To be black means to be closer to death,” says composer Andre Myers. “There’s not been a day in the last 15 years when I’ve not said or thought I’m not dead.”
In the midst of an American society newly sensitized to racism and the perilous condition of Black men, Myers has chosen to focus on life in his latest commission from the Albany Symphony. “Black and Alive” for chamber orchestra will be debuted in a live streamed performance on Saturday evening, Nov. 14, from Universal Preservation Hall in Saratoga Springs. The virtual concert conducted by David Alan Miller will also feature Debussy’s “Prelude to Afternoon of a Faun” and a chamber version of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony.
“Blackness is associated with death in European and American literature, in our cultural imagination and as of late with the public discourse,” says Myers. “Every day something has tried to kill us and failed. So what does it mean to be Black and alive? I don’t want ‘black and alive’ to be incongruous. I want Black people to live.”
Myers, 47, made his ASO debut in the June 2019 concert of the Dogs of Desire at EMPAC. Amid an overstuffed concert of new works with heavy political messages, Myers’ tribute to Frederick Douglass was a sure-footed standout. “Studies in Hope: Frederick Douglass” brought together percussive rapping by two MCs, lyrical writing for the Albany High School choir, and a turbulent deployment of the instrumental ensemble. Six months later the piece was reprised by the full orchestra. The piece’s nickname is “Good Fred.”
While making his way in the classical realm, Myers did not leave behind popular styles. “For me now, they’re not separate. I’ve avoided any conscious efforts to integrate African-American vernacular with concert music if it didn’t feel intuitive. You can’t force it,” he says.
Myers describes his new piece for the ASO as a blend of Stravinsky, Bang on a Can and James Brown. Unlike “Good Fred,” there’s no rapping. In the honorable tradition of orchestral music, the composer is relying on the music itself to communicate any message or sentiment.
“I take a lot of solace and strength from Stravinsky’s neo-classical period. This piece is partly influenced by that period and the boxy-ness of it,” says Myers. “I feel like a lot of composers of the 1800s and 1900s lived in the shadow of Beethoven. A lot of my music is in the shadow of Stravinsky, also Armstrong, Monk, and Ellington.”
In Myers’ growing list of works, there aren’t any titles that ring out the theme of race in the way that “Black and Alive” does. Yet Myers insists that social struggles are always there in his scores.
“I feel absolutely compelled by issues of political agency,” he says. “This is what I know how to do. I don’t know if writing classical music is going to be a real part in our global struggle. But it is at the forefront of every musical choice and influences every decision I make.”
Asked to consider how he would like the current musical scene in America to be remembered in 20 years, Myers replied, “Music in 2020 was the canary in the coal mine. It was the time when we began to reckon with the global condition. I want folks looking back to say that composers pursued the urgent nature of where we are. I’m going to be alive for that.”
The ASO performs Myers’ “Black and Alive” at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 14, at Universal Preservation Hall. The live stream is an exclusive to subscribers. Admission to the virtual concert hall afterward is by donation, starting at $25.
More information at: albanysymphony.com.