There is a story about a cellist in Sarajevo during wartime. He's out playing a solo piece when someone stops him and asks, "Why are you playing while the bombs are dropping?" He responds, "Why are you dropping bombs while I'm playing my cello?"
This tale serves as the inspiration behind "Adagio," one of the songs in MUSE Cincinnati Women's Choir's upcoming fall concert — and it also reflects the spirit with which MUSE celebrates 25 years of service and performance in Cincinnati.
Known for its activist approach to music, the 60-member choir often sings gospels, peace chants and commissioned works — songs with themes relating to social justice and equality. Like the Greek Muses, they hope to inspire their audience into action.
"We are a peace and justice choir, dedicated to musical excellence and social change," says Catherine Roma, founder and director of MUSE. "We represent the diversity that is Cincinnati."
This diversity is something that is evident in their programming, which is always varied and often contains new music. MUSE's fall concert, dubbed "Rapt in Love," features a female duo called Wishing Chair.
The duo, made up of Kiya Heartwood and Miriam Davidson (a one-time member of MUSE), will premiere a suite of six pieces (including the aforementioned "Adagio") incorporating Appalachian and South African singing styles, a Flamenco Pop song and a Gospel song, among others. This suite, called Weave and Spin, presents a loose tapestry of women's lives, which reflects MUSE's mission, as illustrated in its introduction: "Our lives as women are crafted by our experiences as daughters, mothers, lovers, leaders, activists, adventurers and dreamers. Women who have made great contributions, who we have admired, become essential pieces in the quilts of our lives."
Loving boldly is the theme of the concert, and combined with the performance by Wishing Chair, MUSE will sing favorite love songs from its feminist and lesbian repertoire, such as "Simply Love," "Perfect Night" and "Miss Celie's Blues."
In this concert, MUSE returns to its roots with a program that contains women's music and Folk music. Roma says that this concert will bring them back full-circle; when MUSE began in 1984, it started off with "women's music" (music performed by and for women) and a lot of Folk music.
Roma says that Folk music is a perfect medium for social commentary. She quotes a legendary Folk singer and activist, "Pete Seeger said every Folk song was a topical song at its birth, a comment upon the life and times of the singers and listeners."
Every song that MUSE performs follows this tradition.
"Social change has everything to do with singing about peace and justice," Roma says. "With that mission, we have had a lot of work to do in Cincinnati."
When asked what change she would like to see in Cincinnati, she replies, "An end to the violence."
With regard to changes she's seen, Roma comments on the positive changes that have occurred in the music world over the last decade and a half. "If you go back 25 years, can you name a female trumpet player? What's happened in the course of 25 to 30 years? Women have become engineers, producers, sound people, et cetera."
The 2007-08 season promises to be a good one for MUSE, with a strong series of concerts lined up. In April, MUSE will perform its bi-annual New Spirituals concert,"Hope Come True," featuring commissioned works by Dr. Rosephanye Powell and Linda Tillery.
In June, the choir will form an alumnae chorus with some of the 250 singers who have been part of MUSE in the past performing works commissioned by Bernice Johnson Reagan, Holly Near, Joan Szymko and others.
Roma says she's grateful for the reception and support MUSE has received in Cincinnati.
"The community at large is really supportive," she says. "A diverse range of people know about us. We ourselves are a community and we teach and learn from each other ... that's a wonderful aspect of the choir — that educational aspect. There are people in Cincinnati who don't know about us, so we want to reach out to them."
Roma invites everyone to attend the shows and celebrate MUSE's "herstory."
When asked what she has to say about the group's big anniversary year, Roma grins.
"25 and still alive!" she says.
MUSE CINCINNATI WOMEN'S CHOIR will perform its fall concert "Rapt in Love" at 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at St. John's Unitarian Church in Clifton. Buy tickets and find nearby bars and restaurants here.