Inappropriate opera

October 23, 2011

I haven’t blogged in a while due to illness, busyness, and busyness, mostly in that order. The last “busyness” was Kaia’s prep for Voices Against Violence, a benefit for Middle Way House, a local rape/domestic violence crisis shelter and life transformer.

We learned my piece Vow in about 2 and a half weeks, which is a record for us. It’s a difficult song. Not in structure or pitch, but in meaning. We started by just going around the circle and sharing our reactions to it (it’s a song about domestic violence but the beginning spoken word section covers all violence against women). Lara wept as she shared what I also felt: That she’d never sat in a group of women and not heard the stories of abuse and violence at the hands of men. My breakthrough to feminism was this very fact: That almost every woman I knew had survived some form of violation.

The Voices Against Violence show was actually two shows—one at 3 and one at 8. Different artists performed at each show; we performed at both. Aside from Vow, we did different sets for the different shows. The sets were constructed to show our vision for a better world as well as to showcase pieces in different languages and our strongest repertoire.

The first set opened with Arise, Lara’s stirring setting of Julia Ward Howe’s lyrics for the Mother’s Day Proclamation. The crowd (though small) loved it. We did some world music before coming around to Vow and then I Love Everybody. Whenever Lara sings the opening of ILE, she envisions the worst of the worst offenders she deals with on a regular basis in her day job, and tries to surround them with love. Just coming off Vow, she had a visibly difficult time making the transition. But I’ve never heard her sing it with such conviction and truth as she did that day.

The second set’s anti-war piece was my Not One More Day (which I find, to my surprise, that I have not posted about before). We mixed in some world music with Vow and closed with Dubula, a jubilant South African dance piece.

I over-sang during the second set. I noticed it most clearly on Not One More Day. For some reason, I felt a deep urge to connect with the audience, to drag them along, to make them see the insanity of the Iraq war and of all war. The audience was warm, appreciative, and even tried to clap along until they (as always) discovered it interfered with their ability to hear the lyrics. But I felt something missing—maybe it was something missing in me.

Both sets were intense. They whipped around the world and through our key messages of peace and social justice with breakneck speed. And we rocked both sets. The audience was very appreciative. But we did not get a standing ovation. No one got a standing ovation, actually. It was very weird, since it’s ridiculously easy to get a standing O in Bloomington. But even among this crowd, Vow, for the first time, was just listened to without that without-words shout that rises up in people hearing it for the first time.

Gladys DeVane was on with a monologue about Amelia Earhart. Diane Kondrat did Marge Piercy’s The Low Road. Janiece Jaffe and Curtis Cantwell Jackson did their usual mellow songs of love and light. All of it spoke to the meaning of the event, and to the hearts of those assembled.

And then came Roadkill—an opera trio including the famous Sylvia McNair. They opened with The Man I Love. They sang I Feel Pretty. Sylvia soloed with another piece from West Side Story. The others soloed with pieces I wasn’t familiar with but had that same Broadway/cabaret songbook feel. They closed with My Favorite Things. And I squirmed.

It wasn’t the quality of the music, of course, which was exceptional. It was the content and the delivery. They sang with songbooks in their hands, which is fine for classical music but seems off-putting in a show like Voices Against Violence. But it was their song selection that was intensely jarring to me.

To open with The Man I Love at an event about domestic violence struck me as downright chilling. The rest of the pieces, while amusing or moving or interesting in themselves, were so far from the content of the rest of the program that I felt almost sick. It was a dinner set, the same they would perform for any event. It wasn’t tailored to the content of the show or the needs of the people in the audience. In my opinion, it was inappropriate.

The experience shown a light on my feelings about performance: That it be transformative. Not that it simply entertain. It’s like design—design isn’t about decoration, it’s about information. It’s about creating change in the viewer. And music is a great changer. It gives voice to that which was previously inarticulate. And for those in the audience, who seek such a fundamental change in our society as the end to violence against women, and even an end to all violence, we have a responsibility to them to at least attempt to give them a voice.

I’ve seen it many times with Arise. I’ve seen it happen every time we sing Not One More Day—by the time we’re singing, “No more torture / We’re forced to pay for / No more torture in my name,” we’ve got people ready to rise up singing. They want to join in and raise their voices to say no more, a better world is possible, and I want to manifest it.

I Feel Pretty just doesn’t cut it. Not for me, at least. I don’t deny the artistry of the women onstage. I just wonder whether they considered pieces that would articulate the deepest desires of those in the audience, and whether they agree that an artist has a responsibility to try to articulate those needs.

