A Tense New Classical Work Bottles The Feeling Of A Police Stop

Nov 24, 2020

In the mid-1970s, more than 40 years before he won the Pulitzer Prize for music, pianist and composer Anthony Davis was driving with his wife to Boston for a concert when a police officer pulled them over .

"He had put his siren on when he stopped me," Davis recalls. "And I was going to say, 'Well what is going on? I'm going to be late for my concert.'" His wife looked back at the police car, and told Davis to be careful and not to leave the vehicle — that the officer had his gun drawn.

The couple learned, eventually, that someone matching Davis' description had robbed a bank. "That could have gone left very easily," Davis reflects. "Because mistaken identity is a reality. We've seen what happened recently in Louisville, you know?"

In 2010, when the Miller Theater at Columbia University commissioned Davis to write a new composition, he turned this experience and others into a piece called You Have the Right to Remain Silent. Davis chose a solo instrument to be the heart of the work: "The idea that the orchestra is interrogating the clarinet."

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra streamed You Have the Right to Remain Silent in a free concert with other works on Nov. 21. The recorded performance is accessible through Dec. 12, available on the CSO's Facebook, YouTube and at cincinnatisymphony.org.
Courtesy of Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra / YouTube

Anthony McGill, the New York Philharmonic's principal clarinetist, is the soloist in a new, virtual performance of You Have the Right to Remain Silent with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, made available as a free livestream. McGill says that when the pandemic shut down his own orchestra's season, he jumped at the chance to play Davis' work. "I knew right away that it was something that I had to do," he says.

This gig is a kind of homecoming for McGill, who was a member of the Cincinnati Symphony back in in 2001 — when civil unrest erupted in the neighborhood where the orchestra now makes its home, after police shot and killed an unarmed Black teenager. The incident prompted major police reforms. It's also familiar territory for Davis, who won the Pulitzer in 2019 for his opera The Central Park 5, about the wrongful conviction of five teenagers of color for allegedly assaulting a white woman in 1989.

Delivering on its title, The Right to Remain Silent weaves the Miranda warning, in rhythmic spoken word, into the music. Music director Louis Langrée says that as he rehearsed the orchestra — socially distanced — on the stage of Music Hall in Cincinnati, he coached the musicians to make the words clear, knowing just about anyone in the audience will know what they mean. "Any citizen will feel ... the tension, the aggressivity, the menace, the power, the mean aspect and the anxiety."

Anthony McGill performs You Have the Right to Remain Silent with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
Courtesy of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra

"[The piece] has a lot of struggle in it. It has beauty. It has improvisation," says McGill, who plays both clarinet and contra-alto clarinet. "It has extended techniques on the clarinet, and it actually incorporates a different clarinet, too, than I ever played. In so many ways, this was like jumping off a cliff."

The improvisation stems from Davis' roots in jazz, and honors one of his heroes — the late bassist, composer and bandleader Charles Mingus, who endured racism throughout much of his career. "I began to think about the emotional consequences of these confrontations, what happens to people," Davis says. "The loss of your freedom, and the loss to families, and the loss to the community. The loss of time."

The recording of the CSO's Nov. 21 performance is available to watch through Dec. 12. Langrée says people need to hear it: "We need strong pieces, powerful pieces, meaningful pieces, which will help us to understand the world and to understand ourselves."

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Pianist and composer Anthony Davis won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for his opera the "Central Park Five." It's about the wrongful conviction of five teenagers of color for the rape of a white woman in New York's Central Park. Now online comes the first performance by a major symphony orchestra of another Davis work inspired by an all-too-common experience for African Americans. Elizabeth Kramer has the story.

ELIZABETH KRAMER, BYLINE: In the mid-1970s, Anthony Davis was driving with his wife to Boston for a concert when a policeman pulled their car over.

ANTHONY DAVIS: He had put his siren on, and he stopped me. And I was going to say, well, I got - what's going on? I'm going to be late for my concert, you know?

KRAMER: His wife looked back at the police car.

DAVIS: And she said, don't get out of the car because he has a gun. He had his gun pointed at me.

KRAMER: The couple learned someone matching Davis' description had robbed a bank.

DAVIS: That could have gone left very easily because mistaken identity is a reality, as we see now. You know, you see what happened in Louisville, you know?

KRAMER: In 2010, when Miller Theater at Columbia University commissioned Davis to write a piece, he turned this experience and others into "You Have The Right To Remain Silent."

DAVIS: I came up with the title before I wrote the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANTHONY DAVIS' "YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT")

KRAMER: At the heart of the work is the voice of the clarinet.

DAVIS: That was the starting point of it, and it certainly works in the first movement. It's the idea that the orchestra is interrogating the clarinet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANTHONY DAVIS' "YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT")

KRAMER: Anthony McGill is the soloist in this performance with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. He's the New York Philharmonic's principal clarinetist. And when the pandemic shut down that orchestra season, he jumped at the chance to play Davis' work.

ANTHONY MCGILL: I knew right away that it was something that I had to do. It was a project that I really needed to do.

KRAMER: McGill was a member of the Cincinnati Symphony in 2001, when riots erupted in the neighborhood where the orchestra now makes its home after police shot and killed an unarmed Black teenager. The incident prompted major police reforms.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CINCINNATI SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA: (Singing) If you cannot afford an attorney...

KRAMER: At Music Hall, McGill and Davis are on stage for a socially distanced rehearsal with the orchestra's music director, Louis Langree. Davis has woven the Miranda warning into the piece, and Langree is coaching the musicians on how to make the words clear.

LOUIS LANGREE: Finally, if you cannot afford an attorney - sorry for my accent. And...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CINCINNATI SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA: (Singing) If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you.

LANGREE: Yes.

KRAMER: Langree says almost everyone knows what these words mean.

LANGREE: Any music lover or any citizen will feel, by listening to that, the tension, the aggressivity, the menace, the power, the mean aspect and the anxiety, the - being frightening when the musician repeat these words. You, you, you...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You have a right to speak to an attorney. You. You. You.

MCGILL: It has a lot of struggle in it. It has beauty. It has improvisation.

KRAMER: Anthony McGill plays both clarinet and contra-alto clarinet.

MCGILL: It has extended techniques on the clarinet. It actually incorporates different clarinet, too, than I've ever played. So in so many ways, this was like jumping off a cliff.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KRAMER: The improvisation stems from Anthony Davis' roots in jazz and honors one of his heroes, the late bassist, composer and bandleader Charles Mingus, who endured racism throughout much of his career.

DAVIS: I began to think about the emotional consequence of these confrontations, what happens people and the loss of your freedom or loss to the family, loss to the community, loss of time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANTHONY DAVIS' "YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT")

KRAMER: The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, with Anthony McGill, recorded Davis' "You Have The Right To Remain Silent" specifically for a free livestream. Music director and conductor Louis Langree says people need to hear it.

LANGREE: We need strong pieces, powerful pieces, meaningful pieces which will help us to understand the world and to understand ourselves.

KRAMER: For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Kramer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANTHONY DAVIS' "YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.