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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. 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. (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. 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 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.”
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.” 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)
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.
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.
 Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.
“I wish to enjoy music without the infusion of political opinion.”
This is an actual recent quote from someone in the classical music community. I’ve heard variations of this kind of statement throughout my own career: Why don’t you just write music? Why does it have to be so… political?
There has always been a desire on the part of artists to respond to the issues of the moment.
These invectives against “political” music seem to stand out more due to our current contentious climate, which may create the impression that there has been an uptick in the number of modern pieces with a political orientation. But the truth is that there has always been a desire on the part of artists to respond to the issues of the moment. This is particularly true in opera, the field in which I have done the majority of my own work. Opera has historically been a populist art form (please read Lawrence Edelson’s essay on the topic for more detail), and as such, composers and librettists have tried to create stories that reflect the concerns of their day. As opera companies began to focus more on a small selection of “canonical” works rather than contemporary compositions, the works in the canon became detached from their historical contexts. As a result, we have lost sight of how revolutionary these works actually were for their time.
Operas like La bohème showed the lives of ordinary people rather than kings or gods. Rigoletto and Don Giovanni showed the depravity of the upper class. Audiences for these operas would have understood them in relation to their current moment. Now that these operas are performed outside of this context, there is a tendency to make them more precious than they were originally intended to be. We focus on performing the pieces the way they have always been performed without asking what the core messages of the works are and how those messages might resonate with a modern-day audience. And this is where a lot of the cultural baggage attached to opera comes from.
I did not grow up listening to opera, and I used to hold many of the same preconceptions about the form that many people do: it’s elitist, it’s boring, it’s outdated, and so on. I’m also all too aware of many of the problems with race and gender that the greatest hits of the canon still have.
Music allows us to assume the perspectives of people very different than we are.
Despite these problems, the reason I came to love opera (and what I believe brings many people to the form if they are able to experience it) is the immense power of sung drama. Music has the ability to touch us deeply, and music used in the service of storytelling can transport us into different places and times, even allowing us to assume the perspectives of people very different than we are. I believe that this is where the potential power of the art form lies. I also believe that embracing this power is what will allow the form to remain vibrant and relevant well into the future.
It is for this reason that I (and many of my contemporaries) often choose stories that can be described as “political.” Part of the reason that so many modern operas are perceived as “political” stories stems from the fact that they are taking perspectives that have long been absent from the mainstream and placing them on stage, just as Puccini was doing when he, Illica, and Giacosa wrote La bohème. For modern composers and librettists, there is now a widespread recognition that the historical default perspective (white and male) is not representative of the modern world (and was never really representative of the whole of human experience). Because of this, the conversations that we’ve been having around diversity and inclusion are key to keeping opera relevant. Understanding the importance of story in forming our sense of self and culture is an essential part of the equation. Storytelling is the bedrock this foundation. We can see the importance of story even from a young age.
Katherine Nelson’s work on early childhood memory shows the centrality of narrative to our developing sense of identity. Nelson has shown that learning the art of narration is the foundation for all of our autobiographical memories. The stories we learn to tell ourselves about ourselves form these core memories, and thus become the basis of our sense of identity and our place in the world.
We see a similar effect of story on our shared sense of culture. The stories we tell each other as a society give us a sense of cultural identity. They teach us about social norms and about who we are as a people: what our value systems are and how we fit into the world.
Therefore, we, as creators, must understand that part of what we’re doing is creating the stories that help to shape our culture. Because of this, all stories are inherently political in that all stories choose a perspective and place it front and center. If you’re thinking, “I have never chosen a perspective,” that is because you are assuming that your perspective is the default.
All stories are inherently political in that all stories choose a perspective and place it front and center.
The current age of American opera is more geared than ever toward letting everyone see themselves onstage. In the last year alone, we have been privileged to have operas including Fire Up in My Bones (Terence Blanchard and Kasi Lemmons) and The Central Park Five (Anthony Davis and Richard Wesley), both of which featured work by Black composers, librettists, and singers. Modern operas have also tackled contemporary issues like human trafficking (Du Yun and Royce Vavrek’s Angel’s Bone), mental illness (Philip Venables, based on Sarah Kane’s 4:48Psychosis), and sexual assault (Ellen Reid and Roxie Perkins’s p r i s m).
I have tried to address similar issues in my own work. I’ve approached this by putting people onstage who aren’t normally seen there (including Pakistani Muslim women in Thumbprint [libretto by Susan Yankowitz] and Appalachian snake handlers in Taking Up Serpents [libretto by Jerre Dye]). My new work, Looking at You, takes this a step further by reaching outside of the opera world to create a piece with urgent contemporary relevance, exploring the impact of modern technology on our right to privacy. Looking at You is a collaboration with privacy researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and tech engineers at Bandcamp.com.
This piece is absolutely the most complicated thing I’ve ever made. There are several reasons for this. From the beginning I knew that the audience would be an integral part of the show, so there were many unresolved questions about how the technology that makes the audience experience happen could work and how to integrate it with the music. A lot of the decisions about the libretto and the way the score works were influenced by what the tech would actually be able to do. For example, I decided early on that I wanted the chorus for the show to be made up of singing tablet computers. Of course, the technology to allow tablets to sync together in real-time did not exist, so part of the developmental process was trying out different ways of making that work. I figured out how to make the singing computer voices, but it took finding collaborators outside of the opera world (Joe Holt and Daniel Dickison of Bandcamp.com) to actually build the software that syncs the whole choir (both with each other and with the backing tracks).
This collaboration with academics and engineers from the tech world has been essential for creating a piece that gets at the heart of the issues we’re facing. We are in a pivotal moment, where new technologies are being created that will leave lasting social, economic, and political impacts. Tech companies are increasingly turning to machine learning based on mass user data to build better artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, machine learning utilizes what is known as “the hidden layer”—even the coders themselves often don’t know why their algorithms behave the way they do. An algorithm’s behavior is completely based on the patterns it perceives in the data set it uses to learn. Therefore, any structural racism or gender inequality that exists in the data will be coded into the algorithm’s decision-making and outputs. This has led to many problematic situations already, including the “decision” of Facebook’s algorithm to create an advertising category for “Jew-haters.” More troubling, as algorithms are increasingly deployed to make consequential decisions including insurance rates, length of criminal sentences, and even whether or not to fire someone, there is no way to know how they made the decision and therefore no recourse.
Our continued right to privacy is at risk.
Despite the immediacy of the issue, and despite increased awareness of online privacy concerns in the wake of the Snowden revelations and the more recent scandals at Facebook, many people are either not aware of the extent to which their personal information is widely available and how it is used, or are not concerned because “they have nothing to hide” (to borrow a line from the show). This may come from the tendency to see technology as something mysterious and inscrutable.
Our continued right to privacy is at risk. By presenting the issues in a non-pedantic and entertaining way, we hope to open our audience up to the issues and then to provide them with the tools to better protect themselves and their personal data. Further, we are doing this by collaborating with a creative team that includes women and people of color, and by creating a story with women and people of color at its center.
Truly modern opera is and must be: a real representation of the world, featuring all of the people who inhabit it.
It is my belief that this is what truly modern opera is and must be: a real representation of the world, featuring all of the people who inhabit it, and telling a story that is relevant to the issues that concern them. These stories matter. The people we tell the stories about and the people we see on stage matter. And that, in essence, is why they are and should continue to be so… “political.”
Kamala Sankaram’s Looking at You will be presented from September 6-21, 2019 at Here in New York City in a co-production with Opera on Tap and Experiments in Opera.
Afro Yaqui Music Collective is a loose knit ensemble of musician-activists—self-called “artivists”—based in the United States. This essay will discuss what being an artivist entails, as we see it, as well as the “how” and “why.” We do not claim that our definitions are monopolistic. There are probably as many ways to define artivism as there are to define music, performance art, jazz, or growing your own food. We share our experiences after years of an activist-infused practice, such as performances at the U.S.- Mexican border outside of migrant detention centers, at an environmental conference in Northern Iraq, and at the founding of an Ecosocialist International in Venezuela. In 2018 we sought to create a collaborative work: we composed and performed a jazz opera rooted in the defense of nature and Indigenous social movements in dialogue with women activists on the front lines of environmental struggle in Mexico, Turkey/Syria, and Tanzania.
There are probably as many ways to define artivism as there are to define music, performance art, jazz, or growing your own food.
We were certainly inspired by the recent dramatic downturns in global health and upticks in global fascism and unhinged capitalism. Confucius’s dictum—“May you live in interesting times”—seems to have been written with the Necrocene, the age of mass extinction, in mind. We live in a revolutionary moment with an emerging mass revolutionary movement, but one that is not immediately apparent to many of us. Indeed, global decolonization and de-patriarchalization remains as elusive as ever. The battle of Standing Rock reminded us that human rights violations against people of color and ecocide grow up together. Its mirror image flips across the equator, where Bolsonaro’s war shows us that a deforested and Indigenous-less Amazon would almost immediately spell a global climate tipping point, reversing the rainforest’s role as net-remover of carbon and accelerating the greenhouse gas effect exponentially. Globally, Indigenous territories caretake 22 percent of the world’s land surface, an area that contains 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity. Amid threats of mass extinction, Indigenous communities from Standing Rock to the Yaqui nation to Bolivia are committed to continuing their centuries-long work against environmental destruction by vowing to battle gas companies—and succeeding—as well as loggers, governments, and cartels. We feel these communities are the key focal points to build buffer zones during climate chaos and, hopefully, lay the seeds for a post-capitalist future.
On a bus to the Mesopotamian Water Forum center with Iraqi enviornmental activists.
How can musicians and composers influence the historical moment which we have inherited? The late saxophonist-composer Fred Ho insisted in his essay “How Does Music Free Us?” that “music and music creators can play [important roles] in challenging—and even daring to overthrow and replace—capitalist-imperialist hegemony…[.]The onslaught of cultural and ecological degradation, and the exponentially growing subordination to imperialist aggression (whether it be military conquest or socio-economic, the double effect of McPentagon and McWorld) is the imminent danger to both human society and to the planet.” Ho grounded his creative practice explicitly in ecological terms, and drew direct analogies between repressive cultural norms and the “the advancing desert.” “Ecologically, soil erosion, increased land salinity, deforestation, monocrop horticulture and agriculture have led to a devastating desertification. So, too, has cultural desertification been a product of the homogeneity of commercial music.” Ho did not see getting out of this matrix as a product of a composer or performer’s individual brilliance and innovation. Rather, he advocated for musical creators to connect to an ecological aesthetic rooted in the “build[ing of] movements of musical and political solidarity with the national liberation struggles of Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Oceania.”
The Artivist must go beyond critiquing the moment in which they were born.
But how does one “be” an Artivist? Is the end objective to address social issues and challenge oppression from the microphone, the stage, or the notated score? We do not profess to have all the answers. But we feel the Artivist must go beyond critiquing the moment in which they were born. The great Italian communist Antonio Gramsci wrote, while in solitary confinement at the hands of Mussolini, that “to try to deal with the question just by describing what the two represent or express socially, that is, by summarizing more or less thoroughly the characteristics of a specific socio-historical moment, hardly touches at all upon the artistic problem.” Gramsci instead suggests our object is “the struggle to destroy and to overcome certain feelings and beliefs, certain attitudes towards life and the world.” (Antonio Gramsci, “Art and the Struggle for a New Civilization.”)
Mario Luna driving Gizelxanath Rodriguez through Yaqui territory in Sonora, Mexico, and pointing out sites where the river no longer runs due to aquedcut construction and other forms of diversion.
