Author: Ruby Fulton

Sonic Uprising: Songs for Freddie Gray

Baltimore Uprising

Photo by Noah Scialom

It was Saturday, April 25, 2015. The intersection of Light Street and Pratt Street in downtown Baltimore was filled with protestors and cars were trapped in a gridlock, unable to move through the throngs of marchers. Drivers honked wildly, but not the angry, frustrated honking that normally comes from cars stuck in traffic. It was a ceremonious group-honking coming relentlessly from at least ten different cars. A solitary protestor walked between lanes chanting, “All night, all day, we will honk for Freddie Gray!” The cars honked in solidarity with the thousands of protestors on foot, and for a nerdy composer like me, it was a symphony of microtonal polyrhythms. I got out my phone to take low-quality audio field recordings.

It’s been four months now since the peak of the Baltimore Uprising, city-wide protests sparked by the death of the 25-year-old African-American man Freddie Gray while he was in police custody. As a white member of the arts community in Baltimore, I’ve felt a heavy combination of the pressure to do something paired with a total loss as far as what I should do ever since. If there is one thing I have learned in the past weeks, it’s that the first thing to do is listen. Sit down, quiet your mouth and your mind, and just listen.

I’ve been listening. I’ve heard folks talking about how they or their sons could just as easily have been Freddie Gray. I’ve heard an artist question why the African-American arts community in Baltimore isn’t more welcomed into an annual city-funded arts event. I’ve heard Maryland State Attorney Marilyn Mosby announce the charges against the six police officers in the death of Freddie Gray, ruled at that moment officially as a homicide, in an impassioned speech that served as a turning point in the unrest. I’ve also heard a lot of creative work generated in reaction to the Uprising. Music has a unique way of giving voice to feelings, and it’s no surprise that Baltimore’s local musicians responded quickly and intensely.

One potent example came from jazz pianist and composer Lafayette Gilchrist, in collaboration with R&B singer-songwriter Brooks Long. Titled “Blues for Freddie Gray,” this piece of music ends with the lyric, “We’ve been waiting for so long,” set against the swirling horns that Gilchrist has assembled for the signature strange, full, and beautiful sound of his band, the New Volcanoes. Whenever I catch the group, which plays semi-regularly at the Windup Space in Baltimore’s Station North Arts and Entertainment District, I’m reminded of the denser parts of one of my favorite Radiohead songs, “Life in a Glass House.” The difference is, Radiohead sets that mood for about 25 seconds, while Gilchrist and the New Volcanoes routinely let it go on for upwards of 25 minutes. In “Blues for Freddie Gray,” the horns sound like that feeling we all had in Baltimore right after the really intense part of the Uprising, the Monday of Gray’s funeral, when protests turned violent and Mayor Stephanie Rawlins Blake called in the National Guard and imposed a city-wide (and a lot of people say, unconstitutional) curfew. The best word I can think of to describe the feeling is overwrought. But better than a word is the sound of the music. Long’s lyrics here are powerful, but general. You can hear this same phenomenon in so many protest songs. From Bob Dylan’s “The answer my friend/ Is blowing in the wind” to Rage Against the Machine’s “Fuck you/ I won’t do what you tell me” to the African-American spiritual “We shall not be moved,” the non-specificity of the lyrics allows room for people to attach their own particular interpretation to the songs, and to feel a deep sense of solace, at least for the few minutes the song lasts.

I was amazed by how quickly the hip hop community responded to the crisis by posting recordings online. It’s as if they were sitting at home at night—because they couldn’t be out after 10 p.m.—making immediate and potent music about what was happening in the city. Before the six-night curfew had lifted, Damond Blue dropped “Oh Baltimore,” produced by D Banks. The song opens with a BBC news clip about the Uprising and continues with searing verses about the struggle of being a young African-American man in Baltimore, combined with quotes from Randy Newman’s “Baltimore” from 1977 (and covered famously by Nina Simone the next year). Blue uses quotes from the song, rather than actual samples.

