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  • Writer's pictureJohn Michael Cooper

SEQUINA DUBOSE: FROM “BLURRED LINES,” A MESSAGE CRYSTAL CLEAR (pt. 1 of 2)

In some ways, the year 2023 was a year of revanchism and regression in classical music. Just a few years earlier, many voices – principally orchestras, but also opera companies and other organizations, as well as individual performers – had admitted and begun to come to terms with the profound error and wrongdoing of unending rehearsals of the canon of familiar music by familiar composers, almost all of whom were male and dead, and most of whom were Europeans. In that context, those voices had programmed new music and marginalized historical music by composers of color and women and frankly acknowledged that one of the main ailments of the culture of classical music in the U.S. was its commitment to excluding marginalized voices and privileging canonical ones. And audiences, I think, were responding: finally, classical music was beginning to offer performers and audiences something that belonged more in their own worlds than in museums.


By mid-2023, though, many of those same orchestras, companies, and individuals had resumed programming concerts with vapid titles like “MASTERWORKS!” or “MASTERPIECE!” or “MUSIC OF THE MASTERS!” – code for “music you already know by the same old same-olds; welcome back to your COMFORT ZONE, where contemporary composers, women composers, and composers of color need not apply.”


Those performers have lost the rightness, the vision, and most of all the clarity of purpose that seemed be dawning back in 2020-2022.


Fortunately, some still have that musical moral compass, that clarity of purpose. Foremost among those I number the extraordinary soprano Dr. Sequnia DuBose. Late in 2023 I heard DuBose perform the utterly inspired second movement, “Especially Do I Believe in the Negro Race,” of the Credo of Margaret Bonds along with baritone Jarvis Miller, Dr. Justin Smith, and the Queens University Chamber Singers and Choral Union of Queens University of Charlotte (North Carolina). And shortly after that I obtained Dr. DuBose’s new CD, titled Blurred Lines – an album that holds pride of place in my sizeable collection, and one that is not only stunning in the quality of its performances and variety of its repertoire, but also, IMO, exemplary in its wisdom and understanding of the rightness of declining to limit our musical world to the pointless repetition of comfortable and the clarity of its vision of showing, in word and tone and style and concept and casting, the benefits and beauties of following another way.




There’s a lot to unpack there, more than one little blog post can accomplish. So this first part of the post will be basically an annotated summary of the contents of DuBose’s visionary album – a review. For the second part, I took the liberty of asking Dr. DuBose for an interview to discuss the hows, whys, wherefores, and what-elses of Blurred Lines – and she found the time and energy to do that. The second part of this post will be some takeaways from that wide-ranging interview.


 

The twin mantras of the liner notes of Blurred Lines are “hybrid” and “fuse” (and variants of these). Those terms are themselves a paradox – for both suggest a melding or synthesis that is true of this album in some senses, but false in other ones. It is safe to say that the composers represented here – Tania León, Peter Hilliard & Matt Boresi, Maria Thompson Corley, B.E. Boykin, Leonard Mark Lewis, Nkeiru Okoye, and Douglas Tappin – have until now never joined forces in a single concept album, and that while they are all here united in implementing the crystal-clear vision of this album, their efforts, by virtue of their great stylistic diversity or eclecticism, impress (initially, at least) more as a matter of amalgamation than one of hybridity or fusion. The same may be said of the performers: an overarching oneness is provided by the powerful and incredibly versatile voice of DuBose and the technical and musical versatility of pianist Gregory Thompson, but I at least know of no previous instance in which clarinetist Jessica Lindsey (clarinet), percussionist Daniel Ferreira, cellist Mira Frisch, violinist Kari Giles, bass guitarist Robert Linton, and guest vocalist David Hughey have fused their voices into a single artistic enterprise.




And yet here they are, together – in an album that (back to my starting points in this two-part post) throws down a lance before the resurgent recidivism of classical-music culture in these, our later days, a lance for all the things to which those recalcitrant forces are opposed. For one thing, these composers, unlike the canonical composers who briefly yielded a bit of their privilege for a few minutes back in 2020-2022, are all living. They are all voices of our own time, of its issues and ideas and aspirations and needs. More importantly, the very heterogeneity of this album is in some terms an affirmation of the value and importance of living composers not submitting to the values and commonplaces of the non-hybrid musical past. It’s an affirmation of non-conformity and originality, a validation of newness and of composers and performers being willing to take listeners beyond the narrow confines of their comfort zones.


