"Dialogues On Race"
Release Date: August 21st, 2020
1. Sherbet (Just to be certain that the doubt stays on our side of the fence) - based on a poem by Cornelius Eady
2. Letter to America - text by Fransisco Alarcón
3. Your Only Child - (first statement, male singer) text by Marilyn Nelson
4. I Rise - based on a poem by Maya Angelou
5. Sky - based on a poem by Richard Katrovas
6. Your Only Child - (second statement, solo bass)
7. I Sang in the Sun - text by Carolyn Kizer
8. Mother Mamie’s Reflections - text spoken by Mamie Till Mobley
9. Your Only Child - (third statement, female singer)
10. Sweet Words on Race - based on a by Langston Hughes
11. The Bird Leaps - based on a poem by Maya Angelou
12. Blues - Finale
John Ellis, soprano saxophone
Bruce Williams, alto saxophone
JD Allen, tenor saxophone
Ken Thomson, bass clarinet
John Bailey, trumpet / flugelhorn
Rafi Malkiel, trombone / euphonium
Marcus Rojas, tuba
Luis Perdomo, piano
Gregg August, bass / composer
Donald Edwards, drums
Mauricio Herrera, congas / shekeréb / castanets (tracks 1, 2, 3, 10)
Frank Lacy, vocals (tracks 3 and 12)
Shelley Washington, vocals (track 9)
Forest VanDyke, vocals (track 7)
Leah Asher, violin (track 9)
Lena Vidulich, violin (track 9)
Yuri Namkung, violin (track 9)
Johnna Wu, violin (track 9)
Wendy Richman, viola (track 9)
Brian Zenone, viola (track 9)
Madeline Lafayette, cello (track 9)
Wayne Smith, narrator (track 2)
STATEMENT FROM THE COMPOSER
Over the years, I’ve often found myself in situations where the topic of race would arise, and more often than not, an uneasiness would enter the room, quickly extinguishing any potential for constructive exchange. But I’ve also been fortunate to be surrounded by like-minded people, usually musicians, with whom I’ve had deeply personal and meaningful conversations, many of which helped form cherished friendships.
Yet America generally avoids discussing race related issues, and when we do, the conversations can be frustratingly awkward, especially when they’re taking place across cultural boundaries. The typical reaction that I’ve encountered is people retreating to their respective corners of familiarity, abandoning any chance of advancing progress. This is what was going through my head in 2009, when I composed Dialogues on Race, in the wake of electing Barack Obama, when we were being told that America had turned a corner away from its disturbing racial history. After the premiere in April of that year, I shelved my piece, even forgetting about it to some degree.
I suspected deep down that “the progress” we had supposedly made as a country might prove to be fleeting. After all, this is America. We are not known for knowing history, especially our own. (The number of people that have admitted that they don’t know who Emmett Till was is alarming, especially considering some of them were alive in 1955 when he was murdered). Little by little we started to see the veneer being stripped away. We went from Barack, to birtherism, to an unapologetic xenophobe enter the White House. Who could have imagined such a chronology, and in so short a period of time?
Many of the musicians that premiered Dialogues with me urged me to revive the piece, to record it. But I was hesitant. I understood that not everyone would be in accord with my setting the tragedy of Emmett Till to music. I understood the issue of cultural appropriation, and how it played out at the Whitney Museum in 2017 with Diane Schutz’s painting “Open Casket.” For she, like me, is white.
In my endless quest for approval and validation, I was reminded by the musician/ journalist Frank Oteri that Mamie Till opened the casket so EVERYONE could see what had happened to her son. She knew that his lynching wasn’t unique. But she was determined to show the world just how ugly human beings could treat other human beings.
I also found inspiration to persevere through revisiting the poems I had selected for my piece, for the hard truth that they spoke. From Langston Hughes in Sweet Words on Race, when he writes, “Sweet words, so brave when danger is not near,” to Carolyn Kizer’s observation, “I sang in the sun of my white oasis, as you broke to stone.” From Cornelius Eady’s Sherbet, when he exclaims, “The horror to sit, a black man with his white wife, and wait like a criminal for service.” Or in Richard Katrovas’ Sky, as he describes the discomfort felt between 2 strangers in a New Orleans street, a white man and a young black boy, “He looks at me and mumbles he's just resting, which means don't worry White Bread, I won't smash your Ford or steal your VCR, just don’t worry. Today, this hour, I am meant for this stoop.”
My hope is that Dialogues on Race can in some small way serve as an integrated musical bridge to awareness, and maybe even stand as an affirmation against racism and injustice. Admittedly, these are lofty goals. However, through conversation, community and art, I know we can work together towards furthering understanding.
Gregg August. Brooklyn, New York 2020