Dustin Cates was a young teenager when he watched Maya Angelou on television reading "On the Pulse of Morning," the poem she’d written for President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. It left an impression.
“In high school English class, anytime we would study something she wrote, I was always excited to engage with that,” he says. “The command she has with the spoken word just draws you in — I was drawn into what she was saying and how she was saying it.”
Now Cates is artistic director of the Heartland Men’s Chorus, which marks a milestone with its 30th anniversary concert this weekend. As he began making plans for the concert two years ago, Cates saw parallels between the themes in Angelou's poetry and the message of the men's chorus. He wanted to celebrate her words — but that turned out to be a challenge.
“There were no published choral music works available for us to buy that featured her text,” he says.
So he commissioned one.
When the chorus performs “I Rise,” a ten-minute piece in the second half of this weekend’s concert, audiences will be hearing Angelou’s poetry set to music by Kansas City composer Mark Hayes.
Having written more than a thousand published works and performed around the world, Hayes was up for the assignment. He has conducted at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, and his 2014 "Requiem" premiered at a Vatican-sponsored sacred music festival.
“Our music library is full of things he’s written for us,” Cates says. “Also, his writing style would really suit Angelou’s text.”
When Cates explained what he was thinking, Hayes says, “he said it’s going to be about equality, it needs to be passionate, it should talk about freedom – a universal voice, a voice for all, confrontive – all the things that Maya is in her poetry.”
Complicating the job of setting it to music was that “On the Pulse of Morning” was written more like prose, without clear verses.
“There’s no poetic meter necessarily,” Hayes says. “Every single melodic line is different depending on what the words are.”
It’s also long, for a poem — it took Angelou about six minutes to read it at Clinton's inauguration.
“I didn’t use most of it because if I had, I would have written a 25-minute piece and that was not my assignment,” Hayes says. “So I had to figure out: How do I take these incredible ideas and make them into something that makes sense musically, but doesn’t feel like I’m not telling the whole story?”
The other three poems, however, were written in quatrains or in groups of three, they had end rhymes, poetic meters.
“You hear melody in those,” Hayes says.
When Angelou writes about a caged bird singing with a “fearful trill,” Hayes uses dissonance, a pounding rhythm and minor chords to create an unsettled feeling; he switches to a major key when the subject changes to “Equality.” He gives the final song, “And Still I Rise,” what he calls an “in your face,” jazzy swing feeling before going for a “stately” ending.
Hayes also was careful with the music's rhythms, because the piece will be accompanied by dancers choreographed by Tyrone Aiken of the Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey.
When he first heard the music in a preliminary recording, Aiken admits he struggled to find a connection.
“I had heard the poems, and that’s what I had in my head,” he says. “For me the cadence in the poems and the voices that I heard reading them sounded completely different from what I heard in the recording. I thought, OK, that means I have to live with it, sit with it. So I lived with it and lived with it.”
To find the “soul of the piece,” he says, “I had to adjust, bring myself to understanding these words in a different way.”
Once he’d done that, what Hayes was doing began to make sense.
“I went to rehearsal and at one point got a little emotional,” Aiken says. “That’s really wonderful when you start to find things.”
“I was excited about the rawness of it," Hayes says of Angelou's provocative texts. "This is the true, passionate feelings of Maya Angelou, and I’m getting to reimagine that in musical form. Her language was not high poetry – it was not street language, it was much more eloquent than that – it was you and me having a conversation about things that matter to us, telling it like it is. I wanted the music to reflect the same passion and honesty.”
By the time the chorus performs Hayes’ composition this weekend, it will have been more than two years since Cates began the process of securing the rights to the music.
“It’s certainly everything I hoped for,” Cates says of Hayes' composition. “I think it speaks on the first listen, but it’s even better on the 20th listen. There’s some lines at the end that I can hardly stand there and conduct," he says, referring to the climactic ending of "Still I Rise."
Hayes is happy, too, with how it turned out.
“I was honored to get to peer into her mind,” he says. “Whenever I start these things, I always think, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve set a really high bar for myself. Will I make it?’ I’m really pleased with what I wrote.”
Cates figures other choral directors will be, too.
A music publishing company is currently negotiating with Angelou’s estate, and Hayes is hopeful the piece will be added to his extensive catalog, and available for other choruses around the world.
The Heartland Men's Chorus 30th Anniversary Concert, "I Rise," 8 p.m. Saturday, June 11 and 4 p.m. Sunday, June 12 at the Folly Theater, 300 W. 12th Street, Kansas City, Missouri, 64105; for tickets, call 816-931-3338.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.