In revealing overlooked corners of American history, Julia Bullock often ends up making history of her own.
One of the most celebrated sopranos to emerge in the past decade, Bullock hasn’t relied upon the usual suspects to build her career. While her repertoire encompasses Franz Schubert lieder, Samuel Barber’s “Hermit Songs” and Gabriel Fauré’s “La chanson d’Eve,” she first made an indelible impression in the Bay Area interpreting music written by (or for) pioneering Black artists such as Josephine Baker, Alberta Hunter, Billie Holiday and Nina Simone.
But Bullock isn’t interested in simply shedding light on artists long neglected in symphonic and chamber music settings. She’s determined to expand the possibilities for other singers today by collaborating with living artists. On May 17 she returns to Davies Symphony Hall with members of the San Francisco Symphony for a performance focusing on music by leading Black women composers.
In her role as San Francisco Symphony Collaborative Partner, Bullock presents her evolving program History’s Persistent Voice, which she originally conceived in 2018 as part of her season-long residency at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Tuesday’s iteration includes Jessie Montgomery’s “Five Freedom Songs” (an SF Symphony co-commission); the world premieres of Carolyn Yarnell’s “I Come Up the Hard Way” and “ain’t my home;” and the world premiere of “Quilt,” an SF Symphony commission by San Francisco sonic explorer Pamela Z.
Presented without intermission, the 75-minute concert is a multimedia production that unfolds amidst an immersive video installation designed by Los Angeles visual artist Hana S. Kim. There’s also an audio element that provides interstitial transitions, employing recorded recitation of texts written by generations of people who were enslaved.
In a recent video call with The Standard from Munich, Germany, Bullock said that curating her own programs with new works written for her has been an integral part of her creative process since she was young.
“The collaborative process is really involved and amazing,” Bullock said. “It’s so important to get new music out into the world. And to recognize that singers are not just tools that other people use.”
Bullock provided the composers with plenty of material for inspiration. She designed the Met concert in conjunction with the exhibition History Refused to Die, which featured pieces from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, an organization that promotes the work of contemporary Black Southern artists. The exhibition included nine quilts by the extraordinary women textile artists of Gees Bend (now Boykin), Alabama. These images were used by Kim in her immersive visual design.
The project was inspired by Bullock’s discovery of songs collected in the South from people recently liberated from slavery. In commissioning the composers, she circulated the tunes along with poetry by men serving prison sentences and interviews with Gees Bend quilters. “I’m interested in utilizing and memorializing these voices,” she said.
Z, who performs Saturday at Santa Cruz’s Rio Theatre, has been a major figure on the Bay Area’s experimental music scene for nearly four decades. She’s best known as a performer who radically reconfigures her lush, classically trained soprano via live electronic processing, the occasional found object and samples triggered with a MIDI controller called The BodySynth. Creating loops to accompany herself with own voice, she seems to pull sounds out of thin air with her graceful, Tai Chi-like vocabulary of hand and arm movements, building aural collages that play with language, or simply explore the shape of sound.
“She’s an otherworldly singer who’s really ventured into composing and I’m so thrilled she was available and interested,” Bullock said.
Bullock discovered Carolyn Yarnell through the Yale School of Music, which commissioned the alumna’s pieces “I Come Up the Hard Way and “ain’t my home” (due to pandemic postponements San Francisco audiences get to experience the premieres before Yale). A recipient of the Rome Prize, Charles Ives Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, Yarnell earned her undergraduate degree from San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 1986.
“When I heard her first symphony from a reading at Tangelwood it just blew me the fuck away,” Bullock said. “Such amazing fury and passion and gentleness swirling together.”
Learning about Yarnell, Bullock was struck by her resistance to being categorized and her embrace of African-American themes. “Early in her career she did not want anyone to identify her as a Black composer,” Bullock said of Yarnell. “But all of her compositions have to do with the Black experience and the challenges Black people face, and not in a coded way.”
The question of identity and how one presents in a field that has only reluctantly yielded to Black performers cuts deeply for Bullock. It flows directly out of her experience as the daughter of an African-American father and white mother who defied racial (and other) conventions in straight-laced St. Louis. As Yoga-practicing vegans, her family embraced various alternative paths. But her father’s death after years of illness left the 9-year-old Bullock with many questions just as she was coming to understand her cultural heritage.
“I identify as white as much as Black, but I need to delve into every single part of who I am,” she said. “I needed to be able to talk about that on stage, and that’s helped me own more of my identity and express myself more freely.”
She started attracting critical attention during her student days on the East Coast, which she spent at Eastman School of Music and Bard (where she studied with Dawn Upshaw). Bullock eventually made a crucial Bay Area connection while studying in Juilliard’s artistic diploma program; it was there that she met Michael Tilson Thomas, who invited her to perform with the SF Symphony, and she’s been a regular presence here ever since.
Even with the pandemic keeping her homebound for much of the past two years, Bullock has made her presence felt in the Bay Area. A few weeks ago Jon Else’s riveting documentary The Golden West made its California premiere at the Castro Theatre as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival. Exploring the making of John Adams and Peter Sellars’ revisionist Gold Rush opera, Girls of the Golden West, which premiered at SF Opera in 2017, the film is a good deal more successful than the production, partly due to Bullock’s luminous presence.
Her ties to the SF Symphony are practically familial, as Christian Reif, the orchestra’s former resident conductor, is her husband. He’ll be handling the baton Tuesday for History’s Persistent Voice.
“The Bay Area really has provided a platform for me to grow and develop in a similar way that New York did,” she said. “It’s so beautiful all the interconnections with artists, composers, musicians and this bridge with MTT handing over to Esa-Pekka Salonen.”
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