The work of photographer and teacher Rashon “Rah-Lik” Briggs is striking and imbued with a longing and melancholy. His series of photographs, “Cotton Comes Home” (2018), depicts scenes of cotton fields, and their inescapable immediacy of expression quickly set the tone for New Gallery Concert Series’ recent program, “From There to Here.” This varied multimedia concert received its public YouTube premiere on March 28, 2021 (originally airing in January 2021). The program, which is still available to watch on YouTube, features works inspired by or related to Briggs’ photography by Jessica Mays, Forbes Graham, Henning Washington, Kenji Bunch, and Vanessa Lann.
The concert begins with Jessica Mays’ A Bee in the Hollow (2020), played emphatically by Sarah Bob, director of New Gallery Concert Series, and accompanied by visuals also provided by Mays. The piece is a set of four small distinct movements or “Meditations.” The visuals support the melancholy searching mood of the music, adding texture and depth to the listening experience. Mays’ writing has a richness throughout, with consistent harmonic motion and oscillation between thicker and more sparse chords. This effectively sets the stage for moments of haunting lyricism contrasted with more overt gestures, creating music that is dynamic and coherent in equal measure.
Forbes Graham’s String Quartet No. 1 (2015), which has its world premiere with this program, is a gripping piece in three movements. Its stylings are modernist, with dissonant clashes and interweaving counterpoint-heavy textures, especially of the imitative variety. But Graham’s writing has an uncommon rhythmic vigor, particularly in the second movement which heavily uses polyrhythmic figures along with more standard funk-like rhythms to create a jolting, off-kilter sensation. Here, the string quartet (Katherine Winterstein and Rose Drucker, violins; Ashleigh Gordon, viola; Francesca McNeeley, cello) must be praised for their accuracy in playing, which renders these complexities clear upon first listen. While Graham is skilled in this style, the piece does feel limited in its emotional and stylistic range, at times. However, of special note is the sonorous, harmonically vibrant section that ends the final movement, which is particularly stirring. In all, the piece stands as a commendable first foray into string quartet writing, with clear concision and grasp of the ensemble.
A Brother’s Story (2020), in which freestyle dancer Henning Washington embodies Philonese Floyd’s tribute to his brother George Floyd, is achingly poignant. The story, which deeply humanizes George Floyd by telling anecdotes from his life, has levity, however tempered by the knowledge of tragedy. It is brought to life further by Washington’s dance, which skillfully manifest these descriptions into reality–Washington sometimes directly portrays the accompanying images, and other times creates a more abstract interpretation. His movement is mostly fluid throughout, with moments where this fluidity is broken, which remind one all the more of the travesty of injustice that was wrought upon Floyd.
The heart of the concert is Rashon Briggs’ documentary about the creation of his “Cotton Comes Home” art series, bookended and accompanied by the Cotton Comes Home Soundtrack (2021), a melodic jazz duo by Aaron Trant (percussion) and Freddie Hendrix (trumpet). The duo here does not try to steal the spotlight, instead opting for subtle expression and somber lyricism, especially when acting as accompaniment to Briggs’ narration in which he makes the effort and purpose of the series plain. Briggs’ words and photography are convincing as an emotive centerpiece to the concert, grounding and contextualizing the surrounding works on the program.
The final two pieces have strong dissimilitude. First is Kenji Bunch’s Next Train (2011), a short, vivacious piece for solo violin that fragments and reimagines famous tunes that are in someway related to trains (“Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “Blue Train,” etc.) into an eclectic and virtuosic fever dream of a piece. The second is the somber though uplifting One/Life (2018), a piano quintet by composer Vanessa Lann written in memoriam of Hanni Begg, a holocaust survivor who became a nurse in Scotland, and passed away in 2017.
Lann writes in the program notes that she wanted the piano and strings to portray different elements of Begg’s life. This idea comes across clearly in the work, with crashing piano chords that immediately establish a perilous, ominous tone. The piece wanders through sorrow, joy, anxiety, anguish, and wonder throughout, ultimately providing a hopeful picture of a life well-lived, though affected by the shadow of tragedy.
In this regard, the connection of Lann’s work to the others of the program becomes clear: the ways that injustices and abuses pervade life, and society, and inflict continued lasting trauma. The variety of the program, especially in visual presentation, makes use of the advantages of an online concert and aids the performances in this mission. Further, the use of Rashon Briggs’ photography as a through line engenders a distinct coherency of message: beyond just the pain, these works explore how people can move to create good—to create joy—despite these wounds. In so doing, we not only acknowledge a past of tragedy, but seek to redress the world into one that is more livable and more just.
I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF.