“One of the most socially aware artistic events in New York this year.” —WQXR
The Series Silent Voicesis a multimedia, multi-composer, and multi-year series of concert works with spoken word conceived, produced and performed by Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Silent Voices amplifies the voices of those silenced or marginalized in our communities and harnesses the power of young people to be instruments of change. The Chorus has commissioned a dynamic group of innovative artists to interpret rich personal stories and historical narratives exploring contemporary themes of identity, orientation, status, boundaries, and belonging.
This Show If You Listen, the second installment in theSilent Voices series, builds on the success of its 2017 premiere at BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House, co-commissioned with Brooklyn Academy of Music, and WQXR, New York. In Silent Voices: If You Listen, eight composers, all women, collaborate with the choristers in confronting the challenges of division and categorization, racism, sexism, social and economic disparity, immigration, our environment, and threats to our understanding of truth, as we prepare to move towards a more inclusive and compassionate vision of the future. Featured composers include Julia Adolphe, Olga Bell, Anna Clyne, Paola Prestini, Toshi Reagon, Shaina Taub, Shelley Washington, Bora Yoon.
Produced and Performed by: Brooklyn Youth Chorus with special guest Shaina Taub
Conceived and Conducted by: Dianne Berkun Menaker
If You Listen Composers: Julia Adolphe, Olga Bell, Anna Clyne, Paola Prestini, Toshi Reagon, Shaina Taub, Shelley Washington, and BoraYoon If You Listen Librettists: Caitlin Doyle, Maija Garcia, Jane Hirshfield, Toshi Reagon, Brenda Shaughnessy, Safiya Sinclair, Shaina Taub, Lord Alfred Tennyson, and Shelley Washington
Director: R. B. Schlather Video Designer: S. Katy Tucker
Sound Designer: Garth MacAleavey
Dramaturg: Peter McCabe Chorister Interviews: Helga Davis
Chorus costumes provided by rag & bone
Promotional trailer for the Silent Voices world premiere
Watch tracks from the world premiere production of Silent Voices at BAM
Documentary of Toshi Reagon’s “Brooklyn Bound”
Documentary of Kamala Sankaram’s “Keeping the Look Loose”
“Since its founding 25 years ago by its indefatigable artistic director, Dianne Berkun Menaker, it has given voice to children and young adults from a wide range of backgrounds. Musically, too, it fosters diversity with a targeted training program that teaches choristers to sing in a variety of styles and sounds. Typical members of the chorus’s professional-level concert ensemble know how to shade their voices to sound idiomatically pop, classical or gospel. [of Caroline Shaw’s ‘So Quietly’]…Using novel vocal techniques, including sharp, rhythmic breathwork, the music…(also demonstrated the enormous versatility and polish of these young singers.)” —The New York Times
“Right out of the gate, in Shaw’s “so quietly,” the seven-stage musicianship program required for the BYC singers paid off as they conquered extremely complex rhythms with accuracy, not to mention perfect intonation. Even the microtonal slides and widely changing vocal timbres – including audible breathing – typical of Shaw were child’s play to these teens.”…“Everybody’s been really transformed.” She was referring to the choristers who created Silent Voices. But it was true of the audience who heard the piece as well.” —Classical Voice America
Upon the inauguration of 45, I joined many millions at the 2017 Washington DC Women’s March to protest and be a part of the convergence of the resistance, and couldn’t help but notice the utter lack and dearth of protest songs. There were chants, signs, and crowds singing ‘This Land Is Your Land’ which petered out sadly after the first verse due to no one recalling the words, but no song that united, and created a sense of collective movement. It seemed crazy to me, considering the current state of our country (as Garcia puts ‘States united, yet divided’) that as a society we had no *new* protest songs in response to our times, and seemed to me an indicator that either music’s function had changed in society (perhaps to being escapist, or ameliorating, but no longer was a rallying force) or we had some serious work to do.
When the opportunity for Silent Voices arose, I thought very long and hard about what I want to give these young people, who will grow to be the future leaders of our country, and how this music may grow and evolve with each chorister, on their individual journey through life. I wanted to craft a march, a steadfast, confident vehicle for these young people to walk home to, motivate the moving forward, and share with them a song of empowerment, that they can do absolutely anything they put their minds to. I wanted to connect them to a source of truth, from different time periods, cultures, and styles, to offer a model of resilience, through diversity and history, to know and understand that feeling of connecting to something larger than themselves.
