Tag: teaching

Tyshawn Sorey: Music and Mindfulness

A BIPOC man posing in front of a rehearsal hall door

Tyshawn Sorey’s music emerges from a vast array of experiences, communities, storytelling, and a deep engagement in mentor-mentee relationships. When I listen to his recent works Pillars I, II, III, and Everything Changes, Nothing Changes, I hear imagined worlds and sonic environments that are anchored in numerous histories and traditions. The detailed timbral designs within his compositions amplify a spiritual and creative focus in the music, asking the listener to employ mindfulness, to breathe, and to engage with spontaneity.

Sorey’s creative practice is multifaceted. His musical journey began as a trombone player in New Jersey where he listened to everything from be-bop to hip-hop and country music. He is in regular demand as a new music composer, writing for ensembles such as the International Contemporary Ensemble and the JACK Quartet. As a drummer, Sorey is a fixture on the jazz scene and can be heard performing with artists such as Vijay Iyer, Kris Davis, Marilyn Crispell, and Jason Moran, in addition to leading his own ensembles. Sorey has also developed a unique voice as a pianist and has played piano with artists such as composer/trumpet player Wadada Leo Smith and mrudangam artist Rajna Swaminathan.

Throughout his rigorous career as a composer and performer, Sorey regularly teaches and mentors other artists to support the creation of their own work. This practice has led him to become an assistant professor of music and African American studies at Wesleyan University. It is here, in his new creative home on the Wesleyan campus, that Tyshawn Sorey and I sat down to discuss his history as an educator, his latest works, and his thoughts about the word “improvisation.”

  • You can make so much out of whatever little information that you have on a given page.

    Tyshawn Sorey
  • I’m not going to say, “This is how you should play this note over this chord” or “This is how you should play the saxophone.”

    Tyshawn Sorey
  • Whenever I talk about my own music, I don’t refer to things as improvising versus composing.

    Tyshawn Sorey
  • I want to already be there before I get there.

    Tyshawn Sorey
  • Besides the physical notation, the sheet of paper or whatever, there’s also the psychological notation.

    Tyshawn Sorey

Tyshawn Sorey outside

Playing My Hand: How I Learned to Trust My Composition Teacher

playing cards

Last week, I shared the story of my first year in graduate school as a composition major, and the many transitions I went through during that time, including discovering a new identity as a musician. This post is all about my second year of graduate school, and how I learned to trust my composition teacher and become a better teacher myself. But first: the summer!

I spent most of the summer between my first and second years alone, in the dorms, in my bathrobe, writing a song cycle and a band piece. I was broke, but I slept eight to ten hours a night with regularity. I walked on the beach of Lake Michigan on sunny days, visited family up north and friends in Chicago, took my time learning a lovely and very difficult vibraphone solo in order to premiere it, and watched a ton of movies with my wonderful and hilarious roommate (a fellow grad student in the music school). Overall it was a time of resting, and it went by really fast. I gained confidence in my ability to make it through this degree and graduate, all while still maintaining a professional career and applying to doctoral programs.

Being a student made me want to teach again more than anything I’ve ever wanted.

And yet, I wondered if my new composition teacher (my third teacher of the degree) would just try to make me sound like them, as a teacher during my first year had done. Being pushed to completely depart from my own voice had given me existential anxiety, and I was afraid I’d be asked to do that again, for my thesis. A few days before classes started, I happened across the professor who was supposed to be my main composition teacher for the year ahead, and he told me that he wasn’t taking on any new students and that I had been placed in another studio. When he told me who my new teacher would be, I was surprised and excited, and thought, “Great! I don’t really know him personally at all, but I do know based on his work that there are so many things I can learn from this man.” Taking the advice of a composer who had also gone back to school in her 30s, I registered and interviewed with the Accessibility Resources Center, to get time accommodations for the Theory Comprehensive Exams and discuss other possibly needed accommodations. I have a learning disability and mental illness, which is a great cocktail for extreme heartburn and anxiety during tests that determine whether I graduate or not, in subjects that are eye-bleedingly difficult for me. I figured having a history with the ARC would be helpful for my time in a doctoral program as well, where I will certainly be in several high-pressure test situations, and where I will encounter a lot of stress.

Once the school year started, I still played in band and percussion ensemble (but less), and I took conducting lessons on top of my very full class schedule, which included Digital Synthesis, Music History Seminar, a theory class, and lessons. I was busting my butt with college applications, I had a big trip to San Francisco coming up for a world premiere, doctoral applications were all due at the same time, I had a commission due, and I needed to keep knocking out my thesis. Four weeks into the semester, I got sick and disappeared for a week. I had to withdraw from History Seminar (it was the most stressful, busy-work class) for mental health reasons, which included filling out a bunch of papers.  The second semester was a breeze in comparison. My heart stopped cracking like a walnut every time I thought of teaching at my old college or heard from my students. I was ADJUSTING. My grad band staff comrades were lifesavers. We had an office all together: Percussion TA, Band Librarian, Conductor, Tech Guy, etc. We had a blast, partied together, and practiced together.

And I loved composition lessons with my new teacher. I was given some great advice from a mentor, which I kept in mind: “Keep your cards to your chest. Never let them see your whole hand.” I had plenty of practice doing this during my first year, so it was easy this time around.

There I was, age 38, second year of my master’s degree, finding out for the first time what it was like to have weekly lessons with a supportive, enthusiastic, encouraging teacher that I trusted.

Right from the beginning, I could tell my teacher and I would get along: he was a drummer too, and had been everywhere and done everything. He was one of these modest people, where you keep opening doors with them and a thousand more doors are behind those. He was very fun and funny, enthusiastic, full of ideas, and our lessons went until somebody had to leave—sometimes two hours. I checked out my hand, laid down a single card…and nothing bad happened. We kept working on music, and I decided to write a percussion trio for my thesis. I laid down another card, and asked if he would write recommendation letters for my college applications. He said yes, so I sent him my C.V. and he read it. Something new clicked; it was like suddenly he “got” the amount and variety of experience I had had in music so far. Finally! Someone took the time to get to know me and my history. So I started to trust the guy. He came up with lists of music for me to listen to and scores to read and pieces to try out or exercises to do. He saw my strengths and weaknesses and helped develop both, pushing me the appropriate amount if I needed pushing, helping me expand my sound universe. My thesis started to come together! He came to some rehearsals of the piece and was incredibly supportive at my graduate composition recital. My lessons were the highlight of the week, all year long. So there I was, age 38, second year of my master’s degree, finding out for the first time what it was like to have weekly lessons with a supportive, enthusiastic, encouraging teacher that I trusted.

Entering my master’s degree, it never crossed my mind that I would learn anything new about teaching. I had a good handle on being a teacher! It turns out there was still a lot to learn. Being back behind a student desk after eight years in front of the classroom was an eye-opener. I observed the hell out of each of my teachers. I understood everything the professors said from both a teacher’s perspective and from my own perspective as a student. The new percussion instructor became a friend, and I watched him handle the percussion studio extremely well, but in a very different way than I did when I was teaching. I had an analysis teacher who transformed material I was disinterested in into something incredibly interesting. Thinking back to when I was a teacher, I felt like this: a student’s enthusiasm is life, and a student’s apathy is death. So I did everything I could to create an atmosphere of challenging, joyful, fun learning. I knew a good teacher when I saw one. There were many here. There were also some who made the material, and the class, all about themselves. I gave unsolicited feedback to professors more than once, when I saw they were talking over the students and not listening to us. Perhaps this ruffled some feathers but I absolutely did not care, because I found out exactly how passionate I was about the joys of learning from a great teacher. It must be an enormous joy to watch a student’s music develop and blossom over time, and I discovered just how much I’d love to become someone’s composition teacher. Being a student made me want to teach again more than anything I’ve ever wanted.

Do you need a doctorate in composition?

A person taking notes, with a white mug in the background
Do you need a doctorate in composition? No, you don’t. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have value.

In the nearly twenty years that I have been teaching composition at universities and conservatories, the most common question I am asked by students not already in doctoral programs is which ones they should apply to. The assumption of these young composers is that the next logical or expected step in the progression of their musical development is to seek an advanced degree in a field where the degree itself is becoming both more ubiquitous and less powerful.

When I ask young composers why they want to earn a doctorate, the almost inevitable response is, “Because I want to teach.” That is indeed an admirable reason to do so. Additional issues such as performance and networking opportunities and some abstract sense of the recognition and approval that a doctorate will bestow are also often mentioned. While there is some merit to these expectations, I believe they are mostly misguided.

For decades, the availability of full-time, tenure-track composition jobs has been dwindling, with the decrease greatly exacerbated by the onset of the 2008 financial crisis. During this time, administrators in higher education facing smaller budgets due to reduced state funding, shrinking endowments, and less generous alumni donors sought to make up the difference. They did so by employing larger pools of part-time adjunct faculty who could be paid far less than their full-time counterparts with few or no benefits and no job security. As the financial markets later soared to record levels of growth, the number of full-time professorships did not follow. Consequently, the majority of my colleagues who teach composition or related music courses do so in the precarious conditions described above. These teachers are extremely qualified and dedicated; their students are lucky to work with them. But for anyone trying to eek out a living on the wages earned as an adjunct or short-term contract instructor (particularly in an expensive metropolitan area where new music activity is concentrated) struggles significantly. These exploitative teaching positions are often spread out over multiple campuses requiring travel and the time spent counseling students, correcting homework and papers, and dealing with university bureaucracy steals precious time needed to compose. Anyone considering a doctorate for the reason that they want to teach should be aware of these realities and that the competition for the few stable jobs that are offered is extremely fierce.

library

Image: Vlad Kutepov

A more immediate financial consideration for young composers seeking a doctorate is the cost of the degree and the means needed to live during the years that it takes to complete the classwork, exams, and dissertation. While many universities and conservatories offer composer fellowships that waive tuition and offer a modest stipend, usually in exchange for teaching, these are limited, often to just a couple a year. Of course, these cannot accommodate the hundreds of qualified students who apply for composition doctorates every year and many students are faced with the possibility of large debts after completing their studies. No student should be put in this position and I strongly advise against paying for these degrees. While it is not uncommon for young professionals to leave graduate school with substantial debt, the fields outside the humanities more consistently offer starting salaries beyond living wages in addition to health and retirement benefits. Because there are very few such opportunities available to recent composition graduates, it makes no sense to accrue a large debt that may take decades to repay.

There are also some young composers who feel that they have not received sufficient preparation in order to enter the field. They believe that an advanced degree will provide the training and knowledge that they lack. A graduate program in composition would serve these students well but not at the expense of crushing debt that would be shouldered if the student needed to pay for tuition. In these cases, I recommend that students seek out individuals for private lessons. Because there are so many highly-qualified musicians that do not have full-time academic jobs, many are willing to teach privately. The cost of these lessons is a fraction of graduate tuition and offers much more flexibility with regard to teachers and scheduling.

What does substantially help composers, perhaps more than anything, is making personal connections with members of the musical community.

In my experience, no ensemble, soloist, or presenter has ever reconsidered a commission or programming opportunity for a composer due to a lack of academic credentials. It seems true that certain prizes and fellowships give some limited weight to one’s academic background, but it is always subsidiary to the music under consideration.

What does substantially help composers, perhaps more than anything, is making personal connections with members of the musical community. By interacting and collaborating with fellow musicians, pooled talents and resources sum to much more than individual parts. I always encourage young composers to attend as many concerts as possible and politely and humbly engage the performers and audience members during and after the show. Chance and sought out connections can yield deep, meaningful, and even lifetime relationships that can have profound creative and intellectual impact.

I understand that for many the access to such communities may be limited due to geographical or financial constraints. Additionally, it can be socially and professionally daunting for some to join circles to which they do not already belong. In these circumstances the communities may be created from within, as has often been the case in the past. Some examples include the artists that formed Der Blaue Reiter, the Scratch Orchestra, and the San Francisco Tape Music Center.

There are positive attributes of academic programs, to be sure. Especially when coming from a place where interactions with like-minded musicians are limited, enrolling in a music program can provide incredible stimulation and camaraderie with peers and mentors. Opportunities to work with fellow students and guests in performances and presentations are extremely valuable, as is the teaching experience that comes with fellowships. The positive impact that access to a dedicated music library can have on a developing composer is undeniable. And hopefully the courses and private instruction will enlighten and expand one’s own musical outlook.

So while there is value in attending a graduate program in composition, it is not a panacea for career advancement and future job security. It is wise to consider what one wants and realistically what a composition doctorate can offer before assuming that it is the only path forward.

Milford Graves: Sounding the Universe

It is difficult to place Milford Graves into a category. He is lauded as a master drummer of the 1960s avant-garde jazz scene, credited with inventing the martial arts form yara, and is established as both an herbalist and acupuncturist in New York City. Additionally, Graves is a passionate researcher of human biology and brings that knowledge to all of his work.

