Kitka Premiere Honors Trailblazer
There are some “forgotten voices” that, once heard, resonate with extraordinary depth and relevance. One of those voices will be heard this weekend when, in celebration of Gay Pride Week and the Queer Cultural Center’s National Queer Arts Festival, women’s vocal ensemble Kitka presents the world premiere of composer and choral conductor Eric Banks’ I Will Remember Everything.
Based on the poems of “Russia’s Sappho,” Sophia Parnok (1885-1933), the work gives life to 28 deeply emotional poems and verse fragments that the Jewish lesbian trailblazer wrote to her eight lovers over the course of 30 years. Mostly presented in chronological order, the work includes Parnok’s last poem, spoken as a quatrain as she died, and recited to a circle of dedicated writers and intellectuals that included three of her former lovers.
The 75-minute work includes solo pieces, each of which features a different member of Kitka singing a love poem in which she takes on either that lovers’ personality or how Sophia feels when writing about that lover. There are also arias that are Parnok’s self-reflections on her own life, creativity, illness, memory struggles, and coming out; and ensemble pieces and readings. Everything is sung bilingually.
“I think it’s a big departure for Kitka,” Banks told SFCV in a joint Skype conversation with Kitka Executive Director Shira Cion. “They’re used to doubling with and relying on each other, and singing in four parts in a Balkan style. They also rarely sing in unison. Here, women will either sing solo, in unison, or one voice to a part.”
Cion explains that the women of Kitka initially read the poems that Banks had chosen while sitting together, as if in a poetry circle. “We wanted to see who responded to which poems,” she says. “Eric has been extremely collaborative in wanting people to sing texts that are meaningful for them.”
This is not the first work Banks has crafted to the words of a gay or lesbian poet. A few years ago, he wrote a ballet based on the poems of Cavafy, the gay Alexandrian poet who died in 1933, the same year Parnok died. But while Cavafy’s reflections are mainly physical, Parnok’s are far more emotional. Both hark back to an era that predates the time when people were labeled “gay” or “lesbian.”
“When Eric and I first discussed collaborating on this project, we had no idea what would come down with all the anti-gay repression [in Russia] and how relevant this premiere would be.”
“Tosca is Parnok’s word for anguish, and she finds so much ecstasy in anguish,” says Banks. “Think of the circumstances of having lovers so young, coming out in the teens and ‘20s, and what that caused in her life. She did travel to Europe with one of her lovers, but when the revolution broke out, she came home right away. A translator of Baudelaire, she was ostracized and no longer employable once she came out. She ended her life suffering from Graves’ Disease, homeless and in poverty, yet supported and nurtured by her circle.”
“What happened to Parnok is chillingly similar to what is going on in Russia now,” says Cion. “When Eric and I first discussed collaborating on this project, we had no idea what would come down with all the anti-gay repression [in Russia], the persecution of Pussy Riot, and everything else, and how relevant this premiere would be.”
Thanks to grants from the NEA, the City of Oakland Cultural Funding Program, and the Aaron Copland Fund for Music — somewhat ironic, in that the gay Copland never came out during his lifetime — as well as private donations, Banks has spent the last month in the Bay Area working with Kitka on the piece. That’s a good thing, because while his melodies are accessible, the writing is very intricate, with odd meters and key signatures that result from setting Parnok’s poetry in four Russian Jewish musical modes. Organizational support will also cover Kitka’s studio recording of I Will Remember Everything, which is scheduled for a week after the premiere.
“With this piece I hope to convey something of the beauty, intensity, and tragedy of Parnok’s life — and to give belated recognition to the poet’s substantial literary gifts,” says Banks. The women of Kitka are right by his side.
Kitka premieres I Will Remember Everything on June 20 at 8 p.m. and June 22 at 7 p.m., St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, S.F. Also, on June 21, sometime after 5 p.m., at New Music Bay Area’s Garden of Memory Festival at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland. For tickets, visit http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/660879 or call (800) 838-3008.