A Composition Consortium for Racial JusticeThe Minnesota Consortium for Black American Composers began in the summer of 2020 as a response to the killing of George Floyd. In this episode we talk to the participants of the consortium, including seven of the participating composers and the two organizers, about how the project developed and what it meant.
George Floyd was murdered on May 25, 2020 in plain sight by a police officer on the streets of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Like many recent displays of police violence against Black people in the U.S., Floyd’s death was captured on video which then made its way onto every news outlet in the country. By May 26th protests began in Minneapolis, subsequently sweeping across the nation. All of this occurred during the Coronavirus pandemic with massive shut downs and a rising death toll. Over the weeks and months since then, people and institutions in the U.S. have undergone a lot of soul searching about the nature and activity of white supremacy. Among those trying to figure out what to do and how to do it were Matt Dehnel and Ian McKnight, band directors at Roseville Area High School. Their response was to form a collective, the Minnesota Consortium for Black American Composers. The collective consists of fifty educational institutions in the Twin Cities, and it commissioned 13 pieces of music for band by Black American composers. Those pieces will become part of all fifty institutions’ repertoire.
In many ways Matt and Ian’s response to the murder of George Floyd represents the best of human nature. I know I want to be the sort of person who responds to discriminatory violence in a generous, actionable way, as they did. But, as you’ll hear, that doesn’t mean that the process of commissioning these thirteen pieces was easy or simple. In fact it was full of mistakes and misunderstandings, but also full of opportunity and growth.
I’m Christina Taylor Gibson. Thanks for joining us for the third episode of “Not A Quiet Place: Exploring Special Collections in Performing Arts at the University of Maryland, where we focus on the Minnesota Consortium for Black American Composers. I conducted my research into the project through three interview sessions held this summer and fall. The first was with Matt and Ian, the people who created the project. The second and the third conversations were with groups of the composers involved. I spoke with seven composers altogether. Christian L. Thomas, Adrian B. Sims, Lauren Brianna Ware, and Esau P. Jones were in one group, and Terrell Cordice, Nicole Russell, and Christen Holmes were in the second. All of the composers I spoke to are at the beginning of their composing careers. Two of them are undergraduates, two are in graduate school, and three are working as musicians and composers.
We have additional information on our website including a full list of the composers and institutions involved. The excerpts presented in this podcast represent a small piece of my conversation with any individual. As we complete them, we will post transcripts of our conversations with each participant online so that listeners can get the full context of the excerpts presented here. Visit us at lib.umd.edu/scpa-podcast
During the period when I was doing these interviews, performances were on hold because of Coronavirus restrictions, so I don’t have live or recorded realizations of the commissioned scores to play for you. What I do have are computer generated “mock-ups” of a few scores to share. I’d like to begin with an excerpt from Christian Thomas’s piece, “A Solemn Prayer” followed by his aural program note for the piece.
CLT: So my piece was titled, “A Solemn Prayer”. This piece has kind of been on my mind for probably a couple months before the project had even started. But it was one of those things where every time I tried to do something with it, it wouldn’t manifest itself correctly. So I didn’t wanna ruin the idea by trying to force it. When Matt and Ian contacted me about this opportunity, explaining about the adaptable instrumentation. That’s when I realized that what I actually wanted to accomplish with the piece was actually very easy to do in this medium, which was, I wanted to create an experience of bonding. So want this to be something that can be done across many different ensembles. Something can be done across many different grade levels. I want something—anything from a high-level middle school to a professional ensemble. I want everybody to gain something enriching from it. So as much as I hated to exclude percussion, I didn’t feel an authentic way to really add it in. So it’s written as an SSAATB kind of format, so all of the parts are. I pretty much wrote in on each part what instrument can play what’s inside of that range and so it’s possible to be played by a full band. It’s possible to be played by a brass quintet. Flute choir. Clarinet choir. This is a bunch of very different combinations, and I just made sure I made the parts as accessible as possible.
