28 Hours

In the United States, every 28 hours an African-American will be shot to death either by the police, security guards, or other self-appointed vigilantes protected by the state. Beyond the epidemic level of extrajudicial killings of black men and women, the current incarceration rate for African-Americans is more than 6 times higher than it is for whites. Blacks represent nearly half of the entire US prison population, with nearly one third of the entire African-American population under some form of criminal supervision, whether prison, parole or probation.

Whether by way of straight-up murder or mass incarceration, the criminalization of black life is an attempt to erase its very presence from American society. African-American culture is typically celebrated in mainstream channels only after it has been colonized and co-opted by white institutions of power and finance. Cultural sites of black resistance are endlessly co-opted and monetized, as the musical history of the 20th century makes painfully clear, tracing the persistent theft of singularly black music from early blues and jazz forms through mid-century rock and roll, to funk and eventually to hip-hop. The white colonization of these musics is akin to the erasure of Blackness in American cultural life, along side the state project to physically erase black bodies and voices from the physical landscape.

Inspired by the Last Words Project of Iranian-American artist Shirin Barghi, I took erasure as a metaphoric starting point for 28 Hours. Using the last known words from victims of police murder— most famously Eric Garner’s “I can’t breathe”, for example—I searched through online lyric databases, looking for places in songs where these words would show up. I then took these moments in each respective song and subjected them to a variety of processes analogous to the erasure of the original source; in one instance, the technique of Alvin Lucier’s I am sitting in a room, where I let the song fragment simply fade out into the natural resonances of the room. In another section of the piece, I played a different excerpt over computer speakers into my cell phone, and then played it back into the computer, repeating the process nine times, until there was almost nothing left of the original source except sinuous and ghostly high tones.

I have consciously used the metaphor of erasure in this piece not only as the subject, but also as an actual compositional tool. In so doing, I wanted 28 Hours to be a memorial space, where the very mechanisms of American racism could be inverted; the act of erasing becomes a process of remembrance, the commemoration of stolen lives.

PREMIERE February 27, 2015. JACK Quartet.
LOCATION The DiMenna Center for Classical Music, New York City
PERSONNEL String Quartet