As part of its 50th anniversary celebration, The Kennedy Center has launched “The Cartography Project,” a multi-year initiative that will see the National Symphony Orchestra and Washington National Opera commissioning new chamber and vocal works by creators of color from grieving communities across the nation.
Conceived by Marc Bamuthi Joseph, the Kennedy Center’s artistic director and vice president of social impact, the project is in response to the race-based violence in the United States and is designed to position Black dignity as the prevailing narrative of the African American experience.
“With The Cartography Project, empathy becomes pedagogy and the sheet music becomes the textbook,” he says. “We are mapping, figuratively, these incidents of violence but we are also mapping the possibility of who we can be.”
For its initial program, which will be held at Studio K in the Kennedy Center’s new REACH expansion on March 15 and 16, “The Cartography Project” will showcase eight new commissions, with world premiere performances from WNO singers and members of the NSO and WNO Orchestra.
Among the eight works are short chamber pieces from composers Jessica Mays, Derek Douglas Carter and Nathaniel Heyder.
In his piece, entitled “Ahead of Time,” the Cleveland-based Heyder leads a quintet of Paul Cigan on clarinet, Robert Rearden on horn, Jennifer Mondie on viola, Britton Riley on cello and Scott Christian on percussion.
“I was approached to write a piece to commemorate the murder of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, which happened on Nov. 22, 2014,” Heyder says. “I decided rather than to focus on the tragedy of that event, I wanted to find something positive associated with him, so we wouldn’t have to think of something so tragic every time we heard his name.”
Being from D.C. originally, the composer grew up attending events at the Kennedy Center, and is excited to be part of this special event.
“It’s important to always think about these sort of things that have happened, and remember those involved, even if it’s not necessarily a hot topic in the news,” Heyder says.
The program will also include short vocal works from four composer-librettist teams — Baltimore’s Jasmine Barnes and Joshua Banbury; Minneapolis’ Liz Gre and Junauda Petrus-Nasah; the Bay Area’s Jens and Yasmina Ibsen; and Atlanta’s B.E. Boykin and Brittny Ray Crowell, who pay tribute to lives taken in these cities.
For their work, “Mo(u)rning,” composer Boykin and libretto Crowell honor the memory of Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old African American who was fatally shot by the Atlanta Police on June 12, 2020.
“We had previously worked together on a project so I knew Brittny would be perfect to write the poem,” Boykin says. “She really brings his memory to light in a way that’s incredible and beautiful.”
For her part, Crowell was thrilled to be asked, and didn’t even know it was for the Kennedy Center when first approached by her friend.
“The project was supposed to bring dignity to the different subjects,” she says. “I thought about Rayshard Brooks’ life and I wanted to research who he was outside of this tragic way he was taken away from the world. I read an interview where one of his relatives talked about how he really liked to dance, so I wanted to incorporate that into the work.”
She also put the names of his daughters into the piece to show how he still exists and is celebrated by those who continue to love him.
“Mo(u)rning” features tenor Martin Bakari, Amy Frost Baumgarten on cello and Dana Scott on piano.
“It’s admirable for the Kennedy Center to want to show support. Traditionally, I don’t know if a project like this would have been picked up and lives commemorated in this way before,” Boykin says. “I feel like making art is a way to solidify the legacies of people and it’s a part of a new wave or properly cataloging the memory of those who have died through this kind of violence.”
The first installment of “The Cartography Project” also features The Road Ahead by the Kennedy Center’s new Composer-in-Residence Carlos Simon, written for a text by Bamuthi Joseph, who will perform the spoken word component live.
Additionally, the program will include the screening of a 10-part docuseries by filmmaker T.L. Benton, which will be shown in between performances to contextualize each new work.
Looking ahead, four more Cartography commissions will premiere in future seasons, each deepening the musical and geographical exploration of Black dignity in the face of systemic violence.
Tickets for the two performances range from $15 to $45 and are available at kennedy-center.org or in-person at the Kennedy Center box office.
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