We agree with Gramsci and Ho in this sense. It is not enough to denounce current conditions with their cynical and overpowering nihilism that disregards the dignity of black, brown, and working people, perpetuates colonialism, and wages war on the conditions for life on Earth. Artivists should be strengthened by their mirror echoes across time, which resound like baleen whales singing under labyrinthine waters in our dystopian ocean built upon the extracted capital of billions of women, indigenous and migrant laborers, and Afro-descended enslaved workers. These artists responded to conditions that frighteningly parallel current ones. Arguments that planter-slaveowners made against reconstruction sound like right-wing politicians today arguing against all forms of redistributive justice. Zora Neale Hurston called Jim Crow a “social smallpox” (Husrton, “Crazy for this Democracy,’ in I Love Myself, 167) whose logic extended from the American south to the British colonies in India; and that smallpox has not withered. So we found as the vaccination, almost in suspended animation, ever returning, artivist heroes like Daniel Desdunes, the Afro-Creole jazz trumpet player who was arrested and probably worse for sitting on segregated train cars in 1892 to protest Louisiana’s new black codes. We hear the piano playing and signing of Mamie Desdunes, his half-sister, writing blues songs protesting the treatment of women of color and the violence meted out to sex workers. We find the great and greatly erased Mary Lou Williams playing at Cafe Society for a fundraiser for the Black communist New York City Council Member Benjamin Davis (Farah Jasmine Griffin, Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II). We hear Cal Massey’s Black Liberation Movement Suite, memorializing Huey P. Newton and Malcolm X, and playing the piece at a fundraiser for the Black Panther Party with a band that included McCoy Tyner and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
“Artists are here to disturb the peace. They have to disturb the peace. Otherwise, chaos,” explained James Baldwin.
Not only do we see the ever-present tide of artists fighting racism, oppression, and physical and artistic colonialism, but we see them self-consciously drawing from the wells of their pasts, deploying and redeploying the examples of their adopted ancestors. We find the 1960s Mexican-American-Chicano muralist movement drawing inspiration from the great Mexican muralists of the 1920s and 1930s: Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siquieros. Los tres grandes (the three greats) were a collective archival memory in which 1960s Chicano muralists such as Antonio Bernal, Wayne Alaniz-Healy, and David Rivas Botello found a model. These artistic political activists found life in its unconditional support for the struggles of the poorest, most exploited members of their communities. Artivists see these waves of resistance, and we recognize, as Amiri Baraka did in “the changing same,” that the more things change, the more they change the same (change in the same way). Augusto César Sandino, the great Nicaraguan revolutionary who defended his country against the U.S. Marine invasion in the 1930s, claimed that revolutionaries were reincarnated. They certainly are, and the works of artivists are important ways that the social memory and values of the oppressed continue to resonate across time and disturb the Imperial occupation of dignity. “Artists are here to disturb the peace. They have to disturb the peace. Otherwise, chaos,” explained James Baldwin. If we don’t want chaos, we must create disturbance!
Mario Luna’s house is protected by barbed wire fencing and multiple security cameras due to the multiple attempts on his life for his activism against fracking and aqueduct construction. Political assassinations of environmental activists in Mexico has skyrocketed in recent years.
Thus we encounter the words of Burmese multimedia artist Chaw Ei Thein with a special intensity:
Artists work as historians.
They are telling about the time they are living.
They were telling about the time they were living.
They will tell about the time they will live.
As Thein shows us, historical summoning is not the entirety of artivism. But it is also central to the work. It is pointing to a new world where we will live, where we will struggle, sacrifice our comfort, our careers, and maybe more, if need be. We do not strive to be archivists of popular culture and anti-imperialist memory or ethnomusicologists of protest music. Artivism is about creating a new culture rooted in the struggles against patriarchal capitalism from time-immemorial. It is where the interconnection between the rejection of the oppressors’ mores meets with the quest to construct a new being and a new way of being. “The most radical art is not protest art but works that take us to another place, envision a different way of seeing, perhaps a different way of feeling.” (Robin Kelly, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, 11.) Indeed, to pivot back to Gramsci, it is not even a new art we are fighting for. It is a whole culture:
It seems evident that, to be precise, one should speak of a struggle for a ‘new culture’ and not for a ‘new art’ (in the immediate sense)…To fight for a new art would mean to fight to create new individual artists, which is absurd, since artists cannot be created artificially. One must speak of a struggle for a new culture, that is, for a new moral life that cannot but be intimately connected to a new intuition of life, until it becomes a new way of feeling and seeing reality and, therefore, a world intimately ingrained in ‘possible artists’ and ‘possible works of art’. (p. 395)
As cultural workers, we have unique abilities to generate audiences, congregate community, and transmit values…
How can one create a new culture without being connected to activists living in the world, fighting, sometimes sacrificing privilege, other times their lives, to build that world? For these reasons Afro Yaqui Music Collective is a collective not just in the sense of its musicians but also of its responsibility to the movement. Revolutionaries and activists make up a part of the ensemble, and make decisions, as much as the artists. The transition from an artist to an artivist happens when we encounter activists on an equal playing field, recognize we share objectives, and offer our labor as a means to achieving those goals. As cultural workers, we have unique abilities to generate audiences, congregate community, and transmit values and revolutionary hope through aesthetics and performance. Now is the time to activate that intentionality and make creative and challenging decisions that force us to grow, as artists, as artivists, as human beings.
The authors would like to thank Dr. Wilson Valentín-Escobar for his legacy as a radical educator who has deeply impacted our lives, and for sharing crucial information to help create this piece.
The Afro Yaqui Music Collective in performance at the Red Rooster in Harlem, New York City in August 2017. (Pictured from left to right: Ben Barson, Emily Cook, Aaron J. Johnson, Colter Harper, Julian Powell, and Beni Rossman.) Photo by Youn Jung Kim.
One of the highlights of my attending the 2019 National Conference of the American Choral Directors Association in Kansas City was encountering Melissa Dunphy during the Composer Fair at the end of the first full day of the conference. Dunphy was full of energy and passionate about what she does and was also incredibly articulate—an ideal candidate for a NewMusicBox Cover! And after I returned home and started exploring her musical output, most of which she has generously made scores and recordings available for on her website, I was even more eager to have a sit down conversation with her about creative work.
What struck me about her music, and what she confirmed when we visited her at the bizarre place in Philadelphia where she lives (more on that later), is how deeply it relates to her ideas about social justice and inclusivity. Primarily a composer of vocal and choral music, Dunphy frequently creates music which is inspired by current events. The Gonzales Cantata, her 2009 gender-reversed faux-Baroque setting of the public US senate testimony that culminated in the resignation of attorney general Alberto Gonzales, landed her on national television while she was still pursuing an undergraduate degree in music composition. Her unaccompanied choral work from the following year, What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach?, is also based on public testimony, this time from an 86-year-old Republican World War II veteran and VFW chaplain arguing for marriage equality, an issue that still divides people in this country.
“I had an incredibly emotional reaction to watching the YouTube video of his speech,” Dunphy remembered. “I soaked an entire dishcloth with my tears because I was so touched by the testimony. In 2009, there was such a cultural struggle between people who wanted marriage equality to be on the books and people who were pouring huge amounts of money into stopping it. His testimony gives you hope that the other side might understand that it’s an issue of human rights and freedom. So again—ping—I immediately needed to set this to music.”
Among her most ambitions works to date is her 2018 American DREAMers, a multi-movement choral setting of texts from five young Americans who were brought this country as children. “This is completely up my alley for various reasons,” explained Dunphy, who was born and raised in Australia and is the child of immigrants who fled Greece and Mainland China during the Cultural Revolution.
I think that all politicians should have a life-threatening health scare. ... You should be thinking about your legacy.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
The idea of just being an artist and only an artist is, has, is and has always been a bit of myth.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
There’s always going to be a place in the world for people who make art and can also get on that marketing train.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
When I realized what I wanted to do as a composer, I realized that it sounded much more like a political mission than purely an artistic mission.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
One of the reasons I came to composing so late was because I didn’t have any examples to look up to who looked like me.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
Some people are like, “Throw out those old masters.” Like, bull.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
For a little while in my late teens, classical music was really pissing me off with its obsession with technical perfection. So I broke up with classical music for a while...
Melissa Dunphy, composer
Everybody comes to music school thinking they’re going to be the next John Williams or Danny Elfman.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
Teaching is just as much about learning new things yourself, and your students will teach you just as much as you teach your students.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
There are a lot of similarities between the almost absurd mannerism of a Baroque cantata and the absurd manner of American politics.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
We as composers have the ultimate power in deciding the gender split on stage.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
If you’re not considering the context of the world around you, your art is bullshit.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
I don’t think people who criticize arts entrepreneurship look at grants as being in that category.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
One of the things that art can do is present things that are shades of gray and have you understand those shades of gray emotionally, rather than just intellectually.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
There’s a lot of room for error in an orchestra piece. There is no room for error in an a cappella choir piece.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
I don’t care if my piece becomes irrelevant if my friends can get married.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
Art needs to be grounded in what’s happening around us.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
I understand, because it’s my history, what motivates people to go to a new country and face instability.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
I am happy to accept sacred commissions if the religious organization will give me some leeway on what text I choose.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
Composers should stop worrying about being as intellectual as possible and start thinking about what reaches the next generation.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
I literally make concrete in the other part of my life.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
But creating intense politically-themed music is only part of how Dunphy spends her time. That bizarre place she lives in is an 18th century building that most recently had been the site of an abandoned magic theater. When she and her husband acquired the property, it was in a ruined state. So, on their own, they embarked on a huge construction project that has resulted not only in a viable place to live and artistic studios, but also an AirB&B they rent out. However, more interestingly, in excavating the former theater which they had hoped to eventually turn into a performance space, they discovered a wide range of 18th century artifacts and have become significant archeologists of early Americana. Dunphy gave us a guided tour of the construction work and some of their findings following our extensive conversation about her music, some photos of which appear toward the end of the transcript.
“We tore every room down to the studs,” Dunphy euphorically exclaimed. “I learned how to sweat copper pipe and do dry wall, build a kitchen, and build a bathroom. We just went through and did it. And I loved doing that kind of work. And it’s not only a source of revenue generation or wealth generation, it enables you to buy a really cheap, crappy house, and turn it into something that’s livable. In some ways it’s like this nice corollary to what I do as a composer. Composition is very ethereal. You write something—yes, you have it down on a piece of paper—but when it’s actually presented, it’s in the air and then it’s gone. It’s a memory. It’s not tangible. It’s not concrete. But I literally make concrete in the other part of my life. … This whole theater venture fulfills both a long-term financial idea and also this intellectual hunger for creation. You create ideas, but you can also create stuff. It’s nice to be able to do both.”
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Melissa Dunphy at her home in Philadelphia, PA
March 13, 2019—3:00 p.m.
Video Presentation by Molly Sheridan
The intersection of music and politics is perennially fascinating. Within the world of classical music, tenacious ideas about music’s aesthetic autonomy, its purported status as timeless Art-with-a-capital-A, often rub up uncomfortably with actual musical practice. How is it that Beethoven’s music of universal brotherhood could also serve as the anthem of an apartheid nation-state?
