The half-hour work, in 12 short sections, evokes a variety of today’s post-minimalist and hipster compositional trends (including many of the same gestures we’d heard before intermission in Lang’s “Passion”). There are countless pieces that set the soaring speeches and sermons of Dr. King to music. Gilligan went further afield and nearer in time, adding texts by John Lewis, Alice Walker, Jimmy Carter and even a Stacey Abrams quote from her 2018 gubernatorial “non-concession” speech: “These votes are our voices. We are each entitled to our choices.”
“Southern Dissonances” opens with Langston Hughes (who was not from Georgia) and the potent rhetoric of “What happens to a dream deferred?” The words are poetic, the meaning is specific, but the music is slight. The next section, “We shall not be moved,” is based on a song that the Selma-to-Montgomery marchers sang in 1965 as they crossed the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge. Lovely, tangy harmonies created attractive moments which were curiously at odds with the text.
The composer assigns a distinct percussion accompaniment to each section. “We shall not be moved” is backed by a loose, thumping bongo beat which also felt disconnected to the words. That became a pattern across “Southern Dissonances.” Another Stacey Abrams section, “A Loophole for suppression,” was up against the marimba. Rather than complementing the language and underscoring the ideas, here the percussion competes for our attention.
Drawn from a 1979 Jimmy Carter speech, “Malignant malaise” featured a cello bow dragged across tiny cymbals. Why? Then, at the end, the line “We respected the presidency as a place of honor...” is paired with an assertive snare drum, a clichéd evocation of The President’s Own military band. But when Carter’s sentence finishes with “. . . until the shock of Watergate” the bowed cymbals for some reason returns.
A long poem by Alice Walker, “You want to grow old like the Carters,” starts with the tick-tock of the woodblock, perhaps suggesting the marching of time and the inevitability of old age. So far so good. But then the marimba muscles in, interfering with our understanding of the poem. Percussionist Herron is a first-class musician, and he wasn’t drowning out the quartet of singers with loud volume or aggressive mallet technique. It’s that Gilligan’s percussion parts distract our ears as to what the poem is about. For the vocal writing, instead of adding insights or fresh perspectives on the poem, her prosody pushes aside the music that is already built into Walker’s own poetic voice.
Elsewhere, Gilligan’s vocal writing can be clear and lovely, and the singers could mesh and play off each other with ear-catching directness. The highlight of the piece, and a sign of the composer’s talent, came in a very short a cappella section with another Stacey Abrams quote, “You cannot have those things you refuse to dream of.” Tense, effective and alert to the rises and falls in the syllables, her setting made you pay attention to every word. Although Gilligan’s compositional voice is not especially original, her music often bursts with energy and light. She’s still finding her way.
Working closely with the American Press Institute, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is embarking on an experiment to identify, nurture and expand a network of news partnerships across metro Atlanta and the state.
Our newest partner, ArtsATL (www.artsatl.org), is a nonprofit organization that plays a critical role in educating and informing audiences about metro Atlanta’s arts and culture. Founded in 2009, ArtsATL’s goal is to help build a sustainable arts community contributing to the economic and cultural health of the city.
Over the next several weeks, we’ll be introducing more partners, and we’d love to hear your feedback.
You can reach Managing Editor Mark A. Waligore via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.