Category: SoundLives

Adolphus Hailstork: Music is a Service

Adolphus Hailstork

 

Adolphus Hailstork turned 80 in April, but he has been celebrated since the beginning of this year. On January 20, a wind band arrangement of his Fanfare on “Amazing Grace” was performed by the United States Marine Band during the inauguration of President of the United States Joe Biden. It was only the second time that music by a contemporary African American composer had been selected to be part of the repertoire performed at a presidential inauguration ceremony. And in June, as part of a digitally streamed concert on the first Juneteenth that was an official U.S. national holiday, J’Nai Bridges and the Harlem Chamber Players gave the world premiere performance of his concert aria Tulsa 1921 (Pity These Ashes, Pity This Dust), a retelling of the Tulsa Race Massacre to mark its centenary. The concert was even previewed on CNN which rarely covers music outside the commercial mainstream.

It was definitely time to catch up with Dr. Hailstork to talk about his life in music. His passion for making music stretches all the way back to his childhood when he sang as a boy chorister. While growing up, he sang his way through all the parts, eventually singing bass. After he embarked on his path as a composer, he never lost his love for the human voice and for melody.

“Choral music is so rich,” Hailstork exclaimed during our conversation over Zoom. “It is my favorite medium.” And Hailstork’s music has been treasured by choirs for half a century. He received his first significant compositional accolade, the Ernest Bloch Award, for his choral composition Mourn Not the Dead in 1971, the same year he received his Ph.D. from Michigan State University. Ironically, only a few years earlier, as he confessed during our talk, he didn’t even know what the words “graduate school” meant. After he had completed his Bachelor’s degree at Howard University, he went to Paris to study composition with Nadia Boulanger, not really sure about what his next steps would be.

Hailstork, however, took a very different path from most composers who pursued academic degrees during that time, eschewing what he described as the “plink, plank, and plunk” of the avant-garde music of his contemporaries. And for many years, his music was overlooked as he acknowledged. “It used to be a lot more difficult for lyrical types like me to have a place, just to be recognized, to be heard.”

Throughout this time, Hailstork, nevertheless, held his aesthetic ground, settling in Virginia and teaching for decades at Old Dominion University in Norfork while composing a stunning output of chamber music, solo piano and organ pieces, as well as many formidable orchestral works including four symphonies, in addition to writing numerous works for chorus. But while he is clear that he wants his music to be “a continuation rather than a breaking away from” the Western classical tradition, he very clearly has his own voice which has been enriched by his immersion into African American spirituals.

“I do worship the spirituals,” he explained at one point. “They’re gorgeous melodies and they’re very useful, and also I believe in the old statement by Dvořák that an American art music could be based on using African American materials or Indian materials also. I decided that Dvořák was right, and that’s what I wanted to do and I tried to work them in.”

The result of Hailstork’s idiosyncratic amalgamation of these two traditions has yielded an extraordinarily rich compositional language which also serves his other goal, “to capture or reflect the tribulations and the occasional triumphs of African Americans in this country.”

 

  • We almost killed music 50-60 years ago as a group experience.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • This whole thing of plink, plank, and plunk, count to 12--I couldn’t get into it.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • I learned a lot from those wonderful musicians who took the time to let me know that: "Your harp writing sucks, man. We got to teach you how to do this."

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • Harp makes a great melding together kind of goo.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • I wound up teaching comp to undergrads without any kind of theory background. It was excruciating. They didn’t know what they were doing. "I’m going to be a Composah." Well, sorry, it helps to know how to; it’s like if you’re going to build buildings and you never knew what a girder was.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • I believe in the old statement by Dvořák that an American art music could be based on using African American materials or Indian materials also.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • I think "We Shall Overcome" is a great classical melody.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • In my music, I try to capture or reflect the tribulations and the occasional triumphs of African Americans in this country.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • Music is supposed to have meaning to me.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • I salute all the band directors of America for their constant looking for new pieces.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • I was reacting to all the black men who are getting shot in the back--16 bullets here, seven bullets there

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • I love grand opera, though I never had a chance to write an evening’s length opera. I’m getting kind of old for that.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • If anything good came out of the pandemic, it's that so many artistic groups have started to rethink their hopes, their plans, and also their whole programming.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • I once called music a service art, and that’s probably because growing up as a chorister, I was performing service. ... You take all that out of listening to music, and no wonder people are gonna stop coming to it.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer

Susie Ibarra: Hybrid Culture

Susie Ibarra performing on a drum kit

A week before I finally had a chance to have an extended conversation with multi-genre composer and percussionist Susie Ibarra, she performed at Roulette–her first concert with a group in front of a live audience since the pandemic shut everything down around the world. To say it has been a challenging 16 months for everyone is a tremendous understatement, but for Ibarra–whose artistry has been so deeply shaped by collaborations with other musicians–it could have proven stifling. And yet, this strange period has been remarkably productive for her.

Thus far this year, she has released two albums. First, Talking Gong, a spellbinding New Music USA-funded debut album of her new poly-stylistic trio with Claire Chase and Alex Peh. Then Walking on Water, a deeply moving homage to the victims of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsumani created in collaboration with visual artist Makoto Fujimura which uses the sounds of water as a central musical element. Both of these albums were recorded in studios over the course of last summer as COVID-19 cases were raging; musicians were tested before each session, remained masked whenever they could, and maintained physical distances. Susie Ibarra was also able to continue another strand of her output, her remarkable series of solo percussion explorations. An extraordinary performance she gave in a surreally empty hall at William Paterson College back in February is thankfully still available to stream. And a few months before that, in December 2020, she launched the Composers Now Impact series of composer presentations with a fascinating audio-video stream about her music.

Obviously we talked about these unprecedented times in which we are still living; it’s pretty much impossible not to talk about it. But we also talked about a wide range of other topics during the hour we spent together over Zoom. The very first time I ever heard Susie Ibarra, she was part of the legendary David S. Ware Quartet alongside Matt Shipp and William Parker. So I was eager to find out more about how she found herself in her 20s as part of this legendary free jazz quartet as an equal partner in what many aficionados consider to be some of the most enduring music of the late 1990s. I was also curious to learn more about her stint playing with the New Jersey indie rock band Yo La Tengo and the collaborative improvisatory trio Mephista she performed in with pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and laptop artist Ikue Mori.

  • We were all just happy to be in the room and back into our practice of attending or performing concerts. I really missed that a lot.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • I played that performance the day before one of my dear mentors passed away. Milford Graves passed the next afternoon. I had a kind of spiritual visit from him while I was playing and in one piece, I ended up playing some rhythms that he had directly taught me.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • Putting gender to instruments has always been a strange thing for me, ‘cause it has affected all of us as human beings. And it’s all these inanimate objects that we culturally have put gender on.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • When I hear younger generations, and their voices, and how they’re able to voice this politically right now, and socially, I’m really happy and hopeful. In my generation, I think there are certain things that just weren’t even touched or addressed.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • It wasn’t that I was buying albums. I had some, but I wasn’t a giant collector. I wanted to go to the live performances.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • I was just so happy playing music. It's the best way to keep growing and learning.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • Sometimes when we were playing pieces, you don’t know who’s making what sounds. I love that actually, ‘cause we were all really integrated in playing that music in the moment.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • It was never like: "Susie, you can’t do this because you’re a woman." I didn’t come from that culture. So I feel really lucky. … But I certainly got schooled on how society saw it.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • I grew up with a hybrid culture. So it’s what I know. I don’t know anything otherwise. … I love that aesthetic that everybody has their own thing that’s really special and it’s different.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • I love rehearsals in any situation. It’s great when you get a lot of players that just want to play, and we want to play and see how it’s going to grow.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • At one point, I was living the winters in the Philippines. It was like having two lives.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • We felt that particularly with water rhythms, listening to climate change, we are personally inviting the listener in to have a more personal experience and to connect, because everybody’s had a connection to water.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist

An undercurrent that runs throughout Susie Ibarra’s career trajectory is that many of the activities she was engaging in–performing in genres such as free jazz, particularly as a drummer–were unusual for a woman back in the 1990s and early 2000s. Her memories about that era were particularly illuminating:

