Dayton Philharmonic, Kenji Bunch observe grim history of black incarceration

By Pat Suarez


Photo: The Philharmonic joins Kenji Bunch in Supermaximum; photo: Erica Lyn

Crime and punishment. Any organized society faces three tricky principles when sentencing lawbreakers: let the punishment fit the crime, make the punishment fair across society, and never allow personal points of view to influence that punishment. And yet, in the United States, certain states of the union openly violated all three of those tenets, even writing discriminatory laws into Florida’s constitution. That constitution, revised in 1968, mandated a poll tax, required segregated schools, and forbade marriage between whites and blacks. For nearly two centuries, if you were African-American and were incarcerated, you were doomed to a system that white prisoners did not face.

Composer and Juilliard School graduate Kenji Bunch, from Portland, Oregon, expressed his feelings on that bit of dismal history through an 11-minute work, Supermaximum, which is both moving and transfixing, using musical non-violence as a healing agent.

On March 24 and 25, Maestro Neal Gittleman will conduct the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra in performances of Supermaximum, in addition to Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3, with soloist Yevgeny Kutik who has performed on the world’s stages for nearly 15 years, and Claude Debussy’s gauzy and luscious tone poem, Images.

Dayton City Paper asked Kenji Bunch and Neal Gittleman about the work, its origins, and its journey to the Schuster stage.

What was your inspiration for the work? 

Kenji Bunch: Supermaximum is inspired by the tradition of prison work songs, sung by African-American prisoners in the brutal, corrupt prison system of the post-slavery Jim Crow South. Adapted from West African work songs, these call and response cadences were designed to keep an entire “chain gang” working in unison, to protect anyone from being beaten for working at a slower pace than the others. I find it fascinating that given this dehumanizing experience, these prisoners looked to art rather than violence as a means of survival. The title itself refers to the classification for the maximum level of security in U.S. prisons. I think, here, of an inverse need for maximum compassion for people whose humanity has been denied in this extreme way.

How much of a work is ‘left brain’ and how much is ‘right brain’? How does a composer translate emotion into notes in a score? 

KB: I can’t speak for other composers, but apparently my left brain is much more active than my right brain. I would imagine both parts are necessary to actually organize the music in a cohesive manner. As for “translating emotion into notes in a score,” it’s the composer’s job to understand what exactly it is about a certain chord, or melody, or rhythm that resonates with us in an emotional way. Once we begin to understand why certain combinations of notes are used in certain ways for a certain effect, we can start experimenting with incorporating them into our own personal vocabulary.

How did you come to program Supermaximum?

Neal Gittleman: The DPAA just wrapped up a three-year composer residency with Stella Sung last spring. [Additionally] we applied for one of New Music USA’s next round of composer residencies, looking to have Kenji Bunch as our next Composer-in-Residence. It was a bit of a long shot.. but we went for it anyway.

We didn’t get it…so, we had some contingency plans to fast track some of Kenji’s music into our repertoire to introduce his music to the Dayton audience.

One of those plans was to replace Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra Overture on this month’s Masterworks Series concert with Kenji’s Supermaximum. I decided if the piece was worth playing if they’d said yes—it’s still worth playing even though they said no.

Kenji Bunch is an amazing young composer, with a real gift for engaging, inspiring music. Several people had recommended him to me as someone I should check out and keep an eye (well, an ear) on.

One of the first of Kenji’s pieces that I encountered was Supermaximum, a powerful piece inspired, in Kenji’s words, “by the unique and rich tradition of ‘chain gang’ songs from the prison camps of the Depression-era South.” The title refers to high-security incarceration, as in “supermax prisons,” and Kenji says the piece is about the “need for discovering elements of one’s own humanity in the face of an imposed denial of that humanity.”

The piece begins with the rhythmic sounds of axes, hammers, footsteps, and labored breathing. Then the violas (Kenji’s a violist) play a mournful bluesy melody that gets call-and-response treatment throughout the orchestra.

KB: The music is then transferred over the course of the work to suggest a transcending above the conditions of this harsh reality to an elevated, spiritual state of grace. The work ends full circle with a reiteration of the chain gang elements, but perhaps now with a galvanized, hopeful resolve.

NG: It’s a beautiful, moving, powerful work—one that I thought our audience ought to hear.


Dayton Philharmonic presents Reflections and Images Friday and Saturday, March 24 and 25 at the Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St. in downtown Dayton. Shows start at 8 p.m., with pre-concert talks at 7 p.m. with assistant conductor Patrick Reynolds. Tickets range from $15.45–64.30. For more information, please call 937.224.3521 or visit 

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Pat Suarez has been involved with a wide variety of music for nearly five decades. He has hosted music programming on FM radio and produced and hosted the radio broadcasts of two symphony orchestras. His articles about music have been published extensively in print and online. Reach him at

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