“America – I hear you hiss and stare / Do you love the air in me, as I love the air in you?”
With those words, evoking an impassioned patriotism curdled by deep-rooted injustice, Lawrence Brownlee opened the world premiere of Cycles of My Being at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia on Tuesday night.
Featuring music by drummer and composer Tyshawn Sorey and lyrics by poet Terrance Hayes, this song cycle is a complex examination of the contemporary African-American experience — encompassing the specific tensions of our political and cultural moment, but also looking toward something deep in the country’s lifeblood.
Brownlee, a renowned bel canto tenor, modulated his powerful voice from its usual airy grace to a steely anguish. His quavering tenor brimming with love but fearful of rejection, he confronted his country with its history of “Black eyes and blackouts / Blackjacks and nightmares” in the first movement, “Inhale, Exhale.” Sorey underscored those words with a similarly scarred lyricism, held in elegiac tension by moaning strings, tolling piano and a keening clarinet.
In its debut performance, Cycles of My Being shared a kinship with Sorey’s recent work in the way that its deceptively minimalist surfaces rested on fraught not-quite-silences and devastatingly precise gestures. Though there’s never a shortage of visceral feeling in Sorey’s instrumental work, at least for those with the patience to explore it — Morton Feldman is as much of a lodestar for his writing as the genre-bucking experimentalists of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians —Brownlee’s wrenching vocals allowed for a more emotionally direct and even harrowing experience.
Sorey’s new song cycle (his second, following an homage to Josephine Baker) adds another facet to an increasingly prismatic oeuvre, a body of work remarkable for its unpredictability and range. Sorey is adamant that he not be categorized, and hardly alone in rejecting the constraints seemingly imposed by genre labels.
Focus on his collaborations with pianist Vijay Iyer or saxophonist Steve Coleman, and it’s easy to view him as an inventive jazz drummer who balances higher-order complexity with muscular propulsion. Shift the lens over to his work as a leader, however, and it’s harder to pull into sharp focus.
Descriptors like “contemporary classical” or “new music” aren’t necessarily more helpful than “jazz” at capturing the dense but delicate tapestries of layered improvisation and imperceptible compositional architecture in his stunning albums. An alumnus of Newark Arts High School, and now a member of the faculty at Wesleyan University, he has crafted a body of work that strikes a rare balance between the singular and the unpredictable, earning a MacArthur Fellowship, which often comes as a career capstone to artistic elders, at just 37 (an honor also achieved by Terrance Hayes, his collaborator on Cycles of My Being).
Both Hayes’ words and Sorey’s music often achieved their effects by accretion, with each slight, momentary impression gradually building to form the violent, pent-up passion of “Whirlwind” or the desperate sorrow of “Hope (pt.2),” where the weary laments of voice and clarinet wend gracefully around one another. Sorey’s gift for loaded stillness bore striking fruit on “Hate,” an exploration of the many guises of hatred with lyrics by Brownlee, its tense pauses suggesting a tortured birth for each line, painful thoughts not wanting to be expressed but forcing their way to the surface.
Where the piece’s reaction to hate is visceral, its evocation of hope is necessarily more nuanced. Over Sorey’s agitated string figures, Hayes muses on the many faces of hope: “When walking hope is a swagger,” goes one line; another, “When hungry hope is meat.”
The cycle ends with “Each Day I Rise, I Know,” a declaration of self-determination that opens with a spiritual-inspired call and response. Brownlee’s call (“Each day I rise”) met with an ensemble response (“I know”), in lines that weaved between gospel and medieval chant.
At Opera Philadelphia’s premiere, Sorey’s score was realized by a gifted chamber quartet: pianist Kevin J. Miller, violinist Randall Mitsuo Goosby, cellist Khari Joyner and clarinetist Alexander Laing.
After a performance tonight with Chicago’s Lyric Opera at the DuSable Museum of African American History, the piece will make its New York premiere on April 24 at Carnegie Hall. Both of those concerts are scheduled for the pared-down duo of Miller and Brownlee; while the piece will no doubt retain its stark beauty, it will miss not only the finely wrought effects of that combined instrumentation but the impact of six young men of color (including Sorey, conducting) playing exquisite music on the type of concert stage more often marked by their absence.