Milford Graves’s music career began with improvisation. As a young kid, he taught himself to play by experimenting with the sounds he could make on a drum set in the foyer of his home in Jamaica, Queens. His professional career began around 1961 with the McKinley-Graves Band, a funky Latin jazz ensemble he co-led in the neighborhood.  The following year, he led the Milford Graves Latino Quintet with pianist Chick Corea, bassist Lyle Atkinson, conga artist Bill Fitch, and saxophonist Pete Yellen. His career accelerated to place him in the New York Art Quartet, which led him to create two independently released records with pianist Don Pullen. By his mid-twenties, Graves was recognized by artists such as Philly Jo Jones, Elvin Jones, and Max Roach as a drummer with an innovative approach to the instrument, as well as a unique voice in the music scene. His residency at Slugs in 1967 with Albert Ayler is still discussed among musicians today, as is his performance with Ayler at John Coltrane’s funeral.  Graves went on to teach at Bennington College for 39 years and is recognized as professor emeritus by the institution.

Yet, to understand his music one must also inquire into the full scope of his creative pursuits.  Within athletic communities he is known for bringing his ambidextrous drumming into the martial arts through the creation of yara, an improvised martial art that focuses on flexibility and dexterity.  Graves taught yara at his studio in Queens from 1971 to 2000. Similarly, numerous people have visited Graves over the years for his acupuncture practice and to study herbalism. During my first lesson with Graves, he used software that he engineered to record my heartbeat and play back a melody that was derived from my EKG.

When I was first introduced to Milford Graves’s work, I defaulted to the mode of thinking I was accustomed to—that of genre. Even as I was searching for a concept of universal music, I couldn’t help but perceive Graves’s polymathic interests within the stilted categories of martial arts, herbalism, and avant-garde jazz. As I spent more and more time with the artist, I became increasingly unsatisfied with my understanding of his work. Graves employs the scientific method and a vast understanding of biology within his music. He draws connections between analog and digital motions—continuous motions vs. striking different points—in both the martial arts and drumming. He publishes essays, creates works of sculpture, and has recently played drums in a live experiment for non-embryonic stem cells. Yet, this is merely a list of actions taken, and I have long felt that each one is an expression of something much more profound. As I prepared for my recent conversation with Graves, I identified three fundamentals that permeate his work: energy, freedom, and healing.

Miford Graves and Aakash Mittal

Miford Graves and Aakash Mittal

Energy

At its core, Milford Graves’s work sculpts energy. This became evident to me during a previous visit to his house when he was doing some healing work on one of his martial arts students. Graves had recorded the electrical signal from an injured muscle and was feeding the signal back to the damaged tissue with the aid of an acupuncture needle and some wire. The goal was to aid the healing process by using electrical stimulation and specific harmonic frequencies to regenerate the damaged tissue. While this was taking place, we were simultaneously listening to a sonificiation of the damaged tissue’s signal using software Graves had coded. He explained to me that the sound of the speaker, the image of the waveform, and the electricity in the needle were all different expressions of the same signal. This was a revelatory moment for me with regard to understanding Graves’s work. Each of the disciplines he utilizes functions as an expression of energy. That energy can manifest kinetically through the martial arts or sonically on the drum set. The kinetic motion of yara can be applied with sticks in hand to a cymbal, creating a sonification of the martial arts form itself. Similarly the vibration of the drums can be translated into soundless motion. Graves utilizes this approach among his various interests. In his essay “Music Extensions of Infinite Dimensions,” which was published in John Zorn’s anthology Arcana V, Graves concludes with a statement about the importance of consuming watercress and parsley in order to “transmit high quality solar energy into the biological system.” In his work, Graves applies the relationship of eating food to creating electricity within the body, a process that also pumps the heart and sounds the drum. Whether he is tending his garden, practicing acupuncture, or playing improvised music, Milford Graves approaches each activity as a harmonic of the same fundamental.

Freedom

Milford Graves’s drumming is often associated with the “free-jazz” movement of the 1960s. On the surface, this is often described as a freedom from the previous era’s harmonic structure and traditional forms. When I further explored that musical community, it became evident that the word freedom was used in a much larger context. Among the freedoms that emerge are freedom of thought, freedom of the spirit, and freedom of sound. Albums such as John Coltrane’s Intersteller Space and Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity traversed the boundaries of music and entered the realm of trance experience and conceptual journey. Within this context, Milford Graves offered a unique perspective on freedom. Through his understanding of the fundamentals of energy, Graves’s music incorporates a freedom of motion that stretches beyond traditional audience/performer dynamics. In the New York jazz scene today, a story circulates about the time Milford Graves picked up John Zorn mid-solo and carried him around the stage while Zorn continued improvising. Through the improvised use of his voice and storytelling, Graves’s performances come across as a joyous ritual that loosens up the listener and offers the first step down the path of freedom. The experience of Graves’s multidisciplinary work suggests a freedom from the limiting nature of our mind, which is compelled to categorize and shape the world around us. As Graves re-harmonizes those shapes and brings us back to the fundamental, I believe we are given a glimpse of what true freedom means.

Healing

Artists frequently talk about the healing power of music, but it rarely goes beyond simple conversation. Milford Graves has taken it upon himself to do the research behind it. As I learn more about Graves’s work, I find that his use of energy and freedom is often purposed for healing. His understanding of a listener’s automatic sub-vocalization and the effect the vibrating tympanic membrane (part of the ear drum) can have on other organs informs his improvisations. This results in musical performances that could be perceived as a sonic massage as well as a concert. In this way, Graves is successfully bridging scientific, artistic, and spiritual methodologies in order to free people from societal constraints and remind them of the energy that already exists within. This leads us to what I find to be one of the most challenging aspects of understanding his work. Rather than contributing a body of compositions to an archive or entertaining audiences with his virtuosity, Graves is primarily interested in collaborating with biology itself. This results in a music that mutates, adapts, and transforms in the same manner that our heartbeat fluctuates in reaction to our bloodstream or our various organs create a polyrhythm of life processes.  Janina Wellmann writes in her book The Form of Becoming that “[t]he tension of organic life finds temporary resolutions in rhythm, but always, in its onward aspiration, points forward into the future.” Graves’s work draws from the rhythms of movement, energy, and sound to support transformation and propel the journey forward.

The pathway outside Milford Graves's home.

Creative Spaces

I walk up toward Milford Graves’s house on a chilly and grey day in January. Among a row of ordinary houses and barren twisted trees sits a single house decorated with a mosaic of colored stones and glass that ascends the walls and accentuates the windows. In a recent public interview with Graves, the writer John Corbett referred to this house as a secular “temple.” The house is a work of art in and of itself. From a distance the designs appear to be geometric, but on a closer inspection each mosaic is filled with frenetic momentum and the unique shape of each piece hints of arrhythmia. The golden ratio—expressed as a nautilus shell—is painted next to the front door. It is a meeting place for creative people from various disciplines and walks of life brought together by Milford Graves. I know from my previous visits that I need to approach our conversation as an improviser rather than as an interviewer. Before entering the house, I meditate on the one question I want to approach within our talk: how does Milford Graves utilize music, the martial arts, and biology to sculpt energy, gain freedom, and create healing in the world? Then I open the door and walk inside.


January 11, 2018 at 10:00 a.m.
Milford Graves in conversation with Aakash Mittal
Video and photography by Molly Sheridan
With performance footage courtesy Jake Meginsky and Neil Young
Transcription by Julia Lu

Aakash Mittal:  I was watching a trailer for the new documentary about your work, I believe it’s called Milford Graves Full Mantis, and there are some clips in there of you doing yara. I think one might even have been in the yard over here.

Milford Graves:  Yeah, one was in the yard, and the other one was in the back before it was changed.

AM:  You had this motion going on.  I can’t even describe it.  It was fluid, but in your control.

MG:  Oh, no.  That was in Japan when some Japanese musicians were doing a form of martial arts they call shintaido.  They wanted to see what yara was, so we went out in this little area there. I said, “This would be a great area, with the bamboo background.” And I did my motion, because it was on a little slope there. That’s when I went down and disappeared.  The ground wasn’t even, so your balance had to be right because it was uneven.

AM:  That’s really cool.  What it reminded me of was the last time we talked, you were talking about the yawning reflex and the relaxed state, and creating from a place you call the parasympathetic nervous system—how you have to have that relaxed yawn feeling and the sound that comes with it, and you’re thinking about that in your sound. When I saw that video clip, it felt like you were moving in that same way.

MG:  Well, it had something to do with the physiological process. However, that was 1977 and I was just happy to be in Japan and to be around the element I was around—and the people. It was such a great feeling when people from the Far East would come and then martial artists—Chinese, Japanese, and Korean martial artists. Here I am in the Far East putting on a little demonstration.  I have to be very relaxed. People had a much more linear and stiff style of motion.  Shintaido was much more relaxed, but people were doing aikido, so I said, “You gotta be relaxed.”  I just didn’t have the stress factor.  I felt like being in New York.  You look at other martial artists watching you, and you see their facial expressions: “What is that stuff? That’s not tradition.”  I looked out there, and I saw some serious-looking people watching me and some smiles, and that was it.  That was my physiological system: just to relax.

AM:  So were they into it?  What was their reaction?  You said that they were smiling?  Did you get any feedback?

MG:  Well, I was invited as a special guest for them, to demonstrate improvisation and to play with Japanese musicians.  So students were watching the kind of movement I was doing because of the rhythm.  They had to connect that with the music, because of the way I would play. So I think their interest was: “If he’s not playing his drums, what kind of motion will he be doing in martial arts?”  And they were able to ride with it.  They took the ride with me.  And I think that’s why they were smiling.  It was like, this is how you do it—not so much martial arts but ARTS.  There was an art to it.  You take the military aspect out, the fighting aspect out, and just see an artist doing it without trying to be correct from an intellectual or science perspective.

AM:  You’re able to distill out just the creative art form: the movement.

MG:  Right.  The fundamental.  If you want to deal with the harmonics on the fundamental, then you can take that and become a ballroom dancer, a concert stage dancer, or you can become someone who wants to deal with the fighting aspect of it.  But that’s just the harmonics.  I was dealing with the fundamental.  Now how do you want to shape the fundamental or the harmonics you were dealing with from the fundamental?  The fundamental is to get your body just to relax so you can focus.  Then I said okay, I can take from this fundamental, I can use it in really different ways.

AM:  So the harmonics are the form that the fundamental shapes itself into.

MG:  Right.

AM:  That seems like another connection between the way you’re thinking about martial arts in a universal manner, as well as music and all the other activities that you’re a part of.

MG:  Yes.

AM:  You’re not even thinking about them idiomatically.  You’re dealing with it in terms of what is the fundamental, what are the harmonic shapes, whatever the practice is.

MG:  Right.  That’s it.  You have a harmonic, but you may not be able to do all the other shapes, because you don’t understand the fundamental.

AM:  Sorry, that’s just mind blowing already.  How do you understand what the fundamental is of what you were doing physically there?  Maybe it’s not even about the physical; maybe it’s about something else.

“Resistance is the thing that makes you feel like you’re struggling to do what you do.”

MG:  First of all, you’re not feeling any resistance.  Resistance is the thing that makes you feel like you’re struggling to do what you do.  That’s the most basic thing.  It’s like at the point when you’re tired.  You’re just real tired, and you’re in a standing position. We’ve all experienced this.  You may sit down in a chair and say, “Ahh.”  But then you move—“ahh, eeh, ahh”—and say, “You know what, I have to get into bed.”  And when you get into that bed, “AAH.”  This is it.  Just before the point where you’re asleep, if something falls off the table, or somebody knocks on your door hard, or you hear somebody screaming outside, you can jump up real fast and be alert.  But if you were sound asleep, someone would say to you, “Didn’t you hear that person outside? They were in danger.  They were screaming.”  You don’t want to get to that point in your relaxation.  So when I’ve got that feeling I’m in my bed but I can still respond, that’s when I know it’s happening.  I get to that point where I’m standing up like that, I’m in a vertical position, and I want to get to almost horizontal. I almost get there, but I’m just dangling.  I feel so good.  But raargh!—[I can] just shoot on out, right from there.

AM:  And do you get into that same relaxed state when you’re playing drums?

MG:  Yes.  That’s when you can achieve the full energy that I deal with.

AM:  You were saying that when you were in Japan doing that particular demonstration, they were wanting to see how an artist would translate it. They knew you as a musician, and they wanted to see how it translated into what you did physically in martial arts.

MG:  Yeah, because they knew I did that.

AM:  So how has the martial arts practice influenced your drum playing?

MG:  A few years ago I had a very abstract answer.  I said, “Well just do it, and you will find out.”  It was very abstract.  You know, that’s the way you clean up when you can’t really precisely say.  Well, the kind of martial arts that I wanted to develop was based on my experience as a teenager and in my early stages of growing up in the area here, South Jamaica, and then moving into the housing projects when I was eight or nine-years old.  Before I did that, we had little kid wrestling, because I grew up around a family that was called a very tough family—large people, close to 20 people in the family.  And they had a military life. At least one was a sergeant in the Army, so he came home and the house was like a military barracks, so it was rough and tough.  Then when I got to the housing project, we had these body punching arts. We played basketball, but then when the basketball game was over, everybody said, “Sham battle!”  Everybody started getting up there punching each other in the arms and chest. The face was off limits, but when somebody was getting frustrated because they couldn’t punch you in the chest, they would sneak and punch you right in the jaw and almost a real fight would take place.  But you participated in these things because if you didn’t, you should have stayed off the playground. Maybe four guys would grab you and stretch you out and punch you all in the arms and muscles and stuff like that.  So basketball was tough and rough.  It wasn’t like the rules you played by when you played in high school or college ball when you’ve got a referee.  You know, you got hacked.  If you drove through, if you did a drive to the basket, all this fancy stuff, all these turns and angle movements they’d be doing, it was rough to do that because they’d knock you down and really try to hurt you.  And they’d say, “Don’t come here driving like that again. We’re not going to let you look good.”

I remember a whole lot of experiences.  One of the things that I got out of that was I’m not afraid to get up there and sham battle.  There were guys around us who physically were intimidating.  They had the muscles and always kept certain kinds of facial expressions.  And they had that kind of voice, like the bully guys.  When you’re sitting in the basketball court at the housing project, you may have 15 or 20 guys out there.  And they would come over and say, “Come on, let’s sham box.”  And you were hesitant, but then you say to yourself, “Well, it’s not a real fight.  So this guy’s not going to hurt me.”  And I found that some guys that I thought were real tough guys, they weren’t tough guys.  They just psychologically gave you that impression. So it gave me confidence.  When you don’t participate and you just look at images, it could be intimidating.  You have to participate in the event to see what it’s about.

So when I did the martial arts, I said, “This is going to be just beyond a fighting situation.  I’m going to set this up. I want to set up a system where people truly become their so-called warrior within.”  You get to the point where you really intimidate people. I used to get people to come in and some of my students said they trusted me.  They said, “I don’t think you would hurt me.”  And even with that said, I would scare people.  I would take them down. I’d do a takedown, a wrestling technique: I’d get on top of them and put my chest across their face.  They said, “Professor, I can’t breathe; you’re smothering me.” But they were more intimidated by the fact of the potential than that they thought they wouldn’t be able to breathe.

I watched the mixed martial arts UFC.  I just like to see how people react to any kind of danger.  And you see these tough guys come up, and they get in bad positions sometimes.  They get in these chokehold positions, and somebody said, “Wow, they tapped out real fast because they potentially panicked.”

This is beyond fighting, in a sense. How do you react when that crisis comes?  How do you react when pain comes to your body from an illness?  Do you run out to the doctor right away?  Or do you go internally and try to control that pain?  I see people go out to meditate. They think if you do these chants, you can meditate the pain away.  Yeah, that’s easily said, but put a person in a pain position, and then tell them to try to chant and meditate, and see if it works.  So, it’s non-functional.  I try to make it more functional.  Put a person in that position, and I can tell by the pressure, they can breathe.  But they’re seeing potentially, “Wow, I may not be able to breathe.”  Then I’ll let them relax a little and then I’ll let them come back.  The second time they’re not so quick to say that; they try to see how to get out of this.

So I’ve used that as a situation, for you to be attacked by a foreign agent in a sense.  And a foreign agent could be from pathology.  It could be bacteria.  It could be a virus.  So when you get this thing, you don’t panic.  You say, “Okay, well, I think I can handle this.  I can deal with this.”  Then you can release what you have inside.

But to do these different kind of so-called art forms, to be able to increase your thought process or neuroplasticity, you have to put yourself in the position whereas you’re not intellectualizing on it.  So that’s what I did with the arts—martial arts.  It wasn’t just to go out there to say, “Well, I can fight.  I can hurt somebody.  I can protect myself.”  It was beyond that.  I wanted you to have a confrontation with something that was real.  Instead of you being a one-cell organism or a piece of DNA—we’re talking bacteria, funguses, viruses—think of yourself as a multi-cellular piece of bacteria or virus. When you see that person in front of you, or that competition you’re going to have in a sparring session, you have to look at each other.  If you touch the body, it’s like therapeutic massage or active massage.  So when you get on the floor, you don’t say, “Oh, that’s my enemy.”

“I wanted you to have a confrontation with something that was real.”

When you see somebody, sometimes it’s somebody you may know, sometimes, somebody you may not know.  A lot of times you say, “Are you feeling okay?”  And the person says, “Well, I’m not feeling too good today.”  I say, “Yes, I noticed that.  You just don’t look like you.  Is there something bothering you?  Are you sick?  Are you going through any emotional stress?”  What do you do when somebody’s like that?  You give them some advice.  Maybe you need a great medicinal soup.  Take some herbs, you know. Or you need some rest. Or if they’re stressed out from some kind of other factors, [you tell them] don’t let that bug you.  That happened to me before.  This is how I mostly calm myself down.  So the martial arts come, and we’re supposed to look at each other and we’re supposed to say, “You know what, I think you need a massage treatment.”  When we test the body, or we grab the body, and hit certain points and grab certain points, you’re not doing a destructive touch.  I’m trying to massage them back in again. And when it’s over, both people will look at each other and say, “Thank God. I feel great. I feel good.”

If you’re out there in the street, you don’t have to destroy anybody.  You’re a healing martial artist, a constructive martial artist, not a destructive martial artist.  The softer forms like tai chi, some people don’t think it’s a fighting form. By the way, you just don’t do tai chi.  You may put some aikido in there.  You have to mix it, the different martial arts styles. You can’t get just locked into one style, because all of them have some value.  If in a confrontation, if somebody is in the street and grabs you, the philosophy I have is that I may stop that person, grab him up, touch certain points and then melt him right down, sedate him.  If you use acupuncture when you’re doing acupuncture massage for a tonification or sedation, you’ve got to know when to tonify somebody, you’ve got to know when to sedate somebody.  In this case, it’s not so much tonifying somebody, because if somebody’s aggressive, they don’t need to be tonified.  They need to be sedated.  So there are ways just to sedate, but if you don’t understand the healing aspect or the constructive aspect, then you’re not going to know how to sedate somebody in a real confrontation.  You just don’t want to be somebody who learns a martial art to go out and be a bully and hurt somebody.  I think that’s wrong.

Various bottles herbs in tinctures that Milford Graves keeps in his home.

AM:  You’ve talked about before how with music, it’s just changing the pressure in the air, and that affects the tympanic membrane.  I’m curious if the way you’re thinking about massaging physically also happens sonically, or if you’re thinking about that at all in terms of the way the sound might massage either the mind or, through the energy, maybe even the body.

GM:  Okay, we need to backtrack to answer that question with the martial arts and the playing. Two things were said to me by the Japanese.  One was a photographer.  He was a great photographer, I thought; everybody thought he was great.  He used to follow me around Japan.  This was about 1981, but he [first] saw me four years earlier in ’77.  I came back to do this solo and he came over to me and said, “Wow. Before you were very good, but now, you’re much better.”  I said, “I would hope so.  I hope I’m developing after four years.”  And then he made this statement, “You’re so fluid—relaxed and so fluid.”

The second guy who said it to me was one of the [most] respected Japanese internal martial artists who was an official representative for internal martial arts, Chinese martial arts.  He came to the performance, that same one in 1981.  He came back stage, and he said, “You do every punch there is to do in Chinese martial arts.”  He looked at my flow and he thought it was from martial arts.  And I said, “Okay, so what I used to do was instead of doing—again—a nonfunctional tai chi, just getting up in the air and doing certain kinds of movements, I would get down to my drum set and I’d go—ting-raww—frapt!—I would keep that whole flow and go around.  If I was doing a sword technique, I would practice my sword stuff and with the strokes like—thwap!—like this here.  There I would exchange a stick, so if I’m hitting down here—pop!—and hitting the cymbal—shhhap!—the strokes like this here.  I was directing the energy in a very precise, meaningful way, so they helped each other out.  I would hit the sound and just get it, make it go like—rat-a-tat-a-rot-a-toko!

So that’s how I was interchanging them.  I was using the form, because with both things, I’m using body motion.  The photographer enjoyed me from imagining just the flow, and said, “Oh wow, the way he’s flowing.”  [The other guy] saw that and he thought of martial arts.  One of the guys I met from the aikido family over there wanted me to play talking drum and do some drumming stuff for his aikido class.  They wanted to be able to do the movements of the drummers.  They realized it was a rhythm thing that was missing, you know.  I was doing it in a very empty way; that was just timing.  It was putting me on a timer, so that’s how I locked all that in.

One of Milford Graves's drums on a shelf in a bookcase underneath two rows of books which is next to a Japanese scroll.

AM:  Ah, so he saw the martial arts in your drumming. When you’re playing drums, do you think of it as the word I learned when I was doing karate—the kata, which is like the pre-composed form that you have to work through? You’re improvising, so maybe you don’t think about it that way.

GM:  Well, you don’t fight with kata, you don’t use a kata.  That’s not a fighting form.  As an artist, a performing artist, a stage artist, some people think the performance starts when you come out on stage.  So if you’re a dancer, it’s the first steps you do.  If you’re an instrumentalist, it’s the first sound that comes out of your instrument.  But the performance starts, it could be a day before, two days before, three days before.  When you come on that stage, it starts before you even make one motion.  When you’re coming out there, you have to be generating as soon as you walk out on that stage.  The worst thing I see is people come out and start distributing their music charts to people on stage.  The audience is watching that!  Even if you fix your horn, if you’re touching your horn, you have to do it in a way that has theater and drama to it.

The way I interpret kata is I would go from a so-called hard style to a soft style.  I would come and I would do hard karate.  I’d come out—Eeuuooahh!—to show I had that look.  And I see people like, “Whoah!”  They flinch out, because it looks like I’m going to rip you out; I’m going to go through you.  I say [sings phrase].  Bah.  And so kata is like an eagle posture.  A kata is to get your attention.  It’s not fighting or a block.  You’re only doing that to set somebody up.  They see that door or they see this fist; that’s what kata is.  Look at me! It’s almost like hypnotizing them.  And you do just the opposite.  It’s not hard or hard, it’s hard-soft, soft-hard.  You may look just like you’re very soft then—bam!—you come out like this here.  You see?  So tai chi you may be like this here, but inside you’re ready to explode.  If you see a nuclear bomb or you stand next to a nuclear bomb, it looks like it can’t do anything.  But if you set the trigger mechanism off, my gracious, look at the damage.  I say, do you know internally what’s in that nuclear bomb and the damage you can do?  That’s tai chi.  The real internal arts.  You’re ready to explode.  And sometimes you look like you’re going to explode. That’s the whole process that goes on inside.  Everything is moving very quick.

AM:  So the performance begins with the energy inside of you.

GM:  Right.

AM:  Days before the performance.

GM:  Right.  Right.  Get ready.

Various computer monitors in Milford Graves's studio.

AM:  How do you cultivate that energy?  I know that’s something you think about, because you’ve written about it in an essay in terms of food. What you’re consuming matters. You’re also talking about a lot of heavier stuff there, in terms of energy and relationships.

GM: I find myself talking to more people about this now.  I tell people, “Why are you doing what you do?” when people come and they want to do this.  They want to elevate to this level, that level, and then all they have to do is say one thing to me, “I’ve got to see how I can make some money off of this.”  Then I say, “You’re not going to do it then. You don’t really have a divine, deep commitment.”

“People are trusting musicians to do the same thing the cook’s doing.”

Some things you do may not make a lot of money because you’ve got to be dedicated towards doing it.  You’ve got to know why you’re doing it.  You’ve got to know the importance of what you’re doing.  As far as music and being a musician, I tell people, “Why do you play music?  What’s your purpose?  If you’re going to play music and just use it as a mechanism to be able to pay your rent and all of that, I have no problem with that.  Only time I have a problem is when you tell me you want to reach this so-called cosmic or celestial higher level.  You know what I mean?  You want to get people to be able to visualize and transform in this kind of state and that kind of state?”  I say, “You’re not going to do it like that, because you’re going to fail to realize your importance.”

You go to a restaurant. I don’t think people realize when they walk through that door in a restaurant: you’re not cooking your own food.  Someone else is cooking that food. You’re trusting that person in that kitchen to be correct. You don’t know exactly what they’re doing.  If you’re a chef, cook, whatever, you’ve got to say, “Wait a minute, these people are coming here and I’m making food for them to be able to put inside of their bodies to allow them to maintain their life processes that require certain nutrients.  I’ve got to be responsible here.  These people are trusting me.”

As a musician, what do you think you’re doing? Are you trying to win a critics’ poll or get a Grammy? I think people are trusting us, trusting the musicians to do the same thing the cook’s doing.  They want their vibratory system to be fed.  They’re coming in there, you know what I mean?  You got your food, that’s why you see the combinations of restaurants having a band in there sometimes.  And it’s got to be a band that doesn’t cause you to regurgitate your food, or get a spasm in your esophagus because it’s too crazy.  So they want more soft, cooled-out music.  They have nice relaxing music with people eating.  That combination’s always been there—that mouth and that ear have always worked as a combinational thing there.  So you’ve got to get that ear vibrating. We’re vibrators.  You know?  You’re not a saxophone player; you’re not a drummer.  We are there to make that ear drum vibrate, to convert [the sound] into electrical energy.  The brain gets it. Ah, okay, now we’re cool.  We can do our job, man.  And we can energize the whole body.

Once you realize that, then you’re going to say, “I have an obligation.  I have a responsibility.  People are trusting me.”  You do a concert, you see people coming into the hall sitting around, they’re coming in to say, “Turn me on.  Feed me.  I’m here.”  If you come over there to trip on yourself, you’re this person without knowing that you have a responsibility to keep the folks vibrating.  If they vibrate, then maybe the whole planet will all vibrate.  Any culture that wipes out the arts is in trouble, and I think we’re seeing that right here with young kids in school and how they’re taking the arts out.  We’re wiping the whole vibratory system out.

