Tag: music and society

Ukraine’s Musical Front

A guitar and fiddle duo performing.

What happens to music and its makers amidst the terrors of war? Does art become more profound or utterly irrelevant to the survival of the moment? Can one keep making music under such stress? As Western orchestras, choirs, chamber groups and soloists scramble to find music by Ukrainian composers, and record renditions of the Ukrainian anthem, what is happening to the musicians who must live through this nightmare firsthand?

Life as I knew it ended on the night of February 23, 2022. My parents, my sister, and I had just sat down to celebrate some good news. We were happily raising our wine-filled glasses when my mom’s phone rang. It was her brother calling from Slovenia, at 5 am his time, voice cracking, “Zhenya, it started. They are bombing Kyiv. They are bombing every city.” His wife back in Kyiv was hearing explosions. I had never heard him cry before. Slavic men rarely cry. Still holding our wine glasses, we began frantically calling our loved ones. I can never erase from my memory the nightmare conversation with my cousin back in Kherson, a small city in southern Ukraine which is now famous all over the world because its civilian population rose up against the Russian occupying forces. Sobbing, she asked me to take care of her 18-year-old son, who is studying in Slovakia. This is not a request I ever want to hear again.

This is the unique horror of witnessing an invasion of your homeland from afar in this modern age of connectivity. By the time a piece of news hits the newspapers, we have already heard it from our relatives and friends, or through the various Viber and Telegram channels which post a constant stream of updates from all over Ukraine. I spent the first several days endlessly scrolling through them looking for mentions of the neighborhoods where my loved ones live. Air raid siren in Kyiv. Residential building hit in Brovary. Video of a stolen tank being pulled by an old tractor, the tank driver running after it. Fierce fighting for control over a major bridge to Kherson. Pictures of burned out buildings in Kharkiv. Video of civilians throwing Bandera Smoothies (formerly known as Molotov Cocktails) at a tank from the windows of a speeding car, hair almost catching on fire. Explosions. Explosions. Explosions. You are completely informed every minute of every day and utterly powerless.

This nightmare is of course nothing compared to what Ukrainians are living through back there, in Ukraine. We cheer on the Ukrainian soldiers who appear to be superhuman as they wipe out entire columns of Russian troops. We laugh in amazement at the extraordinary creativity and bravery of ordinary people who are disabling military equipment by the most ingenious means. But casualties are mounting and the destruction is catastrophic. I have never been more proud to be Ukrainian. I have never been in this much pain. It makes my muscles spasm and glues my kidneys to my ribcage. I am mostly running on adrenaline, trying to frantically do whatever I can to help from afar. There’s not much time for crying, but sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the question, “How is this our life right now?” I take a jar of soup from the fridge and after staring at it for a while, I think: “I made this before the war.”

Taras Kompanichenko in a Ukrainian military uniform with a bandura.

Here’s a photo of Taras Kompanichenko in the uniform of the territorial defense, the volunteer forces of largely ordinary people helping to protect the cities and towns of Ukraine. Taras, who is holding a kobza (a lute-like instrument that is probably the most recognizable symbol of Ukrainian culture), is officially enlisted as a musician offering psychological aid and morale boosting for the troops. He’s one of the men you see performing in the cellar in the photos below. Taras, a multi-instrumentalista National Artist of Ukraine.

Iryna Danyleiko is a folk singer and ethnomusicologist who works for the Ivan Honchar Museum in Kyiv and the Kyiv Laboratory of Ethnomusicology. She is also a cofounder of ЕГЕ Films, a grassroots effort to document and preserve Ukrainian rural culture. I met her in 2012 during a trip funded by the Canada Council for the Arts to reconnect with my Ukrainian roots. She took me on expeditions to villages in the regions surrounding Chernihiv, where we recorded elderly women, the last carriers of the oral singing tradition. The city itself has been bombed. There’s fighting all over that region now. I hope these women, some of whom have lived through WWII, are okay.

In addition to her extensive field work in the Chernihivshchina region, Iryna has also traveled through the areas surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power station, which is currently under the control of utterly insane Russian troops. Iryna and I were only a year old when the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded in 1986. I suffered some health consequences during the following year. The implications of Russia’s control over the still active remains is terrifying for the whole world. What kind of evil, what kind of stupidity shoots at a nuclear power station? Ukraine has multiple stations like this, including the largest one in Europe, Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, all of which are being targeted. Do those watching from afar even realize what this means?

Iryna and her singing partner Halyna Honcharenko, a doctor who is continuing to work in a hospital in Kyiv, recorded this folksong in a Chernobyl forest a few years ago. Iryna’s Facebook post from March 4, 2022 reads, “I will always remember the Chernobyl silence. The silence, which inhabited this place and enveloped it over the last 35 years, has lulled and preserved everything that surrounds it. Absolute peace. Today it’s been 9 days since this silence has been shattered. Suddenly, brutally, horrendously, foully. We will never forget. We will never forgive.”

Two women are facing each other in the middle of a forest in this still from a video posted on Iryna Danylejko's Facebook wall
The video is posted in a public Facebook post.

Iryna was among the millions of Kyiv residents who woke up to the sounds of explosions on the morning of what for them was February 24. The next day, she grabbed her three children and fled to her parents’ home in Chernivtsi, a beautiful city close to the Romanian border. A few days ago, I received a chilling voice message from her. For more than four minutes, all I could hear was the wail of an air raid siren, the relentless ringing of a bell, dogs barking, her breathing. We exchanged the following messages:

Iryna: …this is even beautiful…the first time I’m hearing it. I’m hiding my children.

Me: I love you all. Hang tight.

(a little later)

Me: I heard something similar in a small town in Kansas where every Monday they test their tornado siren.

Iryna: Good for them! Ours just got fixed 🙂 🙂

Me: Glad no one fixed the roads in the villages. Now [Russian] equipment gets stuck on them.

Iryna: Oh…our poor Chernihivshchina…I will try calling the ladies tomorrow…no more expeditions…

Even amidst this extreme tension, her musician’s soul was able to appreciate the sonic beauty of this terrifying sound. Her Ukrainian mentality noted the humor of my comparison to the American town. Her ethnomusicologist’s habits made her reach for her recorder. She’s doing a different kind of field work now. She’s documenting a different legacy. When I reached out to her asking if the last 11 days have changed her relationship to music, she sent me another recording of the air raid siren, her voice now marking the date and location: March 7, 2022, Chernivtsi.

Two musicians performing on traditional Ukrainian instruments near shelves of preserves.

Taras Kompanichenko and Oleh But singing and playing bandura and fiddle while sheltering in a cellar bunker located in a house outside Kyiv during an air raid. You can see the stereotypical Ukrainian homemade preserves behind them. People are always prepared!

Meanwhile in Kyiv, the Ukrainian-American musician and instrument maker Jurij Fedynskyj is performing with a group of musicians in the metro, at railway stations and in bomb shelters to raise the spirits of local civilians and fighters. Jurij’s family emigrated from Ukraine to the United States several generations ago. In his early twenties he felt moved to return to his ancestral homeland, to relearn the language, and to dedicate his life to the restoration of the kobzar tradition, which was deliberately destroyed by the Soviet government. Originating in the 16th century as a form of resistance to Russian imperial expansion, kobzars were itinerant musicians, often blind, who accompanied their singing with bandura, kobza, or lira. The repertoire is often spiritual, historical, or political in nature, reminiscent of some genres of the troubadour tradition in medieval France. The words to the song “A cloud rises,” which Jurij recorded in late 2019, are eerily fitting for this moment, speaking to hundreds of years of Ukraine’s fight against imperial control and oppression.

A cloud rises over the estuary,
Another from the field.
Ukraine has sunk in sorrow,
Such is its fate.

Sunk in sorrow, weeping,
Like a little child,
No one is coming to rescue her.
The cossacks are dying.

Since his arrival in Ukraine, Jurij has been preparing for this invasion. Given Russia’s current and historical stance towards Ukraine, he saw it as inevitable. Russian propaganda has been relentlessly preparing Russia’s population to accept this atrocity. Jurij and his wife settled in Kryachkivka, a village in the Poltava region, famous for its traditional singing. There they set up a workshop dedicated to rebuilding traditional instruments, scouring museums and archives for drawings and examples of instruments which had largely ceased to exist, while planting vegetables on their plot of land. Every summer, enthusiasts from all over the world gather at the Kobzarskiy Tabir-Kryachkivka (Kobzar Camp) to make instruments and share music. Year after year, I keep meaning to go. I hope there’s still somewhere to go when this is all over. Jurij formally invited me when we talked several days ago.

Jurij managed to send his wife and four children to the U.S. just days before the invasion began, but decided to stay behind to defend his homeland with music. He is with a group of musicians who perform both traditional and contemporary repertoire, creating new, living developments of this 500-year-old practice. Jurij could have ran to the safety of his birthplace, but he chose to stay in his spiritual homeland in order to continue his work. When I spoke to him several days ago, he was filled with optimism and spiritual fervor. Yes, he said, the first couple of days were terrifying and some moments of active shelling are still scary, but once he realized that he is exactly where he needs to be, doing what he needs to do, his fear vanished. “Anna, we feel amazing!” He is convinced that he is guided by God. Every day his group drives to Kyiv from their rented house in a town on the outskirts. They have a mission, in the Biblical sense. They believe that Ukraine will prevail.

A little over 300 km (208 miles) west of Kyiv in the small city of Rivne lives another modern-day kobzar or lirnyk, Andriy Lyashuk. Andriy primarily plays the lira, the Ukrainian version of the hurdy-gurdy, a stringed instrument bowed with a rosined wheel operated by a crank. In addition to several drone strings, the instrument has one or more melody strings operated by a basic wooden keyboard. Most Ukrainian examples are diatonic.

A song that Andriy recorded in 2020 also has an unsettling resonance in the current invasion. This version of the traditional spiritual song “How St. Georgiy defeated the snake” was recorded in the village Krupove in the region surrounding Rivne. It details the legend of St. Georgiy who defeated a giant man-eating snake that lived in the sea. On the first day of the invasion, a small island in the Black Sea, Zmiinyi or Snake Island, became famous the world over after the 13 border guards stationed there refused to surrender to a Russian warship, telling it to “f*ck off.” This final phrase, “Russian warship, f*ck off,” has become the rallying cry for Ukrainians all over the world.

Andriy’s wife Natalka managed to flee to Warsaw, Poland with their one-year-old son Bohuslav. “The Poles are holy people doing more for them than we could have imagined,” wrote Andriy in a text message to me. Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are forbidden from leaving the country according to martial law imposed hours after the invasion began. So Andriy has stayed behind to do what he can for his homeland. He owns a print shop, which normally prints advertising banners and posters. Now he’s printing humorous and motivational posters, banners, and stickers aimed at boosting Ukrainian morale and depressing the Russian occupying forces. The Ukrainian government has issued an official call encouraging businesses to replace their regular advertising with banners telling the Russian troops where to go, usually back to Russia in not very polite terms.

A series of stickers with illustrations and commentary in Ukrainian.

Stickers that Andriy Lyashuk is currently printing. Some translations, clockwise from top left:
1. “Love is…when the Russian tanks burn”
2. “What to do when a Russian occupant wants to surrender” (legitimate information)
3. “Ukrainian Armed Forces, hang in there! I still have to marry one of you.”

In the evenings, Andriy picks up his instrument. Like Jurij, he believes that music can be a weapon against the occupiers, acting as Ukraine’s moral-psychological front. “Many musicians have joined the ranks of the territorial defense and various volunteer organizations. In addition to that, they are using music as a powerful motivational tool, which unites us and gives us strength.” Videographers from Kyiv are currently turning one of the songs Andriy performs into a video to add to a collection of Ukraine’s heroic tradition. “Music is our front, our resistance, our future victory.” Slava Ukraini. Heroyam Slava.

If you want to offer financial support directly to Ukrainian musicians, or simply to make connections with musicians working in your sphere, please contact Anna Pidgorna at [email protected] or reach out over Facebook. Anna and her friends are currently sending money through direct transfer to Ukrainian musicians in need. Her network is mostly focused on artists working in folk, contemporary classical, and experimental electronic music.

Zori Ameliko sitting on a street in Kyiv playing a kobza.

Zori Ameliko playing a bandura on a street in Kyiv on March 4, 2022

Stand In The Gap

People walking on the tracks toward a streetcar in Memphis, TN, (Photo by Joshua J. Cotten / Unsplash)

In late October I had a what I thought would be a passing conversation with a friend that ended up affecting me quite profoundly. He described to me how he visited his local convenience store, one he visits often, and he saw several heavily armed protestors outside. While normally he felt at peace when stopping at this store, this time he felt uneasy. In describing that moment, he said that he wasn’t scared for his safety or fearful of the rhetoric. What scared him most, he said, was that he was looking at his home which he no longer recognized.

That sentiment stuck with me all through the election week and in the months since. While after that week I have occasionally felt flashes of recognition for a society I remember from my youth, for the most part, I am still looking at a society and a set of communities that I don’t totally recognize anymore. I am troubled by the rampant disregard for the truth, lack of courageous leadership, and the attacks on the fundamental democratic processes of our country.

In 2016, the day after the election, I wrote a long response that I was planning on sharing on social media. I ended up not publishing it and it has since been lost to the internet or a hard drive somewhere. I don’t remember specifically what it said, but I vividly remember feeling lost while I was writing; I didn’t know why I was writing or even what I wanted to say, only that I had to get something on paper.

Looking back, I think I felt the instinct to write a response because I was looking at a world with which I was having a hard time reconciling my musical education. At that time and for the next couple of years after, the most common question I would ask myself was something along the lines of “Why does all of the work I’m putting into my independent practice, classes, rehearsals, and performances matter?”

I was having a difficult time reconciling my artistic practice and endeavors with a world that no longer seemed to share the values I was taught to believe in my youth: values such as trust, working together, and community. I had become untethered from an artistic practice that felt relevant and while I initially wrote that response in 2016 to share, I realize now I wrote it for me. I was looking for a new path.

Fast forward to the day after the 2020 election, and I was asked to give a talk at my alma mater: the Hugh Hodgson School of Music at the University of Georgia. I was asked if I would be willing to talk about my doctoral research into creative placemaking and community-engaged music making. The timing of this request did not escape me as it made me think about my path to this research, which started with my soul searching in 2016. This time when I examined my own practice in the context of our society, I found an answer to why my artistic activities matter. That meaning came in the form of another question to which I can tether myself and from which I can perhaps find a bit more understanding. While in response to the events of the months following the election, my feelings have continued to vacillate between confusion, disbelief, and anger, I have not felt as lost during this time as I did four years ago thanks to this guiding question.

That question is: “What is the role of artists in our communities?”

To answer that question, we have to start by looking at our communities. In recent decades in the United States, we have become more divided culturally and ideologically than ever before. We have geographically, politically, and even spiritually sorted ourselves into like-minded groups. To put it another way, most Americans now live near, work amongst, and interact with only other people who think exactly like them. We have sorted ourselves into communities and social groups with other people who affirm our own beliefs.

In his book, written in 2009, called The Big Sort, Bill Bishop says this, which has only become more pronounced in the years since: “We all live with the results (of this sorting), balkanized communities whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible; a growing intolerance for political differences that has made national consensus impossible; and politics so polarized that Congress is stymied and elections are no longer just contests over policies; but bitter choices between ways of life.”

I think it’s important to note at this point that elections in the US have always been bitter choices between ways of life, especially for those with less privilege based on our societal structures. Nowhere is this division more evident than in the history of racism in our country. The country was founded on principles of division and racial superiority/inferiority that we are still trying to overcome to this day. Yet the change referenced in the above quote still resonates strongly with me because I believe those of us with more privilege, myself included, have become more aware of this division and its far-reaching effects within our society and, more importantly, are committed to addressing it head on.

We would expect that alongside the sorting we have done in American society, we would feel a greater sense of belonging in our communities and to the people around us, but that isn’t the case. In fact, levels of reported loneliness in the United States have gone up. In 1980, around 20% of the country reported feeling lonely, while in 2017 that number had more than doubled to over 40%. Human beings are social creatures; we are hard-wired for connection with each other. We need it to survive. In fact, loneliness is just as deadly to our health, if not more so, than smoking or excessive drinking. One study entitled Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality by Julianne Hold-Lundstad, Timothy B. Smith, and J. Bradley Layton estimates that loneliness increases our risk of dying young by nearly 45%.

However, this sorting has gone beyond polarized politics and loneliness, and over the past two months we have witnessed the depth of our disregard for the truth in favor of viewpoints that fit our own perspective and attacks on the fundamental democratic processes our country is based on, culminating in the stunning acts of violence committed at the US Capitol on January 6. I’ve noticed a trend where we find that it’s easier for us to hate the “other side” rather than confront our own pain and loneliness head on. We resort to dehumanizing other people rather than searching for understanding through empathy and compassion.

  • I was looking at a world with which I was having a hard time reconciling my musical education.

    Erik Elmgren
  • We resort to dehumanizing other people rather than searching for understanding through empathy and compassion.

    Erik Elmgren
  • Music has the power to change our brainwaves and even our body chemistry.

    Erik Elmgren
  • We must welcome our communities to the table of the creative process.

    Erik Elmgren
  • We can use each other’s stories as a mirror and a lens to understand our own.

    Erik Elmgren

Noted author, professor, and social worker Brené Brown states that “Dehumanizing always starts with language, often followed by images. We see this throughout history. During the Holocaust, Nazis described Jews as Untermenschen—subhuman. They called Jews rats and depicted them as disease-carrying rodents in everything from military pamphlets to children’s books.” An example from our own country’s history is the use of minstrel shows to degrade the identity and artistic practices of Black Americans. This manipulation of language and art can be used to create an enemy image and a sense of moral exclusion that allows us to treat someone else as less than human.

This instinct to dehumanize a group of people based on their identity and inflict harm on them because we don’t agree in order to compensate for our own pain is what strikes me as being most antithetical to the society I thought I belonged to. This didn’t just change over the past four years. It has been slowly developing over time and is destined to continue unless we confront our pain and our fear head on.

