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Damon Davis teams with Alarm Will Sound for a space opera rooted in Black music

Aloha Mischeaux performs the role of Joyce and Isaiah Taylor performs the role of Cosmo while Alarm Will Sound’s Tim Leopold plays trumpet on Thursday, March 21, 2024, during a rehearsal of “Ligeia Mare,” a science-fiction opera, at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center in Kirkwood.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Aloha Mischeaux performs the role of Joyce and Isaiah Taylor performs the role of Cosmo while Alarm Will Sound’s Tim Leopold plays trumpet in a rehearsal of “Ligeia Mare,” a science fiction opera by Damon Davis.

Damon Davis describes himself as a post-disciplinary artist. The St. Louis-based creator founded the FarFetched record label, co-directed a documentary film about the Ferguson uprising and has exhibited photographs and sculpture at the St. Louis Art Museum.

His latest project is a collaboration with the experimental classical ensemble Alarm Will Sound — “Ligeia Mare," a science-fiction opera based in African American musical forms. Davis worked with arranger Ted Hearne and Alarm Will Sound Artistic Director Alan Pierson to create the piece.

Davis will release the opera as a radio-play podcast later this year. Audiences can hear a 20-minute excerpt Friday night at Kirkwood Performing Arts Center as part of “Heard,” Alarm Will Sound’s program of new music by eight composers. Davis will join the ensemble again next week for the same program at Carnegie Hall in New York.

“So many people I look up to played there. Carnegie Hall was it. So to be able to stand on the stage where those people played, it’s kind of hard for me to process at this point,” Davis said.

His piece employs elements from European classical music but is firmly rooted in Black music and the Black experience.

“Ligeia Mare” is about a boy in St. Louis who travels the universe in his sleep, seeking a cure for his father’s terminal illness. Isaiah Taylor sings the role of Cosmo, the boy; Aloha Mischeaux appears as his mother, Joyce; and Rockwell J. Knuckles is his father, Cassius. Ron Himes, of the Black Rep, directs the opera. Inversion Vocal Ensemble will also help bring the Afrofuturist-inspired story to life. Davis is the narrator.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin spoke with Davis about his inspirations for “Ligeia Mare” and the ways science fiction can speak to the African American experience.

“Ligeia Mare” creator Damon Davis, left, goes converses with Director Ron Himes, to his right, on Thursday, March 21, 2024, during a rehearsal at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center in Kirkwood.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
“Ligeia Mare” creator Damon Davis, left, goes converses with Director Ron Himes, to his right, on Thursday during a rehearsal at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center in Kirkwood.

Jeremy D. Goodwin: So what does this sound like?

Damon Davis: It’s Black, American music from over the last 200 years. I’m soldering it to classical music, to a degree, and bringing classical instruments into rap, trap, soul, funk, gospel, house, jazz.

It's a Black, rap, space opera. Some people think opera has to be classical music. That’s not a thing. The genre doesn't matter. Classical music is a genre, but opera is a container for storytelling. It's storytelling to music. Now I know people who have been doing opera their whole lives, and it’s even hard for them to define it.

One thing that I love about classical music and classical instruments is strings and brass and what they can do emotionally. You could be smiling and the right set of chords can have somebody crying within milliseconds.

In the end, there's something about people playing instruments in unison that I feel has a relationship to Black gospel choirs.

Alan Pierson, Alarm Will Sound's conductor, leads the ensemble on Thursday, March 21, 2024, during a rehearsal of “Ligeia Mare,” a science-fiction opera based in African American musical forms by Damon Davis, at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center in Kirkwood.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Alan Pierson, Alarm Will Sound's conductor, leads the ensemble on Thursday during a rehearsal of Damon Davis' “Ligeia Mare,” a science-fiction opera based in African American musical forms, at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center in Kirkwood.
Aloha Mischeaux performs the role of Joyce on Thursday, March 21, 2024, during a rehearsal of “Ligeia Mare,” a science-fiction opera collaboration between Damon Davis and Alarm Will Sound, at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center in Kirkwood.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Aloha Mischeaux performs the role of Joyce on Thursday during a rehearsal of “Ligeia Mare" in Kirkwood.

