Out of Eden is a program which was originally formulated for function, and inevitably developed into a deeply personal project which I am quite privileged to have the opportunity to present. The requisite chronological trajectory from classical to contemporary– a general standard for concert and recital programs– was difficult to embrace in a time where many artists of color are eager to step beyond musical constructs and systems which did not include or accommodate our entire being and human experience. This framework, however, then naturally lent itself to me as an opportunity to sing into the truths of human experience that this chosen repertoire does lend to me as an artist as a means to emerge beyond their presumed boundaries, as well as my own, into a full embodiment of authentic artistic expression.
“Abendempfindung” sets the stage for the realization and acceptance of death, an inevitability which precedes awareness of physical mortality. Death is change– which can also be growth, and therefore freedom and peace, as expressed in the text. This is one of Mozart’s richer art song pieces, which he wrote about a month after his father’s death and also in the wake of the death of two of his and Constanze’s babies. He is said to have written in a letter to his father while he was ill, “I have accustomed myself in all things to anticipate the worst- that death (properly understood) is the true goal of life… its visage not only no longer inspires terror in me but actually arouses deep feelings of calm and reassurance.”
The following pieces, narratively speaking, harken back to when the death process begins. “An Chloe” can be said to speak to the first love that compels one to surrender themselves to another– an ego death, where there is suddenly no I without you. “Dans un bois” tells of the resurgence of a love of sorts for that which was lost, presumed forgotten. And “Oiseaux, si tous les ans” laments the unfortunate fault of human beings or perhaps society itself in being incapable of sustaining that livelihood of love through all the seasons it promises. In each of these pieces, Mozart’s style is recognizable by clear and captivating melodies with relatively simple harmonic accompaniment, articulated by arpeggiations and rhythmic chord punctuations that depart from their major tonalities briefly to underscore some of the dark colors present in the texture and voicing throughout.
The French romances in the next section of the first half progress forward chronologically into the period where sentiment was a key characteristic of poetry and music, often characterized by features of nature. Yet in the context of this program’s narrative, they also represent a regression of consciousness at first– clinging to the blissful naïvitée of youthful romance and its allure, communicated through the tasteful commentary of the cello, created by Jodi Beder. This state of mind represents not merely the sweetness of romantic courtship, but rather the excitement and mystery that inspires the imagination and which ignorance allows. Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade” embodies this ethos with a playful and smitten charm, followed by pieces by Jules Massenet, beginning with “On dit,” an unapologetically rosewater waltz which succumbs to the magical grace in the piece before it, with a swooning cello obligato.
A new theme is then introduced in the following pieces, also by Massenet, who was known for having set a number of songs to texts by female poets. “Chant de guerre Cosaque” a poem by Elena Vacarescu, satirizes the hypermasculine ideals of manhood which dismiss the purity of romance and even objectification of women– both of which are its own fabrication. “Les Belles de Nuit,” a contemplative poem by Thérèse Maquet, retreats to an inner space of beauty and truth, remote from a world that worships the spectacular, the idyllic. All these romantic themes characterized by nature, gardens, flowers are the Eden from which [feminine] consciousness will emerge, having retreated from the shelter of ideals which no longer serve the need for attaining knowledge of the world or of the self.
“There are many kinds of power, used and unused, acknowledged or otherwise. The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling. In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change. For women, this has meant a suppression of the erotic as a considered source of power and information within our lives.”
Jake Heggie, an American composer of both opera and art song, began his career climb in the opera world at San Francisco Opera in the mid-90’s, where he was commissioned to compose the cycle Eve-Song, a series of monologues which reconceptualize the female archetype, for soprano Kristen Clayton. He enlisted the actor and librettist Philip Littell to compose the text. The irony of the themes throughout, a rejection of the notion that man could create or define woman and discovery of the true feminine identity, seems to have been lost on Heggie and Littell at the time– a cycle literally “made up by a couple of men.” Still, both their connection to and sympathy for women’s experiences did equip them with an intriguing combination of insights, while their distance from them still set them up for arguable missteps. It was the text which first drew me to these pieces, which I perform in a slightly different order (also omitting the 3rd and 7th songs), and then the tension between the profound and peculiar music and the text itself which deeply fascinated me. Having consulted composer and librettist on their meaning and intentions with various passages, I’ve taken liberties with the interpretation based on my understanding of womxn’s experiences as well as my own.
“My Name” is the awakening of the feminine consciousness, which can no longer accept the pervasive misogynistic narratives of its origin and yet does not yet know its own truth. Littell confronts both the myths and likely realities of woman’s earliest existence, whereby her creation can hardly have been so incidental as Adam’s leftover body parts and humankind’s procreation would have required her “inevitable rape.” Heggie’s accompaniment ranges from mysterious calls and affirmations from within to antagonizing ridicule as Eve interrogates the beliefs about woman, herself, she’s consumed.
