On Thursday, October 29, 2020, new music collective Ensemble Pi presented Reparations NOW! at The Center at West Park. Featuring several world premieres, this virtually streamed event was inspired by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2019 House testimony and Ibram X. Kendi’s, How to Be an Antiracist—both argue for reparations, a reckoning to which, 159 years after the Civil War, the United States has yet to commit.
Today there are more African-Americans under correctional control, in prison or jail, on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850. A decade before the civil war began.
Much like the effect of this startling truth, the small ensemble immediately erupted into cacophony. The violin (Airi Yoshioka) and cello (Alexis Gerlach), followed closely by the flute (Loggins-Hull) and clarinet (Moran Katz), settled into anxious tremolos. Tones bled downward in pitch bends as conductor Raquel Klein sensitively cued soloistic laments from players throughout the ensemble. Moments of hope blossomed before returning once more to chaos—a potent metaphor for the systemic white supremacy enacted on Black Americans since 1619.
With Courtney Bryan’s Elegy (2018), a response to Abel Meeropol’s poem-turned-protest-song “Strange Fruit,” Ensemble Pi displayed absolute emotional virtuosity. The rich resonance of Gerlach’s cello, the sensitivity of Yoshioka’s upper violin register, the anguish of Katz’s clarinet pitch bends, and the crashing down of Idith Meshulam’s piano chords harnessed the raw and chilling lyricism of Billie Holiday’s memorable live performances, a testimony to America’s lasting strange and bitter crop.
Audiences may deem virtual concerts second-best to live and in-person, but Reparations NOW! was a masterful streaming experience. Like a fly on the wall, I caught the whip of a quick page turn, impassioned down bows, a bead of sweat glistening on a furrowed brow. Thoughtful camera work provided different perspectives of performers throughout the night, creating a dynamic and enhanced virtual viewing with crystal clear audio. I could feel the energy of the room; the barrier of my screen seemingly disappeared.
In Requiem for Elijah, Ensemble Pi gathered for an improvisatory piece in honor of Elijah McClain. Damian Norfleet’s recitation of McClain’s last words led the ensemble. As he climbed to a frantic, angry climax on the words, “All I was trying to do was become better!” the musicians manifested pain, disgust, heartbreak, and fury. With eyes damp and stinging red, Norfleet ended on the repeated words “I can’t breathe…” before the screen faded to black.
A whirlwind of palpable catharsis, the pacing of this program was fast, with only a few seconds of silence for me to catch my breath between each piece. Not hurried, but fervent.
For Georg Friedrich Haas’ I can’t breathe (In memoriam Eric Garner) (2014), Wayne Dumaine stood atop a tall podium, a trumpet wedged to the left-hand corner of his lips. Beginning as a twelve-tone hymn of mourning, melodic lines soon devolved to gasps. Intervals became smaller, claustrophobic. A car revved its engine outside the venue, as if in solidarity with the pained squeals leaking from Dumaine’s bell. While in a prohibited chokehold by an NYPD police officer, Eric Garner said “I can’t breathe,” 11 times. Finally, all sound faded to silence.
In Damian Norfleet’s Kendi’s Secret (2020, World Premiere), Norfleet recited an excerpt from Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, weaving words and phrases together in an impressive, fast-paced rhythmic frenzy. Then, a juxtaposition: opening on a single, silky violin note, Conversatión a distancia (2020) by Angélica Negrón (“inspired by Conversación, a danza from Puerto Rican composer, Juan Morel Campos (1857-1896)”) stood out as simultaneously tender and luminous—the inclusion of field recordings from Campos’ birthplace added striking texture and depth.
To close out the night, Pinkster Kings (2020) by Trevor Weston presented a fictional celebration of Pinkster (a real, but lesser-known festival celebrated by African and Dutch New Yorkers circa late 18th-early 19th centuries). Norfleet, as the Pinkster King presiding over the festival, called for “400 years of back pay, with interest!” in this captivating marriage of sound and story.
With this poignant and powerfully curated program, Ensemble Pi reminds us that the commitment to be a socially conscious artist means engaging thoughtfully with today’s critical issues. It means commissioning and performing work by today’s composers. It means creating a space to reflect and conversate, to share knowledge and resources. Music and art must not be a place into which we solely retreat, but a space to hold difficult, even painful conversations, and demand justice.
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