The far-flung stylistic range that figuratively blurs these lines confounds the sort of bulleted blow-by-blow commentary typical of reviews. In lieu of that, let me observe that I hear this remarkable album’s compositions as belonging in two broad poetic “frames” – each of them deliciously conscious of its referent and its relationship to the world of today’s listeners. The first of these comprises songs inspired by one of the defining scourges of the modern era, COVID-19 and its profound, often seismic effects on our world. The most obvious of these is Maria Thompson Corley’s (b. 1966) three-movement cycle The Aftermath. Corley’s cycle, written in the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, is a reflection on the Angst that overtook the global community in those dark days, the imperative that we settle for more than a return to “normal” after their end (“Divergence”), and humankind’s remarkable ability to embrace change, move forward, and bounce back in the wake of crises that “rise and fall like waves on the ocean” (“Ricochet”) – and a composition of baffling stylistic diversity, with influences that include (in Corley’s words, quoted from the liner notes) “elements of the blues, folk/progressive rock, and jazz” and techniques “such as asking the pianist to strum and drum on the strings, and the singer to hum into the open lid of the piano.” Although it’s hard to say for certain and my opinion changes from one day to the next, I think “Ricochet” is my favorite movement of this set. Check it out here:


The other two works in this frame are no less extraordinary. The ensemble cycle Notes from a Town Hall Meeting, commissioned for this album, is a setting of actual Town Hall meeting transcripts that DuBose and her husband encountered when they were considering a move to a more rural community during the depths of the pandemic. These short songs’ texts focus on themes ranging from comedically quotidian (paranoia about regular deliveries of computer parts to a computer-repair shop, a pipe-wrench thrown through a windshield as retaliation for noise, a groin injury sustained from tripping on the sidewalk outside a Maryland ice-cream shop aptly named The Fractured Banana) to tragically timely (school “security” measures taken in absurd avoidance of the actual security that would come from commonsense gun-control legislation; society’s perpetual pattern of blaming the victims rather than the criminals by construing protesters rather than offenders as threats), and composers Peter Hilliard and Matt Boresi draw on jazz, R&B, and art song in (in DuBose’s words) “[narrating] the strained interpersonal relations brought on by stressful times.” But in some ways the most poetically remarkable work in this frame is a prophetic text that Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935) penned and published in her 1895 collection Violets and Other Tales – a poem whose disillusionment and doubt adumbrate sentiments that beset humanity during the greatest crisis of our time. Dynamic and multitalented composer and educator B.E. Boykin (b. 1989) underscores that these words are for our own time as well as the poet’s by setting the beautiful melody that carries them over an R&B-informed style, in another composition newly composed for this album (“If I Had Known).


The other frame on this beautiful album comprises works whose texts, while also lending themselves to interpretation through the lens of the pandemic, center on more general and (as the catchword has it) timeless themes. Politics, war, and family are the subject of Tania León’s achingly beautiful Oh Yemanja, a Nigerian mother’s prayer to the water goddess Yemanja for aid in helping her son escape military persecution; its text is by Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka.




Leonard Mark Lewis’s A Jelly-Fish, on a text by Marianne Moore (1887-1972), reflects on the elusive mutability of human nature and the beauties and frustrations of trying to capture it, while the emptiness of cruelty and transitory values and the universal human need for empathy, community, and support inspired Nkeiru Okoye’s Inside Is What Remains, originally commissioned for the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Memorial Concert of Tulsa Opera. The album closes with three songs by Douglass Tappin: “Queen” and “Love to Give” are both from the musical drama I Dream, which recenters the story of the last thirty-six hours of Dr. Martin Luther King’s life; and “The Glory,” from Tappin’s newly composed opera Diva, is a retrospective ballad that captures the wonder, fear, joy, hope, and triumph that comes to us as we look back on That Great Moment in our lives – how it shaped us, and how we will ever continue to grow from the seed it sowed in us.


 

The first part of this post wouldn’t be complete without a word about DuBose’s voice. I’ve already said that it’s versatile and eclectic, but in the interest of providing substance where there may have been little let me break that down a bit. What we hear here is not just a uniting of disparate musical idioms into a coherent vision for a path forward from the moribund rigors of our musical present, but also one that drinks deeply, oh so deeply, of techniques and styles ranging from those of art song, musical theater, and opera to those of gospel, blues, jazz, and spirituals – some deeply indebted to tonal idioms, others as vibrantly celebratory of dissonance and aspects of musical expression other than pitch as any composer of the modern era has ever achieved. Few (if any) artists are really able to bring those conspicuously disparate approaches to the sound of music together into a single living and breathing musical organism – but Sequina DuBose does so, seemingly, effortlessly.  


Enough about all that. Please check back in about a week for Part 2 of this post, in which I’ll share some of Dr. DuBose’s own comments on what happens in this remarkable album and how she made it happen. In the meantime, why not check out this handy YouTube compilation of Tania León’s O Yemanja and Hilliard’s and Boresi’s "Regarding the Suspicious Proliferation of Computer Repair Services" (from the Notes from a Town Hall Meeting)?  



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