At Bowling Green State University’s 39th Annual New Music Festival last October, composers Samuel Adler, Maria Grenfell, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Catherine Likhuta sat down with me to share their thoughts about music and politics. Political music might be music that implicitly supports or explicitly opposes the status quo, music that expresses a current socio-political reality or promotes an alternative, or more broadly—to paraphrase Jacques Rancière—music that rearranges the set of perception between what is visible, thinkable, and understandable, and what is not. Music’s use as a political tool for protest, propaganda, or resistance is well documented, of course, especially the use of popular music in the 20th century. Our wide-ranging discussion touched on a number of ideas—the place of politics in contemporary classical music, the tension between political particularity and universality, the uses of programmatic music, and recent developments in the world of classical music. Few of these topics engendered easy or definitive answers, and it’s fitting that our discussion ended on a questioning note. Note: This transcript has been edited for clarity and significantly condensed.
Ryan Ebright: To what extent do you engage or have you engaged musically with political or social issues?
Catherine Likhuta: The piece of mine that was featured in the festival, Bad Neighbors, is probably my most political piece. It’s about the war in Ukraine that is still going on. The piece has two horns in a kind of fight with each other: one representing Russia and its aggression and invasion, the other representing Ukraine and its fight for freedom. My collaborator from Australia, Peter Luff, commissioned it when the war had just started in 2014. My schedule then was quite booked, so we decided to postpone it. Little did I know that when I began writing it three years later, the war would still be going strong.
Ebright:Bad Neighbors received some attention from Ukrainian and Polish media. Can you tell us about its reception?
Likhuta: A consular at the Ukrainian embassy in Australia heard about the piece through somebody in the Ukrainian community who came to the premiere. She contacted me for an interview. The day after they distributed the interview I saw the track on my SoundCloud page had hundreds of listens from all over Ukraine. Then the Polish media also distributed it, because Poles feel very close to Ukrainians in this fight. This distribution was heartwarming and important, because I wanted to share the music with people in Ukraine. Even though I left Ukraine over a decade ago, all of my family members are still there.
I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind with these big works. But they’re political in that they respond to human events.
Aaron Jay Kernis, composer
I’m worried about doing something too of the moment, because the moment is here and then it’s lost.
Samuel Adler, composer
I’m seeing younger composers who are taking the chance in many works to respond to issues of the moment. They seem far less concerned with thinking about the progressive march of modernism.
Aaron Jay Kernis, composer
Orchestras really do need to take responsibility for bringing up the next generation of composers.
Maria Grenfell, composer
International collaborations have become so much easier now. We can have this much wider network than we were able to have 10 or 20 years ago.
Catherine Likhuta, composer
Aaron Jay Kernis: From about 1990 to 1995 I wrote a lot of pieces related to world events. After 9/11, I composed a piece in memory of the victims of that tragedy. More recently, my horn concerto had something to do with Obama’s farewell and his singing of the song “Amazing Grace.” But earlier on, around 1990, I was very struck by the Rodney King situation and then a series of riots that made their way through Atlanta, and the threat that similar riots were going to come to New York City. My reaction to that time made its way into my piece New Era Dance, which is actually a pretty entertaining piece but has a violent undertone. After that, my second symphony was very influenced by watching the media’s portrayal of the new weaponry that was being used in the Persian Gulf War and various mega-bombings. This element of tragedy continued in pieces like Colored Field and Lament and Prayer, which started as a reaction to genocide in Bosnia and grew into a response to the Holocaust and, more generally, the relationships between various kinds of genocide that had been perpetrated throughout the 20th century.
I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind with these big works. But they’re political in that they respond to human events. For me it’s kind of inescapable to need to respond to that kind of tragedy, and it doesn’t necessarily engender the potential of butting heads politically because they are tragedies that we’ve all witnessed and shared in in some way.
Ebright: The warfare and tragedies of the early 1990s seem to have continued in the new millennium. Do those earlier works speak to the present day?
Kernis: Even though those works came out of a specific time, for me the key political element is in their attempt to speak to universal experiences. War has always been with us and will always be with us. Bringing that reality into the arts, and bringing that into music—that’s been with us also since the 19th century or even earlier, with battle pieces from the Baroque era, the Eroica, et cetera.
Samuel Adler: I’m worried about doing something too of the moment, because the moment is here and then it’s lost. For example, I first heard Bernstein’s Mass during the Vietnam War, which we were all concerned about. Well, I just heard it again, and while there are some stunning musical moments, it’s completely dated and doesn’t have the effect that it was supposed to have. Mass was a bombshell of a piece. Today, it’s ho-hum. (The texts, not the music.) So you have to be very careful how you choose a subject.
The New York Chamber Symphony commissioned me to write a piece about 9/11, and I tried to do it so that it doesn’t just concentrate on that event, but becomes a larger expression of sorrow. I composed Stars in the Dust for the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht. I was ten years old, living in Germany, when that happened. My librettist and I felt that it should be a universal statement; it’s about something that may happen to a lot of people, and it isn’t happening only at one time. We have to look at what Spinoza called “the vision of eternity” rather than the moment.
I’ve always felt that the way to get this world back on a peaceful passage is the idea of reconciliation. I was in Dallas when Kennedy was assassinated, and I wrote a piece for the symphony in that week. Because I’ve always felt that we have to bring in everybody to mourn with us at the same time, I brought in tunes that people would actually recognize in America, especially in the South, where religion is so important.
Maria Grenfell: I haven’t actually written very much political music at all. My music tends to be influenced by mythology or poetry or fine arts. I’ve written a few pieces that have been requested for specific purposes, like to calm anxiety for children and adults in hospitals and to help soothe children with mental health problems, but I wouldn’t call that political.
Ebright: You draw inspiration from a diverse array of sources for your pieces—Celtic fiddle tunes, Māori legends, Salman Rushdie’s East-West short stories. Is the way in which you incorporate various cultural sources a political act or an expression of advocacy for multiculturalism?
Grenfell: No, I just find I really enjoy the diverse influences. They inform my use of colors and harmonic materials.
Ebright: What is a piece of music that you think is effective both musically and politically?
Adler: It’s been used so much that it’s almost self-evident, but the Beethoven 9th. It has had greater influence on Europe—they’ve used it as their anthem—and again, it has a kind of universal message. I’m not sure that any other piece has had that kind of influence. But we have to be very careful thinking that we can change the world with anything. If we can change one person, that’s very important. Classical music or the classical composer is no longer what he or she was—well, it wasn’t she at that time—in Beethoven’s time. When we talk about Beethoven’s Third, we always mention that it was written for Napoleon and he tore up the dedication when Napoleon made himself emperor. Well, if I write a symphony and dedicate it to Mr. Trump and don’t like what he does and tear up the sheet, nobody gives a damn!
Grenfell: Shostakovich’s 5th symphony is a really important work. What I actually find more interesting is the 4th symphony, which was in rehearsal when an article came out that criticized Shostakovich’s opera. So he put the 4th symphony away and it wasn’t performed until after Stalin’s death. I find that fascinating.
Kernis: Certainly the 5th has had an impact on its audiences from its premiere, and what we view as the kind of coded aspect. In many of his pieces, Shostakovich somehow was able to play right on the edge between populism and art, trying to navigate how not to be shot.
Ebright: The number one goal in composing.
Kernis: It’s true! But it’s a good thing we’re not in that situation at the moment. I’m seeing younger composers who are taking the chance in many works to respond to issues of the moment. They seem far less concerned with thinking about the progressive march of modernism. One of those works, The Source, is a theatrical work by Ted Hearne, who is one of the most politically active composers I know now. It’s based on transcripts of Chelsea Manning and about her court martial, and I believe at the end of the piece there was footage—the music stopped—and there was footage of a drone strike, about a ten-minute drone strike. It had this absolute edge. We were sitting there in utter horror at the innocent people being bombed, and there was nothing the music could say to that; the music would only detract from that sensation. Hearne knew where to draw that line and how to present the musical aspect of Manning’s life and its relationship to a bombing that could not be expressed in musical terms.
Adler: I think what we’re talking about is actually communicating either by theater or by words as the most effective means of political engagement. So that it’s not only with the music, except for the mention of Shostakovich’s 5th symphony…
Kernis: But you have to know! Shostakovich’s audience knew what was going on.
Adler: True, but it doesn’t mean the same to us, so it’s not a universal kind of expression. I mean, every college orchestra now plays the 5th symphony…
Kernis: But do they know what it means?
Adler: They don’t, they don’t know what it means!
Likhuta: At the same time, as a composer of mostly programmatic music, I feel like when I’m writing programmatic music, it’s kind of like a book or a movie that I want people to experience, but by means of music. In a way it’s more timeless than a movie or book because the language is more ambiguous. Listening to Shostakovich’s symphonies when I lived in Chicago, I felt like I was watching movies or reading books about these events. Maybe I could feel them a little closer to my heart because I grew up in Soviet-era Ukraine and my parents and grandparents lived most of their lives in the Soviet Union. Every person in Ukraine at the moment has grandparents or great-grandparents who went through war and famine. And Soviet movies about war, which we all watched in Ukraine growing up, use his music, or music in that style. So I think maybe Shostakovich was closer to me because of that. I never felt that it was out of my time and that it’s not something current to me. I heard that music and I could feel—as much as one can feel having a mobile phone and food and warmth and all of that—the pain of the people who were experiencing the war.
Kernis: You have an experiential context for that, a historical context. But for people who don’t have that, without words, it’s hard to have that same involvement or understanding.
Likhuta: Absolutely. The work that I originally wanted to mention, though, was Karel Husa’s Music for Prague. I heard him talk about this piece a decade ago at Cornell. He said he didn’t choose to write this piece; this piece chose him to write it. He was in the United States when the Soviets attacked the Czech Republic and he was not allowed to go back, so he felt he had to speak up through his music. Music for Prague opens with this solo in the flute, like a birdsong, and it’s a Czech folk tune about freedom, which then gets gobbled up by the orchestra. It’s political not in the sense of Democrats versus Republicans; it’s political in the sense of fighting for freedom. I think it can speak to anyone. It doesn’t have to be of that time. It speaks to me as a Ukrainian person whose country is experiencing a war, now.
Adler: That piece is also based on the most important hymn of Czechoslovakia, so it’s as if it had words. So it’s not a piece of abstract music.
Grenfell: There’s an Australian composer, Robert Davidson, who has written quite a few pieces setting political speeches for choir. They’re very funny, and he often interpolates them with video, and sort of chops them up and has lots of loops and sequences. His most successful one used a recording of Julia Gillard, who was Australia’s first woman prime minister, when she was lectured about sexism by the then leader of the opposition, who is a very conservative politician. Her response became known as “the misogyny speech.”
Likhuta: There was one about Trump recently that finished with, [singing] “I just don’t respect her!”
Ebright: I want to switch gears briefly to think about musical politics rather than political music, per se. And I also want to end on something of an optimistic note. What is one positive change within the field of classical music that you have seen during your career?
Adler: I’m the greatest optimist you’re going to find. I feel there’s more great talent in the world of classical music that ever before. The level of our student composers is at least as high as it ever was, if not higher. I see great things happening in the next generation and the generation beyond. But to answer your question: one change, in which Aaron played a role, is the reading by professional orchestras of works by early-stage or student composers.
Kernis: Most recently, I’m very encouraged to see the issue of inequality being addressed, in terms of women conductors and composers in particular.
Grenfell: It’s very encouraging that this is being spoken about openly. It’s on the table now, particularly with women programmed in orchestral concert seasons. And I also think that the opportunity to work for a short intensive period of time with a professional orchestra is absolutely invaluable. I helped set up a program that’s been going for about 11 years now in Australia called the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra Australian Composers’ School. The aim is to bridge the gap between higher education and being commissioned, which is where the worst gap is. That’s where everybody falls through the cracks unless they can leap over somehow and get their first commission. Orchestras really do need to take responsibility for bringing up the next generation of composers.