On May 20, rappers Young Moose and Martina Lynch released “No SunShine,” a song and video about the Uprising. The video opens with a lengthy sample of Bill Wither’s famous ballad “Ain’t No Sunshine” (1971) with footage of protestor Larry Lomax wearing a “Fuck the Police” shirt while being maced in the face at point blank range and pulled by his hair to the ground. This is followed by video of Kollin Truss being punched by Baltimore police officer Vincent Cosom at a bus stop back in June of 2014 and then it cuts abruptly to footage of the violent protests of 2015, cut with shots of Young Moose and Martina Lynch rapping within a crowd. Much of the rapping takes place in front of street artist Nether’s giant mural of Freddie Gray’s face, painted onto a wall at the site of Gray’s arrest in West Baltimore. The most heartbreaking part of the video is the young kids standing with the rappers, holding up their fists in solidarity. Martina Lynch packs an incredible amount of information into 35 seconds of rapping about the situation, with an especially poignant line “the police don’t know me, but they wanna take out my whole team.”

It is notable that both rap songs include quotes from songs from the 1970s. Just like the traffic cone 18-year-old Allan Bullock picked up to smash a police car window on the day the protests turned into riots, the musicians grabbed pre-existing material in order to react as quickly as possible to what was happening in their city. Bullock became famous for doing the right thing and turning himself in, under his parents’ guidance, only to be held on $500,000 bail—higher than any of the six police officers involved in Freddie Gray’s arrest.

Lafayette Gilchrist, Brooks Long, Damond Blue, Young Moose, Martina Lynch: Are their voices being heard outside of Baltimore? I wonder if anyone reading this essay who is not from Baltimore has ever heard any of their work. But I’ll bet you’ve heard the work of Beach House, Dan Deacon, Future Islands, Animal Collective, or Lower Dens, or at least have heard their names. The so-called “Baltimore sound” is being created almost solely by white artists. Don’t get me wrong, I have a huge amount of respect and admiration for these voices. Lower Den’s singer Jana Hunter just wrote a thought-provoking, shit-stirring op-ed for Pitchfork titled “White Privilege and Black Lives in the Baltimore Music Scene.” But just as saying “all lives matter” instead of “black lives matter” is offensive because it minimizes the racism built in to our current system, we need to try to figure out how to make changes in order to hear more African-American voices in the arts. Hunter was clearly thinking along these lines when she used her essay to also create a platform for rapper Abdu Ali to speak directly to Pitchfork’s readership. However, it begs the question: why didn’t Ali write the article himself? Why didn’t Pitchfork reach out to him for an op-ed?

After reflecting on Hunter’s essay and countless others echoing similar sentiments in the past three months, it seems to me that the same systemic problems that sparked the Baltimore Uprising in the first place have hindered the possibility for African-American voices to communicate about these issues across geography. Creative work in a time and place of crisis is essential to a community coping with tragedy and can become a necessary and powerful agent of change. If we truly believe that black lives matter, it’s essential that we commit to hearing what their voices have to say.

Rest in peace, Freddie Gray.

Baltimore Uprising

Photo by Noah Scialom

Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival: A World of Their Own Making

Bang on a Can composer-founders Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe don’t just create music. They’ve also created a utopian environment where independent-minded young composers and performers gather every summer for three weeks to immerse themselves in contemporary and experimental music. The institute celebrated its 10th season this summer, and I traveled to North Adams, Massachusetts, to hear the culminating marathon concert at MASS MoCA. As was evidenced by the six hours of excellent performances of exciting new pieces (and a couple of oldies) by the Institute Fellows alongside the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the festival is going full-steam ahead into decade number two. I had the pleasure of interviewing “the big three” (Gordon, Lang, and Wolfe), as well as performance faculty member clarinetist/composer Ken Thomson and 2011 composer fellow David T. Little.

The Orchestra of Original Instruments

The Orchestra of Original Instruments celebrates the legacy of Gunnar Schonbeck, led by Mark Stewart

THE PLACE
MASS MoCA (the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) has been a home to the festival ever since 1998, when David Lang put on a hard hat to tour the building site and proposed the idea to Museum Director Joe Thompson. The museum provides Bang on a Can with an idyllic summer home which supports their community-based, boundary-pushing philosophy.