“Having been a young musician, I definitely went through it, like with the naivete of all of a sudden having to wake up to that–wow, oh, the world is like this. Because I was raised by a very strong mother. She was a doctor and grew up in World War II in Manila. She’s very bright. She skipped three grades. She graduated from med school when she was 22. It was never like: ‘Susie, you can’t do this because you’re a woman.’ I didn’t come from that culture. So I was really lucky. Really lucky. Because in that particular style, whatever genre of jazz it is, it’s very socially difficult to a point where you think: Well, I can be empathetic and supportive to issues that are going on, but I also know that what my life path is is different than other people who are born into their life paths. So I also can’t just take on giant, heavy stones on my back that are not going to serve a purpose or be useful for anything. So initially, I think I just loved so much a lot of this music and playing, and I was also raised in a certain way. I didn’t see it that way. But I certainly got schooled on how society saw it. And then it’s the question of: do I want to accept that, or do I want to not accept that.”

Another thing that has given her tremendous strength and perseverance has been her immersion into her Philippine heritage. As she would later learn when she began to spend time absorbing the myriad musical practices in the Philippines, percussion instruments were traditionally played by women. So the way that cultures have gendered certain musical instruments is by no means universal. However, being born in California, raised in Houston, and coming of age as an artist in New York City, no single cultural force has exclusively shaped her approach to making music.

“I grew up with a hybrid culture, so it’s what I know,” she explains. “I don’t know anything otherwise. … I love that aesthetic that everybody has their own thing that’s really special and it’s different.”

New Music USA · SoundLives — Susie Ibarra: Hybrid Culture
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Susie Ibarra
June 18, 2021—Noon EDT via Zoom
Via a Zoom Conference Call
Additional voiceovers by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Ricky Ian Gordon: My Way of Enveloping a Story

For the past 20 years, Ricky Ian Gordon has been creating works for the stage—operas, musicals, or one-of a-kind music/theater hybrids—and getting them produced one after another, seemingly without a pause. But 14 months ago, fresh off from the PROTOTYPE production of Ellen West and with two new works about to open—Intimate Apparel at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis with New York City Opera—plus a revival of The Grapes of Wrath at Aspen in the works, everything came to a screeching halt as the world went into lockdown due to the pandemic.

“They didn’t even take down the set of Intimate Apparel,” Ricky exclaimed when we spoke over Zoom. “Michael Yeargan’s set is there. Cathy Zuber’s costumes, Jennifer Tipton’s lights, everything’s in place. We just have to get back in the theater. We’ll open the theater again.”

But since everything has been on hold for over a year now, he has taken a break from madly finishing new scores. Instead, he has focused mostly on other things—writing poetry, a candid essay about his teenage obsession with Joni Mitchell which was published in Spin, and he’s now furiously at work on a book-length memoir that will be published in 2022 by Farrar Straus & Giroux.

“I couldn’t get behind writing music and anything that relies on performance during a period when there was not going to be any performance,” Gordon explained. “It just felt like the wrong direction. And also the whole Zoom music thing, like operas on Zoom, just doesn’t interest me that much. … But we’re all fickle, and if suddenly it was a form that was about my work, then I’m sure I’d turn around on it, ‘cause I’m 12-years-old inside.”

  • I actually decided I’m going to take a break from notes for a little while.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • I’m the guy who writes hybrid.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • It’s better to open a house on Madame Butterfly than on a brand new opera that is going to ask new things of this space.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • By the next time you see Pacific Overtures, it might be for like kazoo and French horn.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • If I could go back and have another life, I would be reading 24 hours a day.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • If you want to be a librettist, you have to be attached to the events and the stories.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • Because the AIDS crisis was in the center of my life, I was constantly writing for people who were dying.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • There is no such thing as history or then and now.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • The role of art in society and the role of the artist in society may in fact be more balanced when we return to normal, because death is way more clearly imminent.

    Ricky Ian Gordon

It’s somewhat surprising that Ricky Ian Gordon didn’t jump on the virtual music bandwagon, since for years he’s been involved in creating works for the stage that redefine possibilities and break boundaries. But he also excels at creating work that is emotionally direct and has an immediate impact with audiences, so it makes sense that he’d be skeptical about creating something designed to be experienced by isolated individuals in front of computer terminals. And what inspires him more than anything else is the narrative arc of a great story, whether it’s a John Steinbeck novel, passages from Marcel Proust, a poem by Frank Bidart about a patient of an early 20th century psychiatrist suffering from anorexia nervosa, or the lives of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. While most of his stage works are based on events from the distant past, these stories are very much in the present for him.