Likhuta: I also appreciate how many composition professors support young composers not only in their composing, but also by showing them what being a composer is like. That it’s not easy, but it’s not necessarily as hard as somebody would think. It’s a tricky field, and today you need to learn to be an entrepreneur, to be your own producer, your own publisher, all that. And I think it’s starting to happen more.
Ebright: So, more holistic mentorship?
Likhuta: Yeah, I think that’s important. The final thing that I want to mention is that international collaborations have become so much easier now. I do at least as much work with international collaborators as I do in Australia. We can have this much wider network than we were able to have 10 or 20 years ago.
Ebright: Are there questions from the audience?
Audience member: I have a question about Beethoven’s 9th symphony, which Professor Adler held up as the paradigm of a successful political piece. In going for so broad a theme as brotherhood (which you all seem to agree keeps music from becoming dated), did not Beethoven open himself up to having that music reappropriated by vastly differing political movements such as the Nazis and the EU and the reunification of West and East Germany? How do you navigate universality without losing specificity to the point that it can be about any kind of politics?
Kernis: Your question has me ruminating on instances where a culture or country has taken a work of art and used it for its own political ends. I can’t think of so many. Recently, certain popular songs have been used without permission in political campaigns or events. But thinking back to Germany using Beethoven’s work to promote the idea that Germany was the most advanced culture—have there been many more instances?
Ebright: Rhodesia used the “Ode to Joy” as their national anthem as an apartheid state.
Kernis: That is the perfect example of the problem—the music can be used nefariously for totalitarian purposes.
Audience member: Classical music can be built upon pillars that encompass misogyny and traditionally white European culture. As a student I have mixed feelings about studying something that is so narrow in its invention and its audience. How can we see through that structure as opposed to seeing around it?
Grenfell: I think programming is really important. There needs to be more awareness and openness of what gets programmed and where things are placed in a program. Because programs tend to fall into the same patterns over and over if there’s not a conscious decision to shape it. I think it’s good that some organizations are getting called on for not including more women or ethnically-diverse composers on their list.
Adler: But you have to be very careful not to look at the past in terms of today. It was a different time; you have to take everything historically. Things change and we have to change with them, but at the same time, you can’t reject the past. There are still great works that were written in the past that speak to us. You just can’t put our aesthetics on the past.
Audience member: What’s the difference between political music and propaganda? Is propaganda just political music that you don’t like?
Adler: [laughing] Propaganda is everything bad!
Grenfell: Maybe propaganda is the kind of music that you’re forced to write or forced to hear in a certain way, whereas political music is a choice as a composer?
It all started with a conversation. My colleague across the hall at the Hugh Hodgson School of Music, percussionist Kim Toscano, came into my office one day and we talked for a long time about racism in the United States. Kim is married to Timothy Adams, professor in music and chair of the percussion department. He’s also a composer (and that’s going to be important in my story). Tim is black, Kim is white, and they have an adorable baby boy who melts hearts with kind, innocent eyes. Kim was worried (and still is) about the kind of world that her baby was growing up in. I was outraged at…well…any number of things that had happened in the previous year. What could we do as teachers? As artists? As conductors? As drummers? What could we possibly do to make things better? That’s kind of how the conversation went. Lots of questions, some rage, a lot of sadness, some hopelessness, some feelings of inadequacy and irrelevance, more questions. We talked again and conjured up some ideas for getting out of the university and reaching out to the community in Athens, Georgia through music. Sure, we’ve all done that—“outreach” concerts, teaching, church services, tours—but we wanted to do something more profound, more long-lasting and impactful. The kind of citizen-artistry that Eric Booth talks about: “a revolution of the heart within the arts.”
What could we possibly do as teachers and as artists to make things better?
Cynthia Johnston Turner, conductor
Trite as it may sound, I believe music can make a difference.
Cynthia Johnston Turner, conductor
I knew we had to get Connie Frigo involved. Connie is the saxophone professor at the Hugh and she’s incredible. I’ve seen both her and her students do innovative and meaningful performances, and I had recently attended an event called “The Innocence Project,” which Connie brought to the University of Georgia that involved an unlikely but powerful group of diverse participants. The three of us met a couple of times and although we found the conversations important, even helpful, we talked in circles. Lots of ideas, a few leads, some phone calls, we even bandied around some dates, but nothing really landed. And we weren’t even sure what we were planning.
Then, two things happened.
One, Connie and I went to “Athens in Harmony,” which brings together black and white communities in song. And here we were introduced to Mokah-Jasmine and Knowa Johnson. Mokah is the co-founder and president of the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement, a grassroots organization in Athens, Georgia, that aims to combat discrimination through education and activism. She is also the co-founder and owner of the United Group of Artists Music Association (UGA Live), a business that specializes in music promotion and event production. She and her husband Knowa founded the Athens Hip Hop Awards, the Martin Luther King Jr. Parade, and Music Fest in Athens. We knew that Mokah and Knowa had to be involved in whatever we planned.
At around the same time, Tim saw me in the hall one day and said, “Hey, I’m writing a piece for you.”
“Yeah, you, Connie, and Kim. You’re the narrator. It’s about what happened in Charlottesville.”
He was talking about August 12, 2017, when “Unite the Right” white supremacists marched, violence broke out, and 32-year-old Heather Heyer was murdered when she was mowed down by a man slamming his car into a group of counter-protesters.
We met several times with Mark Callahan, an incredible “connector” and thinker, at Ideas for Creative Exploration (an interdisciplinary initiative at UGA). We knew we wanted to do something impactful, helpful, and important, and we wanted to involve an audience that might not normally attend a concert event in the Performing Arts Center on campus (a decidedly white crowd).
From here, things snowballed. Fast. That’s because the one-year anniversary of that horrible day was approaching, and Connie had the idea that we perform the piece.
Two problems. One, we didn’t have that more broadly welcoming venue. Re-enter Knowa Johnson. He suggests the studio of Stan Mullins, a local sculptor and artist of international renown, who occasionally opens his (huge) space for events. Knowa and Stan are friends. We meet at the studio and know immediately this is the place. Stan hears about the project and is totally on board. Read more about Stan; this guy is cool.
Stan Mullins’s studio
We had talked about the idea of workshopping the piece with community members early on in the process, but now, it was a given. Why? That was the second problem, the piece wasn’t finished.
Each of us (Mokah, Knowa, Tim, Connie, Mark, me) invited five specially chosen community members to attend the event. Here is the invitation, which also explains the process of “workshopping”:
The weekend of August 11, 2018, is the one-year anniversary of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA, where white nationalists gathered to protest the movement to remove Confederate monuments. The rally turned violent when counter-protesters gathered to express their opposition. Dozens were injured and Heather Heyer was killed when a pro-Nazi, James A. Fields Jr., rammed his car into the crowd of counter-protesters.
In response to the events of that day, composer, percussionist, and UGA’s Mildred Goodrum Heyward Professor in Music Timothy K. Adams, Jr., is composing a new piece for saxophone, percussion, and narrator that represents his own processing of the Charlottesville rally. The performers are UGA professors of music Connie Frigo, saxophone; Kim Toscano Adams, percussion; and Cynthia Johnston Turner, narrator.
On Saturday, August 11, 2018, portions of the new work will be shared in an intimate workshop setting designed to engage critical dialog between the audience and performers, facilitated by Athens activists Mokah and Knowa Johnson, and Mark Callahan, Artistic Director of Ideas for Creative Exploration (ICE) at UGA. The goal of the workshop is to use audience feedback to further develop the piece, including where in Athens to perform its premiere in the coming months, and to invoke racial harmony as we unite members of the Athens community through contemporary music and important civic conversation.
You are being specially invited to this unique and intimate event. It will begin with a casual BBQ dinner, followed by the performance and workshop. Please bring an open heart and mind, and a willingness to engage.
Several colleagues, graduate students, and friends volunteered to help with the logistics (food, drinks, tables, chairs, paper, pens, nametags, etc.). Dale Monson, director of the Hugh, agreed to finance the BBQ dinner. As the audience members arrived, there was an air of wonder and excitement. During the casual dinner, many expressed that they weren’t sure what they were expecting but were intrigued by the message and the concept. It was a diverse and relatively intimate group. They were divided into three tables, and we began.
Tim introduced himself and the motives for composing the music. His words were inviting, sobering, effective, and poignant. We then explained that the piece wasn’t complete and asked the audience members to respond to the piece with honesty. Their insights would be important for the direction of the work. We performed the first movement. Immediately after, each group was given approximately ten minutes to respond and record their reactions to the music. We did the same for the 2nd and 3rd movements. We received a standing ovation. There were tears. Finally, Mokah facilitated a brief summary of thoughts which sparked important and heartfelt dialogue. The evening concluded. Another standing ovation.
For the August 11, 2018 workshop of Charlottesville, a work in progress by Timothy K. Adams, the composer/percussionist ultimately joined Connie Frigo (saxophone) and Cynthia Johnston Turner (narrator) for the performance.
As a result of that evening, we now have an ambitious plan for moving forward. Possible venues for the premiere, as suggested by audience members at the initial workshop, emphasized the importance of conversation and diverse audience participants. Ideas included The Chapel at the University of Georgia, an antebellum structure adjacent to a Confederate monument in downtown Athens, shared public spaces, the historic Morton Theatre, churches, and alternative art spaces in Atlanta.
Tim will be composing three more related works over the course of two years. We have applied for major funding with a proposal entitled, “Citizen Artistry: A Performance Model to Raise Social Awareness, Promote Dialogue, and Inspire Change.” We have guaranteed funding from other sources. Educators have volunteered to write curriculum. It’s exciting.
But what has been most exciting is the process. From those initial conversations to a series of serendipitous events to the authentic and important involvement of community members in the artistic process, this experience has renewed our commitment to citizen artistry. Those feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy and outrage have morphed into energy, relevance, and meaning. Trite as it may sound, I believe music can make a difference. In this case, it took a village, a little risk-taking, walking way out of our comfort zones, and a lot of trust in the process.
Several composers have written eloquently on this site about how the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath have affected their work. They’ve advised that ultimately, no matter how paralyzed they feel, it is time to create, even if their job as composers has now changed. Margaret Atwood wrote a great article about what art can, should, or will be made under the current administration. And she makes a good point when she says that the president won’t even notice, rating his interest in the arts somewhere between zero and negative 10 (on a scale from 1 to 100).
I found myself wondering what I could do, as a performer.
To me, the result of the election was an “unpresidented” [sic] embarrassment on a global level, and continues to be as we all witness the daily barrage of tantrums and tweets. But I found myself wondering what I could do, as a performer. I felt compelled to do something, and regrettably I had not yet read this great article about what many other performers were up to, or discovered projects such as the Activist Songbook or this hilarious piece.
So, late at night on August 9, 2017 (I’m pretty sure it was after reading about North Korea and how “Trump’s ‘Fire and Fury’ Threat Raises Alarms in Asia”), I turned to the one thing I know I can always count on: sarcasm. I posted on Facebook that I was thinking of commissioning a piece called Suite #45, or potentially writing it myself. I listed a humorous set of possible characteristics (which I’ve also listed here):
movements limited to 140 notes, 140 measures, 140 phrases, or other permutations of the Twitter character limit
erratic shifts of: character, dynamic, articulation, tempo
improvisatory sections that do not relate in any way to the thematic material of the piece, or commonly accepted musical practices. In ANY way.
playful/childish outbursts, in the form of “heckler chords” or “bad hombre-like non-chord tones” with shocking key area explorations highly encouraged!
structural musical elements in no way qualified to be a part of supporting the administration of the composition
short, repeated motifs that are expressed vehemently (but not developed), then forgotten by the average listener at crucial later moments when they could change the appreciation/understanding of the piece
a blatantly critical and unwavering sense of self-importance, in the face of wide-spread critical disdain, and limited audience base.