THE MUSIC
Programming for the summer festival is a little different from what Bang on a Can chooses to play throughout the year, in New York City and on tour with the Bang on a Can All-Stars. At the festival, the music is selected specifically to provide a well-rounded experience for the performer fellows in residence.

To collaborate with and coach the fellows, the festival has an all-star faculty cast, including members of Alarm Will Sound, eighth blackbird, and of course, the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Faculty member clarinetist/composer Ken Thomson said he was playing music with the fellows from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day, stopping only to eat! Thomson’s commitment to musical excellence clearly caught on, as the marathon performances were high caliber throughout the afternoon and evening. From the opening piece, Christine Southworth’s driving Super Collider, all the way through the grand finale, Julia Wolfe’s bizarre and dissonant tell me everything, the performers were simultaneously fearless and communicative. I especially enjoyed seeing all the fellows onstage in the Orchestra of Original Instruments, with homemade balloon horns, whirlie tubes, and Pee-wee Herman-style larger-than-life-sized instruments built by Gunnar Schonbeck.

THE LESSONS
The festival celebrates broad musicianship; this year’s festival offered improv sessions, Mark Stewart’s amazing Orchestra of Original Instruments, and African dancing/drumming rhythm seminar led by Ghana master Nani Agbeli. Kenny Salveson and Tim Thomas from the Bang on a Can administrative staff offer seminars on music business and fundraising. Community growth is fostered by relationships formed with the teachers and other fellows alike. Many fellows leave the festival and start their own ensembles or festivals (New York’s Loadbang, the San Francisco Bay Area’s Switchboard Music Festival, and East Coast/West Coast ensemble Redshift, to name a few).

But there’s also teaching by example. Aside from the musical and practical lessons built into the institute program, there is a general attitude of positivity, openness, individuality, and generosity exuded by everyone involved with the Bang on a Can organization. 2011 composer fellow David T. Little noted how the festival effectively wiped out any cynicism he had built up from a busy musical life in New York City. It is indeed an honor and a privilege to be a composer, and to continue to ask the questions that shape our creative lives.

Gaudeamus Music Week 2010: The Winners Announced

Gaudeamus week is over! See pictures of the winners below. Not pictured is Jacob Adler (USA), who won the Organ prize.

Honorable mentions for the Gaudeamus Prize: Giuliano Bracci (Italy) and Artur Akshelyan (Armenia)
Honorable mentions for the Gaudeamus Prize: Giuliano Bracci (Italy) and Artur Akshelyan (Armenia)
Winner of the 2010 Gaudeamus Prize: Marko Nikodijevic (Serbia)
Winner of the 2010 Gaudeamus Prize: Marko Nikodijevic (Serbia)

Gaudeamus Music Week 2010: The Final Stretch

Interview with a view—composers Giuliano Bracci and Francisco Castillo Trigueros before the Holland Symfonia concert
Interview with a view—composers Giuliano Bracci and Francisco Castillo Trigueros before the Holland Symfonia concert

The festival is drawing to a close but the music keeps on coming. Last night was the Holland Symfonia concert and they played the heck out of my piece Road Ranger Cowboy. It was amazing to me how quickly they were able to wrap their collective mind around the groove of the piece. These Europeans have got it going on! There were also pieces on by Lu Wang (China/New York), Francisco Castillo Trigueros (Mexico), Marko Nikodijevic (Serbia) and Giuliano Bracci (Italy)—all of them different, all of them good.

Yet to come are two more afternoon concerts (including a whole program of microtonal music for the Fokker organ, which has 31 tones to the octave!) and the presentation of the prize.

