Hello BIBA readers, and happy Sunday! Today's blog post is a feature on the incredibly talented pianist Elizabeth Hill! Her international career has included recitals in the US and Germany, and engagements also as a lecturer and educator. Ms. Hill is also a staunch proponent of contemporary music, having premiered and performed significant new works by a number of living known and emerging composers. Ms. Hill is currently enjoying an active season, which you can read a bit about below!
Photo by Andrew Thomas Clifton
BIBA : When and how did you become interested in piano?
EH : I started as a cello student when I was 3, but I switched to piano at 6. I was drawn to the piano because of how easily I could understand it visually; I felt like I could just sit down and figure out melodies on the keyboard all day! The piano was also a very familiar and comforting presence in my house. I grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, where we spent lots of time entertaining ourselves indoors in the winter. I remember taking many naps under the piano, reading next to it, and of course playing and singing ALL the Mariah Carey hits with my sister. I also sang in choirs (local children's choruses, and later on, high school choir), which I consider a primary influence in developing my ear, confidence in sight-reading, and building a genuine love for making music with others.
BIBA : As a chamber musician, with what ensembles do you play and for how long have you been with them?
EH : I play primarily with three ensembles. Meraki is a clarinet and piano duo that I co-founded in 2016 with my former classmate, Anastasia Christofakis. Through our performances, we strive to awaken cultural compassion through chamber music. We program music that evokes the culture and history of people through their folk sound and musical language. Our name, Meraki, is a Greek expression for the love and essence of yourself that you put into your work. I've been the principal pianist with Symphony Number One since 2015. We are a Baltimore-based chamber orchestra, led by conductor, Jordan Randall Smith, that is dedicated to performing substantial works by emerging composers, alongside riveting masterworks, and a twist of pop. And finally, I joined Balance Campaign last spring; we are a contemporary classical ensemble, based in Washington DC, with a focus on performing and commissioning new works by underrepresented women, LGBTQ+, and minority composers.
BIBA : As an advocate for new music, what have been some of your favorite projects and pieces that you've performed?
EH : Ooh, that's a tough one because there are many, but here are some of my favorites ...
Heloha Okchamali by Jerod Tate - Meraki commissioned this piece in 2018 as recipients of the Chamber Music America Classical Commissioning Program. This piece is so close to my heart, because Anastasia and I were dreaming for years of a major work that is infused with Native American folk song. We were so grateful to CMA for making this piece possible, and Jerod certainly delivered! We are currently programming and performing it as much as we can. Heloha Okchamali was inspired by Jerod's young son, Heloha; this connection brings a deep layer of personality to the music, and provides a frame of reference for how the traditional folk songs interact with and influence the modern music around it.
ANIMAL by Nathan Lincoln-deCusatis - This piece was commissioned in 2019 by Balance Campaign. Honestly, it's one of my absolute favorites; I've never performed anything quite like this before. The musical journey represents the development of an imaginary organism through many evolutionary stages until it becomes a "humanoid" and marches into its own demise. It is an intense and demanding work for our entire sextet, and it is so much fun to perform together! We premiered ANIMAL this past October in New York, featured it earlier this season on our program 'Destruction,' and will perform it again on other programs later this spring.
Lastly, a solo performance that has really stuck with me as a favorite was one that I gave at Catholic University (Washington, DC) in 2018. I performed two solo piano works (Spatials and Sonata No. 5) by the composer, George Walker, at a concert given in his honor. It was such an incredible experience to meet and work with him, and of course to perform his music! He had such a clear vision for what he wanted out of his music, and especially for the rhythmic impact it should have. I will always be incredibly grateful for that brief time but meaningful experience before his passing a few months later.
And here's just a final few other favorite new works that I've had such a pleasure performing (sans the backstory!): Wissahickon poeTrees by Jennifer Higdon, Approaching Eternity by Nicholas Bentz, Timelapse Variations by Natalie Draper, and Piano Concerto No. 2 by John Hilliard. There's so many more ... but, I'll stop at that!
BIBA : What are some of your upcoming projects?
EH : In just about a week, on Feb. 23, I will be performing Florence Price's Piano Concerto in One Movement with the Johns Hopkins Concert Orchestra (Baltimore, MD), under the direction of Jordan Randall Smith! I am so excited about this project; not only do I get the honor of presenting her concerto, but I get to work with Jordan again, who's such an innovative musician and good friend. Price's piano concerto is a gem to program because, while it's pretty compact as a concerto, it digs deeply into a diversity of musical styles and requires the pianist to extract a lot of personality out of the instrument.
I'll also be performing a new program with Balance Campaign for the Intersections Festival 2020 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center (Washington, DC). This program, 'Rebirth,' highlights new musical works that are grounded in the hope of new beginnings within the framework of an increasingly complicated and fragmented world. It features works by Judd Greenstein, Sarah Kirkland Snider, and Daniel Kellogg. This program is the second of our triptych of programs this season: Destruction | Rebirth | Metamorphosis.
Lastly, Meraki has multiple performances of our program 'Blue Thunder' coming up in March and April. I'm thrilled about these because this program will feature the premiere performances of Be Still My Child by Anthony R. Green! Anastasia and I organized a consortium to commission this new work; a collection of six pieces inspired by lullabies from around the world. It is truly a unique and touching addition to the clarinet and piano duo repertoire. Our 'Blue Thunder' program will also feature Heloha Okchamali by Jerod Tate, and works by Jamie Wind Whitmarsh, and Jennifer Higdon.
BIBA : I give you unlimited time and funds. What piece would you organize for a performance (or commission)?
EH : Oh, too many possibilities. What comes first to mind is that I would love to organize more performances of Florence Price's piano concerto ... internationally! I love the music community's growth of interest and dedication to her story and music, and it would be an honor to help take her compositional voice around the world. I would definitely jump at the opportunity and resources to spend some time traveling and performing her music with different orchestras!
