Late to the Revolution

I was late to the Bang on a Can revolution. As a freshman at Yale in the mid-90s, my friends Bryce Dessner, Claire Lundberg and I were looking for an end-of-semester gift for our Music 210 teacher, Ron Squibbs. All we knew was that Ron liked weird music, so we went to Cutler's Classical and bought what looked like the weirdest music in the store: a Bang on a Can CD. (Ron’s research was on the music of Iannis Xenakis. Good intentions notwithstanding, we didn't really know what we were doing!)

When I started composing in earnest, it wasn't Bang on a Can-flavored music. I remember reading a quote from (I think) Michael Gordon in the New York Times about their new summer program in the Berkshires. He said something to the effect of, "if you're just writing good, well-crafted music, this probably isn't the festival for you." My biggest influence at that time was Benjamin Britten, so I knew I wasn't a natural fit for Banglewood.

As a teacher, I taught some of the Bang on a Can staples in my Music Now class at Peabody Conservatory: Julia Wolfe's Lick, David Lang's Are You Experienced, and Michael Gordon's Yo Shakespeare. But my first deep connection with this body of work occurred when I taught David's The Little Match Girl Passion, right after it won the Pulitzer Prize. The Evolution Contemporary Music Series was among the first organizations to present the piece after its premiere/recording, and David joined us for a subsequent performance.

By this time, my own music was starting to change. As a composer, what I've learned from the music of all three Bang on a Can composers, and from those who have followed in their footsteps, is an insistence on allowing simple musical ideas to unfold on their own terms, often on a large scale. This is music that has the courage of its convictions, and sticks with them from downbeat to double bar, sometimes for the duration of an evening-length work.

The real revolution at the heart of the Bang on a Can enterprise may have less to do with the music itself, and more to do with how it is experienced and shared. Bang on a Can emphasizes context and community, the constellation of ideas and people that frame the act of making music. As David told me in a 2011 interview, “your job as a composer is to engage this entire utopian network of obligations which makes your music necessary.”

The Bang on a Can composers stand on the shoulders of giants: those of their minimalist forebears, and those of their Yale mentors, Martin Bresnick and Jacob Druckman. In turn, countless 21st century musical organizations wouldn’t exist, much less thrive, without the impetus and influence of Bang on a Can. I count the Evolution Series among those, and couldn’t be more excited to celebrate Julia and her music in Baltimore tomorrow!

Tradition

A big part of classical music has to do with one's connection to history, by way of one's teachers. I value this immensely, even as a lot of my work involves pushing back against traditional aspects of our field. I was reminded yesterday, while playing a small role in a premiere by my teacher John Harbison, just how fortunate I've been to have principal mentors (the other was Nicholas Maw) who have been deeply tied to tradition, but who have also been thoughtful, humane individuals, engaged with the world beyond music.

John so elegantly bridges the gap between "classical music" and "everything else." I’ve always appreciated the ethical, spiritual, and intellectual dimensions of John's music, and the sense that he is wrestling with extramusical questions in his work. While the intersections between those values and the notes on the page may at times be abstract, it has always meant something to me to know that the person behind the music participated in Freedom Summer, registering Black voters in Mississippi in 1964.

I have fond memories of my monthly plane-bus-subway pilgrimages to Boston for lessons with John between 2002-04. I wasn’t particularly happy with the music I was writing at the time, but I still sensed that being around John and his work would be an experience that I would always carry with me. I remember John’s Pulitzer Prize occupying a very unassuming spot above his desk at home. “Unassuming” describes many things about John: the way he carries himself, the way he wears his intense erudition and musicality.

John can be so understated, so restrained, that he sometimes comes across as opaque. But I think this is in keeping with something he said in our pre-premiere interview last night: he wants his music to be mysterious, but not mystifying. (An echo of Claude Debussy’s motto: “never vague, always ambiguous.”) Accordingly, John taught me some of the most critical things I’ve learned, and have tried to pass on, about directness and clarity in music.

Another thing John taught me was that composition isn’t a cumulative process. I once brought an older piece of his to a lesson, in the hopes of writing something similar in approach. He told me that he didn’t know how he had written the piece, and that he couldn’t write something like it again if he tried. My own music has become something different from the music I loved and aspired to write as a student. Our work evolves, and that sometimes yields a sense of nostalgia, even a feeling of loss, for the music we can no longer make.