Goodwin: How did Alarm Will Sound get into the picture here?

Davis: About 10 years ago, my friend Ryan McNeely told me he just met these guys and they were looking for new composers. I was like, "Bro, I’m not a composer. I make beats." But his push gave me a vote of confidence.

Back then, I didn’t see anybody that looked like me or sounded like me doing opera. So it was uncharted ground, and I wanted do it. That was one of the things that pushed me to say: This is not a concept album. It’s an opera. And I’m going to figure out the rules to this game and not infiltrate them but pull them over to where I’m at.

I asked Alarm Will Sound, if I got a grant, would this be the orchestra to play it? And they said yes. For the past three years we’ve been recording the podcast.

Rockwell J. Knuckles performs the role as Cassius on Thursday, March 21, 2024, during a rehearsal of “Ligeia Mare,” a science-fiction opera collaboration between Damon Davis and Alarm Will Sound, at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center in Kirkwood.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Rockwell J. Knuckles performs the role as Cassius on Thursday during a rehearsal of Damon Davis' “Ligeia Mare."
Aloha Mischeaux performs the role of Joyce on Thursday, March 21, 2024, during a rehearsal of “Ligeia Mare,” a science-fiction opera collaboration between Damon Davis and Alarm Will Sound, at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center in Kirkwood.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Aloha Mischeaux performs the role of Joyce on Thursday during a rehearsal of “Ligeia Mare" in Kirkwood.

Goodwin: Could you talk about what it is in science fiction that can work as a metaphor for the experience of being Black in America?

Davis: That’s maybe a loaded question. We could have a whole episode just on that.

White American can’t see what they are doing to people. But all you have to do is turn them blue and then you get it. You have "Avatar," and now you understand the Native American struggle. “Planet of the Apes” is white people’s fear of Black people taking over. It’s so clear.

Changing the idea of the "other" is the thing science fiction allows you to do and crack through things that in normal life, people have learned to train themselves to ignore or say that this is just the way things are. Science fiction and horror allow you to speak to social ills, political ideology and just basic human nature in a way that we have trained ourselves to not see in normal society.

So the Black struggle is one that's constantly used as a springboard for writers to either examine themselves or examine how the world treats them, if they’re Black people.

Aloha Mischeaux and Isaiah Taylor reach out to each other on Thursday, March 21, 2024, during a rehearsal of “Ligeia Mare,” a science-fiction opera by Damon Davis in collaboration with Alarm Will Sound, at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center in Kirkwood.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Aloha Mischeaux and Isaiah Taylor reach out to each other on Thursday during a rehearsal of “Ligeia Mare,” a science-fiction opera by Damon Davis in collaboration with Alarm Will Sound, at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center in Kirkwood.
Damon Davis narrates “Ligeia Mare,” a science-fiction opera based in African American musical forms, on Thursday, March 21, 2024, during a rehearsal at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center in Kirkwood. The opera is a collaboration with Alarm Will Sound.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Damon Davis narrates “Ligeia Mare,” a science-fiction opera based in African American musical forms, on Thursday in Kirkwood. The opera is a collaboration with Alarm Will Sound and Inversion Vocal Ensemble.

Goodwin: I think one of the problems when this is coming from white creators is that the story becomes a substitute for dealing with it in reality, right? It’s like you’re resolving it in the fictional story and then just putting it aside.

Davis: Yeah. And not only that, you get rewarded for it. So you never have to address any of that stuff in real life, unless you are the victim of it.

Goodwin: How has Sun Ra influenced this project?

Davis: One of the biggest things Sun Ra said that resonates with me is that Black people are a myth. The construct of race is a myth. If you don’t have any power in society, if they don’t see you, if you’re the invisible man like Ralph Ellison wrote, you are just a story being told.

When we hear the word myth, we think that it doesn’t exist. But myths are very real. If you believe in something, it’s real. It just isn’t a tangible thing you can touch. One of the paramount principles in all of my work is mythology, and how it can be used to change people’s perception on the world.

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.