“Is Grapes of Wrath any less resonant now than it was then?” he asked at one point in our talk. “The entire world is one big refugee crisis. One big drought. One big food shortage. One big government saying: it’s not my fault. The Grapes of Wrath could have been written yesterday! When we wrote 27 about Gertrude and Alice, what was the zeitgeist? Gay marriage. And this is like the original gay marriage. These two women were calling themselves husband and wife before World War I. It all feels like it’s happening now. … I never feel like I’m back in time. … I just feel like … I’m making myself available for those stories. Then I feel like they sort of explode through me. There is no such thing as history or then and now. There’s only the current moment and what seems to be my way of enveloping that story.”

Thankfully, though he has had numerous productions put on hiatus, Ricky Ian Gordon has not suffered great hardship during the past year as have so many others who have lost loved ones or have gotten sick themselves. But he is also a war-scarred survivor of the AIDS crisis which claimed tons of people dear to him, most significantly his partner Jeffrey Michael Grossi, whose death inspired his deeply personal adaptation of Orpheus and Eurydice and his poignant monodrama Green Sneakers. The lessons Gordon learned from that horrific time inform his outlook on where we as a society are right now.

“It was a very intense time,” he recalled. “Because the AIDS crisis was in the center of my life, I was constantly writing for people who were dying … We live in a very divided country right now, but I just can’t imagine we’re not all gonna be affected by this. … The role of art in society and the role of the artist in society may in fact be more balanced when we return to normal, because death is way more clearly imminent. … How do you incorporate that into a new world where at any moment you could get a pandemic and everyone could be killed? What does art mean then?”

New Music USA · SoundLives — Ricky Ian Gordon: My Way Of Enveloping A Story
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Ricky Ian Gordon
April 19, 2021—1:30pm EDT via Zoom
Additional voiceovers by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Pamela Z: Expanding Our Imaginations

The only thing that is almost as exciting as watching and listening to a multimedia performance by Pamela Z is to hear her talk about it, which she does for almost an hour in a fascinating conversation that spans a wide range of topics including: creating and performing during the pandemic; her artistic beginnings as a singer-songwriter and how she transitioned into an experimental composer; a difficult encounter with TSA agents; dealing with constant changes in technology; and her obsession with old telephones.

Although Pamela is a composer who is mostly focused on creating new sounds by new means, it was extremely interesting to hear her describe her occasional frustration with the ephemerality of so many of the devices on which we all have become so dependent.

At one point she exclaims, “There are a lot of people in the world who all they care about is changing things. They don’t get attached to something. They really think everything is oh so yesterday, so six months ago. That is not compatible in a way with becoming virtuosic on anything. Building an instrument that you can become virtuosic on without having to pause every few minutes to update it and then change all of the things that no longer work with the update and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I always jokingly say: ‘Wouldn’t it be weird if you were a violinist or a cellist or something and every six months somebody would show up at your house and take your cello away from you and say, Here, this is the new cello, and you need to learn to play this one. And by the way, we’ve made the fretboard a little narrower because you don’t need all that extra space?’”

And yet, those technological changes and sometimes the strange glitches and disconnects that result from them have informed so much of this San Francisco Bay Area-based maverick’s creative work. Attention, a work she created for the Del Sol String Quartet, will forever change your perception of telephones ringing. Baggage Allowance will make you rethink your next airplane trip when it is safe to take one again. She hopes Times3, her sonic installation created for the 2021 Prototype Festival to accompany a walk around Times Square that has now been extended through April 30, 2021, “cues people into the thought of expanding their imagination to past, present, and future of whatever place they’re in.”

  • The time we’re living through right now is turning us all into filmmakers.

    Pamela Z
  • One of my least favorite things is to see somebody making the awkward effort to make their performance visual just because they think that’s expected.

    Pamela Z
  • I’ve actually been telling people that if they do have the chance to go and listen to the piece in Times Square that I also encourage them to have another listen to it, not in Times Square.

    Pamela Z
  • I suddenly woke up one day and realized that the music I was playing for a living did not resemble what was on my turntable.

