This weekend the Oregon Symphony presents a new piece called An African American Requiem by Portland composer Damien Geter. The piece features a choir singing traditional Latin Requiem texts, civil rights declarations, and poetry. We talk to Geter about his work, and his approach to writing a musical response to violence against African Americans in the U.S.
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Note: The following transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. A new work will have its world premiere in Portland tomorrow night [May 7, 2022]. It’s called An African American Requiem. It was written by the composer and singer Damien Geter as a musical response to violence against African Americans in the U.S. Geter is the interim musical director of the Portland Opera. His new work will be performed at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall by the Oregon Symphony and Resonance Ensemble. Damien Geter, welcome back to Think Out Loud.
Damien Geter: Thank you. So nice to be here.
Miller: You’ve said that you were inspired to make this partly by Nina Simone. In what way?
Geter: Nina Simone has a quote that she said, ‘It is the artist’s duty to reflect the times.’ I had heard that quote several years ago, but in 2016 it really resonated with me. I was doing a lot of singing; I was actually doing a lot of La Bohèmes around that time. The political climate shifted in a way that doesn’t align with my own values, so I was worried about the future of the country and all the progress that we’d made with the previous administration and the steps back that I feared would happen. I wanted to use my other voice, which was composition, to create a piece that commemorated people who we lost through racial violence in this country.
Miller: I was struck that you said that you were doing a lot of La Bohème at the time – this famous opera in the classical repertoire. Was it that doing that, for example, felt disconnected from what was happening outside?
Geter: Absolutely. People get whatever they’re going to get out of La Bohème. I think it’s good for a lot of reasons. People go to the opera to escape and things like this. But for me as an artist, I felt incomplete because I wasn’t out there in the streets; I’m not a big protester in that kind of way. So I felt incomplete as an artist, and I really wanted to use art as a means of progress and talking about issues around social justice and things like this.
Miller: You call this An African American Requiem. What is a requiem?
Geter: Requiem is basically a Mass for the dead – the word Mass meaning like a Catholic Mass. They really began around the 15th century, and composers in the 18th and 19th century began to concertize them. That’s where a lot of my influence came from for this particular piece.
Miller: What were your musical starting points then?
Geter: Initially the piece was going to be on a smaller scale. It was going to be probably about the size of Fauré's Requiem, which he doesn’t use the complete text out of the liturgy – there’s no Dies Irae, for example. But then, as I thought more about the piece and started writing some of the movements, it just sort of grew and grew from there. I use inspiration from Verdi. In fact, the first movement is almost a direct correlation in terms of form of Verdi’s first movement. Also I was thinking a lot about Britten’s War Requiem because he used not only the Latin text but he used English poetry as well.
Miller: How much do these forms speak to you today personally in 2022, these forms that go back 100 years, say for Benjamin Britten, or hundreds of years in the case of some of these other composers?
Geter: They speak to me in a very loud way, I would say, in that I’m a classical composer. I love classical music, so I cannot separate the fact that I love a Beethoven symphony and I love an opera by Verdi. All of these things have an influence on my writing, just as much as some of the music that I listened to as a youngster like R&B and gospel and jazz and things like this. So, just as I can’t separate my influence of those, of what I’ll say is Black music, I can’t separate the other stuff either. I just had a symphony premiered, and it brings me great joy to call it a symphony. I had a cantata premiere last year. So I’m using terms and forms from the past to create my own music.
Miller: There’s a recording of one of the movements in your new requiem that was made a few years ago now in 2018. It’s by the Resonance Ensemble at the Bethel AME Church in Portland. This is Agnus Dei. We’ll listen to a little bit of it, and my assumption is that this may sound different than what people could hear tomorrow night where there’s also going to be a full symphony orchestra. But what should folks listen for in this? What should we know before we hear this recording from four years ago?
Geter: Actually this is the only, it won’t sound that much different. It will only sound different because we will have more voices; it’ll be about an 80 voice choir. But the Agnus Dei in the requiem is the only a cappella movement for choir, so it is just choir, there’s no orchestra underneath it. There is orchestra in the other movements but this is the only a cappella movement. The translation for it is, ‘Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant them rest.’ That’s the translation. It’s written sort of in the style of a spiritual.. I think that’s good.
Miller: Alright let’s have a listen…
Miller: Damien Geter, how did you decide what was going to be in Latin in this and what was going to be in English? Because, throughout, there’s a mix including back and forth within individual movements.
