A Standing Witness chronicles 50 years of American history— and explores its identity today
BY ADELE OLIVEIRA
Santa Fe New Mexican
A Standing Witness chronicles 50 years of American history By Adele Oliveira What happens when three of the country’s most celebrated public artists combine forces? In the case of Grammy Award–winning composer Richard Danielpour, former U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Rita Dove, and mezzo-soprano and Grammy winner Susan Graham, the answer is A Standing Witness. The hourlong chamber music song cycle compresses the last 50 years of American history into 15 movements, beginning in the tumultuous late 1960s and extending through roughly 2020, including the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement. At once bold and tender, necessarily political and personal, A Standing Witness asks who Americans are in this cultural moment while describing how we arrived here. For all of its sweep-of-history grandeur and epic arias, A Standing Witness is deeply human too. The creators premiered the work in Chicago and have performed it across the U.S., including at the John F. Kennedy Center. Performance Santa Fe brings the monumental collaboration to Santa Fe on Thursday, Feb. 16, at 7:30 p.m., as part of the Art + Sol Festival. Copland House, a nonprofit named for composer Aaron Copland and based at his former residence, is the producer of A Standing Witness. Michael Boriskin, Danielpour’s longtime collaborator, Copland House’s artistic and executive director, and now A Standing Witness pianist, says the project was a natural fit for an organization tasked with nurturing American musical heritage. “It’s not simply about American music, but American literature and American history,” Boriskin says. “A project like this speaks to us institutionally as performers and, we’re finding, to audiences as well.” The performance flows from a prologue into 13 testimonies and an epilogue. The third testimony, which reflects on the war in Vietnam, Muhammed Ali refusing to enlist, and the bombing of Cambodia — across 19 spare, elegant lines — begins like this: Butterfly, butterfly on the wall Can’t you hear your country call? Black man’s got no business being both pretty and bold — with a right hook as swift as his banter, his feet a flurry of insults, disguised as dance. “In our current climate, it can feel funny to be a white woman singing these words,” says Graham, a part-time Santa Fe resident. “But I remind myself that these words were written by a Black woman and that I’m a vehicle for her voice.” In a production featuring such heavyweights in their respective fields, it could have been difficult to strike a balance between instruments, text, and song, but Boriskin says that synergy happens in A Standing Witness. “For music and words to meet on the same level is a real challenge for a composer and an accomplishment when it happens, because then each becomes part of the other, and each works to support and amplify the other.” The production also highlights the work of musicians from the Music from Copland House Ensemble, whom Boriskin calls “remarkable performers and remarkable artists in their own rights.” The monodrama was set to premiere during the summer of 2020 but was canceled along with everything else. Although this was disappointing for many reasons, the forced break led to evolution, including adding a movement about the pandemic itself at Graham and Dove’s particular urgings. Because A Standing Witness conveys urgency, both a warning and a lament about just how bad things can get, the pandemic section blends with the rest of the work. Personal connections to global events made A Standing Witness more relevant for its creators. For his part, Danielpour remembers “the moment I got scared.” It was before the pandemic, during the Trump presidency. Danielpour was already writing A Standing Witness while teaching a master class in Tuscany, where he was staying at a friend’s house. One afternoon, browsing the house’s library, he came upon American journalist William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, first published in 1960. “When I read those first 300 pages, I realized every single thing Goebbels and Hitler did in the late ’20s to form what became the National Socialist Party in Germany was identical to what the Trump administration was doing,” Danielpour says. “From the delegitimization of the media to the packing of the courts to the constant bombardment with lies. When I read those pages, it sent chills down my spine, and I gave Rita the template of what each song would be. Then she had the idea of calling them testimonies.” These testimonies were also published in Dove’s 2021 poetry collection Playlist for the Apocalypse. Memory, Danielpour says, is the primary component of A Standing Witness, both its raison d’être and its content. He, Graham, Dove, and Boriskin are roughly the same age, all born in the 1950s. Their memories of historic moments lend them a shared