Houston composer Mary Carol Warwick has a skill unique within the world of classical music: She's worked out how to compose music to accompany the word nigga.
Warwick has set the words of 17 poems by incarcerated youth to a song cycle with classical, gospel and Latin influences. In a number of the poems, the youth used the controversial word to describe themselves or their friends.
"I'm white and Anthony Turner is African American. I said to him, 'I don't know if I can do this. I can't even say that word.' He said, 'I chose you to work with me on this because I thought you had the balls to do it. Do you?'"
New York baritone Anthony Turner had long been an admirer of Warwick's opera, choral and musical compositions and felt this was the perfect collaboration for them. The poems had first appeared in a 2007 book called The Gathering: City Prayers, City Hopes, curated by artist and educator Jeannine Otis.
The world premiere of Turner and Warwick's collaboration -- "The Gathering / Who Am I?" song cycle -- will be on Saturday, March 30, at 7.30 p .m. at the Hobby Center's Zilkha Hall. It will feature Turner, Paul Boyd (piano), Luke Hubley (percussion), Elise Wagner (bassoon) and others. A second performance is planned for New York City later in the year.
But of course there wouldn't be a show if Warwick had not first conquered her concern over the poets' use of that word.
"It was used in a number of poems. I was so conflicted about it and didn't know what to do. Then I focused on one poem in particular. I used bassoon, piano and percussion to make a sound like a long groan or growl that transforms into a spiky rhythm. That word has impact, so I wanted the music to have impact."
Working on this project has inspired Warwick to think about incarcerated youth in a different way. "Through the news and statistics, I had an inhuman image of prisoners in a line shuffling in leg chains. Reading these poems has made me aware of the human side. I didn't consider how these kids in prison would feel. How some wanted forgiveness for their crimes while others felt conflicted, concerned they were actually the monsters people considered them to be."
Turner hopes audiences will have a similar epiphany when they hear the song cycle. He wants people to consider the increasing numbers of youth, especially minorities, being incarcerated and think about them as people and not only as statistics.
"I was working with a classically trained musician in a now-closed prison on New York's Staten Island. Going in each week, I became closer to him than his own family. He asked me, 'How can you do this for me?' I said, 'We are the same. If I make the right wrong decision, I could be here, too.'"
By singing the poems of incarcerated youth, Turner says he feels connected to them. "Joy, pain, sorrow and hope are experiences all of us deal with in life to varying degrees. We are connected by words, song and by our breath. Breath is life."
Author/artist/educator Jeannine Otis continues to use poetry, music and song to help at-risk and incarcerated youth. She says it is vital for everyone to have a voice and an outlet to express themselves because "until everyone has a voice, we are all at risk."
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Otis says she feels blessed her book is having a new life in a new art form and says the original poets are very proud their words are being used in this way. "I would love to circulate this music through the prisons and community outreach circuits in places where people are challenged daily to survive with dignity. This material can continue to be used as a catalyst for communicating, socialization, developing literacy, and true community-building."
The Gathering was produced by the Foundation for Modern Music. In addition to the musical performances, the show will include a video with Turner and Otis talking about their experiences of helping at-risk youth. Houston musician and educator Paul Boyd and foundation artistic director Raul Edwards will also talk about the issue of increasing youth incarceration and how artistic programs can help.
The foundation is inviting members of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to the performance. Edwards says they hope to encourage the department to consider alternatives to incarceration.
A performance of The Gathering is scheduled for 7.30 p.m March 30 in Zilkha Hall at The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. The song cycle is part of the Premieres show. For information call 713-529-3928 or visit thehobbycenter.org.