Geter: Yeah, most of it is in Latin, but there are a couple of moments where I thought the English would land a little bit more heavily. For example, the Kyrie: I don’t use the Latin in that. The translation for that is, ‘Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.’ That to me was a throwback to when I remember my grandmother and my mother would just sort of shake their head and say, ‘Lord have mercy.’ If something was wrong or they were just trying to convey the fact that they were pained in some way or something was off, they would just say, ‘Lord have mercy.’ So when I think about the mothers who get the phone call that their sons or daughters were killed, I can only imagine that they would say something like ‘Lord have mercy.’ And then there are spirituals in there.. In the Liber Scriptus, it does go back and forth between the Latin and the English. The Liber Scriptus has to do with the book of judgment that’s brought before God, and that book has a list of names. It’s sort of ambiguous. Whose names are in the book – I don’t know. But I couple that with ‘There’s a Man Going Around Taking Names,’ which is a spiritual. So I felt like that was sort of a no-brainer of a pairing to put those two together. And there are other spirituals in it as well.
Miller: There are also three infamous words that you use in English: ‘I can’t breathe’ that form, I think I’m right about this, in and of themselves the entirety of the words for a movement. Can you describe how you approached the orchestration for that movement?
Geter: Absolutely. ‘In I Can’t Breathe’ , it is just a movement for percussion. There are no wind instruments. That is to symbolize the fact that there’s no breath that is being put through an instrument to produce the sound. I can’t breathe – no breath. At the very end, though, the wind instruments sort of blow breath, but it’s sort of a meaningless breath. So orchestrating that I thought that it would be very important to depict the fact that there’s no breath. Everything that I write, I take it from an operatic point of view. So the music underneath also tells the story as well as the text. The music drives the text. So for me orchestrating it with just percussion was a good way for me to symbolize the fact that there is no breath.
Miller: The second-to-last movement is based on a speech that the journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett gave 120 or so years ago. Can you explain what she talked about and how you went about putting that to music?
Geter: Oh man! I will say that that was the hardest part. I don’t think I’ll ever set a speech, an entire speech, again; that definitely was the hardest part. Ida B. Wells was a Black journalist who lived in the late 1800s - early 1900s, I believe all the way up until like 1950 or 1960. She gave a series of speeches across the South. She was an anti-lynch activist. Basically all of her speeches were kind of in the same form in that she would talk about why it’s wrong to lynch people, and then she would give statistics that had to do with whatever city that she was living in – in terms of how many people were lynched and the reason why they were lynched. Her most famous speech, I think – I read a lot of her speeches – is ‘Lynching is Color-line Murder.’ She gave the speech in 1909, and it does what I just said. It lists all the reasons why people are lynched, the numbers and why we need to stop it. She calls it a national crime. So I thought that that would be a good tie-in to today, in that people are still being lynched essentially.
Miller: After so long away from in-person performances, what was it like to you when you had a full symphony, an 80-person choir, four soloists, the poet Renee Mitchell; when everybody got together for the first time to work on this piece you had written?
Geter: You’ll have to ask me that on Sunday.
Miller: You still haven’t heard it?
Geter: I still haven’t heard it. Tonight is the first night I will hear the orchestra. I have heard the choir, and hearing the choir with all the voices... Oh my gosh, it’s indescribable. I can’t describe it.
Miller: Can you try? [Geter laughs] I’m wondering both about this as a musician and as a composer and also as a Black man who is making a political work with a very specific intent. Not that those can be disentangled, but what was it like when you heard your words coming out from a huge multi-person force at the same time?
Geter: I will say the thing that’s so cool about it is that it always sounds way better than I ever could have imagined in my head. Hearing all the voices for the first time, I mean it really just, it moved my soul. And I don’t say that in a conceited way or anything like that. It’s just like, ‘Okay, this is gonna work.’ Because there’s always that doubt until you hear it. But, the second part of your question is, this piece doesn’t have anything to do with me, and I keep saying that. What I mean by that is, I wrote it, yes; I wrote it for me because I’m a Black person, but I didn’t write it for fame or anything like this. I really wrote this for two reasons: One, because I wanted to contribute to the classical canon a piece that recognizes the history of this country. We’re living in a time right now where people are really interested in what Black people have to say. So this is my contribution to that. The other reason, and the most important reason, is that, I sort of already said it, but I wrote this to honor people who have been killed in this country due to racial violence. We’re now living in a time where people want to cover this history up. It’s important that it’s not covered up because these things actually happened and still happen. So, for me, this piece is just another vehicle to keep that conversation going.
Miller: Damien Geter, thanks very much for joining us today. I really appreciate your time.
Geter: Thank you so much.
Miller: Damien Geter is a composer and singer. He is also the interim music director of the Portland Opera. His new work, An African American Requiem, will have its world premiere tomorrow night [May 7, 2022] at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in a performance by the Oregon Symphony and Resonance Ensemble.