As my music has changed -- not only my musical language, but why, and for whom, I write music in the first place -- I have increasingly felt like an outsider, in classical music and in academia. I’ve wondered what my "establishment" teachers would make of it all. My uneasiness faded somewhat after talking to John at length for the first time in over a decade. I will always see him as an elder statesman in a grand tradition, but he is also a fellow artist, following his convictions, and trying to make sense of the world through music.

Perhaps my favorite moment yesterday, after last night’s premiere, was seeing one of my composition students -- John’s grand-student -- eagerly telling him what he had deciphered about John's new work, things that I couldn’t even begin to hear. It was another link in a chain, another step in a shared journey, one that I couldn't have foreseen during my own uncertain, post-graduate lessons with John. It’s fitting that John has long called to mind for me a line by a poet we both admire, Czeslaw Milosz: “I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard, / as are all men and women living at the same time, / whether they are aware of it or not.”

Art and Activism Workshop

Earlier this year, I posted about a grant I received from Johns Hopkins University. The purpose of the grant was twofold: first, to fund a new piece I’m writing about the unseen violence of solitary confinement in America, specifically the tragic story of Kalief Browder. The second part of my proposal involved the creation of a biweekly, two-hour workshop at the Peabody Institute, focused on contemporary intersections between music and social justice. I’m happy to announce the ten participants selected for this workshop!

Kate Amrine, trumpet, MM ‘17
Gregory Goldberg, horn, BM ‘19
Joey Guidry, bassoon, BM ‘18
Alec Kipnes, double bass, BM ‘18
Jamie Leidwinger, composition, MM ‘18
Sonia Matheus, oboe, BM ‘20
Sean McFarland, composition, MM ‘18
Daniel Sabzghabaei, composition, MM ‘17
Sarah Thomas, violin, BM ‘17
Lior Willinger, piano, GPD ‘18

I was thrilled with the number and quality of applications; it was hard to choose among so many students passionate about engaging with the broader world through music. I was especially moved by the diversity of applicants and ideas. The selected participants are a varied group, with regard to their backgrounds, their majors, where they are in their studies, and above all, their project proposals, which include:

  • a debut album devoted to female composers and performers
  • a thesis on ethics, protest and censorship in music
  • F**k the Stigmas, a concert series destigmatizing and educating about mental illness
  • research on the intersection of hip-hop and sociopolitical conditions in Baltimore
  • a podcast examining the idea of Music and Place, also documenting our workshop
  • musical settings of Latino activist poetry
  • a non-profit arts venue for all ages that doubles as a community center
  • a song cycle on texts by Persian women in the #mystealthyfreedom movement
  • interactive musical experiences with Baltimore’s homeless population
  • If Music Be the Food, a concert series that collects food for the Maryland Food Bank

The workshop will be loosely divided into a fall seminar and a spring practicum. During the first semester, we’ll consider the role and responsibility of 21st century musicians in addressing sociopolitical issues of our time, by way of readings, audio, video, invited guests, and group discussion and activities. The second semester will focus on the development and initial realization of student projects. In lieu of academic credit, each student will receive a $500 honorarium in support of their participation and their projects. 

I couldn’t be more excited about this new initiative, taking place just as Peabody moves towards making community engagement more central to what we do. The workshop gets underway later this month. Please stay tuned for updates!

Social (Media) Experiment

In the summer, when I spend the most time writing music, I try to only check email at the very end of the day. I do this to conserve mental energy. I think of email as a kind of brain pollution: whatever its content, an email means “you need to do/think about this,” which means fewer brain cells to simply think, and be, without external prompts or demands.

For the past three months, I’ve attempted a similar change in my use of social media. I’ve kept up my personal and professional posts, and I’ve (mostly) responded to messages. But I only check notifications once a week, on Sunday nights, when I also put in some time scrolling through other people’s posts. I've taken breaks before, but nothing on this scale. 

I made this change because social media disrupts my access to a place of private empathy. When there’s another mass shooting, when another black person is killed by a police officer, when an attack occurs in another country, the communal conversation, no matter how thoughtful, can be numbing and predictable: earnest pleas, outrage, counter-outrage, profile picture filters, humans turned into hashtags, all in a matter of hours. It often takes a few days until I’m able to feel something for myself. 

The heart of the problem is the speed with which social media processes the world. Instant, polarized responses make it harder for me to think and feel intentionally. My mind becomes more reactive than creative, attuned to the social media dynamic surrounding an issue rather than the events that sparked it. In the words of comedian Keegan-Michael Key: “You know the old adage, ‘Tragedy plus time equals comedy?’ Well, there's been no time.”

