Discourse | Flutronix | Carolina Performing Arts | CURRENT Artspace + Studio
Friday, Feb. 25–Saturday, Feb. 26, 8 p.m., $20
After an eight-count on a snare drum, a driving bass line propels five musicians through an energetic march in a section of Discourse, the new evening-length work by the musical group Flutronix.
That’s when the vocals kick in. But instead of some generic love-song lyrics, we listen as seasoned local activist Yvette Mathews breaks some tough truths down about affordable housing in the area.
“Chapel Hill is a trip, y’all, it really is,” the venerable office and community organizer at the Community Empowerment Fund chuckles. “So they’ve got this land. They’ve got 164 acres of land that’s been sitting here for 30 years, that they own it, and refuse to build something affordable on it,” Mathews muses as syncopated handclaps push the music forward. “Why? Because it’s in this neighborhood of people who look like us that they don’t want in it.”
Homegrown community activism that you can dance to? That’s one part of the work whose world premiere this weekend comes after a two-year delay from the COVID-19 pandemic. Nathalie Joachim and Allison Loggins-Hull, the musicians and composers who comprise the urban pop art flute duo at the core of the new work, initially came to Chapel Hill in 2018 to begin a multi-year residency. The goal of the residency was to create a work grounded in local narratives in response to the growing cultural divisions that emerged during the Trump era.
To create the work—now named Discourse, and which runs two nights this week at CURRENT Artspace + Studio—Joachim and Loggins-Hull met, broke bread with, and listened to the stories of people from a number of communities across the region, including octogenarians from Carrboro and Chapel Hill’s Northside, Pine Knolls, and Tin Top communities, middle school students at Durham’s Global Scholars Academy, and members of the indigenous Lumbee Tribe.
“We kind of have this intergenerational approach to storytelling,” Loggins-Hull says.
The duo also delved into the audio archives of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Southern Oral History Program, where they encountered an interview with Willie Blue, a veteran who worked in the civil rights movement after returning from World War II.
“Each of these were conversations premised on close listening, no matter who they were,” says Amanda Graham, the associate director of engagement at Carolina Performing Arts, which commissioned the new work.
“The project was meant to break down this monolithic understanding of what a community is,” Graham says. The resulting 10-song cycle is “meant to really focus on individual stories as a way of conveying the spirit of a place.”
“You see more of the human being when you’re hearing from his mouth, ‘This is how I felt, this is what encouraged and what hurt me; these are my passions, and this is what I think is right,’” Loggins-Hull says. “It shows that there is so much power in the individual story.”
In the process, the composers discovered that it’s easier to enter and empathize with the challenges communities face through the stories of the people living there.
“It doesn’t just seem like, ‘Well, that just happened over there.’ This is a real person that this is happening to. It just feels more real,” Loggins-Hull says. As they worked with the narratives they encountered, the composers repeatedly found that the stories themselves pointed in specific musical directions.
Blue’s interview dealt with the Freedom Schools movement, which provided free, alternative schooling for students in the 1960s when public education systems in the South drastically underfunded Black schools or shortchanged the curricula they taught.
At one point in the interview, the composers were struck by the way Blue referred to Black Americans: “We are constitutional people. The constitution made us.” Blue’s words are inserted verbatim into the work.
“We literally sampled it straight from the interview,” Loggins-Hull says. “The movement, the pacing of the music throughout the piece—all of that is very much informed by the story, by his speech, by the way it’s told, and by the energy of the story.”
At Global Scholars Academy, the musicians faced the challenge of giving students their first music class ever. “We said, ‘There’s no way we’re going to go in there and be like, ‘This is a quarter note,’” Loggins-Hull recalls. With no musical instruments, the duo had the students engage in body percussion, as they shared stories about their day-to-day lives at home, in their community, and at school.
One student told a story about an FBI agent coming to his house.
“He recounted this whole experience where the police are pounding on the door, so that alone creates this sonic imagery,” Loggins-Hull says. “It feels high-paced like your blood pressure is rising.”
The music that emerges, driven by the students’ rhythms, dramatically underscores the story.
According to Graham, Discourse is not only a collection of stories from communities but a meditation on the relationship between activism and citizenship. She notes that the sequences above, and the Lumbee anthem, “Proud to Be a Lumbee,” also covered in the work, call us to consider “what it means to take action as a citizen and how that can be encapsulated in somebody’s life story.”
“All of these are ways of moving people,” Graham says. “There is a participatory component to Discourse. It’s a way of calling an audience into action, by sharing all of these calls from all of these different communities.”
“We just tried to receive what people were willing to give us and be very respectful of their sharing their stories,” Loggins-Hull concludes. “We’ve tried to honor their stories and bolster the work they’re doing in the community.”
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