Earlier this year, New Music USA launched Amplifying Voices, a program promoting marginalized voices in the orchestral field. Following a national call, eight American orchestras are leading consortium commissions for eight different composers. The seven composers selected thus far are Tania León (the first individual composer NewMusicBox interviewed, in 1999), Tyshawn Sorey (featured in NewMusicBox last year), Jessie Montgomery (featured four years ago), Brian Raphael Nabors, Juan Pablo Contreras, Shelley Washington, and Valerie Coleman (with whom we spoke a decade ago, regarding her maverick wind quintet, Imani Winds).
One of the most exciting aspects of Imani Winds is their commitment to new music from a diverse repertoire of composers, which makes sense given that they were founded by a composer. But what about Valerie Coleman, the composer?
In our first conversation with Valerie, we barely scratched the surface of her compositional activities. Since then, these have become her primary artistic focus. Valerie has recently been chosen to participate in the Metropolitan Opera / Lincoln Center Theater New Works program, a perfect fit for her given her commitment to storytelling through her music, no matter the idiom.
So the launch of Amplifying Voices seemed like a perfect opportunity to reconnect and have a conversation about her own music—her aesthetics, her inspiration, and what she hopes she can communicate to listeners.
“That’s just how I identify and it’s because of what my ancestors have gone through,” she explains. “I feel it necessary to tell their story, but also really just embrace this idea of how to walk in the world and inform people around me. … I recognize that there are stories that are yet untold that if they were told, they would transform all those who would hear them. So it’s my job to create music that allows that transformative power to happen.”
(Transcribed by Julia Lu)
Frank J. Oteri: It’s amazing that we talked to you and the other members of Imani Winds ten years ago. In that conversation, we were mostly focused on all of you as interpreters and as curators of exciting new repertoire for wind quintet. But I really want to talk to you as a composer. I want to get back to how music first hit you.
Valerie Coleman: I cannot say when it actually first hit me. It was just very organic and just a part of my playtime as a child. Any child gravitates towards music. , whether it’s just the visceral idea of touching a keyboard and the sound just plunking out; that is something that we all shared in our young childhood. My mom has run a daycare for over 55 years now. So I grew up in a daycare setting. Even though she was the teacher to all of these kids, I was in that that group. And in our home life, she had certain things that were already out in the living room ready to play. Like these play stations.
We had this old Casio. It wasn’t even a Casio; it was like this kind of organ. I think it might have come from a second hand store. It sounded like a Hammond, but it wasn’t a Hammond. It was just something that was like this cheap knock off. I would plunk on the keys and that’s what me and my sisters would do. We would just sit there maybe for five, ten minutes to just play this instrument. But I found that my playtime on the instrument just became these whole sessions that would last for like two hours. . I must have been seven or eight or so. That sounds about right because I was born in 1970 and cassette players were really starting to become the thing to get kids at the time. It was kind of the Elmo doll of the late ‘70s. It seemed like for two Christmases in a row, we got cassette players. That just opened up a world.
I would sit there and play down a melody and record it. Then play it back and try to play another melody or sing on top of that. And so it was kind of this looping back and forth between two cassette players. It started off with just three or four layers. But then it started to get like 10 and 12 layers of loops. For those of you out there who know about cassette players, you know that the sound warps with each playback and record. I thought it was the greatest thing. It was an invention to me to be able to hear back like 10 to 12 layers, but the warped sounds—I didn’t pay any focus to it. Anybody walking by would say it’s a horror show.
But I think that that was a taste of symphonic writing. That that was on the table for me, I didn’t realize at the time. As a matter of fact, I’m just realizing it now because developing your inner ear to write symphonic works means that you have to hear contrapuntal lines and a multitude of them and see how they interlock and all the colors that come from that. At the time, I didn’t have all the colors I wanted per se, but it did help me to develop an inner ear for contrapuntal lines. When I started to play the flute—that really started to inform how I wrote. Because after a while, when you’re starting to write for yourself and you know what you want to hear, and you know what you want to play, and you know what sits well on the instrument, those things start to really impact. And when you start to work with an ensemble that you perform with, and you begin to know the dynamics of the group and the personalities, and the tendencies, and all of those things, and as you’re playing along with them you notice there are certain moments where the energy can spike within a phrase. You learn both orchestration and also how to write in a way that allows for a musician to buy into your musical idea and make it their own.
