The Gravity of Billy Childs’ Enlightened Souls

The celebration of 50 Years of Black Students at Duke University culminated on October 4, 2013 with the premier of Billy Childs’ composition “Enlightened Souls,” a piece commissioned by Duke Performances. The celebratory mood was heightened by the setting — Baldwin Auditorium — which had reopened just 3 weeks earlier after its magnificent $15-million makeover.

The hall was packed and buzzing with anticipation when Aaron Greenwald, Executive Director of Duke Performances, stepped out to make his introductory remarks. Greenwald acknowledged several African American alumni from the first integrated class who were present in the audience, thanking them and the many black students who followed them for all they have brought to the university, for making Duke a better, richer place.

In the first half of the program, Childs presented works from his repertoire. He took the stage initially with a sextet — a standard jazz configuration of saxophone or flute, piano, bass, drums, and guitar with the highly unusual addition of a concert harp. After one selection, the sextet was joined by a quartet — specifically, the Ying Quartet, an acclaimed ensemble with a long, independent history. For the rest of the evening, Childs’ music emerged as a seamless interplay of the sextet and the quartet.

On the Duke Performances video, Greenwald says, “when you think about a jazz composer and musician who can make an evening-length work that has a kind of gravity [and] dignity, but also a jazz swing to it, Billy Childs is your guy.” Even more so if the evening is about integration, because Childs’ goal is “the organic integration of European classical music and American classical music (jazz).” There was a satisfying parallel to the social integration at Duke, not so much with the musical integration as with the fact that Childs is able to pursue it on his own terms, without generating a lot of commentary about how ambitious he’s being.

After the intermission, vocalist Dianne Reeves joined the instrumentalists to perform “Enlightened Souls,” the commissioned piece. As he explains in the video, Childs realized early in the process that he would need words as well as music in order to “illustrate this moment in history … in dramatic terms.” He chose three poems that trace an arc from anger through determination to acceptance.

The starting point is “The White House” by Claude McKay, a poem that “deals beautifully with the concept of exclusion,” Childs explains.

Your door is shut against my tightened face,
and I am sharp as steel with discontent;

These are the singer’s first lines, and as you can hear in the video, the musical setting is solemn, almost plodding, with Reeves singing in her lowest register, planting each syllable in a thick piano chord. A syncopation on the word “discontent” is picked up by the piano hammering a single, solemn note.

McKay’s slammed door is followed by a vision — “Revolutionary Letter #20” (“for Huey Newton”) by Diane diPrima. “I will not rest,” the poet declares,

till the young women
come into their own, honored & fearless
birthing strong babies
loving & dancing

That “idyllic situation,” according to Childs, called for music with “a certain amount of consonance and beauty.” In a passage shown in the video, the mood is still subdued, but the piano chords are lighter and the strings add some warmth.

The “one thing that can transform all that,” Childs explains, “is love.” The last of the three poems — “This is My Beloved: Entry April 28,” by Walter Benton — is a dark love poem that catalogues a world of woe — “Because hate is legislated written into the primer and the testament shot into / our blood and brain like vaccine or vitamins…” — before it calls for the antidote — “I need love more than hope or money, wisdom or a drink.

There was a marked contrast between the two parts of the program. “Enlightened Souls” was a challenging piece, for the performers as well as the audience. The impressionistic sparkle that bubbled up again and again in the first half was largely absent from the new work. In a kind of wordless cadenza early in the piece, Reeves gave free rein to her tremendous vocal warmth and flexibility. Mostly, though, what was asked of her, and what she delivered, was steady, emphatic deliberation.

After an ovation, Childs and Reeves came back on stage, joined only by bassist Hans Glawischnig — an anchor throughout the program — for an impromptu performance of the standard “I’m Glad There’s You.” As Childs says in the video, “Dianne and I, you know, we go back to, like, 1977 — she’s kind of like a sister to me.” It’s surely no coincidence that the lyric they chose is a perfect expression of mutual admiration.

After the first chorus, Reeves left the microphone and circled behind the pianist, teasing him into a playful dialog (seen at 1:58 in the video, when she says “I’m gonna mess with him now”). For Childs, it was a hopeless situation — he was stuck at the piano, and how can anyone respond to the magnificent voice of Dianne Reeves with a mere piano? There was a knot of thick, bluesy chords — an impressive try — but she was relentless, and it seemed to be a battle he was delighted to lose.

It was an unforgettable moment, and a perfect release.