In one area in Graves's studio there is a diagram of hands, a photo of fingers, and an anatomical model of a human body.

AM:  I appreciate how you talk about arts education in medical terms, how it is essential. One of the problems in our culture is we are taught to view the arts as a form of entertainment. Some people are taught to appreciate it on a deeper level, but you’re talking about it not just as spiritual, but as a physical and medical need.

MG:  Well, what we were talking about is the entertainment part.  We’re working on the superficial part of the body.  We’re basically working on a lot of the motor system.  So we get all the motor and muscles and everything moving, but we forget about the cellular level.  The cellular level also has to be fed, but then you’re taking away from the entertainment aspect.  We just do one side; we don’t do the full situation.  If you’re talking about so-called creative arts, abstract arts, you’re not talking on a cellular level.  You know, it’s not going to be as defined; whereas, you see, in the entertainment perspective, if you try to take the art and put it on graphs, and try to put mathematics to it, you’re not going to get the true benefit. I’ve been dealing with people, how do you put numbers to it?

“We are there to make that ear drum vibrate.”

You’ve got to the get to the point where you trust each other.  As a musician, you’ve got to trust each other to get on the stage and get this tremendous feeling happening.  When it’s over, someone will say, “Well, what note did you play?”  I don’t know what note I played.  I just play and don’t worry about it.

Some people just don’t trust that they can do it.  It’s extremely difficult to improvise, to be spontaneous and improvise, make changes in a very small amount of time and space and then come back and make another change in a small space of time and don’t repeat what you do.  After 15 or 20 minutes, you have made it through all of these different changes and so on, but what’s amazing is how when you walk out your door in the morning, you may spend an hour or two traveling.  Think about this.  You’re going to make all kinds of adjustments.  You’re capable of doing it.  But you’re told you can’t do it.  It’s like a little child. The parent takes care of the child.  You don’t know how to cross the street yet.  Then after a certain time, you’re supposed to mature in a way that you’re able to see if you’re walking 20 blocks, that you’re ready to make any changes that can take place.  But when it comes to certain things, like something specific in music, you’re taught that you have study this and you have to study that; you can’t do this.

I remember up in Bennington, when I talked to some of the classical musicians who were teachers there, they would say, “I wish I could improvise.”  And I’m saying, “Wow, they can’t improvise?”  I’m trying to figure this out.  It really hit me.  It made me realize: they’ve been taught piano lessons or violin lessons since they were like three, four, five-years old and they were always taught that you have to follow these kind of rules.  You have to do it this way and that way.  That’s horrible.

AM:  To back up a little bit, it sounds like one of the things you said earlier—that part of your music is about resonating on the cellular level. It sounds like your entire vision and goal of what you’re creating artistically through music and through martial arts isn’t even necessarily in the same category or place as goals that musicians typically have.  Maybe I’m wrong about that, but I was just curious about what you’re saying in terms of your goal of vibrating people on the cellular level, or on a level even more microscopic.

MG:  Well, I’ll tell you what.  When I was coming down the stairs, I was thinking about the two of you down here, and I said, “Something’s happening right now.”  People have been contacting me now, and all of a sudden, it’s like an onslaught.  One promoter told me I’m going to do this festival. We got into a conversation and I said, “It was nice of you to think about me. People had almost erased me out of history. They’re making these historical statements and I’m not even mentioned.” So the person said, “Well, people are ready for you now.”

I was told back in the last century, in the late ‘60s, that my concept of music was in the next century.  And of course, I didn’t want to hear that.  And then 2000 came, and I was trying to find that person to say I think you were right!  Things are starting to develop.  Sometimes it’s not for you to say what you want to do or who you are.  Maybe we all have instructions.  Some higher power that we may not realize. I just feel like I’m carrying out orders from another kind of power. No one ever told me to do this or do that.  It just felt that what I’m doing now is developing it to another level, and the reason I’m developing it to another level is because of people.  I’m not sitting outside wanting to be an oddball.  People talk to me about coming in. They say I want to study with you because of this or because of that.  I’m just naturally doing this.  I want to work on it now because I know I can do that.  People think you’re doing something great, but the feedback is not great.  I was looking at it passing the wrong way.  I can’t fault the people.  I guess they’re just not ready for it yet.  That’s what people were telling me.  They’re not ready.  So I said, “Have some patience.” All you have to do is talk to people my age that I grew up with and they’ll always say, “Milford was always eccentric. This guy was always unorthodox.”  I never thought about it.  I guess I was.  I would always challenge the situation.  If something came up, I said, “Let’s think of another way to do this here.”  So I think I found my mission.  What some people have told me, either directly or indirectly, is they may not understand what I’m doing, but they say, “I respect you because you didn’t deviate.  You’re still doing what you do.  Other people just went for the money.”

“I’m not sitting outside wanting to be an oddball. People talk to me about coming in.”

A long time ago I used to listen to some of the older musicians saying, “Wow, I wish I would have not been playing commercial.  I wish I would have done this, and I wish would have done that.”  In the late ‘60s, Papa Jo Jones told me something, and it really hit me hard. First of all, we were at this political meeting and I didn’t expect to see Papa Jo Jones there.  Then he started talking to me. He said, “We want to do some of that avant-garde playing, too.”  Gee whiz, Papa Jo Jones knows me!  I didn’t think Papa Jo knew me. Then he started talking about Count Basie and all of these things and he said, “They want to make money.”  Then I said, “Okay, Papa, I’ve got to leave.” And Papa just said, “Where are you going?”  I said, “I’m going over here to Seventh Avenue.  I got to get the train to Brooklyn.”  And he said, “I’m going that way, young man.”

And I went that way. He wouldn’t even allow me to buy a token.  He bought a token. I’m impressed with this.  He’s Papa Jo the legend and he’s treating me like royalty.  When those old bebop guys were talking about the so-called free jazz players, they didn’t really dislike us.  They were just saying, “Wow, that’s what we wanted to do. But these young guys coming up now can do it and get away with it.  We couldn’t back in the ‘40s.”  I always wonder what these guys would sound like if they would have kept developing their skill level.  You never know what that person could have been.

So I said to myself, “I’m going to keep developing myself because I want to see what I would develop into.”  Right now there are certain things I can do on the instrument that I couldn’t do then.  I used to think about it.  “Wow, that’d be great if you could play with this hand doing this and this doing that and all this here stuff.”  Now it’s coming so easy, because I stayed with it.  My conviction was: what would the arts be like if artists were allowed to develop ourselves? What would the planet be like now?  How would the people be vibrating?  The educational system in this country is the worst.   We don’t have the innovation.  Creativity’s needed again.  We’ve got to rise to another occasion.  When you wipe out the arts, which is stimulating the vibratory system, it’s going to cause a real slowdown.  That’s what I see now, the feedback I’m getting, like when people come over to me and say certain things when I do performances.  I stayed in there to try to see them the way a human would vibrate inside.  It’s not just Milford Graves—that brings in the ego thing.  Other people say, “Well, that’s his thing.  That’s not my thing.”  I always say, “This is our thing!”  I’m trying to bypass it and I’m trying to follow certain rules, and that’s when the physiological process comes in.  There’s a publication now, I won’t knock the publication, but it’s The Jazz of Physics.  For me, it should be jazz, but if you want to use any kind of science name, it should be physiology not the jazz of physics—that’s a machine, that’s outside of the body.  You know what I mean?  You don’t reduce the human body to a mechanical device.

AM:  At the last interview we did, we talked somewhat more idiomatically about all the different things that you are interested in and how they connect.  And I’ve been thinking about it ever since then.  What struck me was that the one thread through all of your interests is energy—and not just managing energy, but sculpting energy or creating with energy.  I was wondering if you’d speak about that a little bit because it seems like when you’re dealing with acupuncture, you talk about energy.  When you’re dealing with martial arts, you talk about kinetic energy.  When you’re talking about music, you’re talking about sonic, vibratory energy.  Maybe these are also, like you called it, harmonics of another fundamental that’s even lower than all of those disciplines.

MG:  Well, if you’re just going to translate energy to “the ability to do work,” that’s one thing. Like on a construction site, you have workers there and you’re telling the workers, “Come on, you’ve got to get this pipe lined up.”  “But I feel out of it.  I just don’t have energy. I cannot pick up this other section of this pipe to connect it.”  I always say that whenever you see humans doing something on the outside, it’s probably just a reflection of what’s going on inside.  So how do you connect these different pathways in the body with a certain kind of energy?  Now certain pathways call for a major work ethic.  It has to be a work ethic. To be able to create that ability to deal with energy, there’s got to be a whole lot of different mechanisms involved in there.  So you’ve got to have a lot of vibratory things going on.  Vibratory motion.  You’ve got to activate the inactive areas, different parts of the body.

“You don’t even know what light is, if you can’t see.”

I just had a conversation about body healing and morphologic fields.  It may be impossible to deal with the so-called morphologic fields, in a sense that you can create a new liver or can create a new heart.  Some people say, “That’s impossible.”  I don’t think it’s impossible. Instead you should just say, “Well, I don’t know how to do it,” because you don’t know how to do it.  Why would you say it’s impossible to do if you can create this energy? I mean, they demonstrated it in the physical world. Einstein had something going on!  But you have to interpret. The energy is one thing, but how are you going to interpret the mass?  How you are going to interpret what light is?  You don’t even know what light is, if you can’t see.  So it’s a visionary thing.  Right?  As soon as you turn off these lights, it’s dark.  You may know from being in that environment where everything is.  You can walk around and grab a seat here, but if that’s your first time, when those lights go out, you don’t know where the heck anything is.  So light really is about your ability to visualize.  So you have to turn the whole mechanism that’s dealing with light; you have to look inside.

The whole morphological aspect of what’s going on is so you get a way of seeing nature’s design, the patterns that nature has.  What you’ve got to say is there’s a possibility that we can connect this with this and connect that with that.  This is something I’ve been talking about for the longest time.  It’s very interesting that a person can have a certain kind of mythology. A female is capable of nurturing a baby, once that sperm and that egg come together; it’s amazing.  People just take stuff for granted.  That little small ovum can mix with a waggling little tadpole-looking type of thing and make a human being.  Unbelievable.  But it’s coming from inside of us.  Everybody thinks it’s the reproductive organs, but there are other factors in the brain that are controlling that.  You’ve got the pituitary gland and all these other organisms that are connected.  They still don’t know a lot about the brain, the whole circuitry.  On a global perspective, if you can stop killing each other, fighting each other and can come together and work together as human folks and work on the planet, then the planet will help out the whole solar system, help out all other galaxies, all the universes. Once you all know how to do that, the ruler will give you the key to how to deal with morphogenic fields and how to reproduce another kidney.  You don’t need a kidney transplant or a liver transplant.  We will be able to reproduce another one, but it takes a tremendous amount of work to energize that person. It’s almost like a person that’s just worn out and has nothing they can lift.  All of a sudden—Boom!—they’ve become really alert again.  There are many ways to do it, when you’re going to stimulate.  You can use acupuncture. You can use plant foods. You can use visual things.  But the key is you get the body active and moving.  It has to be a holistic, total involvement of the body.  You’re not going to have one little thing working and not the other thing working; it’s a collaborative aspect that has to take place in the body.  Everybody has got to be working towards this.  What I mean by energy is to get all of these different areas of the body activated.  And then once the complementary thing’s going on, that’s the only way a morphogenic field can happen. Your heart, when it acts from a pumping perspective, to pump blood out, is sending nutrients throughout the whole body.  So everything’s got to be coordinated for your body to work as a whole.  One little organ can be disrupted, and then you have a problem.

A globe of the earth as well as globes of other planets and satellites in our solar system sits in front of a shelf filled with cassettes of Milford Graves's performances.

AM:  Another thing I wanted to ask you about is that I’ve never heard you identify as a composer specifically. But from my perspective, I feel you could be equally thought of as a composer, but you’re using biological processes as your form.  And not even as a form where you take the superficial sound and notate it, but you’re actually trying to compose biologically. You’re composing with energy. You’ve created so much that involves improvisation, structure, form, and things that evolve along continuums. To my mind you combine the martial arts, acupuncture, herbology, and sound into—I don’t know what you would call it—a composition of the universe itself.

MG:  Well, if we’re talking about the paper composer, I think that’s a class structure.  Sometimes you do things and then people can be enlightened about what you’re doing, or it can hurt. Sometimes you’ve got to say, “What is it really about that I’m doing?”

I remember an experience I had with Jimmy Giuffre around 1965.  There was a book out called Where’s the Time? by a journalist, Martin Williams; he may be still around. He wrote this book about the different rehearsal bands that Jimmy Giuffre put together.  Joe Chambers was doing some of the rehearsals, and I did about three rehearsals with him. I wanted to take the challenge, because Jimmy Giuffre had this reputation.  So I went up to his house, and he had these charts. I knew he was doing some Ornette Coleman stuff, but when I looked at the chart, I said, “Jimmy, this is a little different.”  He was trying to write the melody down for the drums.  This was not a standard way you would notate for the drummer—try and hit the side of the shell, the edge of the rim.  He was trying to get all these different pitches out.  And just for the basic melody of the head, we followed the instructions.  But I told Jimmy, “Look, I will play the rhythm.  I’ll do my best with the sounds.”  I should have been able to read that the way I wanted to, because I’m the new kid on the block and I’m going to be controversial.  After that, he’d probably go around and say Milford Graves doesn’t know how to read music and want to fire me. That wouldn’t have bothered me.  But then I thought I did bad.  So I took the chart home. I told my wife, “I’m going to my room and look at this guy’s music.”  I spent less than a half an hour [there].   I remember leaving the room.  My wife says, “You’re finished?”  “I’m finished.  I see where he’s coming from now.”  I sketched out what he wanted, so when I came back the next day I played it. Don Friedman was on piano and Barre Phillips was on bass. It was a quartet.  After it was over, Don Friedman said, “Wow, how’d you get that so fast?”  I thought I was doing bad.  He said it took us a little while to get all this stuff together.  And I felt real good after that. It wasn’t so bad after all.  But then what happened was, they had an improvisational section. Jimmy Giuffre walked in. I wanted to go up there and see the challenge, man.  When he came to improvising those sections, I improvised off of the head.  So Jimmy said, “Wow.”  He listened to the recording we did there and he said, “Could you rewrite the head for me, rewrite the drum parts?  Because the way you improvise, that’s how I want the drums to be played.” So he didn’t want to write it like that, but he didn’t want no regular dang-dang-ga-dang.  So when I was playing, I heard something and I said, “This is what I would be hearing.”  But then after that there, I saw him at a concert and he said, “So when are you coming back?”  I said, “You know, I don’t know.”  He said, “Well, I want to see if you can read my charts now.  I got some other stuff.”  It was like a competitive thing.  So I just said that’s it.  No more gigs.  I don’t need to go there no more.  But I was listening to what he wanted to hear from the drum perspective.  All the tonal changes, I can do that with all that stuff.  You don’t have to be hitting it all over.  You can stay on the membrane and play the melody out like I do now.  You can play that stuff right from there.

So that was just one experience I had. I had a few more of the same. “Wow, that’s a composer? So what are these guys about?”  It’s almost like an ego trip.  I know some composer may say, “What is this Graves talking about? This guy don’t know what the heck he’s talking about.  Who does he think he is?” I would say just think about what you’re doing.  You sit down, you may spend days or months, and you are telling your story, and then you finish your story, in a musical way, and then you want to give me a piece of your music that’s talking about what you feel, what you want to express, and you’re saying, play me.  I’m bothered with that, like what [someone else] feels doesn’t [matter]. Or when somebody gives you a composition, you add something in. I had that experience, too.  They say, “Well, that’s not written.  That shouldn’t be in there.” What do you mean?  Your music caused me to feel that, and I thought it was cool to put that in.  So if we’re driving in an automobile, and we have to get some place in an emergency—let’s suppose we’re transporting somebody to the hospital or something—and you make a left turn.  I say, “No, to get to the hospital, you have to make a right turn.”  “Well no, that’s the way we do it.  It’s a left turn.  You’re not listening to me.”  That’s the same thing as music composition. You may do something and I don’t think that’s the way.  You’re not even screwing up, man.  If you do it this way, that adds onto it.

“A composer to me—that’s a responsible situation.  A composer to me is just like a teacher.”

I’ve [also] had that experience with a conductor.  They said that I made the track on this particular recording.  They said the way you was playing, that made the thing.  If I would have done it the other way, it was too dry.  But that person wanted to act like they have control.  They wrote all the music and they conducted. So I said, “You’re not giving me respect.”  When I hire a band, I respect you.  A composer to me—that’s a responsible situation.  A composer to me is just like a teacher.  If you’re in a classroom with students, they’re expecting you to teach them.  And if you’re teaching a subject, and they can’t understand that subject, you don’t go and say, “Oh, you’re stupid.  I’m going to fail you.”  You’re supposed to talk to that person and say, “What kind of difficulties are you having?”  And if they say, “I don’t like history.” Well, say, “Let’s talk about history.  Could you tell me something that happened five years ago?  Is there anything you remember five years ago that you don’t like?”  “Oh, I remember something five years ago. I will never forget that.”  “But that’s history.  It’s important that you don’t forget that.  So you don’t repeat that mistake you made.”

Books, tools, and musical diagrams share space in Milford Graves's studio

Or if it’s a math problem—I’m going to tell you something real fast. In the 1970s, I went up to IS 201.  A friend of mine was an assistant principal at that time.  He wanted me to do three workshops in the summer for these kids up in Harlem.  So I went up, and I had a pocket full of change.  I took the hand drums, congas, and all of that.  I’m going to teach these kids these rhythms, but I don’t know if these kids know about eighth notes, quarter notes, and all that technical talk.  So I said, “We’re going to play a rhythm, but we’re going to pulse beats first.  I’m going to hit the drum four times.  One-two-three-four.  Every time you hit the drum, think of a quarter, a quarter, a quarter, and a quarter.”  I had four quarters out.  Then I said, “How many quarters make a dollar?”  They knew that.  They may be failing in school, but they know how to count that money.  “Oh, that’s one dollar.”  So I had a one dollar bill.  I said, “So that’s a one dollar bill. What’s a one dollar bill, compared to counting four twenty-five cent coins?”  I just boom and don’t hit the drum no more times.  But I quietly say, “Count four.  ONE-two-three-four.  That’s a dollar.  So how do you write a dollar?”  They write what they call a whole note in music.  “That’s all, you got a dollar.  You got a little circle like this here.”

Then I took the quarters and said, “Now, we’re going to play each pulse beat twice as fast.  We’re going to count eight.  We got that whole dollar, now we’ve got to make sure that we’re going to divide this one dollar bill eight times.” I had some dimes and some pennies.  So I took out the dimes and said, “How many dimes and pennies makes twenty-five cents?”  Take out a dime.  Take out the five pennies.  “Alright?”  Anyway, I lined them all up and I took two of the students and said, “Look, we’re going to share this twenty-five cents.  You get a dime and you get a dime, but how are we going to share these five pennies between the two of you?  If I give you two pennies, I give you three pennies.  You may get upset, because he got one more penny than you.”  And they’re looking and I said, “I tell you what, anybody got any scissors here?  Let’s cut this other penny in half.”  And they laughed because they know no scissors can cut that penny.  But if I do that, you’re going to get half of a penny.  So you’ve got a dime, then another penny is eleven, another’s twelve; you got twelve and a half.  And we added all that up and in an hour’s time, guess what, I had those kids doing fractions.  It blew them away.  It blew the parents away. I said. “Yeah, you all can do fractions, but you can’t do non-functional fractions.  Don’t mean nothing if you just write numbers!”

That’s a teacher.  That’s a conductor.  If you come to me as a musician, then I may say, “Here, you play.”  You’ve got more? I say, “I think we’ve got something.”  Then I’ll get down and participate with you.  Then I’ll say, “We’re going to try this; we’re going to try that.”  I’ll lay out something to see how you’re going to respond to it.  You didn’t respond.  I left something open for you.  There was no conversation taking place.  It could be for many reasons.  But I’m going to try to get inside you and inspire you to want to play and make stuff come out of you that you really didn’t have.  That’s the conductor, or composer. And if you don’t need help, I don’t have to tell you what to do.  But if you need some help, maybe I’ll give you some suggestions.  But to out and out come out and not think about what someone can do because you wrote all this music? Then you hear this person in another kind of setting and say, “Wow. I didn’t know you could play like that.”  Yeah, you didn’t allow me to play like that, because you already dictated what you wanted.

That’s why I’m devoted to improvisational, spontaneous music.  And I think that’s what we need on the planet right now.  I think people have to get deeper inside themselves. We all have the potential to be smart and intelligent, and we’ve got to bring it out of people. To resolve some of these major problems we have on the planet, we have to have more people working.

“When it really comes time for a major crisis, everybody has to participate.”

I was just telling somebody yesterday that when there’s peace, then they tell people,  “Oh, we don’t need you.  We have all these regulations; we don’t need your help.”  But when 9/11 came, and what did they do?  They asked for the public’s help because the military, the police, and everybody realized that they couldn’t watch everything.  If anything looks suspicious, just call this number and let us know.  So you’re really saying that when it really comes time for a major crisis, everybody has to participate.  If you want to find out the cures for cancer and all this stuff here, you have to start from an early stage in elementary school exposing these kids to oncology, neurology, all these things, in the classroom.  Make little toys, little games, so everybody can participate. You talk about trial and error. Somebody out of that is going to come up, it could be a five-year old kid, and say, “Well, what if you did this and did that?”  Somebody will say, “Wow, we never thought of that.”  That’s why I’m saying: we have to bring out the innovative and creative potential of what we as humans have, and you’re not going to do it by constantly putting a harness on somebody and saying you’re not allowed to express yourself or do what you do.

The elaborately ornamented exterior of Milford Graves's home.

What Makes Music Matter?

A few weeks ago NewMusicBox posted my list of “Questions I Ask Myself” and, in the weeks since, it has led me into many big conversations with old and new friends that have both confirmed and challenged the feelings I shared. In many of them, I found myself struggling to make some point about what makes music matter, what mattering is. I was feeling a conviction growing inside but every time I tried to put it into words, it came out confused, facile, or worse.

I sat down to write, hoping that thinking slowly would help me figure out what I’ve been trying to say. Whether or not I’ve succeeded, I’m sharing it with you here in the hope that these conversations will continue.


What makes music matter?

Here are some of the things that I think of first:

  • its cultural or historical position
  • special qualities of its form/content
  • its ambition, scale, or scope
  • if it won prizes, was recorded, or was heard by lots of people
  • if someone important wrote it and important people play it
  • if it does something nobody has ever done before
  • if people agree that it’s the best

But when I consider the music that actually matters to me, the reasons are different:

  • I’m invested deeply in it, either by playing, studying, writing, or teaching it
  • it matters to someone I care about and they brought it into my life with infectious enthusiasm (wrote it, taught it, shared it)
  • it’s part of the life of a community that I care about
  • it gives me a particularly vivid and intense interior experience; it makes my eyes go wide
  • it inspired a sense of freedom and possibility and added fuel to my own creative drive
  • it gave me comfort or strength at a time when I needed it
  • it reconnects me with some time or place or person in my past

The mismatch between these two lists suggests that I have some fundamental misunderstanding about what music is. The items from the first list aren’t irrelevant. They set the public conditions for an encounter and multiply the possibilities of one. But they’re abstractions. The “mattering” is private, concrete, and rooted in life—labors, relationships, joy and heartache, private epiphanies and shared experiences.

A personal sketch (maybe you can relate): I spent some years in a very focused music school culture where it’s just a given that certain music really, really matters. I left, and the world felt like a desert. My constellation of heroes and monuments was unknown. My arguments (often from List #1) for their importance failed to move others. Temporary gatherings of fellow desert-wanderers made me feel like myself again. Other concerns grew—family, justice, politics, money—and my art, which once had real traction in my insulated culture, seemed to pass through them like ghost arms.

I was indignant for a while. The indifference of the world to List #1 offended me. I felt a duty to spread the culture I had joined. Exciting phrases included “educational outreach,” “let’s play it in a bar,” and “what if babies just grew up listening to Boulez and thought it was normal.” I framed my evangelism as a service, as if having big ears for difficult music constitutes some kind of moral force.

Really, I was just trying to make the world more comfortable for myself. Green my desert my own shade of green. Turn the people around me into people like me. Recreate the conditions in which what I do matters.

I still want to matter, of course. We all do, and it’s good that we do. It’s better for everybody if we make a life in which our efforts, creations, and passions aren’t just for us. But I misunderstood “mattering” by confusing List #1 with List #2.

List #1 is all just variations on being impressed, which, as an actual experience, compared to the deep web of life and love in #2, is pretty thin soup. But I think that the real trap of #1 is that it required me to identify with a specific culture: respect certain authorities, share certain opinions, subscribe to a certain narrative of history. If my work matters because it’s, let’s say, “a new synthesis of serial and minimal techniques,” without a shared ideology to prop up those words, it doesn’t matter. It is a scary and isolating position to hang my identity on, because as soon as I meet someone who doesn’t share that culture, I might stop mattering. It’s more comfortable to gather with people who believe what I believe, and the need to proselytize becomes almost existential.

Meaning is not bestowed, it is made; it grows out of personal investment, subjective experiences, quality relationships, and community life.

Instead of depending on an abstract culture, reasons #2 identify that value comes from the actual experience of building meaning, often with others. Meaning is not bestowed, it is made; it grows out of personal investment, subjective experiences, quality relationships, and community life. This shift in my thinking has been liberating because it’s all in my control. I don’t have to wait for prizes or recognition for my efforts to matter. My work doesn’t have to fit into a narrative of history. It doesn’t have to be the first or the best. And I’m not trapped in a single culture: we can create meaning together over anything as long as we dig in, work hard, and care about it together.

I want to give you an example. The most meaningful piece of music to come through my life last year was a song. It was written by one of my students, and it matters not just to him and me but to a musical community that I feel very lucky to get to be a part of. It’s in a prison up the river from where I live.

This community is really good at making music matter. We make it matter by wanting it badly and working hard at it. It’s rare and hard won. We’re 32 students and a handful of teachers who meet twice a month, and we’re in our fourth year. Our students are learning to play violins and cellos, keyboards and guitars, saxophones and drums, most of them with uncommon verve and dedication. They’re learning theory and notation. They’re writing songs, big band charts, string quartets, and an opera. We put on concerts and play in each other’s bands. I get to teach a little bit of everything, and I have never worked with students more motivated to learn.

