With the midterm elections rapidly approaching, many Americans are reflecting deeply on the nation’s past and contemplating the path ahead. Some look to our country’s rich and complicated history, mining the past for examples to help them understand the current context. Others keep their eyes to the horizon, striving toward a future America that rises above the struggles of the present-day. The rest of us gamely strike a balance between the past and future as we ride the wave of the latest news cycle.
For Trevor Shaw, artistic director and co-founder of Austin-based choral collective Inversion Ensemble, the craft of music-making offers a platform for expression in our rapidly-changing political landscape.
“I, Too, Sing America: Songs of Our Shared History,” 7 p.m. Oct. 6 at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church; 3 p.m. Oct. 7 at Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Free admission.
“Many Americans are hurting and struggling to make sense of their reality. Protesting, letter-writing, and voting are vital to keeping us on a forward trajectory,” says Shaw. “But as artists, we composers, singers, and instrumentalists have a special opportunity, if not an obligation to comment on the world around us.”
For I, Too, Sing America: Songs of Our Shared History, Inversion Ensemble’s upcoming concert, Shaw selected nearly a dozen choral works by living composers. The program offers a kaleidoscope of views on the American experience.
“The themes are a mix of acknowledging some of our worst historical missteps and tragedies, along with inspirational figures and events that have helped us as a nation to move forward in a better direction,” explains Shaw. “There’s no question that we’re culturally living in a time of angst and experiencing growing pains as a country.”
Founded in 2016, Inversion Ensemble creates a space for choral experimentation, fostering connections between composers, singers, and audience. Shaw and co-founders Robbie LaBanca and Adrienne Inglis have assembled a group of adventurous singers, all eager to explore innovative music and stretch their vocal technique.
Many members of Inversion Ensemble are also composers. In addition to gathering new choral pieces from around the country, Shaw invites members of the ensemble to contribute their own compositions, injecting local flavor into each concert. Every Inversion Ensemble performance offers a peek into the musical ideas brewing within Austin’s choral community.
The program for “I, Too, Sing America” continues this tradition. It features contributions from Austin-based composers Craig Hella Johnson, Marjorie Halloran, Stephanie K. Andrews, and others. Founders Shaw, LaBanca, and Inglis will also weigh in, each offering a recent work of their own. A new piece by Carlos Cordero, the winner of Inversion Ensemble’s first Emerging Composer Contest, rounds out the program.
“I, Too, Sing America” delves into pivotal moments of our shared American history, from the 17th century Salem witch trials to the tweet-based communiqué of our current president. Other works comment on the American tradition of peaceful protest, including tributes to the Civil Rights Movement and recent struggles for LGBTQ rights.
Commissioned in 2015 for a concert honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., Marjorie Halloran’s “Behind the Dim Unknown” explores ideas from the Civil Rights Movement that still ring with relevance today.
“With themes of ‘we shall overcome’ and ‘free at last’, I wanted to call attention to the fact that racial injustice is still an important concern in today’s society, and the issue is far from resolved,” says Halloran.
Drawing inspiration from writers James Weldon Johnson and James Russell Lowell, “Behind the Dim Unknown” includes snippets of poetry and lyrics, as well as excerpts from King’s speeches. Halloran touches on many key moments in the Civil Rights Movement, building up to a musical memorial honoring four Black girls who were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama.
Reaching back to America’s colonial beginnings, Inglis views historical events through a personal lens in “Innocent Blood”. Set against the backdrop of the Salem witch trials, the work recounts the life of Inglis’ ancestor, Mary Esty. In 1692, Esty was accused of witchcraft and sentenced to death by hanging.
“Innocent Blood” explores the atmosphere of paranoia and persecution that must have permeated Esty’s world. A mezzo-soprano soloist gives voice to Esty’s thoughts, supported by chorus, flute, and organ. Inglis incorporates excerpts from popular 17th century hymns, juxtaposing the musical landscape of colonial Massachusetts with 21st century composition techniques.
In addition to honoring the past, “I, Too, Sing America” looks toward future musical horizons with “Nada te Turbe,” Cordero’s prize-winning piece in Inversion Ensemble’s first Emerging Composers Contest.
A University of Houston graduate student, Cordero often draws inspiration from poetry and the natural world in his choral compositions. “Nada Te Turbe” (“Nothing Disturbs You”) was written as a source of comfort in times of upheaval, particularly in Cordero’s native Venezuela.
“(The piece) uses a Spanish text, but it’s the musical language Carlos writes with which I find so captivating,” says Shaw. “The harmony is rich and thick and the melodic lines he writes have a beautiful sense of direction.”
Shaw emphasizes the key role the Emerging Composers Contest plays in the ensemble’s mission.
“While there have been great strides made in a more diverse direction, the choral music landscape is still dominated by white men,” he explains. “I wanted to highlight one young composer among the myriad talented people of color who are contributing incredible things to the world of choral music.”
A prolific composer in his own right, Shaw will be debuting one of his own works in “I, Too, Sing America,” a commentary on the current political environment. Written in response to the 2016 presidential election, “Sanctus for a False Messiah” pits choral singers against guitars, bass, synthesizer, and drums. Shaw characterizes the piece as “essentially an overblown arena-rock song, mixed irreverently with a choir singing ancient Latin text”.
“It is, to my knowledge, the first choral piece to set quotes of President Trump to music,” he continues. “You’ll have to attend the concert to find out if it’s in a flattering light.”
Given the strong opinions and sense of divisiveness surrounding many current events, Shaw acknowledges that the program of “I, Too, Sing America” might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Still, he remains committed to his belief in music as a source of empowerment and motivator for change.
“We know that some people may feel angered by some of the subject matter, and that’s OK,” says Shaw. “I believe just as many people will be inspired to action.”
“It’s my hope that the audience will leave our concerts feeling compelled to change the world around them for the better.”