World House Choir performs — ‘Earth Mass’ reprised, with two new works
- Published: September 12, 2019
The 100 voices of the World House Choir will reprise their celebration of “the earth, forever turning” with “Missa Gaia” and two new, commissioned pieces as part of “Our Planet — Our Lives” this month. “Missa Gaia,” or “Earth Mass,” was written by Paul Winter in 1982; the choir first performed it in 2015. The song cycle is presented partly as a traditional mass, with sung prayers such as the “Kyrie” and “Agnus Dei,” sewn together with original liturgical texts that evoke images of the natural world. As the choir and vocal soloists sing the mass, whale song and the calls of wolves are also incorporated into the music of the pieces.
“It’s ecumenical and it’s ecological — and it’s beautiful,” said Cathy Roma, director of the World House Choir.
Performances are slated for Sept. 18 and 21 in the Foundry Theater at Antioch College; the choir will also perform on Sept. 19 and 22 in Dayton and Springfield (see sidebar on page 10 for full details).
Roma said that, in pondering what the choir would perform for its annual late summer concert, she wanted to return to a meditation on the environment, and “Missa Gaia,” which was beloved by both choir members and audience members when it was performed four years ago, was a natural choice.
“But then I thought, ‘You know, we all live in ‘environments’ — Yellow Springs is an environment, West Dayton is an environment, inside a prison is an environment,’” Roma said.
After ruminating on the idea of microcosms of society as environments, Roma decided to round out the concert’s program by commissioning pieces from African American composers Norman Whiteside and Ayanna Woods. Whiteside’s piece, “Just Imagine If,” urges listeners to imagine what the world would be like without the individual environments that make up the earth: “no running rivers … no maple trees … no blooming flowers … no roads to travel.”
“It’s an up-tempo piece,” Roma said. “It’s very Stevie Wonder, Teddy Pendergrass.”
Whiteside began his musical career in the late 1970s; as part of the group Wee, he wrote and produced the indie soul record “You Can Fly On My Aeroplane” in 1977. Whiteside was incarcerated a few years later, and “Aeroplane” drifted into relative obscurity. The album became visible again several years ago when hip hop artists like Frank Ocean and Kanye West sampled tracks from “Aeroplane” on their own albums. Whiteside even netted two Grammy nominations in 2014 after Kanye West’s song “Bound 2,” which sampled one of Whiteside’s tracks, was nominated for two awards — Whiteside was listed as a co-writer for “Bound 2.”
Roma met Whiteside when she was directing UMOJA Men’s Chorus, a choir of inmates at Warren Correctional Center in Lebanon. Whiteside sang with the choir for seven years before being released from prison in 2016, after 31 years. Whiteside also composed two other pieces, “Life On the Street” and “All About Love” for UMOJA, and served as arranger, soloist and accompanist for the choir on some occasions.
“If, right now, we, all the people on earth, were told that there was a meteor headed towards Earth and we all needed to get together … as a collective entity, we would do that. This is what [“Just Imagine If”]” is about,” Whiteside wrote. “At some point in time, the light is going to come on, and we’re going to see that we need to stop taking the planet that gives us life for granted.”
Ayanna Woods is a Yale graduate and a Chicago native. A singer and multi-instrumentalist as well as a composer, Woods has produced work for choirs and ensembles, plays and a web series. She also has a solo music project, Yadda Yadda, which employs electronic beats and soul and R&B sounds. Roma, who knew Woods from her work with the Chicago Children’s Choir, asked her to write a piece about Dayton — specifically West Dayton.
“Even before the KKK rally, before the tornado, before the shooting, I’d been thinking a lot about the environment of West Dayton for the people who live there,” Roma said.
Roma connected Woods with Dayton residents, who she interviewed and whose stories formed the basis of her commissioned work. The resulting song, “To Propagate a Home” — which is dedicated to #DaytonStrong in the wake of the mass shooting in the Oregon District in August — evokes the imagery of a community rising from loss: “We must have uncommon strength to face the wound and refuse to let it wither/We must have uncommon faith to plunge our hands into the land and nurture an abandoned place.”
“The bottom line is, it’s a song of hope,” Roma said.
The two commissioned pieces will precede “Missa Gaia,” which will be accompanied by a nine-piece band and three choir soloists. Performances will also feature seven dancers from the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, who will dance to “To Propagate a Home” and several of the movements from “Missa Gaia.”
“The dancers are incredible — I can’t tell you how much it transforms the music,” Roma said.
Dance isn’t the only visual art that will be represented at performances: artist Liz Mersky, who sings alto in the choir, was inspired to create a series of paintings and drawings that reflect the themes of “Missa Gaia.” She plans to display 15 to 20 pieces of art for village concert-goers to see; many of the paintings were created with the song cycle in mind, but some were created previously.
“The subjects of ‘Missa Gaia’ align so well with the kind of work I’ve done and like to do — it really speaks to the soul of the natural world, so I’ve got plenty of pieces in the drawer that fit,” she said.
Mersky’s paintings will be on display in the lobby of the Foundry Theater before the opening night performance on Wednesday, Sept. 18, which will also feature a food truck, informational tables from local activist groups and organizations and voter registration. The paintings will also be on display at the Saturday, Sept. 21 performance. The paintings will be for sale, and all proceeds will benefit the World House Choir.
“’Missa Gaia’ is probably my favorite thing we’ve ever performed,” Mersky said. “It’s gorgeous and it really resonates with me. It’s more crucial than ever that we learn to care for the soul of the earth.”
The theme of environment runs not only through the pieces that the choir will perform, but through the performance venues themselves: aside from performing at the Foundry Theater, the World House Choir will bring “Our Planet — Our Lives” to the outdoor Levitt Pavilion in Dayton and to High Street Methodist Church in Springfield.
“When Paul Winter wrote ‘Missa Gaia,’ he first went to the Grand Canyon and played his saxophone there because he wanted to commune with the wolves — and the wolves responded,” Roma said. “So it’s very exciting to do the piece outside, which is sort of where it was born, and then to do it in a church, because it’s a very spiritual piece.”
Unlike in previous years, the choir won’t perform on Friday, as that day has been set aside for educational events that are being held in conjunction with the concert performances. Chris Cuomo, a professor of philosophy from University of Georgia, will present a class, “Good Allies in the Struggle for Climate Justice: Indigenous Sovereignty and Feminist Methods,” at 10 a.m. that morning at Wright State, followed by a panel discussion, “Refusing Fatalism: Realistic Approaches to Achieving Climate Justice,” at 4:30 p.m. at Antioch College. The panel discussion will also feature Jennifer Knickerbocker and Sharon Lynette Jones, and will be moderated by Kelli Zaytoun. The class and forum were funded by joint efforts between Wright State University faculty and Antioch College.
“I know a lot of people are frustrated by the state of the environment, especially young people, and they say, ‘Well, we want to act — what can we do?’” Roma said. “So I love [Cuomo’s] idea of refusing fatalism and acknowledging that it’s not too late. Because it’s going to take all of us to address the changes in climate — we have to come together.”