This is where artists come in. In her book Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown says the following about music and art, “Art has the power to render sorrow beautiful, make loneliness a shared experience, and transform despair into hope … Music, like all art, gives pain and our most wrenching emotions voice, language, and form, so it can be recognized and shared … The magic of music is the magic of all art: the ability to both capture our pain and deliver us from it at the same time.”

Just as human beings are hard-wired for connection, we are also biologically programmed to respond to sound and music. The human brain is conditioned to align itself with the visual and aural rhythms of the world around it through a process called entrainment. Music has the power to change our brainwaves and even our body chemistry. Think of the ways we use sound in the medical field to break up cataracts, treat tendonitis, conduct ultrasounds, or even fight cancer. Music can be a vehicle to create a space for authentic connection and relationships between people. It can be part of the antidote for the loneliness we feel. Just as art can be used in the process of dehumanization, it is essential to the process of rehumanizing our society.

If we want the art we make to heal our community’s loneliness and pain and bring us back together again, then it has to be about more than creating a pristine product to be consumed. We need to recognize art’s place as part of the fabric of our society, an essential piece of our culture, and a means for enabling authentic connection between people. Artmaking is a representation of the human condition. We artists, similar to many other disciplines in this day in age, need to take a hard look at our priorities and recognize that the historical traditions of our art form are just traditions which can be molded to address new challenges; they are not immutable laws.

Every element of our creative process is a lever that we can adjust to place connection and relationship-building at the center of artistic experiences. These levers can include elements such as behavior expectations for performers and participants, choice of venue, availability of food and drink, choice of repertoire, and so much more. I use the term “participant” here instead of “audience” intentionally, because the term audience implies passive consumption not active engagement in the artistic experience. If our goal is building relationships and understanding, then every participant must invest themselves fully in a personal experience with the music. This active engagement on behalf of participants demonstrates, as Eric Booth states so eloquently in his book The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible, that “art lives in an individual’s capacity to engage in that fundamental act of creativity – expanding the sense of the possible.” Making authentic connection the central goal of our artistic endeavors unlocks the possibility for our art to begin the work of rehumanizing our society. We do this by prioritizing understanding and empathy in our relationships with each other and respecting every person’s dignity as a member of the human race.

Just because things have been done one way and are easy to keep doing that way, does not mean it works every time. We will find more connection by exploring a different means of performing, teaching, and communicating and we must bring our communities into the creative process of designing these experiences. One example of these new means could be co-creating new works of music with direct input from community members so it tells their stories. We can also lean into providing opportunities for two-way communication between artists and participants as a part of every performance through events such as question-and-answer sessions and pre- and post-concert conversations and interactions between performers and participants. We critically must also embrace equity and inclusion so that the stories we share in our art belong to all people. We must welcome our communities to the table of the creative process and expect intentional participation, even if that means dissent.

We have to make a priority of creating trust, both in our own practice as artists and between us and those who participate in our art. Creating that trust means listening louder than we play and stepping into a brave and vulnerable space where we engage with people whose beliefs we may feel stand against our own truth. It takes a special kind of courage and craft to use our art to face those beliefs and say, “Tell me more; help me understand your pain so we can work through it together.”

When we tell our story, share our own pain, and listen to other people’s stories in artistic experiences, we create the opportunity for rehumanization. We find wholeness and meaning as human beings through our relationships with each other and we can use each other’s stories as a mirror and a lens to understand our own. Rehumanization is not just about finding what we have in common but also about seeking to understand and empathize with what we each hold as most important or sacred, which can be different for each person.

When I go back to that place of questioning four years ago, I realize now what I was looking for was a role for artists to play. In a world we increasingly don’t recognize, one where we pass off our own pain and loneliness by hating and dehumanizing someone else, artists are called to be healers, transformers, and restorers. We have a responsibility to rehumanize each other through our work and remind our communities of what we all share. As artists we are called to stand in the gap of social, cultural, and ideological differences and create experiences that reaffirm our connection to our shared humanity.

I won’t pretend it will be easy. It will be scary and vulnerable, but vulnerability isn’t a sign of weakness. Vulnerability is the lifespring from which our creativity and compassion rise. It’s our courage to show up, be seen, and see other people without the safety of our ideological and artistic safety nets. Being vulnerable is a fundamental part of our humanity.

We, artists of all backgrounds and training, are called to stand in the gap. I hope to see some of you there.

New Music Ushers In The Inauguration of the Next President and Vice President of the USA

The United States Capitol

UPDATED Lots of new music will usher in a new American administration on January 20, 2021. The musical selections being performed during tomorrow’s inauguration of Joseph R. Biden and Kamala Harris as President and Vice President of the United States of America will include newly composed works for the United States Marine Band “The President’s Own” under the direction of Col. Jason K. Fettig by Kimberly K. Archer and Peter Boyer. Other works performed during the hour-long music program preceding the official swearing include pieces by Adolphus Hailstork and Julie Giroux, the subject of the most recent interview on NewMusicBox.

Kimberly Archer, Peter Boyer, Julie Giroux, Adolphus Hailstork, Kendrick Lamar, James Stephenson, and Joan Tower.

Among the composers whose music will serve as a soundtrack to the 46th U.S. Presidential Inauguration are Kimberly Archer, Peter Boyer, Julie Giroux, Adolphus Hailstork, Kendrick Lamar, James Stephenson, and Joan Tower.

Archer’s Fanfare Politeia celebrates our traditions of a free and fair election, and of a peaceful transfer of power. “This is an incredible honor,” Archer said. “If you had told my 20 year old self that someday the Marine Band would play my music, much less for a presidential inauguration, I would never have believed it.”

Boyer’s new work, Fanfare for Tomorrow, began as a brief piece for solo French horn, originally commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra last year, as part of their Fanfare Project in response to the pandemic. Boyer significantly expanded and developed that music for a full concert band for this commission. Boyer said, “In these extraordinarily challenging days for our country, I am grateful for this opportunity to contribute some optimistic music to an historic occasion, at which Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will take their oaths of office as the next President and Vice President of the United States. This commission represents one of the greatest honors of my life as an American composer.”

Hailstork’s Fanfare on “Amazing Grace” is scheduled to be performed as the second piece during the USMB’s inaugural program. This marks only the second time that music by a contemporary African American composer has been selected to be part of the repertoire performed at a presidential inauguration, according to Africlassical.com, a website on African heritage in classical music. Hailstork is working on a requiem cantata for George Floyd titled A Knee on the Neck.

Julie Giroux’s Integrity Fanfare and March is the first movement of her 2006 composition No Finer Calling which was jointly commissioned by The United States Air Force Band of Flight, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio (Lieutenant Colonel Alan Sierichs, Commander and Conductor), The United States Air Force Academy Band, Peterson AFB, Colorado (Lieutenant Colonel Steven Grimo, Commander and Conductor), and The United States Air Force Band of Liberty, Hanscom AFB, Massachusetts (Lieutenant Colonel Larry H. Lang, Commander and Conductor.

Giroux has written about the work: “Integrity, Virtue, Morality, Truthfulness, Accountability and Pride. When I thought of these words as a composer, I heard a fanfare, a processional and a march. Not all at the same time, but more of a melding of all three—a fanfare that states ‘We are here,’ a procession that states ‘We are prepared,’ and a march that states ‘Lets GO!’”

The Marine Band has also put together an “Inaugural Soundtrack” which they have posted on YouTube featuring a range of historical curiosities including marches composed for the inaugurations of Abraham Lincoln and James A. Garfield, the latter of which was composed by John Philip Sousa, as well as the newly composed Fanfare for Democracy by James Stephenson. Stephenson wrote a series of articles for NewMusicBox in 2016.)

In addition, Classical Movements, a concert touring company, has formed the Hope & Harmony Ensemble, a group consisting of 14 professional musicians from orchestras and conservatories across the country, to give a virtual brass and percussion performance in honor of the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris under the direction of conductor Marin Alsop. As stated on the Classical Movements website, “the ensemble performs two masterpieces of American classical music that perfectly represent our President- and Vice President-Elect: Fanfare for the Common Man by Aaron Copland and Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 1 by Joan Tower.” The stream was posted live to YouTube exactly 24 hours before the inauguration ceremony is scheduled to take place.

Finally, last Friday, the Biden-Harris transition team released a new 46-song Inaugural playlist curated by The Raedio and D-Nice on Spotify which features tracks by A Tribe Called Quest, Beyoncé, Bruce Springsteen, The Staple Singers, Bob Marley, and Kendrick Lamar, who along with Aaron Copland is a past recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Answering the Call: Antiphony Between the Music and Social Movements

A live music concert

When baritone saxophonist and composer Fred Ho organized sixteen musicians to tour New York City and Vermont in 2014, NPR reported that the “16-piece band wants to introduce a new audience to the voice of Fred Ho.” The tour, dubbed the “Red, Black, and Green Revolutionary Eco-Music Tour!,” however, did not focus on his own compositions, but on the work of the Black Panther-affiliated trumpet player and composer Cal Massey. Massey, active in the 1950s and ‘60s, was an overlooked iconoclast with close links to the core of the post-bop New York scene. Musicians of the post-bop scene included McCoy Tyner and John Coltrane, both of whom collaborated with Massey. Coltrane recorded one of Massey’s songs, “The Damned Don’t Cry,” during his 1961 Africa Brass sessions, and (according to Fred Ho) McCoy Tyner’s first professional date was with Cal Massey. Ho’s ensemble performed Massey’s 1969 opus, The Black Liberation Movement Suite, which was interspersed with spoken word performances, rousing discourses from veterans of the Black Panther Party, and visual art that celebrated long-held prisoner and Black Liberation Army member Russell Maroon Shoatz. On this, Ho’s final tour before his passing—Ho transitioned after a grueling cancer battle just two months later—he gave his platform and his voice, once again, to the Black Liberation Movement.

On Fred Ho’s final tour before his passing, he gave his platform and his voice, once again, to the Black Liberation Movement.

On the fourth day of the tour, in the middle of a concert at the University of Vermont before more than 300 students, the tour organizers received a joyous phone call: a major objective had been achieved. Former Panther Russell Maroon Shoatz, held in solitary confinement for twenty-three years, had been released from his cell (7 feet wide and 12 feet long) into the general prison population. It was widely speculated that Shoatz received this cruel treatment and exceedingly long sentence because of his provocative and inspirational political beliefs, which included full-thronged advocacy for matriarchy and urban homesteading, ideals expounded upon in texts he shared with other prisoners and outside writers while serving his life sentence.[1] Ho decided to publish these writings, which ranged from a historical analysis of maroons in Haiti to appeals for women’s leadership in social movements within an ideological framework that Shoatz termed revolutionary matriarchy. The resulting volume, Maroon the Implacable, was discussed during our performances, and its ideas (and its author) generated intense interest amongst the university and community audiences for whom the band performed. Many not only purchased the book but also participated in a letter-writing campaign challenging the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections which had administered Shoatz’s solitary confinement. Ho and the musicians employed the power of cultural activism to engage youth and elders alike in a political process, teaching them both about the history of the Black Power movement, its ongoing relevance, and motivating audiences to challenge Pennsylvania’s attempt to silence and virtually erase this revolutionary.

Iyanna Jones, Fred Ho, and Ben Barson.

Iyanna Jones, Fred Ho, and Ben Barson. (Photo by Ana Perero)

These inspirational experiences showed us the “call and response” that exist between revolutionary art and meaningful political outcomes.

These inspirational experiences showed us the “call and response” that exist between revolutionary art and meaningful political outcomes. Salim Washington referred to this phenomenon as the “macro-antiphonal” aspect of jazz: the call and response between the freedom dreams of Black Americans and this “fundamental, pervasive and catalytic” that underlay the aesthetics of jazz.[2] Fred Ho, channeling Washington, wrote on the subject in an article “Why Music Must Be Revolutionary — and How It Can Be”:

Antiphony is the musical term for “call and response.” …“[J]azz,” everything about it, if is practiced with vital authenticity, is macro-antiphonal, that it calls and the artist, the audience and the music, everything in the universe, must respond.  That is The Magic of Juju.  Shaman-istic, transcendent, evocative, provocative, catalytic, procreative, creative, experimental, perpetually avant-garde, restless and bold, adventurous, exploratory, creatively irrepressible, futuristic, imaginative, and innovative.  Every performance prefigures, anticipates, and is a musical vision-quest for what is next, and discontent with the past and present meanderings and status quo, demanding.

The lessons of the macro-antiphonal were intensely apparent in the Red, Black, and Green Revolutionary Eco-Music Tour, to which we both contributed. This force was extremely formative to us as artist-organizers. In fact, in many ways Cal Massey’s Black Liberation Movement Suite (and how Ho was able to mobilize this work in service of the actual Black Liberation Movement activists) became the impetus for our jazz opera, Mirror Butterfly: Migrant Liberation Movement Suite. Mirror Butterfly, as noted in earlier articles, built its libretto and sonic imaginary from the lifework of women eco-activists in the global south. As in the work of Cal Massey and Fred Ho, our own work foregrounds social movement leaders as wells of compositional and aural inspiration. In addition to the subject matter, the piece built a solidarity economy through its distribution model. These decisions led to meaningful political outcomes, such as connections between indigenous social movements in Mexico and Kurdish organizers in Mesopotamia, as well as the ongoing construction of a Yaqui radio station to resist the fracking and destruction of the uniquely biodiverse Yaqui river. The music aimed to capture the same sense of an ever demanding and ever-pushing forward-ness—exemplified in constantly shifting time-irregular signatures that retain a sense of groove, overlapping harmonic systems that still support melodic sensibilities, and an intensely intercultural orchestra that fused pipa, batá, jazz big band, and operatic/gospel choral music.

Marina Calender on stage holding a book with other cast members in the background

Marina Calender performing in Mirror Butterfly. Photo by Renee Rosensteel and provided courtsey of the New Hazlett Theater.

Our hope as composers and conceptualists is to summon the social memory of the oppressed.

All of these spoke to elements of the macro-antiphonal in both the structure of the music and the political outcomes of the work. Our hope as composers and conceptualists is to summon the social memory of the oppressed, which bore witness to the horrors of capitalism, with its building blocks of genocide, slavery, and ecocide. These memories generate multiplicities of meanings when their call for justice summons the activists of ongoing liberation movements. Such figures animate and re-animate the call for a revolution of values, a revolution of the self and community, and ultimately, a revolution against global capitalism. As with Russell Maroon Shoatz’s victory during a tour of Cal Massey’s music, we hope that this piece will animate concrete political outcomes that help us move beyond the necrocene—the age of mass extinction—into a human society with a seven generations consciousness that is looking beyond itself and considers all life as interconnected. Again, we were reminded of the Red, Black, and Green Revolutionary Eco-Music Tour, when Master of Ceremonies Colia Clark, a committed pan-Africanist and organizer who cut her teeth with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, sang in her prophetic voice:

“Go, tell it on the mountain,
over the hills and everywhere;
go, tell it on the mountain
Ecosocialism is born.”

Notes:


1. Herb Boyd, “Political prisoner Russell Maroon Shoatz out of solitary confinement,” Amsterdam News, March 20, 2014 (http://amsterdamnews.com/news/2014/mar/20/political-prisoner-russell-maroon-shoatz-out-solit/).


2. Melissa Mungroo, “Renowned Jazz Musician Gives Inaugural Lecture at UKZN,” ndabaonline, September 12, 2013 (http://ndabaonline.ukzn.ac.za/StoryPrinter.aspx?id=24).

Building a Solidarity Economy through Revolutionary Music: the Making of Mirror Butterfly

Over 50 people gathered in a room in front of a banner for the Mesopotamian Water Forum

Bertolt Brecht famously proselytized that “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” But how can art be that hammer, and not simply representational? One solution is to work in dialogue with actual social movements and create spaces where activists are at the center of the creative and economic processes behind the creation of new work. Our play Mirror Butterfly is the outgrowth of our collaboration with three women activists fighting at the intersection of ecology, anti-imperialism, and women’s liberation. Its purpose is to work with both their ideas and the living movements they were a part of to imagine and create a new world. We interviewed Reyna Lourdes Anguamea (of the Yaqui nation based in Sonora, Northern Mexico), Azize Aslan (of the Kurdish Freedom Movement), and Mama C (a veteran of the Black Panther Party, now doing community work and homesteading in Tanzania).

How do we engage beyond cultural appropriation?

How do we engage in this dialogue beyond cultural appropriation? A turn to saxophonist-composer Fred Ho guided our own work in this respect. Ho held as a specific antidote to the exploitive appropriations of Third World cultures by Western artists that Ho called the “three Cs” of intercultural respect: “Credit, Compensation [and] Committed anti-imperialist solidarity.” He also argued that, in order to achieve true multicultural expression, it was necessary to “liberate oneself from the bourgeois individualist artist-as-hero-genius of simply using ‘sounds’ for self-expression (self-gain)” and to take every opportunity of “giving back in all the ways we can (from our sincere friendship, admiration, and love to supporting and participating in the fight against all forms of imperialism and imperialist-supported assaults).” (“Fred Ho: Artist Comments.” 29 Oct. 2006, quoted in David Kastin, “Fred Ho and the Evolution of Afro-Asian New American Multicultural Music.” Popular Music and Society 33, no. 1 (February 1, 2010): pp. 1–8; also available online.) In the paragraphs below, we will show how Fred’s three Cs guided our work at every step in our process to create a piece that had both creative and economic solidarities guiding its creation and dissemination.

Reyna Lourdes Anguamea (center) with Benjamin Barson and Gizelxanath Rodriguez

Reyna Lourdes Anguamea (center) with Benjamin Barson and Gizelxanath Rodriguez.

Travels to Mexico

We wanted to create a work that truly crossed borders and built international solidarity, so, in 2018, we traveled to Obregon, Mexico, to develop the plot and language with Yaqui activists. The Yaqui nation is one that we have had relationships with for years. (I, Gizelxanath, am of Yaqui descent.)

