Music in Your Gardens: Q&A, Shirlette Ammons

This article was originally published on the Duke Performances blog

This summer, we’re proud to present Music in Your Gardens, a free eight-week online concert series showcasing nationally renowned artists who call Durham and the surrounding area home. The series shifts Duke Performances’ longtime summer series, Music in the Gardens, normally held outdoors at Sarah P. Duke Gardens on Duke’s campus, to an online format.

This Wednesday, July 15, we continue the series with Shirlette Ammons. The pre-recorded performance will be viewable at 7 PM ET online, free of charge, on our website and on our YouTube page.

Each week, in advance of these performances, Duke Performances’ Michaela Dwyer — and this week, DP intern Caroline Waring — “sit down” over email to chat with each artist.

We encourage you to check Duke Performances’ blog to read previous Q&As with artists participating in our spring 2020 livestream series. We also invite you to explore or contribute to Duke Arts’ “Arts & Artists Are Essential” collection of voices, opportunities, and offerings, or you can subscribe to receive weekly updates.

You’re a multidisciplinary storyteller, working across music, poetry, documentary, education. I’m thinking of that old, oft-repeated Joan Didion quote: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” How are stories — listening to others’, telling or retelling your own — functioning for you during a period that requires such deep attention to survival and sustenance?

Well, I think stories are still doing what they inherently do, which is to chronicle and preserve our moments. That effort feels way more palpable right now, especially as time itself feels both slippery and redundant. I’ve been at home making music digitally, which has allowed me to think about time in loops. That feels extremely relevant. Sometimes this pandemic makes the days feel like I’m looking for a breakbeat, while the systemic brutality against Black lives feels like a broken record. It’s pretty hard to reconcile, but the juxtaposition isn’t new. There seems to be a metaphor right now in the way some folks are just waking up to the systemic violence that Black people have historically and continue to experience in this country while a pandemic requires we revisit our stories, and, by association, our rituals around the telling of these stories. There’s a bit of a cleansing that happens. I think we’re inviting a new cadence and a reckoning with the stories we tell as related to our very survival. I’m into it. It’s time.

You’re originally from Beautancus, in southeastern North Carolina. You’ve made music here and abroad, toured Europe and elsewhere as an artist and educator, traversed the Southern United States to work on PBS’ Somewhere South program. How are you staying connected to place right now? What places do you miss?

Well, I’m realizing more and more how “place” is as much a collection of memories as it is a physical destination. I’m grateful for the ability to see “place” as such, because, frankly, it’s an important vantage point to be able to access when our physical mobility is limited. I love when your routines are interrupted and your norms impaired, [and] memories come in handy.

My momma and stepdad live in Beulaville, NC and I went down there to have a socially distant breakfast with them at a local fast food restaurant this weekend. I don’t “miss” Beulaville, but I did feel a heightened awareness of what I dig so much about country towns and backroads and open landscapes and the pace I associate with places like eastern North Carolina. The pace of Berlin, on the other hand, is brisk and fresh in a way that’s completely different from my small-town upbringing. Being there and in Serbia taught me that I can exist anywhere, which was a big deal. Some of the places we visited during Somewhere South introduced me to people and places that I never thought of as part of this region’s story. I think I stay connected to place by trying to embody the traits of that place that resonated with me and then putting it all together so that I can create an “inner-place” of my own.

I love how your music helps us think about concept — not as an obscured but predominating idea, but as specific material reference that both expands and serves as a thematic anchor for the artwork. Twilight for Gladys Bentley is a hip-hop re-imagining of the Harlem Renaissance lesbian blues artist’s life; Language Barrier deconstructs the borders between musical genres through collaborative exchange, even reciprocal teaching. How do you relate to concept in your work? How do you think about interweaving the personal and the conceptual?

Well, if creativity was an equation, I think the personal and the conceptual would be its variables. I love the idea of “re-imagining.” Unfortunately, there’s not much written about the life of Gladys Bentley, so in order to write Twilight, I had to do quite a bit of re-imagining. But the cool part is that I wasn’t just making shit up. My goal was to build on the little I was able to find performance videos, articles, essays and then place Gladys in a contemporary context. By doing so, I chose to “interpret” her story rather than compose her biography. It offered me quite a bit of creative freedom. Similarly, with Language Barrier, the concept precluded the actual creation of the record. I wrote most of it but sought other voices to “break” the barriers between genre, gender, and geography. With Spectacles, the new record I’ve been working on, I’m aiming to take power from the proverbial “white gaze” and place that power in the hands of the recipients of that gaze (in this case Black and queer people explicitly). Each side of the album begins with a curated selection of Black people talking about what “spectacle” means to them. I have an identical twin (Shorlette) so I asked her, my niece (Anansi, her daughter), poet Fred Moten, chef and activist Tunde Wey, musician Mykki Blanco, Sista Docta Alexis Pauline Gumbs, drag queen royalty Vivica C. Coxx, and South African musician DJ Doowap. Their perspectives are really a canvas for the larger exploration of spectacle in the songs on this record.

You performed in Naama Tsabar’s Composition 21 at the Nasher Museum of Art in fall 2019. Seeing the spatial arrangement of the performance — with 23 local women & nonbinary musicians standing atop giant amplifiers — felt moving to me in its reinvention of monumentality, of who we see made iconic and celebrated. I’m curious whether and how that particular performance informed your performance practice, your relation to audience — and also how you’re thinking about performance in a present and future that feels so unprecedented.

After that performance, I told anybody who would listen that the way I think about sound had been completely uprooted. Naama has amazing vision. She and that assembly of beautiful musicians taught me to give sound its own anatomy. Sound can be separated into various parts with different points of incision; it can be carried, quite literally, by the anatomy of other beings (as exhibited by the audience weaving through the composition) and it has way more access to us than we do to ourselves. And in terms of the monumentality, we’re watching Confederate structures being toppled as we speak, and new monuments being erected (like the mural project on Durham businesses that honors Black Lives) that have a different relationship with permanence and social resonance. I’m excited about this moment where we’re rethinking and reclaiming both public and private performance. Maybe because of the way this coronavirus has removed the debris and distractions that impair our ability to look deeply at ourselves, I think we’re holding our private and public performances to similar degrees of accountability. It’s not that “what’s done in the dark will come to the light.” It’s that the dark and the light are the same.

An intentionally open-ended question I’m asking of all the artists participating in this series: What’s next?

Well, I’m spending quite a bit of time trying to figure out what the word “next” even means! I still have this record to finish up and I’m seeking label support for that. I’m excited about collaborating with a bunch of folks whose work I respect across various mediums. Speaking of collaboration, my partner and I were supposed to be married in May of this year, but postponed until next year because of COVID, so I’m very much looking forward to that.

“Next” for me means upcoming and unfolding, so I’m looking forward to activating that definition in every possible, positive way.

Duke Performances presents Music in Your Gardens in collaboration with Duke Arts, WXDU, Sarah P. Duke Gardens, Duke Continuing Studies, and Duke Summer Session. Hospitality partners include The Palace International and Locopops.