Making Themselves Heard

community chorus director carolyn pennypacker riggs

It’s a hot, sunny Sunday afternoon in the Frogtown neighborhood of Los Angeles, and a group of 12 women are standing quietly in a circle inside a well-worn community center.

“Imagine a note, any note, and hold it in your mind,” the group’s leader, Carolyn Pennypacker Riggs, tells them. On Riggs’ cue, the women release their chosen pitches in full voice. A psychedelic chord blossoms, a powerful, bright sonic bath.

The chord dissipates and Riggs smiles serenely. “I call that a freedom chord,” she says.

Riggs, a Los Angeles-based composer and performance artist, is the founder of the Community Chorus, a protest choir that meets twice a month at the Women’s Center for Creative Work. Since Riggs formed the group in early 2016, she and a revolving group of a couple dozen women have been rehearsing regularly and gathering to sing and march together at Resistance-themed events.

a group of women sing resistance themed songs during a practice session at the women’s center for creative work in los angeles
A group of women sing resistance-themed songs during a practice session at the Women’s Center for Creative Work in Los Angeles.

A native of Berkeley, Riggs has been protesting since childhood. “I consider it a civic duty,” she says. “It is just something you do, like exercising or trying to eat healthy greens.”

In the wake of Donald Trump’s inauguration, Riggs felt energized at marches that included musical elements. If she formed a community choir, she thought, the group could provide both musical inspiration for protesters and a reason to keep attending anti-Trump rallies.

When choosing songs Riggs veers away from protest music composed by 20th century white men. Instead of Bob Dylan, the chorus sings songs by OutKast and Solange.

Riggs has been surprised by how many choir participants tell her they don’t have a good voice. “They tell me they can’t sing, but sing they do,” she says. “If you can feel more comfortable vocalizing, maybe you can speak out against something that really needs to be called out.”

L.A.-based pianist turned writer Catherine Womack covers classical music and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles magazine, Alta Journal, and more.
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