The Music of Elizabeth Alexander

A Palette To Paint Us As We Are

A moving tribute to our skins’ true colors

Music: Elizabeth Alexander

Words: Gerald Rich

Inspired by Gerald Rich’s moving tribute to our skins’ true colors — including such luscious shades as mahogany, coffee, champagne and rose gold — this piece weaves together a wide variety of choral textures and instrumental timbres, moving softly and tenderly from one hue to another, creating a seamless tapestry of sound.

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Composer Notes

Composer Notes

I first heard Gerald Rich’s moving tribute to our skins’ true colors in the late 1990s, at a poetry reading where he read from his work. As the opening words of this poem were spoken, the room grew suddenly still except for a few barely audible gasps. As I took in each delicious shade of color, I envisioned a musical language that would contain as much harmonic and melodic color as the poem, moving softly and tenderly from one subtle hue to another. What I did not imagine was that the very act of composing this song would change me myself, but that’s exactly what happened. Day after day I sat at the piano, attempting to reflect through sound how light reflects from one person’s body to another person’s eyes. And at some point I realized that a different lens had been made available to my own eyes, one that was more appreciative, less fearful, and full of delight.

I owe a debt of gratitude to friend and fellow composer Ann Silsbee, who upon seeing an early draft remarked that she was disappointed that I’d set the word “champagne” on a low note, pianissimo. “I hear it as a champagne toast,” she said. “A toast to our beautiful colors!” Ann was right, of course, and I immediately went home and reset the word on a gloriously bright chord.

Over the years A Palette To Paint Us As We Are has received many performances and enthusiastic reviews. Conductors have called it “inspiring,” “powerful,” and “moving,” but also “overly sentimental” and  “divisive.” One newspaper reviewer called the harmonic language “astringent.” And a white professor once called me on the phone to regretfully inform me that her theoretical analysis revealed that I had a subconscious cultural bias towards lighter skin. Among her most passionate arguments was that I had elevated the word “champagne” above all the others, proof that I believed lighter skin colors were superior to darker skin colors.

I don’t know whether this song is powerful or biased or sentimental or astringent, and I certainly don’t know whether a theoretical analysis of this song reveals anything about my unconscious bias, but I do know that people sure do seem to have strong opinions about this song. A whole diverse palette of them. And I know that composing this song made me an ever-so-slightly better person, which is what music is supposed to do.


A Palette To Paint Us As We Are

Give us a palette to paint us as we are.
Enough of black and white, yellow and red,
Those false colors that sham at fact.

Coffee, and chocolate, and café au lait,
Ivoried saffron, and saffroned ivory,
Bronze, and brass, copper, and rose gold,
Tea and pale butter, golden almond,
Infinite varieties of browns and tans,
Pale rose, pink and soft rose cream,
Mahogany, oak, cedar, and champagne.

These are the colors of people I see,
Not black and white, not yellow and red.
Those false colors no longer will do.
Give us a palette to paint us true.

Gerald Rich
© by Gerald Rich. Reprinted by permission of the poet.



Premiere: Ithaca High School Choir / Art Loomis. Ithaca College Choral Competition and Festival (Ithaca, NY)
Camerata Singers of Muskegon / Floyd Farmer (Muskegon, MI)
Carbondale Community High School Chamber Singers / Carlyn Zimmermann. Illinois MEA Conference (Peoria, IL)
Choir of First Congregational United Church of Christ / Michael Kelly (Portland, OR)
Choir of First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles / William Belan (Los Angeles, CA)
Choir of Foothills Unitarian Church / David King (Ft. Collins, CO)
Congressional Chorus / David Simmons (Washington, DC)
Gregg Smith Singers / Gregg Smith (New York City, NY)
One Voice Mixed Chorus / Jane Ramseyer Miller. GALA Choruses Festival 2008 (Miami, FL)
Plymouth State University Chamber Singers / Dan Perkins. Choir Tour (NH, UT, AZ)
Potomac School Concert Chorus / Jerry Rich (McClean, VA)
Reading Session / Gary Keating. GALA Leadership Conference (Portland, OR)
Reading Session / Jane Ramseyer Miller. ACDA National Conference (Miami, FL)
Sine Nomine Chorus / Robert Bartalot (Denver, CO)
Social Justice Through Music Festival Choir / Elizabeth Alexander (Tucson, AZ)
Sounding Joy of Centre College / Barbara Hall. Pewee Valley Women’s Correctional Institute (La Grange, KY)
University of Massachusetts Chamber Choir / Stephen Paparo (Amherst, MA)
West Chester University Choral Conducting Symposium / Vance George (West Chester, PA)

Premiere: Washington Women’s Chorus / Donald Richardson (Washington, DC)
Elmhurst College Chamber Singers / Susan Moninger (Elmhurst, IL)
Illinois State University Women’s Choir / Sarah Graham. Red Note Music Festival (Normal, IL)
Imagine! / Roberta Shimensky (Sandy, UT)
Santa Fe Women’s Ensemble / Linda Rainey (Santa Fe, NM)
Sounding Joy, the Women’s Chorus of Centre College / Barbara Hall (Danville, KY)
The Girlchoir of South Florida Chamber Singers / Wallis Peterson. Broward Center for the Performing Arts (Fort Lauderdale and Oakland Park, FL)
The Girlchoir of South Florida Chamber Singers / Wallis Peterson. Pacific International Children’s Choir Festival (Eugene, OR)
Washington Women’s Chorus / Donald Richardson (Bethesda, MD)
WomanVoice Consortium Choir / Kathy Romey (Minneapolis, MN)