The Yaqui people inhabit the valley of the Río Yaqui in the Mexican state of Sonora and in Arizona. They are notable for their successful resistance to the Spanish conquest—they were one of the few First Nations to retain their autonomy and were even celebrated by United States General William Sherman as the “Spartans of the Americas.” The majority of the Yaqui nation still lives in Sonora despite more than a century of forced relocation intensified under Porfirio Díaz and current attacks on their ancestral water source, the Yaqui River. The ironically named “Independence Aqueduct Pipeline” has diverted so much water from their territory that today thousands of Yaqui people suffer from gastrointestinal problems due to water scarcity and pollution.

We were aware of the intensity of oppression the Yaqui people had been enduring, but when we visited, its scale and immediacy eclipsed what we had imagined. A leading Yaqui activist and spokesperson, Mario Luna, has been fighting the water extraction of the Yaqui river for decades. When we visited, we learned that the threats on his family’s life, both verbal and physical, had increased to the point that he was forced to install barbed wire and cameras.

The resilience of the Yaqui community against the provocations of the Mexican state made us reflect on our commitment as artivists.

The resilience of the Yaqui community against the provocations of the Mexican state made us reflect on our commitment as artivists. We were inspired by artists such as the Mexican/Chinese-American performance and multimedia artist Richard Lou, who has been committed to the practice of border art for over twenty years. Our artivism was fueled by a “commitment to a transformation of the self and the world through creative expression” in which arts can help us imagine and construct a world beyond borders, exploitation, and racial, gendered, and environmental oppression. It took on an existential intensity that was difficult to be prepared for. We encountered conditions that were truly challenging for the Yaqui people, as well as a warmth and hospitality that felt revolutionary. We asked ourselves many questions: What would a collaborative work look like in this context? Would it be documentary-based, dramatizing the struggle against water usurpation? Should the piece foreground the formation of the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), an anti-capitalist council of 68 different indigenous nations? In terms of story, how concrete or surrealist would it be? Did it need to follow the logic of linear plot and linear time—or linear music, for that matter?

We decided we could and should not make these decisions alone. We met the director of the Yaquis Museum, Reyna Lourdes Anguamea, also a Yaqui lawyer and cultural guardian, and asked her what a meaningful staged work would look like that spoke to the Yaqui struggle and the alternative proposed by the CNI. She gave us the idea for how we should shape our jazz opera. It would revolve around the cry of a sacred endangered insect, the Kautesamai, otherwise known as the four-mirrored butterfly. This insect is in danger of going extinct due to the prevalent use of pesticides in the area and the vanishing of the Yaqui river ecosystem. Inspired, we were also immediately concerned: we did not want to profit off her ideas. Following Ho’s principles of “Three Cs” we agreed that the proceeds of the album—all of them—would fund the Yaqui radio station Namakasía Radio, which coordinates the efforts of social movement activists. Thus our audience was able to participate in a solidarity economy across borders, supporting indigenous activists and water defenders they never would have had contact with otherwise. The project would be named Mirror Butterfly: the Migrant Liberation Movement Suite, and the piece’s main character would be the Kautesamai. In this way, we created both a creative process and an economic process which connected Yaquis and our base in North America in a way that could lay the foundation for alliances in years to come.

A photo of the nearly extinct Kautesamai.

A photo of the nearly extinct Kautesamai.

In someways, however, the work had only begun. In dialogue with our United States-based collaborators, Ruth Margaff, Nejma Neferiti, and Peggy Myo-Young Choy, and in conversations, study sessions, and interviews with our Yaqui collaborators, we began to create our story. We were encouraged by Reyna and others to think globally, considering other experiences of communities on the front lines of environmental struggle. With that in mind, we decided we would also tell the stories and freedom dreams of the Kurdish Freedom Movement. Like the National Indigenous Congress and the Yaqui River Defense Group, this movement offered a different form of governance that came from democractic traditions outside of Western liberalism: rotating non-hierarchical leadership, communal economics, the prevalence of women in leadership roles, and the defense of water and ecosystems as paramount.

Nejma Nefertiti holding a microphone.

EmCee Nejma Nefertiti of Afro Yaqui Music Collective performing at the MWF.

The Kurdish people, based in Syria, have witnessed an historic exodus of their people—over five million refugees have left the nation in a conflict several analysts have linked to climate change and ecological catastrophe. Given that our work aims to raise up the voices of environmental protectors who are building solutions that reverse the destruction wrought by capitalist economics and climate change, this felt like a natural step.

Travels to Iraq

Our intention with the jazz opera was to highlight the economic and social alternatives proposed by activists living in migrant-sending regions across the world.

As part of the development of Mirror Butterfly, we spent a lot of time “building” politically, emotionally, and artistically in order to create something organic. Our intention with the jazz opera was to highlight the economic and social alternatives proposed by activists living in migrant-sending regions across the world—alternatives that, if embraced, could create stable and life-generating communities rooted in social justice. With that in mind, we connected with Azize Aslan, a revolutionary economist and member of the Kurdish Freedom movement. Overlooked in the Western press, this remarkable revolutionary movement has liberated huge sections of Rojava and implemented “democratic confederalism,” which converges with ecosocialism through decentralization, gender equality, and local governance through direct democracy coordinated through communal councils. This is a big break from their lives under the Baath regime, where for several decades it was forbidden to plant trees and vegetables, and the population was encouraged by repressive politics and deliberate underdevelopment of the region to migrate as cheap labour to nearby cities like Aleppo, Raqqa, and Homs.

Azize, like our Yaqui comrades, shared with us a philosophy of nature, which greatly influenced Mirror Butterfly. We interviewed her about her violently mobile life in which the Turkish state, as with the Baath regime, consistently disrupted the social bonds and entire communities of the Kurdish people. On the move, her family was forced to perform wage labor in hazelnut fields when their subsistence farming basis was destroyed. Eventually her community was forced to move to the megalopolis of Antalya, where nature was “othered.” The story of the sacred Kautesamai, on the brink of extinction, spoke to her, and her stories helped us created another character in the jazz opera, the stoneflower.

Through Azize and her comrades, we were able to travel to Kurdistan, Iraq, in 2019 to present Mirror Butterfly at the Mesopotamian Water Forum (MWF), where the jazz opera resonated with attendees. (We still have not had the chance to perform it in Mexico.) The MWF was organized and attended by over 180 water activists from the Mesopotamia region and other countries in order to provide a civil society-led plan to restore disrupted hydrological cycles, which have created conditions of severe water scarcity in the region. One of the outcomes of this conference was internationalizing the campaign to prevent the flooding of the ancient city of Hasankeyf, whose population is predominantly Kurdish. Much of the city and its archeological sites are at risk of being flooded upon the completion of the Ilisu Dam, which Turkey is rushing to construct despite mounting pressure, as part of its indirect war against Kurdistan. There is currently a campaign underway to pressure Turkey to stop the construction of this weapon, which we support.

We were deeply moved by the Kurdish organizers’ commitment to feminism and ecological justice, but more generally it was clear that we were in the middle of a broader Middle Eastern environmental movement with cross-class, cross-national, and cross-ethnic linkages. We learned about widespread protests against dam construction by farmers in Iran, which was connected to the labor movement, and that young Iraqi environmentalists had petitioned on behalf of an Iranian environmental-labor activist while he was in solitary confinement. We told those we met about the Yaqui struggles, which they were interested in, and we were treated to food, hookah, and even invited to return to canoe down the Euphrates river as part of revitalizing ancestral Iraqi boat-making traditions. In April in northern Iraq, this is what our solidarity looked like: smoking hookah, working on the ground with the people, getting to know them, making music with them. These connections at the intuitive level are part of what being an artivist is about.

Travels to Venezuela

Two years ago, before we had begun Mirror Butterfly, we had travelled to an Afro-descent Maroon community in Veroes, Venezuela, to attend the First Ecosocialist International. The International was attended by more than 100 social movement leaders from across the world. There, these leaders developed a 500-year plan of action for the survival of the planet and the human species. The participants included representatives of Indigenous social movements and ecological radical movements from five continents.

As we were building our jazz opera, we reached out to an inspiring woman and activist who had been present at the International; her words and spirit, in turn, further helped shape Mirror Butterfly. When we met Mama C, a former Black Panther now living in Tanzania, we did not know we would someday work with her on Mirror Butterfly—we had not even conceptualized this work yet.

Mama C standing the middle of the floor with seated onlookers, many children surrounding her.

Mama C during the International.

Then, last year, after a collaborative concert in New York City between Mama C and Afro Yaqui Music Collective, which we are a part of, we asked her if she would like to be one of the participants in the construction of our jazz opera about climate change, matriarchal women warriors, and the revolution of all of our relations—with Earth, the climate, the very concept of gender. She agreed, creating a character for the show based on the mulberry tree, her favorite. At one point, she told us about her love for music. It is the music of Kansas City, the historical continuum of blues, jazz, and gospel, which contains rhythms of resistance that have animated struggle and self-determination for generations. We composed an aria in her honor with these influences in mind.

Artivism as Decolonization

We envision a world without a single authorial voice dominating a vision beyond accountability or relationality.

We envision a world without a single authorial voice dominating a vision beyond accountability or relationality. Mirror Butterfly is both a piece of experimental theatre and a standalone album that brings audiences into dialogue with the radical solutions that have been devised by regions experiencing environmental crises sparked by industry and international capital: water protection, ecological transformation, community-based economics, and depatriarchalization. There are multiple levels to the work, but colonization took five hundred years to bring us here, and we will need at least five hundred years to build out of it. To get there, we feel the practice of artivism offers the potential for holistic transformation.

Our experiences developing the piece showed us one path of what artivism looks like. An artivist is someone who can put aside ego, comfort, privilege, and even language difficulties to break bread and truly learn from those on the other side of empire. An artivist might travel across the world without a gig in mind or even a clear objective only to learn and possibly build international awareness of a struggle. As artivists, we look for ways we can change the consciousness of members of the collective and audience members, as well as build connections. One of the ways we did this was to organize a speaking tour with Mario Luna alongside our album release, where he educated audiences about the Yaqui struggle and its interconnection with the defense of life and water across the world.

Mario Luna at a podium with Gizelxanath Rodriguez

Mario Luna speaking to an audience with Gizelxanath Rodriguez at Ginny’s Supper Club in Harlem, New York. The speaking tour was coordinated with performances of the Afro Yaqui Music Collective celebrating the album release of Mirror Butterfly.

Our own artivism took the form of creative and collaborative interaction on the basis of “the work”: talking about issues with the locals, learning from them, and creating work together—all with the intention of facilitating and strengthening international coalitions that articulate and construct an alternative future. These organizations, which go beyond governments and NGOs, built from civil society and the knowledge of the people on the ground, can help bridge social movements and forge organic resistance to the neofascisms of today in order to build the Maroon communities of tomorrow.

[Note: Parts of this essay have appeared in Howlround Theater Commons and have been reprinted here with permission.]

Fighting for Our Senses: Ears, Bodies and Hearts in the struggle to redefine Reality

Women walking outdoors

In our day-to-day lives, we may concede subconsciously that idea called reality to be “what is”—the realm of the material. But of course on further examination, we see that what we consider real—and possible—is wrapped up in the intersection of our senses and politics. How we convert our environment, through the sensory mediums of our ears, tongues, fingers, eyes, and nostrils into reality is as political and contested as net neutrality versus corporate control of the internet. That is because, as Marx reminds us, “the forming of the five senses is a labor of the entire history of the world down to the present.”[1] The Nazis banned ‘degenerate’ jazz; the House Committee on Un-American Activities blacklisted the great African American film actor and singer Paul Robeson for his communist politics. In the 1920 and ‘30s, a conservative government in Haiti banned Vodou and ritual music associated with it; musicians snuck it back in to a hybrid form called “Vodou Jazz” and critiqued their neocolonial government.  Indeed, musicians, especially from populations terrorized by the state,  have always been fighting to expand, contest, or even overthrow state-sponsored reality, which has denied their humanity and right to exist. The great free-jazz bandleader Sun Ra explained: “I do not come to you as a reality, I come to you as a myth, because that’s what black people are, myths. I come to you from a dream that the black man dreamed long ago.” (Quoted in Szwed, Space is the Place, 269)

The great baritone saxophonist Fred Ho, inspired by Sun Ra, also fought the colonial occupation of reality and the senses. “Everything that is possible has been tried and failed. We must do the impossible.” In his essay, “How Does Music Free Us? ‘Jazz’ as Resistance to Commodification and the Embrace of the Eco-Logic Aesthetic,” Fred Ho suggests that the way music is produced and consumed today effects the overall health of our society and body politic:

Musical malnourishment, with increasing mono-diets and over-consumption of processed, chemically treated/created culture, entails an over-reliance upon intake from manufactured commodities such as loudspeakers, machines, and computers. Thus greater passivity is generated whereby people no longer look to themselves to make music, but simply purchase it via a concert ticket or through a new electronic home entertainment toy. With declining participation in creative activity comes the musical and artistic deskilling of the populace along with its monopolization by “experts” or marketers (often, with the complicity of academia and corporations, these are one and the same). So we get a listening population which, like the general population, is obese, out-of-shape, unhealthy, and addicted to all the wrong stuff.

What is Ho’s answer? “Prioritize acoustic live performance over electricity-dependent situations. Live performance is a social act in which all people participate and interact and have mutual influence.”

“Live performance is a social act.”

Ho and Ra are not alone in their assessment that a connection between music, sound, history, and representation intersect to create sensorial interpretations of reality that are built for and by the status quo. The French philosopher-activist Jacques Rancière conceived of aesthetics as more than the style or the form an artistic medium takes. Rather, aesthetics are the multiple ways in which any social order establishes, manages, privileges or marginalizes different modes of perception. And this organization of perception—of sense itself—is the site of a centuries-long, world-historical battle for the senses. Rancière calls this the “distribution of the sensible” and suggests that communal forms of perception can challenge and create alternatives to what is allowed to be “visible or audible, as well as what can be said, made or done” within a particular social order (Rancière, J. 2004b. The Politics of Aesthetics , G. Rockhill (trans.). London: Continuum, p. 95.)

In the Afro Yaqui Music Collective, we and a collective of activist artists strive to create music that challenges the matrix of consumerism, racism, and egocentrism that is killing the planet and giving rise to a new generation of fascists. We do this in a variety of ways: we emphasize communal music making but we do not want to “dumb things down.” Indeed, oftentimes our audiences are as musical and cutting edge as us. Rather, we compose music and create rhythmic environments which move beyond the matrix of four beats per measure—that is, the 4/4 time signature. This way of rhythming and dancing, while home to many polyrhythms, is so dominant now it almost presents itself as “what has always been.” Traditional Middle Eastern rhythms covered a wide array of odd time signatures, such as 5 and 7. The overwhelming majority of Bulgarian folk music happens to be in odd meters–typically 5, 7, 9, and 11, with occasional combinations of those creating 13, 15, 17, and larger. Indian classical music uses a system of metrical divisions named talas, with various lengths. One of them is a 29-beat cycle.

We strive to create music that challenges the matrix of consumerism, racism, and egocentrism.

These experiences of time are very political. They distribute our bodies in social ways that have meanings from the dance floor to political rallies to how we subconsciously structure space, time, and architecture. The flattening of the grand majority of Western popular music to a 4/4 time signature represents a kind of genocide that has destroyed or at least marginalized alternative modernities, other ways of seeing and experiencing the world. If we take Johann Wolfgang von Goethe seriously that “music is liquid architecture; architecture is frozen music,” then what does homogenizing life into four sides (a box!) say about our architecture of reality? Prisons, plantations, and factory farms all have square shapes at the center of their organizational geography. Unconicdentally, the hegemony of 4/4 rose in harmony with what scholars at the University of Wisconsin are called the “plantationoscene” in which the rise of the plantation became “a transformational moment in human and natural history on a global scale that is at the same time attentive to structures of power embedded in imperial and capitalist formations.” This led to “the erasure of certain forms of life and relationships in such formations,” as well as “the enduring layers of history and legacies of plantation capitalism that persist, manifested in acts of racialized violence, growing land alienation, and accelerated species loss.” These institutions of discipline and punishment are rigorously reproduced in the music we consume. And thus we must decolonize our rhythmic scape as much as our models of making food, energy, and community.

Institutions of discipline and punishment are rigorously reproduced in the music we consume. And thus we must decolonize our rhythmic scape.

We were deeply moved by this model of a decolonized musical practice and sought to connect ecological solidarity with musical creation and practice. Alongside our collaborative team of Peggy Myo-Young Choy (choreographer), Ruth Margraff (librettist), and Nejma Nefertiti (EmCee), we decided to create a devised work that integrated the political vision, sacred insects, sacred plants, and values of three revolutionary women based in national liberation and environmental struggles: Reyna Lourdes Anguamea (of the Yaqui Nation based in Sonora, Northern Mexico), Azize Aslan (of the Kurdish Freedom Movement), and Mama C (a veteran of the Black Panther Party, now doing community work and homesteading in Tanzania). These three remarkable women became our friends, allies, and comrades as we conducted interviews, workshopped the script, and set the piece to music. Having their voices at the center, rather than as subjects we hoped to represent, made this opera an organic expression of social movements as opposed to a study of artistic colonial anthropology.

Photo of the entire Mirror Butterfly cast and ensemble.

The entire Mirror Butterfly cast and ensemble. Photo taken by Renee Rosensteel and provided courtsey of the New Hazlett Theater.

The music we created did not conform to a rubric of what these places “should” sound like. Honestly, the work held almost no disciplinary consistency. Its opening gesture took the form of a saxophone quartet collectively improvising the creation of both a mushroom network—representing the dynamism and vulnerability of ecosystems—and the Sword, the piece’s antagonist that expressed the ethos and death culture of capitalist patriarchy. The composed sections of the music similarly were unpredictable and iconoclastic: a four-part chorus sang quartal harmony over a pan-African rhythm section including batás, the Ghanaian kpanlogo drum, and Brazillian cowbells, accompanied by pipa and electric guitar. These musicians’ parts asked them to play hemiolas of 4/4 against 15/8, or 4/4 against 5/5, as ways of exploring unity in difference, of shared goals in a common struggle unfolding in different rhythms in different parts of the world. Harmonically multiple key centers flowed in and out of each other constantly, but always with a sense of rhythm, drive, and execution.

