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Choral unity

Performance selections take on difficult social issues

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  • Story by Ryan Gavin
  • Photos by Shane Epping and Ryan Gavin
  • Published: April 26, 2011
Lead image

Percussionist Phylshawn Johnson and director Arthur White share a moment after rehearsal at Jesse Auditorium. The MU Concert Jazz Band will accompany Choral Union for Duke Ellington's Sacred Concerts.

Music has the opportunity to create beauty or react to real-world ugliness. The capacity to pacify you or disturb you. The ability to make you think about things you hope to avoid or don’t have the courage to address. It’s that all-encompassing power professor Paul Crabb, director of choral activities, hopes to capture in Thursday’s Choral Union concert.

After a racially charged incident on MU’s campus in 2010, outrage and anger erupted in the Mizzou community. Around that same time, one of Crabb’s music journals arrived with a feature about famous jazz musician Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts, works composed with the themes of freedom and equality. Crabb was inspired.

“If we talk about diversity and acceptance and understanding, why don’t we actually do something about it?” Crabb says. “We haven’t come far enough, frankly, and we’re still struggling with it. This is me putting my money where my mouth is and saying, ‘Let’s see what we can do artistically.’ I hope it forces us at some level to say things aren’t OK and to participate in a solution.”

Choral Union — made up of MU students and community members — will perform Ellington’s work, the Langston Hughes-jazz-poetry-inspired “Harlem Songs” by Gwyneth Walker and Kirke Mechem’s “Songs of the Slave” from the opera John Brown. Choral Union will be joined by two professional soloists, theater professor Clyde Ruffin, Mizzou’s University Singers, the MU Concert Chorale and the MU Concert Jazz Band, directed by Arthur White, at 7 p.m. Thursday in Jesse Auditorium. The works are united by common themes of survival and freedom, but historically the pieces can be tied together as well: A relative of Langston Hughes was killed in Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry during an attempt at freedom.

Significant works

Ellington, before his death, called his Sacred Concerts “the most important thing I have ever done.” At one point in the work, the word “freedom” is repeated several times. Each time the word is repeated, the chord changes, sometimes tenuous or questioning, others demanding and final. It’s also repeated in 20 languages, including Russian, Chinese and Japanese, symbolizing how people all over the world have a desire and need for freedom.

In Walker’s “Harlem Songs,” the poetry of Hughes reflects on black culture during his time in New York. Relying on music for strength and survival was the way that the culture survived, an idea conveyed in this atmospheric piece. One movement conveys dance and celebration, and in another the audience hears what sounds like people singing from rooftops, calling to each other. A jazz band — the MU Concert Jazz Band, in this performance — can be heard playing down on the street.

The concert also features “Songs of the Slave” from Mechem’s opera John Brown. Mechem hoped to add context and understanding to the life of famed abolitionist John Brown, who advocated violent means as a way to end slavery. It includes text from Brown and Frederick Douglass and a letter from a slave mother to her husband, and it ends with text from the Declaration of Independence. In learning more about the history surrounding this work, Crabb says, some of the choir members were disturbed and compared the historic events to extremism in today’s society.

“I was really pleased it disturbed them enough to think about these things because it’s something we probably don’t confront enough — other than just the screaming talking heads we get on the radio and TV,” Crabb says. “I think when they’re upset or disturbed or reflect on part of their lives — some of these people are descendants of slave owners — it makes them consider some of the issues that are really easy to ignore.”

Diversity initiatives

Choral Union

Paul Crabb leads Choral Union, made up of more than 200 singers, in rehearsal. Their performance is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday in Jesse Auditorium.

A relatively new office on campus, the Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative was founded in 2006. Involved with partnering with all schools and colleges on Mizzou’s campus, their goal is to help the university become a more inclusive, creative and innovative research and learning environment that facilitates the competent functioning of students and employees in a diverse and competitive global society.

