Joseph C. Phillips Jr. composes with no limitations. Undefined by any genre, the 2016 American Composers Forum JFund (now ACF | create) recipient says his work is as an “amalgamation [of genres], transmuted into a singular and individual style,” a style he describes as “mixed music.” Brought to life by Numinous, founded in 2000 by Phillips Jr., the myriad of influences is especially poignant in his new mono opera, The Grey Land (New Amsterdam Records).
As “No justice, no peace” rings through American streets during a tumultuous time in history, Phillips Jr. has conceptualized an anthem for the Black Lives Matter protests; a dose of medicine for the pain; a perspective for the journey towards true freedom. The Grey Land centers soprano Rebecca L. Hargrove, who embodies the story of a Black mother and her son hoping, just like the ancestors before her, for an all-inclusive and all-encompassing American dream for her family without the threat of violence.
The libretto integrates the writings of Phillips Jr., Isaac Butler, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Frederick Douglass, Sonia Sotomayor, Mothers of the Movement, and Carolyn Bryant Donham, and additional multimedia components include “contemporary film and video footage, dance and set and lighting designs, and dramatic elements.” With each scene, the impact of race, class, and power on Black America is unpacked. The narrator delivering some of the many potent pieces is award-winning actor, Kenneth Browning, with Phillips Jr. conducting the 28-musician chamber orchestra.
The opening scene, “The People Get Tired of Dying,” is an entrance into the lens of the dark underbelly of Black American life. Melodic voices are layered reminiscent of a Black Methodist church chancel choir. It is haunting, ambient, and dark. The title is an ode to a short story by Henry Dumas, a poet, writer, and activist who was murdered after an altercation with NYC transit police in the 1960s. The composition itself, in the words of Philips Jr., describes “the vastness of black people across space [and] time.”
Scene 2, “Ferguson: Summer of 2014”, is the longest composition within The Grey Land experience, ending at 22 minutes. The aria, with words by Isaac Butler, is delivered angelically through Hargrove’s ethereal voice, providing a lens into the conflicting joy and fear held by Black parents welcoming a new child into a seemingly unjust world. Hargrove’s performance reads like a poem, yet is delivered fragmented, and at times is drowned out by the orchestra. Despite the latter, the message does not lose its impact. Phillips Jr. says he was inspired by Samuel Barber and James Agee’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” where they “sought to depict a nostalgic American idyll.”
Delving further into the narrative, Scene 3, “Tender Sorrow”, is an instrumental spoken-word composition with words by Carolyn Bryant Donham narrated by Browning and a cello solo by Mariel Roberts. The three-minute piece begins with soft instrumentation building up to the deep strums of Roberts cello reminiscent of the dark notes throughout the score of the film Get Out by Jordan Peele, who Philips Jr. references in one of the final scenes, “The Sunken Place.” The spoken-word segment, delivered with a southern twang, erases the justification of death, regardless of what a Black body has done. However, the text is not declaimed with the same intensity of the harp, bassoon, cello, and haunting voices surrounding it.
One of the more potent scenes, “Don’t” (Scene 6), is an aria with words by Phillips Jr. inspired by the conversation Black parents have with their children before entering a predominantly white America. The Rhodes electric piano that opens the scene sounds like morse code or breaking news. Hargrove utters these words with undertones of worry and sharpness–don’t wear a hoodie, play with toy guns, listen to loud music or ask for help, but do come home. Not only does it capture the stories of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Michael Dunn, and more, but it also showcases the limitations Black kids and adults have when simply existing.
Some scenes such as the aria “Streets of Sighs” (Scene 13) abruptly end and feel too short, but maybe that’s the point. Extending it might be borderline “trauma porn.” The ending scene in its entirety is minimalistic, but this makes room for the sorrow in Hargrove’s cries to resonate. As her voice resounds, it is grieved, breathy, and exasperated. It’s the perfect end to a narrative highlighting parts of the Black American truth.
Overall, The Grey Land depicts a dramatic and tragic story of modern Black America well, with glimmers of hope and Afrofuturism sprinkled about. The composition as a whole is brassy and triumphal; solemn and evocative; expressive and harmonious. Some of the libretto is read more fluidly than it is vocalized, however, the narrative they each shape is poignant. The Grey Land not only sits in sorrow and unpacks injustice, but also provides a lens into what Blackness looks like without oppression and the constant threat of death.
I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF.