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Benjamin Barson

Pittsburgh, PA   

Benjamin Barson is a composer, educator, baritone saxophonist, historian, and political activist. He is the recipient of the ASCAP Foundation’s 2018 Johnny Mandel Prize, ASCAP’s highest honor for jazz composers under 30. Barson is a Teaching Fellow and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, where he studied under Geri Allen and currently teaches the History of Jazz and Recording Technology classes. His research and compositional practice explore the jazz idiom’s dialogue between Afrodiapsoric, American Indigenous, and East Asian influences. Ben was also the recipient of ASCAP’s 2017 Fred Ho Award, multiple Tinker Fellowships for research and performance in Cuba (2017 & 2018), the 2018 UConn-Storrs Fred Ho Fellowship, and the Launch Culture Grant from New Sun Rising (2018). 

Among other major festivals and venues, Barson has played at the Springfield Jazz Festival (2018), the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival (2018), the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage (2018), Lincoln Center’s Boro-Tech Program (2017).

Before attending the University of Pittsburgh, Barson was closely mentored by the Guggenheim Fellow Fred Ho. Ho mentored Barson in baritone saxophone technique and composition from 2009 until the former’s passing in April of 2014. During this period, Barson and Ho partnered to produce several mixed media musical projects spanning the United States, from Hawaii to Vermont. In 2014, Barson and teamed up with the operatic soprano Gizelxanath Rodriguez, a Mexican activist of Yaqui descent, to form the Afro Yaqui Music Collective. This ensemble combines Ho’s Afro Asian inspirations and fuses it with the music of Northern Mexico’s Yaqui people.  This fusion ultimately suggests an alternative mapping of the working people who constructed—and contested—the Americas. Alongside Rodriguez, Barson has done extensive research and political work alongside Mayan and Yaqui communities. The collective has performed through Lincoln Center’s Boro-Tech program, ASCAP’s songwriter showcase at the Kennedy Center, and conducted workshops at several universities around the United States, Cuba, and Mexico. The group’s performances have been featured on Democracy Now!

“Sister Soul” live at the Kennedy Center, composed by Ben Barson

Patriarchy has failed us for 5,000 years. Now is the time to return Earth to the producers. ON A GLOBAL SCALE, women produce more than half of all the food that is grown. Yet the own less than 20 percent of the world’s land. In sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, they produce up to 80 percent of basic foodstuffs. In Asia, they provide from 50 to 90 percent of the labour for rice cultivation. And in Southeast Asia and the Pacific as well as Latin America, women’s home gardens represent some of the most complex agricultural systems known.

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Workers’ March — from Mirror Butterfly (composed by Ben Barson, lyrics by Nejma Nefertiti and Ruth Margraff, Animation by Adam Cooper-Téran)

Originally shown at the Mesopotamian Water Forum in Iraq, this work is translated into Turksih and Arabic to connect water struggles across the world. The percussion ensemble was composed by Ben Barson, and animation is done by Adam Cooper-Téran. The shown butterfly is a scared insect in Yaqui culture and is endangered. This text is based on an interview with Kurdish Freedom Movement activist Azize Aslan and written by Ruth Margraff with contributions by Nejma Nefertiti, and is part of Mirror Butterfly: the Migrant Liberation Movement Suite.

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Insurrealista (composed by Benjamin Barson)

The composition submitted for your consideration, “Insurrealista,” is a homage to the revolutionary surrealism of the father of Negritude, Aime Cesaire. In terms of influences, the piece employs a 20-string koto, within a jazz-hip hop rhythmic section. Such a connectivity is the first of its kind. The rhythm is a consistent 13/8 time signature, also a highly unconventional and unusual sequence. spiritchild joins in vocals. This piece was presented at BRIC as part of the piece “Brooklyn Rezound” by Daira Fain, Robert Kocik, & the Commons Choir.

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NewMusicBox Articles

NewMusicBox September 26 2019 | By Benjamin Barson and Gizelxanath Rodriguez
Answering the Call: Antiphony Between the Music and Social Movements

There is a “call and response” that exists between revolutionary art and meaningful political outcomes.

NewMusicBox September 19 2019 | By Benjamin Barson and Gizelxanath Rodriguez
Building a Solidarity Economy through Revolutionary Music: the Making of Mirror Butterfly

How can art be a hammer, and not simply representational? One solution is to work in dialogue with actual social movements and create spaces where activists are at the center...

NewMusicBox September 12 2019 | By Benjamin Barson and Gizelxanath Rodriguez
Fighting for Our Senses: Ears, Bodies and Hearts in the struggle to redefine Reality

How we convert our environment, through the sensory mediums of our ears, tongues, fingers, eyes, and nostrils into reality is as political and contested as net neutrality versus corporate control...

See more of Benjamin Barson's articles on NewMusicBox.