College Choir to celebrate songs of tolerance and decolonization in Sunday debut

By Olivia Mueller

The 2019 cohort of the College Choir gathers before Mead Chapel. COURTESY PHOTO

Despite the barriers to group gatherings and performances this semester, the Middlebury College Choir conducted by Professor Jeffrey Buetner will be premiering their fall choral concert performance this Sunday, Nov. 15 as a pre-recorded event. 

 “The program wrestles with colonialism as well as American intolerance,” Buettner said. “I wanted to acknowledge these themes as an educator, but don’t claim to solve them.” 

The set is a celebration of the ability to come together in song in such an unusual semester. The program includes a mix of songs that are enjoyable to sing and also those that are especially thought-provoking. 

The concert will begin with two traditional African songs. The first is “Bonk’ Abaphandle,” an arrangement of a traditional South African folk song by Michael Barrett and Mbuso Ndlovu. In a time of divisive rhetoric, “Bonk’ Abaphandle is an inviting greeting song, translating to “all those outside, call them in.” It will be followed by, “Bwana, ni nani atakayekaa,” a Sukuma song from the Southeastern African Lakes region, arranged by Graham Hylsop. “Bwana, ni nani atakayekaa offers an intricate combination of traditional African song and colonial, European influence by combining folk tunes and a psalm text. 

Next in the set is an original composition by acclaimed African American composer Rosephanye Powell. Her piece “Non, nobis Domine” is a Latin hymn and, notably, a composition rather than an arrangement; it is neither gospel music nor a spiritual. “I wanted to avoid stereotyping African American choral music,” Buettner said.

“Non nobis, Domine,” a piece of insistent, driving repetition, is followed by “Meet Me Here” from Craig Hella Johnson’s “Considering Matthew Shepard” which conveys a message about inclusivity and diversity. This work was inspired by Shepard’s death as the result of a horrific anti-gay hate crime, which occured in 1998. 

The College Choir’s set concludes with Buettner’s own arrangement of American composer William Billings’ “Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal” in a celebration of song and making music together. 

Buettner said that with more time, he also would have liked to include Indigenous and Hispanic music, to further represent the diversity of the American experience and impact of colonialism. Still, even with a reduced program, students have appreciated the value of coming together to sing and understand the world in a different way. 

“We are a singing community. We explore the past, present and future through music of different times and places,” Buettner said.

If you can’t wait until Sunday to hear the choir’s performance, you can hear the first three pieces as part of the opening act for the final concert of this semester’s Performing Arts Series Friday, Nov. 13. Recordings of the first three pieces from the program will open the concert before a performance from the Jupiter String Quartet, an acclaimed chamber music ensemble. 

The video of the College Choir concert will be available on the Music Department website