It was a moment of comic relief, shared with my friends. It made me feel better, at least temporarily, and then I went to bed.
People loved the idea and encouraged me to actually do it.
But something quite unexpected happened. The next morning, there were a lot of notifications on my phone. People loved the idea and encouraged me to actually do it. Having devoted a significant amount of my own professional career over the past decade to contemporary piano music, both in recital programming and through commissioning projects like American Vernacular: New Music for Solo Piano, it seemed like a natural fit. After some thought, I set up an open “Call for Scores” and changed the name to #45miniatures, combining the hashtag styling of Trump’s favorite social media pastime and a word with obvious double entendre implications.
This call was done entirely on Facebook, and 24 composers (including a violist and a pianist!) responded expressing interest. No one cared about a commissioning fee, though I set up a GoFundMe campaign anyway to try and generate some funds to be distributed equally among the composers. As scores started coming in I was – as I always am – amazed by the creativity and craft of the participating composers.
One piece for speaking pianist takes text from the campaign, punctuating each section with “SAD!” Another combines clusters with an increasingly louder, faster chant of “LOCK HER UP!” and incorporates a Dies Irae recitative. There is a toccata that systematically removes all pitches until only Ds are left.
A palindromic chaconne leads to a “wall” in the middle before reversing itself all the way back to the first note. Text from tweets and speeches feature prominently in many, and musical quotations abound (from “If I Only Had a Brain” to our National Anthem). Some are very serious; some are definitely not. These are just a few; you can read about of the pieces I have received to date here.
However, a few things didn’t sit right. First, I began feeling uncomfortable thinking of the project as “mine” in any sort of singular way. Performers often hold tight to the right for a premiere or first recording, and in many cases this makes sense. But #45miniatures isn’t about me. It is about the music and the message it sends. The mere presence of a body of work in response to this presidency is, in itself, powerful.
#45miniatures isn’t about me. It is about the music and the message it sends.
Second, why should I limit this to composers who happened to have seen the call on my Facebook wall? Many of these people are my friends, but we all know how much is missed on that platform, as Facebook’s algorithms decide what you should see on any given day based on your interactions (or non-interactions) with your friends. Surely there are others who are looking for an outlet like this?
The conclusion I came to was that this really needs to be a collective, open-source project, so I created this #45miniatureswebsite to connect us all. You can read about the project there, and view perusal scores. (Funny story, the sub-heading on the homepage was suggested by the Wix auto template design robots in nanoseconds after seeing my title. I’ve ordered hats, but they are currently held up at customs, due to the trade war.)
Here’s the important part:
Pianists: Want to get involved? Great! You are welcome here. You can peruse any score that I’ve received. See something you like and want to program? Contact the composer and get a score. I don’t have to premiere anything. This music should be programmed and played all over the country and globe. The News/Media section of the website will be a great place to share info about performances and audio/video links.
Composers: Do you have an idea and want to write something after reading this article? Great! Please get in touch. I took everyone who responded to the initial call for scores, and I genuinely welcome as diverse an array of composers as I can possibly have. This is a work in progress, but I would love to eventually see a published book of all the miniatures that come in.
I believe history will be the ultimate judge of this president, but art must be a part of the contemporary response.
Three years after the events in question, I wrote a song cycle about the arrest and trial of members of Pussy Riot. Even as I did so, it seemed both ill-timed and too late. It had been two years since I had written my opera about the housing bubble crisis, however, and I felt like my overall output (especially my political output) had been pathetic. Plus, I wanted to write something cool and distantly relevant for the Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, a female a cappella quartet that commissions new music.
My introduction to Quince came through soprano Liz Pearce. I met Liz at the 2012 Bowling Green New Music & Art Festival thanks to my friend Jonn Sokol, who had recently written a piece for Kayleigh Butcher, another member of the group. He mentioned that Liz liked singing contemporary works, and since I liked writing vocal works, maybe some kind of collaboration would hopefully work out. (Actually I was hoping something would work out, too.)
Later on Liz asked if she could stage my Krispy Kremes and Butter Queens during the 2014 BGSU MicrOpera show. I enthusiastically said yes, and she staged a brilliant show. I loved working with her, and she loved working with me, and I told her that I would love to work with her again, and that maybe I could write something for Quince. (More like, I strongly hinted that I would like to write something for Quince.)
It was good timing—they were looking for new repertoire at that time, so I quickly texted my librettist Kendall A and asked if she would be interested in a project. She responded with “Pussy Riot song cycle” and I instantly Facebook-messaged Liz.
Me: HOLY S***. Librettist is leaning toward basing a piece off the Pussy Riot story in Russia.
But I still wrote the piece. My librettist wrote eight poems, and I told her how cool I thought it would be to juxtapose songs influenced by punk music (since Pussy Riot is a punk-rock band) and those influenced by church motets (since Pussy Riot was arrested in a church). She tinkered with her words. I listened to The Clash and Hildegard for inspiration. And so, the song cycle Prisoner of Conscience was born.
In the back of my mind, I couldn’t quite fathom how Kendall was able to come up with the idea of the Pussy Riot Song Cycle so quickly, especially since this idea came about two years after they were front and center in our political consciousness, so I asked her. It turns out she had been following the punk band for years, way before they were arrested and put on trial. She was fascinated with the elaborate stagings of their anti-Putin protests and how they were drawing huge attention with these performances. And Kendall thought that’s what both art and punk should be about—if your surrounding overarching hierarchy is so corrupt, your art should find a way to cut through that. So when members of Pussy Riot were brought to trial, Kendall wanted to create art in honor of the spirit of the punk group, especially since they went as far as to sacrifice their own freedoms to expose the degradation of freedoms around them. She was thinking about writing an opera libretto about this and producing this show with NANOWorks Opera, but she felt that the timing wasn’t right and was waiting for an opportunity to share this work at the national level. It needed to be done right.
Now that we live in a time where there are rumors of Russia meddling with U.S. elections and the White House is doling out Fake News Awards, the piece is surprisingly relevant again. (I never thought it would be, nor did I want it to be.) Maybe my initial timing was off in creating this piece, but what I do know is this—we creators have been tasked with creating art. And if we creators are present and attuned to what is happening, we as global citizens will speak up via our music for what is right and just. If you are waiting for the right moment, the right moment is now.
I was going to give a few examples of what performers and composers have been creating in the past year, politically speaking. I was going to mention how Laura Dixon Strickling has been raising money via her recitals to support hurricane recovery awareness, since the government hasn’t helped out much. I was going to point out the Thompson Street Opera company’s production of Joshua Bornfield and Catlin Vincent’s Uncle Alex, an opera about immigrants coming to America, and note a performance of John Luther Adams’s Inuksuitalong the US-Mexico Border. But when I asked my friends via social media what music they have been creating since the 2016 November election, the response was overwhelming—it looks like you guys have been creating art this entire time.
You all have been so enthusiastic and forthcoming about your current projects that I thought the best place for this forum (outside of my Facebook wall) is via this database. Here is a public forum where we can share our works, and share with performers who also want to express how they are feeling during this time. Through our works and performances, we can be aware of what is going on around us, breathe, and collectively create something beautiful.
There is a long tradition of artists creating socially conscious work. Some would say it should be an obligation, especially now in these uncertain and divisive times. But addressing societal wrongs is perhaps the one common focus that unites decades of work created by composer/vocalist Kristen Norderval.
Norderval’s output has been extraordinarily diverse. Her activities include improvisations singing and transforming sounds on her laptop alongside other musicians, a song cycle featuring her own voice accompanied by the viol consort Parthenia, electronic scores for dance, sound installations involving upturned pianos or repurposed trash, and an evening-length opera, The Trials of Patricia Isasa, which premiered last year during the 2016 OPERA America conference in Montreal.
When we met with her across the street from her northern Manhattan apartment surrounded by nature in Inwood Hill Park (which she described as her back yard), she credited the central role that various progressive causes have played in inspiring her music: “As the eldest child of two political scientists, I have always been interested in politics and events in the world. Politics was in our house all the time. So I’ve always been aware and my music has been very centered in wherever we are as a society.”
One of her earliest realizations, soon after she began writing songs, inspired by Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Joan Baez, Odetta, and Yoko Ono, was the lack of visible female role models for women who were interested in composing large-scale works. “I could see myself as a singer-songwriter,” she remembered. “I can see there’s an identity. Whereas a composer seemed like what you do if you write for orchestra or at least for string quartet, or these other things that I didn’t know. I didn’t know other female composers growing up, so it was hard to think I could be that.”
But she persevered, studying both composition and voice in Seattle at the Cornish School and the University of Washington, despite one of her teachers claiming there were no historically significant female composers: “I just knew that was wrong. … It can’t start with me; I’m not that brilliant. So I went looking as an undergraduate. When I did my recitals for voice, I always included female composers, like Hildegard, Strozzi, Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, up through the contemporary composers that I was discovering.”
One of contemporary composers she discovered was Pauline Oliveros who, during a campus talk for teachers, got the participants to perform one of her deep listening text scores. Norderval was astounded. Shortly afterwards in the school library, she read Oliveros’s introduction to her Sonic Meditations in which she outed herself. “’I am a human being, a lesbian, a two-legged person, living with cats.’ All these different categories. It really blew my mind because this was the ‘70s. I was out, but it was a very different time.” She went on to apprentice with Oliveros and worked with her for many years, ultimately organizing the last deep listening retreat that Oliveros was part of, in 2015, just a year before her death. Norderval’s immersion into Oliveros’s music and philosophy gave her an aesthetic framework that allowed her to embrace all sound, as well as to pay equal attention to sonic events that are permanent and impermanent.
“If I’m doing an improvisation, and it’s just for here and now, that’s my chosen impermanence,” Norderval explained. “Or if I write a score that has instructions and motives, so it can be done in different ways, the one version is impermanent, but the next version is just as valid. … The voice is always flexible, but … once you’ve got a sound file that’s a fixed sound file, it’s totally inflexible. It’s interesting to me to make a permeation, but also, when I’m working with pre-recorded sound files, I’m processing in the moment, often with several files, and choosing in that moment: Okay, I’m only going to use this little tiny bit of this file. Now I’m going to expand it to the whole thing. Now I’m going to pitch shift. Now I’m going to delay feedback—pretty basic processing tools, but everything is in the moment, so it’s like drawing from a palette that I know. I know the sound files, and I’ll do it in a different mix the next time. It’s like cooking up a different stew.”
Another inspiration for Norderval’s approach, especially for her fascinating installations—many of which she has created in collaboration with her partner, choreographer Jill Sigman—was working in Norway with a Sami sculptor named Iver Jåks who assembled Arctic stones, wood, reindeer horns, and leather and give curators free reign in putting them together. “I thought that was so wonderful,” Norderval recalled. “I remember a phone conversation we had—I ended up recording part of it and using it in a piece that I made about him—where he says, ‘I’m not going last forever; why should my artwork last forever?’”
But nowadays, she acknowledged, she has “come to a combination of notated and improvised.” One of the most precisely notated of her works is the opera The Trials of Patricia Isasa, which is based on the real-life story of a woman who was abducted during the Dirty Wars of the Argentinian dictatorship and who finally brought her torturers to justice 33 years later. It is a poignant and deeply moving work that, while being very much an important story for our own time, has deep resonances that will hopefully earn it a permanent place in the operatic repertoire.