I follow this song with what is originally the 6th movement of the cycle, “Woe to Man,” a monologue which is meant to represent more of a contemporary incarnation of Eve/Woman. Anyone who has been marginalized, oppressed, or repeatedly belittled through micro aggressions can relate to the moment when the truth of such incidents can no longer be ignored and their place in the eyes of man is clearly in contempt. Eve in the contemporary, perhaps a reemergence of feminism in the Western world, curses every man who led her to believe she is little more than a garnish for his pleasure- beyond which anything she presumed to be is a joke. “Nothing but trouble.” The original poem is much longer than what Heggie set, yet the ambiguous sighs at the end capture the sense of helpless despondency that rage alone cannot soothe.
At this point, I turn to what is originally the fourth movement of the cycle, “Listen.” Reverting to the original story, Eve is confronted by the “serpent.” Having torn down walls of confining narratives and beliefs about her womanhood, this archetypal supressed segment of consciousness– her erotic nature– is free to suggest to her, do you want to be like God? While this interpretation is a stark departure from the message of the biblical story, it comes in part from the Jungian theories of the feminine psyche (in which Littell is also well-versed) articulated in Women Who Run with the Wolves, as well as the compelling argument from Audre Lorde quoted above. She now can divorce herself from the notion that “God” is essentially a masculine entity, and embrace that knowing the knowledge and power of her own essence to connect and flow with all of creation as a co-Creator. As she bites into the fruit in “Snake,” she takes in all of these flavor dimensions: sweet, sour, salty, bitter…air, rottenness, earth and water. Littell, a nouveau foodie at the time, intended this passage as a metaphor for all the qualities of life and truth one misses when living in ignorance. Even rottenness is a flavor which develops in meats as they are cured and contributes to an enjoyable savory quality. Tasting these flavors in the same bite of the same fruit illuminates the truth that they are all part of the same entity– like drops of water in the ocean. They are part of her and she of them, which she sings and celebrates in “Evening.” With this revelation of oneness, however, comes also the realization that there are no protections from the evils of the world– especially as a woman. And so falls away any bliss of ignorance: “I have no peace at night.”
I punctuate this cycle with Florence Price’s “The Heart of a Woman,” as it can now be seen in its truth, no longer overshadowed by unattainable ideals or narratives which are not her own. The melody wanders forward without the singsong pattern the cadence of its rhymes could have suggested, propelled by the sweeping piano accompaniment with harmonies that hold a certain anguish without being profoundly dissonant— an apt summation of woman’s heart, emerging from its preceding context, at last expressed directly from its source.
Transitioning to Songs of Love and Justice, Adolphus Hailstork’s cycle set to excerpts from speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., this consciousness which began in conflict with old paradigms and evolved selfhood now stands firm in a state of conviction— with the knowledge that all things are one and connected, yet life remains unsafe in a world with destructive systems of injustice. The piano solo introduction of “Justice” introduces themes and motifs which are repeated in various passages throughout the cycle, representing the agitation and struggle of the soul to rise above the hatred and ignorance perpetuated by racism, on a journey to answer the calls of conviction to transform the world into a place of justice and of Love. The vocal line pours out from the dissonant harmonies and shifting meters with a moan that ascends into a desperate cry. There is little mystery to the text itself, as Dr. King intended these messages to be accessible to every human being who would hear him. The music, however, would seem to confound the ostensible simplicity of his messages, and rightfully so– for while his words were simple and profound enough to stir millions of hearts into action and change that has reverberated for the decades since his assassination, the distance society has yet to go is evidence of the obstacles to living in their truth, as expressed in “Difficulties.” The music drastically shifts, however, from rhythmic, dissonant agitation to a steady, almost brooding passage as he meditates on Jesus’ admonishment, speaking of those who burn, bomb, and threaten to “Love them.” In “Decisions,” the gravitas of the thick chordal and bass accompaniment in the piano reinforces the demand that all would choose to “walk in the light of creative altruism,” and ask of self, “life’s most persistent and urgent question: what are you doing for others?” In “Love,” the soul has made its choice–answering differently to the reiteration of the cycle’s piano solo introduction. Past the struggle of consciousness and spirit, the ultimate truth is that “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” Sustained over a still dissonant, yet tamed accompaniment, he repeats Love, stated simply and as purely as it emanates from the soul.
The premise on which much of this program is based is that every soul is in a continuous state of growth and transformation, which renders these struggles through transition, change, death, and renewal. The final piece, “Sympathy,” another composition of Florence Price set to the text by renowned poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, speaks to each soul’s inner compulsion to soar beyond constructs– both extrinsically and self imposed– which constrain it from its highest potential and actualization. A sonata that presents as a sweet and simple melody and labors through its treacherous bridge, it is a piece which represents the journey of the program as a whole.