FJO: The fact that you play an instrument that is contingent upon breath gives you an innate sense of phrasing perhaps and maybe the music breathes in a kind of a larger arc, probably subconsciously, because that’s how you physically make sounds. So when you abstractly create for other people, that’s part of it.
VC: Absolutely. And I would even go as far as saying that there are times where that ability to breathe also allows some perception into dynamic contrasts and making note of that. But there are always those times where you’re writing for a wind group, and if you step away from your instrument within the writing process, sometimes you can lose that perspective. There’s many times where I’ve written for Monica Ellis. the bassoonist of the Imani Winds. She’s that powerhouse that will spoil you as you write for her. Because she can play anything.
Because of that, she has been my muse for many, many years. And I would write these long phrases, and yeah, she would have places to breathe, but she didn’t have the chop breaks. Meaning the time that she could get the bassoon off the face., and rest the chops. So there were times where she was just like, “Valerie, you gotta give a sister a break sometime in the music. You know, look at this. I get four pages, and I don’t have a rest.” And I say to her, “Monica, it’s because you sound so good.” But yeah, those things do inform for sure. I love to create lines that do breathe and feel good to the soul.
I have to admit to you, I’m not somebody who writes based on the intellectual side of composition, but rather on the side of addressing what it is within all of us. The shared qualities of human behavior, what feeds the soul, what identifies the issues or all the complexities within ourselves as human beings. That is mainly my focus. And so breathing goes right into that. Breathing, breath of life, unity, all of those things.
FJO: I’m wondering when that translated into you seeing and hearing other musicians perform and saying, “Hmm, I want to do that. I want to write for them.” Or “I want to play music with them.” Or simply “I want to do that.” Who did you hear? When did that happen? When did this become a social thing rather than an individual thing you did by yourself?
VC: There’s many layers to this because it’s all about the amount of exposure that a student gets. I was raised in the west end of Louisville, Kentucky not far away from where Breonna Taylor was killed. And it’s also not far away from where Muhammad Ali lived. And so my interactions with music were based on what I would do with my sisters. We would sing three-part harmony as kids. And that was my social outlet. And my exposure to classical music was through the radio, WUOL-FM; that’s the University of Louisville’s classical radio station.
I would sit in the backyard, and just listen to Dvořák and Copland, all the hits, and watch the sun go down. That was my exposure to vicariously enjoying a communal classical music. I couldn’t see it, but I could imagine it. I could hear it. It wasn’t really until I got into public school, in the fourth grade, when the band director came to our classroom, and handed out permission slips and said, “Who wants to play in the band?” I got that permission slip eagerly signed, and brought it back in.
I can’t even remember the number of flutists. It must have been four or five flutists. We were all sitting there trying to make a sound out of our head joints. Even at that level of being a novice, the idea of all of us just sitting there, trying to attain the same goal of making a sound out of our instruments was the start of something big for me. I’m in love with the idea of collaborating, and making music within a chamber ensemble. And so band, orchestra, Louisville Youth Orchestra, middle school band, high school band, all of those things, that was my experience. And it was because of music being in the public schools. But before that, it was really just me and my sisters. And we made our music together in our own way.
FJO: Making music with other people is this very, very social act.
FJO: But composing music in some ways is very anti-social. Right? You’re by yourself, you’re writing this thing down, and ideally you want to turn this anti-social thing into something social. One of the problems is that sometimes it doesn’t translate that way. So I’m curious about the composing bug. You were writing things down somehow, but I imagine when you first started writing things down, you had no idea how music notation worked. So you came up with things that would help you remember to recreate it. So I’m wondering how that became part of your process of making music.
VC: I think after a while, after doing these warped multi-tracks, the idea of writing came to me, although I had no idea about Mozart and Beethoven, the composers that young children learn about early on as being composers. That notion of actually notating something, I felt at the time was uniquely my own. I didn’t know the word composer. I didn’t identify with that, but it just wasn’t there. All I knew was that I had to keep and document what I was doing beyond the tape recorder. So I just basically did what I had to do. My notation was circles, and squares, and triangles. Any kind of crude hieroglyphics that I could make; that’s what I did. When I went back to it, it wasn’t very organized at all. It was just basically a sketch on a paper, much like a stick figure that a six-year-old would draw.
FJO: We’ve been talking about your hearing classical music on the radio. Hearing Dvořák. Hearing Copland. And then learning about Mozart and Beethoven and all these people. What about other kinds of music growing up? You were doing three-part harmony; what were those three-part harmony things?
VC: Oh, come on now. We’re talking about Emotions and the Bar-Kays. Earth, Wind & Fire. Regular pop culture. Everyday life. DeBarge, all of that stuff. The Jackson 5. We were all informed by American Bandstand. We were all informed by Soul Train and all of those shows that would come on Saturday midday; we would do the dance moves and all of that stuff. But somehow or another, there was really no distinction between that particular genre and that way of life with creating music on the keyboard. There was no distinction whatsoever. So it all blended in together. And as a matter of fact, when I started band in elementary school, there was a large number of people of African descent, Black folk, kids like me that were in band.
And what we would do in middle school as we were sitting there and we were going through ear training. I had a great ear training teacher in middle school. Great band teacher. Because that’s what he would focus on. He would focus on us identifying intervals and where the notes are on the scale. During that time, me and my friends would just sit and write down each song that we would hear on the radio. So if it was “Let’s Groove Tonight,” we would write it down. We didn’t have the rhythmic notation. We just knew the notes.
When our teacher wasn’t looking, we were playing those songs on our instruments. We were just kind of sneaking around with that. That’s how students informed themselves. When you’re raising a child, and I say this because I’m a mom, they don’t have a user’s manual. But in their own way, they are their own user’s manual. They kind of guide you in where to guide them. And I think that that’s the same thing with students who are learning music. They kind of guide you a little bit.
FJO: So you heard these songs, and you did these things in band, but then there were these names that were given to you from on high as it were. Copland was still alive at that point, but was still very far removed from the life of a little girl in Louisville, Kentucky. So how did you come to feel like this was for you and that you could be part of this?
VC: I never doubted it for a moment, and I never even posed that question. It was just there. What I can identify is that moment where things just started to lock into place for me.
But it wasn’t necessarily that I would fit into a demographic of being a composer. I already knew that subconsciously. There was also a time where I realized that I couldn’t possibly be a composer. And that was when I was in college. Up until that point, up until the point of my graduating from high school, I always just knew that composing and arranging was what I did. My summer projects were when I was a teen sitting in the backyard, in that same backyard that I listened to symphonies and wrote my own. They weren’t very good, but it didn’t stop me. And it took me the summer to do that and it helped me to train my inner ear.
But when I got into college, that’s when I noticed the demographic, because at the time I was made to feel like I did not belong. I started to recognize, whoa, maybe composers are supposed to be White male and not Black female. And so I went through school thinking that that very thing. I stopped calling myself a composer, but I kept writing. It was almost as if the idea of composing, or being a composer was this mantle that I was undeserving of. Or that I had no right to claim. And it wasn’t until when I started Imani Winds and started writing for the group—even years after that, it wasn’t until I got a review where the critic had called me a composer. I started to think, “Whoa. Maybe I am a composer. Maybe this is what I’ve been doing this whole time and now it’s just up to me to embrace that title.”
FJO: I’m wondering about the first time when something you wrote was played by someone else.
VC: Well, all through elementary school. I arranged Lisa Lisa’s “Lost in Emotion” for the pep band in high school. That moment of truth for me, though, happened when I was at Tanglewood. Boston University, Tanglewood Institute It was my very summer outside of the state of Kentucky, and I brought with me a flute trio.
It was a masterclass that I was there for that had Leone Buyse and Doriot Dwyer. They were the principals of the BSO at the time. And I remember bringing that flute trio up on the stage, and I brought my friends with me, and Doriot Dwyer, she didn’t comment on whether it was good or bad, she just said, ”Okay, let’s work on this for a little bit.” And the whole session for that day was working on that trio. And that moment I think was the life changer for me. Because in her taking the time to identify and go through the music as if it were not a student composition, but an actual piece of music, to dissect and talk about interpretation and talk about balance and blend and intonation, treat it like any other piece of music that we’ve learned.
That was such a significant validation to me that allowed me to move forward. And it also was the thing that made me to apply to Boston University, too. So it all comes together in that way. But yeah, that’s educators. It’s so important that they encourage and not discourage in what they do. And sometimes we have to be really, really careful. There’s a difference between tough love and destruction. It’s a fine line sometimes.
FJO: I didn’t know that story about Doriot Anthony Dwyer who’s a pioneer role model. She was the first female flutist in an American symphony orchestra, so to have the validation from her was a huge thing.
VC: I knew that I was lucky to have studied with her for a summer. Thank you for saying that.
FJO: That’s a story I didn’t know. I was expecting a story that happened later on. You were writing music and playing it, and then all of a sudden, there started to be pieces that you wrote that wound up being played by other people. The pieces I’m thinking of immediately are Danza de la Mariposa and Wish Sonatine. These pieces have now been played by so many different people. And I wonder in my mind how Valerie the flutist first felt hearing all these other flutists play it. It’s kind of like motherhood in a way. Your kid goes out and you’re worried when they’re going to come home. But you have to let it go. Just like when you write a piece. It has to have a life of its own.
VC: You have to let it go. That’s right. And but you know what, Frank. Let me tell you, being a mom of a six-year-old right now, I think I’m gonna have a hard time practicing what I preach.
I’ve always looked at musical compositions as my children. We all do as creators. Nothing gives us more joy than to see our compositions go out into the world and make their own mark. They’re a piece of paper. They’re music. They’re gestures. They’re sounds. But yet they function as people out in the world—how they make an impact, how they encourage or discourage people, how they have the potential of sending messages. It’s all there. And so for me once a piece is written, like a Danza de la Mariposa or Wish Sonatine, and it goes out into the world, and somebody picks it up and makes it their own—that is the highest compliment that I could ever feel towards that piece. It’s the same thing with Imani Winds, too. I retired from the group in 2018, and to me, as I’m leaving, I’m thinking, “I hope this group lasts the test of time.”
Long after we all get older, maybe there’s a new group of Imanis that come in. But I’m not looking at it as a legacy, but rather as the impact that it has, and that it is its own living entity. So that just gives me a sense of pride. I don’t know if it’s so much letting go as much as it is just loving it enough to set it off into the world and giving it room to grow and find its own path.
FJO: That’s very beautifully said, and you know, we’ll talk in ten years when your daughter’s 16.
VC: Yeah, yeah. No. She’s staying home. Ain’t going nowhere. Not dating.
FJO: Well hopefully ten years from now, we can out outside again. Right?
VC: Oh, gosh.
FJO: We’re not going there just yet; let’s talk a bit more about wind quintets. We talked about this ten years ago. The wind quintet has five very different sonorities, it’s very different from the string quartet say, or the sax quartet, or even the brass quintet. It’s sort of an orchestra in miniature.
VC: It’s miraculous. For those of you who want to write for wind quintet, please do it, and find out what the miracle is all about. The miracle is in the fact that every two instruments that you put together blend in a beautiful, distinct way. And the palette that comes from that allows a person to transform what is just woodwinds and French horn into a jazz band, an orchestra, a full marching band, a full rock band, if you want. The colors are endless. And what even makes it even more complex and beautiful is the fact that everybody produces their own sound in a different way.
All the articulations happen differently. And so it is not only the skill of the musician to be able to get a flute articulation to sound like the attack of a bassoon, but it’s also in the skill of a composer to know when to challenge that moment as well. I’m in love with writing for wind quintet because I’ve been spoiled by the very best, I have to say. When Jeff Scott and Monica Ellis come together, they can lay down the groove like the top rhythm section in the world. So I know that I can write for drums with just the two of them involved. I guess for those who are creating for wind quintet out there, I would say just try to keep some common sense going about breathing. Don’t do what I do and write without rests.
FJO: Playing in a wind quintet and writing for them, and working with all these different composers who wrote for that particular ensemble was a laboratory for you, I would dare to say, that has given you plenipotentiary now to be writing for orchestra.
VC: Absolutely. I completely agree. I do find that there are times where I have to resist in my writings for orchestra to be woodwind heavy. Because that’s my natural go-to. The idea of all the different blends and challenges of the different voices coming together, even contrapuntally does inform how I write for the orchestra as a whole. I’m still learning.
FJO: So, let’s talk about that very first writing for orchestra. You wrote this piece that sort of became a signature piece for Imani, Umoja, which means unity. And it began as a choral piece, then it became a wind quintet, then later on it became a wind band piece, and then it became a larger orchestra piece.
VC: It started off as a work for women’s choir. I had started this pan-African cultural organization when I was a student at the New School. It was the classical department and the jazz department. And we were just trying to figure out ways of making an impact in our larger New York community. And sothe holidays rolled around, and Kwanzaa-like songs came into my head, and Umoja was one of them. It started off with the women’s choir and if you can imagine us swaying back and forth, inspired by Sweet Honey in the Rock, that’s how Umoja came about. And then right after that, it wasn’t shortly after the Imani Winds was formed, one of our first gigs was for a wedding.
And it was for this actor who was very much into the Black actors’ community. He wanted to have all these different, various African culture identity themes to it. And so he asked for us to play that kind of music. So I was just like, “Okay, let’s just go ahead, and I’ll just go ahead and make Umoja an arrangement for that.” And so we learned it. I remember initially the reaction of the group was that it was really simplistic, but then when we played it in the wedding, people stopped their conversations to listen to the tune. I remember Monica saying at the end of the wedding, “Valerie, that piece works.”
Umoja in that incarnation is a minute and a half. You have the lyrics, you have the melody, the body, and you have the hook. And it’s just that back and forth. Back and forth. Very simple. Over the years, this piece became Umoja, I mean became Imani Winds’ staple. The Philadelphia Orchestra wanted me to create a world around it. They said, all right, we’ll commission you for ten minutes of music. And I’m like, “Okay, Umoja’s only a minute and half. How’s that gonna work?” And not only that, Umoja is staunchly D-major throughout. You know. You have the subdominant, you have the dominant and then it’s just you know, D-major.
Nothing else to it. No modulations. No challenges to the tonal center. I knew that with the Philadelphia Orchestra I had to break my habit. Break my mindset of a piece that has been with me for two decades. How do you create a world around a piece that has been a part of your fiber for that long? I had to divorce myself from Umoja and not think about it and but instead think about all the things that umoja stands for—the unity aspect, the feeling of outpouring and song, the percussion aspects of it—and create music separate from that and then see how it can be melded and merged from that point on so that new music had to have its own identity. So this incarnation of Umoja for orchestra does take the melody that we know and stretch it out. And it allows for other segments to happen. A journey away from the melody. I think that adventure into writing for orchestra was a really great foray lesson for me.
FJO: Now, there’s a new piece that you wrote for the Philadelphia Orchestra, Seven O’Clock Shout, which I loved. It’s so moving seeing them all separately, doing this thing. What’s so wonderful about it is a lot of people think of the orchestra as this sort of nameless, faceless, kind of anonymous wall. But this was a community of individual human beings. Everybody had to do their part separately, but it’s written in such a way like a mini-concerto for orchestra that everybody gets their moment to shine.
VC: I go back to Duke Ellington, who has been my role model. My influence. Because he wrote for people. He wrote for people in his big band. He knew the personalities and wrote accordingly to that. And writing Umoja for the Philadelphia Orchestra, that very first time I saw them play, I got weak in the knees. I was right at the edge of the stage, and when the strings dug in, oh my God, I was about to pass out. But that week of them working on the piece and working with my Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin really informed me, the thought process behind how they interpret music and how their culture is; whenever you have a community of people playing for a long time, they develop their own distinctive group sound. There was an article in The New York Times about that for string quartet. How whenever there’s a new person that comes in, the group sound still remains as if it were that distinct individual.
That is what Philadelphia has. They already have the nuances and synchronicity of a chamber group. To hear that informed how I would work on Seven O’Clock Shout. I knew that I only had two weeks to write that piece. And I thought about all the different factors. I thought about Erica Peel, the piccolo player. I thought about Danny Matsukawa and David Chang. I thought about all the musicians in the orchestra, informed from the moment that Umoja was premiered and working with them backstage. Just the conversations that we had. So it just made sense to me that Seven O’Clock Shout would be for them and making it that they could be signing a birthday card. Putting their signature on that birthday card love letter to the world in this moment of solidarity. We are human in all of this, this pandemic. It’s no longer the identity of an orchestra, but it’s affecting all the individuals in between. So I thought it necessary to create a piece that said distinctively that.