And I saw one of the questions that you put in the email was “What do you hope people get from this?” I don’t think I really. I didn’t want to focus too much on. I’m gonna say this in air quotes. “The Black experience.” Quote on quote. I didn’t want to focus too much on that. But I just wanted to focus on, you know, we are going through this pandemic together. It does not matter that we’re black, white, Asian, Hispanic. Whatever ethnicity we are, we’re entering this together. It does not matter what part of the world it is because we’re enduring this across the world. I wanted something where we could come together and we could put all of the politics aside and we could just share a moment of reverence, a moment of—a moment to pray together, but a moment to bond if that makes sense. I wanted this to be an experience where people could come together and be just like, “hey, we’re going through this together” and so that’s where the piece was inspired from.
I began with Christian and “A Solemn Prayer” because both the music and the words reflected so many of the themes that wove through my conversations with both the composers and the commissioning body. Every single person who spoke to me conveyed their desire to respect and honor the humans involved in inspiring, making, performing, and listening to this music. And they also felt that the project was created with that laudable goal in mind. But, as Christian suggests in his rejection of the idea of “the Black experience” many of the people I spoke to struggled to present a universal narrative, partly because their experiences were so individual. Consider, for example, the way Ian and Matt described the project to me at the beginning of my conversation with them. You’ll hear Ian refer to the RAZ music program, that’s just a shortened way of referring to the school where they teach, Roseville Area High School.
IM: Yeah, so, we’re calling this the Minnesota Consortium for Black American Composers. You know throughout the past couple years, uh, the RAZ music program—so band, choir, and orchestra—have been focusing on programing music by composers from underrepresented backgrounds. And actually that’s a push by the high school community as a whole, this idea of kind of teaching absent narratives from the traditional education model. Which I think is a really, really cool way to do things. Um. So that’s been the focus of the music program over the past couple years. After the murder of George Floyd this summer, which happened about ten miles away from our school, Matt and I both came to the realization that we had to do something to help our students learn from and come to grips with the issues that our country has surrounding race. And we also realized we couldn’t do that without specifically addressing Black and African American issues.
We realized as White, Cis, males that we had to use our privilege and our standing, such as it is, as high school band directors, to elevate the voices of people who do share those opportunities. Having said that, this has not been an easy project to put together. Just speaking for myself, I came relatively late to the idea of taking an active role in issues of racial justice, um. And I had a lot to learn about how to speak, how to act, when talking about that, and how to live your life as someone who is committed to racial justice. And we’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way of bringing this project into existence, but we’ve learned a ton from talking with our colleagues, with our composers, and you know we hope this represents a step in the direction towards more equitable music education. And we want this to provide an opportunity for band teachers to incorporate ideas of racial justice more fully into their curriculum and not just say, “hey, I played a piece of music by an African American composer. Check that box, so racial justice is done in my class.”
MD: This is Matt. I would echo, of course what Ian said. Those are based on conversations he and I had pretty early on. I think I’ve spent part of my career encouraging people to do the right thing and, and teaching about the right way to treat people and the right way to be a member of society but in broad enough terms so that I wasn’t saying things like “Black Lives Matter”. I fear I was tiptoeing a bit around, and making sure that I wasn’t offending people, and things like that, so I think I had the right message but I was a little bit delicate in my approach to it, and I think one of the things Ian and I asked ourselves was in the weeks after the murder of George Floyd, is “How can we say ‘Black Lives Matter’ in our classroom?” And not tiptoe around it.
And, you know, since then, I’ve read Ibrahim X. Kendi’s book “How to Be an Antiracist” and I’ve more fully embraced this. You know he talks about you are either racist or antiracist but you can’t be “not racist”. That’s not a position. And I think I had spent times trying to be not racist instead of antiracist. And so I think we wanted to, I think face this head on, and be able to say “Black Lives Matter.” And this is one of many, many ways that we could do that.