“Music has the power to create community” is something we hear a lot, but I admit that the idea had become a kind of a pious formula to me and had lost, if not its meaning, much of its force. Now I have a vivid example. Our students tell us that it gives them new purpose and identity, a new way to think about themselves, a new way to be together inside, and also to relate to their families outside. “We don’t really have anywhere else to practice positive relationships, practice trusting each other, being vulnerable and opening up, but we can do that here” is a sentiment I have heard in many variations. This is now my personal gold standard of music mattering.

I want to tell you about this song and the man who wrote it. I’ll call him Ned. I want you to have a sense of what he’s like. He’d be the first to tell you: from the outside, he is grouchy, negative, dark, and cynical. He’s prickly and keeps other people away. He always finds the downside. If you point out something good, he’ll turn it inside out. If you invite him to do something, he’ll tell you he can’t (but he probably can).

Here’s how I know music has power: it took 20 minutes of playing guitar together for him to let his guard down. He’s also smart and artistic and sensitive. He’s a novelist and a poet. He somehow quietly learned music notation and chord theory without me noticing. You give him a compliment and a challenge, and it’s like the sun comes out. His grumpy facade is just a hardness that gets him through the day.

He had a creative explosion last spring. One week, I couldn’t have even told you whether or not he’d actually absorbed the theory and notation classes I’d been leading. The next week, he’s written out a lead sheet for a song — I remember it had a wild melody that arpeggiated every chord. I tell him that melodies usually stay within an octave and have more steps than leaps; the next week he’s revised it and written another. Then another. By the end of the semester, he’d written ten.

If my ideas of value were based on List #1, I’d consider this all sweet but not worth much. The songs weren’t innovative. They didn’t have “high quality” form or content. Maybe someday he’d write something truly great, but he’d have to work a long time at it for any of it to matter. (The idea feels so wrong to me that even typing these words makes me want to explode.)

I said the song isn’t innovative, but I take it back. From a historical perspective, sure. But that perspective completely contradicts our lived experience and dehumanizes actual people.

I said the song isn’t innovative, but I take it back. From a historical perspective, sure. But that perspective completely contradicts our lived experience and dehumanizes actual people. For him, and for those of us cheering him on, this song was an absolute breakthrough. It’s called “The Me You Can See.” I asked him last week if he’d be OK with me sharing it with you, and he said yes. Here’s the chorus:

The me you can see
Is not the real me
It’s just the me
I allow you to see

The me you can see
Is not the real me
It’s not the me
I wanted to be

The melody is plaintive, earnest. He wrote a special part for a cellist he’d started playing with more. The song is so open, so vulnerable, so true about himself, so self-aware. That he would want to open up like this with me or to other men in the program was significant and risky, because it compromised the identity he’d constructed to survive in prison. He went ever further: he wanted to share it with everybody. He asked me to sing it for a big “general population” crowd at one of our concerts. It was the greatest performing honor I think I’ve ever had.


If I had gone into this situation with a mission to champion new music culture through education, it wouldn’t have happened…. I’d tell myself I was pushing him out of his comfort zone (for his own good), but really I’d just be pushing him into mine.

If I had gone into this situation with a mission to champion new music culture through education, it wouldn’t have happened. I might have assigned him a flute solo with a limitation on the number of pitches, with Musica ricercata as a model. I’d be pushing him to find new sounds on his guitar. I could have easily left him feeling embarrassed by his confessional poetry, triads, and simple arrangements, as I used to feel when I brought songs to teachers. I’d be saying, “Well, if you’re into songs you should really listen to Wolf or Björk…” I’d tell myself I was pushing him out of his comfort zone (for his own good), but really I’d just be pushing him into mine. I probably would have stifled something really important in him.

Thankfully my agenda wasn’t “champion new music culture,” it was “connect with this person.” Music gave us something in common. It was a way to spend time together, to care about something together. You might argue that this demotes music from sacred art object to mere social instrument; I say this is what makes it matter at all.


What would happen if we gave ourselves to people instead of ideologies?

What would happen if we could let go of our anxiety about not being the first or the best?

What would happen if we dropped the idea that art is justified not by its position in culture or history, but by the actual experiences of real people?

What would happen if we measured our success not by the quantity of people who hear us, but by the depth of the experience we have shared?

Building Curriculum Diversity: Technique, History, and Performance

I believe in the power of music as an art form to create a space for people to communally experience empathy. Classical music is a field that historically began in Europe, but I find it vital to think about the future of classical music. How do we serve our communities? How do we serve our art form? Commuting in New York City, I see the global community in a single subway car. How does classical music reflect, include, and give voice to all of these life experiences?

Violinist Jennifer Koh speaks with great clarity. She and I are sitting in her living room, the faint sound of traffic a gentle reminder of the city. We’ve been talking about commissioning and programming as advocacy for diversity over the past several days, and I’ve been bouncing some ideas off of her for this series. I’m nervous—as I always am before my writing is published—and her encouragement to speak about these issues is centering. She continues:

It is our responsibility as artists to advocate for artists and composers who happen to be women or people of color. I feel that we as artists and as an industry need to model and advocate for our entire community. And frankly, diversifying programming is the only way that classical music will survive. If our programming does not reflect the diversity of our society, then we are not serving our community and by extension, we are actively making ourselves irrelevant to society.

Jennifer Koh

Jennifer Koh

In this series on curriculum diversity, I’ve discussed how stereotype threat impedes performance, and suggested that students need role models and precedents to fight that threat. I interviewed various scholars, performers, and educators to show examples of people who are creating resources to help build curriculum diversity. As stated in the previous posts, many of these scholars noted that in order to make curriculum relevant to our students and our communities, we need to not only help them find role models, but also give them permission to achieve. In this final installment of the series on building curriculum diversity, I focus on how the inclusion of achievements by musicians that reflect the students’ racial and gender diversity empowers this younger generation of musicians to have permission to be successful.

By not only commissioning new works, but also programming historic ones and writing about composers of the past, Jackson is contributing to the body of knowledge that celebrates the precedent of great composers of color.

Ashley Jackson is another performer who has used both her scholarship and her decisions about programming to advocate for diversity. Her doctoral dissertation is an examination of the collaboration between composer Margaret Bonds and Langston Hughes within the greater context of the New Negro Movement (here is a wonderful article Jackson wrote for NewMusicBox earlier this year, and she is looking forward to expanding her research to include a biography of Bonds). Jackson noted of her scholarship on black composers that it was important to “tell their stories in the same way, with the same honor.” As a performer, Jackson advocates for diversity both by programming her own concerts and by working to build a community of musical activists. Her latest performance project, Electric Lady, is a series devoted to works by female composers. In addition, she is the deputy director of The Dream Unfinished, a collective of classical musicians whose concerts promote civil rights and community organizations based in New York. By not only commissioning new works, but also programming historic ones and writing about composers of the past, Jackson is contributing to the body of knowledge that celebrates the precedent of great composers of color.

Ashley Jackson

Ashley Jackson

The experience of concerts celebrating diversity is a topic close to Jackson’s heart. In our interview, she described the first time she went to see the Boston Symphony Orchestra when she was a little girl. Ann Hobson Pilot, the first black woman hired by the BSO, was playing harp. Jackson said, “When you see role models that look like you, that leaves a strong impression. At the time, I didn’t understand the significance of that experience, but in retrospect I realize it was a brilliant move on my parents’ part. That inspiration goes a long way—not just seeing someone do it, but seeing them succeed at such a high level.”

One electronic musician who has both inspired and paved the way for younger generations is Wendy Carlos. Carlos is perhaps most famous for her 1968 work Switched-On Bach, a reimagining of Bach’s work on Moog synthesizer that won three Grammys (and will be the subject of an upcoming book in the Bloomsbury 33 ⅓ series by Roshanak Kheshti). On her website, Carlos says of the work, “I began my young experience as a composer realizing that what I had to offer [electronic music] was generally hated. But I thought that if I offered people a little bit of traditional music, and they could clearly hear the melody, harmony, rhythm and all the older values, they’d finally see that this was really a pretty neat new medium, and would then be less antipathetic to my more adventurous efforts.” Even if you’ve never heard of Carlos, you’ve probably heard some of her “more adventurous efforts” in music for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, or her scores for Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange or the 1982 Disney film Tron. Her example and her success show that audiences were ready for new sounds and new ways of presenting music, and her unique perspective allowed for an entire generation of listeners to become enthralled with contemporary music made by the latest technology through her film scores and records.

In addition to programming, another way performers can share the knowledge of their craft is by creating technique books or videos. This not only highlights their presence on stage as individuals, but shows how they are experts. Sound artist and abstract turntablist Maria Chavez’s wonderful book Of Technique: Chance Procedures on Turntable explains different techniques that Chavez has developed through her career as a performer. What I love about Chavez’s music is that she takes found objects from the environment and finds their beauty through focused listening and attention in her sets. The records Chavez uses are mostly found damaged and would otherwise have been discarded. Taking these objects and turning them into a vital part of avant-garde DJing is what makes Chavez’s music so unique. Giving the objects a new voice points to the idea that forgotten or discarded peoples can be empowered to have a voice through advocacy.

Maria Chavez

Maria Chavez

When I asked Chavez why is it important to include women and people of color in curriculums or histories of electronic music, and why it is important that those contributions are visible, she responded:

I don’t think it’s necessarily important to have them in curriculum, I think it’s simply short sighted to ignore the fact that works by different humans EXIST. . . . We are past the time when European cultures were questioning whether the indigenous people had souls or if African slaves should be considered people. To be in a part of history where it’s clear how asinine these kinds of questions truly are, I think asking the question of importance should be redefined as a question of why the original history was allowed to be discussed without including the works of others in the first place. To say something is important, in regards to this question, is to still say the works are unique to the history. I disagree, the works were always there, they just weren’t given the focus as the other works were given. When works are presented equally then the beauty of the true history of electronic music can really shine for what it really is.

Once you hear that silence, you hear it everywhere.

One author who has helped refocus history to highlight forgotten composers through her recent work is Anna Beer. Beer teaches creative writing at the University of Oxford. While she is not a musician by trade, she studied music until she was 18, and she has continued to listen to and research music as a part of her life. As she was doing research about Francesca Caccini, she realized women composers were rarely represented in concert halls. Beer said, “Once you hear that silence, you hear it everywhere.” She decided that she wanted to write something that gave a voice to women who had been silenced in the past. Her advocacy became her recent book Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music. The book details the lives of composers such as Barbara Strozzi and Lili Boulanger. Beer said that her favorite piece that she discovered out of the research was Fanny Hensel’s Das Jahr, which Beer called an “amazing, rich, astonishing work.”

While Sounds and Sweet Airs began as a standalone project, it has turned into lecture appearances and other engagements. Beer said that it has felt important to do concert lectures alongside live performance because it meant talking directly to people. She continued, “Music has to live; it needs a platform and it has to be voiced—that is the most important task. One lieder or anything small that is programmed and heard increases momentum. It helps it live.” Beer reiterated the importance of “giving permission to the next generation to validate their curiosity. It’s not just about having role models but actively giving them permission. It enables people.”

We need to show students the achievements of all people in music. To do that, we must build greater gender and racial diversity into curriculums and concert programs so that students may see themselves in history. By taking concrete action to provide this context of both living role models and historical precedent, students can be empowered to go on to achieve in any area they are interested in. Perhaps, they will even become the positive role models they needed when they were younger.

Building Curriculum Diversity: Analytical Essays

While much of the public debate about diversifying classical music has been about discovering the composers themselves and what makes them unique as people, there has not been as much attention drawn to the lack of academic resources that show the incredible craft and process behind their compositional output. Therefore, this week in this series on building curriculum diversity, I’ll focus on resources for music theory classrooms—specifically, analyses of works by women composers.

Laurel Parsons and Brenda Ravenscroft are the editors of Oxford’s new series Analytical Essays on Music by Women Composers. This exciting new series will consist of four volumes, the first of which was recently published on Concert Music 1960–2000. Future volumes will collect other historical essays, and my personal favorite, Electroacoustic, Multimedia, and Experimental Music, 1950–2015 (forthcoming), will include essays on works by Laurie Anderson, Pauline Oliveros, and Björk. Parsons and Ravenscroft graciously agreed to answer some questions about their inspirations and current projects.

Anne Lanzilotti: What inspired you write/edit Analytical Essays on Music by Women Composers?

Laurel Parsons: In the late 1990s while writing my dissertation on the music of British composer Elisabeth Lutyens, I began to notice how rare it was at music theory conferences to hear analysis papers on compositions by women, and by “rare” I mean one or two, but often none. The 2002 CSW Special Session with analysis papers on the music of five women composers was the first time there had ever been more than two in a single conference, but then the numbers dropped again. And the representation of female composers’ music in major music theory journals was even lower.

Then in 2006 a grad student told me how she’d been discouraged from doing her dissertation on a female composer because her advisor said her research would be considered marginal and she wouldn’t be able to get a job. That made me think something really needed to be done to signal that this kind of research didn’t have to be marginal, that it could be a legitimate and exciting research path. Writing my own articles wouldn’t be enough—there needed to be a critical mass of scholars publishing all in one place.

