By Anne E. Johnson
BROOKLYN — The Brooklyn Youth Chorus is celebrating its 25th anniversary by letting the singers’ voices be heard in a new way. Silent Voices, which received its world premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on May 12, uses personal testimonies of the choristers to connect musical works by eight composers.
“I wanted to do something reflective of the choristers themselves,” explained Dianne Berkun Menaker, founder and artistic director of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. She is the mastermind behind Silent Voices as well as its conductor. “The original idea was a girl project, exploring female empowerment. Our main performing group, the Concert Ensemble, is largely female. But also of huge importance are issues of race, sexual identity, and economic disparity.”
She chose to include all those issues in the piece, letting a wide range of composers demonstrate them. An early version of the work, performed at National Sawdust in November 2016, included thirteen composers. For BAM, the piece was shortened to 90 minutes, and the number of composers cut to eight: Jeff Beal, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Paul Miller (aka DJ Spooky), Nico Muhly, Shara Nova, Toshi Reagon, Kamala Sankaram, and Caroline Shaw, several of whom had worked with the BYC on commissions before. “We decided the composers need to be representative of the voices and issues they were writing about,” Menaker said.
But Silent Voices was never just about music. From the start, Menaker wanted it to be a fully staged multi-media work, developed and directed by Kristin Marting, to counteract how choruses are often seen as impersonal and in the background. “The staged piece lets the audience connect with the ever-changing face of the individual,” Menaker noted. “It breaks the constrictions of uniforms and the risers.”
At first, the multi-part piece was held together by a libretto by Pulitzer Prize winning theater critic Hilton Als. Menaker and Marting eventually reduced the role of Als’ text. “We realized we wanted the choristers’ own voices,” Menaker said. “We had Helga Davis, the show’s host, conduct interviews with the choristers, who are ages twelve to eighteen, to talk about the issues. We ended up with a beautiful body of testimonials about their own experiences. That is now the main source of spoken word.”
And powerful words they are. About a dozen young people recited their own thoughts between musical numbers. Several recollected coming to terms with the beauty of being black. One spoke about hiding her “big” hair in a bun because people don’t understand it. A white chorister admitted that being privileged came with responsibilities toward those who are not so fortunate. With these succinct, authentic lessons to guide us, what remained of Davis’ explanatory narration seemed unnecessary.
All that talking underpinned thirteen commissioned choral works – five by Beal, two by Nova, and one each by the other six composers. Right out of the gate, in Shaw’s “so quietly,” the seven-stage musicianship program required for the BYC singers paid off as they conquered extremely complex rhythms with accuracy, not to mention perfect intonation. Even the microtonal slides and widely changing vocal timbres – including audible breathing – typical of Shaw were child’s play to these teens. “so quietly” is a musical representation of all people who feel unheard in society. “I’ll just sit here so quietly,” the chorus kept repeating. But then the message changes: “I won’t sit here so quietly.” And the silent voices were unmuted.
In accordance with Menaker’s vision, the chorus did not stand still on risers. For each work they were reconfigured either on split sets of risers, on benches, or standing in groups around the stage. Occasionally, they used simple hand gestures in unison to illustrate a word, such as putting fingers to their cheeks for “crying.” Rather than robes, the choristers wore less formal outfits designed by Kate Fry.
All of Beal’s compositions deal with lawyer and activist Pauli Murray (1910-1985), who had a frank correspondence about civil rights with Eleanor Roosevelt. Beal uses text preserved in the biography The Firebrand and the First Lady, by Patricia Bell-Scott, to give a sense of interplay between these two strong women. In “Dear Mrs. Roosevelt,” letters from Murray, plus Mrs. Roosevelt’s encouraging responses, are spoken by one chorister, while the rest sing fragments of that text.
Beal’s writing for the instrumental accompaniment to these choral works, performed at BAM by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), ranges from Copland-like majesty in the poetic number “Hope” to swing jazz sounds appropriate to the Roosevelt era.
Throughout the performance, video projections by Peter Nigrini, often showing historical photographs of African-Americans (from sharecroppers to civil rights marchers) or spelling out key words from the texts, helped to keep the eye engaged. Even more effective was the lighting by Jeanette Yew, which blocked out the stage in intense colors to heighten dramatic moments. This was especially true in Nova’s heartbreaking “Blind to the Illness,” a response to police brutality against blacks, which ends with the line “Everything so beautifully in color.”
Those visuals had a major impact on the most emotionally charged piece, “I Can Barely Look” by Kouyoumdjian. The text grew out of choristers’ reactions to photos of Syrian refugees. Given the opening lines, the students were clearly shown that famous image of a dead child washed up on the beach in Turkey: “Bright red shirt, blue shorts / Black and orange sneakers / Waves wash over him / Face-down….” Nigrini made the excellent choice not to project that image itself, which would have prevented the music from being the emotional center of the work. Instead, we saw waves washing up and receding. The choristers stepped forward and backward as they sang, emulating that motion.
In Muhly’s “Advice to a Young Woman,” which chugged forward with Philip Glass-like perpetual motion, bits of the work’s 17th-century text were displayed not only on the screens but on the choristers themselves. For “Go Tell It,” DJ Spooky used lines from Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness to recreate the spiritual “Go Tell It on the Mountain” in a sardonic tone.
“Keeping the Look Loose” by Sankaram was all about self-loathing and self-love. The word “Why” passed quickly around the chorus, then later the word “Vulnerability.” Patterns of stomping feet and clapping hands contrasted with a delicate passage of solo and duet singing about someone wishing to “uncover my face.” (The full libretto was printed in the program, but the Gilman Opera House lights were too low to read by during the performance.)
The singers really got to move in the second half of Reagon’s “Building Brooklyn,” representing the neighborhoods of this borough before and after gentrification. In the first section, the neighborhoods are remembered as old cultural enclaves expressed in gospel-inspired phrasing with African drums; then they are portrayed as hip and modern hot-spots with an electronic score and boogieing choristers.
The evening ended with Nova’s inspiring “Let Freedom Ring,” notable for its accompaniment by eight or so triangles played by ICE. Hundreds of kids – presumably from the BYC training program – filled the aisles to sing along with the refrain.
“Everyone has opened up to the experiences of others,” said Menaker. “Everybody’s been really transformed.” She was referring to the choristers who created Silent Voices. But it was true of the audience who heard the piece as well.
Anne E. Johnson is a Brooklyn-based arts journalist and author of fiction. She has written for The New York Times, Stagebill, and Chicago on the Aisle, and is a regular columnist for Copper: The Journal of Music and Audio. Learn more on her website.