Aside from that, there are so many ideas that I have spinning around in my head to commission! As a musician, I'm drawn to the power of storytelling through music. My mission revolves around using music to speak for those who have been silenced, and for those who are underrepresented. Any piece that I can commission or perform, and any future collaboration that helps me return to this theme would most definitely be the product of whatever unlimited time and funds that could ever come my way.
To learn more about Elizabeth Hill, please visit her website: http://elizabethghill.com/
And follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and Soundcloud: @lizhillpiano
Hello BIBA fans! Today's post is a spotlight on the emerging composer, performer, and sound artist/healer Shannon Sea! Having first come across her artistry in Berlin, I've been a fan ever since. According to her bio, "Shannon's works explore themes of nature, spirituality, Afro-futurism, and self-exploration. She seeks to create sound worlds that fuse together acoustic and electronic means of expression. [...] Shannon views listening as a form of activism and meditation. She believes that sound can heal and expand one's consciousness." Curious to learn more? Read below!
(Photo by Rog Walker)
BIBA : How did you get into music, and how specifically did you get into composition?
SS : I've been a music lover my entire life. I remember scatting the solos of Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane when I was a kid. I also knew the intricate bass-lines to all of my favorite classic rock, funk and disco songs. Yet to me, I never thought I possessed any special skill. And at that time and even in my teens, I didn't have the desire to make music my profession -- in fact, the thought never occurred to me.
I remember my mother forcing (or from her perspective, encouraging) me to take piano lessons at age 5. It seemed that she wasn't expecting me to become a virtuoso pianist, but she definitely wanted to expose me to music-learning. At that age, I didn't take a liking to piano and never practiced it -- and after seeing my cousin have a lot of fun performing the tenor sax in a marching band, I asked my mom for an alto saxophone instead of piano lessons. She happily agreed.
I played in school bands, and was naturally quite good on the sax -- I had a good embouchure and some dexterity -- so I never practiced. And thus, I never became exceptional in music. Like I alluded to earlier, music for me was a hobby at that time, and I never considered studying it in college or making a living from it.
So at age 15, I quit music completely. I entered into a photography program at my high school, and left the band. I simply wanted to learn photography and entered into a program that allowed us to work in the darkroom for two hours every day. ... As I look back, I think this is part of the learning process as a young person. You try out things, and you see what sticks.
... So fast forward 17 years later, and I'm 32 or 33, and am working as a lawyer in New York City. I'm walking down Houston street in in the Lower East Side, and I'm crying because of something my ex-lover did or didn't do -- I can't quite remember. But I'm crying and walking, and all of a sudden, I start humming a melody. It consoles me a little, and then I keep repeating this melody over and over because I like it. And then, I record it on my phone, because the whole experience felt new and cathartic. I then forget about the recording for a few months.
That night, I remember feeling it was the first time a melody arose within me organically. Before, if I came up with a motif, it was because I sat somewhere and intentionally tried to create a melody. However, that time, it was refreshing to have a sound just appear in my head. Like ripeness to a fruit -- coming from which direction, I do not know; but just appearing.
Okay, so fast forward 3 or 4 months later, and I'm listening to this incredible song by Missy Mazzoli, called "Impromptu." It moves me to tears, and then I think about that time I was walking down Houston and boo-hoo crying while humming that melody. I then challenged myself, to create a melody that moves me to tears -- a change from creating a melody after crying.
So, I create this melody, and it makes me cry. And then, I find the tones on the piano quite easily. I remember saying to myself, 'Wow, I can do this?!' And at this time, the desire to compose was birthed. I realized composing was another way of expressing myself -- that it was the preferred way.
At the time, after finding the notes on the piano, I thought composing would be easy. Haha -- I was wrong. There's nothing easy about harmony, progressions, and good structure.
I quickly realized I needed to learn the basics of music theory, such as the Circle of 5ths, and the notes on the Bass Clef, etc ... In 2018, I stopped practicing law, and started taking private lessons to learn all of the basics in music theory, composition analysis, and piano. In May 2019, I officially launched my career as a composer.
(Photo by Iveta Rysava; with Sarah Martin, So Fukushima, and Tsepo Pooe)
BIBA : What attracts you about sound healing?
SS : I love meditation. It's been so beneficial to my life and spiritual growth. I am a big advocate for it, and I think people should meditate whenever possible.
Without realizing it, people meditate a lot more than they think they do. It's simply a matter of being in the present moment. This can happen when dancing, or building something, or even washing the dishes. So, I only shift the focus to sound. The goal is for people to be present when listening to the sound and when listening to themselves. One shouldn't judge the sounds, one should just be -- be with the sounds, be in the moment. To me, this is part of the healing process.
The other part of sound healing is the interaction with the wave frequencies. During my sound healing sessions, I perform an experimental, electronic live-set, using synths, field recordings, and electro-acoustic sounds. I use a lot of low-frequency waves during the sessions because I like the idea of the body feeling the vibrations of the music (in a way that does not destroy one's ear drums!).
There are several medical studies that talk about the healing effects of low-frequency waves. I don't focus on quantizing the benefits in this way because I'm not a scientist. I approach it purely from an empirical perspective, in seeing that the low-frequency waves help relax and re-center people.
When I'm performing a sound healing session, I go into a trance -- I'm completely in the moment. And I'm very attracted to the experience of when I and the listeners are fully in the moment together. You can really feel the energy vibrating at a high level.
BIBA : Where do you seek out compositional or general artistic inspiration?
SS : I seek inspiration from music and visual artists primarily. I love artists who are free with their artistic expression. This often means they don't produce conventional work -- or don't produce work that was considered conventional at the time they created it. I also like artists who have a very strong personality, and who are unapologetic about it. To me, this means they allow their inner-self, or authentic-self to surface. So, artists like Alice Coltrane, Harold Budd, Toru Takemitsu, Eliane Radigue, Miles Davis, inspire me — in addition to my contemporaries, Solange and Billie Eilish.
I get a LOT of inspiration from visual artists. I think it is because many of them are completely nuts -- in a good way. They are completely unconventional -- and naturally so. I really find inspiration from artists of surrealism, minimalism, and neo-expressionism. You can see from many of them that they dig deep inside of themselves and they share with us what they find. Their vulnerability is very magical! René Magritte, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Denisse Ariana Pérez, and Frank Stella are visual artists who inspire my work.
BIBA : What are some of the benefits and drawbacks of having an international practice?
SS : Benefits: Having so much exposure to different cultures, and to different forms of expression. Having an international practice has made me more open to possibilities and experimentation in my work.
Drawbacks: I think it's harder to establish deep roots in a particular city when your work takes you everywhere.
BIBA : I give you the commission of a lifetime: unlimited time, funds, resources, and whatever else you need. What piece would you compose?
SS : I would co-create a 720-hour (30-day) piece that included every musician of African descent in the world. These musicians would be flown in from every country, every city, and every village. So let's say 1 million or so, musicians would participate. Then about 33,000 would perform per day, alternating shifts of 4 hours, I imagine.
I would then co-write the piece with about 29 other composers of African descent. We would each compose 24 hours worth of music, that would be woven together to create this 720-hour score.
Want to know even more about Shannon Sea?
Visit her website: www.ShannonSeaMusic.com
Follow her on Instagram: @ShannonSeaMusic
Like her Facebook: www.facebook.com/ShannonSeaMusic
‘Virtuoso’ is the Language of Great Musicians; ‘Black’ is not His Name Part III:
WeWrite to Rewrite & Re-right History
by Kristen Adams
When classical music began trending among higher classes, the arts community welcomed the new music sector. While music is a powerful force in bringing community together, it further distanced elites (who added classical music and composers to their required “cultured” discourse) from commoners (unable to access the sphere). Classical music was not solely a topic of conversation between the elite audience. It provoked a wordless conversation amongst the composer, performer, and listener whose language traversed temporal, physical, political, and psychological boundaries defining the elite culture. One writer writes notes, there are two distinct ways of attending to sound: one that focuses on the thereness of the sound, on the sound-producer; and one that focuses on the hereness of the sound, on the physiological and psychological effects of sound on the listener”.
With 2020 still feeling fresh, we start the decade building upon the foundations of excellence, creativity, and passion that Black composers before us also embraced. Their lives show a different story of a Black man during slavery, and their achievements demonstrate how a community can be enhanced in the absence of racial exclusion. In a society that created a label, “African-American music” to define our creativity as the beautiful Blues, R&B, Caribbean, Afro-beats and Rap styles, the reality is that there is no limit to music Black people create.
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was not the only violinist whose legacy is clouded by the shadow of a white counterpart. George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower was a virtuoso whose birth is estimated to have been on February 29, 1780 from a Polish mother and Caribbean father. He had a younger brother, Fredrick, who was also a very talented cellist. During George Bridgetower’s time, he was considered “the African Prince”. While characterizing African with
prince is a positive representation of the often misrepresented continent and its people, it was an exoticization of his talent and ethnicity, given that he was born in Poland and was not recorded to have had any ties to a kingdom. However, this does speak to notions of identity that seem foreign to North America but innate in Europe and other parts of the world: nationality by blood, an increasingly disputed reality for its political and human rights ramifications.
Bridgetower made his professional debut at the Concert Spirituel (one of the first public concert series in Europe) in Paris in April 1789 at the young age of nine years old, when he played a violin concerto by Giovanni Giornovichi. Despite his early start of exceptionalism, his accomplishments are more difficult to find in writings. Instead, the paper trail of his legacy is dominated by his fall from grace with Ludwig van Beethoven. Considering him a good friend and talented virtuoso, Beethoven dedicated his Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 9 in A Major, Op. 47 to Bridgetower, inscribing the following (translated): Mulatto sonata composed for the mulatto Bridgetower, great fool and mulatto composer’. They performed its debut together in Vienna in 1803.
However, after a dispute, Beethoven decided to dedicate the piece to Rodolphe Kreutzer, a man he never met whose own response to this parallels the rewards so easily granted to white men with less credentials than their highly accomplished POC counterparts. Though we all call it the Kreutzer Sonata, Kreutzer never played the piece, saying that Beethoven did not understand how the violin worked, making the piece unplayable. If you listen to the sonata, you may notice how the harmonies hold the tensions, intensity, command, determination, righteousness, shiftiness, emotional vigor and dialogue between the violin and piano that colored the end of their friendship and Beethoven’s decision to alter his dedication. While this truth is fascinating, Bridgetower’s life is more than this phase.
Bridgetower was a violinist and composer who was considered a “child prodigy, a crown favorite, a master violinist, and a respected teacher”. After one of his performances, a newspaper circulating during his time remarked, “[George Bridgetower] had a more crowded and splendid concert on Sunday morning than has ever been known in this place. There were upwards of 550 persons present, and they were gratified by such skills on the violin as created general astonishment, as well as pleasure from the boy wonder. The father was in the gallery, and so affected by the applause bestowed on his son, that tears of pleasure and gratitude flowed in profusion." His father attended many of his performances and supported him when they traveled to Windsor to begin what would be a lifelong tour around Europe when Bridgetower decided to make a living performing. While he was elected to the Royal Society of Musicians on October 4, 1807, he also earned a Bachelors of Music from Trinity Hall in 1811. He would also hold the position of concert master in the Prince of Wales’s private orchestra for 14 years.
Bridgetower is not recorded to have had tense relations with his contemporaries, but was welcomed and enjoyed friends and mutual mentorships. Several of his compositions have survived over the passing time, but very few are recorded. For those wanting to read more about Bridgetower, Rita Dove wrote a book about him entitled Sonata Mullatica; A Life in Five Movements and a Short Play. Both Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges and George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower created lives that gave them meaning, followed their passions, and integrated spaces that some may believe are just starting to be integrated in the 21st century. Their stories inspire and push us to demand more recognition and inclusivity in the classical world as we ask you to embrace your own passions.
