5 Questions to Damien Geter (composer, baritone)

The works of acclaimed composer and baritone Damien Geter range from chamber ensembles to the operatic stage and the television screen. Geter infuses various musical styles from the Black diaspora into his compositions to further the cause for social justice. His Cantata for a More Hopeful Tomorrow, a new collaborative film project with The Washington Chorus, soprano Aundi Marie Moore, and filmmaker Bob Berg, premiered on November 14, 2020 and focuses on the struggles of the pandemic while connecting more specifically with the BIPOC community and offering a message of hope. In addition to his roles as a composer and baritone, Geter servers as Artistic Advisor to both the Resonance Ensemble and Portland Opera.

Many of your works are written for/include choir. What is the importance of the human voice in your works?

Emotions are expressed through sound. People cry when they are upset, laugh when they are happy, etc. Because the voice is a part of one’s body, there is an innate connection to the instrument. As a singer who also plays various instruments, I feel that voice is the most vulnerable instrument because it lives within. When we express ourselves through singing, emotions are made manifest. There is a humanity in singing–especially choral singing. And because of this, given the subject of many of my pieces which deals with the human experience, I find that the easiest way to express these issues is through the voice. In my latest vocal work, for example, I use the soprano soloist as the voice of hope. Communication of the text in conjunction with the beauty of the human voice creates a partnership that bonds the commonalities of humanity.

Damien Geter--Photo by Rachel Hadiashar

Damien Geter–Photo by Rachel Hadiashar

After being asked to consider several Bach Cantatas as inspiration for Cantata for a More Hopeful Tomorrow, you settled on Cantata BWV 12. What was it specifically about this Cantata that drew you to it?

When Artistic Director Eugene Rogers asked me to write something for The Washington Chorus, we knew that we wanted to build on a pre-existing piece. After listening to several Bach chorales and other pieces, I landed on BWV 12 for two reasons. 1) In the opening chorus, we hear a passacaglia, or repeated bass figure. This would be one of the ways I connected ​Cantata for a More Hopeful Tomorrow​ to the original Bach. Sometimes, I used the passacaglia in its original state. Other movements see different iterations of it. For example, in the third movement, I used the passacaglia in retrograde inversion. It was fun for me to see if Eugene was able to find the passacaglia! And 2) the Bach cantata begins in a state of despair and moves towards a more hopeful outlook. This was the same trajectory I wanted to achieve in my piece.

The challenges of collaboration on a film project are hard to balance, with multiple aspects and artistic visions. What unique challenges did collaborating on Cantata for a More Hopeful Tomorrow bring during the pandemic?

This was a unique situation in that I wrote the music before the film was made. Bob Berg created a film that was based on my vision of the music, i.e. moving from despair to hope. The main challenge I faced was writing for a virtual choir. In a live setting, the conductor can easily give directions and the choir follows. In the case of a virtual setting, it’s different. I had to be more specific than usual–notating how long fermatas were held (as designated in the click track), for example. If I found tempo changes within the piece to be tricky, I would leave them out. I will likely add them back into the score for a live performance someday. Eugene was also very detailed in his approach to vowel unification and releases. It was an interesting experience to go through all of the things we take for granted in a live rehearsal and mark them in the score to achieve the quality of sound we were looking for from the choir.

Could you talk about your inspiration and approach to social justice topics in your compositions?

The marriage of social justice and music was very natural for me. As a Black man, my very life depends on how people respond to social justice. I began writing music with social justice themes (not all of my music delves into these topics, by the way) because I wanted to do more as an artist. It was not enough for me to simply write music. I wanted to use my compositional voice as a solider in this war. I believe strongly in the words of Nina Simone who said, “It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live.” That’s social justice on a much broader scale. But there seems to be an awakening in classical music, too, in which topics of social justice and equality are ready to be addressed. Being a Black classical musician, I know that​ Representation Matters.​ We need to create a new crop of musicians and patrons from all backgrounds in order for this artform to move forward and survive.

Damien Geter--Photo by Rachel Hadiashar

Damien Geter–Photo by Rachel Hadiashar

Whether an audience member has experience with a particular social justice issue or not, what do you hope listeners walk away with after hearing your music?

I have to assume that listeners are hearing my music because it was programmed by a presenter who engages in furthering the cause for social justice. Because of this, folks are consciously making a decision to be at that concert, which is different from someone who does not. My answer will address the latter. It still holds true for me that I write music for the purpose of the message, and not others’ feelings. In a perfect world, my desire would be that my music moves someone to think more deeply about their relationships and to ACT in a way that supports these causes. In summary, it’s less about how I want people to feel and more about how they act after the concert. Whether it’s the privileged person who has never experienced racial trauma, or the person who simply doesn’t get it. In a concert setting, we are forced to listen to, and take in, not only the music, but the message. Music can be a conduit in that way, bridging the reluctant person’s heart to that of a broader human experience.


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