Rise in…pride

Sweet Honey in the Rock recorded Ysaye M. Barnwell‘s commentary on September 11th: Rise In Love. 

I still remember when I first heard it. Jane was over at my house for a meeting to talk about potential pieces for Kaia. She thought Rise In Love might be a good candidate and I played her CD on my laptop.

I loved the sentiments and the overall message of the piece—rise up in love rather than hatred—but I kept shaking my head as I listened to the piece. “No,” I kept saying, “this line should be going up, it should be going up.”

I felt like a downright heretic, questioning anything remotely Sweet Honey. After all, these are legendary musicians. Heck, they’re legendary people. I took a workshop of Barnwell’s once and she was even more incredible in person than onstage. How dare I question a piece that had been commissioned and that was dedicated to an infant? Eek!!

We went through the usual tedious steps of trying to get a transcript made so I could see the physical structure of the piece. And then I was struck down hard by that hideous pestilence that everyone was sick with in Jan/Feb ’08. Our show was coming up; the piece had to be finished. I was laid up in bed for days with a fever over 100 degrees, writing line after line of a 7-voice piece. When I recall working on the piece, I recall feeling hot! That, and an overall otherworldliness that came from my fevered state.

Kaia attacked the piece with its usual gusto, nailing complex lines and rhythms in record time. We all loved the piece, though I kept my usual practice of tinkering with the arrangement.

My dad once asked me what an arranger does. Arrangers take a song and find another version of the song within it. The most radical perhaps is Siouxsie and the Banshee’s version of Strange Fruit. Arrangers can change the melody, chord progressions, and lyrics. In other words, the end result can be an almost entirely new song!

In my case, I wanted a less meditative piece. I wanted something scathing. I wanted En Vogue’s Free Your Mind! I took Kevin’s advice and stopped listening to the Sweet Honey version and stopped looking at the transcription. I just went with what I heard in my head.

I found the lyrics a little too intellectual/abstract, so I re-wrote them. I added a bridge-type section that broke up the energy of the piece so we could then take off with a powerful “where’s the courage to change what we’ve condoned?” and—zoom—off into a power-build ending. I gave the Alto IIs the most challenging line they’ve had in order to build the power. (You can always tell a good song by its bass line.)

We probably debuted the song at a “giglet” (a short gig of 20 minutes or so, usually at a benefit). Possibly not—I remember working with “the angel choir” trio on the night of our first show right before we went on. We performed Rise In Love at our back-to-back shows in April of ’08 to extremely gratifying applause! It was the third in a medley of heavy pieces. The first was First Nations Lament, an original piece I also wrote while fevered, and then the beautiful shape note mourning hymn Wood Street.

I remember the applause very well because something rose up within me and I took it to heart. I was deeply gratified that all our collective hard work was appreciated and savored. More than that, I loved that we had connected with the audience in that way. What a high!

I then spent the next 9 months working on the CD with our sound engineer. We worked on Rise In Love more than any other piece, splicing together the best bits from Friday night’s show with Saturday’s. As usual, we had some problems with the mics (it’s impossible to mic us) and Ramsey went to heroic lengths to make the cut the best it could be.

All this time, we wondered if there were some way to pay royalties to Sweet Honey. We hadn’t been able to find them on Harry Fox or elsewhere on the Web. I wrapped up the CD and sent it off for production. 

Which is precisely when Jane found a site with info on paying royalties to Sweet Honey! Angela sent an email which was answered by The Divine Ms Barnwell herself, in which she asked to hear the arrangement. Talk about “eek!” What if she were infuriated? What if we’d screwed up big time? After all, we’re small potatoes and could easily have screwed up the rights for the piece. We waited on tenterhooks.

The reply came a couple days ago. {Ahem} Ms Barnwell “loves” the arrangement. She loves it! I’m on Cloud Nine!! Of course, we did screw up some of the credits and will fix it when we next get CDs made, but my ego is infinitely more important than a piddly screw-up like that!

Actually, I’m having a hard time comprehending the whole thing. I certainly feel that it’s the greatest honor I’ve received as a musician. And for someone who doesn’t even know key signatures and wrote the bloody piece in a fever, it’s a tremendous affirmation of my abilities, if only on one song. But what a song! It’s a work of art, and I am so grateful that Ms Barnwell allowed it to be shared, sliced, quartered, diced, and reborn in a whole new skin. What grace! I only hope I can be that gracious if the opportunity ever arises.

So the bottom line is, I’m damn proud of myself. {Patting myself on the back} Go, me. And many thanks to Kaia for devouring it so passionately and delivering it so well! And of course, ultimate thanks to The Divine Ms B for her brief but deeply appreciated affirmation. Rise in love!

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