“I think it’s very much our story because the U.S. was behind the whole Operation Condor that supported all those dictatorships,” she explained. “The Ford factory was encouraging the military dictatorship to impose certain economic policies, and they used the Ford factory as a place for torture. My feeling and [librettist] Naomi Wallace’s feeling was that when we look back at a story about this historical period—and it’s not that far back because 2009, when she got a conviction, is very close—it’s a way of saying this is what happened there and this is what could happen here. For me, the important part was the accountability part, because my concern for us as a nation is that we have had no accountability for an invasion of another country that was based on lies and no accountability for torture. The torture and war programs that are committed in all of our names are also related to our prison industrial complex, our mass incarceration, the fact that it’s only been 50 years since we dismantled the legal apartheid system of Jim Crow in this country. I was ten-years old when interracial marriage was finally legal. That’s crazy. People have been working to try to dismantle that ever since, and that’s the period we’re in now. We’re in the backlash period. We have to look with a big historical overview to see how to deal with those effects and issues with some kind of accountability. That, for me, was the story. And that is our story. That, plus Patricia was involved in the whole thing. So it’s our collective story.”
Kristin Norderval in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded in Inwood Hill Park, New York, NY
June 8, 2017—10:30 a.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Frank J. Oteri: Here we are in the middle of all this nature, yet we’re still in New York City, a non-stop, high-tech, 21st-century urban metropolis. It seems like an apt place to talk with you about your music, since your music seems to have two different things going on within it which often seem to be in contradiction. One is that it’s all about sheer physicality—mostly the sound of your voice, but it’s not just the sound of your voice. There’s this wonderful passage in your score for a dance piece called Rupture where a dancer is walking, literally, on eggshells. And it creates a remarkable sound. I probably wouldn’t have realized how that sound was produced if I hadn’t seen it in an online video, but I think it’s an excellent example of paying a great deal of attention to the properties of sound created corporeally. However, you also employ a great deal of electronic manipulation of sound as well as electronically generated sounds in your work. Those two things seem like opposites to me, but maybe they’re not for you.
Kristin Norderval: To me they don’t feel like opposites. The technology of electronic sound recording allows us to bring all of nature’s sounds into our art music. Also, working out that interest in physicality is one of the reasons that I worked for Jill Sigman, my partner, on Rupture. Those sounds of the eggshells—that was her exploration of that. So that becomes a sonic element, but it’s starting from her choreography. That wasn’t in my score, actually; that was her physical exploration in the piece. But there’s a place where we overlap. Both of us are very interested in exploring physical presence: the quality of sound and how you do it, or the quality of movement and how you do it.
FJO: Of course, in terms of being focused on physicality, your instrument is you, since you’re a singer.
KN: That’s right.
FJO: You also still actively sing other people’s music in addition to your own, so you really have a double life as a singer and as a composer. What came first, and how did you realize you had this instrument within you that was capable of such a wide range of sound?
KN: That’s a big question. The first memories that I have as a young, young kid—before I was two—are sounds. And I was singing, people tell me, around two or maybe before. So I was always singing. I started writing songs when I got my first guitar. I used my babysitting money and bought a guitar at age ten and started writing songs. So they’ve always been intertwined, but it’s gone through big changes in focus at different times in my life. When I was writing songs for guitar and voice, or piano and voice, I was performing in coffee houses, doing that whole kind of thing. I remember as a teenager saying, “I know how to write chord symbols and write out the words of my songs, but how do you actually write music?” I could read music, because I’d been taking piano lessons, but I didn’t have the concept of how to actually notate music. So my goal as a teenager was to try to figure out where I could go to learn to write down what I heard in my head and to be able to hear in my head what I saw on the page. That was my goal when I went to the University of Washington.
FJO: I don’t know your earliest music, but on your website you list a solo piano piece from 1980 with a very intriguing title—Aggressions. I’d love to hear that one day.
KN: I’d have to dig that out of my archives. It’s a hand-written manuscript.
FJO: Clearly you did figure out how to write down music that was in your head then, or at least some of it. But a great deal of the music that you do nowadays, which uses extended vocal techniques and electronic manipulations, is much more elusive in terms of music notation since a lot of it defies what that notation was developed to notate. When did those kinds of sounds come into your head?
KN: As a kid, I loved the sound of my dad’s diesel car. I could tell the difference between motors and I loved being on a bus or in any kind of car when the windshield wipers were out of synch; it was fascinating to me. All kinds of mechanical sounds were very interesting to me, which is another way that I think about electronics. If you go back to steam motors, maybe that’s not electricity, but for all those mechanical sounds, we need power to make them sound and so that’s always been a fascination of mine. But how do you notate that? It’s a good question. It’s still a question to me. I have things where there are instructions or, if it’s working with a sound itself, then the sound file is the thing. How do you notate within a metrical or semi-metrical language something that has to be flexible enough to listen to the variances that happen in the sound, like the airplanes going over us?
FJO: Right. And obviously, notation’s the enemy of improvisation to some extent since musicians who are trained to be really good at seeing what’s on a page and replicating it precisely—which, mind you, is a really incredible skill to have—often find it somehow counterintuitive to be told they should come up with something on their own. It requires a different headspace.
KN: I really like both. There are places in my scores where it’s very specific, and it has to be metric and precise. And there are other places where one thing is precise and another thing can be fluid over it and change with elbow room or breathing room or room for a different gesture. Then there are some text scores. I was just working with a group of five actors in Oslo on a theater piece, and I worked with them on deep listening exercises. My wonderful mentor Pauline Oliveros was a big influence on me. That kind of listening work and work with improvisation is really central to getting people to the skill sets that they need to interpret a text instruction. What are the tools you have to interpret that text instruction? You can interpret it simply or you can interpret it in a more complex way. That’s where training in improvisation or in listening to sound in a different way comes in.
FJO: So to get back to high school. You were a singer-songwriter, playing guitar, taking piano lessons, so obviously understanding how to read music, but not quite understanding how to make that work for your own work. But you were also intrigued by windshield wiper sounds. At that point, were you aware of people like Pauline Oliveros, Meredith Monk, or Joan La Barbara?
KN: I was not. But I was aware of Yoko Ono. She was inspiring. Of course the Beatles were also inspiring, but Yoko Ono was really inspiring! I had her book Grapefruit in high school. We were living at that time in Canada in a steel town—Hamilton, Ontario. I worked with a Grotowski-based theater group for a summer and then continued with them past that. That exploration of physical theater was really interesting. But I was also interested in musicology. I was interested in singing. I was interested in ethnomusicology and composition. But I didn’t really know any professional musicians until I had checked around the States looking at music schools to try to figure out where I would go. I ended up going to the University of Washington. They had a program where you could enter as a general music major and then decide over the course of your studies what you were going to major in. I ended up auditioning for voice, piano, and composition, and I ended up getting a double degree in voice and in composition at the end of that.
That was the start of my opening up to singers like Jan DeGaetani and Leontyne Price. I had a workshop with Kenneth Gaburo at Cornish which was just like opening the whole world. I was in the improv group with Stuart Dempster at the University of Washington; he and William O. Smith, Bill Smith, were running that. Bill Smith was my composition teacher, one of my important composition teachers, along with Diane Thome, who is a wonderful composer for instruments and electronics. That was also where I was introduced to Pauline Oliveros. She was giving a talk for teachers. I was there, I guess, on the recommendation of Stuart Dempster.
Pauline gave the audience the score of either the Tuning Meditation or one of the simpler deep listening text scores. And I was astounded. I thought, “They’re not going to do this!” But they did. She was so trusting in that it was going to be cool. And it was. It turned out really cool. I remember going into the library at the University of Washington and finding a very early edition of her Sonic Meditations with her handwriting in that early score and a picture of her and her introduction where she outed herself: “I am a human being, a lesbian, a two-legged person, living with cats.” All these different categories. It really blew my mind because this was the ‘70s. I was out, but it was a very different time. Then I had the pleasure of hearing her in San Francisco in concert. When I moved here to New York, I actually was able to work with her and do the whole deep listening apprentice work. I ended up organizing the last deep listening retreat that she, Ione, and Heloise did together in the Arctic—in Norway in 2015.
FJO: It’s hard to believe she’s gone.
KN: Yeah. Working with her changed the way I make music and the way I listen, the way I relate to all these sounds around us all the time. She’s amazing. And she’s still listening, as they say, and so are we.
FJO: Even though you didn’t know any musicians growing up, your parents seemed to have been supportive of your going in this direction.
KN: My mother was a very good amateur pianist. I think as a young person she might have had dreams to follow music, but it wasn’t at all in the cards. She’s Norwegian and she grew up in Nazi-occupied Norway during the Second World War, so there really wasn’t much opportunity for professional artists. She went into political science and journalism. My dad was also a political scientist. He was American. He was also an amateur violinist, so I knew music.
FJO: And he was also an instrument collector. You showed me some of his instruments in your apartment.
KN: That’s right. There were instruments from Southeast Asia in my childhood home, plus recordings from Indonesia from various villages he’d gone to visit. And home movies. We lived in Malaysia for a while, and we were in Norway many summers and then lived there for a while when I was a teenager. Then we lived in Canada and various places in the States. So I had all kinds of musical influences.
A shelf in Norderval’s apartment containing various art objects and musical instruments.
FJO: We talk to a lot of composers about their role models. You mentioned Yoko Ono and Pauline Oliveros.
KN: And Joni Mitchell.
FJO: What’s interesting in terms of your role models is that all of the people you mentioned are women. We’ve talked to a lot of composers over the years and especially those from earlier generations, like Pauline, talked about the difficulty in finding female role models. It’s not like there weren’t role models. There have been all of these significant female composers throughout history, but they’ve been relegated to footnotes. I don’t need to tell you this; you’ve edited a collection of Clara Schumann’s songs. So I know that you’re aware of this history and there’s a certain empowerment through knowing that history, I would think.
KN: Yes, there is. I have to say, when I was writing songs for voice and piano and for voice and guitar, I had inspiration from Odetta, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez, as well as Bob Dylan, the old blues singers, and Pete Seeger. I was very influenced by all of that. So I could see myself as a singer-songwriter. I can see there’s an identity. Whereas a composer seemed like what you do if you write for orchestra or at least for string quartet, or these other things that I didn’t know. I didn’t know other female composers growing up, so it was hard to think I could be that. But it wasn’t so hard to think I can learn how to notate so that I can put what I have in my head onto paper. It wasn’t a definition that way. When I was preparing to try to get into the University of Washington, I took composition study at Cornish. And I remember, I was asking this of my first composition teacher—I was notating some simple things, for solo piano and maybe something for a small instrumental trio combination—and I asked, “Who are the other women composers?” And it was like, “There aren’t any of importance.” I just knew that was wrong. I totally knew that was wrong. It can’t start with me; I’m not that brilliant. So I went looking as an undergraduate. When I did my recitals for voice, I always included female composers, like Hildegard, Strozzi, Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, up through the contemporary composers that I was discovering.
FJO: No doubt the person who said this to you was a male composition teacher.
KN: It was a male composition teacher.
A piano is still the centerpiece of the living room in Norderval’s apartment.
FJO: Now was this around the time you composed a choral piece based on poetry by Emily Dickinson called Passenger of Infinity?
KN: That piece actually came after I was finished with my undergraduate degree and I’d moved to San Francisco to do a master’s. Actually, I just worked first, then I got into the conservatory and did a master’s in voice. That was during the AIDS crisis. The San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Chorus was doing some commemoration concerts and fundraising concerts and dealing with the deaths of a lot of colleagues and friends and singing in a lot of funerals. So they commissioned a work. That was written for them. I recently just redid the last movement of that piece for a cappella [chorus]. The original version was SATB with piano accompaniment, but the last movement had a pretty simple piano accompaniment so I figured it could work as an a cappella piece. A little chorus in Montreal, the chorus that sang in my opera in Montreal, just did that on a concert in December, the new a cappella version.
