EXIGENCE: A Vision Unfolding

Expanding its work around issues of equity and inclusion in classical music, the Sphinx Organization has launched EXIGENCE, a new professional vocal ensemble made up of singers of color. What were the impulses that led to the creation of EXIGENCE? Why is this development important to the choral field?

On February 2, a new professional vocal ensemble debuted at Detroit’s Hartford Memorial Baptist Church, one of the most iconic African American churches in the country. The performance was part of SphinxConnect, a national convening focused on diversity in the arts, and the venue was chosen for a reason. The ensemble, called EXIGENCE, is composed of black and Latinx singers.

“Exigence” is defined as “an urgent need or demand.” Working with the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization, Eugene Rogers, associate professor of conducting and associate director of choirs at the University of Michigan, formed the group last summer to fill what he regards as a glaring void. “We see that so many of our ensembles in America, vocal and instrumental, unfortunately are still not that diverse,” he says, “not at the highest, professional level, and to me that means we need to change that.Demographic data about blacks and Latinxs in the professional choral field is sparse, but a 2017 Chorus America report on a survey of choral conductors is consistent with Rogers’ observation. Of the 621 conductors who chose to respond to the survey, fewer than 4 percent were black and fewer than 3 percent were Hispanic/Latinx. 

The void is not due to a shortage of performers, Rogers argues. “The singers are there! They exist!” What singers of color need is more exposure, he says. “This group was designed to promote those artists…so that they can be in their own ensembles, so they can be featured in more solo works as artists.” Mexican-American tenor Matthew Valverde is glad for the chance EXIGENCE gives him “to make music myself” in addition to teaching voice at Adams State University in Alamosa, Colorado. But it’s more than that. “Singing with a bunch of voices of color, and being in a rehearsal with people who look like you and are similar to you, is an experience that I never really had before. Visibility and being visibly heard is important. So when we do not hear from people of color—when we don’t hear their voices or their music, then it’s easy for society to assume that they’re not there, or that they don’t have a place of importance.”

Not Locked Into Any Style

In addition to providing broader performing opportunities for people of color through EXIGENCE, Rogers also seeks to highlight the ability of his artists to perform in a myriad of styles, beyond gospel music and spirituals. In its debut concerts, the ensemble’s repertoire ranged from “Hallelujah” from Beethoven’s Christ on the Mount of Olives to “A Simple Song” from Bernstein’s Mass to new compositions that included the percussive traditional South African Xhosa song “Ndikhokhele Bawo,” Los Angeles-based composer Derrick Spiva Jr.’s contrapuntal “A Vision Unfolding,” “Son de la Vida” by Mexican José Castañeda, and John Lennon’s “Imagine.” “We want to show, at a high level, a professional ensemble of black and Latino artists who can sing anything from Verdi to Palestrina to a spiritual to a gospel piece, with the most authentic performance practice,” says Rogers. “Many of the professional singers, conductors, and composers of the ensemble are trained classically, but can switch at the drop of a hat into a different style. That’s what we do best, and it’s something that I think sets this ensemble apart.”

Rogers prefers using the term “vocal ensemble” to describe EXIGENCE because it avoids preconceived notions of what a chorus is or is not. For example, the members of EXIGENCE move their bodies in a way that is just as fluid as their ability to sing in a myriad of styles; they freely respond to the ebb and flow of the music. “When people hear the word ‘choir,’ they think standing still, performing with music, staying in one position,” says Rogers. “That’s a stereotype of what a choir is. We want to break away from that. We may be caught singing backup for a hip-hop artist and then sing backup for the New York Philharmonic. We are that flexible. We are not locked into any style.”

Rogers also aims to reach beyond the traditional choral audience—particularly to incarcerated blacks and Hispanics. “I want to bring awareness about the imprisoned from our communities, and all of the talent and gifts, sometimes inequities that exist around that [condition],” he says. EXIGENCE’s debut program, named A Vision Unfolding after Spiva’s work, includes text drawn from the works of writers who have been incarcerated. Rogers hopes that this will “get people to think differently about the imprisoned and their potential, especially since every single person in this group knows a brother, sister, parent, or family member who may be or has been imprisoned. I don’t want us to be disconnected from our own communities.” On the contrary, he says, “there’s a social justice message connecting us to our communities.”

A new venture for the Sphinx Organization

The launch of EXIGENCE adds another ensemble to the list of about 25 North American professional choruses that bring together singers from around the continent. Rogers and the singers are all paid by the Sphinx Organization, a nonprofit dedicated to enriching lives through the power of diversity in the arts. Since its founding in 1996, Sphinx has been working to address the underrepresentation of people of color in classical music. Along with EXIGENCE, Sphinx supports professional instrumental ensembles, school curriculums, and music competitions that directly reach 100,000 students. As a new program of Sphinx, EXIGENCE receives financial support for rehearsals, performances, travel, housing, fundraising, and promotion.

