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Friday, March 24, 2017

Silent Voices Ring Out

Brooklyn Youth Chorus, 2014. Photo: Axel Dupeux for Brooklyn Magazine
By Robert Jackson Wood

If you are 15 years old and living in the United States, your life has been bookended by the unthinkable and the improbable. On one end is 9/11, whose cultural fallout—religious intolerance legitimized in the name of national security, for instance—you haven’t known a day without. On the other end is the recent election, which has only stoked those and other fanatical flames. There have been some good things in between: legalized gay marriage, for example. Yet as recent days have shown, progress is fragile. The pendulum has been yours to ride.

Luckily, though, tolerance is on the side of youth. In the Brooklyn Youth Chorus’ latest project, Silent Voices, the performers—whose average age is 15—offer an evening of newly commissioned and other choral works dedicated to those disenfranchised by the events of late (and not so late). In essence, it is a cri de coeur for understanding and empowerment, sung by those who understand the flip side of post-9/11 paranoia, multiculturalism, more intuitively than anyone. To all of those hushed by the recent hate, Silent Voices simply says—we hear you.

Many of those heard are the composers themselves, who are largely women and people of color: Americans Toshi Reagon, Paul Miller (DJ Spooky), Caroline Shaw, and Shara Nova (formerly Shara Worden); South Asian composer Kamala Sankaram; and Armenian-American composer Mary Kouyoumdjian. Songwriter Ellis Ludwig-Leone and composers Nico Muhly and Jeff Beal round out the list, which is still in formation.

The issues covered are just as diverse: structural inequality, violence against women, and systemic racism, to name a few. But the inverse of these things, privilege, is also on the table. In Shara Nova’s “Blind to the Illness,” a building becomes a metaphor for the proverbial bubble of the fortunate, who are rarely kept awake at night by the burning world. Self-awareness ultimately wins out; over a solemn New Orleans-like snare drum pattern, the chorus confesses: “I was born inside this building and I want to see the sun.” 


Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw steps outside of that bubble with “So Quietly,” a hymn to the silenced learning to speak for the first time. “It’s about [...] all the ways women or minorities say these words to try to get around the difficult conversations they really want to have,” Shaw has said. In the work, a tentative collective voice gradually emerges from a stuttering soup of nonsense sounds before pledging to remain “ever singing.” “I will be a difference in the room,” it finally intones.

Yet difference as something scrutinized, particularly bodily difference, is the subject of Kamala Sankaram’s work, which invites women to gleefully shun the gaze. In a spare a capella setting, the choristers sing the songs of their unique corporeal selves, big and small, conforming and non. The use of body percussion becomes a metaphorical embrace of the flesh, heightening the singers’ sense of self-ownership and agency.

There is much more: Nico Muhly’s “Advice to a Young Woman,” drawing on a 17th-century chapbook outlining ways women should behave, and Jeff Beal’s “Prophecy from Firebrand and the First Lady,” which takes from Patricia Bell-Scott’s account of the friendship between Eleanor Roosevelt and the African-American writer-activist Pauli Murphy. Texts by Michelle Alexander are also featured.

All of this amounts to a culmination of at least two sorts. For the better part of a year, the choir has been presenting bits and pieces of the project elsewhere—at National Sawdust, FIAF, the Prototype Festival, and WNYC’s Greene Space. At BAM, however, it presents a specially curated, multimedia-enriched version of the project featuring projections by Peter Negrini and portraiture by Jay Maisel.

But significantly, this year also marks the choir’s 25th anniversary. That it has decided to celebrate with a year-long project about social justice is important, because it implies an explicit alignment of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus identity with the cause. Make no mistake about it, they seem to be saying: teenagers—these teenagers, at least—aren’t cruel, they’re kind. They’re also the future, which is comforting—particularly right now.

Brooklyn Youth Chorus presents Silent Voices on May 12 & 13 in the Howard Gilman Opera House.
Robert Jackson Wood is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer.

1 comment:

  1. One excellent piece if you have the opportunity go see it,enjoy it,and when you walk to the venue walk in with an open mind,no prejudice or judgment,analize it think about it and be part of the proper change,someday we will discover the way...

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