FJO: Oooh, I want to hear that. So you still keep that piece in circulation?
KN: Well, I have the score, but it hasn’t been performed in the version that I did for San Francisco since the original performances. I’m not the greatest about trying to promote and get re-performances or get my scores out there for multiple things. I tend to write for specific occasions and specific ensembles or soloists, people that ask me for music. It’s a weakness of mine in terms of promotion, I guess. But on the other hand, it’s a very personal thing. The music becomes very much a part of that performer or that ensemble’s identity and experience.
Kristin Norderval standing beside a prehistoric glacial drill hole in Inwood Hill Park.
FJO: That, of course, is the other contradiction in the world of notated music. You create a lot of work that is intended to exist in the moment, but once you write something down, you fix it for all eternity theoretically. Suddenly there is the possibility for a piece to have an afterlife after the initial performance. It’s interesting that you don’t really think about that.
KN: Maybe that’s because there’s that inherent contradiction. I worked with a sculptor in Norway who is a Sami sculptor, he’s not alive anymore—Iver Jåks. He would work with Arctic stones, wood, reindeer horn, leather woven in a traditional Sami way, and various other things. He’d assemble these pieces and then say to a curator, “Okay, you put it together. Here’s the sculpture.” And I thought that was so wonderful. We did a whole school tour with an ensemble up in the Arctic, taking his pieces and getting school children to act as curators and put together his sculptures.
Then I did the same with sound. I said, “Okay, let’s go record some sounds. Now you put the sounds together.” And it would be different for each group. That was very liberating. I remember a phone conversation we had—I ended up recording part of it and using it in a piece that I made about him—where he says, “I’m not going last forever; why should my artwork last forever?”
FJO: A lot of your work is impermanent. I’m thinking, in particular, of all of your sound installations, many of which defy replicability. You even have one you did outdoors using objects that had been thrown away that you called Our Lady of Detritus.
KN: That was a collaboration with Jill. We both wanted to work with this theme of repurposing and recycling and looking at waste and the issues of waste. I had been working with hemispherical speakers and a small digital amp. I knew Holland Hopson had designed hemis for the Princeton Laptop Orchestra, so I used the recipe for the Princeton Laptop Orchestra’s small hemis that have digital amps built into them. I wanted to see if it would be possible to run that on solar power. So we contacted an engineer and figured out how many panels we needed and how many hours of daylight to charge up a big battery and how long we could perform on that battery. It was a really interesting project to do.
FJO: But a really hard piece to document.
KN: Yes, it was.
FJO: I was particularly intrigued by piano, piano, pianissimo… because you’re not only changing people’s perceptions of what a piano sounds like, but also changing how we respond to them as visual objects by mounting all these broken pianos at different angles.
KN: That piece came about as a study piece for my opera. I was already involved in the libretto development. I’d been to Buenos Aires, and I’d made a lot of interviews with Patricia Isasa and other survivors [of Argentina’s military dictatorship]—children of the disappeared, and the surviving mothers and grandmothers. I wanted to do a study piece to start working with the sounds. My very first image from my impulse to work with Patricia Isasa’s story was of a piece that would be for voice and a kind of trashed piano where the piano would have sounds created out of things that were to done to it coming through its own body. I used the sound installation as a study for those piano sounds, then channeled those sounds through each of the pianos. It’s an eight-channel installation and each piano has a transducer affixed to the soundboard, so the piano itself was the loudspeaker. The sounds that were coming through the pianos were sounds that I had recorded of me doing things to the pianos. Either scraping on the strings, detuning, hitting strings with metal objects, clipping strings, knocking on the boards. Some of them are very intense physical sounds. The idea was that the piano as a body was recounting its own sonic history. It’s a very bourgeois instrument. It’s an instrument that’s associated with a certain level of stability in society. When things up-end that stability, it has a hard time existing in the same way.
FJO: So the upturned pianos are a metaphor—
KN: —for all the upturned political upheaval. There was also a sculpture in Buenos Aires where there are two units that are strangely balanced on each other, a sort of box/house unit. That gave me an idea for these balancing things. Then I asked Jill to come in and work with me. So she helped in making the final configuration of the pianos in the space. Then we had her painting, inscribing the names of the victims of the disappearances on the wall, over the whole week that we were there in the gallery. She was painting every day that the installation was up and in the course of a week she only got through about 1,600 names. If it takes a week to just write 1,600 names on a wall, it gives you more of a sense of the vastness of 30,000 people being disappeared.
FJO: I’m very eager to talk with you about the opera in greater detail, but before we get there I find it fascinating that prior to you ever having had a work done on the stage of an opera house, you created an installation for the lobby of the Oslo Opera. Were there other performances going on in the house when that was done?
KN: Yes. Again, that was also very much Jill’s project. She was the main instigator in that particular project, Hut No. 6, as part of the CODA Dance Festival. They had dance performances on the main stage, on the small stage, and all around the city. Our piece was a performance installation in the lobby of the opera house that went on for over a week. We were there every day for five to six hours, interacting with everybody who came through the lobby. My part was the sound installation that used a hand-powered generator—I used an old bicycle wheel to help people generate their own power. And an installation inside of Jill’s hut that was ongoing that had interviews with people about how they felt about home in Oslo. Then I was singing in the performances every day.
FJO: What unites all of these projects, I think, is that they all go against the whole hagiography of the canon and this idea that the goal of making art is to create timeless masterpieces. These are very much things that were created for a specific time and place that are not necessarily capable of ever being done again, which is very different from pieces you’ve done which have notated scores.
KN: Music actually functions on a lot of different levels for different pieces. I want some of my pieces to exist past me. So I would like to have a score that can be done by other people. Other pieces are done specifically for a particular theater piece or a particular dance; it’s not going to be a repertory piece. Other things are done as an improvisation in the moment. They can exist as a recording and have a life on a CD, but they’ll never exist in real time again because that was that moment and it’s not re-creatable.
One thing I want to comment on here brings us back to talking about role models and female composers. I’ve told this story, so some people who know me will probably recognize it. When I was doing my doctorate at the Manhattan School of Music, I was also working at the Library for the Performing Arts. My boss knew I was interested in women composers and how women composers have been represented in the music industry. So she asked me to make an exhibition, in one of their big cases at the library, about women and recorded sound. It was a real learning experience for me, because what I was seeing, when I’d go back and do the research, was that every single stage of recorded sound had female composers from that era, but when the technology changed, those female composers didn’t get re-recorded on the new technology. We had a big push of recordings on LPs in the ‘80s and the ‘90s; women musicologists were bringing up historic scores and more female composers were getting trained and became able to record their own contemporary works. But lots of stuff on LPs never made it to CD. And a lot of stuff on CDs now hasn’t gone over to streaming, either it doesn’t go over or it doesn’t get credited. Streaming information is not good. You could have a collection of pieces on an album, and maybe you just have last names. How do you find out who’s who? I have recordings with Monique Buzzarté in our ensemble ZANANA, but you can’t search for Norderval on Spotify or other streaming searches. It has to be only ZANANA. Then maybe they credit me as a performer in the duo. So there are a lot of problems with actually knowing what existed at various times and making it over to the next stage. Who decides what is worth keeping and archiving?
FJO: I’m going to tell you something that’s probably going to make you very mad; it made me very mad. Just about a week ago, I chanced upon a blog post which was a few years old, but it was linked from a much more recent post, which is how I found it. It was posted by a woman in England who is a musicologist, but she was just starting out when she wrote it. It was a 2014 post. Anyway, the post described how when she was in a library looking at older editions of the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, she saw that each of the earlier editions had a number of female composers in them, but then when you went to the next edition—
KN: —they disappeared. Same thing. Exactly. Yeah.
FJO: So I found her email and wrote to her. I wanted her to know that when I was asked to update the articles about chamber music and orchestra music for the new edition of the Grove Dictionary of American Music, I also added in female composers who were not mentioned in earlier editions. I also asked her for a list of the female composers whose biographies had appeared in one of the editions of Grove but were omitted in later editions but sadly she didn’t keep a list since she wrote that post before she embraced the musicological discipline of strict note taking. At some point, we’re going to have to have a group of researchers reconstruct this list to find out who all these composers are. But it does tie into this notion of impermanence that we were talking about earlier.
KN: But there’s a difference. There are different kinds of impermanence. If I say I’m doing an improvisation, and it’s just for here and now, that’s my chosen impermanence. Or if I write a score that has instructions and motives, so it can be done in different ways, the one version is impermanent, but the next version is just as valid. But the impermanence of just being not taken care of is a different thing. I think of composers like Eleanor Hovda. What an amazing composer! Her work hasn’t been highlighted and preserved in the way that it should be for that amazing level of work. She’s just one person right off the top of my head.
A shelf of scores in Kristin Norderval’s living room.
FJO: There are tons of stories like that. So what can be done to safeguard your work so that it isn’t lost? Is that an issue for you?
KN: Maybe it’s not an issue about my work, but it’s an issue of education in general for composers, especially for female composers, for composers of color, and for composers who are working in non-mainstream ways. I think we have a crisis of education right now at all kinds of levels. When I was growing up and moving around, at every single school I went to in all these different towns that we lived in, I would choose a new instrument in the school band. So I learned a lot, not very well, but enough. But there are no school bands anymore. That’s not a part of public education.
FJO: Well, there actually are still quite a few really amazing school bands.
KN: Yeah, but it’s not automatic. It’s not seen as part of what we really need to be full human beings.
FJO: That’s definitely true, and it is unfortunate. But for the past two years I’ve attended the Midwest Clinic, which is a major event for wind bands and other community, school, and military ensembles. There were some amazing groups from high schools. Last year there was a string orchestra from a high school in Nevada that played Penderecki’s Threnody and it was incredible. But, sure, this isn’t happening everywhere. Music isn’t valued as much as it ought to be, and I think it’s a larger societal problem because one of the things that music teaches you is the lesson of listening, to get outside yourself and to actually pay attention to someone else’s thoughts. If you can’t get outside yourself, you’re just in an echo chamber, which is the zeitgeist now in part because we don’t learn how to listen to music in the same way.
KN: Or even doing it and making it together.
FJO: There’s a special kind of listening I think that comes when you’re making music with somebody else. You have to listen, especially in an improvisatory context. I want to talk about that in terms of the improvisatory projects you’ve done—both the duo with Monique Buzzarté and the more recent trio recording that came out last year with two musicians I hadn’t heard before. With projects like that, I imagine there’s a whole lot of listening to each other that has to go on in the moment. But before you go into the studio to create work like that, how much pre-planning is there? How much rehearsal?
KN: For the recording Parrhésie with flutist Ida Heidel and pianist Nusch Werchowska, we spent time listening together outside the recording studio and doing slow walks, opening up our ears to the environment and to each other. Then there were certain texts that we might say are an inspiration. Let’s use this for how we focus in, even if the improvisation didn’t contain a specific text. There were some where I’m singing text, but there are some where we had just taken a line and, okay, that’s what we’re going to all focus on. We’d spend a moment, and then we’d go. The pre-planning is different in different situations. With Monique and my work, some of the pieces were completely free in the moment and others had a structure that we had worked out, that had some things fixed in terms of motives or direction or that kind of thing.
FJO: So if you’re doing a tour to promote these albums, what do you do when people ask you to play what’s on the album? You can’t.
