Abels: At War With Ourselves

“I’ve said before that I want to create bulletproof music.”

Kronos Quartet; photo: 2013©Jay Blakesberg

And so David Harrington, founder and artistic director of the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet, shares his vision into the ensemble’s latest commissioned work — At War With Ourselves. Composed by Michael Abels, the evening-length work is scored for narrator, string quartet and chorus, and features texts by award-winning poet Nikky Finney. Finney will also serve as narrator when she joins Kronos – along with the Austin-based choral group Inversion Ensemble – led by conductor Valérie Sainte-Agathe. The premiere takes place on November 19 at the University of Texas’ McCullough Theatre. The project was created in partnership with:The Texas Performing Arts at the University of Texas at Austin; ASU Gammage at Arizona State University; the University of Iowa’s Hancher Auditorium; The Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; SFJAZZ, and The University of South Carolina.

Nikky Finney; photo: Forrest Clonts

At War With Ourselves — described as a rhapsodic modern day paean spun from the skin of history — is a contemporary and timely look at race relations intertwined into the fabric of American history. Harrington continues. “One night in 2011, I was watching the National Book Awards, and they were honoring the winner of the poetry award, Nikky Finney…I had never heard of Nikky. I was all by myself watching her acceptance speech, just weeping…[She paid homage to] ‘the ones who longed to read and write, but were forbidden, who lost hands and feet, were killed, by laws written by men who believed they owned other men…If my name is ever called out, I promised my girl-poet self, so too would I call out theirs.’” That evening made a lasting impression on Harrington, so when Kronos was approached by the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center to create a work commemorating the 150 anniversary of the end of the Civil War, Harrington immediately thought of Finney.

Finney notes, “David Harrington got in touch with me, and ‘The Battle of and for the Black Face Boy’ (2013) was made out of our residency [in] Maryland…This first version was so long but also deeply cinematic…as I wrote, I kept falling into this desire to speak in long, punctuated waves about neglected and profound American history. My history. I wanted to catch and ride the electricity that was and is the African American presence in America for 400 years….” For this new project with Kronos and Michael Abels, Finney says she “needed [to compress] all of that energy,” and the resulting smaller, reimagined poem became “At War With Ourselves – 400 Years of You.”

“The poem is only a single page long,” Abels shares. “[I thought] ‘How do I turn this into a complete song cycle?’ I broke down the lines and found the rhythm of Nikky’s language, and in doing so, I found myself turning to Google to learn about the references in her lines about ‘traffic lights’ and ‘ironing boards’ to find elements of Black American history I didn’t know before.” As he studied the poem, each line informed Abels’ writing in a way that represented each idea. “It incorporates Dixieland and Jimi Hendrix, and I was especially drawn to the sounds of The Great American Songbook coming out of Broadway, Hollywood, and the music writers of
Tin Pan Alley in the 20th Century.” He continues. “…I feel the piece is rooted in hope and change. Looking directly at [the past] 400 years is an uncomfortable conversation, but necessary if we ever expect this nation to heal.” At War With Ourselves receives a subsequent performance on November 20.