They had no rehearsals because they were all at home. Everybody was quarantined at that point. I do know the way that Maestro Yannick works is that he’s a pianist. And so there are many times where he will work through a score via piano. So Seven O’Clock Shout had to have a piano reduction with it as well. He would conduct and send that video off to the other musicians. And what I love about that is that everybody focused in on his movements. And they knew those movements. They’ve come to interpret them as a unit, not individually. So it’s no surprise to me that it came together as tight as it did. It was really exciting to see. And I think it was probably even more exciting to see people cheering and dancing and doing their thing when it came time to the shout part. I felt it necessary to have that moment where people would lean out their windows and bang their pots and pans so to speak.
FJO: But now the orchestra’s gonna play it all together on their opening concert. How is that gonna work?
VC: I actually sat in a rehearsal last week, and I brought a few of my students here from the Frost School of Music in with me via Zoom conference. The orchestra looks like an orchestra on stage. They’re spaced out. The woodwinds, and brass, and percussion, they’re in the back, and they have transparent partitions. They sounded fantastic! They didn’t skip a beat.
FJO: This is an ongoing thing now with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Through our new program at New Music USA, Amplifying Voices, which you’re part of with the Philadelphia Orchestra, you’re gonna be writing for them yet again.
FJO: Do you have any idea what you’re going to write for them yet, or is it too soon to ask?
VC: It’s too soon to ask, but I would say that the difference between this new work and the previous two is that they had functions coming in. I knew that Umoja was a piece that was already written, but it had to be expanded. And I knew that it was going to be an opener for one of the concerts. I knew that Seven O’Clock Shout was the love letter to humanity that the Philadelphia Orchestra wanted to have. What I didn’t know was what position it would actually have within a concert. I’m so thrilled that it’s going to open the first time that they’re back. But for this new piece, there are no parameters. And because of that, I have to define what the function is. And there’s so many ideas that are going on in my head about what kind of function, but I do know it’s a full-length work and I really want each and every single musician in there to shine. It’s my way of just saying I care about youand thank you for allowing me to be in your family. My only real parameter is to write for the people. And that’s what I do anyway.
FJO: The other part of Amplifying Voices that ties back to what you did with Imani is in addition to writing all this music for the group, you also curated the repertoire for this group by commissioning all these composers who didn’t previously write for wind quintet and forever changed the repertoire. And one of the things that’s exciting to me about Amplifying Voices is that you have a role as a curator and an advisor about other music that this orchestra should be playing that other orchestras in this consortium should be playing and a real ability now to make a change in this repertoire that really has been this monolith. Composers can be anybody. And now is a chance to really show that and to pick repertoire that shows that.
VC: I’m very excited about Amplifying Voices because its title alone already says to me that it’s going to amplify the voices of people that have not necessarily been heard or allows us to dive into various cultures in such a way that we haven’t done before. So what I envision is working with young composers of color and helping them to find their voice. And using the platform of these orchestras and also with the incredible resources that the Philadelphia Orchestra provides. I think that that would make a huge difference. I hope that Amplifying Voices can be a vehicle for that kind of change, and that kind of evolution. I would to love to see the orchestra be a vehicle for which its symphonic voice reaches and communicates fully with the culture and this new generation. And it remains to be seen what that means in terms of actual sonorities, actual melodies, actual intervals. I’m reminded of how Black children don’t have that etude book that is based on their culture. I’m reminded of that for all different cultures in America. I would love for the symphonic world to reach out in that way with new repertoire that is built around that. And I’m not talking about tokenism. I’m not talking about a nod towards a culture, but an actual blending of the culture into the symphonic repertoire. Something that is of the people. So that means going to those composers who have been influenced and raised in their cultures and are able to articulate that through their orchestrations and through their motifs. It’s really all about identifying, first and foremost.
FJO: You’re a passionate citizen, and that comes across also in your music, and to take it back directly into your music, I’m wondering about the kinds of messages that you can send in the music that you create. We talked about the fact that loads of people play Wish Sonatine now, which is great. That piece has a very clear message in the very beginning, which is recited by the performer: what the world could have been as opposed to what it became. And it’s very effective, but of course that’s somebody reading words. And once you have music, then it’s music. How do you translate that when it’s just music and there are aren’t words?
VC: It starts with a performer and how they interpret. And their understanding of what’s going on. They have to understand the story in order to become the story tellers. It’s our responsibility to convey that story to the performer in such a way that is not cerebral, but external and brings them into that world. So the program notes, the rehearsal notes, all of those things that go into publishing, , for Wish Sonatine was crucial. What we do have is the poem by poet Fred D’Aguiar who is out at UCLA right now.