Since I hadn’t done anything like this before I needed a collaborator and thought Brenda Ravenscroft would be ideal. So I was thrilled when she agreed, and it’s been a fabulous partnership. We’re still friends!

Brenda Ravenscroft: The collaboration has been particularly important as this project has developed and expanded. Our initial concept was rather modest: a single collection of essays on music by women composers from all periods. However, our first call for proposals resulted in a surprisingly high number of submissions, and we realized that we had enough material for several collections. This evolution in scope and scale is important: a single volume suggests that music written by women is rare and focuses attention on the gender of the composers. Four volumes organized by time period and genre shifts the focus to the range and depth of their compositional activities. But working on multiple volumes simultaneously is not a small task, and that’s where our partnership has been essential!

AL: Why is it important to include women in curriculums or histories? Why is it important that women’s contributions are visible?

In less than a decade, we’d like to see the term “female composer” seem as ridiculous as “lady doctor.”

BR: It’s tempting to say “because it’s 2017!” But it’s not just about equity. I believe strongly in the phrase “if she can’t see it, she can’t be it.” Women need to be represented so that younger generations—both female and male—know that being a composer is a viable ambition for a young girl to have. If women are not included in curricula and histories, we run the risk of their absence being accepted as some kind of unquestionable natural state. We need to actively resist this by ensuring women and their music are present in our classrooms and concert halls. In less than a decade, we’d like to see the term “female composer” seem as ridiculous as “lady doctor.”

AL: How did womeninmusictheory.wordpress.com start?

LP: During my term as CSW chair [Committee on the Status of Women (CSW) of the Society for Music Theory], one of our members, Jane Piper Clendinning, came up with the idea of an online situational mentoring program where SMT members who needed to talk through a gender-related career issue could contact a volunteer mentor directly and anonymously without having to go through a program administrator. Around the same time, a friend of mine who is a female philosopher had introduced me to the blog “What is it Like to be a Woman in Philosophy?,” a forum where women could post anonymized accounts of their experiences in the field. I’d been thinking that something like that would be useful for the music theory community, so the CSW decided to launch our own blog. Stefanie Acevedo, our grad student member, did a beautiful job of setting it up, launching, and managing it in those first couple of years.

Chen Yi’s Symphony No. 2, one of the pieces analyzed in Analytical Essays on Music by Women Composers: Concert Music from 1960-2000.

AL: Could you describe your involvement in the CSW, and how that evolved into this resource?

BR: We’ve both been involved in the leadership of the Society’s Committee on the Status of Women; I chaired it from 2006–2009 and Laurel held that position from 2012–2015. Our engagement in the CSW gave us the opportunity to create conference sessions focused on relevant topics—professional development for female theorists, analysis of music by women, feminist theory—to advocate for women within a Society that has a 70/30 ratio of male to female members, to support female theorists, and to build resources such as the blog.

LP: In addition to CSW mentoring programs, announcements, and posts about various issues, the blog provides a space for resources such as the SMT Guidelines for Non-Sexist Language, the CSW guidelines on preparing and answering interview questions, its Wiki Bibliography on Women and Gender in Music, and sample course syllabi for courses on women and music. There’s a lot to explore.

AL: Could you talk more about the mentoring program?

LP: The CSW actually offers three mentoring programs. The Proposal Mentoring program, launched in the early 2000s, pairs junior female scholars or grad students with experienced mentors who will read their draft conference proposals and provide constructive feedback. I was the grad student representative on the CSW at the time, and we developed it out of concern for the fact that women were giving a lower proportion of the papers at our annual conference than their proportion in the Society. The Article Mentoring program rolled out in 2012 and works in a similar way for drafts of articles for publication, since there’s been a similar discrepancy between membership and publication rates. It’s been great to see these discrepancies narrow and hopefully this trend will persist.

The newest addition is the situational mentoring program called Ask Me!, the brainchild of Jane Piper Clendinning that I mentioned earlier. Launched in 2015, it allows any Society member with a gender-related career problem to directly contact a mentor whose own experience and expertise best matches their own situation, while protecting their own privacy to the degree they choose.

AL: What are some resources that each of you use for discovering new (or forgotten) composers?

LP: There are several lists of female composers online, and playlists of their music such as the Spotify list 1200 Years of Women Composers: From Hildegard to Higdon. Of course there are also important print resources such as Karin Pendle and Melinda Boyd’s Women in Music, or the anthologies edited by James Briscoe. The BBC’s Celebrating Women Composers pages are a marvelous resource, as is the Canadian Music Centre’s Composer Showcase although it’s not specifically devoted to female composers. Hildegard Publishing, ClarNan Editions, and A-R Editions deserve a mention here, too, along with societies like Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy and the International Alliance for Women in Music.

But our greatest discoveries have often come courtesy of authors who have responded to our calls for proposals. We’ve often received proposals on music by composers we’ve never heard of, and it’s been tremendously exciting to listen to all this “new” music even if we haven’t been able to accept every proposal. There’s just so much more out there to discover!

Saariaho’s speaks about From the Grammar of Dreams, which is also the subject of one of the analyses in Analytical Essays on Music by Women Composers: Concert Music from 1960-2000.

BR: Because music by female composers is more often performed than written about, I find reading concert reviews from international venues, looking at programs, and, of course, going to concerts can alert one to new names. It’s not systematic, but can be illuminating. Ironically, existing efforts to highlight overlooked composers rarely include a single female name. In an email that went out to the Society for Music Theory list a few years ago soliciting work on neglected composers, 46 of the 47 names were male!

AL: Do you have any words of encouragement for performers/scholars/educators who are trying to figure out how to make a difference, big or small?

Our goal is that the composer’s gender becomes unremarkable so that the focus of attention is the remarkable music.

BR: It doesn’t matter how small your contribution seems to be—including a single work by a female composer in a recital or radio broadcast, using an excerpt from a piece by a woman to demonstrate the German augmented sixth (Molly Murdock’s new website Music Theory Examples by Women is a great resource for teachers). Every effort counts towards making a difference and normalizing the inclusion of music by women. Our goal is that the composer’s gender becomes unremarkable so that the focus of attention is the remarkable music.

LP: Unless of course there’s evidence to suggest gender and music are significantly intertwined in a composition, but that’s another conversation.

You know, when we started out we were doing it out of a sense of equity and there will always be an element of that. But after years of reading all these essays and listening to all this music, we do it now because we’ve learned just how rich that mother lode of music by women really is, and we want other people to have the same terrific experience. So there’s no need to be motivated by a sense of duty—be motivated by the fact that there’s a world of wonderful, fresh repertoire out there waiting for someone to discover and share.

Building Curriculum Diversity: Stereotype Threat

My mother was excited when she was accepted into music school on the mainland in the late 1960s for cello performance. She’s told me stories about moving to Michigan from Hawai‘i: almost getting frostbite, eating her first bagel. But, beyond the quaint stories of an islander learning how to survive in winter, there are more somber ones—friends who were told they had to change instruments (“women don’t play trumpet—you’ll have to switch to French horn if you want to stay in music school”) or her own experience being told repeatedly that women can’t conduct.

These seemingly benign comments of dismissal are ones that often wear students down. The extra energy it takes to stand up to someone takes away from focus on one’s craft. In fact, to be self-conscious about fulfilling a stereotype of not being as skilled as another group has been shown to decrease the performance of otherwise equally matched individuals (see Steele and Aronson’s 1995 study Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual Test Performance of African Americans).

Last winter, I had the opportunity to see Kaija Saariaho’s L’amour de Loin at the Metropolitan Opera House. The production got a lot of attention in the media because it was the first time the MET had programmed an opera by a woman in more than 110 years. Susanna Mälkki was conducting—only the fourth woman conductor in the MET’s history—making the production even more noteworthy. The lights dimmed, and when I saw Mälkki walk up to the podium to begin the opera, I was overwhelmed. Why was I suddenly so emotional seeing this woman conduct? In an interview for NPR, when pressed to comment about the state of women composers in opera, Saariaho said, “You know, half of humanity has something to say, also.”

Spurred by the dramatic lack of diversity in orchestral and opera programming, scholars, performers, and critics have responded in different ways. Some have created databases showing the numbers so that the discussion is not just conjecture. Some have created playlists or written articles featuring women and nonbinary composers. Some have spoken out about the difficulties in making their way in music. Many of these people faced harsh criticism: that their efforts were too extreme, or not extreme enough, that they made everything about sexism, or that they were merely scratching the surface of a deeper issue. Taking a stand does not always mean doing so in extremes, but it does involve concrete action. All of us have to find our own way of addressing social issues: in our careers or not, in our personal lives or not. For me, as an educator, this discussion always comes back to curriculum.

stacks

Photo by Redd Angelo

One of my favorite things about teaching is that curriculum is alive, and therefore must be nourished so that it may change over time. That means constantly reading and learning from my colleagues and students about new music and new approaches to sound. In this series, I will share the stories and voices of scholars that have inspired me in the past year as I continue to develop my voice as an educator.

Part One is an in-depth interview with Tara Rodgers, a composer/performer and the author of Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound. The book grew out of the website that Rodgers created, Pinknoises.com, a collection of interviews with women working in electronic music.

Part Two is an interview with the editors of Analytical Essays on Music by Women Composers, Laurel Parson and Brenda Ravenscroft. The first volume, Concert Music 1960–2000, explores the work of composers such as Chen Yi, Sofia Gubaidulina, Joan Tower, and Kaija Saariaho.

Finally, Part Three examines music history and performance resources through Anna Beer’s Sounds & Sweet Airs, performing organizations such as The Dream Unfinished, and performance practice resources like Maria Chavez’s Of Technique: Chance Procedures on Turntable.

Students need role models, but beyond that, permission. I heard this same message from many of the scholars I interviewed: that just seeing the idea of success in the present was not the only important element, but also understanding that there is a precedent. The only way to show students this precedent, both historically and currently in the field, is curriculum that reflects the gender and racial diversity of our society. Relating back to the Steele and Aronson study on Stereotype Threat, when students were not worrying immediately about the stereotypes of not performing as well, they in fact performed equally. I believe another way to counteract “stereotype threat” is to show a precedent of strong historical models representing a variety of people who achieved, so as to build a student’s confidence through new, positive associations: the permission to thrive.

Developing any curriculum, especially one that achieves balanced representation, is a lot of work. We all need resources that help guide us so that the work is less daunting. Whether you’re using the summer to update an academic course curriculum or interested in your own continuing personal research for programming concerts, this series aims to encourage further investigation and continue the conversation. Furthermore, if you feel comfortable sharing reading lists, syllabi, or other resources that you’ve used in the past that you are proud of, please feel free to link to those in the comments below.

All the writers I spoke with for this month’s posts saw a void in curriculum/scholarship that they wanted to begin to fill. Through the network of scholars outlined in these articles, I strive to continue to develop my own classes, knowledge about assigning repertoire, and ability to advocate for all my students.


Anne Lanzilotti

Anne Lanzilotti is a composer, performer, and scholar of contemporary music. In the fall, she will be joining the faculty at University of Northern Colorado as assistant professor of viola.

Hindustani Music: Recitals of Gratitude

Lakshmiji's students singing together

Lakshmiji’s students singing together
Photo by Reena Esmail

“You must come to Gurupoornima this year,” my teacher Lakshmi Shankar* said after our lesson one summer day in 2012. I had just come back to Los Angeles for the summer between the years of my doctoral coursework at the Yale School of Music, and I was studying Hindustani vocal performance with her intensively, attempting to make up months of lessons over a single summer.
“You will enjoy it—all the students perform. You really must come.” I nodded that I would be there, even though I had never heard the term before. As it turns out, Gurupoornima (goo-roo-POOR-nee-maa) is an Indian festival to pay homage to one’s teachers. The word guru, which literally translates to “the remover of darkness,” is the Sanskrit term for teacher. And the word poornima refers to a festival celebrated during the full moon, an auspicious occasion in many cultures. Gurupoornima is celebrated on the full moon in the month of Ashadh, which usually falls around June or July on the Gregorian calendar.
It immediately struck me that I could not recall ever celebrating a similar holiday in America. While America certainly has a designated Teacher’s Day, I never once remember celebrating it, or even knowing about it, either as a student or a teacher. In modern India, Gurupoornima is not the only holiday that venerates teachers: Teacher’s Day, which falls on September 5, is also widely celebrated throughout the country—often, older students will take over the classroom duties, allowing teachers to relax and enjoy the many festivities the students have planned in their honor.

In practice, the Gurupoornima celebration serves a similar place in Hindustani musical culture that a yearly studio recital does in the West. Students gather together for a long afternoon of performances, starting with short segments from the youngest beginners and ending with extensive programs by the most accomplished students. Gurupoornima creates a space for social and musical interaction between students, which helps to establish a community of students of varying levels of proficiency and to inspire students to continue progressing in their studies.

However, the central theme of gratitude makes Gurupoornima different from a studio recital in many ways.
At Gurupoornima, the teacher is the guest of honor. She will often be seated in a prominent location, both in view of the performers and the audience. Before performing, students will speak directly to the teacher, expressing gratitude for what they have learned and for her patience and dedication to their musical development. Often, students will even ask for forgiveness in advance for any mistakes made during the performance, not wanting any shortcoming in their performance to reflect poorly on the guru. (This last practice was shocking to me at first—it is common even for top-tier artists to make this advance plea for forgiveness to an audience. However, over the years, I have come to appreciate the humility and admission of vulnerability in such a gesture.)

