Seattle Women’s Chorus is singing music that makes a difference with Banned & Beloved, a new concert featuring custom-composed songs based on banned books, with performances at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024, at Town Hall Seattle (1109 8th Avenue in Seattle’s First Hill neighborhood).
With books being banned in the U.S. at an unprecedented rate, Seattle Women’s Chorus is putting a spotlight on the issue by commissioning five female-identifying composers to create new music from banned books. Composers Amy Burgess, Ann Hampton Callaway, Michael Bussewitz-Quarm, Maria Antoinette Ellis, and Andrea Ramsey each crafted songs based on a variety of banned books including Alice in Wonderland, Beloved, Heather Has Two Mommies, Melissa, and This Book is Gay.
The concert will also include censored songs from popular films including The Wizard of Oz, Winnie the Pooh and The Muppets, along with thought-provoking video storytelling.
“We always say music is the universal language and has the power to reach people no matter your background, your race, religion, sexual identity—music has the power to reach,” said Ellis, who is also a choral conductor and music educator. “And sometimes, you can hear a message better hearing it in a song than reading it in a book. Sharing through song can sometimes lighten the hearts of people in the audience for a deeper understanding.”
“We brought in these five composers to tell stories they’re familiar with or shine a light on experiences people need to read and hear on topics from racism to homophobia,” said Seattle Men’s Chorus Artistic Director Paul Caldwell. “There are people saying we shouldn’t speak those words—you know what, we’re going to sing them, loud and proud.”
Reading and music serve as unique gateways to diverse perspectives in providing a harmonious blend of the written word and melodies. By picking up a book or listening to a song, one can explore a myriad of cultures, experiences and viewpoints while fostering a deep appreciation for the rich tapestry of human expression.
“The primary role of reading is joy from encountering other worlds that are not your own,” said Nancy Pearl, beloved local librarian, author and former executive director of Washington Center for the Book at Seattle Public Library. “It’s also important that kids and adults recognize and find themselves in the pages of the book. For kids especially, it’s important to see that they’re not alone, whatever their situation is.”
Banning books is a nationwide issue. In just the first half of the 2022-23 school year, there were 1,477 instances of individual books banned, an increase of 28 percent from the second half of the prior school year, according to PEN America. While Washington state is often praised as a progressive safe haven for diverse voices and inclusion, book bans are still happening here. In the Kent, Mukilteo and Walla Walla school districts, challenges to books continue to rise—books challenged in Washington jumped from 10 to 42 between 2017 and 2021, according to the American Library Association.
To elevate awareness of banned books and to advocate for freedom of expression, Seattle Women’s Chorus is inviting attendees to donate a banned book which will be collected in bins at the concert – as well as at any Third Place Bookslocation now through Feb. 3. The books will be distributed among Seattle-area Little Free Libraries. For a list of commonly banned books, visit this list compiled by PEN America.
Tickets for the Banned & Beloved concert – as well as livestream and on-demand tickets – are available for purchase ($29-$59) at SeattleWomensChorus.org.