What gives your life meaning? How will you make an impact? We love music because we love its sound, we love its feeling, we love its inventiveness, and commend those who dare to break the silence. We are all creators of our lives and of history. ‘Virtuoso’ is the language of great musicians. You hold the key to your greatness.
“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” – Toni Morrison
‘Virtuoso’ is the Language of Great Musicians; ‘Black’ is Not Their Name Part II: Lift Every Voice
by Kristen Adams
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” – Dr. MLK, Jr.
On the third Monday of January annually, the United States remembers Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) for his persistence and his achievements in his vast activism: the Civil Rights Movement, Voting Rights Act, declarations of peaceful protest in Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Anti-Vietnam War advocacy, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the Poor People’s Campaign for economic change, and the beginnings of his endeavor to unite with Malcolm X. While we honor his memory, we hear his words and those of others who continue to open many doors.
“Everything will change. The question is growing up or decaying.” – Nikki Giovanni
Hopefully those reading this have enjoyed listening to some compositions of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges after reading Part I, and are ready to consider the part of his journey that resembles the experiences of Black activists from the 18th century to the 21st. To conclude this call to “say their names”, next week we will discuss George Bridgewater (another ‘virtuoso’ overshadowed by a white European counterpart), and encourage you to uncover other Black women, men, and people in all sectors whose memories are clouded by white supremacist erasure.
“Black people, we are fully deserving of the room and space to fully express our humanity.” – Opal Tometi
If there is anything we learn in Black skin, it is to persist, it is to activate, it is to be. Bologne’s life, beginning in Guadalupe from Senegalese, French, and Italian ancestry, was a journey that accepted no limits. Among his known works, which include three sets of string quartets, two symphonies, eight symphonie-concertantes, six operas comiques, three violin sonatas, 14 violin concertos, a sonata for harp and flute, a bassoon concerto, a clarinet concerto, a cello concerto, and six violin duos, only few can still be found.
“Music makes us want to live.” – Mary J. Blige
While it may not come as a surprise to the Black community - accustomed to its work, people, culture, and creations stolen so often - one of Bologne's compositions exists in his contemporary’s piece, and so it is most likely to have been heard in the context of a different musical story. Take a guess … a composer whose unrequited competition was mentioned in Part I … Mozart. As Andrea Valentino quotes Chi-Chi Nwanoku in this article, “It is no accident—and tells us a lot—that Mozart copied note-for-note from a Bologne violin concerto into one of his own [pieces].”
“The brutal history of colonialism is one in which white people literally stole land and people for their own gain and material wealth.” - Patrisse Cullors
Mozart not only felt threatened by Bologne’s excellent work but was so insecure in himself that he stole a gesture from Bologne’s symphony-concertante for two violins. Yet he is somehow the one whose memory shines through history and continues to be played by all major orchestras.
“It is not who you attend schools with, but who controls the school you attend.” – Nikki Giovanni
Bologne’s legacy of musical works was not subdued by this theft, but rather by the society that saw only his Blackness, despite his great musical, political, and military accomplishments. Before his 20th birthday, Bologne received numerous dedications from musicians. Two prominent musicians, Antonio Lolli and François-Joseph Gossec, dedicated two Violin Concertos Op. 9 and Six Trios Op. 9, respectively, to Bologne. His public debut, soloing with the Concert des Amateurs in 1772 and performing his two Violin Concertos, Op.2, “received the most rapturous applause”, according to Mercure de France. While Bologne’s talent is just one of the many accomplishments we remember, the complexity of his works was used as an excuse to devalue them. Nevertheless, we do not let those excuses govern our perception.
“Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.” – Toni Morrison
The Paris Opera refused to listen to his command because they would not be conducted by a
Black person. When he was going to be named Artistic Director of the Royal Academy at the Opera, two female leads protested so extensively against working with a “mulatto” that they did not instate him.
“Never limit yourself because of others’ limited imagination; never limit others because of your own limited imagination.” – Dr. Mae Jemison
In his political life, his clear commitment to and successes for the French Revolution were still
questioned by authorities, landing him in prison for one year due to suspicions of his true allegiance. Even this did not stop him from working to create a better world, be it through music, military defense success, or human rights abolition activism.
“He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.” – Muhammad Ali
As hinted prior, Bologne was already “falling out of fashion” due to the complex music he could
create and the society that was ready to discard him with the slightest misstep. Yet, he disregarded those risks and advocated for Black rights and abolition, initiating Black political activism in Europe. His human rights stances, considered political only in oppressive societies, reveal the nuances of a society that loves a prodigy but hates a certain skin color.
“Teach her to reject like-ability. Her job is to be her full self … honest and aware of the equal humanity of other people.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
His activism recognized and utilized his own privileges, gained from a father who allowed him to take his last name, despite the norm to disown children considered illegitimate. Despite his education, in which he excelled, and his accomplishments and dedication to the queen and to his country, he was still not considered a legitimate person, and therefore enjoyed no rights of citizenship. Yet Bologne continued to color his life with great endeavors, as if he never heeded these moments as setbacks, just re-directions.
“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by
them.” – Maya Angelou
After all the doors he opened and spaces he enhanced, he continued pushing more boundaries and embracing his passions. He encourages us to consider our own impact in the world. How is one to be a creator of music, using sound and harmonies to break the stagnant air, and then be silent and void of this intensity in the face of injustice?
“I had spent many years pursuing excellence, because that is what classical music is all about ... Now it was dedicated to freedom, and that was far more important.” – Nina Simone
While some mark his dedication to equal rights as the end of his social success, it was the beginning of a passionate struggle against racism in Europe and in the world that continues today. When he died in 1799, newspapers tried to control his impact by writing about his musical self and completely ignoring his political contributions to both France and to Black people’s rights. Nevertheless, he succeeded in cracking the comfort for which his society yearned in dehumanizing other races, opening yet another path toward revolution.
