Classical compositions come — and then go — with surprising frequency these days, with new commissions premiering regularly on the programs of orchestras, opera companies and string quartets.
Pieces arrive with great fanfare, only to disappear forever after their debut. Some very good works are never heard again.
But composer Tyshawn Sorey’s “Cycles of My Being” is beating the odds. The six-part song cycle for tenor voice with piano accompaniment debuted in February 2018, and has only gained momentum, with encore performances taking place in cities large and small across the United States.
Much of that success has to do with its singer, and champion, Lawrence Brownlee, who also commissioned the work and had a hand in its creation. He performs the cycle in Denver on March 4, part of a program of art songs presented by Friends of Chamber Music at the Newman Center for the Performing Arts.
Brownlee is a major figure in the opera field, a rare singer who manages to sustain a formal career with lead roles in staged operas by Rossini and other masters, while simultaneously wowing audiences at smaller, solo concerts. His star power lands bookings for the song cycle and sells tickets.
The success of “Cycles of My Being,” though, has more to do with its subject matter. The piece is meant to relay to audiences the psychic realities of what it is like to be a black man in America in the 21st century. It’s raw and full of purpose, fueled by current events and unrelenting social anxiety. It’s also quite poetic, with a text penned by Terrance Hayes, with significant contributions from Brownlee himself.
Hayes, Sorey and Brownlee are all black men, and that is relevant.
Brownlee said he watched with growing concern over the past few years as incidents of brutality against African-Americans sparked violence and backlash. “Freddie Gray and Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin, and so many other people, so many other people,” he said in an interview last week.
“You think about them as a black man,” he said. “You sit there and you think, ‘My gosh, this could be me, or my cousin, or a friend of mine, or someone close to me.’”
The situation was, he said, overwhelming for a time.
“It’s just like we’re talking about the coronavirus today — but that was the pandemic. That was the thing that was everywhere. You saw it in California, you saw it in Baltimore, you saw all over New York City.”
He decided to respond in song, recruiting his composer and lyricist to create the cycle. The goal wasn’t to rehash the violence, but to acknowledge it as part of the everyday existence of black men and to discuss how that feels.
“We want to deliver this message that is raw, that is straight in your face, but in a way that people can digest it. You know, some things you just kind of have to let out.”
Not much is held back, starting with the opening section, titled “Inhale, Exhale,” which frames the discussion of race in stark terms.
“America, I hear you hiss and stare”
“Do you love the air in me, as I love the air in you?”
It’s a rhetorical question that gets at the essence of humanity. We all breathe the same air, yet we focus on the things that make us different, particularly race. “Cycles of My Being” dives into how that manifests into separation, oppression.
The fourth section is titled “Hate:”
Hate takes on many shapes.
It is subtle, overt, passive, often wrapped in disguise.
Hate wears white sheets, black suits, high heels, and boots.
Hate is powerful, all encompassing, and enrapturing.”
But the piece is mostly rendered in first-person, and via the persuasive voice of a performer who has been praised equally as both a singer and actor. That ups its authority and intimacy and can make it difficult to hear.
“Cycles of My Being” takes a classical music form — it’s written for piano and tenor — though it borrows heavily from other musical traditions, jazz for one, but also gospel, especially the section titled “Whirlwind,” where the singer addresses God directly.
“It sounds like an improvisation where there’s a lot of freedom in how I express it, which is reflective of how you hear something in church on Sunday,” Brownlee said.
Sorey’s score takes its time letting things unravel; it’s paced and deliberate, and direct in the way it carries these sometimes troubling inner thoughts. “You absolutely feel pain and you absolutely feel tension,” Brownlee said. “You feel an unrest, an unsteadiness, an unevenness, and that was intentional.”
That said, it has moments of uplift. The final section is titled “Each Day I Rise, I Know,” and that’s meant to inspire some hope, a recognition that, for black men, these can be troubled times, but that there are still things to be thankful for. The text keeps that notion real, rather than letting it fall into some happy-ending cliché.
“I have something to praise
Sunbreak toothpaste hair glaze
Mirror gaze a flute of blue jays
Moaning, amazing & misbehaving
Each day I rise, I know.”
“We talk about hope, we talk about love, we talk about something to be thankful for,” said Brownlee, who acknowledges the influence of Maya Angelou in the words.
Interestingly, “Cycles of My Being” holds its discussion of blackness with mostly white audiences. It plays to the opera crowd, which is not known for its diversity. One recent performance took place in Provo, Utah, before an audience that was “99.9 percent Caucasian,” as Brownlee puts it.
But that’s an opportunity, he believes, to share these honest thoughts with people who don’t have opportunities to hear them — at least, perhaps, not in person and not so productively. The listeners were rapt in Provo, he said, and the event provoked rich discussions.
Brownlee is on a personal mission to diversify audiences in opera. He serves as an ambassador for the field, introducing it to new consumers through smaller concerts, often partnering with local groups that serve non-opera-going constituents.
He also has a pitch to opera companies about doing their part to lure new faces. That is part programming and part marketing — making sure publicity and ticketing materials include the faces of people of color.
“If they see diversity, then people will be more likely to say, ‘Hey, even though I didn’t really know about it, perhaps I’m likely to go and support it.’ And then perhaps that person who had never been exposed to it could fall in love with an art form that they never thought they would.”
He’d like to see that happen, and from his own unique perspective on stage, as a black performer in a music field where racial diversity remains rare.
“I say it’s important to see an artist who looks like me on the stage,” he said. “It would be equally wonderful if I could look out at the audience and see people who look like me.”