BRUITS: “We are Blocked”

Imani Winds’ Statement of Justice & Equity

“There are all sorts of emotions that can be encapsulated by art,” Imani Winds’ oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz said in a recent interview. On February 5 2021, the Imani Winds released BRUITS, a recording project that indeed captured the emotions of Black and Brown people while emphasizing a needed change to an underlying American history. It features three world premieres by composers Vijay Iyer, Reena Esmail, and Frederic Rzewski.

The album’s title comes from the medical term “bruit” meaning “a noise made by obstructed arteries indicating the body is at risk.” Given this concept and its real-world applications, the Grammy-nominated wind quintet wrote: “We are bruited. Our passages are raw, blocked. And we cannot continue this way.”

The titular piece, Vijay Iyer’s Bruits, begins the album. The piece contains five individual movements or sections, and features pianist, Cory Smythe. Written in 2013, the piece is a commentary about the devastating murder of Trayvon Martin and the trial that followed. In this case, the title refers to how justice was blocked in the jury’s verdict. Tension in the music is built with variations in texture, percussive rhythms, spoken text, and dynamic contrast. 

The first movement, gulf, offers a reflection on America’s social landscape before Trayvon’s murder. A dark piano melody develops as winds speed their way through various notes. It is similar to the way the USA “spirals” forward in civil rights initiatives yet still owns a dark history that has traumatic effects on its citizens. The second movement, force, is about the controversial “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida. An energetic rhythm drives the majority of this movement. Ensemble members read the Florida statute while percussive accents highlight specific words. 

The piece later uses the words of Lucy McBath, a Georgia congresswoman whose son was killed at a gas station months after Trayvon Martin. Her words along with Iyer’s music bring important issues regarding race and law enforcement in American society to the surface. 

Imani Winds–Photo by Shervin Lainez

Reena Esmail uses Indian ragas in The Light is the Same to introduce the concept of recognizing our similarities despite cultural differences. Each raga might have similar pitches, but they are played very differently and evoke unique colors. For example, the Vachaspati raga is more dark and brooding while the Yaman raga is light and innocent. This piece is breathtakingly beautiful. Although it fits the standard classical canon, the work reflects the divine message of unity extremely well. 

The final piece, Frederic Rzewski’s Sometimes, features the words of historian Dr. John Hope Franklin, who studied the Reconstruction period of American history. As a contemporary piece of classical music, it is significant to have the Negro spiritual “Sometimes I feel like Motherless Child” be its primary source material. Since most classical music based on spirituals has been neglected, it is healing and reassuring to see Imani Winds be a part of its resurrection. The album concludes with a Langston Hughes poem “God to the Hungry Child,” sung by soprano Janai Brugger.

The Imani Winds have always been champions and advocates for artistic social justice, accessibility, equity, and education. The group hosts their annual Chamber Music Festival for aspiring instrumentalists and composers. Additionally, they continue to record and perform at residencies. Also, four of the members are Oberlin affiliates! Brandon Patrick George (flute), Monica Ellis (bassoon), and Toyin Spellman-Diaz (oboe) graduated from the Oberlin Conservatory while Jeff Scott (horn) is currently tenured faculty. 

The ensemble continued to live up to its standard by curating a wonderful tapestry of perspectives that give voice to those most marginalized in this country’s system. Given the impeccable artistry and versatility, BRUITS will challenge anyone that listens.

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