“Whites and Blacks should be taught to respect their fellow human beings as an integral part of being educated.” – Mamie Phipps Clark
While our fight continues worldwide, so does recognition of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. One such recognition gives listeners the opportunity to listen to his music live. Artistic director Marlon Daniel coordinates the Festival International de Musique Saint-Georges held in Guadalupe, so that his memory and music live on. For our international readers, we thank you for standing in solidarity with the Black American community, for we rise together.
“I used to want the words ‘She tried’ on my tombstone. Now I want ‘She did it.’” – Katherine Dunham
“Be a bush if you can't be a tree. If you can't be a highway, just be a trail. If you can't be a sun, be a star. For it isn't by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are.”
– Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.
Listen to the Black National Anthem
‘Virtuoso’ is the Language of Great Musicians; ‘Black’ is not His Name: Part I
by Kristen Adams
Some of the greatest musicians saw a virtuoso for their talent, not their race (after its invention). The innate nature of music and true artistry is to break the boundary between what the viewer knows and how this knowledge, belief, emotion, or controversy is perceived. The classical world has had individuals stretching musical, political, and physical boundaries for centuries, and listeners are excited to enjoy each new creation. In recognizing the virtuoso/a as a musician with tremendous skill, rather than aligning it with its root, virtu’, that was used to describe masculine noble men, the community opened the language to be inclusive so that the classical realm could be too. When language accepts, so does society, no matter how minute or expansive. It is up to us, who remember, to keep the language we speak as open as the music our souls and instruments create. Therefore, we’d like to consider a musician whose life and musical achievements resemble the Black boy joy we recognize today: Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745 - 1799). During his life, he mastered his crafts and broke societal boundaries in different ways, yet he still became remembered in the shadow of a white classical composer. Today, we change that, and we continue the legacy of the Black Lives Matter Movement that cries “Say his name”.
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, is known as the “Black Mozart”, but if history measured his skill and impact, Mozart would have been known as the “White Bologne”. Sounds off, right? Better to remember Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, and Mozart. We can delve deeper to help the name stick, if needed. “Black Mozart” was used to refer to Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges because Mozart was so inspired by Bologne’s talent and artistry that he was always competing against him and driving himself to be better than Bologne. Some would argue that Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, reflected his sentiments towards Paris, and the character Monostatos was his depiction of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, whom he considered his nemesis. However, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges is not remembered to have addressed this competition, and instead was living his best life being the local celebrity that he was. Bologne was not known solely in his nation, but was regarded around the world by major figures of his time for his virtuoso in composition and performance. Years later, with a different tune, we cry, “Say his name”.
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was a violinist, harpist, composer, colonel, and champion fencer who was also invited to many balls because of his dancing skills. Born from a Guadalupe plantation owner and an enslaved African, he was considered an illegitimate child, but that did not stop him from mastering his many crafts and breaking the stereotypes to be remembered in such high esteem. When Joseph Bologne, also known as “god of arms”, graduated from the Académie royale polytechnique des armes et de ‘l’équitation (fencing and horsemanship academy), he was made an officer of the king’s bodyguard, becoming Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. It is possible that you recognize his name if you were lucky to learn about the French Revolution through an unracialized, and thus authentic, lens. He not only volunteered to fight, but he also became colonel of the first Black regiment in Europe, a cavalry brigade of 1,000 volunteers of color, with whom he halted ‘The Treason of Dumouriez’. Even while he was volunteering, he gave weekly concerts; his passion for music transcended all boundaries and concepts of what a military experience should be and what his life could be.
He continued to create, and began writing operas, directing Marquise de Montesson’s prestigious musical theater, in addition to conducting Le Concert des Amateurs, which he transformed into one of the best orchestras in Europe during his lifetime. Amidst the high regards with which society viewed him, one that stands out is John Adams’s declaration that Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was “the most accomplished man in Europe”. There are many rich and exciting aspects of his character and achievements. We invite you to explore his music, read more about his life, speak his name, and remember Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Enjoy listening to his music this week! Stay tuned for part 2 next week. Here is a piece to start your exploration!
Happy New Year from the Castle of our Skins team! COOS is now in the second half of its seventh season. Time sure does fly! In this second half, COOS is planning two projects that feature music by African composers. It has been incredible researching this music, connecting with composers and musicians, and expanding our musical vocabulary. Fitting then is this first BIBA Blog of the new year - an artist spotlight of the incredibly talented, young South African composer, Monthati Masebe!
BIBA : How did you get your start in piano and in composition? Did they happen at the same time or one after the other?
MM : I come from a very artistic family lineage, both from my mother and father's side of the family. Ancestors I have never met before would speak to me in my dreams, teach me to play the mbila (also known as kalimba) or recite proverbs through song. I also always had toys that were mini pianos as a child, and at the age of 8 begged my mother to pay for piano lessons. I immersed myself in classical piano for 12 years and would always find myself making mistakes in my pieces and turning those mistakes into songs. I paid more attention to harmony and phrasing than precision and techniques. In 2016, I realized that I enjoyed the process of creating music and I would much rather create music for musicians to play. I believe very strongly in music cognition and that frequencies in sound can affect the frequencies in our brain. Composing music that can have an impact on how we feel, how we speak to ourselves internally, what we associate with emotions – that's how I make meaning of music.
BIBA : Your musical voice includes many different styles, genres, and approaches. What draws you to these styles and how do you combine them in your compositions?
MM : I come from a very diverse cultural background. I grew up in a home that was pan-Africanist in thought, food, art and spirituality. I listened to African indigenous vocalizations from all regions of Africa. Sometimes we would meditate with mbira music. My ability to identify African indigenous instruments led me to listening to genres that incorporate it. Latin jazz, cross-over jazz, afro-psychadelic rock, underground electro subgenres like electro-chaabi, kwaito, downtempo and lo-fi.