I’ve encountered people and ideas on social media that have inspired and transformed me. But I’m concerned that so much of what I think and feel is filtered through online discourse. This raises new questions: why would I keep posting if I’m not reading other people’s posts as much? Why should they read mine? Is this a sustainable way to engage with a broader community? Regardless of the answers, the time and mental space to consider these questions is what I’m looking for.

Second Chance

In the spring of 2007, an enthusiastic undergraduate composer named Kevin Clark approached me with a proposal. The previous year, Kevin had taken the initiative of launching a composition mentoring program called Junior Bach. He had partnered with the Saint Ignatius Loyola Academy, a school serving middle-school boys from low-income families. Kevin was now petitioning the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University to make the program available to composition majors as a for-credit course. In order to make this happen, the program needed a faculty advisor. Kevin, along with various administrators at Peabody, invited me to take on that role. I said no.

I turned down Kevin's offer in part because I was still finishing my doctoral degree, and was concerned about spreading myself too thin. I don't like taking things on when I can't commit to them 100%. But in hindsight, I declined because I didn't see the value in what Kevin had created. Why were Peabody composers notating music for middle school students? What did our students, or theirs, get out of this arrangement? What would I get out of it? I was focused on writing music, on running my concert series in Baltimore, and on teaching, and I didn't think Junior Bach aligned with those goals.

Junior Bach certainly didn't need me. My colleague Steve Stone devoted himself to the program for the next four years, and it thrived under his leadership. Kevin graduated in 2008, with a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Johns Hopkins, and bachelor's and master's degrees in composition from Peabody. He has since gone on to a career as a successful composer and speaker, now serving as Director of Platform at New Music USA. I finally finished my doctoral degree in the spring of 2011. It was then that Steve mentioned, in passing, that he was planning to step down as director of Junior Bach. This time, it was my turn to ask whether I could be considered to take his place.

What had changed? Sure, I had finished my degree. But more importantly, I realized that I had missed an opportunity to be part of something special back in 2006, something more powerful than any composition, commission, or diploma. Junior Bach was about new music, it was about community, it was about teaching, it was about Baltimore. In short, it was about everything that mattered to me. Why were our students helping middle schoolers write music? Because those middle schoolers had great musical ideas, and only needed time and guidance to develop them into full-fledged compositions. Along the way, our composition majors were getting rare and invaluable teaching experience. 

As for what I would get out of it, that should have been a no-brainer from the start. Meeting the St. Ignatius students -- along with students from the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, who joined the program in 2014 -- at the main entrance to Peabody every Monday and Wednesday is one of the highlights of my job. The only thing I love more is handing them their completed scores, signed by their teachers and performers, after their original music has been premiered in front of all of their classmates. It's hard to imagine anything more empowering, for the students, or for their mentors.

I think that's what I missed about Kevin Clark's instincts and vision nearly 10 years ago. Like many people involved in community engagement, I don't use the word "outreach." In part because it implies people in need of something that a more privileged person or institution can bestow upon them. But moreover because, when you're engaging with your community in meaningful ways, you get more than you give. The music that these students create at Peabody is a much greater gift than virtually anything else we could be doing with our time as artists. I count myself fortunate not to have missed a second chance to receive that gift.

Please join us for the Junior Bach Program's 10th Anniversary Celebration on Friday, April 29 starting at 1pm. Details here.

Unseen: Kalief Browder and Solitary Confinement in America

I'm about to begin preliminary work on a new commission, funded by a grant from Johns Hopkins University: a composition concerned with the unseen violence of solitary confinement in America, specifically the tragic story of Kalief Browder depicted by Jennifer Gonnerman in The New Yorker and Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic. In 2010, the 16-year-old Browder was arrested in New York on robbery charges. Unable to post bail but never convicted of a crime, he was held on Riker’s Island without trial for three years, two of them in solitary confinement. Browder committed suicide in June 2015, two years after his release. My project -- which will involve student and faculty musicians from the Peabody Conservatory of Music, as well as scholars and artists from across JHU -- is conceived as a springboard to longer-term academic, performance, and community engagement activities, generating new creative work and investigating the role of artists in social justice.