Silenced and repressed epistemologies have been often represented in the Western art music tradition, but their practitioners were often not consulted.

In these sonic depictions of liberation against colonial ecocide, we were influenced by the spirit of the emerging global revolution against climate change. This revolution has had historical antecedents of centuries of resistance to colonialism, slavery, and indigenous genocide. These silenced and repressed epistemologies—ways of seeing the world, experiencing difference and identity, understanding the complex dialectic between humanity and nature—have been often represented in the Western art music tradition (by white men), but their practitioners were often not consulted. Therefore we did not seek to employ a “representation” model, and looked instead to a prefigurative one. What energy would evoke a world in which Kurdish, Yaqui, Black liberation activists, and their allies across the globe made poetry, music, and resistance together? Could we create a piece that contributed to the unfolding of that reality? These were the questions that guided our compositional and collaborative process. We will discuss what anticolonial, ecosocialist collaboration looked like in the subsequent posts, and how this project became a tool for connecting dispersed movements with a common goal.

[1] Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.

Randy Weston: Music is Life Itself

Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

It has been more than three quarters of a century since the bebop revolution transformed how people made music together. So it is not surprising that so few musicians who came to prominence during that era are no longer with us, especially since so many—like Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Herbie Nichols, Elmo Hope, Eric Dolphy, and on and on–had tragically short lives. But what is more surprising is that one of these musicians, 92-years young Randy Weston, is not only still around, he’s still actively performing and composing and evolving, although to him there really isn’t a clear distinction between old and new music.

When we visited Randy Weston in his Brooklyn apartment, which was once the site of a restaurant his father owned when he was growing up and which helped to shape his attitudes about how to connect with audiences, he expounded on his all-inclusive worldview.  He pointed out that bebop and all of so-called jazz, which he prefers to call “African American classical music,” as well as numerous other musical genres have their source in the traditional music of Africa:

You can call it rock and roll. You can call it hip hop. You can call it jazz. Many titles.  But for me, it’s Mother Africa’s way of survival.  …  We have to stop to realize: No Africa? No jazz, no blues, no bossa nova, no calypso, no reggae! … My father said to me three things.  He said, “Africa is the past, the present, and the future.”

To Weston, different generations listening to different music from one another makes no sense. “When I was growing up, music was for everybody,” he said.  “I’ve got to move a three-year old or a 100-year old.” And it’s something he has aspired to do since he first started playing in clubs as part of a trio at the age of 17.  Over the course of the last seven decades, several of Weston’s compositions—such as “Hi-Fly” (1958) and a waltz he composed in 1956 about one of his children called “Little Niles”—have become standards, and his 1972 album Blue Moses was a bestseller.

Weston wants to harness the power of music to make people aware of their history.  The contemporaneous declarations of independence of many African nations was the inspiration for his landmark 1960 suite Uhuru Africa, which featured a poem expressly created for it by Langston Hughes and was arranged by the undersung Melba Liston for an all-star ensemble that included Clark Terry, Slide Hampton, Gigi Gryce, Yusef Lateef, Cecil Payne, Kenny Burrell, Ron Carter, Max Roach, Candido Camero, and Babatunde Olatunji, as well as operatic soprano Martha Flowers and actor/singer Brock Peters. The album was banned in then Apartheid-governed South Africa but also led to Weston being invited, under the auspices of the American Society of African Culture, to perform in Nigeria in 1961. Weston returned there two years later and then in 1967 embarked on a U.S. State Department tour to Senegal, Cameroon, Gabon, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. The following year he moved to Morocco and lived in Tangier for seven years.

Living on the African continent and working extensively with musicians from a wide variety of traditions further expanded Weston’s compositional palette, and he continued to explore ways to make the European piano sound African.

“I go back to before it was a piano,” Weston explained.  “You’ve got wood.  You’ve got metal.  When the piano was created in Italy, they didn’t know what to do with the keys of the piano, so the keys of the piano were wood.  After that, the ivory on the elephant was what they used before the plastic and whatnot.  So when I go to the piano, I approach it as an African instrument.  It just traveled north and some other things were done to it.  And inside it is a harp, an African harp.”

Although he ultimately returned to the Brooklyn neighborhood he grew up in, Weston took back with him a whole world of experience which has informed the music he is creating up to this day. His magnum opus, the two-hour African Nubian Suite, which premiered in 2012 and was released as a two-CD set on his own African Rhythms label just last year, incorporates musical traditions from across the entire African continent, as well as the diaspora and even China.

“We all have African blood,” Weston asserted.  “Every person on the planet Earth.”

After such an ambitious tour-de-force, Weston refuses to rest on his laurels. He just issued Sound, another two-CD set which is all solo piano music, and a few days after we visited him he flew to Europe for performances in Nice and Rome:

Wherever I go, I tell people—students, grandmas, you know—I’m so happy now because when I play, all the races come to me holding their hearts.  They say, “You’re taking us back home.”  I say, “We all are from there.”


A conversation with Frank J. Oteri in Weston’s Brooklyn home
July 13, 2018—4:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Frank J. Oteri:  There’s a statement in your autobiography African Rhythms that I thought would be a great place to begin our talk.  It was an observation about African traditional music: the audience and the music are one.  I think the same could be said for just about all the music you’ve done in your life, and the same could have been or perhaps should be said for all music—any music that really works.

Randy Weston:  Well, I was born in Brooklyn, New York, and I became a young musician, playing local gigs and marriages.  We played a lot of dances.  You had to play for dance, otherwise you weren’t a musician.  And that goes all the way back to ancient Africa, that they’re one and the same, which means that the dancer is also an instrument.  Also, in our community, it wasn’t The New York Times that told us whether we played good or not, it was that African-American audience.  I don’t care whether it was calypso, the black church, the blues, or European classical music, they knew when the music was right.  And if you weren’t playing right, you were in trouble.

“It wasn’t The New York Times that told us whether we played good or not, it was that African-American audience.”

Growing up as a boy, I loved music before I ever even touched a piano.  Music was our way of life.  I grew up in a community of all the nationalities—people from the Caribbean, people from Africa, people from the South, people from Europe—all bringing their cultures.  It was so rich and so wonderful, but music was the key.  And I can’t emphasize too much, it was my mother and father who would bring the best music in the house—Duke Ellington, gospel, blues.  They weren’t musicians and they never studied music, so I wanted to find out how they could know so much about music.  But when you go to the motherland, the people in Africa are music.  Music is the first language.  It’s how we survived slavery.  It’s how we survive many hardships.  During the early ‘20s and ‘30s, they were lynching black people in this country—your skin was no good, your hair, all the stereotypes.  But it was music, whether it was the black church, where I had to be every Sunday with my Virginia momma, or during the week when I was with my Caribbean father—Panama, Jamaica, proud, Marcus Garvey, Africa, all the time. We would go to calypso dances.  We were just surrounded with music and there was no separation between the ages, no such thing as music for the young.  When I was growing up, music was for everybody.

So when Randy Weston plays the piano, I’ve got to move a three-year old or a 100-year old.  And that’s the foundation of music in spirituality, which was passed down from our ancestors.  Every day I’m amazed at how they could create such beauty in this country after coming here in such terrible conditions.  I still don’t get it.  When I went to Africa, I found out that for African people, spirituality is so important, even despite all the diversities of people.  That’s the only way I can describe it, so a long way of answering your question as usual.

Some LPs of Randy Weston's music as well as piles of his CDs.

FJO:  You touched on many different concepts here. But since you touched on when you were growing up, I’d like to talk more with you about other things that were around you that I would dare say might have influenced your approach to how you relate to audiences.  Your father ran a restaurant and took meals very seriously.  A great chef can be considered a great artist, but you’d never have a situation where the chef is a great artist and he makes food that most people wouldn’t want to eat.  Yet we do harbor a notion that there is some great music that very few people can relate to.  What happened to create this distance between people who make music and everybody else?

RW:  We got away from the truth.  My father always taught me to always look for the origin of everything in life.  No matter what they tell you.  Try to find the origin of whatever that is.  Whether it’s language, whether it’s football, whatever.  My dad loved Africa with such a passion.  He would talk about Africa to people he didn’t even know in the street or in the restaurant.  When I was a young, young child, around six, he said, “My son, I want you to understand one thing: that you are an African born in America. Therefore you must study the history of Africa before it was colonized.  Before it was invaded.  Before it was sterilized.”  My dad had books on African civilization in the house and he had maps of Africa and also African kings and queens on the wall.  When we grew up, it was British East Africa and the Belgian Congo; Africa didn’t have its independence.  But he said, “We come from royalty.” He said, “They only thing they’re going to teach you is after slavery and after colonialism; you’re going to have a mountain full of lies. When you go to the cinema or when you go to school, people are going to say you’re inferior.  There’s a billion people on the planet, but I want you to be strong when you go out the door.” So growing up, because of my dad, I’d look at books and I’d go to museums.  I’d go back 6,000 years ago.  Just imagine what it must have been before Africa was occupied.

The way we were treated in this country, how come we don’t hate people?  You don’t do that because we’re all members of the planet earth; we’re all human beings.  We grew up like that.  We really loved to welcome all the different people of the planet.  My father’s friends were Jewish, Swedish, German, Italian.  You name it.  We’d go to their house and had Italian food.  Or we’d have Jewish food on a Sunday. My mother with her Virginia accent and my father with his Caribbean accent. They had different accents, but they were the same people. They got married and they produced me.

My dad’s second restaurant was right here in this house; my dad died, but his spirit is in this house.  He would have people come here from Africa, or from the Caribbean, or Europeans who told the truth about African history—scientists, musicians, painters, actors.  And with my mother at the black church every Sunday, I was absorbing these gospels and spirituals when I was a little boy.  So that’s my foundation.  And every day, I talked to my father and mother.  They gave me everything.  They gave me spirituality, which is difficult to understand.  They loved me and I was spoiled.  I’m not talking about financially.  My dad was a great cook.  He would cook all the Caribbean cooking.  My mother made Southern food from Virginia.  I had all that love, and not to mention the neighborhood, but that’s the foundation—mom and pop.

A framed photo of Randy Weston's parents

Randy Weston keeps a framed photograph of his parents on one of his walls as a constant reminder of their importance to him.

FJO:  Andy they had you take piano lessons.

RW:  My father, yeah.

FJO:  But that first set of piano lessons didn’t really work out.

RW:  No, because you know, I was six-foot at 12 years old.  In those days, I thought I was going to the circus.  I was tall.  Today, that’s nothing, right?  I played baseball and football.  And I couldn’t identify with the scales because all the music we grew up with was swinging—whether it’s the black church or a blues club on the corner or calypso dance, all the music had, as Duke Ellington says, that African pulse.  So I couldn’t identify with European music.  But that piano teacher, God bless her, for 50 cents a lesson, she had to deal with me for three years of torture—for her and for me. She’d hit my hand with the ruler.  But she gave me the foundation and that’s why she’s in my book.  I learned some things I got to appreciate when I got older.

FJO:  Well I have a theory that, aside from you saying that you didn’t identify with European music, you wanted to create your own things instead of playing what someone else wrote.  Even before you ever created your first composition, you had the attitude of a composer.

RW:  I didn’t know. I had no idea.

When I had come out of the Army, I went to my father’s restaurant and I was a frustrated musician. Remember, this was the period of royalty.  This was the period of the greatest musicians in the history of the planet—people like Art Tatum and Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Erroll Garner, and I could go on.  This was our royalty.  In the restaurant, you could go to the jukebox and play everybody from Louis Armstrong to Sarah Vaughan, to Louis Jordan.  We’d be open 24 hours a day in this restaurant and I was so in love with the music on the jukebox.

At this time, Miles Davis was living in Brooklyn and so was Max Roach, who I called the emperor of Brooklyn. Max was my teacher. Max Roach’s house was two blocks away from where we lived and my father’s restaurant.  When I had a break in the restaurant, I’d just go to Max’s house and sit in the corner.  That’s where I met Dizzy Gillespie.  That’s where I met Charlie Parker.  That’s where I met Miles Davis.  That’s where I met George Russell.  I’d sit in the corner and just listen to what they talked about.  And thanks to Max Roach and George Russell, I discovered the modern European classical music— Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Darius Milhaud.  And Max would always tell me to listen to Baby Dodds, to go back and listen to all the African-American music you can find because that’s the purest music, because those people couldn’t speak the language.  They hadn’t gone to music school, so during the time of slavery and even after slavery, they approached it as African people.  The way they dance and the way they cook their food.  The way they attempted to speak the European languages.  Max taught me that.  He taught me about Chano Pozo.  When I heard that African Cuban drum with Dizzy’s orchestra in 1949 in what George Russell was writing for Dizzy, Cubana Be Cubana Bop, I fell in love with that drum.  I said I got to work with this drum.  Again, Africa.

And we had people like the great Cecil Payne.  Eubie Blake lived on Stuyvesant Avenue in Brooklyn, right around the corner from my mother’s church.  I would go to Eubie’s house when he was about—whoo!— 95, something like that.  You didn’t have to call up and say Mr. Blake, can I come by and see you.  Oh no, you just rang the bell.  I’d go to Eubie Blake’s house and sit in the corner and he’d tell about the piano battles they had in 1890.  How they had this guy named One Leg Willie, and this guy could take one song and in each chorus he’d completely change the harmonies.  He never made a record.  So from Eubie, I got the history of our music going way back to the early-20th century.  So Brooklyn was very special because it was so much culture.

A shelf in Randy Weston's home featuring a variety of trinkets including a miniature model of the Brooklyn Bridge

FJO:  Your encounters with Charlie Parker were really interesting.  You actually even performed with him.

RW:  Again, Max Roach.  Max made me play for Charlie Parker.  I was shaking, because Charlie Parker was a high spiritual man—what he would do with that saxophone.  But Max said, “Hey man, play one of your songs.” I played something, but I was very nervous.  And then I went back to the restaurant and said, “Why did Max make me play for this guy?”—it was me and a drummer who studied with Max Roach named Maurice Brown.

“You don’t interrupt a musician when he’s playing.  That’s a way to die.”

In those days we would hang out two or three days looking for music.  Some clubs would close at three o’clock in the morning and others would open up at four o’clock in the morning.  There was no television and no disco.  Everything was live, so we had that kind of experience.  So that night we went to go hear Tadd Dameron at a club called the Royal Roost.  Tadd Dameron was in a band with Fats Navarro and Charlie Rouse; I’m not sure who the drummer was.  When you go out in the Royal Roost, you go down the stairs, and the bar is right there.  And there’s Charlie Parker at the bar.  Now Charlie Parker always kept his saxophone.  If he went to the supermarket—saxophone.  You’d never see him without that saxophone.  So he sat at the bar and I’m looking.  I wondered who he was talking to.  I didn’t think he remembered me.  So the young drummer said, “Man, he’s talking to you.”  He said, “Randy, how you doing, man?”  I said fine.  “So, whatcha doing?”  I said, “We’re gonna hear Tadd Dameron in the band.”  He said, “Come with me.”  He takes us upstairs and calls a taxi.  We go to 52nd Street, to a club, I’m not sure whether it’s the Three Deuces.  I’ve forgotten the exact name of the club.  We go into the club and there’s a group playing.  They’re playing their music.  Now you don’t interrupt a musician when he’s playing.  That’s a way to die.  Don’t dare do that.  But Charlie Parker was so powerful; in the middle of the song, he went up on the stage and told the piano player to get up. Just like that.  And the piano player says, “Yes Bird.”  And then he told me to sit at the piano.  He did the same thing with the drummer, told the drummer to get up in the middle of the song and told the drummer [Maurice Brown] to sit.  Then he took out his saxophone.  He played one half hour with us, then packed up his horn and left and never said a word.  You don’t forget things like that, because I was with a master.

FJO:  That was your one and only gig with Charlie Parker.  The other really interesting, formative influence story in your life was your encounter with Thelonious Monk, which I think had a profound effect on how you make music and how you think about music.

RW:  Sure.  Absolutely. Why do you love certain artists?  What happens?  There’s some kind of communication there.  When I was 13-years old, I heard “Body and Soul” [played] by Coleman Hawkins. He was really the father of the tenor saxophone, and it was a big hit.  Coleman Hawkins was such a genius.  What’s so incredible about that “Body and Soul” is he’s not playing the melody, but you can hear the melody.  So when I heard this music, I went to my father and I said, “Dad, I want an advance in my allowance.”  I got 75 cents a week.  “I want to go buy some recordings.”  So he gave me the advance, and I went to the record shop.  I think it was about 35 cents for a disc in those days, and I bought three copies.  I hid two in cellophane.  The other copy I put on my pop’s record player, opened up the windows in the apartment, and put on “Body and Soul” loud so everybody could hear it.  I played Coleman Hawkins almost every other day.

The first time I heard Monk was with Coleman Hawkins on 52nd Street. He’s got Monk playing the piano.   I’m this amateur musician, and I didn’t know him. Monk wasn’t playing too many notes that night, so my immediate reaction was what’s Coleman Hawkins doing with this guy?  I had his recordings with Art Tatum and with Benny Carter.  But I went back again and heard “Ruby, My Dear” for the first time with Monk on the piano and Coleman Hawkins on the saxophone.  It was just love, the kind of love that you can only get with music.  My connection to Monk goes back to Ahmed Abdul-Malik, the bass player.  He also played the oud and he would take me to downtown Brooklyn to listen to the oud and experience the music of North Africa and the Middle East.  He could play notes in between the notes.  I tried to do the same thing on the piano, but I couldn’t do it.  But Monk did it.

FJO:  He creates a very idiosyncratic sound, but of course it is still with the notes on the piano.  There aren’t any extra notes there, but he’s messing with your head.