Cuban-American writer/director/choreographer Maija Garcia penned the poem “If You Listen” after the disturbing and polarizing events in Charlottesville, North Carolina in August of 2017 where a white nationalist rally was organized in opposition to a plan by local officials to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy’s top general, from Emancipation Park in Charlottesville.
Symbolic yet hollow, these statues ignited and made visible the underlying racism, hatred, austerity, control, and fear-driven mentality that drove the “Unite the Right” rally — as if freedom, justice, and equality were quantifiable, and able to be scarce.
With the rise of public displays of right-wing extremism, nationalism and white supremacy, Maija and I sought to resonate the idea that a protest song does not have to be a medium where anger is met with reactionary anger – but a medium of resonance and truth, capable of peaceful protest. We sought to create a song of resilience, and empowerment, coming from a point of what connects us to a deep love of humanity from the inside out, rather than the xenophobic perception of others (from the outside in).
The phrase “If You Listen” is simultaneously a proposition, provocation, and forewarning coming from the mouths of children and young persons – bargaining and proposing what it might mean to engage in a dialogue with adults, parents, institutions, and opposing sides asking “If You Listen” what might be possible? ¬ What change, revolution, transformation – or versions of this reality and future — is possible for the good of all – if an intergenerational dialogue of a sustainable and resilient future, is considered?
In the contrasting B section, excerpts of the text of the famous 17th century Lord Alfred Tennyson poem “Ring Out Wild Bells” is set and sung in a medieval plainchant style, serving as a device to juxtapose and contrast the contemporary words of the Garcia poem, to illustrate how timely something written centuries ago (in a rather homogenous society) could be so contextual and relevant today– and how necessary the struggle for justice and truth has remained over centuries and cultures in order to foster the common love of good, and redress to humankind.
As a chorister insightfully pointed out — both the Garcia and Tennyson serve to exercise two sides of the same coin: knowing when to ring out and share your truth, as well as the act of listening, and taking in all sides.
The projected text of novelist and social critic James Baldwin bookends the work, as a silent meditation that is read (not heard, or orated), echoing the complex, multi-layered experience of language that is democracy: the heard, the silenced, the perceived, and the understood, and how we navigate the waters between toward a more equitable future for all.
Music by Paola Prestini
Text by Brenda Shaughnessy
Sisters is a work for a cappella chorus that explores the definition of family through an imagined scenario of many sisters. I was inspired to write a work about an imagined family because I too, like the protagonist in question, was a single child, with a family of two, and my extended family was either chosen or imagined. The benefits of the nuclear family can be the focusing in of love, while the detriment lies in the loneliness that can ensue. In this work, I attempted to create a simple arc from the loneliness of the opening wish: “I wish I had more sisters“, to the flowering out of all the identities she creates for her imagined sisters. The opening economic language slips in and out of a mono thematic and contrapuntal treatment of lines, with bold motifs for the antagonistic selves contrasting fragmented wisps of melodies used to paint the more whimsical imaginary selves: a potter, a fisherman’s wife, or, a poet. Towards the latter half, we follow the main voice reckoning with how much these identities are to bear, and we then surmise that in accepting these aspects of her selves, we finally get the whole sister.
There are moments in life when all we can hope for is for someone to hold us up,
relieving us from our duties, and this is where we land at the culmination of the work: an undulating triplet melody continues to grow until we fold back into the opening thought: a wish for more sisters…and back to one unison line, one identity.
“The Ragged and the Beautiful”
Music by Julia Adolphe
Text by Safiya Sinclair
When Dianne Berkun Menaker shared with me her beautiful theme of Silent Voices, I immediately thought of the incredibly powerful voices of the talented, young chorus members of BYC. Like the BYC musicians, I grew up in NYC singing with friends my age, and I remember how unbelievably empowering it was to express myself through song. I also remember the difficulties that come with being a child, and a teenager, striving to understand and assert your unique identity and independence in a world of conflicting, oppressive messages of conformity and subservience.
Safiya and I chose to explore what it means to feel underrepresented as a young person exposed to bullying, unsupported by the familial, educational, or government institutions that are meant to protect our freedoms and help build our sense of self.
The Ragged and the Beautiful strives to reclaim and redefine the doubt that permeates a young person’s mind, and to move towards an embrace of one’s uniqueness and individuality.
In writing “The Ragged and the Beautiful,” I wanted to create a poem that might personally resonate with each member of the chorus. After my wonderful conversation with all of you, I was so moved by your generosity and openness, and I was deeply inspired by your written messages. I thought about my own experiences as an adolescent who was bullied and made to feel strange in my own body, and how similar my experiences were with yours.
