By Sarah Siock
With in-person performances still on hold due to coronavirus safety precautions, the Westminster Chapel Choir is taking these unusual circumstances to create a series of multimedia projects focusing on social justice.
The choir devoted three weeks of October to produce a virtual residency titled “No Justice, No Peace.” The residency will feature a diverse collection of work that ranges from poetry and singing to visual art projects. Each piece of work under the project serves to represent a theme of addressing systemic racism.
Conductor and associate professor of music education Jason Vodicka said the residency is different from a typical choir project.
“In choir usually you are handed a piece of music and you sing. That does not always give you a lot of opportunity for deep personal expression,” said Vodicka.
To give choir members the proper creative freedom, Vodicka is allowing students to produce any type of art that falls under the theme. Except for a few pieces of work that will stitch the individual projects together, all of the music, poetry and art for this residency will be made completely by students.
“This is all about them creating. We often talk about choir being something that has the potential to change the world and connect with people. With any sort of social justice movement, you have to get to people’s hearts. To me, the arts are a great way to get to people’s hearts,” said Vodicka.
The Westminster Chapel Choir is made up of first-year Westminster Choir College students and other students at Rider. For many choir members, the chance to create something with few restrictions early on in their college career came as a pleasant surprise.
“It has felt rather freeing to work on this project. If we were not in quarantine we would not have had this opportunity. It is really interesting to see that because of these circumstances, we were able to create something amazing we normally would not have done before,” said sophomore biology major and choir member Elena Cuesta.
Cuesta’s contribution to the project is a poem that describes social injustice. Her poem details the discrimination people of color face in America and how others can educate themselves on these issues. A central theme throughout her poem is self-reflection.
“Discrimination and hate. Roll through humanity like thunder. But it is poisons like this burying. Fellow humans six feet down under,” Cuesta’s poem reads.
Throughout the three-week project, the chapel choir was virtually joined by activist and performer Halim Flowers and conductor André de Quadros. Flowers, who was wrongfully incarcerated for 22 years, shared his story with the chapel choir. Both Flowers and de Quadros helped students create personal works that also gave a voice to those who are marginalized in society.
“Andre and Hamil have been such huge inspirations. Andre has been showing us videos of how to create art in different ways. While Halim talked about how he used his time in prison to create art,” said freshman music education major Sienna Grinwald-Alves.
Grinwald-Alves created three different sketches that will serve as visual art for the residency. Her sketches are representative of the LGBTQ+ community and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“When it comes to creating art, it is a very individual and sincere process. I was so glad to have this freedom to create what I wanted for this project. That freedom allowed me to produce creative and powerful art. I was able to do something that gives me so much joy,” said Grinwald-Alves.
The choir also spent time discussing recent events such as the Ferguson, Missouri, unrest and the murder of George Floyd to have the proper reflection necessary to create their social justice projects. Students are also ensuring the project is accessible in various formats. For example, freshman music education major Adrianna Barnett is teaching the choir sign language for a song that will accompany the residency.
“It is all about bringing equality to the point of view of others. With art, it can be easier to spread those messages. It is something anyone from any perspective can enjoy. We are working to get a message out and I am excited to see the response to the project,” said Barnett.
The “No Justice, No Peace,” residency is currently a work in progress, and once finished all of the Chapel Choir members’ projects will be compiled into one large production that can be watched on YouTube.
“We may like different types of art but it is still a topic that we can digest together. Bringing art into this topic of equality and racism is a way we can all connect to something powerful,” said Grindwald-Alves.