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
by Kristen Adams
When we use the word ‘classical’, we invoke two ideas: one is the historic, sometimes nostalgic past and one is the musical past of a stylistically strict exploration in a two-keyed music-verse. Using thought processes of Sun Ra, ‘classical’ then equates to the most innate nostalgia there is in humanity, which is the being of Africa. This musician, composer, philosopher, and poet claimed to come from the planet Saturn and to have visited Jupiter. His musical and philosophical thought repositioned the framework of classical music that he appreciated and the other-worldly sounds that he knew to be both within us and our world.
On May 14, 1914, Sun Ra was born in Birmingham, Alabama as Herman Poole (“Sonny”) Blount. The desire for world peace accompanied him from Alabama to Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia. He played his music in different venues and created an orchestra that performed throughout his home state. By 1941, however, the US was drafting soldiers for the war, depleting the orchestra until it ceased. He petitioned entering the war with the draft-board and was granted 4-E classification as a “conscientious objector” to military endeavors. Nevertheless, they ordered him to report to an incarceration camp. He later wrote, “To separate me from my music would be more cruel than standing me by a wall and shooting me." He would not accept the spiritual death experienced in prison for not accepting the draft. While held, he wrote poetry and was allowed to practice piano for his fellow inmates when the physician noted his health deteriorating as he labored more and created less.
His essence embodied and pioneered Afrofuturism, which reimagines the future of art, science and more through the Black lens, acknowledging what Africa and Black people could have been in the absence of the colonialist system. However, our community continues to uncover that what “could have been” actually was. It was unknown on account of the distribution of powers that favored history from the imperialist lens. Addressing the subtle power behind language, he traces the crucial impact of specific words through phonetic sounds. Consider the word “word”, which he discusses in a 1976 interview on YouTube. He explains, ‘word’ can be expanded when considered phonetically: it can also be spelled, ‘were-d’. This transforms ‘word’ from a written remembrance and existence into the execution of an act, and thus an end of what was. He continues to explain other words, calling upon his knowledge of ancient Egyptian translations and European dialects when Europe was still a land of white tribes while highlighting parts of the Bible that many people ignore.
In his philosophy, the unnamed Afrofuturism is forward-looking while recalling the past, the ancient, and the classical. He also cites Chopin and Shostakovich as two of his favorite classical composers. “Sun Ra's piano technique touched on many styles”. These included the “boogie woogie, stride piano and blues” to angular phrases or more percussive sounds that recalled expressions of Count Basie, Ahmad Jamal, Thelonious Monk, and Cecil Taylor (Sun Ra 2014). His goal was to change the world by creating music from “happier worlds”. Therefore, the energy undulating from his music drew upon the interconnectedness of the human, earth, universe, and sounds regardless of diverse and new genres.
While philosophically exploring language and the lineage of words, his music traverses all planes of sound. He created a new orchestra called Arkestra, beginning with ‘ar’ to emphasize “Ra”, the ancient Egyptian God of the Sun. Still existing today, the ensemble did not rely on the affirmation of a label or pre-established orchestra to play his compositions. His countless songs and many albums, including Lanquidity, Astro Black, Other Planes of There, Sound of Joy, and Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy, have led people to categorize his music as Jazz, Free Jazz, Space Music, Bebop, Experimental Music, and Avant-garde Jazz. In reality, his creativity can encompass other genres.
Though he passed away on May 30, 1993, his music, philosophy, and impact continue contributing to the sounds of creation today. Musicians and artists of all genres find inspiration in him, as Rolling Stones quotes Shafiq Husyan, “Anybody that’s into music, you would be hard pressed to find someone that’s not into Sun Ra. Especially anybody that’s into progressive music.” Let your further explorations of Sun Ra spur your curiosity about the subconscious impact of word and sound while we celebrate other prominent Black contributors within the classical music sphere. Almost three decades later, COOS's current concert season anticipates performing music of the Afro-British composer Samuel Coolidge-Taylor with the African American composer Florence Price, as well as invited guest artist Dr. Trevor Weston, and more. In addition, COOS will teach and perform with Boston youth at the South End StringFest and during a Boston Latin Academy Residency. Sun Ra's legacy continues!
Farberman, Brad, 2017. Why Is Sun Ra Suddenly Having His Moment?, October 18. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/why-is-sun-ra-suddenly-having-his-moment-197156/.
Sun Ra, 2014. Radio Swiss Jazz. Musician. http://www.radioswissjazz.ch/en/music-database/musician/171626a4c4c0a128a295077d190c9eed2694e/biography.
Sun Ra Talks on “The Possibility of Altered Destiny” 11/10/79, 1979. Recording. November 10. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rKsMR5YmvyY.
Youngquist, Paul, 2016. A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afro-Futurism. University of Texas Press.