The celebration of Gurupoornima is not limited to current students, as a studio recital would be. It is common for previous students to come back and perform for their teacher, sometimes traveling long distances to participate in the celebration. Often, students who have had more than one teacher will find a way to attend each Gurupoornima celebration—a feat that can often prove as difficult as spending Christmas with multiple sets of relatives. In recent years, I have seen that students who are too far away to attend the celebration in person will make a point of publicly acknowledging and thanking their teachers on social media—even the most famous performers do not let this day pass uncelebrated.

Esmail singing at Gurupoornima 2014

Esmail singing at Gurupoornima 2014, accompanied by Samar Das, tabla
Photo by Ashwin Rode

Students display their gratitude through their actions as well: the Gurupoornima event is often planned and executed completely by the students—from venue arrangements to audio equipment rental, from invitations to catering and paying for the full meal that customarily follows the performances, the students handle all the logistics.

As I listened closely to the performances at Gurupoornima that year, I felt that the focus on gratitude played a central role in the energy in the room and, consequently, in the rendering of the music itself. In my experience as a young student of Western music, studio recitals were always marked by a permeating uneasiness—perhaps a combination of each performer’s individual nervous energy and a general sense of competition between students. There would inevitably be displays of debilitating stage fright and long, tense silences during memory slips or derailed performances. Even the anticipation of these mishaps often made the less experienced performers rigid and inexpressive. In sharp contrast, the energy at Gurupoornima was lighthearted and relaxed. People moved in and out of the room easily—chatting, drinking tea, and enjoying the music together. Performances felt spontaneous and expressive, with even the youngest students smiling shyly into the audience as they sang.

Recent research substantiates the claim that it is impossible to feel both nervous and grateful at the same time—that the brain is incapable of processing both sentiments simultaneously. As each student thanked Lakshmiji** and aimed to honor her by performing well, the focus moved away from their desire to impress and dazzle, and shifted onto their effort to honor her. Even when mistakes were made, Lakshmiji warmly encouraged her students to continue, visibly proud of each one. Consequently, I found myself focusing not on the accuracy or vocal dexterity displayed in the performances, but on familiar turns of phrase that I began to recognize in many of the performances—I heard her characteristic vocal style emerging uniquely through each student. It was the best testament to her careful and thorough teaching.


As I listened to Lakshmiji’s students sing that afternoon, I began to wish that we also celebrated Gurupoornima in the West. I thought of some of my most trusted composition mentors, who have gone above and beyond for me—the teacher who made time to call me from a competition he was judging in Europe to offer support for the orchestra piece I was struggling to complete, who would always find time for me even in the busiest moments of his wildly successful career. There was also the teacher who accepted me into her studio when my confidence was shot and I was almost ready to quit composing, who would stay late in New York City to delve into my work (even though I wasn’t actually a student at the school where she taught) and who worked patiently and deliberately to rebuild my understanding of my own creative process. These teachers took the time to understand my ideas better than I understood them myself and helped me render them into music when I, at times profoundly, doubted my ability to do so. I truly wished there was a day on the calendar when my colleagues and I could organize performances to honor them, to celebrate the boundless energy they poured into each one of us.

Sadly, this year’s Gurupoornima was a more somber affair: Lakshmiji passed away in December of 2013, at the age of 87. As her students remembered her and thanked her, everyone in the audience choked back tears. I was especially heartbroken because I had so looked forward to studying with her full time—she passed away just months before I was able to move back to Los Angeles. But as I listened to her students perform, I heard those same characteristic strains of her voice coming through each of them. It was as if she was in the room, singing to us.

About halfway through the afternoon, one of her master students asked me if I was planning to sing something. Truth be told, I had barely practiced after her death. I just couldn’t bring myself to listen to the recordings of our lessons and hear her voice. But her other students encouraged me. “It’s about showing her your gratitude for her teaching. Sing a little bit, just to honor her.” For all the years I had spent immersed in practicing Hindustani vocal music, I had never sung a purely classical performance for an audience of peers. It was my first time. And it was magical. I felt my voice weave through the phrases, remembering them as she taught them to me, hearing them in her voice and executing them in mine. I missed her intensely, but even more than that, I was so profoundly grateful for every moment I had spent in her presence.

*

Readers, have you ever wished there was a practice from another musical culture that could be incorporated into Western musical culture? Have any of you regularly celebrated your teachers? What did you do? Please respond in the comments below!


* Lakshmi Shankar was one of the most prominent Hindustani singers of her generation. Recognized in the West as famed sitar player Ravi Shankar’s sister-in-law, she sang in the 1982 film Gandhi, and recorded 19 solo albums during her career.

** the suffix –ji is a marker of respect in Hindi

***

Reena Esmail

Indian-American composer Reena Esmail “creates richly melodic lines that imbue her music with the heights of lyricism, balanced by winning textural clarity.” (AAAL) A graduate of Juilliard and Yale School of Music, and a recent Fulbright grantee to India, Esmail’s work draws together elements from Western and Hindustani (North Indian) classical traditions. Esmail’s works have received honors from The American Academy of Arts and Letters and ASCAP, and have been performed throughout the United States, in India, and abroad.

Austin Soundwaves: A Challenge Like Nothing Else

Video by John Elliot

When considering new directions in music education, examining how students are taught is important, but so to is developing ways to reach students who otherwise might not have the opportunity at all. Many youth ensemble directors will tell you that if they could choose one characteristic in their students it would be enthusiasm, and my conversation with conductor/composer Hermes Camacho revealed a group here in Texas that has that particular attribute in spades. Camacho is on faculty at Austin Soundwaves where he conducts the wind ensemble, teaches violin, and coordinates the theory program. Austin Soundwaves is part of El Sistema USA, a “support and advocacy network for people and organizations inspired by Venezuela’s monumental music education program.” Through El Sistema, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan musicians have been educated over the past three decades; Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel is perhaps its best-known graduate. Growing from just a handful of programs in the US to over fifty in just a few years, El Sistema USA is now providing ensemble music lessons to thousands of underserved students throughout the U.S. as well.

Austin Soundwaves rehearsal

Austin Soundwaves Rehearsal
Loren Welles Photography

Andrew Sigler: When did El Sistema come to the U.S.?
Hermes Camacho: I’m sure the ideals of El Sistema have been felt in the United States for quite some time, but the 2008 formation of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Orchkids program is generally recognized as the spearhead of the El Sistema USA movement. There are only about 35 programs in the country and only three in Texas. We are in our third year and this is my second year. It’s been great to be a part of something that is still new in that I’ve been able to have a lot of input and a real hands-on experience.
Austin Soundwaves pullquote
AS: How does one go about starting a program like this?
HC: There’s no official certification, but our program director Patrick Slevin completed the Sistema Fellows program at the New England Conservatory where they are fully immersed in the teaching culture and philosophies of El Sistema.
AS: What are those philosophies?
HC: I think of El Sistema-inspired programs like Austin Soundwaves in much the same way you might think of the Boys and Girls Club or other similar organizations which are focused on youth development, but in this case music is the vehicle. It’s a really amazing program; I gush over it, honestly. The staff and kids are great. It goes to show you that no matter what socio-economic background you come from, the reaction to music is the same. Often after a concert I hear, “I missed all those notes!” to which I respond, “No one noticed those, they heard the good stuff!” I’ve found that no matter if they come from a musical family or not, the kids have the same concern and drive to do it right.
AS: Are there particular similarities/differences between the original program and what Austin Soundwaves does?
HC: The emphasis on ensemble playing is shared between the two. It’s more about everyone coming together and working as a group. We teach sectionals, which are essentially group lessons, and last year started a music theory program which acts as a basis for fundamentals. I can count on one hand the number of students who have private lessons outside the program, so virtually all their music education occurs in-house. Also, Soundwaves has actively pursued new music opportunities for the students. Between performances at the Fast Forward Austin festivals in 2012 and 2013, as well as several premieres of new works for band and orchestra in the last year, we have made a point of bringing plenty of new music into the mix. Patrick and I have spoken about this on occasion, and he doesn’t know of any other El Sistema-inspired program that has as much new music activity as Austin Soundwaves.
AS: Are they doing any private lessons through Austin Soundwaves? Is there a private element to it?
HC: There is to a certain extent, but it’s not part of the structured curriculum. It’s really informal; if a student needs extra help for an audition or on their orchestra music they arrange to work it out with the teachers.
AS: Where is the program located?
HC: It is based at East Austin College Prep, which is a charter school. It’s co-ed and completely free and a big part of their goal is to provide opportunities to underserved communities of east Austin. Their emphasis is not only on getting students through high school, but getting them to attend and graduate college. In particular, it’s the goal of the Hispanic Alliance for the Performing Arts (HAPA), the non-profit organization that oversees Austin Soundwaves, to not only reach communities with limited resources but also target the artistically underserved.
AS: How many kids are in the program?
HC: Between the campuses of East Austin College Prep we have over 100 students in grades 5-10. At our finale last year we had nearly 100. In the three years it’s nearly tripled in size, starting with just under 40 students in grades 6 and 7.
AS: To what do you attribute that growth?
HC: I think that the opportunity to play an instrument is the big contributor. The students pay a $15 insurance fee, but everything else is covered. If you ask them, the answer is always, “This is something I wouldn’t get to do anywhere else.” They are jumping at the opportunity and recognizing the chance to play an instrument, to do something they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. Also, there is often the stigma which is sometimes associated with playing in band or orchestra, right? In many schools, if you’re not playing a sport you’re not cool. None of that really applies to these kids. A lot of the “cool” kids are musicians, so there’s a social element that partly drives the growth. Speaking to that social aspect, a lot of the Austin Soundwaves kids also participate in football, volleyball, cheerleading, soccer, baseball, and a variety of other activities.

Hermes Camacho conducts the Austin Soundwaves Orchestra

Hermes Camacho conducts the Austin Soundwaves Orchestra
Loren Welles Photography

AS: What is different about this teaching experience relative to your past involvement?
HC: Many of the kids come in with a variety of challenges, socioeconomic ones being the most common. I’ve taught students in other programs who come from backgrounds where music lessons are a given, and sometimes those students are less personally motivated and more parentally motivated—do you know what I mean? Now, the Soundwaves parents are certainly supportive—they are extremely supportive!—but most of these kids are here first and foremost because they want to be here. In my past experience, there have been times where I wasn’t sure if a student was doing it because they enjoyed playing music or because their parents enjoyed them playing music. That has never been the case with Soundwaves; the kids are doing it because they love it. Also, the parents and siblings are always so excited! The applause at the concerts is deafening, every single time, for every single piece. And I’m talking about Go Tell Aunt Rhody and unison versions of Iron Man. They are cheering like it’s the best thing they’ve ever heard, and the enthusiasm is, in my experience, unprecedented. There is no pretense of formality in terms of applause or reaction, nothing is pro-forma. The kids say, “I wish we could have a concert every day,” especially right after a show, and before a show they are truly as focused as any group I’ve ever run, including college and professional new music groups. They do it because it makes them feel special. They are wholeheartedly throwing themselves into it because of their love of music. They work very hard on their own. And I find I can be harder on them, in a constructive way of course, than other ensembles. They respond well to discipline because they want to be good, they want to play well. They don’t hold it against you; they seem to crave it.

The other day the group was particularly rowdy and with six minutes left in rehearsal, I’d had enough. I said, “You’ve wasted most of this rehearsal today. You’ve wasted my time and your time. You are all better than this. For these last six minutes I want you to sit; don’t talk, don’t pack up. Just sit.” Two things happened afterwards. One was that most of the students came up and apologized, both personally and for the group, for their behavior. The other is that the other teachers and aides who remained with the students during the six minutes said that nobody moved, they sat there in perfect silence. The only exception was when, after several minutes, someone asked if it had been six minutes yet, which was met by a resounding “shhhhh!” by the rest of the students. These students know that when I get frustrated or angry, it’s only for the moment. It’s not something that I ever hold onto. Many of them have even said I don’t stay angry long enough. That I smile too much!

Post-concert meet and greet

Post-concert meet and greet
Loren Welles Photography

AS: It seems like the kids in general are quite enthusiastic. Have you had any students who are indifferent or treat it like a compulsory class?
HC: Well, one student comes to mind who was having some issues. He’s a tough kid, concerned about his reputation as being “very cool,” and had started talking back, missing rehearsals, and generally seemed like he’d grown indifferent. So we sat him down and had a talk with him and asked if he really wanted to be here or not. And he started crying. He said, “This is the best part of my day. It’s what gets me through the day. I don’t want to leave.” And that was the end of the issue.

How We Learn Now: Education Week

Looking for more Education Week content? Go to the index.

AS: How would you describe your experience working with Austin Soundwaves? You are an active composer, new music ensemble director, and you teach at a university, so how does this fit in?
HC: I never take a job that I don’t want to do, and when I took the position at Soundwaves I thought it would simply be another teaching gig like the ones I’d taken before. But I’ll tell you that this has affected me personally much more than I ever could have imagined. A year ago, I never would have thought, “This is the best part of being a musician for me right now.” I love all the things I do, but this is the most rewarding and satisfying thing I’ve done as a musician. These kids make me want to work harder and to be a better musician, teacher, and person. It’s a challenge like nothing else.