Music drama? Collage? Spoken-word piece? One-man show? Multi-media chamber collaboration?
My Words Are My Sword is all of those.
The Portland Chamber Orchestra world premiere will be performed at 7 p.m. April 9 at St. Andrew Catholic Church, and at 3 p.m. April 10 at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church, after being postponed from a February date when Covid was raging in Portland. It is a collaboration among poet/actor Darius Wallace, composer Jasnam Daya Singh, and PCO leader Yaacov “Yaki” Bergman.
My Words Are My Sword has been in the works for several years, and most of the process–shaping, rehearsing and perfecting–took place on Zoom. In this case, the words drove the music.
Bergman met Wallace in 2019 in Walla Walla, Washington, where Wallace was acting at the Gesa Power House Theatre. An in-demand spoken-word artist and actor who often performs historically researched one-man shows for schools and organizations, Wallace was creating a project based on Black experience through story, monologue, poetry and songs. He had not yet refined it.
Bergman was interested: “It addressed current issues with the buried history of Black struggle, bravery and excellence,” he said through an email this winter, and in ways, “redefined Blackness.” Wallace’s piece incorporates words of MLK, Langston Hughes, Malcolm X, Richard Wright, George Floyd, and his own poetry. The first draft was “wild,” with strong R-rated language, Wallace said by phone in March from his Memphis home. The final draft has been toned down for a family audience. Look forward to Wallace’s lustrous bass-baritone (leaning toward bass) delivery and movie-star good looks.
At the time he met Wallace, Bergman was considering creating a project with Hughes’ poetry, but Wallace was offering much more. As Bergman said, “Darius inspired me personally” as an explosion of events and social change was occurring in the United States.
Bergman was determined to step up as the Black Lives Matter movement sparked and spread. He said in an interview with All Classical Portland radio station commentator Robert McBride that “as an artist in a community, you cannot be blind. You cannot stand there and do nothing.”
The 19-year PCO director calls himself “a strong believer in multi-arts concepts and bringing diverse artistic expressions, styles, genre and cultures together.”
So My Words was not a big stretch for Bergman to pull together.
Finding the right composer
After dialoguing with Wallace, the next step was finding the right composer, and Brazilian-born Jasnam Daya Singh–who calls himself a “melting pot of cultures”–was the obvious choice, Bergman said. PCO had presented in 2017 the Northwest premiere of his 2006 Jazz Concertino for Piano and String Orchestra in which he appeared as a soloist, and Bergman said Daya Singh was “both a brilliant pianist and composer with a distinct voice and musical style that blends both Latin jazz and classical styles.”
Since he began work on My Words, Daya Singh has become PCO’s composer-in-residence.
As My Words music progressed, other instruments were added to the piano (on which Daya Singh composes, along with the computer): strings, flute, oboe, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, electric bass, drums and vibraphone.
Daya Singh, 60, who came to the United States in 1987 and lives in Vancouver, Washington, said, “My Brazilian roots always end up meshing with American styles. Remember, at this point I have lived in the U.S. longer than I lived in Brazil.
“I have always welcomed the crossing over of different genres and styles,” Daya Singh continues, “sometimes in the same piece of music. In this particular work you won’t hear much of what’s expected as Brazilian music, in terms of specific rhythms such as Samba or Baiāo. However, the African element, which is very present in Brazilian music, is there.”
Daya Singh adds that you’ll hear strains of modern and impressionist classical music plus music that’s informed by jazz and hip-hop, and perhaps influences from some of his favorites: “Ravel, Debussy and Bartok, Prokofiev, Faurė, Vaughan Williams and Villa-Lobos, a wonderful Brazilian composer who seems to be a major influence on many Brazilian composers of different generations.”
Bergman said that Daya Singh’s work is “a very sensitive musical treatment of Darius’s script. It became clear that the music had to serve as a reflective and sensitive underscoring of the text without sacrificing its bold, stylistically diverse, rhythmically rich and very American style.”
The power of words
Driving Wallace’s piece, which the actor/author titled, is the power of words. “Words open up the possibility to get to the truth and bottom of it,” Wallace said. “Words are powerful. Words are the end result of power that’s in us. We have the ability as humans to use words to educate and inspire lives. We’ve been trained to hate each other, based on our skin, on 1 percent of what we are.”
Though Daya Singh composed from a videotape of Wallace’s performance, as rehearsals progressed Wallace said he “felt like I was relearning the show. It was the weirdest thing, as we were rehearsing it and sharing delivery, the music had become a character–the music re-influenced the words. I found a new meaning. As an actor, I allowed the music to influence my delivery, my emotional connection to the moment.”
Wallace remains on stage for the entire 80 minutes, though there is an intermission.
For composer Daya Singh, My Words Are My Sword “is the first time for me that my music appears as almost a character in the show. The theme of this show is emotionally very close to my heart, being a person of color, an immigrant and now a Sikh, so writing the music for this show came about in a very organic process.”