    Pamela Z
  • I spend just as much time going to visual art museums and galleries as I do going to concerts.

    Pamela Z
  • Wouldn’t it be weird if you were a cellist and every six months somebody would show up at your house and take your cello away from you and say, “Here, this is the new cello, and you need to learn to play this one.”

    Pamela Z
  • Nothing dies on the internet. Well, except Flash.

    Pamela Z

Pamela Z’s quest for new solutions which create problems that are also an integral part of the resultant work also informs her brand new Ink, a work which includes some surreal reflections on how musicians interact with notated scores which will be premiered by the San Francisco-based chorus Volti in an online performance on April 24.

Aside from learning more about all of these one-of-a-kind compositions, it’s a delight to hear all of her stories since, as anyone who has experienced her work already knows, she is an extremely engaging storyteller. Our time together over Zoom was a non-stop adventure except for, perhaps appropriately, the occasional internet connection hiccup which we mostly were able to fix in post-production editing.

New Music USA · SoundLives — Pamela Z: Expanding Our Imaginations
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Pamela Z
March 16, 2021—4:00pm EDT via Zoom
Via a Zoom Conference Call between San Francisco CA and New York NY
Additional voiceovers by Brigid Pierce and Jonathan Stone; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Judith Lang Zaimont: The Music She Has to Write

Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom

Judith Lang Zaimont has been active as a pianist since she was five. She performed on national television at the age of 11 and began her studies at Juilliard at age 12. But despite her deep love for music from the very beginning, she realized early on that she hated practicing, playing the exact same thing again and again. One day, while sight-reading through some music by Chopin, she had an epiphany. The constant variations in his music meant he also hated playing the same thing again and again. And it suddenly dawned on her that her constant desire to play something new meant that she was a composer.

That endless search for something new still fuels Zaimont’s creativity many decades later. She is defiantly unwilling to be typecast for creating music in a particular style, which makes her music always a welcome surprise. But it has also proved challenging for her in terms of typical opportunities for composers.

“I have very particular ideas or thoughts about commissions,” she explained when we chatted over Zoom in early February. “They open doors. But they always come as a result of knowing past music by the person. And if you are not a one-groove individual artistically, if you have many parts to yourself, then you could open a door you’ve never opened before in a new piece. … We suffer a little bit, if you’ve been at this for a while, from being branded thus or such. And artists are not their brand. If you relax into that groove, beware.”

For Zaimont, composing music is always a work in progress, an ongoing journey of discovery and reinventing oneself. It has also made her very critical of her own work over the years which has led her to take works she no longer thinks are worthy out of circulation.

“The world doesn’t need those pieces,” she exclaimed. “I’m constantly going back and making sure that what I put forward is the best that I can do under the circumstances.”

Thankfully, however, there are quite a few pieces that she does still acknowledge and many performers acknowledge them, too. While so many composers are lucky if a piece they’ve written gets a performance and a recording, several of Zaimont’s works have been recorded multiple times which is, after all, how music becomes repertoire. And that is her goal since her music is deeply informed and inspired by the canon of classical music repertoire. Among the pillars in her catalog are six symphonies, two piano trios, a hefty piano sonata, and two string quartets—at least that she still acknowledges (believing that she only fully grasped the string quartet medium in her 60s). She has also composed a formidable Judaic sacred service, perhaps her most significant choral work although it has yet to be recorded in its entirety.

Yet despite Zaimont’s deep immersion in European musical traditions, her music is very much American. She has composed several rags and the rhythms and harmonies of jazz and various American popular music genres have seeped into her own compositional language, so much so that they’re not influences per se, but rather additional vocabulary that she has mastered and incorporated into her own ever-evolving sound world.

  • I have a super appreciation of the performer’s entry point...

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • I think a long time about how the music is going to be notated.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • I always want horizons that don’t fence you in.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • All of my pieces solve puzzles.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • I have tried not to be branded.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • I do charts of other people’s periodicities. I did all the development sections of all the Beethoven sonatas.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • My father used to come to all my concerts and applaud like crazy. And then he’d get this funny look on his face, like maybe he didn’t understand the music.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • Ned Rorem once wrote that a composer has three arrows in his quiver, and he shoots them over and over again. I took that as a challenge.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • If each piece isn’t a struggle to do, you’ve got to question how valid it is.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • Nobody ever told me that any women wrote music. Did it stop me? No.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer

Early on in her career, Zaimont was also a major champion of other female composers, both contemporaries and women from earlier times, editing an important series of volumes of critical studies of their music.