When I was writing the piece, I noticed that the poem is really short, but there’s a lot in it. There’s a lot of history that’s embedded into it through his words. His carefully, beautifully chosen words. And so that automatically in itself, his story telling made me want to dig into what the Middle Passage was. And in some cases kind of still is. The one thing that I want to mention about Wish Sonatine is it’s about right at the beginning, it’s about the tall ships. We know this from the poem, but what is being conveyed is the fact that you can smell the ships before you even see them because they’ve been trafficking people, and that means that those people were in there, in the ship, canned up like sardines. Stacked up like sardines. Nothing crueler. And so excrement, body odor, all of those things were happening. So you could smell the death coming a mile away before you even saw it. How people were brought to the ship, the passage of no return, and the idea of what is a human experience when you were taken away from all that you know and love, and you’re being dragged by chains and you see this ship, and right before you board, you think, this is my last chance of staying on my home soil where I was born. And you fight like hell before you’re put on that ship. I decided to take a more literal approach to that. In putting that into the program notes, the idea of a mother who is about to have a child on the ship, and she has that child and that moment of pure love, but then that sense of dread that that child is gonna be thrown overboard because toddlers and babies were not tolerated on the ship. They were too much. Too much to handle. You can’t tell a child to stop crying if they’re upset about something. You can’t tell a child to behave. You cannot force them in that condition. You can subjugate an adult, but it’s harder to subjugate a child.
So they knew exactly what to do with children. And this mother who was like hell no. I’m not going to let this happen, not without a fight. And then they both get thrown overboard. You can tell this is dark, but this was a reality. And when you put it through to music, in musical terms, it allows people to absorb even the darkest sides of human nature and convey it through the art because then you are grieving while you’re playing. And that kind of grief is something that audiences know. We know grief through death. We’re going through it right now with the pandemic. But the other thing that it conveys is the history of the blues. The history of all of these various cultures, these tribes being put onto a ship. Spread apart because they didn’t want any kind of mutiny to happen, but that difference of languages and rhythms and all of those things came together during the Middle Passage. So you hear elements of the blues at that moment that the mom has a beautiful child, and she knows what’s going to happen next. So I felt all of those things were necessary to put into Wish, and so it tells its own story, but I do feel it’s necessary to verbalize that to the musicians so that they’re clear on what their motivation is as story tellers, actors, actresses.
FJO: Another really powerful piece of yours is Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes. That sent me down this giant rabbit hole when I discovered it, learning that history because we’re not taught that history.
VC: That’s right. We’re not taught it.
FJO: And so part of the role that the composer can have in creating a piece and giving it a title like that is creating awareness of this history.
VC: And it’s our job to do so. Yeah. It’s our job to do our research and learn, and I think that that’s the one of the biggest things, besides the creative factor of being a composer is the research, the historical elements of it. Everybody has their own different areas of interest in history. For me, it is people of color. I have to admit to you, in elementary school, I got a D in history because I didn’t really care about the Battle of the Bulge. I know that I should have. I know, and I tried my best, but I didn’t relate to it. But I can tell you, I can talk to you about Black history any day of the week because there was some kind of connection there for me. And now looking back of course, I try to absorb as much as I can.
Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes was something that came to me due to a very good friend who is from Wichita, Kansas, so her and her family have been fighting for their rights, and they have proof of their family line being within the Dawes Roll. The Dawes Roll was literally the listing of people who were of mixed heritage assigned to particular tribes. And so they were recognized and there were tribes that were recognized by the federal government as the civilized tribes. I mean how about that for an insult—the civilized tribes? This voyage of the Trail of Tears and how it related to the Great Migration which happened after the emancipation, where Black people and Native Americans equally start to move west and outward around the country. And for Native Americans, they were very much forced, so there’s this level of inhumane on one side within one culture, but then there’s also the level of hope within another culture. And it fascinated me in how these two cultures came together for this idea of migration.
FJO: You’re obviously very intrigued by telling stories, and you’re fascinating by history and being a story teller, but you’re telling it through this medium of instrumental music, which is abstract. People hearing it, if they don’t know the title, if they don’t read the notes, they might not necessarily get the story unless you’re writing vocal music, opera or choral pieces.
