Kinnara Chamber Choir launches new work focused on civil rights
The half-hour piece, in 12 short sections, evokes a variety of today’s post-minimalist and hipster compositional trends (including many of the same gestures we heard before intermission in “Passion”) of Lang). There are countless pieces that set Dr. King’s speeches and sermons to music. Gilligan went further and closer in time, adding texts from John Lewis, Alice Walker, Jimmy Carter and even a quote from Stacey Abrams from her 2018 governor’s “no concession” speech: “These votes are our voice. We are each entitled to our choices.
“Southern Dissonances” opens with Langston Hughes (who wasn’t from Georgia) and the powerful rhetoric of “What happens to a dream deferred?” The words are poetic, the meaning is precise, but the music is light. The next section, “We Will Not Be Moved,” is based on a song that marchers from Selma to Montgomery sang in 1965 as they crossed the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge. Beautiful tangy harmonies created appealing moments that oddly contradicted the text.
The composer assigns a distinct percussion accompaniment to each section. “We Shall Not Be Moved” is backed by a loose, punchy bongo beat that also felt disconnected from the words. It became a model through “Southern Dissonances”. Another section by Stacey Abrams, “An Escape for Suppression”, was against the marimba. Rather than complementing language and emphasizing ideas, here the percussion competes for our attention.
Taken from a 1979 Jimmy Carter speech, “Malignant Malaise” featured a cello bow dragged over tiny cymbals. Why? Then, at the end, the line “We have respected the presidency as a place of honor…” is paired with an assertive snare drum, a clichéd evocation of The President’s Own military band. But when Carter’s sentence ends in “. . . until the shock of Watergate”, the rubbed cymbals return for some reason.
A long poem by Alice Walker, “You want to grow old like the Carters”, begins with the ticking of the block of wood, perhaps suggesting the march of time and the inevitability of old age. So far, so good. But then the marimba muscles interfere with our understanding of the poem. Percussionist Herron is a first-class musician, and he didn’t drown out the quartet of singers with loud volume or aggressive mallet technique. It’s that Gilligan’s percussion parts distract our ears from the subject of the poem. For the vocal writing, instead of adding ideas or new perspectives on the poem, his prosody discards the music already embedded in Walker’s poetic voice.
Elsewhere, Gilligan’s vocal writing can be clear and charming, and the singers can intertwine and play off each other with catchy directness. The climax of the piece, and a sign of the composer’s skill, came in a very short a cappella section with another Stacey Abrams quote, “You can’t have those things you refuse to dream of.” Tense, efficient, and alert to the ups and downs of syllables, its staging makes you pay attention to every word. Although Gilligan’s songwriting voice is not particularly original, his music is often bursting with energy and light. She is still looking for her way.
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