In chamber operas such as X, about the African-American revolutionary Malcolm X, and Lear on the 2nd Floor, which updates William Shakespeare’s King Lear in the context of today’s Alzheimer’s epidemic, Anthony Davis has shown a knack for coming up with themes that address the past while dealing directly with the present. But with his new work, FIVE, which premieres in Newark, New Jersey, in November, he’s going to miss the mark by a scant seven days.
It’s not that FIVE—based on the story of the Central Park Five, a quintet of young African-American men falsely accused and convicted of rape and assault after a 1989 attack on a white jogger—will be any less relevant a week after the U.S. presidential election. The racism that runs through much of American society will, sadly, ensure its currency for years to come. But one of Davis and librettist Richard Wesley’s main protagonists might well be in the dustbin of history by the time FIVE debuts.
If, that is, we’re lucky.
“I hope it’s not president-elect Trump who’s going to be portrayed in the opera,” says Davis, on the line from his home in San Diego, California. The connection, he goes on to explain, is that the Republican demagogue started his political career on the backs of the Central Park Five, spouting his racist fear-mongering in all the major New York City newspapers.
“I wrote an aria for Donald Trump, because he was really involved in it, sort of condemning these five young men who were 15 and 16 years old, and calling for the death penalty,” Davis explains. “And now some of the themes of his campaign are the same: ‘othering’ people, and thinking of them as thugs, street thugs.…At the time, it was basically a cultural assault on what they perceived as the hip-hop generation. It was the time of Public Enemy and Tone Loc and all that stuff, so it’s something I refer to in the music, too.”
When Davis comes to Vancouver this week, it’s to help celebrate a smaller but considerably cheerier historic occasion: the release of a local artist-run centre’s second archival LP, past piano present: Live at Western Front 1985–2015. Davis’s “Behind the Rock”, from a 1985 solo performance, is the oldest piece on the album and its opener, setting the tone with an array of sounds that don’t seem to have dated a day.
We might hear them differently, though. Then, the low rumble that runs through much of the piece was probably heard as a nod to the cosmic jazz of pianists Alice Coltrane and McCoy Tyner; now it seems to draw equally on the symphonic colorations of Gustav Mahler and Igor Stravinsky. The world, it seems, has opened up to the visionary synthesis of classical and improvisational forms that Davis has been exploring all his life.
“I think of the piano as an orchestra, or something that kind of reflects an orchestra,” the UC San Diego prof explains. “And ‘Behind the Rock’ is kind of an example of that: the idea of using the different registers of the instrument; not confining myself to chords in the middle register of the instrument and treble piano lines. Since then I’ve sort of liberated myself into really playing with both hands—playing a duet between the right hand and the left hand. Then I think about contrasting textures, or sometimes pitting tonalities against each other—things that can create tension and at the same time a kind of resolution, too.”
Davis’s evolution has progressed to the point where he’s planning to issue a new solo-piano CD, his first nonoperatic release in more than two decades, this fall. It will mark a welcome return for a musician whose personal vision is as compelling as the more public statements he’ll soon make in FIVE.
Anthony Davis plays the Western Front on Thursday (March 24).