vernacular: “Where were you when this happened?” comparisons that quickly identify them as generational peers, even if they experienced these events (like the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, or 9/11) from vastly different identities and perspectives (Dove, a Black woman; Graham, the descendent of Anglo pioneers; Danielpour, the son of Persian Jewish immigrants). “Rita’s often spoken about history having been written by and for people who didn’t look like her,” Boriskin says. “So I think there’s no way around the fact that there’s a social and political element to all of this.” “Remembering the things that one cares about is the first step toward being able to compose a cycle like this,” Danielpour says. “In some ways, we’ve grown as a country, but we’ve also taken a couple steps backward, particularly very recently. A lot of people say to me, in the most crass and thoughtless way, ‘So, you’re a political composer.’ They don’t understand that I’m interested in human beings. However, there comes a point where a political issue crosses a line and becomes a humanitarian issue. That’s where you’ll find me.” Like Danielpour, Graham doesn’t consider herself a political artist; nor does she consider A Standing Witness tobea partisan work. She sang twice during President George W. Bush’s second administration, at the inauguration and at a state dinner (Graham grew up in Midland, Texas, where Bush lived for a time as a child), but she also sang at Democratic senator Ted Kennedy’s funeral. “It was at a time when things were not as vitriolic and polarized,” Graham says. “I could never have dreamed of the difficulty of being an American now, even 10 years ago.” A Standing Witness is the first time Danielpour has composed for Graham, though the two have been professionally familiar for decades. They first met to discuss the project over lunch in Los Angeles several years ago. “Richard and I are about the same age. We remember the massive ways our country has changed, the traumas it’s been through,” Graham says of the meeting. “He was telling me about the piece when he said, ‘I want to call it A Standing Witness, because it’s one entity’s observation of everything that has happened. Do you know who it is?’” “She’s eating a hamburger,” Danielpour says in his own recollection of the meeting, “and she just burst into tears and said, ‘Oh, wow, is it the Statue of Liberty?’ And I said, ‘Yes, it is.’” “And he said, ‘You’re the first person to figure it out,’” Graham remembers. “It’s the person who’s witnessed it all and is powerless to do anything about it.” This is also the first time that Danielpour and Dove have worked together. However, he’s previously composed musical works based on Maya Angelou’s poetry and Toni Morrison’s writing, including the opera Margaret Garner (for which Morrison wrote the libretto), about the real person on which Morrison’s novel Beloved is based. Since Morrison’s death in 2019, “Rita, in some ways, has taken up the torch that Toni was holding for so long, becoming a voice for the nation’s conscience,” Danielpour says. “Her line ‘Who among you is ready to listen?’ seared through me and is one of the only lines I repeat. I repeat it three times, because it’s an invitation to us all.” “The world changes on a dime,” Graham says. For example, a movement on Roe v. Wade, which Dove added during the writing process, has taken on new meaning since the monodrama debuted. “Roe v. Wade has a different status in our society now than it did when [A Standing Witness] was written. We hadn’t done the piece in several months. When we came back and rehearsed, none of us could get through it because it was just like, ‘Oh, where are we?’” All artists involved in A Standing Witness are clear that it’s art, not documentary. “Nothing in the piece is literal,” says Graham. “It’s like an impressionistic painting of those events.” “We’re not historians,” says Danielpour. “This isn’t journalism — it’s about our memories of these events, and the way we remember them is obviously cloaked with a particular perspective.” Being an American is often complex and fraught — its meaning for personal and collective identities ever shifting. “It’s a very interesting time, isn’t it?” says Boriskin. “America has been about evolution from the outset, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.” “I’m very grateful to have grown up here, and I’m proud to be an American, to live and grow and thrive here,” Danielpour says. “My hope and prayer is that we can all continue to do so.” A Standing Witness is that prayer, made audible. Those interested in A Standing Witness may also join Performance Santa Fe for American History, Poetry, and Music in Conversation, on Friday, Feb. 17, at noon, for an intimate luncheon with mezzosoprano Susan Graham and U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove. For tickets and more information, call Performance Santa Fe at 505-984-8759. Adele Oliveira grew up in Santa Fe and lives there with her family.