KN: Right, not really. But both on my solo album and on the ZANANA album, there are some pieces that we could do. It would be a little different, but they have a structure that is repeatable and you would recognize it as the same piece. But others were just created then and there.
FJO: Now what I found so interesting about the solo album is that in your program notes you described some tracks as being pre-existing electronic pieces that you just sang over when you mixed them in the studio. So they became something else in the moment. It’s a way of taking something that was fixed and permanent and making it more organic and alive.
KN: That’s interesting. I wasn’t thinking about it specifically like that. The voice is always flexible, but the tape—once you’ve got a sound file that’s a fixed sound file—it’s totally inflexible. It’s interesting to me to make a permeation, but also, when I’m working with pre-recorded sound files, I’m processing in the moment often with several files and choosing in that moment: Okay, I’m only going to use this little tiny bit of this file. Now I’m going to expand it to the whole thing. Now I’m going to pitch shift. Now I’m going to delay feedback—pretty basic processing tools, but everything is in the moment so it’s like drawing from a palette that I know. I know the sound files, and I’ll do it in a different mix the next time. It’s like cooking up a different stew.
FJO: At the heart of it all is a spirit of collaboration—even those solo pieces. What I found so interesting about the solo pieces is that you’re collaborating with yourself.
KN: Yeah, on the computer which sometimes gives me things that I’m surprised by, then I get to respond to what it’s given me.
FJO: This is me then; this is me now. You’re in a dialogue with yourself.
FJO: But it also erases this idea: Oh, I’m a composer and I create these masterpieces in my room; I’m not influenced by anybody, and these pieces are completely mine and now you must do what I wrote, for all eternity.
KN: But I have come to a combination of notated and improvised, and I’ve realized I actually have some specific ideas about the improvisation. So in the process of working with another performer, I either give instructions verbally, or I think now I need to add that to my instructions on the score because you’re improvising, but I didn’t really mean that.
FJO: So it’s possible that people can perform things wrong or incorrectly?
KN: It’s possible that they would perform things that aren’t in the range that I would prefer, and then I have to figure out how to re-articulate my preferences.
FJO: Now, to get back to this idea of collaboration. A lot of works—even many of your solo pieces—grew out of works that were collaborative to some extent, since they were created to be presented with film and dance.
KN: And theater.
A laptop and plants peacefully coexist on Norderval’s work desk.
FJO: You’ve done tons of work with Jill Sigman, who is somebody with a very similar aesthetic to yours. Her choreography really comes out of this idea of a raw physicality that is also somehow being altered. I’m thinking of Papoose, which I find wonderful and disturbing at the same time, because it’s doing things with a body that are obviously natural but also somewhat unexpected. It’s almost like what you do when you take your voice and then manipulate it electronically. It’s taking it to another space.
KN: Yeah. Totally. I learn from those collaborations a lot. It opens up ways of thinking about development and processing and contrasts.
FJO: A lot of your pieces don’t involve text, but when you do have a text, you’re also collaborating with the text.
FJO: Going all the way back to that early Emily Dickinson piece of yours again—those words already existed. But you’re adding something to them which theoretically brings certain things out and it also becomes something else in the process. It’s sort of an involuntary collaboration, since she’s not around to collaborate with. Similarly in Nothing Proved, the piece you wrote for Parthenia that you’re in the studio recording this week, you worked with texts by Elizabeth I before she was a queen. Once again, she had no say in the music you composed, since she’s been dead for hundreds of years. But because she wrote that text, it ties your hands in terms of what you can do.
KN: Yes, it does, certainly rhythmically. Well, you could consciously go against the rhythm of speech in terms of accents on syllables, but then it’s going to have a particular effect that you’re ac-cen-ting other sy-lla-bles. I like to keep the intelligibility of the text. Usually there’s something in a particular text that I choose that is already giving me melodic content. I’m hearing some beginning of a motive right away. I have no idea where it comes from. My piece Elegy: for Gaza is from a poem by Timothy O’Donnell; I read that poem in The Nation on the 1 train and it was already singing to me. So I had to do this. I had to find out who this guy is, write to him, and get his permission. There are pieces like that that just jump out. Then, there are other times, like in the opera, where there are certain places I had that relationship but there are also other places where I had to find ways to include a text because it’s important to further the story, or it’s part of the relationship of the characters, and so I had to find a way to deal with a lot more text than I’m usually dealing with in a song cycle or a single work with text.
An excerpt from the score for Norderval’s song cycle Nothing Proved which she performed with the viol consort Parthenia.
FJO: With your opera The Trials of Patricia Isasa, you’re dealing with something else as well.
KN: A living person.
FJO: And a true story.
FJO: A really horrible story that has, I don’t know if I’d call it a happy ending, but at least some resolution.
KN: A victorious ending.
FJO: You said earlier that at first you conceived of a piece for voice and a trashed piano and then it evolved into an opera. I’m curious about that transformation, but also how you first became acquainted with Patricia Isasa’s story and what made you want to create music inspired by it.
KN: I’m going to tell you the long story.
FJO: I love long stories.
KN: As the eldest child of two political scientists, I have always been interested in politics and events in the world. Politics was in our house all the time. So I’ve always been aware and my music has been very centered in wherever we are as a society. But after 9/11 it became even more so. I did a lot of pieces where I felt like I had to give expression to where we are going and why we invaded a country based on lies, why this stuff is happening and there’s no accountability. One of my big pieces that I did in Oslo was a multimedia piece that came out of my disgust over Abu Ghraib and the whole situation with renditions, the kidnapping of people from all kinds of places and sending them off to black sites. And my question was: How is it that Western Europe and North America and all these other nations are going along with this? How does it happen that populations are sucked into agreeing to these policies that are obviously abhorrent and against international law? I researched the torture memos. I started looking at all of the work that the Center for Constitutional Rights was doing. I got a lot of information about what was going on. That piece was a collaboration with Jill, another dancer in Norway, actors, a sculptor, and some other musicians in Europe. At the end of that piece, I felt I knew a lot about torture and wasn’t done with it. It wasn’t enough to explore what it is about us that makes us drawn into groupthink. Was there somewhere I could explore how we see accountability? I was keeping my eyes and ears open for a potential subject.
At some point, I was thinking I wanted to do a piece on Chelsea Manning, but it was before the trial, so it wasn’t a finished story. It was in process. Then in 2010, I heard an interview with Patricia Isasa on Democracy Now where she was recounting her recent victory, in December 2009—successfully prosecuting and convicting six powerful people in Argentina who had been part of renditions, torture, and murder during the Dirty Wars of the military dictatorship. Her case had come 33 years after her abduction. I thought, “Wow, that’s amazing!” Her spirit, her strength of character—she had so much energy, so much conviction, and she got a conviction! So I was inspired by that. I found her website and I wrote to her. And I got a response. The next thing we were writing back and forth. At that point, I didn’t know it was going to be an opera, but I knew I wanted to work with her story somehow. She was coming to New York, and I said, “Come and let’s talk.” And she ended up staying with me. For several days, we just talked and talked and I recorded interviews. Then I started trying to work with those interviews.
At a certain point, I realized that this really is such a big story and such a difficult topic, so it really needs an excellent writer to put this together. So then I was going through who I knew—what plays do I know? I liked the work of Naomi Wallace very much, but I’d never met her. But again, I took cold contact with her through her publisher. She ended up agreeing to a workshop period that I was able to organize in Oslo with a retired dramaturg from the Norwegian [National] Opera. No strings attached. I said, “We’ll work for a week; if we can get something together and we hit it off, we’ll take it further. If we don’t, we all go off and do our own thing.” And she was very generous. It was an amazing process. We came away from the first week with a rough idea of the course that we wanted to look at. We fleshed out what we wanted to center on in the storytelling. I came away with several aria-type texts, and I wrote three character studies. Those three character studies were done by Ensemble Pi; they ended up in the opera pretty much as is. Then the process of working with Naomi over the next year on the full text was great, and it went from there.
FJO: It was very fortuitous that it was staged in Montreal last year during OPERA America’s annual conference, which will hopefully lead to more productions of it in the future. I wish I could have been there for that, but luckily the company put a video recording of the whole thing online which also hopefully will get more people excited about it.
KN: Thank you.
FJO: One of the things I find so fascinating about the opera, and I say this in a positive way, is that in some ways it’s your most conventional piece.
KN: Yes, it is.
FJO: But there’s also something that’s very unconventional about it—the main character is actually three different roles. There are three Patricias. There’s Patricia, the 16-year old who’s abducted. There’s the Patricia of the near present, who manages to get a conviction of these people. And those are two different singing roles on stage, and they even sing duets with each other.
KN: The inner self that is propelling you forward to do something. When Naomi had the first draft of the libretto finished, I went to Argentina and read it through for Patricia. We sat on a roof in Buenos Aires. Where I had little bits of motives, I sang; otherwise, I just read. That was really, really interesting. There were some things that she made comments about, but she could totally relate to this thing of having the two characters. That was good to have her blessing. She had come to one workshop in Oslo, too, before that first draft was finished.
FJO: And then there’s a third Patricia. She’s in the opera as herself as well. In addition to the two singers on stage, documentary footage of the real Patricia’s image and voice is projected to the audience. That definitely makes the story seem more real and more impactful. But there’s also the impact of the actual music, which sounds very different from a lot of your music. There are Argentinian elements in it—tango-ish sounds at times, a bandoneón.
KN: That was partly in response to the text and the subject and partly that I knew I wanted to work with these instruments that would locate it geographically and timewise. I felt like I needed to use the instruments, but I needed to meet them on my own terms. I didn’t want to imitate tangos, but I do have a tango-inspired section in the courtroom because it felt like a dance. It’s a court theater. I listened to a lot of tango and a lot of nuevo tango. I also listened to a lot of other Argentine composers, especially composers that were working with the sounds of Buenos Aires.
FJO: There’s a big debate these days in the visual art community about who has the right to tell someone else’s story. There’s been a huge brouhaha over this abstract painting by Dana Schutz inspired by the famous photo of Emmett Till’s open coffin that’s in the Whitney Biennial. Then there was an installation sculpture that recreated a scaffold that was the site of a massacre of Native Americans that was being set up at the Walker in Minneapolis but was later removed and destroyed with the consent of the artist after protests from members of the Dakota tribe. In our current climate, it’s possible that someone might question a North American’s desire to create a work based on this Latin American story.
KN: I think it’s very much our story because the U.S. was behind the whole Operation Condor that supported all those dictatorships. That comes out in certain places in the opera. The Ford factory was encouraging the military dictatorship to impose certain economic policies, and they used the Ford factory as a place for torture. So it’s very much an American story. My feeling and Naomi Wallace’s feeling was that when we look back at a story about this historical period—and it’s not that far back because 2009, when she got a conviction, is very close—it’s a way of saying this is what happened there and this is what could happen here.
For me, the important part was the accountability part because my concern for us as a nation is that we have had no accountability for an invasion of another country that was based on lies and no accountability for torture. The torture and war programs that are committed in all of our names are also related to our prison industrial complex, our mass incarceration, the fact that it’s only been 50 years since we dismantled the legal apartheid system of Jim Crow in this country. I was ten-years old when interracial marriage was finally legal. That’s crazy. People have been working to try to dismantle that ever since, and that’s the period we’re in now. We’re in the backlash period. We have to look with a big historical overview to see how to deal with those effects and issues with some kind of accountability. That, for me, was the story. And that is our story. That, plus Patricia was involved in the whole thing. So it’s our collective story.
Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.
Jul 1, 2017
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