Two musicians of color create their own space
A few years ago, while bass-baritone Davóne Tines was performing in Kaija Saariaho’s “Only the Sound Remains” at the Paris Opera, he came out of his dressing room and saw something surprising: another person from color.
It was violinist Jennifer Koh, whom Saariaho had invited to see the show. Koh noticed the same thing. She, an American daughter of Korean refugees, and he, a black American, were outliers in a crowd of whites. There was, Tines recalled, “a connection line there that we had without really having met or spoken.”
“I think that connecting line,” he added, “was the beginning of our relationship, which continued to deepen as this piece developed.”
Tines was referring to “Everything Rises,” an hour-long work he and Koh have been collaborating on since they met. It has been a project of evolution and introspection, even changing to respond to racialized violence against Black and Asian Americans during the pandemic. Originally slated for Spring 2020, it now premieres April 12 at the University of California, Santa Barbara and will travel to Los Angeles later in the week.
Difficult to categorize, “Everything Rises” is a multimedia show with elements of theater, as well as a musical documentary (composed by Ken Ueno) about Tines and Koh: their experiences as people of color in a predominantly white field. , their journey to being honest about themselves and their audiences, and their explorations of their family history. Along the way, they celebrate their maternal lines — based on interviews with Tines’ grandmother, Alma Lee Gibbs Tines, and Koh’s mother, Gertrude Soonja Lee Koh — as they come to something like the independence from pressure from the music industry.
“It’s about revealing who we are,” Koh, the recent Grammy winner for her album “Alone Together,” said over lunch with Tines. “Every time you see someone walking down the street, there’s a whole life and a whole story inside of them that you may have no idea.”
Getting to this place — what Tines called the richest possible form of “Everything Rises” — took years. The creative team has changed more than once; therefore has the title. A first workshop was called “The 38th Parallel” and was more focused on Koh’s families and composer Jean-Baptiste Barrière, who is Saariaho’s husband. He left the project over creative differences, and the form began to gravitate towards one based on Tines and Koh’s relationship.
Other collaborators have come and gone, but the final line-up – including Ueno, playwright Kee-Yoon Nahm and, over the past six months, director Alexander Gedeon – created what Koh considered the most comfortable so far. Almost everyone is a person of color, and “there’s something important about that,” she said, “because there are experiences that are just understood.”
In the aftermath, the project became increasingly unshakable. “Since this piece is about gaining personal agency and uncovering truth,” Tines said, “and since we have the space to explore personal agency and truth, there is an opportunity to say things to the public that we otherwise would never have had the space or encouragement to say.
He continued, “We are aware of who our audience traditionally is. To flatter them would be to ignore what our realities really are. We are past the point of allowing the front stage to be a wall. I don’t think there’s much point in turning what’s on stage into a plastic representation of life.
This belief guided decisions such as how to end the play. At one point, Tines had planned to sing a gospel anthem, “The Lord Will Make a Way Somehow”, and play at the start of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”. It was a way, he said, of showing “the dichotomy of being a classical singer in the canon work, but also bringing my own personal, black experience that feeds and informs everything I do.” .
After a try, Koh told her she didn’t feel like it was right. But, he replied, it was his way of expressing balance and resilience. Then she said, “You know, you don’t have to give this to the public. They didn’t deserve this from you. You don’t have to give them your means to cope; it’s up to us to hold on for our own safety.
His words made Tines cry. “I never really phrased it that way,” he recalled in the interview. “If I give this to an audience, does it give them a way out? Does that mean that my release is also offered as a way out? I realized that I had given power and agency to what I was trying to share by also allowing an escape route.
“Everything Rises” now has an original score, as well as text from taped conversations between Tines and Koh — in part, Tines said, “because it’s about sharing the truth of our experiences, instead of s to aestheticize our experience. I don’t need to find a poem that represents something that I can say more directly.
Some elements were taken from elsewhere, in particular the lyrics of “Strange Fruit”, which are given a new frame towards the end of the work. This footage was tested, in the form of a music video, last year as part of Carnegie Hall’s “Voices of Hope” series. In it, Koh’s acting – choppy extended technique – accompanies historical images of lynchings and racist caricatures.
Tines enters later with a dark, slow treatment of text that gives way to something more beautiful, a showcase of mellow, soothing high-end sound that contrasts with contemporary videos and photos of violent attacks and bloodied faces. It’s beautiful and unbearable — made even more difficult by the juxtaposition of female victims and Koh walking down a New York sidewalk. But it ends with optimism: a message of unity, including from two girls, a black and an Asian American, holding a sign that reads, “This is what solidarity looks like.”
“‘Strange Fruit,'” Ueno said, “summarizes the mission of the play so much,” and noted that it came out shortly after six Asian women were murdered in Atlanta last year. (The video cites an increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans; in December, the New York Police Department reported a 361% increase in attacks targeting them over the previous year.)
The show isn’t that intense, but it is unforgiving in its discussions of race, history, and classical music. Gedeon, the director, said: “It’s raw, it’s edgy in a way and it’s haunting. The words are written with this very direct language confronting the reality of the experience of being a person of color in this predominantly white space.
It starts with Koh and Tines dressed as they might be for any performance — her in a dress, he in a tailcoat — because, Tines said, “so many of our stories come out of what it means to show up. “. They intentionally fulfill stereotypes of concert attire and from there question public perception and the extent to which they are complicit in it. In a song called “A Story of the Moth”, Tines sings:
i was the butterfly
caught your flame
I hated myself for needing you
money, access, fame
From there, they tell of journeys of personal and historical discovery. Koh spent around 10 hours interviewing his mother, Soonja; Tines had already been secretly recording her grandmother for “some time”. Audio of these conversations are included, with telling effect, as Alma’s account of a lynching – “They killed him and hung him, cut off his head and kicked him in the streets — in poetic fragments woven with memories of Soonja’s violence in Korea: “Then I saw people being tortured and people on trees, bodies hanging from trees.”
Ueno’s score – for both performers and electronics – is a code-switching analogue, featuring classic and traditional Korean fake music, as well as 70s pop and avant-garde idioms. contemporaries. “It’s an allegory of their experience,” Ueno said, “but it’s also a way to highlight the great virtuosity of what Davóne and Jenny can do, things like the angelic highs and deep lows of Davóne, and Jenny’s extended technique.”
Gedeon said that because he came to the project so late, most of his work has been to “massage these pieces into a clear line and create more interstitial material that takes them on this journey of passing from famous classical musicians and prestigious but perhaps feeling hollow inside, to have a deeply rooted authentic personal excavation.
At the end, “Everything Rises” leaves the white-dominated space of the opening in an effort, Tines said, to “reclaim agency.” He and Koh perform a duet about how they are connected and how this project “allows us to see each other”.
“It’s about creating a new space,” Koh said. “And I hope what we do in this work opens up space for people of color to speak more truth. It’s everyone’s loss, including classical music, if the stories of people who aren’t like us aren’t heard.