PHILADELPHIA - When Cycles of My Being, by composer and multi-instrumentalist Tyshawn Sorey, with lyrics by poet Terrance Hayes and tenor Lawrence Brownlee, premiered at Opera Philadelphia in 2018, the New York Times said the song cycle offers “pointed political questions for the nation,” with “a score that teems with vivid contrasts.”
A co-commission from Opera Philadelphia, Carnegie Hall, and Lyric Unlimited: A Division of Lyric Opera of Chicago, it went on from Philadelphia to be performed in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Now audiences all over the world will be able to experience the groundbreaking work in a striking new film presentation premiering on Friday, November 20, 2020, on the Opera Philadelphia Channel. Sorey, who conducts, is joined by Brownlee, violinist Randall Mitsuo Goosby, cellist Khari Joyner, clarinetist Alexander Laing, and pianist Myra Huang. Cycles of My Being will be available for unlimited on-demand viewing for Season Pass holders through May 31, 2021. The work is also available to rent for a seven-day period for $20. Visit operaphila.tv for details.
The 50-minute song cycle, filmed in September in Philadelphia, is followed by a post-show conversation in which the artists reflect on their first encounters with the music, the metaphors within, and its pervasive relevance in 2020, amid a series of high-profile incidents of police violence against Black Americans in recent months, including the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Walter Wallace, Jr.
“It seemed in 2017 and 2018, that this piece was so relevant than,” Brownlee says in the conversation. “But it’s 2020, and it’s so relevant now. In 2025, I believe it will probably be relevant.” Cycles of My Being contains six songs: I. Inhale, Exhale; II. Hope (part 1); III. Whirlwind; IV. Hate, V. Hope (part 2) and VI. Each Day I Rise, I Know. The musical journey reflects the thoughts and emotions embedded in the text about navigating a racist world. The lyrics by Hayes, a celebrated poet, and National Book Award winner, are from his book, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, published in 2018.
Sorey describes writing the music for Hayes and Brownlee’s text, in context with what he was seeing on the news and his own experience as a Black man. “The music was really about our experiences, and it’s about who we are as people,” Sorey says. “That’s what music is.”
In revisiting Cycles of My Being over the past two years, the musicians added nuances and evolved the piece. For them, the performance filmed for the Opera Philadelphia Channel is an especially timely one, coming in a year of racial reckoning and social uprising, exploring the persistent themes of the work through a more visceral lens.
“After having recorded over the past few days, I found it to be a healing experience, actually,” Goosby says. “To be able to really, not have to try and block out these sorts of thoughts, but really channel the energy that those thoughts awaken in me and put it into this music.”
“To be able to center something specifically around our experiences, my experience as a black man, or anybody else’s here on stage, and be able to have that through Tyshawn’s wonderful music, meant a lot because it gave a certain sense of agency, and really allowed me to say, ok, this is something that is very rare,” Joyner says.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, for some of the artists, it was their first time performing alongside their colleagues in months.
“To be in the same room, to feel the energy, to be co-creating,” Laing says, “it just really solidifies the place this piece, I think, will always hold for me.”
About the Opera Philadelphia Channel, The Opera Philadelphia Channel creates a digital space in which artists can perform and explore, through a series of new commissions by visionary composers and dynamic performances produced for the screen. Season subscriptions priced at $99 are offered along with pay-per-view rental options for individual performances. The channel is available for viewing on computers and mobile devices, and on TV screens via Chromecast and the Opera Philadelphia Channel app on AppleTV, Android TV, Roku, and Amazon FireTV.
The Opera Philadelphia Channel has been made possible by the Disosway Foundation, Inc., and by Wyncote Foundation at the recommendation of Frederick R. Haas and Rafael Gomez. Major Support has been provided by Ms. Robin Angly, Maureen Craig and Glenn Goldberg, Joel and Sharon Koppelman, and Ellen Steiner. Additional Support has been provided by Mr. Jeffrey P. Cunard and Ms. Mariko Ikehara, Katie Adams Schaeffer and Tony Schaeffer, the Howard and Sarah D. Solomon Foundation, and Laura A. Williamson. For more information, visit operaphila.tv.