‘An African American Requiem’ Confronts Racial Violence Through Music
Portland’s Resonance Ensemble, led by L&C’s Kathy FitzGibbon, worked with artist-composer Damien Geter to present a bold, thought-provoking musical response to violence against African Americans in the United States. The Requiem premiered in Portland and was performed at the Kennedy Center in late May.
by Hanna Merzbach BA ’20
The idea for An African American Requiem, a deeply expressive composition for orchestra, choir, and vocal quartet, emerged in the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. As stories of racial violence flooded the news, Portland-based artist and composer Damien Geter decided to create a memorial for the many Black Americans who had been killed. Six years later, after weathering pandemic-related delays, An African American Requiem premiered in Portland with the help of Lewis & Clark community members.
Professor of Music and Director of Choral Activities Kathy FitzGibbon commissioned the performance as the artistic director of Resonance Ensemble, a Portland-based vocal group that works to promote meaningful social change. About 25 L&C students, alumni, and faculty performed in the choir or orchestra in the Portland premiere on May 7 at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
FitzGibbon and Resonance Ensemble partnered with the Oregon Symphony to bring the Portland performance to life. It was broadcast live by Classical Portland and New York City’s WQXR. Later in May, Resonance Ensemble performed the work at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., with the Choral Arts Society of Washington.
“At the premiere, there was a sense that this performance was the culmination of the work of people all across the country,” said FitzGibbon.
An African American Requiem was inspired by the Latin requiem tradition, originally sung at Catholic funeral masses to pray for the deceased. In addition to Latin requiem texts, the 75-minute concert included African American spirituals and texts from civil rights activists Ida B. Wells and Jamilia Land, along with a movement setting Eric Garner and George Floyd’s last words, “I can’t breathe.” The performance concluded with poetry from African American poet and Portland resident S. Renee Mitchell.
“It’s part of this grand tradition of requiems but deeply personalized,” FitzGibbon said, adding that the team put together an advisory committee with community organizations already doing work around racial violence. “There were a lot of really thoughtful and strategic conversations around making sure that the performance, in every possible way, centered the Black community and that this wasn’t a one-and-done type of thing.”
These conversations extended into the L&C classroom: FitzGibbon devoted an entire unit of her first-year seminar, Culture and the Concert Hall, to studying An African American Requiem and how classical music is shifting in regard to race, gender, and class. Geter, the composer, even came to a class to discuss his work.
“The students felt that they were a part of music history being made,” FitzGibbon said. “It was fun to feel that my teaching and professional creative work were so aligned.”
In addition, ahead of the first performance, FitzGibbon and others prepared an educational curriculum and video series about the tradition of requiems and the history of Black Americans in Portland and beyond. These materials were distributed to secondary schools throughout the Portland metro area. The curriculum was used in meetings of several Black Student Unions and in workshops at the Soul Restoration Center in Northeast Portland. Hundreds of students from the local area filled the audience at the world premiere.
FitzGibbon described the energy of the crowd at the Portland performance as unlike anything else she’s experienced, with the audience audibly gasping throughout the performance. At one point, the performers play a mournful “Star Spangled Banner” rendition and go silent instead of playing the word “free” in the iconic line, “land of the free.”
“That is one of these moments where I just heard these intakes of breath from the entire audience, like, ‘Oh right, not everyone is free,’” FitzGibbon recalled.
In moments like this, Black audience members and performers said they felt more represented in music than they ever had before. This includes Negasi Brown BA ’23, a theatre major who sang bass in the performance.
“I have been in choirs since my sophomore year of high school, and never have I felt more seen by a performance,” Brown said. “I found it hard to hold back tears when the show ended, seeing our four amazing Black soloists take their final bows, imagining that it could actually be me up there one day.”
Donna Dermond MA ’89, now the chair of the Resonance Ensemble board, sang alto in the performance and said it’s the most important piece she’s sung in her 60 years of performing.
“The composition is beautiful, indeed, but its purpose and content affected me profoundly,” she said. “I consider it to be a privilege to have sung such a work.”
FitzGibbon is currently helping produce a commercial recording of the D.C. performance, which will be available for streaming in the coming year. For now, a recording of the Portland premiere is being broadcast around the country on radio stations ahead of Juneteenth.