When Rogers won the 2017 Sphinx Medal of Excellence Award, he used some of his $50,000 cash prize to start EXIGENCE. “Because of my relationship [with Sphinx], I asked them about supporting my goal,” says Rogers, and they said, ‘We can do better than that. Let’s be partners.’ And that’s how the relationship began.” Rogers notes that before EXIGENCE, the Sphinx Organization never had a vocal component. “Together, we partnered to create this professional vocal black and Latino ensemble, which is a whole new venture for this very successful organization.”

For Sphinx president and CEO Afa Dworkin, who co-founded the organization with her husband, Aaron, supporting Rogers was a seamless fit. “I was awe-struck by Rogers’ commitment to marrying artistic merit and excellence to social justice, which is sympathetic with Sphinx’s mission,” says Dworkin. “Everything he embodied made him a fascinating colleague. Now, more than ever, a group like EXIGENCE can really document, advocate, and narrate history that’s being made right now. I feel a sense of urgency to get out there, to get them heard, and to really secure resources.” The group’s February debut at the SphinxConnect convening put the new ensemble in front of artists, arts leaders, and leaders in diversity.

To shape the sound of EXIGENCE, Rogers has sought the best and brightest vocalists from across the nation and Mexico, evaluating them in a meticulous, two-part audition process that assesses their ability to sing both traditional and contemporary music. “[Singers] have to sing a piece that best displays their voice, and a piece that shows their ability to fit in an ensemble,” says Rogers. He also interviews his singers, wanting to assess personality as well as performance. “We’re interested in how they speak, how they carry themselves, because of part of what makes this group work is that it’s not just a voice and an ear, but the ability to move, to communicate, and to engage the audience with your eyes. All of that is part of this group.” EXIGENCE members are all professional musicians, who in addition to being part of the ensemble, work as soloists, voice teachers, conductors, and composers.

For soprano Lori Hicks, a former classmate of Rogers at the University of Michigan, EXIGENCE is her first choral singing opportunity since college. She’s now an associate professor of voice and opera at Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina. “I knew from working with Eugene that [the ensemble] would be a collection of stellar, professional musicians,” says Hicks. “All of those colors came together. We were all passionate about the music. We all wanted to understand the music. It took my choral experience to a whole new level.” Mexican composer, conductor, and tenor Julio César Morales Pineda describes a similar experience, calling EXIGENCE “an amazing project that taught me the diversity of the people in the United States.” He first met Rogers when he came to Tlaxcala City, Mexico, to teach a workshop in 2015. “I learned a lot of styles, rhythms and songs that I could share in my country,” but the best result, he says, “was to meet many incredible people with amazing voices who are now good friends.”

Opening new paths into choral music

Chorus America CEO Catherine Dehoney believes that EXIGENCE is an important model for the choral field and arts organizations in general. “It’s critically important, as the whole nation is becoming more aware of issues around equity and inclusion, for all of us to support and celebrate this group,” she says. “Sphinx has been leading the charge in advancing diversity in the performing arts, and we’re thrilled to see its focus extend to our field as well.”

Conductor Joshua Habermann sees value in the visibility and variety of cultural experiences a group like EXIGENCE can provide. From leading two groups he characterizes as ethnically diverse, the Santa Fe Desert Chorale and the Dallas Symphony Chorus, he says he has learned it’s a benefit to his singers “to see people who look like them, that there’s a path for them to follow.” It may also show that a new path is open to composers of color, he says: “My hope is that EXIGENCE—both by doing the music of people of color that fits those traditional fields in which that music’s been done, but also by doing the other stuff that doesn’t fit that—will break down barriers and show that [black and Latinx composers] have interesting, compositional voices.” 

As he advances this groundbreaking new project into its second year, Eugene Rogers will take on new responsibilities at the University of Michigan; his position as director of choirs officially starts as of July. He admits it will be a balancing act, but nonetheless, he has ambitious plans for EXIGENCE. “We hope to be touring around the world, sharing and being a model at the highest level. We would love to guest-appear with orchestras, whether with traditional concert music, or premiering some African or African-American work. This group would bring a special color to that.” A recording project is also in the works, he adds. All of this in service of his dream to increase diversity at the highest professional level of choral music. “We want to inspire young people who look like the individuals in this group to realize that that this music is not just for the majority; it’s for everyone.”

Eugene Holley Jr. contributes to DownBeat, Publishers Weekly, New Music Box, and Chamber Music magazines.