I wanted to write about what it feels like to be a stranger to yourself, or be seen as strange by others, to feel bullied or like an outcast because of what your skin or body or hair was like. Or where you came from. Or what your religion might be. I might not fit a “normal mold,” but I wanted to end on a hopeful note. I wanted to give Julia (and all of you) something hopeful to set music to.
My aim in choosing the specific words and meaning of the poem was the hope that when you sing these words, you might feel its truth somewhere in your heart-root. Finally, I wanted you all to know that beauty comes in many forms, and that you are all beautiful despite what others may say, and I wanted you to have the power to affirm your own beauty by singing it out loud, and out loud, and out loud in your own voices.
Music by Anna Clyne
Text by Caitlin Doyle
“Body Compass” explores the question of how human beings can dismantle boundaries, internal and external, that threaten to render us at odds with one another. With the chorus separated into two halves, Group A and Group B, the song unfolds via a layered conversation as each group performs a negotiation, both linguistic and musical, between self and other.
The song starts with the metaphor of every human body as its own distinct country: “I was born inside my body / so where else can I live? / I was born inside my body / so what else can I give? / Tell me – tell me – / what other country can I be?” As “Body Compass” progresses, the lyrics continue to emphasize self-empowerment while inviting listeners to consider what happens when people open their barriers, figuratively speaking, to those from outside.
The body-as-country image accrues another layer of implications when Group A sings “My body’s a country with border walls,” a detail that evokes well-known geographical boundaries throughout history, including the Berlin Wall, the Great Wall of China, and the Western Wall. Such culturally constructed forms of separation, as the lyrics of “Body Compass” suggest, mirror the divisions that so often exist between people on an individual level.
Group A invites Group B to “climb the wall.” When Group B begins its metaphorical ascent, listeners feel the musical tension rise. “Body Compass” reaches a dramatic climax when the two groups merge. No longer singing as separate units, as an “I” and a “you,” they become a “we.” Their journey ends with a discovery in which listeners hear an echo of the song’s beginning, a repetition magnified and transformed by the shared insight attained by both groups: “We were born inside the same song / so where else can we live? / We were born inside the same song / so what else can we give?”
“On the Fifth Day”
Music by Olga Bell
Text by Jane Hirshfield
I encountered Jane Hirshfield’s poem “On the Fifth Day” first in the New York Times, in an April 2017 “primer” on Resistance Poetry.
Right away, I was struck by the directness of the work. It put across imperative and alarm, but in a way that felt real and dimensional and conversational, never sensationalist or polemic.
I then found a video of Jane Hirshfield’s spirited first reading of the poem at last spring’s March for Science, on Earth Day, and felt even more inspired by its rallying call for environmental advocacy. I am thrilled and grateful to Ms. Hirshfield for granting me permission to set her words to music for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. As my work typically involves many layers of electronics and percussion, the decision for this piece to be unaccompanied was a bit scary at first. In the end, I’m glad that the work is entirely focused on the voices of the BYC and on Jane Hirshfield’s words, and I’m grateful to Dianne Berkun Menaker for her guidance and encouragement throughout the process.
“See the Farthest”
Music and text by Shelley Washington
I wanted to write a piece that would comment on the desires that many young people currently share; wants that span the personal “when I grow up…” to the public “in the future, we…” I also wanted my piece to ring true for any person during the era that they were young – their dreams for the future, taking risks in hopes of stepping closer to their goals, and forming alliances against adversaries.
We as people have always wanted to be some form of good, and for our futures to be brighter than our present.
Individuals’ belief of what constitutes goodness has the power to write laws, create religions, and drive culture. This desire to be personally better, to intentionally grow into our collective best, has steered the rise and fall of every empire. The Farthest is intended to be sung by the voices of now as a call both forward and backwards in time; a shout of gratitude back to those who challenged the wrongs of their time, and a call forward to all listeners to never give up hope, and to strive for being their best.
Music and text by Shaina Taub
This song was inspired by protest signs at the airport rallies in January 2017. Many of them included lines from Emma Lazarus’ poem The New Colossus, which is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. Over a century later, her powerful words remain the mantra of American liberty, no matter how this small-minded administration tries to diminish them. The chorus of this song carries some of Emma’s indelible verse. This song is also inspired by a protest sign I saw that said ‘Jesus Was A Refugee’ and a column by Nicholas Kristof ‘Anne Frank Today Is A Syrian Girl’.
It is dedicated to all the immigrants in this country, whose voices we will continue to amplify and fight for with love against forces of hate.