By Kate Kight
Washington DC (The Hollywood Times) 3/4/18 – Elizabeth Alexander and Jason Moran offered audiences a masterclass in listening at Georgetown University. Their performance and discussion ranged from the soundtrack of a summer night in DC in the 70s to questioning the types truth contained in recorded music.
Ms. Alexander is a Harlem-born and Washington, DC-raised poet, essayist, and playwright. Having written and delivered “Praise Song for the Day” at the first inauguration of President Barack Obama, Ms. Alexander is one of the few American poet’s whose poems have been heard and not seen by many. “I wrote them, but they are outside of me now”, she said, regarding the poems she performs. This theme of art outside the artists, as extending from but not owned by the artist, wove throughout her discussion with Mr. Moran. He came prepared with recordings, not of his own music but of spoken word and music that he wanted to share with Ms. Alexander and with the audience. As we listened, performances and audiences together, it felt both as if were students in their classroom and welcomed guests in their living room.
On the last day of black history month, in a city rich with history of black artistic excellence but overcast with the long shadow of white supremacy, this performance evoked and provoked us to examine on the many ways art reflects where we are as a society. Their join performance of “blessing the boats” (a poem written by Lucille Clifton, with music later composed by Alicia Hall Moran, Mr. Moran’s wife) was an example that truth or meaning is not a monolithic or static concept, but a dynamic and multifaceted concept that can’t be pinned down by a reviewer or a recording.
In response to a question about the difference between poetry and music, Mr. Moran said, “The way to understand it is to blur the lines so you can pull each out and examine it”. In combining their art, their truths, and their meanings, we were privileged to have the opportunity to reflect on each individual component, to examine it and, in some small way, to take ownership of what had been gifted to the audience, to make it a part of our truths for the evening.
Mr. Moran and Ms. Alexander unite music and words beyond performance, they find the underlying souls of their art and set them to dance. Like the movement of distant stars, you could spend a lifetime studying the principles that guide them, but you don’t need a Ph.D. to appreciate their beauty.
Of course, we hunger to know the why. In all great things, we desire to know if there is a purpose and a promise of an end goal. Music and poetry, in their elevated inscrutability sometimes seem a cipher to these fundamental questions.
But perhaps these intersections of art, of carefully captured rapture, don’t reflect a why but the distilled voices of all of our questionings.
At the end of evening, Ms. Alexander posed this question, a response to a question about the state of arts education in America: “What does it mean that black poetry is being recognized as the finest poetry in America right now? “
Black excellence has been a part of DC, and America, since long before Hamilton wrote his first refrain. The systemic forces of injustice that ignored and marginalized it are, here and there, being pushed away to make space for the long overdue acknowledgment and appreciation of black excellence, of black artistry.
Ms. Alexander says that she listens “the ancestral voices that come”. What will come, if all of us chose to listen more?
By Kate Kight