Apr 17, 2016
by RICKY O'BANNON

Last April, the city of Baltimore came to a screeching halt when the death of Freddie Gray and ensuing unrest thrust a city’s open wounds into plain view. A year later, the underlying issues and events as they unfolded in a national spotlight are still very tangible for the people of Baltimore.

In unequal measure, all Baltimoreans shared in a collective trauma. And while there is far from public consensus on many things related to that trauma, conversations and attempts to process are happening in private homes, in the public square and in the city’s art.

For Baltimore composers Kevin Puts and Judah Adashi, the events of April 2015 shaped works that are performed in April 2016. Even in the sometimes-insulated world of classical music, there is a drive for the music written today to acknowledge and bear witness to the issues of today. 

The City

When Kevin Puts began work several years ago on his fifth symphony, he envisioned a very different piece. The 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winner and Peabody Institute faculty member was asked by Marin Alsop to write a work that expressed something about the American city. It would be rooted in Baltimore, but Baltimore would also be a stand in for cities across the country.

Puts said he wanted to look at a city both zoomed in and zoomed out. On a macro level, he sought to look at the development of urban spaces and how they change over time, and on a micro level, to look at the relationships and lives of many different types of people who share what is often a small place.

At the suggestion of Alsop, Puts teamed up with director James Bartolomeo who worked on a film component that provides visuals to accompany the piece. The symphony took on the title of The City and saw its premiere by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this weekend both in its subject city, as well as at Bethesda, Maryland and Carnegie Hall in New York.

“When those events happened last April, it really did change things,” said Puts. “I had to completely change my approach to the piece, and it deepened it, too.”

The symphony would still look at the history, people and structure of Baltimore and by extension the American city in general. But the piece took on a new imperative to portray its subject more fully and honestly. In other words, it would express both the good and the bad of urban life.

“There's no way that I could ignore what has happened and not respond in some level in this piece,” Puts said. “It would be irresponsible. And it would be crazy, to be honest. You can't write a piece about Baltimore that comes from Baltimore, and [ignore that.]”

Bartolomeo said he remembers getting a call from Puts as scenes of protests and riots were being broadcast worldwide on CNN.

“He was very emotional. He was moved by what he was seeing, and we talked about it. [During that time,] we still didn’t know how it was all going to play out for the city,” Bartolomeo said.

In preparation for creating the film that would supplement Puts’ music, Bartolomeo had combed through city archives, collecting historic pictures of neighborhoods, architecture and scenes of life during Baltimore’s past century. In that research, he pulled many images from the riots that took place in 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I felt this was a recurring theme,” Bartolomeo said. “I think that last spring sort of took our blinders off.”

Early on, he said both had assumed that The City would be for the most part a celebration. Now, there was a need to “acknowledge and honor the tragedy of the riots” and to show an American city at both its best and worst.

“It became clear to me that the film I was making needed to be full-spectrum and not just a walk down memory lane,” Bartolomeo said. “I felt a need to be more courageous with the images and allow more of the city’s history to be represented in the film.”

Mchenry Smaller
A still image from James Bartolomeo's film for The City

The City opens with heavy aggressive, “brutal” drumming supplemented by panoramic images of the architecture and infrastructure of Baltimore. On top of that percussion comes primal melodies and gritty harmony from the orchestra’s winds. Out of that texture, the strings present an “anthem of the people” as Bartolomeo’s film shows images of the variety of the residents who call the city home in both their daily life and at historic moments of collective celebration. At one moment, the music takes a back seat to juxtaposed images from 1968 and 2015 of conflict and riot gear.

“It could be that I come from a small town in the Midwest, but the feeling is that a city is a tough place,” Puts said. “Not only is the city a tough place, but what we do in this country, so many different types of people living in a tight geographic area is also tough. It's hard. It takes a lot of patience and understanding, but we still try to do it.”

In much of his music, Puts finds themes of reconciliation and healing, and he aims for that in The City as well. While he writes in his statement on the piece that it ends in a haze of uncertainty, there is optimism that the many people depicted in music and film who share the challenges of living together in urban space (Baltimore and beyond) might still find a way to do so more successfully.

“Frankly, I don’t have any idea what the reactions to the piece will be,” Puts prior to its premiere. “I imagine that they’re going to be mixed.”

Like with most things that deal with last April, that’s often a safe bet. However, all three performances of the piece earned standing ovations.

Rise

For Baltimore composer Judah Adashi, none of the notes on the page and virtually no musical elements he wrote for his choral work Rise were altered by the death of Freddie Gray. But the piece did change. What changed for Rise, which musically “traces America’s civil rights journey from Selma to Ferguson and beyond,” was the context.

“I still remember waking up that day and hearing something vague on local radio. It [was the day of the] premiere, so there are a million things happening. I glanced at Twitter and saw something bad had happened in Baltimore, but I didn’t get to follow up fully,” Adashi remembers. “But when I got to the premiere, it became clear that Freddie Gray had died that morning.”

For an art form that often aspires to timelessness and writing for eternity, context is sometimes deemphasized in classical music. However, context and the inner thoughts and experiences of the audience that they bring with them to a concert can shape the performance of a piece as much as the what the composer puts in a score. Pieces like Brahms’ A German Requiem took on a new meaning and commonplace in concerts in the aftermath and memorial of 9/11. Likewise, Adashi knew that the “beyond” mentioned in the program note of Rise was suddenly present and local for the Baltimore native and Peabody Institute professor.