I like to seek out what I'm drawn to about each genre and embody that in my orchestration or textural preference. Sometimes the sound of an instrument will be the inspiration for a certain synth sound or a percussive pattern will influence the rhythms I choose for instruments. I think there's a natural osmosis that happens between music and memory, but not everyone is as conscious of how we all seek out patterns of familiarity to define our musical taste, both for listening and for creating.
BIBA : In your beautiful piece Disturbed Taboo (Dzata) for the Stockholm Sax Quartet, you explore complex rhythms and tonalities to evoke emotions associated with a violent, annual traditional practice. Can you please explain a bit more about this practice? What moved you to compose a piece about this practice?
MM : Bare knuckle fighting (amongst other cultural practices performed by various tribes) is a practice that symbolises strength and pride. Musangwe is a the name of this tournament and it is said to be a therapeutic experience that puts individuals into a trance that makes the seemingly painful experience tremendously bearable. The grounds are prepared with traditional herbs and plants, as well as a ritual for the ancestors to protect fighters in the tournament. It happens annually from the 16th of December to the 1st of January. Only one person has died since the beginning of this practice in the early 1800s. I wrote about this piece with the intention to interrogate the grey areas in life which usually go unspoken. When we remove the veil of right or wrong, maybe we'll start to see beauty in the mystique or at least see how our lack of knowledge about certain ways of life can make us assume the worst of people and practices. I never really fit in, and because of that I always found myself being understanding about the unconventional. I feel like I can relate to being misunderstood.
BIBA : Your artistic interests expand to visual art, including film and installation. In all of your endeavors, what is the most important aspect of yourself that you place in your various projects?
MM : I think I always want time to be a concept that is considered. That time can be confusing and feel like it has no start or finish but just an infinite loop of sonic pictures. That repetition can be daunting but sometimes it can be exactly what one needs to feel safe in the chaos of life. This sounds a bit flowery and poetic but if you listen to my music you'll see the common thread if you think about time in those ways. I never intentionally wanted this to be the signature but for some reason it's all I ever think about musically.
BIBA : I give you the commission of a lifetime - unlimited access to any musician, artist, studio, art supply, software/technology that you want, unlimited time, and your choice of location. What would you create?!?
MM : I would make a 7 part series of a global residency that has people composing with material that is considered non-musical to make a statement about the global challenges we don't speak about enough. For instance, imagine an orchestra of car hooters all lined up and down hills all over the world, commenting on carbon emissions and the environmental crisis we are faced with. The cars will all be grafitti'd by artists and it will be live streamed and turned into a documentary series. I really think we should be saying more as artists. And residencies or commissions are a good way of getting impactful information out there.
To learn more about Ms. Masebe, you can follow her on Instagram @Monthati_M, and you can listen to some of her music on SoundCloud!
by Anthony R. Green
This morning, walking down the street in Berlin, I saw an article in the Berliner Morgenpost about Beethoven and how the world is preparing for celebrations of his 250th anniversary. Wonderful! I am sure many are anticipating the articles, educational events, displays, and thousands of concerts all dedicated to Beethoven's life, perhaps some of his contemporaries and inspirations (such as Cherubini), and his music. I personally am anticipating catching a performance of the Grosse Fugue, which - in my opinion - is one of the most transcendental pieces ever composed.
By now, you probably have noticed, like I did, that these big anniversary celebrations of the "great masters" are staged by institutions that have defined the composers who are considered the "great masters", and ... well ... many well-deserving composers have simply not made the cut, for ... various ... different reasons.
With that, let's consider adding William Grant Still to next year's major celebrations. Born in 1895, 2020 will mark his 125th anniversary! With so many barries broken, so many accomplishments achieved successfully and gracefully, and such incredible music, Still deserves the title of "Great Master" as much as Beethoven. Still composed over 150 works, including 5 symphonies and eight operas! He was the first Black composer to have a symphony played by a major symphony orchestra, the first to have an opera played by a major opera company, the first to have an opera broadcast on television, and he was the first Black person to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the US. How did he achieve all of this? Talent, hard work, dedication, persistence, strength, tenacity, and so much more. But the mere fact that he was so prolific, often performed, sought after, and respected is a testament to his character and the worth of his music.
So where are the Still celebration preparations? Have you noticed them? Have you noticed a lack of them? There is still time to write letters, posts, blogs, and make other requests to demand to hear the music of Still in celebration of his 125th next year! The concerts and celebrations unfortunately will not happen if people do not ask. Please ask! Demand! Don't forget about William Grant Still!
In the meantime, listen to this beautiful recording of Summerland by the incomparable Althea Waites!
Happy Sunday BIBA and COOS fans! Castle of our Skins's next event is part of its upcoming residency with the Longy School of Music at Bard College in Cambridge, MA. From the 12th to the culminating concert on the 14th, Castle of our Skins will present a host of various events celebrating the life and music of Trevor Weston. For a complete list of the events, please click here! To learn more about Trevor Weston, his life, international career, and music, keep on reading!
BIBA: You credit your start in music to the prestigious St. Thomas Choir school in NYC when you were only 10. Did you grow up in a musical household? How did this initial training lead to you becoming a composer?
TW: I grew up in a creative family that loved and respected the arts. My father was an interior designer and a graduate of Music and Art High School, now the LaGuardia School, and Pratt for College. My mother was the daughter of the best seamstress and sewing instructor in Speightstown, Barbados. My father’s brother was a fashion designer, graduate of FIT in NYC. Creating new unique works was a cultural imperative in my family. My brother, sister, and I could not have coloring books because we had to make our own pictures. At the same time, both of my parents loved music. During his teens, my father studied voice with William Lawrence, accompanist to Roland Hayes and Marian Anderson. I believe Lawrence was also a rehearsal pianist for the Boston Pops. In high school and college, I accompanied my father singing Harry T. Burleigh spiritual arrangements, most likely as a result of his voice lessons with William Lawrence, and arias by Bach and Handel in church. My mother was also very musical. Growing up in the Anglican church, my mother knew every hymn and psalm tune in that tradition. When my mother wanted to locate the three of her children in public places, she would whistle a major triad in second inversion. My mother was the first person to tell me that my repetitive little piano piece needed something called a bridge. Music was everything in my childhood.
