In 2016, Damien Geter decided to compose a piece dedicated to the victims of racial violence. The deaths of Eric Garner in 2014, Philando Castile in 2016 and other Black men and women proved more than enough for Geter.
His soul-searching decision resulted in the “An African American Requiem” presented by The Choral Arts Society that recently had its east coast premiere at the Kennedy Center.
“I didn’t feel I was doing enough as an artist to comment on these things,” Geter said prior to the concert.
The two-part evening of music featured the combined voices from The Choral Arts Symphonic Chorus, the Resonance Ensemble and NEWorks Voices of America. The first part consisted of two movements from D.C. composer Nolan Williams Jr.’s “Spirituals Suite for Choir and Orchestra. Williams conducted the suites that included “City Called Heaven” and “Done Made My Vow.”
The second part of the program, “An African American Requiem,” conducted by Scott Tucker, artistic director of The Choral Arts Society of Washington featured traditional Latin requiem texts with civil rights declarations, poetry and the last words of Eric Garner, ‘I can’t breathe.’
The lyrics, known as the libretto, would be sung in both Latin and English, with the English verses taken from various aspects of Black American with a cadence evoking the Negro spirituals. Featured vocalists Jacqueline Echols, soprano, Karmesha Peake, mezzo-soprano, Norman Shankle, tenor and Kenneth Overton, baritone, gave power and emotion to the words.
A striking, slightly off-key arrangement of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” featured in one movement, spoke volumes about how Geter interpreted the treatment of Blacks in America. An omission of the chord at the word “free” in the national anthem would be an intentional decision by the composer to question if freedom counts as something everyone in the U.S. can claim.
After creating his massive composition, originally scheduled to premiere in 2020 before the onset of COVID-19, Geter thought there would not be a need for another piece of work like the requiem. But he soon changed his mind.
“It was a foolish thought,” he said. “Then George Floyd and Breonna Taylor happened.” Geter said in an article from “In Symphony,” the Oregon Symphony magazine.
“Before 2020, I think many people were not as quick to recognize violence against Black people was actually a problem. It would be interesting to do a poll to see how many people thought the killing of Black folks was a problem two years ago vs. now,” he said.