“Nobody ever told me that any women wrote music,” she remembered. “Did it stop me? No. I knew I was born to write music. Didn’t matter to me. … But I saw there was a whole cohort of women who were writing music. I started to learn the history of music that had been written in times past by women. … These people were not in the history books. They were not there. Generations of the present moment weren’t knowing about them. The world needs to know about what they have accomplished and appreciate it. I got letters from some of the standing composers whom we profiled in the critical appraisals sections of the books to thank me for finally having been able to engender these really critical articles dealing with the stuff of their music. Not who they were as a person. Whether they were married or had children, how old they were. That they were women in a man’s world. None of that. Deal with their music. That’s why I did that. I set my own creative work aside to do this because somebody needed to step up and do it. … I’m very grateful to the music that these people wrote, that it is now in the world.”

But don’t call Zaimont, as she described it, an “adjective” composer.

“The thing I don’t like is being a column B composer. I don’t want to wait until you get adjective before the world composer. Before you think Judith Lang Zaimont. Think of me right up there. I sit at Chopin’s—just behind Chopin, I can’t sit at his shoulder. I sit back there a ways. But I’m on the stage.”


New Music USA · SoundLives — Judith Lang Zaimont – The Music She Has To Write
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Judith Lang Zaimont
February 2, 2021—4:00pm EST via Zoom
Via a Zoom Conference Call between Maricopa AZ and New York NY
Produced and recorded by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Kris Bowers: In Love With Accompaniment

Kris Bowers

Kris Bowers is one of the humblest and most introverted composer/performers I have ever encountered. This is astonishing considering his accomplishments—winning the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition at 20, a daytime Emmy four years ago, and now one of the most in-demand composers for film and television, most recently scoring the Netflix sensation Bridgerton. And yet it all makes sense when you begin exploring Bowers’s incredible versatility, his openness to all genres of music, and hear how attuned his music is to whatever project he is working on as well as all the musicians he has worked with.

“As a jazz pianist, one of the things that I fell in love with was accompaniment,” he acknowledged when we spoke with him about his music and career back in October. “I’ve never really wanted to be the center of attention in a performance space.”

  • I’ve never really wanted to be the center of attention in a performance space.

    Kris Bowers
  • I’ve always been into different styles of music.

    Kris Bowers
  • I always like giving myself limitations or rules, or a box, and then going wild within that space.

    Kris Bowers
  • I have a lot of family members that I don’t agree with… But, at the same time, I have a profound love for them.

    Kris Bowers
  • Until I started doing scoring sessions, I wasn’t able to have a group of musicians of a large size, play my music since college.

    Kris Bowers
  • I felt just as much kinship with John Williams as I did Quincy Jones and Terence Blanchard.

    Kris Bowers
  • I realized I would rather be up until five in the morning at home working on a score than getting on a bus to go to the next city.

    Kris Bowers
  • I have maybe a week to ten days to turn around the score.

    Kris Bowers
  • Whenever you hear a musician’s album, you know whose album it is by who’s the loudest on that album. … I didn’t want that.

Scoring films and television series might be the ideal medium for Bowers since it allows him to immerse himself in the characters and plots which should be foregrounded rather than the music. Nevertheless the music he writes is always attention grabbing and works well as a listening experience independently of whatever it was originally written to enhance, whether it’s the score for the 2018 motion picture Green Book, which was based on the life of composer/pianist Don Shirley, or the 2019 EA Sports videogame Madden NFL 20. Whatever project he is working on, Bowers always operates from a zone of empathy.

“That’s the only way that I can really get to something honest,” he explained. “I think that it’s more likely that it will reach other people if it’s something that came from an honest and emotional place for me.”

Considering his need to relate to the characters he creates music for, it’s somewhat surprising that Bowers also composed the score for Mrs. America, a 2020 Hulu series about the conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly. “I actually really loved needing to represent this human side to this character that I didn’t agree with,” he admitted. “It even helped me understand or remind myself that those people that I might disagree with politically, especially in a time like this, that they’re humans at the end of the day. And that’s something to keep in mind and to really remember.”