VC: I’m going into the training program of the composer-librettist program at the Met[ropolitan Opera] in partnership with Lincoln Center Theater. I work with the dramaturge of the Met and I’m working on building an opera. So that is my big project for the next few years. And I’m extremely excited about that. It’s a whole new world for me because I’ve used instrumental writing as my vehicle, not necessarily by choice, but just because that’s always been the way I’ve had that exposure. So now it really opens up a lot of things. And I would be remiss in saying that in not saying that I was actually a vocal minor my first year in college. So II did perform in operas back in the day. So, in a way, it’s a beautiful return to that.
FJO: And let’s not forget the trios singing that you did with your sisters. The very beginning.
VC: Yeah, it really did start with the voice. That’s what we make music from first and foremost—access wise.
FJO: Now in terms of telling stories you know, everybody has many stories to tell. And there are many stories that need to be told, like the five civilized tribes story which is such a jarring disconnect. So what is the obligation of a composer to research these stories and to tell these stories? Are there stories that certain composers shouldn’t tell? Are there other stories that composers must tell? What are your thoughts on that whole question?
VC: We all choose our own paths. And a composer doesn’t necessarily have to choose any story to tell. That’s just how I identify and it’s because of what my ancestors have gone through. I feel it necessary to tell their story, but also really just embrace this idea of how to walk in the world and inform people around me. There are composers out there who just want to write for themselves. And that’s okay. I’m not gonna stop you from doing that. But I feel that I have a purpose in this world. It has a lot to do with my faith. I recognize that there are stories that are yet untold that if they were told, they would transform all those who would hear them. So it’s my job to create music that allows that transformative power to happen. Or at least that’s my attempt. I try to write music that transforms, but if it doesn’t come out that way, then I accept that, too.
FJO: We’re all in this very transformative moment in the whole world, this very strange moment.You’re now in Miami, and part of the new music community there and teaching and balancing teaching and composing, and we’re in the middle of this crazy, crazy time where people are having classes at home, or having classes separated from each other, or wearing masks and all these things. How are you navigating this, and as an artist, as a composer, where do you feel your view, your empathy, what you were talking about, the ability to transform through your work? Where can you play a role in this moment there?
VC: We’re learning how to adapt. And we’re learning new forms of communication. And we’re learning, as both audience and artist, how to reconnect with one another. And for the arts, I’m just really amazed, well I’m impressed, but not surprised, at the level of ingenuity and sacrifice that artists are undergoing right now to get their works out. If one were to create music for Zoom, what would that be? How would the rules of Zoom change the way we communicate, or change the orchestration for a work, or even change the structure, or even change the thing that throughout mankind that we’ve always worked towards whenever we play music and that is the idea of playing together. Note for note. Beat by beat.
We know our heartbeat; we know pulse is a central part of who we are. Zoom and any other vehicle, Google Chat, destroys that notion. How do we adapt and create music around that anyway? My focus has been on creating chamber music through this platform. I feel like it’s a dam where it’s holding a lot of water back, but there’s all these holes that the water’s rushing through, and the holes are getting bigger and bigger. And so we composers are the force that’s making these holes bigger and bigger. Pretty soon, that dam is going to break down. So what are we gonna write? And you know, how are we gonna play? At the end of the day, when a student wants to play a duet with their teacher, and they only get Zoom between them, how’s that going to work? Why not build repertoire around that?
FJO: So are there live concerts at all in Miami right now, or is everything Zoom?
VC: There are some live concerts at the University of Miami. We just finished doing an orchestra concert, he first of the season. It was just strings, Gerard Schwartz conducting. And the concert was dedicated to Greg Cardi who was a New York violinist and he was a conducting fellow of Gerard Schwartz who passed away unexpectedly during the pandemic. They allowed about 75 people in the audiencet to not only experience music in person, but to also celebrate and collectively mourn the life of Greg.
And the Nu Deco Ensemble, they’re doing their thing. Nu Deco Ensemble is a group that is merging genres in such a way that is pushing the envelope. I’ve got a chance to play in the flute section for Nu Deco this past year, so I look forward to doing more of that work. But they have their concert season scheduled for the year. We’re all finding ways of getting back out there and performing, but we also have to find ways of getting music to go through all platforms so that we will not be denied in our art and culture.