RW:  Music is magic.  So when I heard Monk, and I heard that sound on the piano, I said, “Wow.  I want to find out how he’s doing that.”  So I went to his house, and asked if I could come see him.  There was a picture of Billie Holiday in the middle of the ceiling.  Monk was sitting in a chair playing music very softly.  I started asking him all kind of questions.  No response.  That’s it.  But I couldn’t leave the room.  I stayed in that room for hours.  Finally, I had felt I had to try to get out of this room.  I must have asked about one hour of questions.  No response.  I’m getting ready to leave.  He said, “Listen to all kinds of music.  Come and see me again.”  I went back one month later.  He played the piano almost two hours for me.

He pushed the magic of Africa in the piano for me.  Piano was not created to get that kind of sound. I discovered later on that he comes from Duke Ellington.  Duke was doing things with the piano, which I didn’t realize.  He was also creating all kind of magic sounds on the piano—basically the bass of the piano.  A lot of pianists don’t touch the bass.  But Duke, he’d do things with the bass of the piano to create things, you know. Oh, that music.  And all the music is so beautiful.  Dizzy, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, all these people.  They create such original beauty.  They’re all original people.  So for me in 1959 to do a recording with Coleman Hawkins playing my music—man, that was one of the happiest moments of my life.  Roy Haynes was on drums on that date and Kenny Dorham on trumpet.

One of the walls in Randy Weston's home which is full of posters and photographs of various African people.

FJO:  Before we get to 1959, at some point several years before that something changed in your attitude about being a musician. You were on the fence for a very long time before you finally decided that that was what you wanted your focus in life to be.

RW:  Oooh, I was 29.

FJO:  That’s late.

RW:  But I was playing at 17.

FJO:  So what caused you to devote your life to being a musician?

RW: It happened up in the Berkshires.  I was working in this hotel up there—breakfast chef for a while, washing dishes for a while, chambermaid for a while, cutting down trees. But I discovered the Berkshires and all that music—the Boston Symphony Orchestra, chamber music, music students coming from all over the world.  I met Aaron Copland.  I met Lukas Foss.  I met Leonard Bernstein.  It was just an incredible place of music.  Plus the Music Inn and Marshall Stearns.

“I don’t play Bach and Beethoven and Mozart.  That’s not what I do.”

I’ll never forget this.  I helped these artists from Germany.  They were all victims of Nazism.  They were all elderly people, and they had a concert. They were violinists, violists, singers, and whatnot.  And I helped them with their baggage.  But in the meanwhile, when I’m in these places, I was playing the piano at night.  But just for me, you know.  So these three old ladies come to me and said, “Randy, we’re going to have a recital.  And we decided we’d like you to play.”  I said, “I’m sorry, I don’t play Bach and Beethoven and Mozart.  That’s not what I do.”  They said, “No, no, no.  We want you to do what we hear you do at night.”  And that’s what I did.   They were saying to me, “We’re from the European classical world, but you’re doing something special on the piano.”  Max Roach was pushing me.  And other musicians.  But that really did it.

FJO:  And it wasn’t very long after that that you made your first studio recording.

RW:  Yes.  That’s correct, because I had discovered the music.  Marshall Stearns, oh man, he was something incredible.  I did about ten summers in the Berkshires.  Who do I meet up there?  Langston Hughes.  Olatunji.  Candido.  Mahalia Jackson, who was doing an afternoon class on African spirituality in the black church. Willis James, who specialized in field cry hollers, and he talked about how our ancestors during the time of slavery created music with sound because they couldn’t speak the European languages. I met so many incredible people.  Everybody I listened to and took something from.  Asadata Defora, the great dancer-choreographer from Guinea.  And because of Marshall, I also met John Lee Hooker, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, Josh White.  He had this pan-African concept in music, and he would have these classes.  He’d have a blackboard, and underneath the blackboard would be Africa.  Then he had the different branches, like calypso.  I met Geoffrey Holder up there, too.

FJO:  But to go from being immersed with all those people to saying I’m now going to do my own thing was still a huge step as a musician. The first album you recorded was a collection of your interpretations of music by Cole Porter, because the record label wasn’t going to take a chance on an unknown person doing his own compositions.  But after that, most of what you’ve recorded is all your own music.  Every now and then, you would include a tune of somebody else’s that you made your own.  But it was very clear from very early on that you were creating your own music, whether you were performing by yourself or with other musicians.  And when you worked with other musicians, you weren’t telling them what to play, because you wanted them to bring their own thing to it.  You’ve actually said that you feel like a piece of music you create isn’t complete until you work on it with other people in a performance or in the studio—then it becomes complete.

RW:  Absolutely, because music is life itself.  In ancient tradition, music was just as important as science, astronomy, any kind of education.  Music was required because music was our first language, our spiritual language.  Even up to now, even up to last week, when I go to the piano and I look at that audience—and I’ve been doing that for a while—all the religions are there, all the colors are there, all the ages are there.  But we become one people when the music is right.  And it’s always magic for me.

“We become one people when the music is right.”

I have to be very humble with music. Why do I say that?  Well, what you talked about came from Duke and Monk.  They did their own music.  They’re my two biggest influences.  But at the same time, I had a talent and I didn’t realize I had a talent.  And I loved my children so much, so my first recording with Melba Liston was setting waltzes for children.  Children are so free.  So I put them to music.  I wrote those waltzes up in the Berkshires, because after the season was over, I stayed two or three weeks afterwards and it was very quiet, with a nice fireplace.  The Berkshires are so physically beautiful, as you know.  It’s gorgeous there.  And all of a sudden, these melodies came out.

Where this talent comes from, I will never know.  But it happened. How it happened is amazing.  I went to Boys High School in Brooklyn. That was a very good school.  Max Roach went there.  Cecil Payne.  Ray Copland, the trumpet player.  I was in this school, but I wanted to go to music school.  My father wanted me to get those academics; he wanted me to be a businessman.  Another reason why I had my own groups is because my dad would always do his own thing.  He said, “If you work for yourself, you work harder, but you can get your message across.”

FJO:  That album of waltzes for children was very important in your career. And the title track from that, “Little Niles,” became one of your most famous compositions.

RW:  Exactly.  Duke and Monk, and the other composers too, wrote music for their families.  Duke would write music about his mother, about his father, about his grandfather.  Monk would do the same thing.  That was our tradition.

FJO:  And Duke and Monk—and you, as well—were also part of the tradition of pianist-composers.  When people now think about the 1950s, they say Thelonious Monk, but there was also Elmo Hope.

RW:  Herbie Nichols.

FJO:  Exactly.  I was thinking about Herbie Nichols when I was thinking about your early recording career. He only ever got to record in a piano trio setting—piano with bass and drums.  But he always wanted to record with a mixed quintet, and it never happened.  The record labels never let him do that.

RW:  Wow.

FJO:  And then he died so young.  It’s interesting to compare that with the chronology of your recordings. That first album of Cole Porter tunes is just you and a bass player, Sam Gill, so it’s a duo. Your next two albums were trio sessions, but the album after that was a quartet with Cecil Payne. Then you recorded a mixed quintet session, and after that you began recording with larger ensembles, which is when Melba Liston entered the scene as your arranger. Talk about somebody else who never really got proper recognition; there was only one album released under her name in her lifetime. And even when she appeared on other people’s albums, she rarely took a solo.

RW:  I had to fight her to take a solo on our first recording.  She was just a humble person.  She was just like that.  First of all, I had never heard a woman play trombone before.

I must confess when I heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy and Monk, I didn’t understand what they were doing.  What kind of music is this?  I didn’t understand it.  It happened right after the Second World War when everything changed.  I started working these clubs in New York.  I would play Birdland every now and then with a trio.  And Dizzy brought the big band.  He brought that band that had Lee Morgan, Benny Golson, Charlie Persip, and Melba Liston—all the heavy young players playing this incredible music that they called bebop.  So he featured her.  He said, “I want you all to listen to an arrangement of ‘My Reverie’ featuring Melba Liston on trombone.”  She had this big sound on trombone, and she did the arrangement.  And the arrangement was so beautiful. When she came off the stage, I just had to introduce myself to her.  I said, “You don’t know me, but it was like magic.  Like we were supposed to meet.”  Then she moved from California to New York, and she got to know Mary Lou Williams—I knew Mary Lou, the giant; another queen, right?—because the two of them lived in Harlem. So somehow when I had a chance to do this recording for United Artists, my first recording for them, I wanted to do several waltzes for children, and I asked Melba if she would do the arrangements.

All Melba Liston wanted to do was to play and write music.  She was an extraordinarily beautiful woman.  But when she was working on music, she’d have the girls go and buy her a dress, or buy her a pair of shoes.  She didn’t want to be bothered.  She didn’t want to be glamorous. I used to bring her a coffee to keep her awake when she was writing arrangements for Quincy Jones.  [And we worked together] from that point on, until she died. What a great, great, great arranger.

FJO:  Now, it’s extraordinary how successfully your music and her arrangements melded, but that doesn’t always happen. Many people did their own arrangements for that reason. Duke Ellington did his own arrangements until Billy Strayhorn came into his life and then they created things together, which were also extraordinary. To turn that work over to somebody else, there has to be a level of trust.  I’m jumping decades ahead now to your Blue Moses record. You thought it was going to turn out one way, and then you heard the record they released and it wasn’t at all what you thought you had recorded.

RW:  Well, that was in the electric piano days.  In the early ‘70s, if you wanted to make a gig, you’d better have a Fender Rhodes.  Don’t look for no piano.  Melba did the original arrangements of Blue Moses.  We were still living in Tangier, so my son and I came from Tangier to do the recording, but when I got there, Creed Taylor said his formula is electric piano.  I was not happy with that, but it was my only hit record. People loved it. [The arranger] Don Sebesky did an incredible job.  Because what had happened was we went back to Morocco, so I didn’t hear the music until it came from New York to Tangier.  Me and my son listened to it, and he said, “Is that us?”  But Don Sebesky did a fantastic job to capture all those colors of Blue Moses.

FJO:  So you were ultimately okay with all those extra layers that he added to it?

RW: Everybody’s okay with that.  And I can’t resist. I just don’t like electric piano.  But everybody says, “Man, you were fantastic on electric piano.”  So many people.  And I loved the musicians—Freddie Hubbard and Grover Washington and Hubert Laws, Airto, and my son.  Everybody played beautifully.  I just was not happy with my sound, but that was required.  That was Creed’s concept, and it was a good concept.  It was a good concept because it became a hit record for me.

FJO:  And because it was a hit record, it actually got you out of debt for the music festival you organized in Morocco.

RW:  Exactly.

FJO:  It’s fascinating to hear that you’re okay with it even though it wasn’t what you thought it would be.  As you had said, you never have a finished idea. It’s always going to get reshaped in some sort of fashion when you work with other people. But you still have some kind of control over it when you’re actually there.  Or maybe you don’t.

RW:  Absolutely, because it was the story of my life in Morocco.  That’s a very, very personal experience—also for my son, because we lived there.  We lived with the people.  We traveled.  We hung out with the traditional people.  You know, we’d get together, we would read the Koran together, my son and I.  We would play chess together. He listened to the Gnawan musicians and started playing rhythms that I didn’t know he knew.  That’s what Blue Moses is all about.  I was in this small French car with my son, Ed Blackwell, and the bass player Bill Wood, and we drove from Tangier all the way to the Sahara. I’m driving.  The car’s so small that the wheel is between my legs, but I just loved adventure, I guess, at that time.  So we go to this village up in the Rif Mountains, and we see snow.  So I said, “Wow, I didn’t know there was snow in Morocco.”  I saw the people skiing, so I said, “I got to put music to that.” Then through the Rif Mountains and you go down to the Sahara.

FJO:  I think Morocco has the most extremely different kinds of terrain for that small a geographical area.

RW:  It’s true.  The music, the art, the clothing, the instruments—oh man, Morocco, wow, wow, wow, wow, wow.  I used to go to the festival in Marrakesh. Once a year, they’d have people coming from everywhere.  Cats playing music on camels, on horseback, all kind of drums, dance music, it’s wonderful.  And I just say wow.  See, I love traditional music with a passion, because that’s where you get the soul and the spirit of the people.

Various musical instruments and other objects from Africa

FJO:  But how to reconcile that with the piano? The piano is this creation of the industrial revolution. It’s a machine, to some extent.  And there are all these stories about your tours in Africa and how difficult it was to get a piano for you in a lot of places.

RW:  Or they had an electric piano, and I would break it up.

FJO:  Well, some of them weren’t in very good shape to begin with.  But it’s still interesting given what you say about traditional music that you can create something that’s so personal with something that’s a machine—not an electric machine the way we think of machines today, but the product of industrialization to some extent.

RW:  Well, I go back to before it was a piano.  You’ve got wood.  You’ve got metal.  When the piano was created in Italy, they didn’t know what to do with the keys of the piano, so the keys of the piano were wood.  After that, the ivory on the elephant was what they used before the plastic and whatnot.  So when I go to the piano, I approach it as an African instrument.  It just traveled north and some other things were done to it.  And inside it is a harp, an African harp.  So you took that harp and you laid it down, and you put the hammers and whatnot in it. That’s why I was saying the origin of things is so important for me. So when I go to the piano, spiritually, it becomes an African instrument.  Because I’m going all the way back to the beginning when I touch that piano. The Moors brought their music up through Spain, so it was coming from Africa, you know.

“When I go to the piano, I approach it as an African instrument.”

It’s like I was telling you about Monk and Duke, and how they take that piano.  I used to love the sound of Count Basie and that piano.  Oh my God.  He’d just hit a few notes, but his sound, only Basie could get that kind of sound.  Nat Cole.  Another one.  He’s playing a piano, singing, I mean, looking at the piano, but the sound Nat King Cole got on the piano.  That’s why my latest recording, a double CD, is called Sound.  Why did I love Coleman Hawkins so much? It was his sound.  Why did I love Louis Armstrong so much? His sound.  Louis only had to hit one note and I say, “Wow!” That goes back to ancient times, because in the ancient days, when they started making instruments out of Mother Nature, out of the wood, out of the fish, out of the camel, a horse, whatever instruments, you know, they had to say certain prayers before they did the ceremony to make that drum, or that banjo, or whatever, because that is Mother Nature.

Sure, I grew up in New York, and I heard the best of us here, but where did Louis Armstrong come from?  Who was his great-great-grandmother?  What part of Africa did he come from to produce that kind of sound on the trumpet?  That never happened before.  And going all the way back, how would they tune the instruments?  They would tune the instruments by the sound of Mother Nature.  By the sound of the animals, by the sound of the birds, by the sound of thunder.  That’s how they would tune their instruments.  And that’s why the music of Africa is so diverse because it’s the most diverse place in the world.

And wherever you find African people, I don’t care whether it’s in Fiji—I discovered them in Fiji—whether it’s Brazil, Guadeloupe, Mississippi, Congo. Duke said there’s that pulse in the music.  It’s that pulse.  You can call it rock and roll. You can call it hip hop. You can call it jazz. Many titles.  But for me, it’s Mother Africa’s way of survival because without those early spirituals and blues, we would never have survived slavery.  Even after slavery was abolished, even when we supposedly got our freedom, we had to go over the world, which we had never been in touch with before because we were on plantations.  And from that, they create this music.  Man, I don’t know how they did it.

A poster for a 1985 African Music Festival

FJO:  Hearing you say all this reminds me of another comment you’ve made many times over the years, that there’s no old music.  But, by the same token, that might mean there’s also no new music.  Is that true?

RW:  You know, it’s not fixed, because music is free.  Musicians are free.  I could never speak for another musician, because music is invisible.  It’s the king of the arts.  But when I play with Gnawan musicians, they play the same songs all the time.  Now for Western ears that might seem boring, because you want to have something they call new.  So I wondered about that. But when they play the traditional music, they’re telling a story of their people.  They had given you the spirit of their people.  The way they cook their food.  The way they dance.  The way they dress.

Ellington, Armstrong, Eubie Blake, all those people created music for their African-American community.  You couldn’t just play music like today.  You had to report to the African-American community.  So all those great artists were not just able to play well.  They played in hospitals, prisons, old folks homes, raised money for a school and whatnot.  That was required. In African traditional society, that’s what a musician is.  Not just, “You’re so great.” That’s only a part of it.  You have to serve the community.  You have to tell the stories of your father, your grandfather, and whatnot.  And teach people that they may not have had the education or the technology, but they had wisdom.

“You have to serve the community.”

We don’t listen to the old people today, but when we grew up, we hung out with the old people.  We’d never leave the old people.  I’d go to Eubie Blake’s house, man he told me stories.  I met Luckey Roberts, who wrote a song called “Lullaby of the Nile,” up at his place. He was writing music about Africa.  A lot of the churches in the South were called the African Methodist Church, the African Baptist Church and whatnot.  Those people stayed in touch with the ancestors.  That’s why they got so heavy with the black church.  So despite the fact there was slavery, despite the fact there’s racism, they always tried to communicate with the creator.  Because wherever you find African people, I don’t care where it is, they’re going to have a very powerful, spiritual music.  Because all of our people, we know that there’s a higher power.

FJO:  I’d like to talk to you a bit about the first large-scale piece of music that you created that is African inspired, and that’s Uhuru Afrika. How that recording finally came about is pretty interesting.  You wanted to record it for United Artists, but they said they’d consider it after you made a jazz version of tunes from a Broadway show.

RW: I got to pick the show, but I had to do a Broadway show.

FJO:  And you picked Destry Rides Again.

RW:  Yes, I did.

FJO:  Did you go see it on Broadway?

RW:  Yes, and I met Harold Rome.  It was great.  He was an important composer.  Like I said, I had the experience in the Berkshires. The Berkshires made me check out all kinds of music.

FJO:  And of course that was also where you met Leonard Bernstein, who had one foot in classical music but the other foot was on Broadway.

RW:  Exactly.

FJO:  Harold Rome, though, had a career that was almost completely on Broadway. So what was it about his show that spoke to you?

RW:  Somehow I chose that one.  I don’t remember what the other shows were, but I picked Destry Rides Again.  It’s a cowboy show.  It was my cowboy roots.  (laughs)

FJO:  It only ran for a year and is sadly kind of a forgotten show at this point.  But it’s pretty interesting.  I have the cast album.