At the St. Thomas Choir School, I learned very quickly that music was not only enjoyable but an important and powerful form of human communication. The choir performed music by living composers together with a wide range of music from the renaissance to the twentieth century.
The first piece I composed studying with TJ Anderson was based on a musical figure I wrote in response to the Kyrie from the Mass for Five Voices by Lennox Berkeley. I still remember hearing this piece as a 5th grader and being completely mesmerized by it. My experience at the Choir School expanded my knowledge of music as a powerful entity. Performing music well was not mere play, but an important contribution to the world. An important lesson I learned at the Choir School is that you may never know how your music will affect others so it is best to always try to say something important.
BIBA: In your incredible and diverse career, you have spent some time in Paris. What were some of the ways Europe had an influence on your compositional voice, and how did your studies there differ from your studies in the United States?
TW: I studied in Paris on an award from UC Berkeley, the George Ladd Prix de Paris. While in Paris, I attended courses in Music History Pedagogy at IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique). This gave a better understanding of the French and by enlarge the European new music scene. I also attended numerous IRCAM concerts and heard composers who are rarely performed in the US. Most importantly, I felt like a valued and visible part of society in Paris as a composer. In a way, just living in Paris changed my identity as an artist. Although I mostly worked on my own, I did have a great lesson with Gérard Grisey. He listened to a few of my works and then asked me, “Do you know who you are as a composer?” He heard elements of Bartok, and generic modernism and he was not sure if I did this deliberately or by default due to my education. Paris forced me to not only consider my role as an artist in society but also forced me to reflect on what made my music unique.
BIBA: The voice features prominently in your repertoire, having a substantial number of opera, solo and accompanied choir works, and solo vocal works/art song. What are some of the ways that text informs your musical decisions as you work with the voice in your works?
TW: When I was a choirboy, I disliked singing psalms using Anglican chants because I thought they were boring, repetitive chanting with limited melodic content. It turns out that not only do I love them now but the relatively few pitches used to sing these chants increased my sensitivity to text expression. In many ways, the words are the music in Anglican Chant. As a result, I have to settle on the text before I start writing vocal music because the music always comes as a response to the text for me. I then arrange the text to create the necessary form for the work. There are certain words that speak to me musically and others that do not. I am not a fan of using wordy texts because I prefer to repeat words in different ways as a type of explication of the text. The words I choose usually have colorful sounds, sonorities or suggest vivid imagery. Some of my works for voice were inspired by the sound of one word as the focal point of the piece.
BIBA: Your career also includes extensive amounts of research, having co-authored a piece about Duke Ellington with the late, great Olly Wilson, having edited Florence Price's Piano Concerto, having researched various topics and primary sources for your own compositions, and more. What were some of your favorite "discoveries" in your research and how have they influenced your musicality?
TW: I told Olly Wilson that his writings on the “conceptual approaches” that link the creation of music in traditional West African Music and music by Black Americans were like the Rosetta Stone to me. They unlocked an understanding of how Music of the Diaspora works and why it is constructed in similar ways around the world. I composed a piece for organ, Arise, my Love, based on the clapping on beats two and four heard in traditional African American music. The syncopation creates a basic level of necessary rhythmic clash in the piece. Ellington definitely saw himself as part of a long lineage of musicians writing in a Black musical tradition. This fact became more apparent conducting research while working on the publication with Olly Wilson. I learned much from Florence Price. The final section of Florence Price’s Concerto in One Movement is a masterpiece. She combines Ragtime or African American 19th century dance rhythms and orchestral music in a truly interesting way. The last movement of my work Griot Legacies is directly influenced by Florence Price. I decided to conclude my work like Price with upbeat African American dance rhythms.
BIBA: I give you the commission of a lifetime with unlimited funding, time, and access to whatever musical/performing forces you desire. What would you compose?
TW: I would compose a large scale work that includes a whole town. An outdoor orchestra, large choir and possible church bells too. We rarely come together as communities anymore. It would be a huge statement that would include the audience singing along with familiar melodies accompanied by an orchestra, choirs and church bells. A piece of 1812 overture-like grandeur that reinforces community and identity.
Vist Trevor Weston's website here!
Follow him on Instagram here!
by Anthony R. Green
Quite a significant number of Black classical musicians (soloists and ensembles) have wonderful albums, but precious little press around them, even from niche reviewers. While I am no experienced album reviewer, I would love to direct BIBA Fans to this world of artistry that is available to support in various ways. BIBA has reviewed Seth Parker Woods's album in the past (in a VLOG), thus will continue with reviews moving forward! And this blog's album review is a recent release by COOS collaborator Julian Terrell Otis: All the Pretty Flowers.
In a nutshell, this album is a MUST! Please stop reading this now and purchase it on Bandcamp using THIS LINK (CLICK HERE)!
Now that you've purchased the album (!!), please take a moment to bathe yourself in what may be a new sonic experience.
I first met Julian in Chicago, when Seth organized a performance of one of my works. Julian sang this raw piece, being accompanied only by a contrabass. Their performance was truly stunning and solidified my deep respect for his artistry. I then had the pleasure of seeing him perform with Angel Bat Dawid & The Brothahood in Den Haag (The Hague, in the Netherlands). It was refreshing to see and hear another color and character of his artistry. Angel Bad Dawid appears on this album, and adds to the Afrofuturism element of Otis's environments. The tracks come from two sessions, one in Chicago and one at the Banff Centre in Canada, where Julian was a featured artist. While these sessions were separated by time and geography, the album definitely meshes together as one cohesive entity.
