NOCCO’s Feb. 18-19 concerts will feature a work by local composer Hanna Benn; works by Davida Ingram, Alex Guy and Rick Benjamin, rooted in Scott Joplin’s opera, “Treemonisha”; and works by Alvin Singleton and George Walker.
It is the very subject of “Resonance,” North Corner Chamber Orchestra’s concert “Celebrating Black American Composers,” that left Seattle-based composer Hanna Benn, 29, in a bit of quandary. As much as she was delighted to work with one of the world’s few conductorless chamber orchestras, her commission to honor black American composers left her pondering the fact that she is biracial, and does not see herself as either black or white.
“For the last couple of years, I’ve been trying to understand where I come from, and my responsibility as a biracial person,” she explained by phone and email. “I want to completely embrace my blackness / my whiteness.”
When Benn was growing up in the Midwest, she often found herself presented with forms that asked her to declare whether she was black or white. “I don’t fit in either box,” she thought. “Sometimes I checked black, and sometimes white. Now I can check ‘other,’ but when I do, I feel transparent, like a ghost. I’m trying to find a true name for who I am as Hanna Benn, a biracial woman.”
North Corner Chamber Orchestra: ‘Resonance: Celebrating Black American Composers’
2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18, New Holly Gathering Hall, 7054 32nd Ave S., Seattle, and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 19, Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, 104 17th Ave. S., Seattle; $15-25 (nocco.org).
Thus was birthed “Sankofa,” which Benn describes as a 20-minute, six-movement “reflection, a meditation in understanding and self-love, a love poem to self.” Sankofa, in the Twi language of Ghana, translates as “go back and get it.” Benn suggests that its broader meaning is, “We must go back and reclaim our past so we can move forward.”
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“I keep saying that this piece is about identification and about processing ‘black’ and ‘white,’ but it’s more about me processing what ‘other’ means,” she muses.
Although Benn impresses as anything but angry — she says she is quite content with who she is — her inspiration for ‘Sankofa’ came, in part, from a passage from James Baldwin’s essay, “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation.”
The work is dedicated to Philippa Schuyler (1931-1967), a mixed-race child prodigy who began composing at age 5, and died while serving as a war correspondent during the Vietnam War. Other inspirations include Florence Price and Julia Perry. Moroccan percussion group Argan joins NOCCO in the final movement, and Benn lends her singing voice.
The program also includes works by composer/artist Davida Ingram, Alex Guy and Rick Benjamin, all of which are rooted in Scott Joplin’s opera, “Treemonisha.” It concludes with Alvin Singleton’s “Eine Idee ist ein Stück Stoff” (“An Idea is a Piece of Fabric”) and Pulitzer Prize winner George Walker’s “Orpheus” for chamber orchestra and narrator.
According to Victoria Parker, one of the founders of NOCCO, the Walker is a complete challenge to play without a conductor. “This is the first time we’ve done multimedia along with music,” she says.
“I’m NOCCO’s leader, and typically run the rehearsals with lots of input. If we can’t reach consensus, I collect everyone’s ideas, guide and direct.”
NOCCO, now in its third season, was formed by professional area musicians who want to experience, in Parker’s words, the same “magical, amazing feeling of complete unity, beauty and utopic magic among like-minded musicians” that they achieve when playing chamber music. “North Corner signifies where all our minds and hearts come together over our group as we’re playing. Way above our group there’s this special spot where we all rise and connect.”