As you can hear in these comments, and as Matt and Ian expressed to me in several ways during our conversation, they were sure about their decision to do something personally to counter racism. Practiced in commissioning new works, that seemed like an obvious place to start. So Matt and Ian set about finding composers. For many commissioning projects, there is either an established relationship with an institution or director, or there is an application process of some kind. In this case, however, as Matt and Ian described it to me, they used their networks to find composers who might be interested in such a project. They were particularly keen to cultivate new talent, connecting with young people who might use the project to forward their careers. Both the commissioners and those commissioned described the project as an act of well-intentioned generosity.
Nonetheless, many of the composers found the idea of receiving a commission because of the color of their skin a difficult one to confront, especially in this particular moment of racial tension. Matt and Ian convened several conversations for the participating composers to discuss their work, including the feelings they were processing. I spoke to the composers after they had submitted their compositions. Most of them had participated in one or two of the group discussions organized as part of the commissioning project. Every once in a while you’ll hear a composer referring to a past “Zoom meeting” or “conversation” and that refers back to the sessions Matt and Ian organized. I was not present for those earlier conversations. Every composer to whom I spoke expressed a degree of ambivalence. Many of them spoke about the importance of representation and the privilege of writing for those who would not or could not express themselves. But they also conveyed a helplessness at the enormity and impossibility of the task. The ambivalence came across in the conversations I had with the composers, and according to all the people to whom I spoke, similar feelings arose in the group conversations Matt and Ian facilitated. This excerpt of my conversation with Terrell, Nicole, and Christen is representative. We’ve made some cuts in the conversation to fit our time constraints.
TC: I just think. Well, I don’t know. I don’t really know how to word it in a way that’s like, gonna make sense to everybody, but I think that something that was hard for me in writing this piece was the fact that. I think I’ve struggled a lot with racial identity a lot in my life. In that, in many ways, the premise of sort of how this piece came along in the way that I was sort of asked to do it, um it made me sort of feel like I had to sort of clamor to find things to make sure that the piece I wrote really, really fit with like what, you know, sort of the entire title of the project is, you know. And I think, just kind of something I wanna point out is I think that that’s almost an opposite of the spirit of the entire project because it’s supposed to be designed so that, you know, people who may not have their voices heard may be able to. And it’s almost instead I feel like, my actual voice really was maybe not the right one in that I maybe had to do maybe something else that sort fit what the project was about. That was just something that was a challenge for me. Like a huge challenge. And I think the entire piece kind of ended up being about that challenge. In a way. Or another.
NR: Yeah, I think that was something a lot of the composers, just from what I’ve heard just talking to them in the Zoom chats that we’ve been doing. It’s something that we’ve all kind of been struggling with. Writing about the Black experience because that’s kind of like. It’s just such a broad thing and it’s
TC: It’s such a broad way to describe anybody that I. It was so hard to put it to me, you know . . .
I want to pause here to reflect a little bit on the way Terrell and Nicole solved their composition problem, as it represents the range of choices available. Terrell decided to compose in the most general terms possible. He provided very little in the way of a program note or idea, simply titling his piece “It Comes From Within”
So that was Terrell’s mock-up. Nicole could not provide me with a mock-up, but she did describe her approach toward the commission. Like Terrell, Nicole wanted to speak to the Black Experience in the broadest possible way, but she wanted something to ground her and her listeners. To find that thing, Nicole turned to W.E.B. Dubois’s classic text The Souls of Black Folk. Part memoir and part essay collection, DuBois captures the sense of displacement he felt as a Black intellectual in the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century. DuBois evinces a deep connection to musical tradition, prefacing each chapter with a quote from a Spiritual and concluding the book with a chapter titled “Of the Sorrow Songs”. Here is Nicole explaining which passage she chose as the program note for her piece and why:
NR: So this is the quote. “There’s a peculiar sensation. It is double consciousness. It is the sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others. Of measuring one’s soul by the type of a world that looks upon it with amused contempt, and pity. One ever feels this two-ness. An American, Negro, two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body whose dogged strength alone keeps us from being born asunder.” Yeah, so I really like this book and it was kind of a revelation to me in just how it described my experience living as a black person in America. And it was really surprising how after almost a hundred years this quote is, like, really relevant. So in the music, I took, a couple thematic ideas, and tried to alter the environment and tried to change, the perspective of the idea. And in the book he begins each chapter with an excerpt from like spirituals which inspired a lot of my thematic ideas and, yeah, I just altered them through reharmonization and textural changes. From going a unison melody to really sudden thick harmonies. And the general mood of the piece. I want not to feel necessarily negative cause the quote kind of ends on like a hopeful note of like being a really strong person and not being torn apart by, you know, these two perspectives of yourself. So I wanted to leave the listener with a powerful and kind of hopeful feeling.