In the eight tracks offered on this stellar sonic journey, Julian spans the gambit of issues and emotions, including questioning the canon (Beethoven was Black), futuristic civil rights (We Are Not Robots), environmental betrayal and - perhaps inadvertently - the power of a Black man's tears (Mother Earth), Afrofuturism comedy and new versions of familiarities (The Tale of the Martian Cheetos), a tribute to Chicago (All the Pretty Flowers), experimental sonic flow (Pauline's Interlude), and true wealth (Rich). Otis's text is clear and simple, but NOT in any way simplistic. In fact, these little text nuggets contain such wisdom and philosophy that one can sit with this album for years unpacking hidden meanings, secrets, messages, and perhaps prompts from the future, the present, and the past. Are you ready for this journey?
THANK YOU JULIAN and all your collaborators for this heartfelt, meaningful experience!
"Have you ever put a smile on someone's face? Then you're rich ... "
Happy Sunday BIBA readers! Today's blog post is an artist feature of Sakari Dixon Vanderveer! A composer, violist, and educator, Ms. Vanderveer has received commissions and performances from a variety of soloists and ensembles, as well as performed with various chamber and orchestral groups. She is a promotor of contemporary music, and passionate about working with children to instill in them the importance of music and the power of new music.
(photo credit: Shaun Frederickson)
BIBA : How did you enter the world of music and when did you realize you would like to pursue this path seriously?
SD : I began studying the violin in fourth grade when orchestra was offered at my elementary school. At the time, I was much more interested in a career in the sciences. I was obsessed with animals, and by the sixth grade, I was determined to become a veterinarian. I literally sat in front of Animal Planet and took notes! However, I had several opportunities to compose for small ensembles in middle school, and a few years later, I knew that I wanted to become a professional composer. I will always cherish the teachers that helped me to become an instrumentalist, but I am even more grateful for the moments in which several of those same teachers encouraged me to compose. I feel as if music theory and composition are often neglected skills in band and orchestra classrooms due to pressure to perform and compete often. However, several of these teachers were willing to meet with me outside of class to give me valuable mentorship, even if they didn’t identify as composers themselves.
BIBA : What inspires you most about composing? What frustrates you most?
SD : One of the aspects of composing that I find most inspiring is the opportunity to write for specific performers or audiences. I try my best not to take for granted the ways in which music can connect seemingly dissimilar people in unexpected ways. In particular, I am driven by opportunities to reach out to children through contemporary music. Sometimes I feel as if kids are left out of experiencing new music because people assume that they won’t appreciate it, but from working with children for so long, I’ve learned that they have extremely open minds. As a Black female composer, I also believe that it is important for me to reach out to young musicians of underrepresented backgrounds because that encouraged me to pursue being a classical musician at a young age.
For me, the most frustrating aspect of composing is both a blessing and a curse. Over the years, I’ve found that my creative endeavors are an effective means of getting to know myself better, even when I don’t really want to see what’s being revealed to me. I find that this is true not so much in the outcome of the work, but in the process of creating the work. For example, if I am struggling to find time to compose, or if I am having trouble staying focused while I’m writing, there are usually aspects of self care that I have not dealt with sufficiently. When I used to work in an office for eight hours a day, being short on sleep might have made it a little harder to stare at spreadsheets, but the impact did not compare to struggling to write music under the same conditions.
BIBA : What have been some of your most rewarding past projects?
SD : Two of my most rewarding projects in recent years took place earlier this spring. I had the privilege of being commissioned by MUSICA!, a chapter of El Sistema USA, to write a work for multi-level string orchestra entitled The Enigma of the Twilight Stallion. I had been teaching students in MUSICA! for the past couple of years at the time, and they were aware that I was both a violist and a composer, but I had not yet worked with them in that capacity. The best part of writing that piece was being able to imagine each individual student as I wrote while crafting parts that could both highlight their abilities and push their skills to a new level.
As one of three Sounds Promising Young Composers for the Salastina Music Society’s last season, I wrote a piano quintet entitled “Obsidian, rippled in moonlight, gleams.” One of my favorite aspects of preparing that program was sitting in the rehearsals and concerts, listening to awe-inspiring music from all of the composers involved, and feeling so blessed to be amongst such talented people! I must admit, I was a little bummed when it was over -- the weekend went by so quickly that it felt surreal.
BIBA : What are some of your upcoming projects?
SD : This December, the Salastina Music Society in Pasadena, CA will premiere a piece that I have written for their program The Four Seasons x 2. On the program, they will perform the entirety of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons alongside brand-new “seasons” from four SoCal composers including myself. The new works will use the same instrumentation as Vivaldi’s piece. For this project, I have chosen to pair each of the three movements of my piece with poems from California-based authors: Thea Gavin, Benjamin Gucciardi, and Donna Emerson.
Additionally, I will be working on a duo for flute and guitar for Ciyadh Wells which will be premiered in the summer of 2020. Ciyadh Wells is a founding member of The Margins Guitar Collective, which devotes it energy to showcasing new works featuring the guitar by underrepresented composers. Their inaugural concert will be on December 1st of this year.
BIBA : I give you the commission of a lifetime - ample funding, unrestricted resources, the freedom and time to create whatever you'd like. What piece would you compose?
SD : I would absolutely love to write an album-length, multi-movement chamber symphony. Out of the ensembles that I have been following in recent years, I found that I am most drawn to medium-to-large chamber ensembles with atypical instrumentations that feature a solo player on each part. Perhaps it is because of my experience as an orchestral musician, where the default expectation is to blend in with one’s section, that I find the demand for bravura and raw individualism in a sinfonietta to be quite attractive. On the other hand, when instruments in such an ensemble do blend together, the supposed “imbalance” in voices creates new timbres that are both lucid and refreshing to my ears.
To learn more about Sakari Dixon Vanderveer and to listen to some of her music, please visit her website: http://www.sakaridixon.com, or follow her on instagram: @sakaridixon
Writings, musings, photos, links, and videos about Black Artistry of ALL varieties! Feel free to drop a comment or suggestions for posts!