil?
I made the world for the rich
And the will-be-rich
And the have-always-been-rich.
Not for you."
The title of Vijay Iyer's (b.1971) work for winds and piano, "Bruits," means "noises," which describes the turbulent sound of blood moving through obstructed arteries when heard through a stethoscope. When bruits are detected, this is an indication that a body is at risk of asphyxiation, cardiac arrest, or death. Iyer composed this work with twofold messages: a tribute to the beautiful, historic Gulf Coast region, and a protest of the ghastly contrasts of inequality, disenfranchisement, and unpunished violence. Iyer's visits to the Hermitage also brought him face to face with that same parallel dichotomy: the majesty of the museum and Russian landscapes on one side – on the other, an undeniable sense of injustice, unrest and urgency. The "bruits" are undeniable noises of societal instability in America; peril and certain demise is imminent if these "noises" aren't given committed attention and remedy.
The opening movement, "Gulf," featured spoken word interpolations of legal statutes alongside the music. The words presented in "Force," the second movement, are drawn from the Florida "use of force" statute known as the "Stand Your Ground Law," and they gave the work an undeniable urgency. The statute recitation ironically "stalks" the musical setting, similar to the way that George Zimmerman followed Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012. This movement involves percussive effects created by the woodwinds tapping on the open air chambers of their instruments. The third and fourth movements ("wake" and "flocks") have a "disturbing sense of caprice," punctuated by repetitive lines of rhythm for the woodwinds (playing traditionally in this movement) followed by an undulating piano ostinato line. Another disturbing quote of George Zimmerman's mother closes the movement, but the meandering tone of her statement veils any trace of acknowledging her son's alleged crime. The fifth and final movement ("masse") has a driving rhythmic force shared by all instruments that easily implies extreme anger, the movement ending in the loudest possible dynamic.
"Cane" is a four-movement suite by Jason Moran (b.1975), drawing its inspiration from three significant themes: Moran's family lineage, his career as a jazz pianist, and the path of American history at large. The opening and second movements ("Togo to Natchitoches" and "Coin-Coin's Narrative") are tributes to Moran's ancestry through Maria Theresia Coin-Coin, a survivor of the transatlantic Middle Passage, taken as a slave in Louisiana who was granted her freedom after having bore ten children by the man who "owned" her. Upon receiving her freedom, she would be listed as a founding parishioner at St. Augustine Parish Church (Isle Brevelle) in Natchez, Louisiana. The remaining movements of the work, "Gens Libre De Couleur," and "Natchitoches to New York," bring the discovery to a full circle of celebration of both heritage and the musical score, from Coin-Coin's indomitable resiliency to Moran's current body of work. References to zydeco music add a "spicy gumbo flavor" to the finale.
In 2017, flutist, composer, and Imani Winds laureate Valerie Coleman (b.1970) composed the Bronzeville Sextet for Winds and Piano in a city-wide centennial celebration of Chicago native poetess Gwendolyn Brooks. Inspired both by Brooks' rhythmic poetry and historical photographs of Bronzeville, Coleman explored the connections between language and rhythm, transferring Morse code rhythms into the musical score. The words "sister," "Bronzeville," and "God" are tapped out by each member of the ensemble. Brooks' well-known poem "We/Real Cool" was quoted to dramatic effect at the work's end. In the spirit of Gil-Scott Heron, the concert was a "revolutionarily untelevised good time" had by all!