So whereas Terrell made his piece highly personalized as a way of evading the question of race while simultaneously broadening his audience, Nicole grounded her work in Dubois’s thinking and writing, evading the intensely personal in a similar quest. Christen took a third approach. She explained to me that even though she usually composes around a program or an idea, this time she focused on an emotive process. She characterized the early passages of her piece as chaotic and confused. The ending, however, was hopeful and triumphant. Here’s a some samples from those two parts.
We’ve taken a long break from my conversation with Christen, Nicole, and Terrell in order to explore their music a little bit. When we left off, Terrell was explaining his sense that the purpose of the commission didn’t really apply to him. The many layers of aesthetic, philosophical, and personal contradictions inherent in fulfilling this particular commission became more apparent the longer we spoke. We’ll return to the conversation with Christen offering her experience.
CH : I sort of relate with you Terrell, kind of. I mean I identify as Black but I think kind of more recently I’ve been embracing that identity because, I guess, like I mentioned earlier, I grew up in a predominantly white community and, like, people like my friends and probably my teachers didn’t really see me as Black because of the way that I talked. And I was a good student and not saying that, like, the other Black students weren’t good students but speaking solely on stereotypical
TC: Oh I know exactly what you’re saying. I know what you’re saying. Yeah.
CH : So I. For a long time, probably until like college, which was. I just got here. I really didn’t. Of course I knew I was Black but I didn’t really openly embrace that label until probably like last year.
CH : So I think, like,
TC: That’s so interesting.
CH : Yeah.
TC: Just because like I feel like, when we’re using these terms to describe people, it’s like. It almost like infringes on your culture in a way. If like you’re using a term. Like let’s say you’re called White. And your life may not look like in a way that makes you feel like you live the White experience. Because of the way these terms are used. They’re not used as just racial terms. They’re used in a way where if you use that word, there’s a whole list of things that are automatically just stapled on your forehead the second that you call someone that thing. And I think, um. I think that can be kind of discouraging for a lot of people, no matter like what, like, your situation is. Because your identity is so confusing. Because it’s like you have this population of people who are calling you one thing. And maybe another population confusing you for another thing. Um. And then, aside from all of that going on, there’s a part of you that people are completely missing. If that makes sense. Um. And that’s kind of how I feel. I think that um. You have race I think and then you have I think ethnicity and then like, the layers of it all. And I think the biggest circle, which are these racial terms, I think that in many ways that they’ve been so tainted from the historical use of them that it almost might be good to either maybe redefine the way we use them or maybe just do away with them all completely. And start maybe looking at people and using different types of words to describe people. Because I think that Black and White. Specifically those two. Almost have been tarnished, just from history of, of use in genuinely unhealthy ways in terms of just being nice to people and loving people and actually knowing who they are. You know.
CTG: Yeah. So there’s. I mean I’m hearing some contrast right, the approach towards this, commission like this conflicted approach.
TC: A little bit. Yeah.>
CTG: And then also, like, earlier in the conversation, this idea of wanting to see representation and like the power of representation and holding those two things at the same time and trying to figure out how to negotiate them. Am I getting that right?
