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Darwin, Lincoln and…Haiti?

This review appeared originally on November 2, 2008 on Michele Marcelin’s blog. The author has graciously agreed to have it reprinted in this forum for the benefit of people who like me longed to see the performance but were unable to make it – JM

_lincoln_darwin“That there is suffering, no one will dispute it, but according to my judgment, happiness will decidedly prevail.” Darwin (according to Beaty)

“Four score and seven years ago, my heart began to break, and for a while, I did not know what it meant to be free.” Lincoln (according to Beaty)

Was there a relationship between Lincoln and Darwin? In the 19th century, both the scientist and the anti-slavery president were near-mythical figures. With the theory of evolution and the Civil War, each touched off a revolution that changed the world. Coincidentally (but do coincidences exist?) they shared a birthday. Last night, they also shared the stage of the Brooklyn Academy of Music for the premiere of Daniel Bernard Roumain’s Darwin’s Meditation for The People of Lincoln.

In this piece, DBR – as he is professionally called – explores the relationship between Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln who were born within hours of one another on February 12, 1809, yet never met during their lifetime. DBR’s musical score, an eclectic combination of tonal and dissonant orchestral music, Haitian Konpa, Soul, and Jazz music, incorporates an imagined conversation (written and performed by playwright Daniel Beaty) between the two historical figures. Emotional suffering, freedom, and survival are the recurrent themes.

Now, who are Lincoln’s people, and what is the Haitian connection? In his Gettysburg address, Lincoln vowed to struggle to ensure that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” That’s the people part.

The Haiti link seemed fragile – but an interview excerpt with the Haitian-American composer dissipated my ignorance: “Charles Darwin wrote and spoke about his admiration for Haitians and their fierce independence. Frederick Douglas, friend and confidant to Lincoln, was a special envoy to Haiti and wrote about that “sister republic” with great, but misguided, hope for pushing both countries closer together. Both men knew about Haiti and were well aware of that island nation’s successful revolution. I felt that by making Haiti a literal and figurative location in this piece, I could better understand Darwin’s and Lincoln’s view of the world, as they fought to understand their work, country, and their own place in history.” So, Haiti became part of the piece.

dbr-mimi9

Enlightened and in eager anticipation, I dressed in my finery to attend the performance. My disenchantment was at the measure of my expectations, I suppose. The quality of depth and rigor that would have made Darwin’s Meditation a classic, was missing. The piece lacked gravitas. But DRB is a star above all. The violinist/composer is enjoying considerable success these days, thanks to his unique, experimental fusion style. According to Sydney’s Time Out magazine: “Daniel Bernard Roumain has been accused of doing for violin what Jimi Hendrix did for electric guitar.”

It is true there is much jumping, dreads whirling in the air, and Hendrix-like antics onstage, and DRB’s enthusiasm is irrepressible – but its tonality is childlike in its innocence instead of being darkly sexual like Hendrix. His skilled solos are high pyrotechnics. He burns the violin, drawing out audacious sounds and chords and harmonies, and one is dazzled by his brilliance and yet, one remains curiously, emotionally disengaged.

The 90-minute quartet concerto, which took more than a year to complete, was commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The composition of the work is said to be inspired and guided by a musical and historical exploration of Haiti. But the layers pertaining to the island nation do not seem sewn from the same cloth as the rest of the piece, and are like patches added to hold the fabric together (one such colorful patch is Billly the Barber, a Haitian musician who like Lincoln, played the harmonica, was Lincoln’s client when Lincoln was still a practicing lawyer and a pallbearer at the president’s funeral).

Haiti’s national anthem was the opening song, performed by singer/songwriter Emeline Michel (who sang several pieces in French and Creole throughout the evening). Daniel Beaty’s text was moving, and as a performer he has that quiet presence, a rare combination of sensitivity and power that can draw you in. The overall results could have been spellbinding had lyrical substance and narrative tension also been present, but the multi-media performance lacked cohesion, and after quickly making its point, seemed to drift and not know where to go.

daniel-bernard-roumain-0508-lgOr rather went all over the place. Text fragments were repeated and recombined like musical themes throughout the work; words from the recitation, and images representing the themes were projected on a screen behind the 20-piece string- dominated orchestra directed by Paul Haas. Now, will someone please explain why so many words in Creole were misspelled? Will someone please apologize? Could this ever have happened in any other language? And why was a traveling palm tree – not native to Haiti, chosen to illustrate the island?

There were other seriously awkward moments. Why, oh why, would DBR in the middle of a piece that dealt with the somber themes of death and grief, suddenly call out to the audience “Hey BAM! How are you doing tonight?” and “Are you enjoying yourselves?” Why would the musicians in the orchestra have been directed to raise their fists – they did so half-heartedly – while echoing Beaty’s recitation of Haitian revolutionary slogans? United we stand? Liberty or death?

Here and there, a couple of songs with appealing melodies and rhythm were sung by Emeline Michel. Although totally irrelevant to the thematic of the composition, they were lovely. She sang them with that throaty, mournful tone all her own, and that was possibly the most authentically Haitian part of the evening.

The orchestral score, played by SymphoNYC was conducted by Paul Haas. The soloists were Wynne Bennett, prepared piano; Haitian singer Emeline Michel; actor Daniel Beaty, speaking; and DBR on violin. Lighting design was by Matthew Richards and video design by Yuki Nakajima.

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Known for fusing his classical music roots with a myriad of soundscapes, Haitian-American artist Daniel Bernard Roumain (DBR) has carved a reputation for himself as a passionately innovative composer, performer, violinist, and band leader. His exploration of musical rhythms and classically-driven sounds is peppered by his own cultural references and vibrant musical imagination. Roumain who holds a doctorate from the University of Michigan began performing professionally as a child and has worked with such diverse artists as Dizzy Gillespie and Two Live Crew, Bill T. Jones, Buglisi/Foreman Dance Company, and Coyote Dancers and has collaborated on new work with performance artist John Fleck, composer Philip Glass, and DJ Spooky.

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Sources:
DRB interview with Robert Wood of the BAM’s Marketing Dept.
NY Times – Allan Kozinn
DBR Music
Newsweek – Malcolm Jones

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Categorised in: featured, musings

1 Response »

  1. hey Jonny,
    This is scheduled to be performed in CT around Lincoln’s birthday
    TM

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