As a Black composer who works in a medium that is still overwhelmingly dominated by White composers, it is also important for Bowers that his music not be typecast and the fact that he has worked on such a wide range of projects, in which he has explored an extraordinarily broad range of musical styles, is testimony to his music being impossible to typecast at this point.

New Music USA · SoundLives — Kris Bowers: In Love With Accompaniment
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Kris Bowers
October 22, 2020—12:30pm EST via Zoom
Via a Zoom Conference Call between Los Angeles CA and New York NY
Produced and recorded by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Julie Giroux: A Wind Band is a Box of 168 Crayons

Julie Giroux on boardwalk

I still vividly remember my very first encounter with Julie Giroux. It was in 2015 during the first time I attended the Midwest Clinic, a massive music conference/festival/expo which is heavily but not exclusively devoted to wind band music held annually in Chicago right before the end of each calendar year.

Though I knew some wind band repertoire and had even attended a few wind band concerts over the years, nothing prepared me for how huge the wind band community is—comprising school-based ensembles, community groups, and musical units that are the pride of each of the branches of the military, plus wind bands from around the world. I was not only floored by the sensitivity and virtuosity of performance at what were basically showcases at a conference center which normally might not inspire such a level of commitment, but also how devoted these musicians were to newly composed music. There were so many new composers I discovered that first year, mostly all men, with one very noticeable exception—Julie Giroux, whose works were featured on several concerts. I still remember two of her pieces I heard that week—Riften Wed and Just Flyin’. Both took the audience on a journey that was a real sonic adventure and, at the same time, both were—dare I say it—fun.

Who was this Julie Giroux? I had to meet her. I tracked her down in the giant exhibition area of McCormick Center, which is where Midwest Clinic attendees congregate in between concerts and panel discussions. In fact, it’s a giant marketplace where attendees can and do buy sheet music, recordings (fancy that!), instruments, and even band uniforms. Giroux was holding court by the stand of her music publisher, Musica Propria. There was a line waiting to get her autograph that was longer than two city blocks. I waited. When I finally got directly in front of her, she was laughing uproariously, perhaps at something someone had just said. I was not sure. It’s very loud in that space. I didn’t have much time since there was a line just as long behind me by that point, but I told her how much I liked her music and handed her my business card saying that I hoped we’d have a chance to have a longer conversation at some point for NewMusicBox. I learned that she was based in Mississippi and began plotting ways of traveling there to chat with her. It proved challenging. Then I thought maybe we could record a convo with her during next year’s Midwest Clinic. That proved impossible since everyone else there wanted to talk to her, too, but at least I managed to say hi briefly again and hear some more of her music. And the cycle repeated itself in 2017, 2018, and 2019.

But strangely in this crazy year of 2020 when no one is able to go anywhere, we’re actually able to go more places than usual—virtually—since almost everyone is online all the time. In fact, this week (December 16-18), the Midwest Clinic, which typically attracts well over 15,000 attendees, is also an exclusively web-based experience and, as a result, might even break their previous attendance records. So, I thought I’d take a chance and reach out to Julie Giroux and see if she’d be willing to talk over Zoom. It took a while to set up, but it was well worth the wait.

“I feel like we’re in one of those really bad sci-fi films from the ‘70s where you get sucked into some computer and are trying to live that way,” she commented at some point during our sprawling conversation in which we explored the ins and outs of the wind band (including an in-depth discussion of her own wind band symphonies), her career in Hollywood (which led to her being the first female composer to win an Emmy), her wacky arrangements of Christmas songs (‘tis the season after all), and how she’s coping with life in quarantine. “I have a whole other year to sit here, and eat Cheetos and play video games,” she quipped.

  • When I was in junior high, I was writing for junior high band, because that was the level I was.

    Julie Giroux on boardwalk
    Julie Giroux, composer
  • Because I’d always played piano—when I got into band, I realized I was only playing one note. And that’s pretty boring.

    Julie Giroux on boardwalk
    Julie Giroux, composer
  • Now I have a whole other year to sit here, and eat Cheetos and play video games.

    Julie Giroux on boardwalk
    Julie Giroux, composer
  • I didn’t know that there weren’t women. I didn’t think about it. … . I didn’t know anybody was alive who was doing it.

