With “We Refract” ChamberQUEER Inspires Active Listening and Queer Joy

“Experience the music on your own terms: stand, stretch, laugh, sing, cry — clap whenever you want to,” said vocalist and ChamberQUEER co-founder Danielle Buonaiuto. With an intentional invitation to “come as you are,” the June 11 performance, titled “We Refract,” embodied the organization’s mission to be an inclusive gathering place, and premiered seven new compositions by ChamberQUEER artists. The program, presented at three different venues over the weekend as part of the Five Boroughs Music Festival, featured performances by Buonaiuto, flutist Yoshi Weinberg, violinist Darian Donovan Thomas, harpist Aviva Jaye, and baritone Brian Mummert filling in on percussion and auxiliary instruments in the absence of Alexis C. Lamb (percussion), Rajna Swaminathan (mridigam), and Jules Biber (cello).

The Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art on Staten Island was an ideal venue for creating a space for intimate listening and reflection. The center is a converted estate, first built in the early 1800s as a home for aged veterans, and now a cultural hub for arts and horticulture. More than 200 years old, the building is one of only five original structures still standing on Snug Harbor; its wooden interiors and oval floors sit underneath a two-story domed ceiling with stained glass.

Aviva Jaye and Danielle Buonaiuto perform in ChamberQUEER's "WE REFRACT" program -- Photo by Lance. J. Reha

Aviva Jaye and Danielle Buonaiuto perform in ChamberQUEER’s “We Refract” program — Photo by Lance. J. Reha

“We Refract” began with Pauline Oliveros’ Tuning Meditation, which invites the audience to engage in “deep listening — listening to each other, opening our lives and ears for what’s to come,” Buonaiuto explained. “You’re making something that comes from inside, then sending it out into the room.” We were instructed to listen to a sound different from our own and match it, then alternate between the two notes. Hum, sing, however the audience was to make a sound, they were free to do it. “Make something new; reflect something to the back of the room.”

Buonaiuto told the audience that the musicians and composers in ChamberQUEER come from different backgrounds: improvisers, conservatory-trained, and those without Western classical training. With eyes closed, a sustained a capella choir echoed reverberations of Gregorian chant — it was transcendent.

Yoshi Weinberg’s I See a Rainbow was partially inspired by a memory of their third-grade class snapping their fingers to imitate the sounds of rainfall. Here too, the audience was invited to participate, and the effect was astounding. The audience’s finger snapping was looped through Aviva Jaye’s synths, while Darian Donovan Thomas tapped on his violin and scratched up and down the fingerboard. Jaye also percussively ticked away with staccato plucks on the folk harp; it all captured a vivid, growing sensation that rain might start pouring through the ceiling. A recorded voice intoned, “When I look in a mirror, I see a rainbow,” followed by each musician – led by Brian Mummert – sporadically repeating and singing these words to themselves.

Darian Donovan Thomas and Yoshi Weinberg perform in ChamberQUEER's "WE REFRACT" program -- Photo by Lance. J. Reha

Darian Donovan Thomas and Yoshi Weinberg perform in ChamberQUEER’s “We Refract” program — Photo by Lance. J. Reha

Jaye’s Complect was structured in three distinct sections: “Recall + Revere (Honoring Queer Ancestry),” “Reflect + Release (Witness & Be Witnessed),” and “Reclaim + Rejoice (Unshackled Joy Expression).” Liquid long tones from violin and flute slowly changed, with Buonaiuto’s voice sliding in between like warm syrup, each note warming and absorbing more of the wooden hall. A mixture between Chinese erhu music, spirituals, and the blues emerged as Mummert melismatically sang, “You’re the very best friend I’ve ever had,” as though in lament. After a fluttering of flute patterned in Mummert’s voice, Jaye melted the audience with a gushing, romantic harp solo. A full-ensemble swooping octave repeated until the piece gave way to an electronic jig that sounded like an outro fade from a Stranger Things episode, a car driving into the sunset until it’s only a dot on the horizon.

Hindsight by Alexis C. Lamb asks something vulnerable of the performers — a personal recounting of a past traumatic memory. The musicians entered with stretched, sung syllables, hanging in hesitation. “I was se-,” Buonaiuto began. “I was sev- I was seve-, I was seven…” The ensemble admitted that the piece takes a lot out of them, that it can be wearying. But Lamb noted in the program that her intention in asking performers to recount trauma was to “reframe it as queer joy.” Ascending scalar notes glided up the vibraphone, flute, violin, and harp as the words “I’ll make it safe” were passed between singers, eventually coming together on “as best I can.”

By this point, it was clear that “We Refract” was as much about words as it was about sound, with active listening as the central theme. Mummert’s Temperamental was built on the quote, “They’re respectable in the eyes of God, and you aren’t.” In Jules Biber’s cacophonous Undercurrents, the ensemble yelled in loud and angry voices, with the words “I’ve had enough!” cutting through the din.

Brian Mummert performs in ChamberQUEER's "WE REFRACT" program -- Photo by Lance. J. Reha

Brian Mummert performs in ChamberQUEER’s “We Refract” program — Photo by Lance. J. Reha

Swaminathan’s fleet/hold was an actual speech calling us to listen to our memories. Buonaiuto read a script, “Listen to the collective sound… notice what emerges in your memory. Find a way to embody it.” And Lamb’s Clacking Music used printed words instead of spoken text. The piece is scored for Asian hand fans, flapped open and shut to create heavy percussive rhythms. On each fan, written in big, bold letters was a widely known queer phrase, including “YAS KWEEN” and “GAY AF.”

The concert had begun with a land acknowledgement and a recognition of the Lenape people as the ancestral caretakers of what is now New York. This served as a reminder of how history and identity can be lost and regained, which also resonated with the afternoon’s exploration of queerness. ChamberQUEER’s opening intention – that the audience come exactly as they are, with no restrictions or requirements – offered a model of queerness, asking the audience to not just hear, but listen to the voices and experiences of queer people.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, and is made possible thanks to 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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