The office was quick to respond to the 2010 and 2011 racist-vandalism incidents on campus, which drew much outcry from the community. But they don’t act alone.

“What’s wonderful is the fact that different parts of campus — like you have Choral Union for example — have engaged in performance and education so that we have a deeper understanding of what it means to live in the U.S. and celebrate this incredible notion of the American experience,” says Noor Azizan-Gardner, director of programming and professional development of the Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative.

With groups like Choral Union, the mission of the Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative
is on full display. A welcoming and inclusive campus is being created by multiple groups and organizations, such as the Missouri Students Association, One Mizzou, the Legion of Black Collegians and the Asian American Association. The diversity office work more in an advisory capacity, providing groups with whatever guidance or assistance is needed.

“I think it’s important to see our office as a catalyst. We assist everyone,” Azizan-Gardner says. “We are there to be a resource and an adviser for everyone because we usually have the resources and expertise to be able to do that.”

Broadening minds

Michael Budds, a professor of music history and literature at MU, says that one of society’s biggest problems is that its people don’t appreciate the differences between themselves and others. Although the pieces being performed might diverge from what many local concert-goers are used to — or even the stylings of Bach, Beethoven or Verdi in past Choral Union concerts — Budds suggests the way to understand and appreciate those differences is by learning and understanding different cultures’ types of music.

The attitude of “I know what I like and like what I know” can be a harmful one in exploring new music as well as new cultures, Budds says. When listening to a new piece, many people register how similar it is to something they already know and enjoy rather than appreciating it for what it is; if something is different, the first inclination is to push it away and notice those differences. Budds, who has authored the monograph Jazz in the Sixties and the sourcebook Rock Recall, says delving deeply into new music is the best way to learn its true nature, just like meeting somebody new.

“You might see somebody on campus you find very attractive, but that’s one experience and it might be a nice one,” Budds says. “But getting to know that person — finding out why they laugh, what they think and how they really are — is far richer than just looking at the surface. It’s the same way with music. People typically don’t see or hear what they don’t know, so the important thing is to have an open mind and put yourself in a position to learn.”

But can learning about and appreciating new types of music translate into understanding and respecting different types of people? Music historians such as Budds suggest that first a person must distinguish between liking something and understanding what role it plays in the world.

“It’s my sense that your history teachers never cared whether you liked Thomas Jefferson; your history teacher wants you to appreciate the significance of Thomas Jefferson. When you take a biology class, your teacher doesn’t care if you get warm and fuzzy about chlorophyll; you need to understand how chlorophyll functions,” Budds says. “I tell my students the same. I don’t care whether you like the music — though I’m hoping you do — but I’m hoping you have the curiosity and resources to embrace different things.”

The power of music

African American music has been embraced throughout American society since the 19th century, through minstrel shows and later on through ragtime and jazz. Many of the people who found the music captivating and exotic were the same people who irrationally hated the people creating it, as evidenced throughout U.S. history.

The control of the arts by totalitarian regimes implies that music does indeed have the power to inspire and affect citizens’ behavior. When despots try to keep control, something as expressive and emotional as music becomes dangerous to them, may theorists say. Even in the democratic United States, the jazz offshoot rock ‘n’ roll was seen as devious and socially rebellious.

“Music is not only a way for an individual to express something; it can be a way for a whole group of people to express something together, both the musicians and the listeners,” Budds says. “There’s no question that music can very powerfully affect people both emotionally and intellectually.”

While there might not be a way to quantify exactly what power music has, musicians and music lovers alike can offer specific examples of works that have moved and inspired them. And though theorists, composers, conductors and performers sometimes struggle to definitively articulate what that power is, that may be part of the mysticism.

“Music makes us feel so much more human and life so much better for everyone,” Mechem, known as the dean of American choral composers, says. “It’s not the words themselves and not the notes themselves but it's that combination that produces the mysterious majesty of music. It’s something that moves people tremendously.”

Band playing

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Last updated: June 6, 2013