- Reading time
- 7 min.
Somewhere in the complex counterpoint running through Richard Powers’ novel, The Time of Our Singing – in which voices of the social justice movement in 20th-century America interweave with a time-hopping polyphony of musical references over a pedal in physics - there is a reckoning with mixedness.
We first encounter this device in the multi-ethnic marriage of African American, Delia Daley, and German, David Strom – an expression of love and choice. But at the genetic level where choice can play no role, we observe that their three children experience mixedness as dual identity at best, and at worst as contradiction. Theirs is a story of how these intrinsic tensions manifest, and can be addressed or sometimes even be resolved, and for Powers, this transformation is played out, frequently through family conflict, occasionally through music, but ultimately and always, in time.
When I was invited to conduct the world premiere of a new musical theatre work based on this material, in an unusual move for me, I decided to read the book and research its historical background before learning the score. My preference is usually for the reverse, but the episodic nature of the opera – which imperatively omits parts of the full narrative – makes an understanding of its scope essential at the outset.
Having been schooled first in Trinidad and Tobago and then in England, I was more familiar with the history of British and Spanish colonisation and the First and Second World Wars than with the history of what would become the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. I had had media exposure to the 1992 Rodney King riots in real time, but the 1943 riots in Detroit and Harlem, the 1955 murder of Emmet Till, the 1965 unrest in Watts, L.A., and other such events punctuating Powers’ timeline, were in anything but sharp focus for me. Ironically, I had begun the novel just as the George Floyd protests were gaining momentum in Minneapolis; and though this illuminated the ongoing relevance of the subject matter of the opera, it wasn’t the only factor that contributed to what would become a very intense and personal reading experience for me.
In some ways my childhood environment was very similar to that of the Daley/Strom home, not on account of a multi-ethnic union at its core, but rather because, despite strongly polarising post-colonial forces in Caribbean society, and tensions between the descendants of Africans, Indians, and Europeans who had made their way to the islands, I was essentially raised “beyond race”. My sister and I were, of course, aware of worldwide ethnic division and injustice, but we were also protected from programming and allowed to focus on our own wonderful experience of growing up in the cultural melting pot of the 1980s Caribbean.
Coincidentally, very much like the Strom clan, my family actively supported eclecticism in musical taste, to the extent that while I had weekly lessons in classical piano and violin, I also listened to jazz, pop, and Indian music from my parents' collection, and occasionally even wrote calypsos with my sister, who performed them in school competitions. Good times!
I was particularly fascinated that the Strom boys’ experience at their musically oriented boarding school so closely mirrored my own in England. Like them, I was isolated by ethnicity within the school population but also singled out for my instrumental ability and as a preferred team member for the games of Guess the Composer, which Powers describes as an engine of status among Jonah and Joey’s schoolmates. This was wonderful, since, having started off at a ‘normal’ sport-centric school in Trinidad, a ‘special’ school where classmates would be more likely “to beat the shit out of you if you couldn’t sing”, as Powers quips, was heaven sent for me, a boy who wanted nothing more than a career in music – as a conductor.
And yet, despite the many anecdotal parallels between the novel’s characters and myself, culminating in my own multi-ethnic relationship and the revelation that one of the Strom children names her son Kwame, what resonated with me most were their differing and sometimes dissonant ideas about identity: its source and seat in the context of their ‘mixed up’ lives.
… only thing you’re identical to is yourself…
For the story’s oldest generation, personified by Delia’s father, identity must primarily manifest in an awareness of race; and although Delia and David have raised their children to identify as whoever they believed themselves to be, their mixed ethnicity blurs any easy lines, especially in a culture where ‘one drop’ of blood away from white is perceived as black by default. Against the backdrop of these tidal norms and an opposing family tradition, Jonah, Ruth, and Joey end up as spectrally scattered in identity as they are in skin tone, their final positions reflected in the narrative as much by what they say, as by the music they make!
Jonah chooses opera and early vocal music and fulfils his destiny performing on the world’s most prestigious stages. Ruth marries a Black Panther and raises a son who ends up in hip hop, while Joey becomes a casual piano entertainer, then a teacher, embracing everything from Purcell to the jazz standards via Schubert. From within the sibling tension that ensues, Powers' characters often suggest and question which music legitimately ‘belongs’ to whom, and indeed, what one’s choice of music – in the listening or in the making – even means.
In my case, having chosen classical music at an early age, (despite growing up in the birthplace of steelpan and the mecca of calypso), it was inevitable that this supposed ‘dilemma’ of ownership would be broached:
“So, you like classical music?
That’s not your music!
Where are you from?”
The notion that musical mixedness could allow both the classical and steel orchestras to be, what Powers calls – “lease, deed and eminent domain” for me, occurred to fewer in my orbit than I would have liked. From my point of view, this mixedness was entirely natural, and in fact extended beyond pure music to language, which, as a form of ‘vocal music’ also carries great potential to express identity. After as many years in France as I have lived in Trinidad, and twice as many in Germany, I can, without hesitation, attest to that!
And yet, even as a citizen of the world, like the Strom children, I too have experienced the suggestive gravitational pull of more common identity-conventions such as nationality, or indeed, the fraction of the genome that determines colour, but have always found my own identification in returning to my thoughts, beliefs, actions, and yes... my music. Not just the music I listen to or make; but the music of what I say, and how I say it – the frequencies at which I vibrate. As Jonah puts it: “[…] Identity? Identical to what? Only thing you’re identical to is yourself. And that only on good days.”
And this is why, for me, the translation of this novel into musical theatre was so self-evidently essential: Because where ‘descriptions’ and ‘definitions’ of music can sometimes seem esoteric and hermetic, the same music made audible, ultimately transcends all perimeters. It belongs to nobody and everybody. In creating a score that embraces the acoustic and the electric, the old and the new, the organised and the aleatoric, composer Kris Defoort has made the spectral but unique nature of identity audible, and invites you, as audience, to simply respond wherever you discover your vibrational wavelength.
While versed listeners may catch fleeting, or even extended musical quotes illustrating works mentioned in the novel, more fascinating, in my opinion, is the way broader musical genres or even playing styles are ‘pulled’ like meta-registers on an emotional organ, to reveal or amplify characters’ deeper feelings or points of view. And, as on an organ, these registers, powered by a jazz-enriched classical ensemble, are often deployed in simultaneous layers, portraying the protagonists’ easy command of music, and the rich complexity and occasional dissonance of their contrapuntal ideologies. Where an optimistic impressionism intersects the heavier portent of Wagner and a rocking Bowie meets Bach, we are witness to a continuum, an invisible timeline connecting wavelengths, seemingly light years apart.
On his deathbed, David Strom, a physicist by profession, leaves a cryptic message about this very concept for his absent daughter Ruth – a moment which has found its way into the opera in what I find to be a most moving rendition:
“Tell her:” he says, “There’s another wavelength everyplace you point your telescope.”
Wavelengths of light create what we call ‘colour’; and wavelengths of sound create what we call ‘pitch’. In physics as in life, the mixedness of their spectra can be split by intervention or by accident, but ultimately, they are unified in nature, in the universe, and in time.