Brilliant world premiere by Philly The Crossing choir honors Breonna Taylor

Beyond the rage, there is sorrow – pure, simple, calm. This is the new job we have the time, composed by sound artist Matana Roberts for The Crossing choir in honor of Breonna Taylor.

The social-distancing play’s outdoor performances this weekend at The Woodlands Cemetery had the unaccompanied 24-voice group positioned at various points on a prescribed route through the graveyard, each with a bespoke sound system that allowed sighs and distant thunder to sound beside your ear.

Quotes from the Declaration of Independence, the anthem “Pass Over to The Rest” and a line or two from “America the Beautiful” were mixed up. Oral statements such as “This is a cover-up” were sometimes electronically manipulated into a machine gun-like stutter that was one of the few aggressive elements of a large-scale piece.

The title we have the time comes from the grand jury hearings after Taylor was shot dead by police last year in Louisville. When an investigator said time constraints would prevent jurors from viewing all of the body camera footage collected, a juror rejected his premise, saying “We have time.”

But the immersive presentation of The Crossing we have the time reaches beyond Taylor. Signs along Woodlands Road bore the names of other black women shot by police, including Yvette Smith (killed in 2014 in Bastrop County, Texas) and India Kager (killed in 2015 in Virginia Beach).

The composer calls the project “experimental protest music,” and rarely have I felt so instantly comfortable with something ostensibly experimental.

The challenge of a track like this is to bring listeners to a place where the news is not. And in doing so, Roberts moved away from his more characteristic freeform jazz for a carefully curated minimalist collage with a recurring, ascending, two-note pattern framing his wide variety of sources. A clear and comprehensive musical form led to a cemetery-wide climax, followed by abrupt silence.

What this all means is very personal – and can change with each encounter, speaking like someone who has walked it twice. Musically, I heard more hymns the first time, more hymns the second time. The silence was like a door slamming on life; the second meeting was like an exhausted exhalation.

The play’s sense of free association – in which a voice seemingly directed to “The Star-Spangled Banner” morphed into one of the female names – reflected human thought and patterns of memory. It all seemed so part of our recent collective experience that you felt you could have put it together on your own, if you were as talented as the 46-year-old Chicago-born Roberts.

Concerts in cemeteries aren’t that unusual these days – they’re one of the few open-air venues that are as atmospheric as a large old concert hall. But do we have the time to go so smoothly required the collaborative efforts of the Annenberg Center, Atelier Ars Nova (which presents jazz to the Woodlands) and of course Crossing director Donald Nally.

But the artistic possibilities explored by The Crossing’s outdoor concerts could be better consolidated indoors. Crossing concerts have now been rained on two consecutive opening nights. “Great for plants,” read one cancellation ad. But not for singers who are wired for sound.

Fortunately, we have the time has a life beyond The Crossing’s Month of Moderns festival: it is captured on video for streaming at the end of June by the Montreal festival Suoni per il popolo (suoniperilpopolo.org/en).

The third and final program of Modern Month presents the US premiere of David Lang’s The sense of senses at 6:30 p.m. on June 18 and 19 at Awbury Arboretum, 1 Awbury Road. Tickets are $ 15-35 at annenbergcenter.org.


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