I’ll start by saying I am lucky to have workshopped with Komunyakaa on two occasions: once in a one-day workshop at Duke and once in a one-day workshop at Cave Canem. At Duke, he struck through our words to put together phrases in a way that should have made non-sensical arrangements but instead made phrases that made more sense. They were images that were born of sound in that they seemed to create new images by merging them (in sound) rather than to clarify the images the writers seemed to be painting. In Durham Poetry Speak (or in my own small circle with amazing poets Evie Shockley and Christian Campbell) this action became known as Komunyakaafication. Workshopping would then produce notes on our poems that began: "If you will allow me to Komunyakaafy these lines, perhaps you could try . . ." I’ll also say that the experience of having heard Komunyakaa has helped me hear and seek out other rhythms in my own work that I’m so happy to have. So I was really excited to hear his work as music. The project was a work in progress called Shangri-La.
Here’s what the Kitchen says about the project:
"Set in modern-day Bangkok, this new chamber ensemble piece featuring voice, strings, percussion, and electronics portrays Paradise and Hell amidst the elusive underworld of international trade, the Thai sex industry, and the country’s related AIDS epidemic. Created by the groundbreaking composer/percussionist, Susie Ibarra, and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Yusef Komunyakaa, Shangri-La’ story is told through the voices of prostitutes, the foreign business men who become their lovers, and a “metaphysical detective” investigating an embezzlement scheme. A true fusion of cultural influences, the work integrates jazz, improvisation, American blues, Thai classical and folk music, and experimental techniques to capture the contradictions of a place of great beauty and horror. "
The first act was completely staged and the second was more of a reading with some staged scenes. Interestingly, I don’t know which act I liked better. In the first act there were some scenes where the music and staging and the ways they connected with the lyrics were simply amazing. Some scenes didn’t work as well for me because I felt that there was too much ‘acting’. This is mostly a personal preference issue, though. I like meditative theater more than ‘realistic’ theater. In the second act, the fact that only a few scenes were staged helped me ‘see’ the events that were clearly visual and ‘meditate’ on the other elements when visual ideas weren’t as primary.
Overall, I found the music absolutely beautiful and loved the way that Ibarra and Komunyakaa worked together to put such beautiful language along such beautiful melodies (and, when the women sang together, harmonies). I almost wished the ensemble had been smaller, because I felt at points that I couldn’t hear in the ways I’d like to have heard. I’m not sure how and why people choose the kinds of ensembles they do, so it’s hard to say what I’d like to hear differently, but I will say that there were about ten singers, give or take a few, and when they sang together, the sound was big. The ensemble didn’t get to the same bigness, and I would have liked to have heard a big sound from so many people from time to time so as to give the effect of ‘place’. In any case, I really appreciated seeing a work in progress because it allowed me to think better about process. The composer, librettist, visual artist, and conductor spoke to the audience afterwards and it was great to hear about their concerns, especially since I am in the process of working on two longer narrative audio pieces.
I also truly enjoyed being in the theater. I was really taken by surprise when Tania Leon walked on stage and took her bow as a conductor. Although I’d heard of her work, I’d never seen her and it was breathtaking to see a black woman conduct an ensemble like this one. I felt a little ashamed to be so impressed by the mere fact that she was a black woman, but I also realized that I had just never seen a black woman in this position and I could not help but think about that as I watched. What I mean was that I was called into my body in a certain way, to think about who I am and what it might mean for others to see me. I was one of four visibly black people in the audience of a sold-out show. I thought about that, I also thought about the fact that the audience was maybe one third (or one half?) Asian. I’m not sure what to make of this, but these days I am very conscious of what we need to see and to hear and of how grateful I am for the people who precede me in my artistic endeavors.