Kristen Adams is a classically trained violinist who loves the arts. Soon to be matriculating from Wellesley College with a bachelors in economics, her time there included designing, writing, and editing the annual newsletter of the Africana Studies department, as well as engaging in research and exploration of healing tools to remember the collective consciousness, and various musical and artistic activity. Follow Ms. Adams on Instagram at @krrrr_isten
by Anthony R. Green
Happy Sunday, BIBA readers! Last week, Castle of our Skins presented its "Secret Desire to be Black" program at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, bringing together people from many different communities to celebrate some incredible music, dancing, and interpretation/performance by various artists throughout history and geography. The day before, I was in London, getting a lesson on what Black History Month should actually be about: community. To be more specific, building community by sharing Black stories with ourselves and the world, educating ourselves and others about our community, gathering in person at events where we can talk, fellowship, and grow together, being more aware of each other so we can support each other and grow our collective mental health, and more. This is what community should be, and the event I witnessed last week was a community event in this sense of the word.
At Theatre Peckham last Saturday, I saw the world premiere of the opera King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba by vocalist and composer Juwon Ogungbe. In his words, "this new music-theatre piece tells the story of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba's romantic liason that led to the birth of the Solomonic dynasty of Ethiopian emperors, from Menelik I to Haile Selassie." Theatre Peckham is a wonderful place offering family-friendly theater works for its diverse community. While waiting for the show to begin, I chatted with some of the locals, admired some of the lovely art hanging in the foyer (including a massive Africa quilt), and viewed some of the adverts for upcoming and past programs. I was fortunate to have entered the theater early, as the hall was packed! There were people of various backgrounds and ages in the audience, but all seemed to belong to a community of people interested in this type of programming.
Ogungbe's opera was mesmerising, and also embodied community. The cast was a mix of professional singers and children, who learned their part within the week of the performance in special workshops led by Ogungbe himself. The production felt like a workshop exhibition, with the only accompaniment being a keyboard. The vocal qualities had a wide range, yet everyone performed from the heart. Unfortunately there was no program, and I do not have any reference for names, but the soprano who played the Queen of Sheba really stole my heart with her mastery of Ogungbe's soaring melodies. The music was a mix of western classical and African styles, the most successful music (for me) being the Queen's welcoming music. I found myself bopping and swaying to the accompaniment, while flying along with the beautiful, gliding melody. As a writer, Ogungbe also shone in his rhyming, accessible libretto, which told the story of the Queen of Sheba's meeting with King Solomon through two Rastafari women on their way to Ethiopia. In this way, King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba highlights the link between Ethiopia and Jamaica, and brings this Solomonic story into a modern relevance. I learned quite a bit from this opera, especially from the Q&A session afterwards! But above all this, the feeling of belonging, adding to and celebrating a Black operatic tradition, and fellowshipping with the greater community really made this evening - as well as my visit to the UK - one of the most special visits I have had.
by Anthony R. Green
In this second part of a 3-part BIBA Blog (culminating on BIBA Sunday), I will explore a recent work by Kara Walker. Born in Stockton, CA in 1969, Kara Walker is celebrated as a painter, silhouettist, print-maker, instillation artist, and film maker, even though she does so much more. As an almost native Rhode Islander having grown up in Providence, I am proud to write that Ms. Walker studied at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). In London, the Tate Modern is one of the more celebrated modern and contemporary institutions, and it is also highly respected abroad. The building is giant, and their relatively new second wing expanded the already grand space so dedicated to modern and contempary visual art. When walking into the main entrance of the original building, it is always fun to check out what is installed in the grand, open space located in the middle. The first time I went, there were slides (playground slides) that I slid down. My farorite so far has been a long crack in the middle of the floor, which revealed so much. Kara Walker's recent work Fons Americanus (American Fountain, or American Spring) is in this grandiose space. I was very happy to come across a work by a Black woman in this grand space!
The full title is a long, witty charicature, painted on the wall near the fountain. It reads: It is with an Overabundance of Good Cheer and Great Enthusiam that We Present the Citizens of the OLD WORLD (Our Captors, Saviours and Intimate Family), A GIFT and TALISMAN Toward the Reconciliation of Our Respective Mother-lands. AFRIQUE and ALBION WITNESS! the FONS AMERICANUS - THE DAUGHTER OF WATERS - An Allegorical Wonder. Behold! The Sworling Drama of the Merciless Seas, Routes and Rivers, upon which our dark fortunes were traded and on whose frothy shores lay prostrate Captain, Slave, and Starfish alike. Come, One and All, to Marvel and Contemplate "The Monumental Misrememberings" Of Colonial Exploits Yon. Gasp Plaintively, Sigh Mournfully, Gaze Knowingly, And R E G A R D the Immaterial Void of the Abyss etc. etc. in a Delightfully Family Friendly Setting ----- Created by that Celebrated Negress of the New World , Madame Kara E. Walker, NTY.
