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Reasons for the Perpetuation of Slavery

Pencil drawing created for this publication by Jonathan Machen.  Used by permission of the artist.  www.jonathanmachen.com

 

A compelling look at the timeless institution of human slavery
Commissioned by ACDA Women's Choir Commissioning Consortium
Poet/Lyricist: 
Elizabeth Alexander

A compelling look at the timeless institution of human slavery — in the past, present and foreseeable future.  This dramatic work pours forth with ferocity, urgency, wry humor and compassion, in a powerful litany of temptations, rationalizations and justifications.  An unforgettable concert experience, and a rare opportunity for a choir to engage with a challenging, contemporary social issue.

Movements:
I. The Sheer Possibility in the First Place
II. The Existence of Endless Prepositional Possibilities
III. An Unexamined Life

An interview with composer Elizabeth Alexander:

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Reasons for the Perpetuation of Slavery

Poem by Elizabeth Alexander

I.

The sheer possibility in the first place.
Unstoppable wanting.  Wanting the unstoppable.
The need for cultivation.  The cultivation of need.
Hard choices.  Easy outs.
High hopes.  Slippery slopes.

The allure of order.  The desire to acquire.
Classes of people.  People of class.
The gain of capital.  Capital gains.
The persistent perception of greener grass.

The justification of pride.
The pride of ownership.
The ownership of justice.

The tidiness of titles.  The convenience of caste.
Distributions of wealth.  A wealth of distributions.

The price of cotton.  The price of rice.
The price of sugar.  The price of gold.
The price of oranges.  The price of tomatoes.
The price of keeping the prices low.

The price of beauty.  The price of toys.
The price of plenty.  The price of more.
The price of a hit.  The price of a life.
The price of liberty.  The price of anything.

The desire for a fix.  The fixation on race.
The race towards civilization.  The civilization of desire.

Chains of command.  The commands of corruption.
The corruption of language.  The language of chains.

Classification, misinformation,
Globalization, collaboration,
Accumulation, calculation,
Rationalizations.









II.

The existence of endless prepositional possibilities:

As a short-term solution, in the interest of progress,
'Til my head's above the water, 'til my feet are on the ground,
For the good of the nation, for the company, for my family,
Despite a few misgivings at the present time,
By hook or crook, behind closed doors,
Beyond our borders as a very last resort,
Between you and me, beyond my control,
On the cheap, on the sly, with my back against the wall,
Out of sight, out of mind, out of my hands,
Under the radar, under the gun, under the table, around the law,
In for a penny, in for a pound, in for a lifetime —
Just this once.


III.

Longings for chocolate, palaces, pyramids,
Flowers in the winter, rubber and rum.
What people will do for a little black dress,
A hand with the children, a carpet, a kiss,
An immaculate house, an unexamined life.

The price of cotton.  The price of rice.
The price of sugar.  The price of gold,
The price of oranges.  The price of tomatoes.
The price of keeping the prices low.

Looms of fingers.  Fields of hands.
Chests of organs.  Pounds of flesh.
Platters of thighs.  Legions of legs.
Rivers of blood.  Heavings of hearts.
Batteries of arms and backs and shoulders.

Business, pleasure, labor, leisure,
Backers, buyers, brokers, liars,
Winners, losers, dealers, users,
Borrowers, lenders, traders, vendors,
Profits, losses, owners, bosses.

People of means.  The means to an end.
Unheeded rumors.  Eager consumers.
Composer's Note: 

My interest in slavery as an economic and cultural institution began with my desire to understand a dark chapter in United States history, but inevitably it led far beyond that. As this piece unfolds, its images and musical references make their way more and more into our own time, touching on our own passive participation in an economic system which is inherently dependent on human exploitation. Just as slavery is both ubiquitous and hidden, tucked into the corners of this piece you'll find echoes of music from many different times and places, including our own.

When I wrote Reasons for the Perpetuation of Slavery in 2010, choirs were not at all sure how to think about it; in fact, it was commissioned by a large consortium of women's choirs but only one found a way to program it on a concert. But in the years since, an increasing number of choirs have performed it,often at concerts and events directly addressing the causes and consequences of slavery and oppression. I believe this is the result of several changes: our society's increased willingness to look at the devastating economic reasons for slavery, the music community's greater acceptance of social protest as a legitimate theme for serious artistic expression, and choral musicians' desire to use their voices in a more outward-looking and forward-looking way.

Reviews and Responses: 

“The highlight of the first half was Elizabeth Alexander’s Reasons for the Perpetuation of Slavery.  Not only was the chorus completely invested in the music’s meaning, difficult rhythm and counterpoint, it was navigated with complete confidence and polish.  The work is brilliantly innovative; the chorus is asked to stomp on the ground, evoking marching in chains, and the ensuing overlapping of the phrasing gives the impression of immense frustration and chaos.”  Anthony Aibel for New York Concert Review, Inc., on Distinguished Concerts International Concert at Avery Fisher Hall, March 1, 2012

“We performed Reasons for the Perpetuation of Slavery at our concert last Saturday, and it was EXTREMELY well received.  In fact, there were about 10 seconds of silence after we finished before the applause began.  It's such a powerful piece of music, and so well written.  The way you set the text makes it very easy for the singers to bring out the words and the importance of them.”  Jessica Corbin, Artistic Director of Bella Voce Singers (Brooklyn, NY)

“I must admit, I was very intimidated by the piece.  I was responsible for conducting it in our…concert as well as guiding the girls through the learning process, and it pushed everyone to sharpen their skills.  Once we all finally just committed ourselves to bringing musical life to the piece (on many different levels), we were hooked. It's a wonderful work.  It has propelled all of us to a different place both musically and in our perception of the world around us. In a good way - the piece is haunting.” Wendee Wolf-Schlarf, Music Director of Vocal Majority of Traverse City Central High School (Traverse City, MI)

Performers: 

 Cantala Women's Chorus / Phillip Swan
Lawrence University (Appleton, WI)  * Premiere

Bella Voce Singers / Jessica Corbin (Brooklyn, NY)

Distinguished Concerts International, New York (DCI-NY)
Hilary Apfelstadt ~ Avery Fisher Hall (New York City, NY)

Gettysburg College Women's Choir
Robert Natter (Gettysburg, PA)

Miami University Choraliers
William Bausano ~ Miami University (Oxford, OH)

Traverse City High School Vocal Majority / Wendee Wolf-Schlarf
Michigan School Vocal Music Association State Solo and Ensemble (Walled Lake, MI)




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