Two Musicians of Color create their own space

A few years ago, when bass-baritone Davóne Tines was playing the lead role in Kaija Saariaho’s Only the Sound Remains at the Paris Opera, he stepped out of his dressing room and saw something surprising: another person of color.

It was violinist Jennifer Koh who invited Saariaho to watch the show. Koh noticed the same thing. She, an American daughter of Korean refugees, and he, a black American, were runaways in a crowd of white people. There was, Tines recalled, “a line of connection that we had without actually meeting or speaking.”

“I think that connection line,” he added, “was the beginning of our relationship, which continued to deepen as this piece developed.”

Tines was referring to Everything Rises, an hour-long work he and Koh have been collaborating on since they met. It was a project of evolution and introspection, even changing to respond to racist violence against Black and Asian American people during the pandemic. Originally slated for spring 2020, it will now premiere on April 12 at the University of California, Santa Barbara and travel to Los Angeles later this week.

Difficult to categorize, Everything Rises is a multimedia show with theatrical elements and a documentary set to music (composed by Ken Ueno) about Tines and Koh: their experiences as people of color in a mostly white field, their journey there, and honesty about themselves and her audiences and their explorations of their families’ histories. Along the way, they celebrate their maternal lineage — based on interviews with Tine’s grandmother Alma Lee Gibbs Tines and Koh’s mother Gertrude Soonja Lee Koh — while achieving something of independence from the pressures of the music industry.

“It’s about revealing who we are,” said Koh, a recent Grammy winner for her album Alone Together, over lunch with Tines. “Whenever you see someone walking down the street, they’re carrying around a whole life and a whole story that you might not know about.”

It’s taken years to get to this place — what Tines described as the richest form of “Everything Rises.” The creative team has changed more than once; so does the title. An early workshop was called “The 38th Parallel” and focused more on the families of Koh and the composer Jean-Baptiste Barrière, who is Saariaho’s husband. He left the project due to creative differences and the form began to evolve into one based on Tines and Koh’s relationship.

Other collaborators have come and gone, but the final cast — including Ueno, dramaturge Kee-Yoon Nahm, and, within the last six months, director Alexander Gedeon — provided what Koh thought was the most comfortable environment yet. Almost everyone is a person of color, and “there’s something meaningful about that,” she said, “because there are experiences that are easy to understand.”

The project has become increasingly unswerving. “Because this play is about gaining agency and revealing the truth,” Tines said, “and because we’re being given the space to explore agency and truth, there’s an opportunity to tell the audience things that… otherwise we would never be given or encouragement to say.”

He continued, “We are aware of who our audience is traditionally. Giving in to them would mean ignoring what our realities actually are. We’re past the point where the proscenium is allowed to be a wall. I don’t think there’s much point in making what’s on stage a vivid representation of life.”

That belief guided decisions like the ending of the play. At one point, Tines had planned to sing a gospel hymn, “The Lord Will Make a Way Somehow,” and transition into the beginning of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” He said it was a way “to show the dichotomy of being a classical singer in canon work, but also to bring in my own personal and Black experience that drives and informs everything I do”.

After one run, Koh told him that she felt it wasn’t right. But, he replied, it’s his way of expressing balance and resilience. Then she said, “You know, you don’t have to give that to the audience. They didn’t deserve that from you. You don’t have to show them your options for coping; that is our own safety.”

Her words made Tines cry. “I never really portrayed it that way,” he recalled in an interview. “If I give that to an audience, does it give them an outing? Does that mean my release is also being offered as your way out? I realized I had given away the power and agency of what I was trying to share by also allowing an escape hatch.”

Everything Rises now has an original score throughout, along with text from recorded conversations between Tines and Koh — in part, Tines said, “because it’s about sharing the truth of our experiences rather than aestheticizing our experience. I don’t need to find a poem that represents something I can say more directly.”

Some material has been adapted from elsewhere, notably the lyrics to “Strange Fruit”, which are given a new setting towards the end of the work. This sequence was tested in music video form last year as part of Carnegie Hall’s Voices of Hope series. In it, Koh’s game – excited advanced technology – accompanies historical images of lynchings and racist cartoons.

Tines later enters with a somber, slow treatment of the text, giving way to something more beautiful, a presentation of its pillowy and soothing overtones at odds with contemporary videos and photos of violent assaults and bloodied faces. It’s stunning and unbearable – made even more difficult by the juxtaposition of female victims and Koh walking down a sidewalk in New York City. But it ends on optimism: a message of togetherness, including two girls, one black and one Asian American, holding up a sign that reads, “This is what solidarity looks like.”

“‘Strange Fruit,'” said Ueno, “captures so much of what the play is about,” noting that it came out shortly after the killing of six Asian women in Atlanta last year. (The video cites an increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans; in December, the New York City Police Department reported a 361 percent increase in attacks against them over the previous year.)

The show isn’t as intense, but it’s blunt in its discussions of race, history, and classical music. Gedeon, the director, said, “It’s raw, it’s edgy in a way, and it’s haunting. The words are written with this very direct language to confront the reality of the experience of being a person of color in this mostly white space.”

It starts with Koh and Tines dressed as they might be for any performance — she in a dress, he in tails — because, Tines said, “so many of our stories are born out of what it means to be yourself.” They intentionally fulfill clichés of concert attire and from there question audience perceptions and the extent to which they are complicit in that. In a song called “A Story of the Moth” Tines sings:

I was the moth
lured your flame
I hated myself for needing you
Dear rich
Money, Access, Fame

From there they tell of personal and historical voyages of discovery. Koh spent about 10 hours interviewing her mother, Soonja; Tines had already secretly taken in his grandmother “for quite some time”. Audio from these conversations is included with revealing impact, such as Alma’s account of a lynching – “They killed him and hanged him, cut off his head and kicked his head in the street” – in poetic fragments linked to Soonja’s memories of violence interwoven are Korea: “So I saw people being tortured and people on the trees, bodies hanging on the trees.”

Ueno’s score – for the two performers and the electronics – is a code-switching analogue, featuring faux classical and traditional Korean music, along with ’70s pop and contemporary avant-garde idioms. “It’s an allegory of their experience,” Ueno said, “but it’s also a way to highlight the broad virtuosity of what Davóne and Jenny can do, things like Davóne’s angelic high register and profound low register and Jenny’s advanced technique.”

Gedeon said that because he was so late to the project, most of his work consisted of “massaging these pieces into a clean, consistent line and creating more interstitial material that takes them on that journey, away from celebrated ones.” , prestigious classical musicians, but perhaps feeling hollow inside, to the point of a deeply rooted authentic personal dig.”

In the end, “Everything Rises” leaves the white-dominated space of the opening with the goal, according to Tines, “to regain the ability to act”. He and Koh perform a duet about how they’re connected and how this project “allows us to see each other.”

“It’s about creating a new space,” Koh said. “And hopefully what we’re doing in this work will give people of color space to speak more truth. It is a loss for everyone, including classical music, when stories of people who are not like us are not heard.”

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