The history and the make-up of MUSE Cincinnati’s Women Choir have long suggested that the group is in no danger of complacency. And its upcoming fall show “She Don’t Stop” reaffirms this.
Founded in 1984 by a CCM doctoral student in choral conducting, the pursuit of musical excellence is embedded in the choir’s DNA. But that is only half the story.
MUSE is perpetually on the move in response to social issues, community partners, and its own “heart,” which consists of four chambers, or committees, dedicated to working out the details of musical excellence, social justice, organizational operations, and membership.
From early on, the choir has pursued repertoires, collaborations, and performances that embody its robust vision for social justice, peace, and strength in diversity. It has sought first to enrich its members and then to enrich its audiences.
In an effort to better highlight the experiences and voices of women, founding director Catherine Roma set out to commission new works by female composers. This vision then expanded with the New Spirituals movement in the choir’s second decade.
The multi-choir New Spirituals movement, spearheaded by Dr. Roma and Linda Tillery, was an effort to explore and celebrate African-American and Afro-Caribbean music traditions. In the process, more African-American singers were drawn into the choir, and MUSE succeeded in achieving a greater diversity and a fuller representation of its surrounding community.
MUSE is the only remaining choir to carry on the tradition and, this fall, it is bringing New Spirituals back to center stage at Memorial Hall on November 17. After a five-year hiatus, this year’s show “She Don’t Stop” will mark the 14th New Spirituals performance.
Music director Jillian Harrison-Jones says that it’s time to bring the show back, given “all that’s going on in our current justice system,” as well as where we stand as a nation at the moment.
Last year, MUSE commissioned a piece on police brutality by Cincinnati’s own Siri Imani of TRIIIBE, a local collective of hip hop “artivists” promoting positive urban culture. This year, Imani will be featured as a guest artist, layering rap beneath choral melody.
There will be a guest expert to guide the show, which is also in step with the New Spirituals tradition. Dr. Tammy Kernodle, ethnomusicologist at Miami University, will weave an historical account throughout the performance, from Post-Reconstruction Civil Rights to the today, telling the story of pivotal African-American women who have helped shape the narrative, including Harriet Tubman, Nina Simone, and other present-day voices.
Harrison-Jones says the desire “to bring the story alive” is beautifully realized through Dr. Kernodle’s perspective, scholarship, and animated storytelling. It is also realized through the choir’s convincing delivery, which is built through months of background preparation, education, self-enrichment, and discussion.
The MUSE of today is a choir of about 60 women of varied ages, races, ethnicities, musical backgrounds, political interests, and life experiences.
Harrison-Jones says their diversity makes it all the more impressive that members “stand as a united front and sing this music with conviction.” She also expresses gratitude for being able to work with singers who are “open to tackling issues that may not necessarily address their personal story or their culture.”
Of the show’s 14 pieces, four will be new commissioned works by contemporary African-American women composers Jacqueline Hairston, Lori Hicks, and Maria Thompson-Corley.
The pieces being premiered are multi-part choral arrangements of Civil Rights-era gospel and protest songs, including Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam,” “If I Can Help Somebody” (made famous by Mahalia Jackson), and protest song “Strange Fruit” (made famous by Billie Holiday).
In addition to the songs themselves, the show’s format will incorporate elements of gospel and protest traditions by strongly encouraging audience participation on several of the pieces.
“It’s not just about a featured artist, but about all attendees,” says Harrison-Jones regarding the traditions. “[It’s about giving] everyone an opportunity to lift their voices.”
Tickets for the Nov. 17 performances (at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.) of “She Don’t Stop” at Memorial Hall are on sale now.