Post-concert celebration—composers Ruby Fulton, Lu Wang, Francisco Castillo Trigueros and Giuliano Bracci
Post-concert celebration—composers Ruby Fulton, Lu Wang, Francisco Castillo Trigueros and Giuliano Bracci

Gaudeamus Music Week 2010: A Few Good Surprises

Friday at Gaudeamus had a couple of good surprises for me. The first one was the appearance of the German composer Johannes Kreidler. I saw his YouTube video “Charts Music” about a year ago in Baltimore, and it’s wild to see this internet celebrity in person. He’s famous for challenging copyright laws which ban artists from copying or sampling someone else’s work. In 2008, he wrote Product Placements, a 33-second electronic piece which makes use of 70,200 samples. In order to register the title with GEMA (the German ASCAP), he had to fill out a form for each sample used. It’s an outdated registration system where you can’t register titles online if the piece uses quotes and requires extra forms. But, more to the point, perhaps it’s an outdated way of thinking, that sampling should require documentation. As Kreidler says, “copying is a form of culture.” So he filled out all of the thousands of forms, loaded them into the back of a truck and delivered them to the GEMA offices, where they finally backed down and changed the rule for him in order to avoid all the paperwork. It was a big event in the news. All his stacks of papers have been made into a sculpture now. A short documentary about Product Placements was screened at the afternoon concert here.

Ensemble Klang performing <i>Narayana's Cows</i> at Night of the Unexpected; Johannes Kreidler's video <i>Product Placements</i>
Ensemble Klang performing Narayana’s Cows at “Night of the Unexpected”; Johannes Kreidler’s video Product Placements

The evening was “Night of the Unexpected” at Paradiso. This was quite an event, with different acts going on every twenty minutes or so in different parts of the club. My two favorite acts were unusual theater pieces. Towards the beginning of the night was an opera-type thing with no singers called The Arrest by Yannis Kyriakides performed by Ensemble MAE. Instead of a singer presenting the text, there was a video with very large words which told the story. It had a sort of “trainspotting” vibe about it. The music was cool.

A bit later, Ensemble Klang played Narayana’s Cows by Tom Johnson, with Keir Neuringer narrating. The central idea for the piece is both incredibly simple but also mathematically complex—there’s one cow in the beginning of the story, and the musicians play a note for every new cow who is born over time. The string of notes grows longer with each new generation. Klang was flawless and awesome.

And after that, we got Killl, a totally off the hook noise band from Oslo whose lighting scheme nearly gave me a seizure.

The most unexpected thing I saw yesterday, though, was this claw machine dragging out mangled bicycles from the canals.

<i>The Arrest</i> performed by Ensemble MAE at Paradiso; Machine dragging bicycles out of the canal
The Arrest performed by Ensemble MAE at Paradiso; Machine dragging bicycles out of the canal

Gaudeamus Music Week 2010: Gamelan By Heart

Composers (including Matius Shan Boone, Gordon Dic Lun Fung, Iwan Genawan and Evan Ziporyn) and performers taking bows after the Gamelan event
Composers (including Matius Shan Boone, Gordon Dic Lun Fung, Iwan Genawan and Evan Ziporyn) and performers taking bows after the Gamelan event

The big event of Day Four was a huge gamelan concert held at Tropentheater. There were three different ensembles involved in the performance: Ensemble Gending (Dutch); Kyai Fatahillah (West-Javanese); and Gong Semara Ratih (Balinese).

It’s difficult to pick one highlight because the show was pretty fantastic all around. I really dug Indonesian composer Iwan Gunawan’s Kulu-kulu, which made the gamelan sound a little like a rock band at times. Gunawan also arranged Steve Reich’s Six Marimbas for gamelan.

Ensemble Gending on stage at Tropentheater
Ensemble Gending on stage at Tropentheater

Probably my favorite piece on the program was the world premiere of Evan Ziporyn’s Lapanbelas. It started and ended with these huge, continuous walls of sound. It was amazing to see the Gong Semara Ratih Ensemble play a world premiere with no music stands, parts, or a conductor. As it turns out, there was never written music for this piece; it was all learned by heart from the very beginning. I’ve heard so many first performances of pieces that are tentative and slightly scared sounding, even by very excellent ensembles. I think most Western ensembles would say that the third or fourth performance of a new piece is better, by virtue of having performed it a few times to reach a certain comfort level that rehearsals can’t provide. Not so with Lapanbelas. The ensemble clearly knew it in their bodies. They swayed, danced, and smiled to the music. It makes me wonder if rehearsing and performing are more like the same thing to a gamelan ensemble, as opposed to the Western model, where everything is meant to be performed perfectly in order to be deemed worthy of being put behind the display case in a museum fifty years later.