Democratic Women’s Caucus gig

March 29, 2009

Just got back from the Kaia gig at the Democratic Women’s Caucus and am still flying high. We performed Not One More Day and got our first full standing ovation! It stopped the show!

Angela called it a “timeless anthem” and said we’ve got to get it on record somehow. I agree! I’ve been thinking lately that that and some of our other post-Get Down, Rise Up! material really needs to get video’d so we can put it on YouTube. We hope to use her camera and get something put together in the next couple weeks.

That song is a non-stop combination of punches to the gut. People are so moved by it but then can’t clap along for fear they’ll miss the next set of lyrics. There’s virtually no dead space musically or lyrically — it just keeps going!

The tune is based on a spiritual that comes from that treasure trove of the civil rights songs, Voices Of The Civil Rights Movement. The lyrics are all mine. I remember having many combinations of lyrics and just working and working until they seem distilled to their essence. The words are my truth. They come straight from my heart. They are what I think and what I believe.

(I also can’t help but think of the Doonesbury cartoon I carried around with the draft lyric sheet. It showed two characters discussing the toxic Bush legacy. Not One More Day hits on almost every topic.)

It is so hard to believe that the Bush presidency even happened. So much has changed so quickly. President Obama has been moving like a chipmunk on speed to turn things around on all fronts. He listens and changes strategy based on what he hears so he can be more successful. It’s 180 degrees from the Bush arrogance and single-minded drumbeat of terror, terror, terror. 

There may come a time when Not One More Day isn’t needed anymore. For me, it’s inextricably linked with the Bush presidency, even though it deals with much larger themes. It speaks to who we are as America, and who we want to be.

I think that’s what people respond to — not just the critique of the war, but of the clear message that “we are better than this.” We want to be better. We want to be called to be better. Bush failed utterly in that regard. Obama has made great strides in the big picture (“Yes, we can”) but it remains to be seen if he’ll make this song obsolete.

I’m still trembling slightly from all the excitement and the feeling of all that energy rushing from the crowd to us at the end of the song. I wish there were some way to thank every person for hearing and responding. Dear Lois Sabo-Skelton just came right up at the end of the show and gave me a huge hug — bless her! It’s a way of closing the loop, of not just acknowledging applause and praise but of giving it back and saying thank you.

I wish I could have stayed late and hobnobbed with the crowd afterwards. They are incredible people — on their own merit in addition to their achievements — and it’s an honor to be invited to share that common ground that music creates. Thank you, Democratic Women’s Caucus!

Lyrics: Not One More Day

November 30, 2008

Not One More Day
Melody based on Oh, Freedom 
© 2008 Cairril Adaire 

Oh, freedom (2x)
Oh, freedom from bein’ ignored
We don’t want no more
Of this endless, pointless war
Not one more dollar, not one more death, not one more day 

No more suffering
No more killing
No more pain in my name (in my name)
Can you look me in the eye
And say all those people deserve to die
Not one more dollar, not one more death, not one more day 

No more sending our poor
To fight a rich man’s war
No more blood
Blood for oil (no more blood for oil)
I’d rather be poor
Than see my country fight this war
Not one more dollar, not one more death, not one more day   

No more spying
No more lying
No more secrets
No more shame (we are better than this)
We take to the streets and say
We are standing in your way
Not one more dollar, not one more death, not one more day 

Not one more dollar
Not one more day
Not one cent of my money
Spent in this wicked way

Not one more death
Not one more day
Not one more of our children
Not one more of theirs

No more torture
We’re forced to pay for
No more torture in my name (we are better than this)
I still believe
In the land of liberty
Not one more dollar, not one more death, not one more day

Not One More Day

November 23, 2008

Lead line only; harmonies are easy to devise. Tune based on civil rights song Oh, Freedom. Lyrics and overall arrangement by moi. Biting critique of the Bush administration, particularly the war in Iraq. The idea for the song originally came from a T-shirt with the slogan “Not one more dollar, not one more day, not one more death.” I changed the order and made it into the song’s refrain: “Not more dollar, not one more death, not one more day.”

Lyrics for Not One More Day

Johnee Jingo

November 22, 2008

A minor

9-part transcription from Todd Rundgren’s immortal A Cappella. Powerful anti-war song. Most of it is very repetitious, relying on a strong solo line and building vocal accompaniment for tension and power. Solo line can be one or more voices.