RW:  Really.

FJO:  It’s actually fascinating to compare it with your version of it.  I love how the four trombones interact with the piano on it, but it’s a far cry from the record that you wanted to make, which was Uhuru Afrika.

RW:  Of course.

FJO:  And even after you went ahead and recorded a jazz version of Destry Rides Again, United Artists still wouldn’t let you do Uhuru Afrika.

“We knew until Africa gets its independence, we were not going to get our independence because that’s our ancestral home.”

RW:  No, I did it with Roulette Records. I was very fortunate. There was a man named C.B. Atkins.  C.B. Atkins was the husband of Sarah Vaughan.  I don’t remember how we met, but he talked to Morris Levy, the head of Roulette Records, to let me do Uhuru Afrika.  [Atkins] was the key and that’s why I was able to put together that incredible orchestra.  We started right after the album of seven waltzes for children, me and Melba.  Melba was just like myself, in a sense.  She was a very proud African-American woman.  She had great pride in her people.  So we had that spiritual connection.  African cultures were just getting their independence.  And we knew until Africa gets its independence, we were not going to get our independence because that’s our ancestral home.  So I wanted to do a work of music to show—again the influence of the Berkshires—that we are global people.  And so, after spending time at the United Nations, talking to diplomats, going to see Langston Hughes, I got together with Melba a range of African people. We had an opera singer, Martha Flowers, a great soprano; we wanted her to represent African culture and European classical music.  We had Brock Peters; he was a folk singer and a Broadway guy.  Then we had Olatunji from Nigeria, Candido and Armando Peraza from Cuba.  We had Charlie Persip on drums.  We had Ron Carter and George Duvivier on bass.  And we had Max Roach on marimba.

FJO:  And you also had Gigi Gryce on what was probably his very last recording.

RW:  Exactly.  Yusef Lateef, Gigi Gryce, Bud Johnson, Kenny Burrell, Les Spann, Freddie Hubbard, Clark Terry, Reggie Reeves, Slide Hampton, Jimmy Cleveland, Quentin Jackson—it was something.  And Melba did all the arrangements.  It was delayed because I went to Langston Hughes, again who I met in the Berkshires. He was such a wonderful man.  He was an African-American writer who knew the importance of the music.  A lot of our writers have gotten away from the music.  Not Langston.  He wrote the first book of jazz for children.

That was a time when African countries wanted their independence, and the European powers at that time said, “No, you’re not ready for independence yet.” And Africa was saying, “Let us make our own mistakes; we want our freedom.”  So I went to Langston and I talked with him and said, “Can you give me a poem of Freedom for Africa?”  And I also wanted to celebrate the African woman—my mother, my sister, those women up until today, including my wife, who are always in the background and who struggle for us and take care of us but never get the credit, which included Melba Liston.  So he did. I wanted to use an African language, because when I was a child, I was very embarrassed, what you would see in the cinema for African people—always slaves, Tarzan, all that stuff.  We’re brainwashing these kids.  The whole idea was Africa had no language.

But the whole concept of language came from Africa!  So I went to the United Nations, and I talked to a lot of diplomats.  I wanted to use an African language.  They said use Kiswahili.  So I got a guy from Tanzania to translate Langston Hughes’s Freedom Poem from English to Kiswahili. Melba was writing out the music. We had to record two days in a row, starting at nine o’clock in the morning.  Musicians!  Nobody was late!  It was so spiritual.  And Melba was still writing parts.  We had musicians in my apartment writing parts on the ceiling, on the walls.  But we did it.  It was a very powerful message.

FJO:  It was so powerful that it wound up getting banned in certain places. It has the same impact as Max Roach’s We Insist: Freedom Now Suite, which was recorded that same year.

RW:  Oh, absolutely.

A poster for a concert benefit entitled Action for South Africa at the Belmont Plaza Hotel on May 22, 1961 which featured performances by Randy Weston, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, and Miriam Makeba (who is pictured on it).

FJO:  But curiously, you did all of this before you ever set foot in Africa, and it was probably what led to your being invited and traveling to Africa for the first time.

RW: I wasn’t supposed to go originally.  I think Phineas Newborn was supposed to go.  I think Benny Taylor was supposed to go.  But something happened, and a friend of mine worked for the American Society of African Culture in Manhattan.  This woman knew I had recorded music about Africa, so she came and took my LPs, talked to the head guy, and said, “You’ve got to take Randy Weston.  He must go.”  So that’s how it happened.

FJO:  And it changed your life.

RW:  Yes it did.

FJO:  You had all of these ideas about Africa, but as you’ve also said, there’s a difference between music that’s about Africa and music that is Africa.  When you visited Africa, you finally saw the multiplicity of what those cultures represent.  It’s not monolithic, even within each nation state.

RW: You could spend years in Morocco.

FJO:  Or in Senegal or Ghana.

RW:  Or in Nigeria.

FJO:  All of these places.

RW:  There are something like 2,000 languages.

FJO:  And all of these different cultures co-exist together.

RW:  And that explains us.  We had a mix, and those rhythms all come together.  It’s tragic what happened to us, but look at the beauty we’ve given to Brazil, Colombia, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Florida, and Mississippi with this music.  So it was almost like it was meant to be.  Terrible, but it seemed like it was just meant to be.

FJO:  That’s quite a perspective to have on all of this history.  And it calls to mind a work of yours from just a few years ago that is perhaps your magnum opus, the African Nubian Suite. Your Uhuru Afrika, which you created more than fifty years earlier, foreshadows it in some ways, but I think that it was only possible for you to create something as expansive and all-encompassing as the African Nubian Suite after having traveled all over Africa and having completely absorbed what you experienced there and realizing that  Africa spirals beyond Africa.  It even includes China, so you include Chinese musical elements in it.  You included the whole world.

“We all have African blood—every person on the planet Earth.”

RW:  You know, we all have African blood—every person on the planet Earth.  And when you tell that story, that’s what Duke was doing.  My god, Ellington’s Black, Brown, and Beige!  And he also wrote music for the Queen of England, but you could hear the blues underneath.  And people like Luckey Roberts, Eubie Blake, and all those early people, that’s what they were doing.  They were telling the story of the beauty of Africa.  But then what happened was integration. It did several things, which are very good.  We could go places we couldn’t go before.  But at the same time, our culture disappeared.  It’s not like it was before.

FJO:  In the last half-century, music has changed to the point that there no longer are any clear demarcations. It’s great that there are no longer these demarcations, but there is also no longer a universally acknowledged popular music in this country or perhaps anywhere in the world.  In the 1950s, Broadway shows were the incubator of mainstream popular music, which is why United Artists wanted you to record the score of a Broadway show. I doubt a record label would ask you to do an album of a Broadway show now.  These days there are pockets of fans that like a certain thing, or like something else.  For better or worse, there is no mainstream.  In a way, we’ve all come closer together, which is good, but we’ve also kind of broken further apart, which is not good.  So what can we do?

RW:  Do what we do.  Realize there’s a higher power.  Study the history of this planet.  Wherever I go, I tell people—students, grandmas, you know—I’m so happy now because when I play, all the races come to me holding their hearts.  They say, “You’re taking us back home.”  I say, “We all are from there.”  We have to stop to realize: No Africa? No jazz, no blues, no bossa nova, no calypso, no reggae!  These are creations of African people. Where did Art Tatum come from?  I’m more amazed with Monk and Coleman Hawkins today than I was yesterday.  How could they take these European instruments, and do what they did and get their own sound?

So I think that Africa will survive.  African spirituality will survive, despite the fact we don’t exist on television anymore.  I’ve never seen it so bad in my life.  During segregation, you could go to the movies and see a Bessie Smith short.  You could see a short on Cab Calloway.  You could see something on Billie Holiday.  Now today, it’s tragic because this music is the classical music of the United States of America.  I don’t use the term jazz; I use the term African-American classical music.  There is classical music in all societies. I don’t care how many Beatles you’ve got or how many how many Rolling Stones you’ve got, you’re going to have opera and you’re going to have Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.  That has to exist, because that is the song and the spirit of people of Europe.  It’s very important, and there they always make that balance.  But us here, we’ve become so sophisticated.  We’ve got to do the latest thing.  We’ve got to do the fastest thing.  So what happened before us is no, no, no.  My father said to me, “Africa is the past, the present, and the future.”  Despite all the corruption and all the stuff that’s going on and whatnot, to me that spirituality and consciousness may help save this world.  I feel that.  And there’s no better example than the music.  So you call it calypso, jazz, or whatever you call this music. When you hear this music, it makes you feel, and when it’s right, it makes you feel good.  It makes you feel happy.  It makes you feel good to be a human being.

So when I’m on the stage and I play, I look at that audience and I see all the colors of the rainbow.  And when they’re all clapping the same rhythm, when they‘re happy, I say, “Wow, music is powerful.”  Because when we play this music, when it goes out, we don’t know what happens.  Each person in that audience takes their own trip.  So when you go up on that stage and get everybody to come together like that, sitting next to each other—if they knew who you were, they wouldn’t sit next to you, but music has that power.  And I think it’s the music that has to save us in the world today.

“I think it’s the music that has to save us in the world today.”

It’s so sad that America cannot recognize its own classical music.  Every child should have Louis Armstrong in the elementary school books.  Every child should know about Duke Ellington, America’s greatest composer.  Everybody should know about Charlie Parker, and Dizzy, and Nat Cole—all these people!  The African people of this country influenced the entire world.  On my first trip to Japan, when I get to Japan, here’s Max Roach on a throne.  The way they love Max Roach, man, I was so proud.  But that’s why they say we are the ambassadors; it’s true.  But the recognition is very difficult, to recognize Africa’s contribution to the Western hemisphere.

FJO:  You’re actually flying out on Sunday to play in Europe.  Do you feel that you have more recognition there than you do here?

RW:  Not necessarily.  But the difference is Europeans made the instruments.  They made the saxophone, the trumpet, and trombone, so they know what we do with them is completely original.

FJO:  Or maybe, it’s because as you were saying before, you can’t learn about this music here if you just watch television and that’s where you get your information. The internet has all this stuff, but you have to know it exists first before you can find out more about it.

RW:  Go back to books.  Every day I read.  The truth is in the books—the right books.  When I go to students, I give them books.  I say, “You will know the history of Africa.  You will know the history of music.” The books are here.  We have the technology.  Everything is here.  You’ll see that Western society came out of nowhere.  Western society came out of Africa and came out of Asia.  It became corrupt in the process, because they don’t give the recognition to the people who created this art.

One of Randy Weston's bookshelves

I’m so happy because they used my music for a DVD about this great Senegalese master Chiekh Anta Diop. He proved scientifically that ancient Egyptians had to be a jet black people, because Mother Nature is a true artist.  If there was serious hot weather, you needed black skin.  For cold weather, you need white skin.  She was the artist, just like she paints her fish and the insects. But we got away from that.  So the message of this thing is so beautiful because he’s explaining it for us to stop and think about the origin of this planet and the origin of Western civilization.  Western civilization corrupted the civilization of the older people.  Everything in Africa is based upon spirituality.  They’re in touch with the universe.  They know the original music comes from the planets and the stars.  They know the original music comes from Mother Nature.  That’s why African music is so powerful, because the continent itself was swinging before man ever arrived. Everything: elephants, the snakes, all of Mother Nature in Africa, they all swing.  Whether it’s a camel, whether it’s an ostrich, whether it’s a bird, they all swing because Mother Nature requires that.  And the same is true with the musicians.  So whether I’m in Morocco, whether I’m in South Africa, whether I’m in Senegal, all the music, all the dance, it’s gotta have that pulse.  I don’t care what the rhythms are, you’ve got to have that.

FJO: So what happens when you create music that gets away from it?

RW:  People get lost.  They don’t know value.  They don’t understand.  If everybody knew the power of jazz, what they call jazz music, or spiritual music, the ways it impacts this planet, coming from people who were taken here in slavery, African people would be honored.  I respect it and am thankful for the contributions.  I never met my grandfather or my grandmother, but I read about their generation and what they had to go through.  They couldn’t stay in hotels.  They couldn’t ride on buses.  Their color was no good.  How did they survive that?  With humor.  With music.  With love.  It’s incredible.

I’m so fortunate now because wherever we go now, the musicians with whom I work, I feel that we give the spirit of Africa in our music.  I describe it as spirit—living with the people, loving the people, reading about the people, eating the foods and drink. What I’m doing now is because of years of love.  Love of my parents.  Love of my people.  Love of life.  Love of humanity.  And love of this beautiful planet.

Randy Weston sitting on his couch om front of many framed posters from performances, awards, etc.

Your Computer is Listening. Are you?

Six years ago, I wrote an article stemming from a lively discussion that I had with a few friends on the work of David Cope’s artificial intelligence compositional program “Emily Howell.” My intention had been two-fold: to approach the philosophical challenges of our society accepting music originating from an extra-human source, while also attempting to discuss whether “Emily Howell’s work” met the definition of a composed piece—or if extraordinary human effort was involved in the final product.

This inquiry will take a very different approach.

We begin with the hypothesis that, due to the rate of growth and development of A.I. technology, #resistanceisfutile. Which is to say that computer-composed music is here, and the conversation needs to change.

Need proof? When I wrote the article six years ago, there were roughly two or three A.I. programs, mostly theoretical and almost exclusively confined to academic institutions. In the two weeks between agreeing to write this article and sitting at down to flesh out my notes, a new program using Google’s A.I. open platform was released. In the week and a half between writing my first draft and coming back for serious revisions, another A.I. music system was publicly announced with venture capital funding of $4 million.  The speed at which new technology in this field is developed and released is staggering, and we cannot discuss if it might change the musical landscape, but rather how we will adapt to it.

Advances in the capacity and ease of use in digitally based media have fundamentally changed the ways that creators and producers interact with audiences and each other and—in many ways—they have bridged some of the gaps between “classical” and “popular” music.

Ted Hearne introduced me to the beauty and artistic possibilities of Auto-Tune in The Source (digital processing design by Philip White). After seeing a demo of Kamala Sankaram’s virtual reality operetta The Parksville Murders, I programmed a session at OPERA America’s New Works Forum, bringing in the composer, producers (Opera on Tap), and director (Carri Ann Shim Sham) to introduce their work to presenters and producers of opera from around the country. While still a beta product, it led to a serious discussion about the capacity of new technologies to engage audiences outside of a more traditional performance space.

The Transactional Relationship 

In the tech world, A.I. is equated to the Holy Grail, “poised to reinvent computing itself.” It will not just automate processes, but continually improve upon itself, freeing the programmer and the consumer from constantly working out idiosyncrasies or bugs. It is already a part of our daily lives—including Google’s search function, Siri, and fraud detection on credit cards. The intuitive learning will be essential to mass-acceptance of self-driving cars, which will save tens of thousands of lives annually.

So why is A.I. composition not the next great innovation to revolutionize the music industry? Let’s return to the “Prostitute Metaphor” from my original article. To summarize, I argued that emotional interactions are based on a perceived understanding of shared reality, and if one side is disingenuous or misrepresenting the situation, the entire interaction has changed ex post facto. The value we give to art is mutable.

A.I.’s potential to replace human function has become a recurring theme in our culture. In the last 18 months, Westworld and Humans have each challenged their viewers to ask how comfortable they are with autonomous, human-esque machines (while Lars and the Real Girl explores the artificial constructs of relationships with people who may or may not ever have lived).

I’ll conclude this section with a point about how we want to feel a connection to people that move us, as partners and as musicians. Can A.I. do this? Should A.I. do this? And (as a segue to the next section), what does it mean when the thing that affects us—the perfectly created partner, the song or symphony that hits you a certain way—can be endlessly replicated?

Audiences are interested in a relationship with the artist, living or dead, to the point that the composer’s “brand” determines the majority of the value of the work (commissioning fees, recording deals, royalty percentages, etc.), and the “pre-discovery” work of famous creators have been sought after as important links to the creation of the magnum opus.

Supply and Demand

What can we learn about product and consumption (supply and demand) as we relate this back to composition in the 21st century?

If you don’t know JukeDeck, it’s worth checking out. It was the focal point of Alex Marshall’s January 22, 2017, New York Times article “From Jingles to Pop Hits, A.I. Is Music to Some Ears.” Start with the interface:

 Two JukeDeck screenshots--the first shows the following list of genres: piano, folk, rock, ambient, cinematic, pop, chillout, corporate, drum and bass, and synth pop; and the second shows the following list of moods: uplifting, melancholic, dark, angry, sparse, meditative, sci-fi, action, emotive, easy listening, tech, aggressive, and tropical

Doesn’t it seem like an earlier version of Spotify?

Two smartphone screenshots from an earlier version of Spotify, the first one features an album called Swagger with a shuffle play option and a list of four of the songs: "Ain't No Rest for the Wicked," "Beat The Devil's Tattoo," "No Good," and "Wicked Ones"; the second one features an album called Punk Unleashed with a shuffle play option and a list of five of the songs: "Limelight," "Near to the Wild Heart of Life," "Buddy," "Not Happy," and "Sixes and Sevens."

“Spotify is a new way of listening to music.” This was their catchphrase (see way-back machine to 6/15/11). They dropped that phrase once it became the primary way that people consume music. The curation can be taken out of the consumer’s hands—not only is it easier, but also smarter. The consumer should feel worldlier for learning about new groups and hearing new music.

The problem, at least in practice, is that this was not the outcome. The same songs keep coming up, and with prepackaged playlists for “gym,” “study,” “dim the lights,” etc., the listener does not need to engage as the music becomes a background soundtrack instead of a product to focus on.

My contention is not that the quality of music decreased, but that the changing consumption method devalues each moment of recorded sound. The immense quantity of music now available makes the pool larger, and thus the individuals (songs/tracks/works) inherently have less value.

We can’t erase the Pandora’s Box of Spotify, so it is important to focus on how consumption is changing.

A.I. Composition Commercial Pioneers

Returning to JukeDeck: what exactly are they doing and how does it compare to our old model of Emily Howell?

