Seth Parker Woods
Credit: Dahlia Katz

Cellist Seth Parker Woods didn’t compose the music on Difficult Grace, but you’d be forgiven for second-guessing that. By his admission, this expansive multimedia project, recently adapted into an album for Chicago’s Cedille Records, is semi-autobiographical; its repertoire list nods to Woods’s spiritual forebears (Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson and Alvin Singleton contribute the closest things to “canonical” works on the album) as well as to his Rolodex of collaborators. Pierre Alexandre Tremblay (asinglewordisnotenough) and Monty Adkins (Winter Tendrils) composed their featured pieces for Woods early in his career; choreographer and dancer Roderick George, who appears with Woods at this Harris Theater event, is a childhood friend. 

Since Woods began performing Difficult Grace as a unified concept in 2020, he’s made the music therein utterly his own. He sings or intones text on three of the album’s seven compositions, including The Race: 1915 by former Eighth Blackbird flutist Nathalie Joachim (which churns and whistles under Woods’s recitation of Chicago Defender columns from that year) and Ted Hearne’s suite Freefucked, which features devilishly distorted selections from the poetry collection Against Heaven by Chicago-based Kemi Alabi. 

Like other live iterations of Difficult Grace, this Harris Theater performance will feature projected visuals, including works by late painter Jacob Lawrence and his protégé Barbara Earl Thomas, whose art adorns Difficult Grace’s album cover. All the works on the program were premiered by Woods, save for “Cavalry Ostinato,” a haunting, entirely pizzicato movement from Perkinson’s 1973 composition Lamentations: Black/Folk Song Suite. In its curated cacophony, Difficult Grace elicits the same kind of awe you feel perusing your smartest friend’s bookshelf: Here are the ideas, artists, and words that shaped Woods, arranged in plain sight. Luckily for us, his library is ever growing.

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Seth Parker Woods’s Difficult Grace Thu 4/20, 6 PM, Millennium Park, Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, $15, all ages