Rise was commissioned by a choral group out of Washington D.C. called the Cantate Chamber Singers. It is scored for chamber ensemble and two choirs, the second of which is Afro Blue out of Howard University. For the text of the piece, Adashi collaborated with poet and writer Tameka Cage Conley, who he met while in residence at the artist colony of Virginia Center for Creative Arts.

Rise ResizedConcert art used for Judah Adashi's Rise

The Civil Rights Movement, as described in history books or marked in February, often starts in the early 1950s and ends in 1968 with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebrating that history was something Adashi wanted, but he also said it seemed “woefully inadequate” to not tie that into the present. Adashi said the six poems Conley wrote, which span the Selma march to the present Black Lives Matter movement, make up the heart of the piece.

“[When I was looking for a text for Rise], I thought this needs to be written now,” he said. “This text needs to be created by a living artist engaging in this material and an African-American voice who can really speak to this still unfolding arc of history.”

Adashi and Cage grappled with whether to change the piece after the death of Freddie Gray. In the end, they decided to add Gray’s name to a list spoken in the piece that catalogues a series of young black men’s deaths in recent years that have grabbed national attention.

“The piece ends on a note of tragedy and hope. You can’t have one without the other in this narrative,” he said.

Shortly after the piece’s debut, Adashi recorded the opening section with a flugelhorn player and released it via the website Bandcamp. All proceeds from that recording went to the Gray family for burial and legal costs.

Exactly one year after its premiere, Rise will be performed again — this time in Baltimore. Alongside Rise, the concert on the anniversary of Gray’s death features another work of Adashi’s called The Beauty of the Protest for solo cello and voice performed by Lavena Johanson. That piece draws its name from a quote in an interview by Devin Allen, talking about his work photographing Baltimore last year, which went viral on Allen’s Instagram feed and earned a cover of Time Magazine. The concert kicks off with a conversation about art and activism between writer and educator D. Watkins, actress Sonja Sohn, poet and writer Tariq Touré and artist Aaron Maybin.

Where Contemporary Politics meet Contemporary Music

When the issues and stories that appear in the day’s news meet classical music, inevitably it also brings with it questions about the baggage of the medium. Fairly or not, classical music caries perceptions of class and race. There are undoubtedly sincere and meaningful efforts by classical institutions and open conversations in the industry as a whole to bridge those historic divides. But simply put, what happens in concert halls and conservatories can feel a long way away from the neighborhoods where reporters set up live shots when a city grabs the national spotlight.

Kevin Puts understands the class perception surrounding his art form, but that never played into his understanding and love for the music.

“When I was a kid, my parents played me classical music, and I loved it just because I loved it. I never thought of it as an elite activity to go to the symphony. I know a lot of people see it that way,” said Puts. “When you think about who Beethoven was as a person, who Mozart was, they were not elitist by any means. They were trying to write about the common man and for everybody.”

The presentation of the music, Puts said, can be austere and uninviting. But the music itself is wide open.

“I love the orchestra. I love the orchestra as it is. I believe I can speak in a voice which is fresh, contemporary and about life today that responds to the experience of being alive today, and I can do that with the same complement of players that Tchaikovsky used.

For Adashi on a personal level, Rise marks a part of an ongoing shift in his output as a composer. Outside of his work writing music, Adashi said he was increasingly involved in the area of social issues and politics in recent years — having worked on both Obama campaigns. Throughout the 2000s, he found that part of his life and his music becoming increasingly integrated.

In talking about how he thinks about political music, Adashi said his goal is ultimately to “bear witness.” That phrase (which is borrowed more than once in this story) comes from a 2011 essay by composer David T. Little that frames political music as either revolutionary or critical. Revolutionary music advocates a particular ideological position and hopes to win. Critical music on the other hand seeks to document, observe and to present problems without an obvious stated solution (often because those problems might not have one.) As Little puts it, “one might understand this as politics of bearing witness.”

This kind of documenting is a form of arts activism, but as George Orwell said, “The very notion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political position.”

“A huge hero of mine is Nina Simone,” Adashi said. “She had a fantastic line [that was essentially,] ‘How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?’”

When one of the issues of the times is race, it raises the question of how meaningfully classical music can engage in that topic when it is itself pondering its own lack of diversity. Adashi is a first-generation American, and he said his family didn’t come to this country from Eastern Europe and Israel with means, but they did well once here. As he put it, that means he “grew up a privileged white kid in Baltimore.” He credits a special high school teacher and a black history course with planting a seed in him to look beyond his own circumstances and recognize experiences outside of himself. Still though, he understands a caution he sees from music journalists when they write about a white composer and black poet talking about civil rights issues.

“All of this is hard. It is all delicate stuff,” Adashi said. “And we have not done a good job as a country of diving into it. Much less so in our field.”

Being a musician, he said, means you have an avenue to have these conversations, but being a person with your own individual experiences means that you also have to understand that you don’t know everything.

“If we have this terrible under-representation in our field of people of color, how is it that we can grapple with the issue?” he asked. “Well maybe that's another case [where it’s important to collaborate] outside of our field.”

In his upcoming performance of Rise, that principle led him to think about the presentation of the concert and to open it with a conversation between black artists across a variety of disciplines about their art and activism. Citing words from composer David Lang, he said composers can play a role beyond just the creation of their art.

“Your work is not done when you put the double bar on,” said Adashi.