Emily Howell was limited (as of 2011) to the export of the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic ideas, requiring someone to ultimately render it playable by musicians. JukeDeck is more of a full-stack service. The company has looked at the monetization and has determined that creating digital-instrument outputs in lieu of any notated music offers the immediate gratification that audiences are increasingly looking for.

I encourage you to take a look at the program and see how it creates music in different genres. Through my own exploration of the JukeDeck, I felt that the final product was something between cliché spa music and your grandparent’s attempt at dubstep, yet JukeDeck is signing on major clients (the Times article mentions Coca-Cola). While a composer might argue that the music lacks any artistic merit, at least one company with a large marketing budget has determined that they get more value out of this than they do from a living composer (acknowledging that a composer will most likely charge more than $21.99 for a lump-sum royalty buyout). So in this situation, the ease of use and cost outweigh the creative input.

The other company mentioned in the article that hopes to (eventually) monetize A.I. composition is Flow Machines, funded by the European Research Council (ERC) and coordinated by François Pachet (Sony CSL Paris – UMPC).

Flow Machines is remarkably different. Instead of creating a finished product, its intention is to be a musical contributor, generating ideas that others will then expand upon and make their own. Pachet told the Times, “Most people working on A.I. have focused on classical music, but I’ve always been convinced that composing a short, catchy melody is probably the most difficult task.” His intention seems to be to draw on the current pop music model of multiple collaborators/producers offering input on a song that often will be performed by a third party.

While that may be true, I think that the core concept might be closer to “classical music” than he thinks.

While studying at École D’Arts Americaines de Fontainebleau, I took classes in the pedagogy of Nadia Boulanger. Each week would focus on the composition of a different canonical composer. We would study each composer’s tendencies, idiosyncrasies, and quirks through a series of pieces, and were then required to write something in their style. The intention was to internalize what made them unique and inform some of our own writing, if only through expanding our musical language. As Stravinsky said, “Lesser artists borrow, greater artists steal.”

What makes Flow Machine or JukeDeck (or Emily Howell?) different from Boulanger’s methodology? Idiosyncrasies. Each student took something different from that class. They would remember, internalize, and reflect different aspects of what was taught. The intention was never to compose the next Beethoven sonata or Mahler symphony, but to allow for the opportunity to incorporate the compositional tools and techniques into a palate as the student developed. While JukeDeck excludes the human component entirely, Flow Machine removes the learning process that is fundamental to the development of a composer. In creating a shortcut for the origination of new, yet ultimately derivative ideas or idioms, composers may become less capable of making those decisions themselves. The long-term effect could be a generation of composers who cannot create – only expand upon an existing idea.

What would happen if two A.I. programs analyzed the same ten pieces with their unique neural networks and were asked to export a composite? Their output would be different, but likely more closely related than if the same were asked of two human composers. As a follow up, if the same ten pieces were run through the same program on the same day, would they export the same product? What about a week later, after the programs had internalized other materials and connections in their neural networks?

What makes Flow Machine unique is the acknowledgment of its limitations. It is the Trojan Horse of A.I. music. It argues that it won’t replace composition, but help facilitate it with big data strategies. If we were discussing any non-arts industry, it might be championed as a “disruptive innovator.” Yet this becomes a slippery slope. Once we can accept that a program can provide an artistic contribution instead of facilitating the production of an existing work, the precedent has been set. At what point might presenters begin to hire arrangers and editors in lieu of composers?

No one can effectively predict whether systems like Flow Machine will be used by classical composers to supplement their own creativity. Both recording and computer notation programs changed the way that composers compose and engage – each offering accessibility as a trade-off for some other technical element of composition.

I could foresee a future when multiple famous “collaborators” might input a series of musical ideas or suggestions into a program (i.e. playlist of favorite works), and the musically literate person becomes an editor or copyist, working in the background to make it cohesive. Does that sound far-fetched? Imagine the potential for a #SupremeCourtSymphony or #DenzelWashingtonSoundtrack. They could come on stage after the performance and discuss their “musical influences” as one might expect from any post-premiere talkback.

So what does it all mean?

In the short term, the people who make their living creating the work that is already uncredited and replicable by these programs may be in a difficult situation.

A classically trained composer who writes for standard classical outlets (symphony, opera, chamber music, etc.) will not be disadvantaged any further than they already are. Since Beethoven’s death in 1827 and the deification/canonization/historical reflection that followed, living composers have been in constant competition with their non-living counterparts, and even occasionally with their own earlier works. It will (almost) always be less expensive to perform something known than to take the risk to invest in something new. There may be situations where A.I.-composed music is ultimately used in lieu of a contemporary human creation, if only because the cost is more closely comparable to utilization of existing work, but I suspect that the priorities of audiences will not change quite as quickly in situations where music is considered a form of art.

Show me the money

I focused on JukeDeck and Flow Machine over the many other contributors to this field because they are the two with the greatest potential for monetization. (Google’s Magenta is a free-form “let’s make something great together” venture only possible with the funding of Google’s parent company Alphabet behind it, and various other smaller programs are working off of this open-source system.)

Acknowledging monetization is the key question when considering a future outside of academia. The supposed threat of A.I. music is that it might eliminate the (compensated) roles that composers play in the 21st century, and the counter-perspective is how to create more paying work for these artists.

Whether it is a performing arts organization looking to strengthen its bottom line or composers trying to support themselves through their work, acknowledging shifts in consumer priorities is essential to ensuring long-term success. We need to consider that many consumers are seeking a specific kind of experience in both their recorded and live performance that has diverged more in the last 15 years than in the preceding 50.

It is cliché, but we need more disruptive innovations in the field. Until we reach the singularity, A.I. systems will always be aggregators, culling vast quantities of existing data but limited in their ability to create anything fundamentally new.

Some of the most successful examples of projects that have tried to break out of the confines of how we traditionally perceive performance (in no particular order):

  • Hopscotch, with a group of six composers, featuring multiple storylines presented in segments via limousines, developed and produced by The Industry.
  • Ghosts of Crosstown, a site-specific collaboration between six composers, focusing on the rise and fall of an urban center, developed and produced by Opera Memphis.
  • As previously mentioned, Ted Hearne’s The Source, a searing work about Chelsea Manning and her WikiLeaks contributions, with a compiled libretto by Mark Doten. Developed and produced by Beth Morrison Projects (obligatory disclaimer – I worked on this show).
  • David Lang’s anatomy theater—an immersive experience (at the L.A. premiere, the audience ate sausages while a woman was hanged and dissected)—attempting to delve not just into a historical game of grotesque theater, but also creating the mass hysteria that surrounded it (the sheer number of people who were “unsettled” by this work seems to be an accomplishment – and once again, while I did not fully develop this show, I was a part of the initial planning at Beth Morrison Projects).

Craft is not enough. Quoting Debussy, “Works of art make rules but rules do not make works of art.” As we enter this brave new world of man versus machine, competing for revenue derived not just of brawn but increasingly of intellect, composers will ultimately be confronted—either directly or indirectly—with the need to validate their creations as something beyond that of an aggregate.

I am optimistic about the recent trend of deep discussion about who our audiences are and how we can engage them more thoroughly. My sincere hope is that we can continue to move the field forward, embracing technologies that allow creators to grow and develop new work, while finding ways to contextualize the truly magnificent history that extends back to the origins of polyphony. While I am doubtful about the reality of computer origination of ideas upending the system, I’m confident that we can learn from these technological innovations and their incorporation in our lives to understand the changes that need to be made to secure the role of contemporary classical music in the 21st century.

 

Remembering Composer and MTC Founder John Duffy (1926-2015)

John Duffy

John Duffy
Photo by Glen McClure

American composer and beloved new music advocate John Duffy, who founded Meet The Composer in 1974, died in Virginia this morning after a long illness. He was 89.

In 2011, Meet The Composer and the American Music Center merged to form New Music USA. Ed Harsh, current president and CEO, reflects on Duffy’s profound impact on the field in the post below. Many in our community will feel this loss deeply. We encourage you to share your memories of John in the comments section.

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With John Duffy, everything was possible. He radiated an optimism as forthright and clear as it was free of guile and self-importance. Though the limits of observable reality might be challenged, audacity never distracted from core purpose. His optimism happily went about its business. It lived solidly on terra firma. It got things done.

In the immediate aftermath of a person’s death, we can feel an urge to sum up their impact and role and even character. We want to come to some kind of conclusion about what their life may have “meant,” perhaps as a benchmark against which to take some measure of our own. I certainly don’t propose to do that here. It’s a shaky notion in any case to impose a stable unity onto a life’s complex assemblage of experiences and relationships, joys and sorrows, narrative through-lines and irrational disconnects over time. Summing up any life is foolhardy—especially one as rich as John’s was.

My aim is something more modest and personal, though it’s certainly still daunting. I want to reflect on a few of the characteristics I treasured in John that I feel are his legacy to New Music USA, the second incarnation of his visionary creation Meet The Composer. Mine is just one perspective. I hope others will share in the comment section below their own personal perspectives and stories. John meant so many things to so many people. The more we share, the more we’ll be able to appreciate him.

A gathering of voices would be entirely appropriate to John’s devotion to the American ideals of democracy and pluralism. He was known to list the quality of “tolerance” at the top of his list of values he appreciated most. The example of his own life suggests something broader, more positive and more proactive than mere tolerance. He was omnivorously curious about and respectful of all music. Even if a given artist’s work might not have been to his taste, he would be interested to know more about it, to understand a bit better what drove its creation. What’s more, he wanted others to be interested, too.

This omnivorous openness was paired with a healthy disregard for conventional hierarchies. He didn’t recognize them as valid, so he ignored them. For John, the idea that a “classical” symphonic work was, by nature, automatically worthy of higher status than the work of, say, Ornette Coleman or Burt Bacharach—to use two of his favorite examples—was simply bunk. He was quick to fight the ingrained privilege and prejudice that often hide behind those hierarchies. The energy and self-assuredness he brought to such spirited struggles embodied for me a muscular, practical, American blue-collar view of the value inherent in solidly workmanlike effort, no matter its form.

The exploding variety of creativity we’re blessed with in 2015, which blows through genre categories like so much thin air, may obscure for us now the uncommon character of his views. It’s worth pausing for a moment to make sure that we don’t take John’s openness for granted. Because we shouldn’t. His views were decades ahead of their time and distinctly radical when Meet The Composer was founded in the 1970s.

We should likewise not underestimate the quality of courage he showed in standing up for his own convictions. The name of his organizational creation is its own example. He frequently told the story of thinking deeply about the name for his then-new program. He scribbled one possible name after another on a big yellow legal pad. Under the influence of the direct, human immediacy of Walt Whitman’s poetry, he wrote down “Meet The Composer.” When he finally chose that name—against the advice of many, let it be noted—he was met with a lot of resistance. “The higher ups” at the New York State Council on the Arts hated it, writing letters to him explaining that it wasn’t classy enough. He said he read the letters and just put them away in a drawer, figuring that people would come around to his view sooner or later. Which they did.

John embodied faith, broadly defined; faith in himself and in his fellow artists. This is the fuel that powered his will. And what a will it was, able to conjure abstract vision into very real being. For years in the late 1970s and early 1980s he enthusiastically regaled anyone who would listen with his idea for putting composers in residence with orchestras around the country. We can only imagine how many dozens (hundreds?) of indulgent smiles or blank stares he had to suffer. What an improbable idea it was for a little nonprofit with a tiny budget…. By 1992—ten years, several million dollars, and one transformed orchestral new music world later—it wasn’t improbable anymore. It was obvious.

That was a big victory, but it wasn’t the only one. There was also the MTC commissioning program, the composer-choreographer program, the New Residencies program. So many new realities conjured, to the benefit of so many. Yes, that’s the thing: to the benefit of so many. No one I’ve met more exemplified generosity of spirit than John. He used the term “angelic spark” relating to people who helped others in the spirit of pure common service. The term fits him so well.

I feel sure that in John’s case the spark was inherent and inborn. Life experience just as surely brought it brightly to the fore. John cited a key moment during his naval service in the Pacific during World War II. As he related the story, his ship was attacked and a number of shipmates were killed. He and another sailor stood guard over the bodies through the night. In the morning, with a few Old Testament words from the ship’s captain, the bodies were slid into the sea. That stark demonstration of life’s fragility seems to have inspired in John a permanent commitment to make a difference, to live a life of value and of service.

Future years would determine the focal point of that service: composers. You could talk to John for only a few minutes before feeling the energy, the power, the almost talismanic specialness that he conferred on composers. In truth, John felt this way about all artists, but when he spoke of composers the magic was palpably electric. The more society could come to put composers to work, the more society would benefit. Composers were the greatest national resource imaginable.

And composers deserved to be paid like the professionals they are. John’s experience as a composer in a broad range of marketplaces gave him a tactile understanding of creators’ economic value. He was an Emmy-winning composer for TV with deep experience in music for the theater as well as the concert hall. He understood the worthiness of matching appropriate money to appropriate work, and his perspective generated the ethos of MTC, which raised the consciousness of subsequent generations.

Bang on a Can Benefit Concert and Party Honoring John Duffy

Bang on a Can Benefit Concert and Party Honoring John Duffy, September 13, 1998. Left to right, seated: Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, John Duffy; standing: Cecil Taylor, Billy Taylor, David Lang, Steve Reich, and Alvin Singleton.
Photo by Peter Serling

To artists given less than their due attention and appreciation by their culture, John’s valuation of composers, both figurative and very literal, was manna for the starving. Like an oasis, John’s championing leadership brought new life and new energy to a community of composers who felt like creative travelers crossing a vast desert. His vision inspired high hopes for what might be built, in fact built together, on the other side. My vaguely Moses-like imagery here is intentional. On a less cosmic scale, John’s positive vision commanded deep reverence and even deeper human attachments. The theologian Forrest Church wrote that although agnostic on the subject of life after death, Church was completely convinced on the subject of love after death. He believed the most profound measure of the wealth of our lives to be the love we leave behind when we die. By this measure, John was a wealthy man indeed.

So IS everything possible? No. Not really. If it were, John would still be with us, having fought back like a champ once again, overcoming the will of the misguided cells in his body. There are certain rules we can’t change. One is that people die. But John’s life leaves a resilient legacy, especially precious at moments when our courage and faith are tested. John reminds us that what’s possible goes way beyond the horizon we see, and maybe even as far as we dare to dream.

John Duffy was featured by NewMusicBox in October 2003. Read the full hour-long conversation John Duffy: The Composer as Statesman.

Musings on the Media

Selfie w Canon

Photo by Daniel Dionne, via Flickr

I began to contemplate the relationship between composers and the media in the days and weeks after the New York Youth Symphony’s decision to pull one of their own commissioned works by New England Conservatory graduate student Jonas Tarm because of its use of the “Horst Wessel” anthem. The brouhaha that followed the decision demonstrated the specific nature of the controversy. Similar in tone, if not in scope, to the coverage of the protests against the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer, the confluence of red-button topics—cultural sensitivity vs. censorship—ensured that the story would be noticed beyond the traditional contemporary concert music coverage and land Tarm and the NYYS on a broader stage that ultimately included Fox News, National Review, NPR, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. While events like these—and the more recent dustup around John Adams’s comments from the stage about Rush Limbaugh at the premiere of his new work for violin and orchestra—briefly garner attention on a large scale due to their contentious subject matter, they are outliers at best when it comes to coverage of new music, the composers who create it, and the performers who bring it to life.

Outliers aside, I was and am very interested in the perceptions and interactions between those who create and those who work to inform about, advocate for, and disseminate new work. Composers and performers today look to the media (whatever they think that might be) as a conduit between their art and the general public. As digital media and social networks continue to evolve, both the proximity and the fixed boundaries between creators and the media have been affected. Those who prepare composers and performers for their careers are continually faced with questions about how much attention should be given to such topics within the higher education curriculum. To these points, I asked a number of questions to several critics, composers, performers, and other professionals in order to “take the temperature,” so to speak, of the understanding and place of the media within the new music community.

ROLES AND EXPECTATIONS

My first question was asked in two different ways. To critics, I asked, “When you write about living composers, new works, or performance by ensembles who focus on new music, what role do you see yourself embracing?” To composers and performers, I asked, “When you read about living composers, new works, or performance by ensembles who focus on new music, what role do you hope to see the media take in their presentation?” You will notice that both questions were geared toward written media. While there are radio programs and podcasts about new music and its creators and performers, those are few in number and even fewer venture beyond basic presentation of the music.

Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette reflected the basic thread of her colleagues, stating,  “In general, I think my job as a critic is to tell people what happened, what was newsworthy about it, and help them think that they should care, with a larger goal of fostering discussion about the field and keeping the field visible to the general public, to some degree, by having it mentioned in a newspaper to begin with.” Besides educating readers, Chicago Reader‘s Peter Margasak doesn’t “set out to function as a consumer guide, but as a thinker who might provide some inroads into new or unfamiliar work—making connections, explaining, and setting aesthetic ideas within an accessible framework.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Tim Page remembered being timid toward new works when he first heard them, providing a description and cursory judgment with such statements as “on a first hearing, it seemed…”—a technique he still teaches to his own journalism students at the University of Southern California. “Sometimes, something that you don’t respond to the first time, you may respond to differently” on future hearings, Page said. Allan Kozinn, critic for the Wall Street Journal and former critic for the New York Times, added that his descriptions “should give the reader a sense of what the piece sounds like, to the degree that language can capture that. At the very least, the reader should come away knowing what the instrumentation was, and how it was used, where the composer fits in the stylistic continuum, how long a piece it is, and what the major ‘events’ in the piece are.”

These initial statements coincide with the expectations of a number of composers and performers who, as Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon says, “hope the media will give me all the information that I need to know…the more in-depth, the better.” The desire for in-depth reporting on the performance of a new piece is a strong one, although not always feasible within the amount of space allotted to the critic. Depending on the context of the concert, I have seen examples of critics asking for scores from the composers ahead of time and incorporating interviews recorded before a premiere, but much too often such examples are seen as luxuries due to time and space. Composer Chris Cerrone hopes that this concept goes even further into the realm of “showing us the music. Technology has moved so quickly that it is not hard at all to get a document of a new work online just a few days after a performance. More than anything else, I think the media has the opportunity to give audiences direct access to the actual work and let us judge for ourselves.”

