Beyond rage, there’s sorrow — pure, simple, quiet. Such is the new work we got time, composed by sound artist Matana Roberts for The Crossing choir to honor Breonna Taylor.
The socially-distanced outdoor performances of the piece this weekend at The Woodlands cemetery had the unaccompanied 24-voice group positioned at various points in a prescribed route through the graveyard, each with a custom-made sound system that allowed sighs and distant thunder to seem next to your ear.
Mixed in were quotations from the Declaration of Independence, the hymn “Pass Over to The Rest,” and a phrase or two from “America the Beautiful.” Spoken declarations such as “This is a coverup” sometimes were electronically manipulated into a machine-gun-like stutter that was one of the few aggressive elements in a broad-reaching piece.
The title we got time comes from the grand jury hearings following Taylor’s shooting death by police last year in Louisville. When one investigator said time constraints would prevent jurors from watching all of the body-camera footage collected, a juror rejected his premise, saying “We got time.”
But The Crossing’s immersive presentation of we got time reached beyond Taylor. Signposts along the Woodlands route had names of other Black women shot dead by police, including Yvette Smith (killed in 2014 in Bastrop County, Texas) and India Kager (killed in 2015 in Virginia Beach).
The composer calls the project “experimental protest music,” and rarely have I felt so instantly at home with something ostensibly experimental.
The challenge of a piece like this is to take listeners some place that the news does not. And in doing so, Roberts stepped away from her more characteristic free-form jazz to a precisely curated minimalist collage with a recurring, ascending, two-note motif framing her wide variety of sources. A clear, overall musical shape led to a cemetery-wide climax, followed by an abrupt silence.
What all of that means is highly personal — and can change with every encounter, speaking as one who walked through it twice. Musically I heard more hymns first time around, more anthems the second time. The silence felt like a door slamming on life; the second encounter was like an exhausted expiration.
The piece’s sense of free association — in which a voice seemingly headed toward “The Star-Spangled Banner” morphed into one of the women’s names — mirrored human thinking and memory patterns. Everything felt so much a part of our recent collective experience that you sensed you could’ve composed it from within your own head, were you as talented as the 46-year-old, Chicago-born Roberts.
Concerts in graveyards aren’t so unusual these days: They’re among the few outdoor venues that are as atmospheric as a grand old concert hall. But making we got time unfold so effortlessly required the collaborative efforts of the Annenberg Center, Ars Nova Workshop (which presents jazz at the Woodlands), and of course Crossing director Donald Nally.
But the artistic possibilities explored by The Crossing’s outdoor concerts might be best consolidated indoors. Crossing concerts have now been rained out on two consecutive opening nights. “Great for the plants,” read one cancellation announcement. But not for singers who are wired for sound.
Luckily, we got time has life beyond The Crossing’s Month of Moderns festival: It’s being captured on video for streaming in late June by the Montreal festival Suoni per il popolo (suoniperilpopolo.org/en).
The third and final Month of Moderns program features the U.S. premiere of David Lang’s the sense of senses at 6:30 p.m. June 18 and 19 at Awbury Arboretum, 1 Awbury Road. Tickets are $15-35 at annenbergcenter.org.