    Julie Giroux on boardwalk
    Julie Giroux, composer
  • The band is as complex and has as many colors as an orchestra does.

    Julie Giroux on boardwalk
    Julie Giroux, composer
  • Elvis stopped being Elvis because he stopped growing.

    Julie Giroux on boardwalk
    Julie Giroux, composer
  • It’s like I have a box of 168 crayons. And if you want to give me 12, I don’t want to color with 12.

    Julie Giroux on boardwalk
    Julie Giroux, composer
  • There isn’t a person in the United States that doesn’t know “Jingle Bells.”

    Julie Giroux on boardwalk
    Julie Giroux, composer

I was somewhat surprised to learn that despite Giroux’s interest in a broad range of music making, she is not terribly interested in writing chamber music. “It’s because I am just a spoiled brat,” she confessed. “It’s like I have a box of 168 crayons. Right? And if you want to give me 12, I don’t want to color with 12. I want to color with 168, you know. So to me, it’s always no. It’s like you go to a restaurant and it’s a menu that has one thing on it. You know, you’re like, ‘No, no. I want pages. I want to just be overwhelmed with the choices that I have.’ … I mean it does sound like something I need to do to be a better composer, but it’s not something I want to do.”

New Music USA · SoundLives — Julie Giroux: A Wind Band is a Box of 168 Crayons
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Julie Giroux
November 16, 2020—7 P.M. E.S.T.
Via a Zoom Conference Call between Mississippi and New York NY
Produced and recorded by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Valerie Coleman: Writing Music for People

Earlier this year, New Music USA launched Amplifying Voices, a program promoting marginalized voices in the orchestral field. Following a national call, eight American orchestras are leading consortium commissions for eight different composers. The seven composers selected thus far are Tania León (the first individual composer NewMusicBox interviewed, in 1999), Tyshawn Sorey (featured in NewMusicBox last year), Jessie Montgomery (featured four years ago), Brian Raphael Nabors, Juan Pablo Contreras, Shelley Washington, and Valerie Coleman, with whom we spoke a decade ago, regarding her maverick wind quintet, Imani Winds.

One of the most exciting aspects of Imani Winds is their commitment to new music from a diverse repertoire of composers, which makes sense given that they were founded by a composer. But what about Valerie Coleman, the composer?

In our first conversation with Valerie, we barely scratched the surface of her compositional activities. Since then, these have become her primary artistic focus. Valerie has recently been chosen to participate in the Metropolitan Opera / Lincoln Center Theater New Works program, a perfect fit for her given her commitment to storytelling through her music, no matter the idiom.

  • I’m not somebody who writes based on the intellectual side of composition, but rather on the side of addressing what it is within all of us.

    Valerie Coleman
  • When I got into college... I started to recognize, whoa, maybe composers are supposed to be White male and not Black female.

    Valerie Coleman
  • It’s so important that educators encourage and not discourage in what they do.

    Valerie Coleman
  • I’m very excited about Amplifying Voices ... I envision working with young composers of color and helping them to find their voice.

    Valerie Coleman
  • It’s our responsibility to convey that story to the performer in such a way that is not cerebral.

    Valerie Coleman
  • A composer doesn’t necessarily have to choose any story to tell. That’s just how I identify and it’s because of what my ancestors have gone through.

    Valerie Coleman
  • The thing that we’ve always worked towards whenever we play music is the idea of playing together. Note for note. Beat by beat.

    Valerie Coleman

So the launch of Amplifying Voices seemed like a perfect opportunity to reconnect and have a conversation about her own music—her aesthetics, her inspiration, and what she hopes she can communicate to listeners.

“That’s just how I identify and it’s because of what my ancestors have gone through,” she explains. “I feel it necessary to tell their story, but also really just embrace this idea of how to walk in the world and inform people around me. … I recognize that there are stories that are yet untold that if they were told, they would transform all those who would hear them. So it’s my job to create music that allows that transformative power to happen.”

New Music USA · SoundLives — Valerie Coleman: Writing Music for People
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Valerie Coleman
September 29, 2020—11 A.M.
Via a Zoom Conference Call between Miami FL and New York NY
Produced and recorded by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves