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Music Text

Tracy K. Smith (E)


Msop-SATB chorus-

Abbreviations (PDF)


Boosey & Hawkes (Hendon Music)

This work is available from Boosey & Hawkes for the world.


World Premiere
Richardson Auditorium, Princeton, NJ
Steven Mackey, electric guitar / Alicia Olatuja, mezzo-soprano / New Jersey Symphony / Princeton University Glee Club / Xian Zhang
Composer's Notes

I love the New Jersey Symphony! They are my home orchestra, my home team, and I was honored to be asked to compose a musical tribute to help commemorate their 100th year. My daydreams, about what I might do for such an auspicious occasion were grand: my friends in the NJSO joined on a packed stage by a vocal soloist, a chorus and myself on guitar, all singing and playing with abandon. I wasn’t hearing a song cycle, a series of independent songs, but rather a continuous flow of music that occasionally coalesced around the explicit images of a text, like a river lapping around a chain of islands.

I asked the poet and (at the time) my Princeton University colleague, Tracy K. Smith, to help define the work by providing a text. Tracy also writes opera libretti so she knows how to make words sing. I had a good feeling about the idea of collaborating with her based not only on her work but also on the positive energy she radiated as we got acquainted over the years (plus, her daughter and my son were video game buddies.) I was happy to finally have a project worthy of her partnership and the New Jersey Symphony was delighted to commission her for a text.

We met and discussed the parameters of the commission, leading with the celebratory occasion, but it was the summer 2020 and George Floyd had been murdered only a few months prior and that fact could not be ignored.

Soon after our meeting Tracy sent me Riot which foregrounds race and resilience. The first line –

Sometimes I feel
the Black in my heart
like a map

made of tar. You need
'only part your lips
to mar what isn't yours

– emanates from a black woman in first person but there is also the subtle presence of ancestors in the reference to the old spiritual Sometimes I feel… (like a motherless child) and the uppercase ‘B’ in Black which suggests the race as well as the color. From the outset Tracy deftly sets up the interplay between personal and communal, the soloist and the chorus.

From this dark and personal utterance, the series of 6 separate but related texts trace a trajectory that culminates in positive affirmation and a celebration of hope, perseverance, commitment, and community:

We live—
gold hot bright
the line of us
never tiring
We live—
We live—

The music aspires to honor that trajectory.

Press Quotes

“Mackey goes full surf-sound with his electric guitar, while the orchestra offers a misty, whimsical sonic counterpoint to the heavy words ... RIOT is certainly reflective of the mood of the nation" —NJ.com

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