---UPDATED DECEMBER 28, 2020 W/ VIDEO TRANSCRIPT---
I've admired White Snake Project for a really long time - they are an awesome opera company! They do exclusively new works that are heavily integrated with social activism. So, I was super excited when they selected me as one of the composers for their project "Sing Out Strong: Essential Voices." They paired poems from essential workers with composers like myself to create these pieces to elevate the voices of those people on the front lines - I mean service industry workers, healthcare professionals, grocery store workers, delivery workers.
My piece follows the story of Chiruza Muhimuzi. He's 21 years old, he's from the Congo, he came to Boston (he's there right now) studying and working at a grocery store. In his poem, he talks about the worry and the anxiety as he has no choice but to go out into the world during this pandemic to work. The opening of the piece is just him listing off all of the places he needs to go that day in a pretty casual way, but underneath it is this incessant fear. His roommates, who are father and son, actually ended up catching COVID, and there is a death, and his family - they call him every dayto check up on him 'cause the news of the virus is just, it's getting worse and worse.
Compositionally, I'm trying to convey this in a couple of different ways. I'm using two pitch cells - one is a 12-tone row that represents sort of the underlying anxiety, and another is a tone row derived from the scientific name SARS-CoV-2. I use these more atonal cells in the context of a more tonal harmony, creating a juxtaposition between going about your business, but also being super anxious and super worried about the virus that is literally everywhere. For example, in the first part of the piece, the singer is just singing this really simple pentatonic melody, but then underneath it, the cello starts to creep in with the "anxiety" tone row, which then transforms into the "COVID" tone row. Meanwhile, the piano is playing these really high chords and also this really low pedal tone, both in two different keys, kind of accentuating the war of information about the virus in America, at least.
Honestly, the biggest challenge for me with this piece was just feeling like I was doing the text justice. And, you just have to be careful with sung language, because it can so easily make things sound kind of cheesy, you know? Chiruza's story is - the last thing I want to do is novelize it. I want to respect it, and I want to try, at least, to elevate it. That's part of the reason I went with this, sort of, bi-tri-tonal approach, because I feel like it offers a kind of realism to this telling of the story.
I just want people to understand, and to be grateful for, the risks that essential workers are taking for us. That's really it. These are real people - disproportionately poor people, and people of color - and they're out there risking their lives for those of us who are lucky enough to be able to work from home, and to be able to socially distance. I really just want people to respect that and to take the proper personal precautions to slow the spread of coronavirus - wear a mask, stay home if you can, and if you can't, just try your best to be socially distanced.
The concert is happening Saturday, December 19th. It's totally free to attend, open to the public. You just have to register online at the link they're going to send you with this video. I hope you can stop by to support our essential workers and to support the artists who are doing this kind of work.
Thanks so much for listening, and I hope to see you soon!