The Wheeling Symphony Orchestra opened its 2022-23 season in September with a concert the featured the world premiere of Migrations in Rhythm: A Concerto for Beatbox and Rhyme. The concerto was composed by American Evan Meier for Christylez Bacon, a GRAMMY-nominated progressive Hip-Hop artist based in Washington DC. This unique commission project is the first-ever concerto written for beatbox and orchestra.
Music director John Devlin spent a part of his early professional life in the Washington DC area where he made connections with Christylez Bacon and Evan Meier. Those early interactions inspired John to explore the idea of a concerto for beatbox. The resulting piece, Migrations in Rhythm: A Concerto for Beatbox and Rhyme, examines the way that the United States has served as a point of musical intersection for different cultures.
With respect to the beatbox concerto, Composer Evan Meier noted:
The Ghanaian drum master CK Ladzekpo once described the relationship between polyrhythm and the philosophy of the Ewe ethnic group. “Polyrhythm in Ewe music is kind of like the way the Ewes try to make sense out of a very complex world.” Ladzekpo went on to describe the three-against-two polyrhythm that functions as the cornerstone of not only Ewe but much West African music.
Ladzekpo’s ideas helped crystallize for me the central metaphor behind Migrations in Rhythm: A Concerto for Beatbox and Rhyme. This is the concept that different rhythmic streams occurring at once could serve as a sort of metaphor for the diversity of musical experiences in America. Migrations traces the evolution of these rhythmic concepts in the interaction between different peoples in past and present-day America. It explores West-African polyrhythm in the Ewe Agbadza, the Ring Shout from Coastal Georgia, the music of Irish immigrants, the influence of Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian styles, the introduction of swing vernacular from New Orleans, and the influence of Latin American rhythms and instruments in Funk and Go Go.
These musical styles are explored through a fusion of beatboxing and rhymes over an orchestral backdrop. The piece takes the form of a theme and variations. The theme is an original tune tinged with blues/gospel sensibility and containing call and response elements. As a nod to hip hop culture, each variation is constructed around a “sampled” beat from each style. Christylez performed both beatbox and rapped a verse over each beat, both telling and embodying this story of musical migration. The piece culminated with an improvised “cadenza,” a freestyle rap with audience participation.
The opening night concert also featured world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who returned to Wheeling 50 years after he first performed with the orchestra at age 17.