UCF SoAl Chorus sings 19th Amendment’s praises

The UCF SoAl Chorus, an all-women ensemble, rehearses near the Visual Arts building on April 1. The main focus of the choir’s rehearsal was “Suffrage Cantata,” a five-movement piece that pays tribute to the passage of the 19th Amendment. The SoAl Chorus performed the piece at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts on April 3 as part of the concert “Through Unity We Shall Overcome.”

On a windy, overcast Thursday afternoon, UCF’s all-women SoAl Chorus stands in staggered formation beneath the awning of the Visual Arts building.

The female ensemble, donning face masks and socially distanced, is led by Kelly A. Miller, coordinator of music education at UCF. Even with face masks on, the women’s harmonies cut through the blustery atmosphere, filling the air with rich choral tones.

The centerpiece of the group’s rehearsal, a piece titled “Suffrage Cantata,” pays tribute to the passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted American women the right to vote. The piece was originally supposed to be performed last fall, Miller said, but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Miller said that while preparing “Suffrage Cantata” has been “a longer journey” compared to other pieces the choir has performed in the past, the piece has helped her and the SoAl Chorus get through the pandemic; the choir’s April 3 performance of the piece at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts would be a full-circle moment.

“Now, we’re gonna see it be performed where we can have [an] audience and family and friends outside of the UCF community,” Miller said.

In addition to offering the first-ever live performance of “Suffrage Cantata,” the SoAl Chorus’s performance of the piece helped shine a new light on the continued significance of the 19th Amendment.

How It All Started:

The inception of “Suffrage Cantata” began with the Missouri-based composer Andrea Ramsey. About six years ago, Ramsey said she made a post in a social media group for treble choruses, choruses made up of soprano and alto voices, in which she talked about the need for pieces that were longer in duration for these groups to perform. In that post, Ramsey floated the idea of a piece that revolved around the history of women’s suffrage because people are often presented a condensed version of this 70-plus-year history in school, obscuring the stories of “women passing the torch forward, from one generation to the next.”

“In my textbooks growing up, all I remember learning was we sort of had a passing mention of Susan B. Anthony, and then women could vote,” Ramsey said.

Ramsey said Iris S. Levine, artistic director of Vox Femina, an all-female choral ensemble based in Los Angeles, eventually took Ramsey up on that initial idea and reached out to her about creating a piece that would commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the 19th amendment, which was last year.

Ramsey said she began the research process for “Suffrage Cantata” in August 2019, going as far as traveling to Washington D.C. and Seneca Falls, New York, to gather information from suffragist history archives. After the piece was officially greenlit by Vox Femina, a consortium of choirs, including UCF’s SoAl Chorus, was formed to help fund the creation of the piece, Miller said.   

Ramsey said she began composing the piece in March 2020, right around the time everyone began settling into life in coronavirus lockdown. Ramsey took “a whole bookshelf full of reference books” and turned into an approximately 37-minute-long “choral documentary.” “Suffrage Cantata” contains five movements, with each section chronicling a pivotal moment in the history of women’s suffrage; Ramsey said the piece spans various styles, including the Baroque-esque sound of “It is Coming” (movement 1) and the parade march music sampled in “A Woman’s Place” (movement 3).

“Every movement is a different part of the story,” Miller said.

Challenges and Adjustments:

The SoAl Chorus originally planned to perform “Suffrage Cantata” during the fall 2020 semester to coincide with the aforementioned anniversary of the 19th amendment’s passage, as well as the 2020 presidential election. Vox Femina did end up posting a prerecorded performance of the piece by a Los Angeles choir online to fit this timeline, Miller said. Complications arising from the pandemic, however, forced the SoAl Chorus to push back its live performance to the spring, incorporating it into the lineup for the UCF choir concert “Through Unity We Shall Overcome.”

While UCF sophomore and vocal performance major Stephanie Slagle, 21, said she was initially “devastated” by news of the performance’s postponement, Miller said the delay has allowed her and the SoAl Chorus to connect with “Suffrage Cantata” on a deeper level.

“I’ve actually enjoyed that we’ve held onto this piece longer and gotten to take more time learning the history behind it and more time digging into the roots of the piece, and we’ve gotten to know these suffragist women, not only through their words, but we’ve had more time to spend with them,” Miller said. “I think that’s given us more time to connect.”

The majority of the lyrics in “Suffrage Cantata” are taken directly from the real-life commentary of women suffragists, Ramsey said, such as quotes contained in letters, speeches and banners. Ramsey said the real challenge came during the writing process of the piece, in which she was forced to narrow down what suffragist voices to feature, “knowing that I was probably going to make somebody angry no matter what I did because there would be somebody that I left out that someone wanted to hear about or somebody that I included that they didn’t.”

Aside from live instrumental music, the SoAl Chorus’s performance of “Suffrage Cantata” was accompanied by narration and a PowerPoint presentation to ensure audience members were able to gain the fullest understanding of the women suffragists featured and the work they did, Ramsey said.

A number of health protocols also had to be adhered to by the SoAl Chorus in order to make its performance at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts possible. Miller said all choir members were required to wear singer’s masks, which are face masks specifically designed for singing; all rehearsals were held outdoors to ensure social distancing. On the day of the performance, Miller said choir members also had to take a temperature check and rapid COVID-19 test upon arriving at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.

UCF junior and music education major Hannah White, 23, said some of these adjustments complicated the rehearsal process for her.

“It’s very hard singing in this time because we have to wear masks all the time and we can’t sing inside at all,” White said.

The 19th Amendment’s Impact Today:

Ramsey said that apart from honoring the history of women’s suffrage, it was important to use the retelling of this history to give voice to the reality of other social injustices, such as racial inequality. Following the death of George Floyd last May and the series of protests that ensued, Ramsey realized that she was “writing a piece about protest during a season of protests.” She subsequently reached out to Marcia Chatelain, a historian of African-American life, to get a different perspective on the piece’s subject matter, which helped reshape the phrasing of some of the lyrics.

“I had always been intentional from the beginning that I wanted this work to be intersectional and inclusive of women of color who were involved in the movement because these women of color in the movement were written out of the history,” Ramsey said. “So, some of the leaders that we know in the suffrage movement were helped by [and] interacted with women of color who were suffragists, and then when these women wrote their histories, [they] omitted the women of color and the work that they did.”

White said getting the opportunity to highlight the tenacity and inclusivity of these suffragists made being in this performance of “Suffrage Cantata” an even more special experience.

“I do like how determined they [were] and they didn’t back down,” White said. “Even when they were facing hard times, they didn’t let that deter them, and they kept moving forward and making a difference and giving hope to all women.”

For Slagle, the impassioned tone of the piece’s lyrical content speaks to how the history of women’s suffrage can be used to spotlight other unresolved social issues. Slagle said her favorite lyric from the piece – “struggling and striving and hoping / we knock at the bar of justice / asking an equal chance” – represents all “the people we aren’t quite finished fighting for.”

“We want to arrive at the place where people can feel safe and truly belong and not just for different ethnicities,” Slagle said. “People in the LGBTQ [community] now, especially considering the many injustices they still experience, I feel like they are often asking: ‘how long must we wait for safety, comfort, security, acceptance and to be normalized above all?’”

Ramsey said she hopes audiences who hear “Suffrage Cantata” walk away with the realization that diverse representation in historical narratives is crucial in shaping people’s collective understanding of their histories.

“We’re getting history from whoever tells the story,” Ramsey said. “And that piece matters.”

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