Three Projects Play to See — What is America to Me?

“History doesn’t repeat itself; but it does often rhyme.” Imma need to disagree with whomever said this (it’s often attributed to Mark Twain, but we don’t know that for sure). Because not only does history repeat itself, but ideas and opinions on national belonging are repeated so often you’d think someone was getting paid. The question of “What is American/Who is America/What is America?” has plagued and inspired thousands since the nation’s founding. It’s a stale question with no shelf life; because thankfully folks keep bringing new, refreshing answers.

I had the pleasure of engaging with three of those answers: What is American by PUBLIQuartet (Bright Shiny Things, June 17), which takes us on a music history journey; This is America from violinist Johnny Gandelsman (In A Circle Records, July 1), which highlights composers’ reactions to the pandemic, social injustices, and political volatility; and harpist Emily Levin’s GroundWork(s), which will feature new works for harp from 52 composers premiered in their respective hometowns over the next several years.

For PUBLIQuartet, What is American takes their personal conversations to a more public sphere. “There have been several different incarnations that contemplate this statement [what is American?] very differently,” shares violinist Jannina Norpoth. “What it truly means to be American cannot be answered or documented by any one person, and as our society has grown more divided especially through the pandemic, this album is intended as a call to reflection.”

PUBLIQuartet--Photo by Lelanie Foster

PUBLIQuartet–Photo by Lelanie Foster

What is American communicates a now standard maxim in American music historiography: American culture is indebted to Black creative practices. It’s a message woven through the album’s organization: we begin with words and repertoire that engage with enslavement, the Civil War, and Black folks’ place in the nation-state (e.g. poetry by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Dvorak’s “American” quartet, and Rhiannon Giddens’ “At the Purchaser’s Option”). This leads to music and words from the 20th and 21st centuries (e.g. Ornette Coleman’s Law Years and Street Woman, Roscoe Mitchell’s CARDS 11-11-2020, and A’Lelia Bundles reciting the words of her ancestor, Madame CJ Walker). But staples like Dvorak and Coleman are not “straight” arrangements; improvisation reigns on this album. Whether intended or not, it calls to mind that history, even with its rigor, is a reflective approximation; our past is as fluid – and often even more unfamiliar – as our present.

Highlights of the album include Vijay Iyer’s Dig the Say and the “Mind the Gap: Wild Women” section. Dig the Say flows with cocky grit, cool lyricism, and polyphonic vibrancy. Idioms and harmonies from jazz, Western classical, blues, and folk sit comfortably; the musical equivalent to some cool dudes shooting the breeze as they work their way through life.

“Mind the Gap: Wild Women” are improvisations on songs by Tina Turner, Betty Davis, Alice Coltrane, and Ida Cox. Turner’s “Black Coffee” and Davis’ “They Say I’m Different” call for chops, glistening sounds, funky grooves, and singing from the quartet members. Coltrane’s “Er Ra” and Cox’s “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues” share the esoteric harmonics and crystalline timbres, with Cox’s song moving from casual blues self-assurance to fiddler exuberance to close the album.

Where PUBLIQuartet’s What is American is broad in narrative scope, Johnny Gandelsman’s This is America centers the intimate and the personal. The album’s 4+ hours on four discs is entirely new works/commissions that engage with major social and political events through individual experiences. This is America’s liner notes hold paragraphs, essays, and poems from each composer, reflecting the communal roots of the project, one that sometimes pushed Gandelsman into some new and uncomfortable artistic directions. “When faced with a score that introduced a technique or an idea that I was unfamiliar with, my first reaction was to pass judgment on the piece itself,” he explains. “Learning how to get through that uncomfortable feeling, to overcome that paralyzing fear, might be the biggest lesson I took away from the process.”

Johnny Gandelsman--Photo courtesy of the artist

Johnny Gandelsman–Photo courtesy of the artist

This is America begins and ends with two pieces that connect on the theme of breath, a choice that magnifies Gandelsman’s direct engagement with events which have dominated our lives and news cycles: the pandemic and social injustice. Kojiro Umezaki’s Breathe brings the album to a close. It “contemplates the act of breathing,” Umezaki writes, “and the struggle to do so freely, without obstruction,” an act denied to those killed in acts of police brutality and racist violence. Clarice Assad’s O for vocal overdubs and solo violin opens the album and makes a direct correlation between the breath denied to George Floyd (“I can’t breathe”) and the breath denied to those with COVID-19. (“We watched in horror a newly discovered virus take down thousands of people from acute respiratory failure every day.”)

Sandwiched between are stories of individual discovery: Rhiannon Giddens’ New to the Session chronicles her journey from uncertainty to settled confidence in jam sessions. Maya Miro Johnson’s Dance Suite translates Ohad Naharin Gaga’s movement concepts through the 17th century dance suite, inspired by Johnson’s positive physical responses to these concepts as she recovers from brain damage sustained in a major car accident. Dana Lyn’s a current took her away ruminates on climate change through the journey of a solitary plankton; and Marika HughesWith Love from J honors “composer, scholar, resistance leader and dear friend” Jewila Eisenberg, who passed away in 2021 following a long illness. There is no violin on this track: Gandelsman sings, whistles, and plays guitar, creating a tender and stunning musical memorial.

This is America does not dwell in loss so much as stare it right in the face: we are living in and through a state of mourning. But we are also relishing moments of creative growth and making time to reflect: reconnecting with our bodies; our minds; the people we love; and those that love us.

Emily Levin’s GroundWorks(s) is a sweet weaving of What is American’s scope and This is America’s interiority. Levin’s goal is to commission 52 new works for harp by composers originally from all 50 states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico. Still in its early stages, GroundWork(s) has six confirmed composers: Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate (OK); Aaron Holloway-Nahum (IL); Reena Esmail (CA); Michael Ippolito (FL); Kareem Roustom (MA) and Angélica Negrón (PR) are set to the join the project, contributing works that will debut in 2023 or 2024. In March of this year, Levin and pianist Eunmi Ko premiered Ippolito’s Mythos in his hometown of Tampa, Florida.

GroundWork(s) current line-up aligns with Levin’s vision of showcasing the variety of style, artistic vision, and personal experiences that make up American music culture. “This country is comprised of such varying backgrounds, ethnicities, experiences and styles,” she explains. “The population size and the sheer vastness of the geography gives us such an incredible variety of musical voices, each influenced by community and society. By ensuring that the composers are truly representative of America — different races, genders, ethnicities, identities, and musical influences — GroundWork(s) is deepening our understanding of how rich and complex ‘American music’ can be.”

Emily Levin--Photo courtesy of the artist

Emily Levin–Photo courtesy of the artist

It also deepens listeners’ understanding of the richness and complexity of their lives and those of their neighbors. GroundWork(s) is a wave that can not only inspire audiences to expand their musical palettes, but maybe even to create partnerships they may have never considered. “I hope that returning to these hometown communities creates a space for connection,” Levin says. “By bringing people together over a shared interest, like music or support for a composer you knew as a child, you also now have created a space to also foster dialogue about social issues and societal change.”

Connection – whether establishing one, repairing one, or strengthening one – truly unites these projects. Their work isn’t new (see, history repeating!) and they know it; and it doesn’t diminish the importance and urgency of what they have to say. We cannot survive without community; we cannot survive without connection. Through stirring interpretations, curation, and creative vision, PUBLIQuartet, Johnny Gandelsman, and Emily Levin remind us of the beauty and strength of variety in American music. May we continue to explore new or familiar sounds, and build up our communities in the process.


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. 

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