Travesty Generator TBD

Ten settings of poems from Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s book of poetry, Travesty Generator

4 voices (2 male, 2 female), violin, bass clarinet, piano, drums, electric bass, live media

Funded in support by the Boston Foundation’s Live Arts Boston (LAB) grant

Program Note

Anthony Paul De Ritis and Lillian-Yvonne Bertram are the co-leaders of an 11-person creative team that received a 2021 Live Arts Boston (LAB) award. Our eclectic group of artists will be experimenting with the textual settings in Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s book Travesty Generator and its themes of racial and social justice, this project will culminate in an evening-length musical presentation.

The goal of this project is to workshop, experiment, mashup, and otherwise create several eclectic and dramatic settings of texts found in poet Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s book of poetry “Travesty Generator,” winner of the Poetry Society of America’s 2020 Anna Rabinowitz Prize for Interdisciplinary Work, and longlisted for the 2020 National Book Award for Poetry. “Travesty Generator” uses algorithmic approaches to generating poetry, and deals with several subjects related to race and social justice. One reviewer states: “Bertram uses open-source coding to generate haunting inquiring elegies to Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner, and Emmett Till. By framing her ‘counter-narratives’ of black lives in code and social media optimization, Bertram brilliantly conveys how black experience becomes codified, homogenized, and branded for capitalist dissemination.”

Although the final form of our project will evolve from the creative influences of each group member, at the onset we envision each setting of Bertram’s poetry to be dramatic stagings of operatic shorts, or vignettes, totaling an evening length musical presentation on social justice. The musical genres drawn upon will reflect the extremely talented group members who have signed on to this project proposal, including contemporary classical music, jazz, music theater, gospel, opera, computer and electroacoustic music.

My primary inspiration for this project is the poetry of Lillian-Yvonne Bertram. In 2020, Bertram and I collaborated on a short work titled “A Reading of Bertram on Brooks on Walker,” a reading and electroacoustic setting of Betram’s “Gwendolyn Brooks on Kara Walker’s ‘Gone, An Historical Romance of Civil War As it Occurred B’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart.’” This work was in response to an invitation to make art by Nell Painter, Chair of the MacDowell Board of Directors, towards enhancing the conversation about social justice through art.

After this experience, and especially upon reflection of its subject matter, I contacted Bertram again with hopes of creating something much larger in scope. Bertram and I met a few years ago, and the more I experience her work, the more her spirit of innovation and interdisciplinary inquiry gives me a fresh perspective on my music composition. In “Travesty Generator,” Bertram’s use of language, syntax, its reconfiguration and recomposition, serves as a brilliant metaphor for music creation. In addition, Bertram’s reflection on and use of technology, and her ability to use it towards unlocking deep, penetrating, and gut-wrenching insight into matters of social justice, inspired me to want extend further Nell Painter’s call to action. This inspired me to pull together the incredible group of established and early career professionals listed within the proposal, each committed to making the goals of this proposal a reality.

The majority of my artistic output is contemporary symphonic music, often described as eclectic and innovative, a result of my commitment to mashing up styles and genres. I am perhaps best known for my work “Devolution,” a Concerto for DJ and Symphony Orchestra featuring DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid. For this project, I will once again embrace placing disciplines side-by-side to see what one can teach the other, mashing up jazz, opera, gospel, music theater and poetry with improvisation, experimentation, and digital audio manipulation, to generate new, and hopefully innovative and dramatic artistic output.

The texts found in Travesty Generator are not traditional libretti or song lyrics. Each group member will be challenged by the dramatic potential of Bertram’s poetry, and by how to musically express its meaning. The key to our creative practice is embracing the input of all group members as equal participants in the creative process.  Each group member will read the poetry, discuss what emotionally inspires them, and share how this might translate into musical terms, within the moment via improvisation or after a period of reflection – in the end, all musical interpretations will be presented for all to hear and discuss.

With respect to my career goals, the creation of these text settings on Bertram’s “Travesty Generator” will help shift my artistic output from primarily abstract symphonic and electroacoustic music, towards more dramatic musical forms related to opera and music drama that also reflects and comments on the most relevant issues resonating in society today.

I believe that this work will have crossover appeal, resonating with several audiences not usually seen in the same concert venue; audiences interested in opera, music theater, jazz and contemporary classical music. As this work will examine race, culture, and social change, I hope it will appeal to critics as well as potential first-time concertgoers.

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