February 22, 2021. BRUITS, a new album by the trailblazing woodwind quintet Imani Winds, tackles issues of race and social justice with three contemporary works by Reena Esmail, Frederic Rzewski, and Vijay Iyer, composer of the title work.
Imani Winds musicians Monica Ellis and Toyin Spellman-Diaz talk about the role of music in responding to crisis and helping us move forward.
“Bruits” in medicine refers to the sound that blood makes trying to flow through a blocked vessel.
In the case of the title work by Vijay Iyers on Imani Winds’ new album, BRUITS, it's “a metaphor for something that is blocked in our society," says Toyin Spellman-Diaz, oboist of Imani Winds. Iyers uses music and spoken word in his powerful five-movement piece for woodwind quintet and piano about the 2013 trial and acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
Also on the album is Reena Ismail’s 2016 philosophical piece about our common humanity, The Light is the Same, and Frederic Rzewski’s Sometimes, written in 2015, a three-movement tribute to Black historian John Hope Franklin that references and reconstructs the spiritual, "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child."
The pieces are not brand new, nor are the problems they address. “This was far before last summer’s racial upheavals and reckoning that we’re dealing with now,” says Monica Ellis, bassoonist in the group. “It’s something that’s been going on for generations in various forms.”
But the time felt right to take a stand.
“We said, we really need to go into the studio and put these pieces together so that they can live in perpetuity as a collection," says Monica. “This is our statement on the times we live in. The moment is now.”
The three works as presented in the order here create an arc of emotion: a journey through turmoil and horror, reflection and peace, heartbreak and hope. It’s well worth listening to the album the old-fashioned way, from beginning to end.
Vijay Iyer: Bruits
Reena Esmail: The Light is the Same
Frederic Rzewski: Sometimes
Monica Ellis and Toyin Spellman-Diaz are two of the original members of Imani Winds, formed in 1997. Since their founding, they’ve released seven albums, including the Grammy-nominated, The Classical Underground. Their Legacy Commissioning Project, aimed at composers of diverse backgrounds, is now over 13 years old and has added over 20 new works for woodwind quintet to the repertoire.
Listen here to Monica and Toyin’s conversation about BRUITS. Here are selected edited excerpts of their comments:
On Bruits by Vijay Iyer:
Susan: Bruits is based on this horrific incident; it uses music, spoken word, improvisation. What is it like to perform it?
Toyin: Well, there's one part in particular that is improvised, which is the hardest movement of them all, and it's the stillest movement of them all. We were just listening to hear what another person was playing. And then we had to match that tone. So the ways one could mess it up were multi-faceted!
Vijay had a term for that type of improv. He calls it flocking. As a matter of fact, there's no music written in that movement [#4]. It's just us matching tones or making little sparkles over it.
Monica: The piece is difficult, technically speaking. There are really intricate rhythms; the physical notes and phrases are very involved. You have to really remain quite focused to make sure everything lines up.
Also, though, is the impact of the piece. There is this feeling that this is something important that we’re sharing. We are literally saying the words to Florida's ‘Stand Your Ground’ law in one of the movements.
We want to be a little on edge. It’s important to not just ride the wave of comfortability, to make your heart and your being feel a little off, in order to make change occur.
Susan: What’s the role of music in helping us process these horrific incidents?
Toyin: I feel like a lot of times, listeners and fans of classical music think of it as a moment to relax. And that's a great part of what we're able to do and a great service that we can provide to people.
But, there's a dark side or flip side of the coin, pieces that were not necessarily meant to make you relax. Beethoven's Third was about the controversial figure of Napoleon; Wagner had a lot of controversy about him. We're trying to continue that tradition from an honest, sincere and a personal place.
And I think that's the responsibility of musicians everywhere now. If we're going to grow and continue in the same way, we have to address all of those issues, not just the pleasant ones.
Susan: Reena Esmail’s The Light is the Same is a beautiful interweaving of two Hindustani raags. Could you talk about what a raag is?
Monica: It’s two contrasting scales in Indian music. They're gorgeous and beautiful and have such depth to them. And in this piece, the two raags that are used are different simply by one note. The difference represents [the idea] that we are looking at the same thing, just with slight differences.
We're looking up at the stars at the same time, the same stars. And how about we approach life like that? We have more similarities than we have differences.
Susan: Here's the composer talking about the piece.
Susan: Frederic Rzewski’s Sometimes was written to honor the late historian and Duke University professor John Hope Franklin on his centennial. Read by the honoree’s son, John Whittington Franklin, the piece begins: "We need a new American revolution that will create a new ideology of comradeship in the great enterprise of building a society in which every man and woman can face tomorrow unencombered by the burdens of the past, or the prejudices of the present."
Toyin: [Composer Frederick Rzewski] chose the spiritual, “Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child” to shatter and put together, reconstruct as it were, into a whole new piece. At the beginning of the piece, there are the words of John Hope Franklin that speak to how we rebuild society in a more equitable manner.
And at the end of the piece is an incredible poem by Langston Hughes. Those words are sung by the phenomenal singer Janai Brugger.
Susan: When you send an album like this out into the world, what is your hope?
Toyin: This is definitely one that is pretty clear to us, which is to “un-bruit” some parts of classical music and hopefully society as a whole. That’s a lot to ask of a flute, clarinet, bassoon, oboe, and French horn player, but we're really trying. At least we can say we’ve done our best. There's one thing Imani Winds does well: it's to try really hard.
God to the Hungry Child, by Langston Hughes
Hungry child I didn't make this world for you. You didn't buy any stock in my railroad. You didn't invest in my corporation. Where are your shares in Standard Oil? I made the world for the rich. And the will-be rich. And the have-always-been-rich. Not for you.