Damien Geter’s COTTON Captures John Dowell’s Photography Through Song

Entering the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral on Feb. 25 for the world premiere of COTTON is like walking into a theater: a sky-reaching dome above my head with pointed arches between pillars leading up to the dais. As the performance begins, the lights go out, almost pitch black. The screen illuminates, and before us is the cotton.

The photography of John Dowell served as the inspiration for this song cycle commissioned by Lyric Fest, co-founded by Laura Ward and Suzanne DuPlantis. The eight original poems by Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Alora Young, Lauren K. Alleyne, Trapeta B. Mason, Charlotte Blake Alston, Nikki Giovanni, Glenis Redmond, and Charlotte Blake Alston each respond to a photograph from Dowell’s cotton series, and music by composer Damien Geter unifies the multidisciplinary adventure.

Damien Geter--Photo by Rachel Hadiashar

Damien Geter–Photo by Rachel Hadiashar

The performance begins with Marc Bamuthi Joseph reciting an excerpt from his poem, The South Remembers. Joseph is enclosed in a concave, three-screen amphitheater that displays Dowell’s photography and superscripts for each poem. It’s too soon to take in what’s happening; the words only wash over me, but the program leaves no words unknown. Each recited excerpt is printed along with the full poem in the program.

Mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves and pianist Laura Ward appear behind the screens, backlit so that only a shadow outline of Ward is seen while Graves’ features are slightly discernible, but not much more. Ward begins a rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” on the piano, but the song is not itself; it sounds like an old music box that is muddied and out of tune, the melody clashing with its own harmony, its history clashing with its present.

The discordant layers of Damien Geter’s arrangement and Joseph’s words accomplish the intended unease, which returns in the third song. In this movement, Lauren K. Alleyne’s words respond to Dowell’s note on his photograph, “They Took My Sister”; Dowell explains that on New Year’s Day, if plantation owners couldn’t settle their debts and pay their bills, they sold off slaves: “…this was [a] night of terror. It could be the last night with your family. Everything could absolutely be over.”

Mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves and pianist Laura Ward perform Damien Geter's COTTON -- Photo courtesy of Lyric Fest

Mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves and pianist Laura Ward perform Damien Geter’s COTTON — Photo courtesy of Lyric Fest

Geter’s score begins with a nod to “Auld Lang Syne,” first as an unaccompanied melody, but later interrupted by brash clusters of notes. As the disruptions to the melody grow more frequent, Graves joins, humming the rest of the song while the piano holds a tremolo in its low register.

Throughout the song cycle, Graves and baritone Justin Austin have stunning moments despite the surprisingly dead acoustics of the cathedral. A highlight is “Cotton in the Arms of Mountains,” with text by Nikki Giovanni, inspired not by a photograph, but by Dowell’s story of his grandmother. Repeating the word “cotton,” Graves flies her voice, weightless, leaving me feeling as though I’m floating on water. Her landing stills the waves and ripples with a sonorous low note, well below the typical range for mezzo-sopranos. She bellows out with all the resonance, color, and shades of her higher range, yet with something more, something deeply heartfelt that isn’t in the score.

Austin similarly steals my breath in the very next song, “When the Ancestors Speak.” Glenis Redmond’s poetry reflects on Dowell’s “The Ancestors Spoke,” which was inspired by “Hush Harbor where the slaves prayed in secret with African rituals.” Austin goes into a swaying, liquid falsetto that glides through the stillness of holding one’s breath, but without the panic of needing air. The piano unfortunately doesn’t encapsulate the ancestral connection heard in the vocal line, which feels like a missed opportunity, but Austin invokes it nonetheless.

Baritone Justin Austin and pianist Laura Ward perform Damien Geter's COTTON -- Photo courtesy of Lyric Fest

Baritone Justin Austin and pianist Laura Ward perform Damien Geter’s COTTON — Photo courtesy of Lyric Fest

COTTON concludes with “A Mural Speaks” by Charlotte Blake Alston, based on Dowell’s “Sophisticated Lady” lithograph; this movement resonates with me the most, likely because I want to be free. Alston’s recitation grips me and revitalizes me after seven poems that mark a necessary remembrance of a past not gone far enough. On the screens, we see a woman in an orange dress, arms draped in a scarf around her back, a tilted sun hat. Behind her are red stage curtains opening onto a field of cotton, but it’s not immediately discernible if she is on the stage or if the cotton is. The woman is smiling, her back is turned away from the cotton, instead looking — smiling — at me. As I hold her gaze, she is the focal point, and so am I.

Damien Geter’s song cycle is expressive rather than expansive. Many of the songs employ the same use of space and silence: single-line melodies with discordant harmonic layering between tense pauses. It’s the vocal parts that inject urgency and inflections, and the performances of Graves and Austin reach into the depths of each poem. While the inclusion of John Dowell’s photography makes sense, the performing artists and the photographs often compete for the audience’s attention. But when each medium comes together in periodic simmering moments of unity, COTTON truly delivers.


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