Anti-melody, Insurgent Rhythm: Ekene Ijeoma’s “Deconstructed Anthems: Massachusetts”


Melissa Blackall

Melissa Blackall

Review by Niara Simone Hightower

Inside the Cyclorama building of the Boston Center for the Arts (BCA) on a Monday night before a storm, four diagonal groups of chairs were arranged around a drum kit, an upright bass, and a piano. The instruments were positioned such that each one faced a different section of the audience—all of us somewhat intimately close to each other relative to the vastness of the  room. From where I was seated in front of the upright bass, I couldn’t see the piano keys, or the person behind them. Without any introduction—or accompanying musicians—pianist James Francies began to play.

It was the melody of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Familiar and sweeping, but this time, swift and repetitive. Soon, dissonant notes began to sneak into the song as it started over and over again. The melody increasingly sounded strange, the pianist always just barely missing the intended notes.

Eventually the song was completely tripping and falling over itself. I began to hear what sounded like fingers jammed down on keys, pressing and shifting. Then, after repeating fourteen times, the song ended.

This is Boston- and Brooklyn-based artist Ekene Ijeoma’s “Deconstructed Anthems: Massachusetts,” the newest edition of his traveling, site-specific installation featuring a composition that sonifies local and national data on racial disparities and mass incarceration from 1925 to 2017. The piece will be performed each evening until Saturday, February 17, five times in total. Ijeoma waited until the end of the show to share with us that he had created an algorithm through which he programmed the piano to withdraw notes (resulting in keys being held down by the instrument) to reflect increasing incarceration rates that disproportionately affect Black communities. Some audience members who could see the piano thought that it was broken. But by the end we realized we were actually hearing the pianist improvise the melody over and around keys that were rendered useless in real time.

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