Upon first encounter, I noticed the grandness of this work. It is, in a word, stunning. While walking around the main part of this fountain, I could not help but get uncomfortable whenever I saw a shark. Some time ago, in my personal reading about the trans-Atlantic slave trade, I remember reading about how sharks would trail the ships because of the large quantity of blood they released into the waters. Ms. Walker's full title evoked this fact when I saw the sharks. It is also quite easy to see this work and question the role of "monuments" in the United States, and how so many of them celebrate certain people and certain stories while completely dismissing others. Is Ms. Walker's Fons Americanus an example of what a public fountain would be that functioned in the opposite way?
Last but not least, while the giant fountain is the central focus of this work, my favorite part is the smaller shell located across some space from where the main fountain is. The shell contains the face of a Black child peaking through a hole. Immediately I asked myself: Is this child a "pearl"? Is this child about to experience a new life as "Venus" like in Sandro Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus"? Did this child just escape a trans-Atlantic slave ship and is coming up for air through this shell? Is this shell symbolic of new life, better life, earned life after extreme pressure and struggle? I could keep asking questions exploring the many avenues of symbolism in this tiny piece, which - for me - gave this satirical yet poignant, powerful work an strong aspect of uplifting positivity.
by Anthony R. Green
As a frequent traveler, it is always a pleasure when my agenda happens to take me to the UK in October. While I spent the bulk of the month in Sweden, I spent the last week in London and Oxford, where I basqued in some of this area's rich Black cultural offerings, some of which are year-round institutions, some coincidental, and others specially curated for October - Black History and Culture month in the UK.
On the penultimate day of my trip, I took a bus from London and spent the day in Oxford. My first time there, I was charmed by the beauty, size, and ease of this town. While there, I visited some museums and galleries, saw a poster of an upcoming concert featuring Sheku Kanneh-Mason, spent some time with a wonderful friend, and saw a Chineke! chamber music concert, with a pre-concert talk by founder Chi-Chi Nwanoku. Castle of our Skins had the pleasure of hosting her during our Black in Europe and Beyond residency at Brandeis University, where she gave a masterclass, an inspiring lecture, and participated in an eye-opening panel discussion.
The program showcased 5 works, 2 of which were composed by artists of color. The opening work, Richard Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel einmal anders (arr. by Franz Hasenoehrl in 1954), has a curious instrumentation of violin, clarinet, horn, bassoon, and contrabass. A reduction (in instrumentation AND duration) of Strauss's op. 28 Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Chineke played this work with joie de vivre and reckless abandon, which this merry work welcomes. It was followed by a 2-movement Sonata in G major by Luigi Boccherini, which Chineke! realized with cello and contrabass rather than a full continuo. The textures and richness that Ashok Klouda (cello) and Chi-Chi Nwanoku (contrabass) achieved was heavenly and pleasantly surprising. They were perfectly in tune with each other in every sense of the phrase, and their sense of musicality in their interpretation added a new life to Boccherini for me.
The following work was a commissioned septet titled NNENNA by Belize-born British composer Errollyn Wallen. Already an admirer of her works, it was such a joy to hear this fascinating, gripping, complex work played expertly by Chineke! musicians. One important characteristic of this work is a keen sense of timing and flow, as this piece has a complex journey that ranges from dense chords to soloistic, minimal textures. It concludes with a rousing quotation of the popular highlife song Sweet Mother by Nigerian/Cameroonian singer-songwriter Prince Nico Mbarga. Coincidentally, my first official social justice music commissioned work ALSO quotes this song, but in the very beginning rather than the end!
Following the Wallen was Mozart's Oboe Quartet in F major, which was played with a lovely tone, but the piece is rather flat. Perhaps the piece is okay, but followed by such a moving, inspired work as the Wallen, this Mozart light work did not stand much of a chance. The evening concluded with one of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's masterpieces, his Op. 2 Nonet in F minor, for oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, contrabass, and piano. Composed at the age of 19 in 1894, this stunning romantic beast covers such a vast emotional range, taking the audience on a long and much-needed emotional and musical journey. Coleridge-Taylor, at such a young age, already had a command in balance, both in terms of structure and in melody, maintaining clarity amongst the nine soloists of this chamber work. Chineke! shone brightly in their interpretation, with special mention to guest pianist Rebeca Omordia. I personally loved the concert, and longed for a program of just Wallen and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor! There was not an empty seat in the chapel of New College, where the concert was held, and Chineke! received a well-deserved standing ovation at the end (with lots of audible cheers from myself and others). I am looking forward to attending more Chineke! chamber and orchestral concerts when I can!
