Everything Rises premiered on April 12th at Campbell Hall, University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). The musical project, commissioned by ARCO Collaborative and UCSB, was directed by Alexander Gedeon and features violinist Jennifer Koh and bass-baritone Davóne Tines, with music by Ken Ueno. Koh, a 2022 Grammy Award winner, and Tines, Musical America’s 2022 Vocalist of the Year and recipient of the 2020 Sphinx Medal of Excellence have consistently used their artistry to uplift stories and music from underrepresented identities, and this project exemplifies their art-tivisim.
Everything Rises is an outcry against societal and industry norms that push performers of color to suppress their personal and cultural identities. Far from the typical classical music concert, the multimedia performance was a space for Koh and Tines to lay bare their paradoxical experiences of erasure and tokenization, of being a “model minority” and a “wind-up monkey,” of stuffing their isolation and trauma behind a smile to play the game of “money, access, and fame” (Ueno, “A Story of the Moth”). Every creative decision contributed to the formation of a safe stage for marginalized artists–the lighting accentuated the innate beauty of the performer’s bodies; the matching floor-length, loose black dresses afforded the performers the freedom to move in space and into authenticity. In contrast, the show began with the performers in standard classical concert “costume”: a fitted silk dress, a tuxedo from Davon’s undergraduate days, which represent the narrow confines of what the traditional classical music world deems as acceptable.
The performance opened with a video of a 17-year old Koh playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concert at the 1994 Tchaikovsky Competition and segued into the first piece, “Game of Recognition,” a musical dialogue reminiscent of the game, Marco Polo, in which a blindfolded Tines makes his way hesitantly towards Koh, guided by and echoing the notes produced by the violinist. This piece was inspired by Koh and Tines’ initial meeting in a dressing room, where they formed an unspoken bond as musicians of color in the white-dominated classical world.
Both performers are phenomenal musicians in their own right, but this performance was not intended to showcase their virtuosity. Rather, it was about making space for each other and creating dialogue. In several of the pieces, Tines, who normally towers over Koh, performed lying flat on the stage, physically making space for Jenny. In “Fluttering Heart,” Tines interwove melodic lines through Soonja’s recorded interview responses in a modified call-and-response fashion. Soonja, Koh’s mother, recounted her first few months in the US, all alone, trying to adapt to a foreign culture–“I remember / truly what loneliness means,” to which Tines crooned, “no human beings but me / cars go by but no one but me.” The asynchronous musical dialogue served to reinforce, process, and validate their parallel reflections of loneliness and obligation.
The show brought to mind a quote from Cesar A. Cruz: “Good art should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed.” There were entire pieces that unflinchingly exposed the disturbing realities of racism and warfare, made all the more real through the interviews, in which Soonja and Alma, Tines’ grandmother, recounted their experiences firsthand. “Parallel Histories” connected slave lynching and the Korean war, “A Story of the Moth” revealed the commodification of musicians, especially musicians of color, and Alma’s interview served as a stark reminder of the human cost of prejudice. Perhaps the most disconcerting number was “Strange Fruit,” which opened with a frenzied violin solo that oscillated between crushing and faint bow pressure, generating strangled, near-pitchless sounds evocative of desperate gasps of breath. As Tines joined in with a plaintive melody, the audience quickly came to the horrific realization that the “fruit” referred to in the title is not fruit at all, but rather a “black body swingin’ / in the southern breeze.” The words for this piece came from a poem, titled “Bitter Fruit,” written by Abel Meeropol in the wake of a lynching in Indiana, and Billie Holiday recorded an arrangement of the poem in 1939. In 2021, during a rising wave of attacks against those of Asian descent, Koh and Tines recorded an arrangement of this piece and used it as the score for a video stitching together political cartoons, photos, and recordings documenting historical and current-day instances of violence against African-Americans and Asian-Americans, instances that follow an unsettlingly similar pattern. This piece is a reminder that wounds from unhealed traumas will continue to rise back into the forgetful collective consciousness, no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves that the past is in the past.
Yet, a key message from the performance was a hopeful one. The last piece, “Better Angels,” is a simple yet powerful song about embracing “the better angels of our nature” in the face of historical injustices and generations of invisibilization and oppression. In this performance space, grief, sorrow, and guilt arose in response to Tines and Koh’s deeply personal stories, but so did empathy, hope, and admiration for the performers and their families for stepping into the unknown, whether it be a new country or a bold musical statement, in hopes that the next generation can live a better life and “stop singin’ songs for freedom / because in fact [they] are free” (Ueno, “Amen”). As the distorted static sound slowly faded to nothingness, the musicians stepped to the edge of the stage and ponderously gazed across the entire event hall, inviting each and every audience member to become creators and guardians of safe spaces like this one.
One of the questions that came up for the performers during the post-concert discussion was whether continually opening themselves up though this project was exhausting or cathartic. Koh shared that both she and Tines have broken down during rehearsals because of the emotional intensity of the pieces and that they’ve seen each other in their most vulnerable moments, and it is these moments that have solidified the strong personal and spiritual connection they have with each other. Tines recognizes that in addition to the emotional expenditure needed for this project, there is a broader societal exhaustion that weighs most heavily on those whose voices have been silenced again and again. He expressed a profound gratitude for the unique opportunity to work with a BIPOC creative team committed to bringing their deep personal stories to life and to a space where it not expected to be told.
Everything Rises is a bold reminder that art and music is not immune to the power dynamics and patterns of oppression present across society, and that great art can empower marginalized voices to speak, or rather, to sing their truth. Projects as emotional and personal as this one are taxing to both the performers and the audience. However, the alternative– projects that stifle one’s identity to appeal to a faceless crowd or pretend everything is fine when it’s not–is not one that anyone should be subjected to. Koh and Tines masterfully demonstrate that it is possible to reject this alternative mode of performance, etching out a more compassionate, more authentic mode of sharing classical music.
Photos courtesy of Sarah Duenas