Anyway. We heard a pretty cool orchestra piece in the composer’s discussion this morning by Russian composer Sergey Khismatov. The whole piece fits on one page only so it’s quite portable. And it sounds good, too.

Composer Sergey Khismatov next to his one-page orchestra score
Composer Sergey Khismatov next to his one-page orchestra score

Gaudeamus Music Week 2010: A Cornucopia of Composition

Composers Donnacha Dennehy, David Dramm, and Louis Andriessen after a concert
Composers Donnacha Dennehy, David Dramm, and Louis Andriessen after a concert

Day three of the Gaudeamus Festival was even more music-packed than the previous days, with three concerts in three different venues, and performances of eighteen pieces, including seven world premieres. Yowza!

The 12:30 p.m. concert was presented by Orkest de ereprijs, a wind-heavy large chamber ensemble based out of Apeldorn. It was fun to get to hear them play again, after working with them a couple years ago at the 2009 Young Composers Meeting. They played a very Dutch-sounding program, including an exciting first performance of An Irish Process by Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy, one of the jurors for the competition; and a new piece by one of my favorite composers of all time, Richard Ayres, called No.44 (diary pieces). I was a little disappointed not to see Ayres at the concert, but one of the sentences in his bio in the booklet pretty much made up for it:

“In 1989 he accidentally rubbed an old copper teapot, heard a whooshing sound, and mysteriously found himself next to Louis Andriessen who was teaching him how to compose music.”

Pianist Pascal Meyer performing Fabian Svensson's <i>Toy Piano Toccata (in Black and White)</i>
Pianist Pascal Meyer performing Fabian Svensson’s Toy Piano Toccata (in Black and White)

Speaking of Andriessen, he made an appearance at the two evening concerts, and it was very cool to see such a legendary composer checking out the festival. Highlights of the evening concert at the Muziekgebouw included Swedish composer Fabian Svensson’s piece for solo toy piano, Toy Tocatta (in Black and White), played brilliantly by Pascal Meyer; and another cool piece by Dennehy, this one an edgy mixed quartet with electronics called Glamour Sleeper II.

As if that weren’t enough, there was an 11 p.m. concert at Bimhuis, a more casual venue upstairs from the Muziekgebouw. Electric violinist Monica Germino put on a great show. On the first piece, Fuzz Box Logic by David Dramm, she used five different pedals and I really felt like I should be listening standing up, instead of sitting down eating my french fries with mayo.

Electric violinist Monica Germino in her blue dress
Electric violinist Monica Germino in her blue dress

The highlight of the day for me came at the very end of the night, with the premiere of Julia Wolfe’s With a blue dress on (‘for multiple Monica’s’). It was based on the folk song with the lyric “pretty little girl with a blue dress on, stole my heart and now she’s gone.” It opened with a slow build up of live violin and taped violins, which was eventually interrupted by sample-like vocalizations of the folk melody, in the electronics and also sung live. It started rather innocently but continuously unfolded in unpredictable ways into something darker and strangely beautiful.

I feel like I’ve already heard enough good music to go home happy, but the concerts continue through Sunday. Next up, gamelan.

Gaudeamus Music Week 2010: Getting the Grand Tour

Composers Lu Wang and Francisco Castillo Trigueros listening to a Holland Sinfonia rehearsal
Composers Lu Wang and Francisco Castillo Trigueros listening to a Holland Sinfonia rehearsal

Hi, again, from Amsterdam. If this entry is scattered, it’s because I’m sitting in an orchestra rehearsal right now listening to the Holland Sinfonia read through Lu Wang’s piece, Wailing. It’s exciting to be sitting in the third row right in front of a European orchestra. They’re sounding pretty darn good for a first rehearsal.

The evening concert of day two of the Gaudeamus Festival was in Orgelpark, a small but powerful space nestled inside of a park. When I heard that the place had four organs, I expected something much bigger—but instead, there is more of an intimate church vibe inside, and it was a full house. When the four organs were all played in the last piece on the program (Arizona-based composer Jacob Adler’s Hollerin’ in the Orgelpark) it was like getting a big, warm hug from a giant pipe monster. There was a lot of string music on the program, and the strings sounded awesome in the acoustic. It’s cool that there are so many venues involved in the festival, inviting listeners to explore lots of different parts of the city.