Happy Sunday, all! Today's BIBA Blog is the first artist spotlight of the COOS 7th season! This spotlight features the composer, producer, songwriter, and multi-talented artist Marcus Norris! Having worked and continuing to work in multiple different genres, Marcus Norris's passion for concert music and melding other influences into the world of concert music yields a unique, captivating artistry that is worth exploring. His hard work and dedication has paid off in the success of his chamber orchestra, recognition from various media and music institutions, and his thriving pursuit of a PhD at UCLA.
BIBA : How did you get your start in music and in composition?
MN : I might be the only person I know that came into classical composition by way of rap and R&B. My uncles Nate and Dre had a group called Loonside. They introduced me to making beats with FL Studio when I was 13. I got obsessed with it and spent all day everyday making music. In high school I rapped and produced with friends.
When I graduated I got a scholarship for 2 years to a community college that the state of Michigan was giving to low-income kids at the time. I found a recording technology program at Schoolcraft College, outside of Detroit, and enrolled there. While there I had to learn basic music skills like how to read music, and was introduced to music theory. I loved it and did well, so I took some advanced independent studies in more theory and jazz harmony.
Then I was going to transfer to Columbia College Chicago for audio engineering, but decided last minute that if I was being honest with myself, I liked the creation better than the science, so I switched to music composition. I went on to get a full ride for my masters at FIU in Miami, and then my PhD at UCLA, where I am today.
I'm still a producer and songwriter, but concert music fills a different need for me.
BIBA : Your voice includes a multitude of stylistic approaches. How do you navigate these influences? Can you describe a moment, if any, where one style seemed to speak stronger than another or others?
MN : I've had to learn over time to just respond to all art, music, and people as authentically as possible. I navigate influences by just being honest with myself about what resonates with me. Everyone's specific perspective makes them unique. The word 'biases' usually has a negative connotation, but they aren't inherently a bad thing in this context.
As for specific moments where one style speaks louder, this happens everyday for me. My moods can differ drastically day to day, and I just try to be absorbed by whatever influence is speaking to me at the time. I might only listen to new bass-heavy trap for a few days, and then need to exclusively play Debussy piano pieces the following week.
BIBA : Your first violin concerto was recently performed a number of times, including in China (congratulations!). How was this experience for you? If you could change something about it, what would it be?
MN : Thanks! China was amazing. When you compose music that is extremely personal and vulnerable, it is always powerful when it resonates with people who have very different lives than you, and in this case, don't even speak the same language. I'll remember those moments always.
The only thing I would have changed would have been to have some of my loved ones there so they could experience it with me. But in reality, I think that specific trip at that specific point in my life was something I needed to do on my own.
BIBA : You started the South Side Symphony this year. What made you decide to begin this chamber ensemble, and how has the process been so far? Where do you plan to take this ensemble in the next couple of years?
MN : The mission with South Side Symphony is "Our Music in Our Time."
I am extremely grateful and blessed to work with some great ensembles, but I recognize that these opportunities have been exceptions. In other situations, I feel like as a Black composer I'm often expected to alter what I do to fit into mediums and scenarios that weren't designed for us (or were designed to exclude us). Situations and mediums that aren't always even conducive to the telling of our stories. I wanted to create a space where this cultural and artistic compromise isn't necessary, and we can celebrate the things that make us who we are. And do so in a way that is culturally relevant in a wider context, and isn't exclusionary of audiences who aren't learned in music.
My short version is "What if the orchestra didn't exist as a concept and was invented today by a Black 20-something in America? What would that look like? What would they play? Where would they play?"
The big thing to watch from us starting very soon is community partnerships with organizations who resonate with the music and the mission. It's very important to me that South Side Symphony exists as a member of the larger community and culture, and not as an isolated island. I'm very excited to be partnering with some brilliant people and organizations. I'm always looking for more like-minded groups to collaborate with. We're starting in LA, but long term I want to travel and bring South Side Symphony events to other cities.
BIBA : I give you the commission of a lifetime: unrestricted funds and resources and time. What piece would you compose?
MN : I've worked with dance, film, singers, theater, pop and concert music. I had the thought recently that it would be fun to try to bring all these elements together to make a modern fusion opera. I'm actually gonna write one as my PhD dissertation project, and I'm workshopping an excerpted scene in LA this December. Filmmaker Adamma Ebo is writing the libretto. If I had unlimited funding and time, I would do this same type of project, just on a bigger scale and with a 90 piece orchestra (LOL).
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To learn more about Marcus Norris, please use the following links:
Instagram: @MarcusNorris; @SouthSideSymphony
South Side Symphony website (sign up for mailing list!)
Writings, musings, photos, links, and videos about Black Artistry of ALL varieties! Feel free to drop a comment or suggestions for posts!