TC: Yeah, I just didn’t want to do a disservice to the actual people in our country who need. Who need to be heard right now. You know what I’m saying? I didn’t want the message of my piece to miss them. You know. And I feel like.
CTG: It’s a big ask.
TC: It’s easy. It’s easy to do that. Just because there are so many people who kind of go under this umbrella like we were talking about before of Black that it’s like. Who am I writing this piece for?
NR: Yeah. Um. I kind of think that everyone had that sort of uncomfortable feeling about like. I remember, someone mentioned, I was there for one of the Zoom meetings. But just kind of I guess like, sort of being the token Black person, or whatever, because it’s. It is an uncomfortable thing to be asked to write something just because of your race, but I think like. I don’t know, overall, it’s kind of a good thing. Like I don’t think it should be needed, to have to ask Black composers to write pieces, but that’s just kind of the society that we’re in right now and it’s just definitely something, with everything that’s been going on in the past year, it’s just something that should be called attention to.
Narration: When I listen back to this exchange, it strikes me that everyone was thinking aloud, trying and retrying to express a complicated, highly personal experience in words. It was a struggle that, as the participants described it, was a continuation of the conflict they faced in writing their works. Similar themes emerged in my conversation with Adrian, Brianna, Christian, and Esau. You heard Christian talking a little bit about his decision to focus more on the universality of the pandemic rather than the specificity of his racialized identity at the top of the episode. Adrian, somewhat like Nicole, chose a historical figure to focus and define his work. Here he is talking about his composition, followed by an excerpt of the mock-up:
ABS: Well my piece ended up being called Incandescence. And I thought about. What can I, cause we were asked about our Black experience and how that is. And I thought, well how can I reflect on mine. And mine was through. I really wanted to uplift the Black community through mine. So I took African-American inventor Lewis Latimer. And he played a big role in the light bulb right. He worked with folks like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell to sketch and draft the light bulb. So it’s kind of a tribute to him, and the incandescent light bulb. And it starts out very kind of exploratory and it explores a variety of different things, and then it becomes a little bit even more wonderous. It ends in a large-scale kind of fanfare, glorious thing. So it kind of just explores the mind that Lewis Latimer had and the brilliant mind that he had and the brilliant inventor that he was. He was also an artist and a painter so I think it’s really fitting that it is a piece of artwork that I created for him. It’s actually for me it’s one of the more interesting pieces that I’ve written. I really took a different compositional approach to it than I normally do. You know this is the first piece that I wrote that I did not start at the beginning. I started maybe a third of the way into it. And wrote for a little bit and then went back to the beginning and figured out what went there. So this was a really different experience for me. But I think it turned out really well.
Brianna Ware titled her piece “Hymn of the Overcomer” and, like Nicole, she used Spirituals as inspiration. Brianna told me that she wrote “Hymn of the Overcomer” in reference to African-American regiments who served in the U.S. military from the time of the Civil War until the present day.
BW: And I just wanted it to be somewhat of an “In Memorium” and a thank you for these great men and women serving a country that not only, they weren’t really considered equal to everyone else, but weren’t treated as actual citizens. So I just wanted to highlight these groups and these people because we’re not often taught about this in history or in school either. I included in the piece. There’s a quote of We Shall Overcome. And that is kind of, you know, not only harkening back to the Civil Rights Movement, and when this song was originally heard and performed by Pete Seeger, but it’s kind of an anthem for all African Americans at any time, cause we’re constantly having to overcome something.
Even though she acknowledged the hardship African-American military members have encountered in the U.S. military, Brianna was adamant that her purpose was celebratory. Part of that celebration for her was understanding that even though the commission request presented certain difficulties, it also provided an opportunity to speak for and to people who otherwise wouldn’t be included. Much of my conversation with Brianna, Christian, Adrian and Esau revolved around this idea of depicting joy and community in their musical work. Here’s Esau’s “The Joy that Comes” followed by his comments.