Outside Orgelpark
Outside Orgelpark

I really enjoyed all five pieces on the program. The second movement of Netherlands-based composer Ji Sun Yang’s string quartet stood out in a great performance by the Doelen Quartet. As indicated by the title—Melody, Notes, Five—this movement has only five notes in it. And it wasn’t only pitch content which was minimal: the notes also always stayed in the same middle register and were always long tones. There were fragments of melodies played in hocket around the quartet, separated by long rests. The first little melody, just with the notes [C,D,E-flat,D] was stuck in my head all night. When so little is going on, every tiny change becomes a huge event. I love listening in that way, when each small change can be anticipated and then savored.

Cheers! Prost! Slainte!
Cheers! Prost! Slainte!

A bunch of the composers had a nice post-concert hang with NewMusicBoxer Frank J. Oteri and his wife, Trudy, at a bar near our hotel. The bartender calls me “Baltimore,” and I realized this morning that I forgot to pay for the giant plate of cheese I ordered last night, so I’ll definitely be returning!

Gaudeamus Music Week 2010: Reporting Live

Composer Ruby Fulton, whose orchestral piece Road Ranger Cowboy has been nominated for the 2010 Gaudeamus Prize, is currently live in Amsterdam to attend the 2010 Gaudeamus Music Week sponsored by the Muziek Centrum Nederland. Though she couldn’t fit us all in her suitcase, she has graciously agreed to bring us along virtually and will be filing reports of the ongoing festivities throughout the week.—MS
Composers on their way to the first concert of Gaudeamus Week at the Muziekgebouw
Composers on their way to the first concert of Gaudeamus Week at the Muziekgebouw

Greetings from the Netherlands! It’s an honor to be here participating in the 65th Gaudeamus Music Week. This week will feature music of 60 composers from 26 countries around the world. Besides the music, it’s great just to be here. Chocolate spread for breakfast, a couple holding hands on bicycles, Heineken in the hotel vending machine….I even experienced the phenomenon known as “free health care.” I sprained my ankle in Baltimore while rushing to catch the light rail to the Baltimore Washington International Airport and when I got to the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, I was given a free examination, ace bandage sock thingy, and a pack of enormous 400 milligram hot pink ibuprofen pills. Nice.

Composer Kate Moore with performers from <i>Songs from the Open Road</i>
Composer Kate Moore with performers from Songs from the Open Road

I got in a day early to spend some time with friends in the Hague. It ended up being a lucky day to visit because the UIT Festival was going on, a celebration of the beginning of the season for all the different arts organizations in town. I got to hear selections from my friend Kate Moore’s musical theater piece Songs from the Open Road for harp and soprano. The performance took place in the back of a huge truck which they emptied out and rigged up with theater lights and a curtain. About 30 people climbed up a ramp to enter the truck and hear Kate’s beautiful settings of Walt Whitman. I heard more of the songs that night at a bar called Rootz, where I met all kinds of wild and crazy musicians, including a couple of the players in the Holland Sinfonia, who will play my orchestra piece on Saturday evening.

The view of the river Ij, from the Muziekgebouw
The view of the river Ij, from the Muziekgebouw

Last night at the Muziekgebouw was the first concert of the Gaudeamus Festival, performed by the Nieuw Ensemble. I knew the performers were badass when the violinist broke three bow hairs in the first five seconds of the opening piece on the program (Ordalia della Danza by Italian composer Paolo Ingrosso). I enjoyed the whole program, especially a piece called Mach Kein by Korean composer Myunghoon Park. It was for horn, violin, and soprano with electronics, with repeated fragments of a bizarre text which aligned with strong and simple musical gestures in the violin and horn and something like a club beat in the electronics.

One of the directors of the festival, Henk Heuvelmans from MCN, ended his opening comments to the concert with, “Enjoy tonight, enjoy this week, and then…enjoy.” Sounds good to me.