One aspect of music journalism that some composers don’t want to see is too little attention on the work. Composer Derek Bermel, for example, prefers it “when a journalist focuses on the work of art itself, rather than on the personality (or persona) of the artist,” while composer Greg Wanamaker asks that journalists “address the quality of composers’ works and ensembles’ performances over popularity and edgy concepts devoid of substance.”

That being said, quality criticism is seen as important for the status and sustainability of the music, as well as the career momentum of the creators and the performers. “I always hope that the media will play a role in broadening the conversation about new music,” pianist Michael Mizrahi says, “and of course media recognition still directly translates to further performances.” Composer and Naxos Vice President Sean Hickey brings up the topic of interviews in regard to recordings, saying they are “an important element if only for sharing via Vevo, and ultimately, YouTube in the case of video, and via any digital service provider for audio. That is to say, an interview can potentially find a larger audience outside print and diversifies the experience for those wishing to encounter one’s music for the first time.”

Beyond the descriptive and illustrative aspects of criticism, the topic of advocacy came up many times. When Midgette writes about new music, she does “feel I’m advocating in a certain sense, because most of my readers tend to be more familiar with Beethoven than, say, Missy Mazzoli. That doesn’t mean I feel I need to go easier on the performances—quite the contrary; I think overpraising performances is the opposite of real advocacy—but it does mean I’m aware of a certain need to contextualize, and also a certain eagerness on my part to get people enthusiastic about this area.”

Kozinn’s passion for new music is visceral. He explains that “when it comes to new music and new music groups, we’re in an area that means a lot to me. Critics, to the contrary of what is often said, do not have to be dispassionate, and any critic who claims to be is lying. We write about music because we love it, and like anyone, we have tastes and preferences, things we like best and things we like least or don’t like at all. For an actual, thinking human being, it simply cannot be otherwise, and there’s no use pretending it can be simply to pursue a claim of ‘critical objectivity’ that actually cannot and should not exist…when we’re writing about music, or performers, or composing styles—or anything—that we particularly like, we almost inevitably become advocates for it, even if that’s not how we perceive the job. I mean, think about it: if I love a composer’s work, to a certain degree, the basic subtext of any review or feature I write about it will be: ‘I think this is fantastic stuff, so if you haven’t heard it you should, and if you’re not sure what to make of it, perhaps I can guide you through the most compelling bits.’”

newspaper reading

Photo courtesy of Miguel Pires da Rosa on Flickr.

INTERACTIONS AND SOCIAL MEDIA

One notable comment that came from several composers and performers had to do with what I meant when I asked them about “media”—which media was I asking about?  As composer Ken Ueno posited, “In many areas, newspapers have gone out of business or no longer have a music critic. And when there is a review, it is nowadays likely to be a play-by-play of the surface form of pieces, or a cut-and-paste job from the composer’s own program notes.” This reduction in traditional media, however, has occurred alongside the influx of blogs, digital magazines (such as NewMusicBox and I CARE IF YOU LISTEN), and the granular interactions that occur constantly on Facebook and Twitter, which led me to my next path of inquiry.

The next two questions I posed were: “Have you noticed a shift in the past 5-10 years as far as the relationship that composers and performers have with members of the media?” and “How has social media changed the way composers, performers, and music journalists interact/work together?”. Unsurprisingly, many ended up unintentionally answering the second question within their answer to the first question—a fact that demonstrates how ingrained social media is within our own professional interactions today.

Historically, there were more professionals in the media whose job it was to keep tabs on the concert music scene, but along with those greater numbers there was an attendant bottleneck/gatekeeper mentality. Allan Kozinn, after reading reviews from 30 and 40 years ago, says, “I think there was an almost adversarial relationship that doesn’t exist in quite the same way today. That may be because of a generational shift of focus that began in the 1960s, and which bore fruit in the later 1980s, when the critics—and composers—shaped by the 1960s entered the professional world on either side of the (critical/compositional) divide.” Tim Page adds “Composers like Virgil Thomson and Morton Feldman made it very difficult to work with them while they were living, but their music has grown in prominence after their deaths. Some composers always had a better relationship with the media; they just had a certain charisma or made it easy to interview or made a good story…I stopped reviewing Philip Glass, for example, because I had formed a friendship with him and I found myself being too harsh in my reviews as a result.”

In addition to critics, publicity professionals have seen major changes in the way social media has shifted relationships with the media over the last decade. Steven Swartz, founder of DOTDOTDOTMUSIC, has seen the ability to gain media attention improve greatly, but that ease has brought with it challenges as well. “It’s certainly democratized things.” Swartz says, “At the same time, it’s led to a lot more ‘noise,’ as innumerable artists clamor for attention.” Anne Midgette is a bit more blunt: “…it’s a very individual thing; there’s no template for how people use social media, and different people have different comfort levels when it comes to interacting with artists/critics/’the other side.’ Social media makes it feel chummier in a way, for better or worse, and of course it isn’t. This illusion of chumminess has also meant some artists have managed to royally piss me off.”

Most performers and composers who I contacted seemed to have a mature concept of their interactions with those in the media. Most, such as violinist Miranda Cuckson, see the rich opportunities for interaction and collaboration: “It helps people support their colleagues or show their enthusiasm in a public way,” Cuckson says, “and it gives journalists quick access to info about events or things in the works. In some ways, having discussions among artists and press in a public way makes people demonstrate their integrity and both their conviction and their ability to adjust their viewpoints, in a healthy way.” Others see the increase of advocacy through social networks as a good thing, such as conductor and composer Brad Wells: “Reviews, listings, previews, etc. for new music are more commonly spilling over the gates of the ‘classical’ or ’new classical’ sites into more popular or less genre-defined arenas. So the audience broadens. I also experience many music journalists as advocates for performers and composers—as well as audiences.”

Such experiences can both promote a more realistic and natural perception of one’s place in the community and easily lead to interactions away from the printed or digital page. Composer Daniel Felsenfeld enjoys the fact that we can observe each other as we interact: “The composer-performer thing has, at least for me, been aided tremendously by social media—I can trace pretty much all that is happening for me professionally to Facebook or Twitter at this point, for better or for worse (almost always for better).” Composer Judah Adashi, no stranger to social media, finds that the “communal sensibility doesn’t eliminate the fear of a bad review, but it’s a healthy reminder that we are largely in this together. It’s a culture that fosters opportunities for collaboration: we’ve hosted Alex Ross twice on the Evolution Contemporary Music Series, and I just invited Will Robin to Skype with students in my contemporary music course at the Peabody Conservatory.”

Ultimately, each creative artist has to find what works for them and form their own concept of how they choose to interact with their colleagues, the media, and their audiences in this rapidly changing world, a fact driven home by composer Eve Beglarian: “Basically, all artists have to figure out their own way to market their work and their worldview. I can come up with my own ways to get my work out there that do not compromise my artistic standards, but are themselves an extension of my creative work. Promotion done right is then about generosity, curiosity, openness, curation, and collegiality, and not just about flogging one’s own ‘brand.'”

PREPARATIONS

So far, we haven’t run into too many conflicting voices, but when terms such as “brand,” “marketing,” and “entrepreneurship” come up in conversations about composers and performers, there tend to be a number of varying opinions. As an educator who works with young composers, I couldn’t help but add a fourth question: “There are some composers and performers who work very fluently with the media; is this a concept that should be discussed in the classroom before these artists begin their post-collegiate careers?” I came at this question with a fairly open mind; I myself make sure my students are aware of what’s out there and critically think about how professionals interact online, but I am well aware that they have bigger fish to fry career-wise than solidifying their online persona and therefore do not push them to venture too far into the digital landscape.

Derek Bermel, for one, is dubious about incorporating entrepreneurship into the classroom: “For my money, it’s most important to educate students to 1) think for themselves, 2) organize and process information, and 3) write and express themselves articulately. This means offering them a broad educational background, which—besides music—includes creative and analytical writing, mathematics, philosophy, and languages, as well as vocational and mechanical skills. These are the tools to succeed. The rest is noise, to quote one member of the media.”

“I’m not sure what that would look like!” says composer Alexandra Gardner. “At that stage in a composer’s development I think a slight reframing of the discussion would be better – to teach students the standard procedure for doing press for a performance or album release. As in, ‘One month before, send a press release, two weeks before do X, Y and Z…’ They could be taught how to write a good press release, etc. Regardless of social media, one still has to have the basic press-doing chops. THAT is important!”

Having recently discussed such things with Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Melinda Wagner, I was glad to receive some thoughts from her on this topic. Stressing balance, she says, “I think it is important to be comfortable with the media and to know how to make it work for you.  In this regard, yes, a certain facility with the media should be discussed in the classroom – with one proviso:  it is relatively easy to come across as brilliant, amazing, and vastly successful on, say, Facebook—even if you are not particularly good at the actual composing! Sure, go ahead and talk about social media in the classroom—just make sure students spend at least as much time at their craft as they do looking brilliant, amazing and vastly successful online!”

Others are even more supportive of such curricular implementations. Composer and ASCAP Board of Directors member Alex Shapiro unabashedly states: “Abso-friggin’-lutely. Most artists have no idea just how much power they have to control the interpretation, reporting, and narrative of their own work. It’s vital for younger creators to understand how they can use their web presence—the publishing of their souls—to their advantage.” Jennifer Higdon demonstrates that such concepts are already in place at the Curtis Institute where she teaches: “This is a part of Curtis’ training with all of the artists. We have seminars and master classes on this very thing…for radio interviews, print interviews, and even in talking with audiences.” Allan Kozinn has been teaching similar classes for years at NYU: “Mostly, what I have them do is criticism of various kinds, so that they can see what’s required and how it’s done (and, for most of them, how it isn’t quite as easy as they think). But there is also a big component of the course devoted to explaining how the press works, what kinds of things interest us, how review schedules are planned, and how to reach us or get our attention.”

Composer Lisa Renée Coons believes that “we need to teach young artists sustainable career practices. Schools granting arts degrees should teach at least some professional development along side the other tools of technique, discipline, critical thinking, etc. The professional development tools are necessary to continue to make their unique work. We should empower them to facilitate their own work, build communities, and disseminate their art. Without these tools they may cease to participate at all in the artistic dialogue.” Composer Jennifer Jolley agrees: “Yes. Absolutely. I think we should all learn how to talk about our music, give presentations on our pieces, write copy, write press releases etc. Informing members of the media what your organization is about and what your concert or concept or piece is about will help them do their research and educate (and quite possibly excite) your audience. Anything that helps with communicating with an audience will also help communicate with the media.”

Finally, British-based composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad provides some perspective from the other side of the Atlantic: “I am glad that I wasn’t made aware of any of this stuff to be honest. I am glad that I left Uni with a relative degree of ignorance—if I had been fully made aware of just how difficult it was to make a career as a composer, I may have been discouraged! On the other hand, I think there are tried and tested ways of successful interaction on social media now, so, a few hints and tips would probably go a long way…Most opportunities I get seem to come from word of mouth recommendation, or relationships built up over a long period of time—I think social media can create a buzz around all the events/commissions/performances that result, but I’m not sure how much it can advance one’s career by itself. Although perhaps that’s because I’m not using it cleverly enough!”

tv cameras

Photo by Dan Marsh, via Flickr

FINAL THOUGHTS

As I mentioned at the beginning, the intersection of composers, performers, and the media is something that has interested me for years, and it has done so for two reasons. The first is pretty obvious—I have feet planted on both sides of that divide, and my own perceptions have been irrevocably changed because of that fact. I hope that my experiences as a composer help to bring insight to my writing and my work as a writer helps me to both be aware of the world around me and to critically understand the various connections that exist amongst us.

The second is because of my background—I knew absolutely nothing about the concert world growing up and had nary a dream that I would be able to not only be cognizant of the various artists and critics that I’ve quoted here, let alone have been able to foster a collegial relationship if not a close friendship with them. The world has absolutely changed for us in the new music community and the aforementioned musings may help to illustrate where we’re at today as a community.

These experiences have provided me the confidence to express concerns when it seemed appropriate—several of my past NewMusicBox columns bear that out. I would be remiss, therefore, if I did not use this opportunity to point out a couple of issues that have long since festered in my mind that pertain to the new music community and the media.

Here in America, we seem to have always had an environment whereby a select few writers and mavens had a disproportionate impact on the success (or failure) of living composers and their works. Those that were deemed worthy or provided a good story, controversial or otherwise, on a consistent basis became part of the “conversation.” The irony is that as technology has evolved over the past 20 years so that the ability to reach the general public has increased through decentralization, the number of professionals who choose to contribute criticism, discussion, and advocacy has steadily declined. From what I have found, those who write and produce within these organizations do not consider themselves “kingmakers,” but much more weight is placed on their efforts due to the dearth of thoughtful discussion and advocacy elsewhere.

The bottleneck effect that exists with a handful of conduits of quality criticism and informed exposure inevitably will have artistic ramifications far beyond the borders of any one city. A mention in any one major newspaper is cause for celebration for the individuals involved, but that mention usually won’t have any discernable impact on the career of a creator or the direction of an art form. What will have an impact is the sustained and consistent exposure of a work, a composer, a performer, an ensemble, or a musical concept so that those names or ideas become ensconced within the conversation-at-large. Just as actors seem to become famous overnight when they’ve really been surreptitiously ingraining themselves in the public eye through bit parts over several years, the same can be said for musicians as well.

But, one might argue, the basis by which composers become well known really should be about the strength and quality of their work, not about how prominently they are discussed in the media. I would agree, except for the fact that the concept of “strength and quality” is not only extremely subjective, but is one of a multitude of reasons why works manage to garner any amount of attention or exposure. At least one reason, as Allan Kozinn mentioned earlier, has to do with the taste and interests of the critics who are in the position of reaching a broad audience. It can and should be up to them as to where their focus is placed—that is their prerogative as critics.

Is it the fault of the critics, then, for the lack of coverage outside of their cities? Of course not. But we as a community can be proactive, encouraging musicologists and writers in locations outside of the traditional markets and specialists in genres that don’t get as much coverage to lend their talents to reviewing concerts, interviewing composers and performers, and educating the general public about the thriving culture that exists in their own neighborhoods and throughout the world. There are plenty of arguments why such a call-to-action would not be effective—trust me, I’ve heard them many times—but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Just ask Thomas Deneuville with I CARE IF YOU LISTEN or David MacDonald with SoundNotion or Dennis Bathory-Kitsz with Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar or radio hosts like John Nasukaluk Clare or Marvin Rosen or Daniel Gilliam…or even the folks here at NewMusicBox.

A related and oh-so-delicate subject is the increase of composers and performers who cross the divide to work as part of the media, a tradition that hearkens back to Berlioz’s reviews for Parisian newspapers and Robert Schumann’s founding of Neue Zeitschrift für Musik.  A performer who asked to remain anonymous brought up a perception that I’ve heard numerous times over the past few years: “I don’t know if this has always been the case but there seem to be quite a few performers and composers who have (or had) PR day jobs or other jobs in arts media (radio/blogs) these days. These folks seem to have an easier time getting reviews and media attention. They also get positive attention from other composers/performers who seek promotion. Those with PR/Media clout seem to hold a lot of power in the new music world.” In the same way that contests are rarely immune from criticism if the winner happens to study with one of the judges, the fact that such perceptions exist demonstrates the murky environment that exists when the delineations between composer/performer and journalist/publicist/presenter become less and less well defined…as a composer/educator/columnist/presenter, this is a situation I know all too well. There are no clear-cut solutions for such things—like-minded people will ultimately aggregate and support one another as best they can, but I for one hope that those who are in decision-making positions, whatever they may be, keep an open mind and as balanced an approach as possible.

In closing, I would like to present two statements that, together, seem to set the dichotomous aspects of the composer/performer/media relationship today:

Anne Midgette:

Not everyone is good with the media. Social media has fostered this illusion that people can do their own press, and that they can do it over Facebook and/or Twitter, and this is usually the biggest way that artists have managed to piss me off on social media—by viewing it as a way to reach me so you can make a pitch. Publicity is a brave new world these days, because traditional outlets are drying up, yet I think that’s all the more reason artists should think seriously about working with a professional. Artists and journalists are both way too quick to be glib about “media flaks,” and yet way too few artists appreciate what a professional can bring to the table in terms of strategizing a long-term approach that goes beyond scattershot mentions in whatever publications or websites one can engineer. I’ve known some big-name artists in the pre-internet age whose careers would have gone on a lot longer and more elegantly had they sprung for a publicist in their primes, and there are plenty of examples today of artists who would have benefited greatly from some professional advice—think of how many totally avoidable brouhahas we’ve seen in the last couple of years.

Alex Shapiro:

The entire concept of “The Media” has drastically shifted over the past fifteen years. It used to be something external that passively effected artists and their careers, and now it’s something that artists themselves can actively manipulate, thanks to the 24/7 global reach of the web and how any of us might choose to exploit this amazing tool. “The Media” used to be sheer luck: print journalists and radio broadcasters writing about or featuring our work, or television appearances, and even cameos in movies, for those of us also performing the work. Now, traditional media has been marginalized to a notable degree, as the free-for-all of the internet has allowed composers and performers to participate in and control the very media that used to dictate our fate. It’s the buzz on the blogs, e-zines and social media that have the most power to determine our success; we write about, discuss, and showcase our own work and our colleagues’ work, and we spread opinions through praise and snark through a highly effective and exponential filtering system of peer review. Thanks to YouTube, we get as much if not more exposure from a homemade video that goes viral than we might ever have had in sheer numbers with an appearance on a late night TV show. And a successful composer can go their entire career, earning a good living, without ever having had a review in The New York Times. The Media is not what The Media used to be. WE are The Media! Whatever the public chooses to pay attention to is The Media.