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The making of the Cartography Project, a work honoring victims of racial violence

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally tonight, the names of some of the Black men and women killed by police - Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Philando Castile - have become embedded in the nation's consciousness, memorialized in everything from street art to T-shirts to fine art displayed in galleries. Now there's a new effort to grieve their loss and honor their memory in music, a collaboration between the Kennedy Center, the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Opera. It's called The Cartography Project, and the three institutions have commissioned a multi-year series of chamber and vocal works and an online video series documenting their creation.

The idea was conceived by Marc Bamuthi Joseph, the Kennedy Center's artistic director and vice president of social impact. We invited Marc Bamuthi Joseph to talk with us, along with Liz Gre, the composer of one of eight new pieces that will premiere at the Kennedy Center later this month. Marc Bamuthi Joseph started by explaining that his inspiration for the project was the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., that commemorates the victims of lynching.

MARC BAMUTHI JOSEPH: One of the things that I love about what EJI and Bryan Stevenson have done is engage the time-honored tradition of naming names and creating psychic space that anonymity does not. So we have taken certain names in the public imagination and identified them with trauma, with death, with loss. But culture, I think, is the intersection. Culture is where we both remember, and perhaps we find a way to forgive, but maybe most importantly, we find a way to uplift. So the inspiration was to take a living art form, classical music, with living composers and to create a pipeline to elevate living Black composers to create works that not only crystallize and memorialize these individuals in response to extrajudicial violence, but really uplift their memory as living beings, not just as beings that have crossed the realm into ancestry.

MARTIN: Talk to me a bit about the choice of classical music, music based on the European tradition, frankly. I think it goes without saying that many Black people have excelled in this tradition, but I am not sure that many people necessarily see it as having been particularly receptive to or inclusive of the stories of Black people. So I want to hear more about that choice.

BAMUTHI JOSEPH: Yeah. I mean, the idea of classic and classical is fairly controversial. I say at one point in the docuseries that you could take a cynical view and note that classical music is a soundtrack to the imperialist impulse. But as with many things across the spectrum of Western aesthetics, Black people are breathing a kind of vibrancy and agency into this form, and it is part of our signature within the American cultural landscape to elevate artistic forms, to invent and reinvent artistic forms. So the choice was intentional, you know, not only because this - because of our storied history, but also because, you know, the gig at the Kennedy Center is to evolve the institution, so it doesn't stay either in 1971 or in 1771, that it is updated to reflect the present discourse.

MARTIN: Let's hear a little bit of your piece, "The Road Ahead," composed by Carlos Simon with your libretto and spoken word.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ROAD AHEAD")

BAMUTHI JOSEPH: At present, she's on the island. The sun below won't rise for another hour, and someone's son is newly dead (ph). She toasts the day with coffee. Dark and bitter as an innocent suspect, she's supposed to make the leap today. Today, her job is to map the road to progress. She knows this road backward, but the road forward is hard to comprehend. It's twisted.

MARTIN: "The Road Ahead" will be performed next month at the Kennedy Center. Just briefly, as briefly as you can, tell us, what are some of the ideas that you were working with in that piece?

BAMUTHI JOSEPH: Every composer, every librettist was working with a specific geographical location as part of their inspiration, hence the idea of The Cartography Project, really to map Black dignity across the United States from Baltimore to Oakland. But my assignment with Carlos was to create a piece that lived a little bit outside of geography, that charted the course forward, hence "The Road Ahead."

MARTIN: Wow. OK. Liz Gre, thank you so much for joining us on the line from London.

LIZ GRE: Yes, thank you.

MARTIN: You are also trained in the classical tradition. Your composition is "Progeny Of Perpetual Independence," and it incorporates ideas of freedom that are unique to the African American experience. It's my understanding that you're setting is Minneapolis. You call the name of Philando Castile, who was shot during a traffic stop in the suburb of St. Paul. And, of course, Minneapolis also evokes the death of George Floyd and recently the death of Amir Locke. And what was it like trying to create music, acknowledging that death and that violence, but also trying to - I'm not sure what word you would use - transform or transcend it?

GRE: My goal was not to force or to romanticize the trauma. In collaborating and interviewing and calling out stories of people who lived in Minneapolis, together we created a composition that is in conversation with those experiences. I didn't consider my assignment to write an accompaniment or to amplify, but really to create two conversations that lived together in a moment that can be experienced through sound.

MARTIN: So let's hear a bit of "Progeny Of Perpetual Independence," composed by you, libretto by Junauda Petrus-Nasah and the performance by Amber Monroe. She's the soloist. And here's just a taste of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROGENY OF PERPETUAL INDEPENDENCE")

AMBER MONROE: (Singing) This is where, this is where, this is where, this is where my heart breaks. My heart breaks.

MARTIN: You know, look; our art has always addressed our deepest feelings and - our deepest feelings, our deepest pains, our deepest hurts, our deepest joys. And yet somehow it seems that work that has a concept of politics to it - right? - has always been put in a different category, if I may say.

BAMUTHI JOSEPH: Yeah. Our survival in and of itself is a political statement. And the art that we make is an instrument of that survival. So the externalizing of the creative experience or the segregation out of creative capacity from cultural leadership, I think, is a fallacy.

MARTIN: That was Marc Bamuthi Joseph, artistic director and vice president of social impact at the Kennedy Center. We were also joined by Liz Gre, a composer. And, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and Liz Gre, thank you both so much for talking with us and for sharing this time with us.

GRE: Thank you.

BAMUTHI JOSEPH: Thank you for your time and your energy. Appreciate you.

MARTIN: The first eight chamber and vocal commissions in The Cartography Project will premiere at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., on March 16 and 16, and the 10-part docuseries is available online now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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