EPJ: I wasn’t trying to write a piece about just being angry because I’m Black, ‘cause I’m angry just cause I’m human. So the piece just in itself, and I think even though our pieces are very different in a lot of ways, they’re all similar. They’re paying homage, they’re paying reverence. And joy. Joy can be reverential. Overcoming and feeling stronger can be reverential and solemnity, you know, can be a happy feeling when you’re paying tribute to something. And I think we all, even though our pieces are different in lots of different ways, I think we all just chose to use human expression as universal rather than Black pain as Universal. Because, believe it or not there are members of the Black community who do not feel the same way that I may feel about the sociopolitical things that are going on so it’s a two way (thing?). The Black experience is universal and then again it’s not. There are similarities and there’s more than one way to be Black and there’s more than one way to be Black. It really just depends. So I wrote the piece in a place like, and you said wonderful words, like community and joy, cause those types of things are just innately human. Even the most evil person in the world has probably had a moment of joy. Or the most unhappy person in the world has had a moment of unexpected, just pure joy that just came out of nowhere. And so that’s what I wrote from. The reverence side of it in that you never know what’s going to happen. And it all started basically, with that prompt. So I wrote about my experiences being Black and maybe other Black people wrote about their experiences and maybe other Black people who listen to it maybe relate to it, but at the same time, any human being could relate to it. And it’s going to be the same way, I know, for the other pieces and I’m so excited to hear those as well.
Narration: A little later in our conversation, Esau elaborated upon these points.
EPJ: And that just goes to like a deeper conversation. I’m not going to go too much into it. But I hate the phrase “diversity and inclusion”, “equity and inclusion” is much better. This entire project was equity. They’re trying to … call it equity call it another form of reparations, or whatever. But Matt and Ian, they’re doing something in their power to contribute, instead of just take away, knock down. They’re trying to support and advocate as best they can. And everyone mentioned it very well. The prompt was not a demand, it was just a suggestion because the other part of the message I s “we believe that in American the time to act is now”. That’s more what they said. So they were all about the action. And that’s what I. That’s what I care about. I love that support
EJ: They were adamant about acting now, and I believe that is where that prompt came from and so nothing but the wholest of intentions. And so they demanded nothing. And so it was just the equitable privilege of this opportunity, which, you know, helped.
Narration: As Esau observed, each composer had a different, individual response to the commissioning project, but they all mentioned a desire to connect with the students playing their works and the audiences listening to them. The Minnesota Consortium for Black American Composers is somewhat representative of a larger movement within the music community to make more space for more kinds of people, especially people of color. As we as a community take on this broader project the Minnesota Consortium provides some valuable lessons. The participating composers and the commissioning body engaged with this project out of a desire to make the world a better place. Matt and Ian want to make steps to rectify historic, systemic inequities. Christian, Terrell, Nicole, Christen, Adrien, Brianna, and Esau, agreed to write pieces as a part of that effort. And yet, they each describe wrestling with their own feelings about the project and their choices concerning it. Although the ultimate results were individual and specific with most of the composers excited about the new works they created, the emotional ambivalence was widespread. That is, even something generous proved difficult and complicated in its realization.
We don’t yet know the shape of these composers’ careers. Nor do we know where or when their pieces will be played. What we do know is the Minnesota Consortium for Black American Composers has provided a time and place to think about the ways race influences the music we write, play, listen to, commission, and talk about. I can’t speak with any certainty because I can’t see or hear into the future, but it seems to me that a more equitable community won’t happen without some discomfort. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worth doing==as we’ve seen here, it may be that comfort with difficulty is precisely what is needed. And the fact that all these people were willing to work through all of that in order to realize thirteen pieces of new music may have been the best piece of news I heard last summer.
The best piece of news today is that you have listened to our podcast, Not a Quiet Place! Thanks for joining us. I’m Christina Taylor Gibson. Our producer is Benjamin Jackson, our web designer is Natalie Salive. We all work together in Special Collections in the Performing Arts at the University of Maryland. You can find out more about our episode, including a full transcript at lib.umd.edu/scpa-podcast