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Music Notes: driven to abstraction

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In the late 1980s, a sensational case in Georgia caught the attention of Paul Carter Harrison, a playwright and director who's taught at Columbia College for the past 20 years. "A beautiful young black woman revealed that she'd had carnal relationships with three white priests," he says. "What's more, she also had intercourse with a black archbishop, who might have secretly married her. She claimed that one of them was the father of her child. Needless to say, the church eventually paid her off."

At the time, Harrison was looking for a story that he and saxist-composer Julius Hemphill and sculptor-designer Oliver Jackson, both of whom he'd known since the early 70s, could turn into a jazz opera. "We settled on this one," he says, "because we were fascinated by how a woman can wield power over men to make them violate a sacred commitment."

They knew they wanted the work to be music driven and allegorical. "We didn't think we could do a slice-of-life, made-for-TV drama," says Harrison, who wrote the libretto for Doxology Opera. "That would allow for too much boring social commentary, and that's really not what the African-American aesthetic is all about." He's never cared much for realism. It's "too limiting, too reductive," not what he, Hemphill, Jackson, and others had in mind when they formulated the aesthetic philosophy they called the "African Continuum," which Harrison describes as "an aesthetic that connects with black people's African past and background" and is intended "to illuminate the black experience without being didactic or making a social statement." Then he takes a dig at Ken Burns's PBS series on jazz: "In this respect, the series is a fiasco. The music is presented as if it had emerged from a social context, as if anecdotes and personalities took precedence over the musicians' responses. His history is superficial, not putting jazz in the category of what I call 'African conceptual music' that includes blues as well as hip-hop. I don't think a black would have dealt with the subject the same way."

Doxology Opera is subtitled "The Doxy Canticles" to make explicit its quasi-religious nature and to point out the dictionary proximity of "praise of God" (doxology) and "prostitute" (doxy). Harrison says the opera's central character, Doxy, is "a lady of the street who likes to party. She's a woman of vitality in a community where young black men are dead from violence and drugs. Not able to fulfill their primal urge to procreate, the women gather for a fertility rite that would channel the generative, spiritual power of a mother god through Doxy, her vessel."

Hemphill had composed only half an hour of the music by the time the opera was given a workshop performance at Columbia College in 1995. Then in April of that year he died. Harrison quickly recruited Wendell Logan, an Oberlin professor and composer whose work he'd long admired, to finish the score. "Both have highly theatrical dynamics in their works," Harrison says. "But Julius would make music with only six saxes and not include any swing or bebop, whereas Logan is more conventional. His score calls for a large chamber ensemble and is filled with 20th-century signatures tied closely to African rhythms."

This weekend's concert premiere of Doxology Opera will feature two highly touted young singers--mezzo-soprano Bonita Hyman and soprano Elizabeth Norman--and a female chorus of 12. The New Black Music Repertory Ensemble will navigate what conductor Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson describes as "eclectic music with lots of jazz overtones." It will be presented at 8 PM this Friday and Saturday and at 4 PM Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago. Admission is $18; call 312-280-2660 for more information.

--Ted Shen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.

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