Artists as Researchers: Brittany J. Green Is Disrupting Classical Composition

Brittany J. Green. Photo by Avonne Photography.

In her 1992 essay collection Black Looks: Race and Representation, bell hooks — a trailblazing Black feminist author who passed away last month — put forth a concept called the “oppositional gaze”: looking as a site of resistance and agency for Black women, whose gazes have long been systematically repressed or outright denied. “There is power in looking,” hooks writes; it is from this act of interrogation that Black women can derive pleasure from systems designed to shut them out.

In the summer of 2020, Brittany J. Green, a Ph.D. student in Duke’s music composition program, found herself drawn to hooks’ theory, wondering: What does it mean to exist in a system while disrupting the system? And what would a sonic interpretation of this moment of rupture sound like?

“I was curious if there was a world in which Black feminist theory would intersect with music,” Green said. “Usually, sonification — the process of translating data into sound — is used as a tool to represent empirical data; I was interested in using it to explore humanities research.”

To do this, Green built a program using Python that, when fed a chord progression, filters out any pitch that is not included in the preceding chord, until it is left with a few notes that repeat endlessly. She added elements that further disrupt and destabilize the harmonic structure until it eventually falls apart, collapsing into a cacophony of sound. Intrigued by the results, Green decided to incorporate them into a piece titled “r_upTure,” which she wrote for an instrumental collective in Baltimore, Maryland called Mind on Fire.

“r_upTure,” commissioned by Mind on Fire. Video features Ayan Felix, MFA in Dance ’21 (dancer) and Ivy Nicole-Jonét, MFA EDA ’22 (videographer).
Brittany J. Green and Jerry Hou, associate conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

“‘r_upTure’ almost feels like a collaboration between myself and the program, because some of the material that appears in the piece is a direct result of the program output,” she said. “But then I’m also adding things or taking them away, heightening the sense of rupture.”

The piece also includes narration by Green, using both quotes from bell hooks’ text and a dramatic reading of the Python program code. “I was interested in the artistry of narration,” she said. “How can you pull artistic interest out of texts that seem mundane, that don’t have overt poetic connotation? It was an unexpected but exciting thing to add.”

Months later, Green enrolled in a course with Professor Yun Emily Wang called “Music and Intersectionality,” where she dove deeper into the concepts of sonification and deconstruction that she had explored with “r_upTure.” She turned to Foucault’s theories on power and resistance: “Where there is power, there is resistance,” Foucault writes, “and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power.”

“What I find so compelling about Brittany’s work is the freedom with which she has been developing her musical language: she amalgamates and synthesizes the thorniest branches of musical modernism, vernacular music of all sorts, algorithmic computer processes, electronic music, improvisation, and field recordings. Moreover, this synthesis involves bracing conceptual armatures that support her pieces and deepen their meaning. The striking, personal music that has emerged in pieces such as “Against/Sharp” and “r_upTure” reveals the rarest of musical minds: one capable of appealing to the intellect while never forgetting that music is made for the ear, for the mind, and for the heart.”

—John Supko, Associate Professor of Music

“I thought about singular notes or small melodic ideas existing in a tight, unrelenting system — and then slowly chipping away at it, slightly changing it but not completely breaking it down,” Green said. “That’s how my piece ‘Against/Sharp’ came about, which I wrote as a final project for that class.”

Through “a series of unexpected and fortunate events,” the score landed in the hands of Jerry Hou, associate conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. In October 2021, Green traveled to Atlanta to record the piece with the orchestra, which also features her narration drawn from theoretical texts. Their performance of “Against/Sharp” will premiere online in January 2022 as part of the ASO’s Concerts for Young People series. It will be featured alongside other pre-produced works that explore social justice issues, including Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings, Op. 11,” Adolphus Hailstork’s “Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed,” and Vijay Iyer’s “For Vincent Chin” from Trouble for violin and chamber orchestra.

Brittany Green narrating “Against/Sharp” with the Atlanta Symphony. Photo by Sarah Pershke Grant.
Photo courtesy Brittany J. Green.

Of course, the significance of the fact that Green has literally created a space for her voice within the Western classical tradition is not lost on her; although strides have been made to diversify classical music programs, Green acknowledged how equally powerful and challenging it is to foreground topics like civil rights in a historically white male-dominated canon. To that end, she decided to not only amplify her own voice in “Against/Sharp,” but the voices of those who can no longer speak for themselves.

“The piece is approximately four minutes and eight seconds long, representing the forty-eight Black women killed by police brutality from 2015 to 2020,” Green said. “I included one second of silence for each trans life lost to police brutality in 2020. Throughout the work, I use accented silences punctuated by sound to explore the idea of breath and what it means to lose your breath.”

Brittany, Kate Alexandrite, and I have a collaborative practice where we show up together and improvise some audio visual experience, usually with invited virtual collaborators. A lot of it so far has been pushing the aesthetics and limits of Zoom to explore how Zoom plays us as instruments. I love creating with Brittany because she’s always bringing in new material for us and imagining big. She’s also an artist who finds a lot of joy in her process, and I think that comes through the work.

Kelsey Brod, Ph.D. student in Computational Media, Arts and Cultures

In addition to her compositional work as a Ph.D. student, Green has served as a graduate mentor for the Franklin Humanities Institute’s Story+ program for the last two years, leading students on the Experiential Archive project and on the Public Art As Public Health: Moving Messages of Dementia Inclusion project. She is also currently the director of the Duke New Music Ensemble [dnme].

“Being an artist-researcher is like a feedback loop — I need both in order to feel completely inspired and fed,” Green shared. “I also feel like art itself is research. It can be a tool that we use to explore and experiment with ideas, which is what drew me toward bridging those gaps in the first place. And, ultimately, there are so many opportunities for interdisciplinary work at Duke.”

Nina Wilder is a 2020 Duke English graduate from Raleigh, N.C. and the current arts administration fellow at Duke Arts. As a student, she was the editor of The Chronicle’s arts & culture section, Recess.