As this work unfolds, I hope to post occasional thoughts and experiences that emerge from my research and creative process. To begin with, I wanted to share a moving email from composer Steven Burke. Steve and I first met and became friends at the Yaddo Artist Colony in 2006. We connected again in 2011, when I interviewed him in New York for my doctoral dissertation on the legacy of his late mentor at Yale University, Jacob Druckman. Just before the New Year, I heard from Steve for the first time in years:

from: Steven Burke
to: Judah Adashi
date: Wed, Dec 30, 2015 at 11:04 AM

Dear Judah,

It has been a long time, but I just wanted to congratulate you on being awarded the Practical Ethics Grant from Johns Hopkins University. It is a very important work you are undertaking and I am happy to learn that you are concerned with specifically the story of Kalief Browder.

Kalief was my student in the Spring of 2015, his last semester at Bronx Community College. I thought the world of him and always looked forward to seeing him in class. He was a source of strength. We would always talk before or after class. He was a kind, generous and thoughtful soul. I once asked him, after noticing stitches in his nose, if he was okay. He said yes and that I shouldn't worry about him. A few weeks later I wasn't feeling well and he walked up to me and put his arm around my shoulders and asked if I was okay. I was touched by his warmth. He was one of those students I felt connected with somehow. The loss was very painful for me and it was made even worse by the fact I didn't know about his troubled past. I felt so ignorant and guilty.  My students write an autobiography at the beginning of the semester, but Kalief never mentioned a word. I found out after the school psychologist wrote to me about his tragic death. I have been composing a piece in his memory for piano trio. It is therapeutic.  

I just wanted to add my voice and recognize what you are doing. He was a very special soul. I also want to wish you a very Happy New Year of love, joy, peace, prosperity and good health!

All best,
Steve

 

Art and Activism: Dispatch from Baltimore #2

Yesterday was a cathartic day in Baltimore. In the morning, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby ruled Freddie Gray’s death a homicide, and announced criminal charges against the six police officers involved. I’m not sure I can call it a good day, because these developments don’t bring back a young Black man who never should have been arrested in the first place, nor do they fully engage the underlying issues in our city and country. Still, it was a just day.

In the afternoon, we held our biannual Junior Bach Program concert at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. This event, featuring original music by middle-school composers from the St. Ignatius Loyola Academy and the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women – mentored by our composition majors, and played by our performance majors – is typically attended by a large contingent of the young composers’ fellow students. Those students were sent home early due to concerns about protest-related traffic, so I was concerned that our composers wouldn’t get the support their new work so richly deserves.

As it turned out, the concert was electric. The energy was unusually palpable, even from backstage. My call for members of the Peabody community to fill the audience void was answered and then some. The crowd rose to my challenge that they outdo the volume of 80 middle schoolers, and the Peabody musicians who made time to rehearse and premiere this music raised their game in response. Each piece, performance and composer received a thunderous ovation, and the teachers from one of our partner schools presented their student composers with flowers.

It was not an easy week in Baltimore, even if most of us in the concert hall experienced the uprising (neither “riots” nor “unrest” strike me as meaningful terms) at a distance. This city is a family, and our family pride runs strong. All families have deep histories of dysfunction and struggle; ours is a very particular microcosm of an America built on white supremacy, as native son Ta-Nehisi Coates reminded us at Hopkins this week. The national media often defaults to a dim image of Baltimore, missing both the complexity and beauty we know so well. The inability of outsiders to grasp the greatness of our city is part of what shapes us. We’re ready for the reporters, the helicopters, and the National Guard with their rifles and tanks to leave the work that lies ahead to us.

The Junior Bach Program is a small but essential part of that work. It’s a community built around young people looking to build a life in music, empowering even younger people from far less privileged backgrounds to make their own music in an artistically vibrant and diverse city. It is Baltimore at its transcendent best, everything that the endlessly looped B-roll of a burning car and terse confrontations with and between political leaders cannot capture. So when friends and relatives nervously ask our audience members “how’s it going down there?”, I hope they’ll tell them about the Junior Bach concert. I hope they’ll say it was a good day in Baltimore.

Art and Activism: A Dispatch from Baltimore

Over the past year, I’ve been collaborating with the poet Tameka Cage Conley on a piece called Rise, for two choirs and seven instrumentalists. The words and music bear witness to our country’s fraught civil rights journey from Selma to Ferguson and beyond. It comes as little surprise that “beyond” now includes my beloved hometown of Baltimore, with its long history of racial fault lines. Still, it was striking to me that on April 19, the very day that Rise was premiered in Washington, DC, a young black man named Freddie Gray died of severe injuries sustained while in Baltimore Police custody. The rest of the story is still unfolding in our city, as it has been for generations.

Rise aims to tell a story, or rather, several stories that articulate both the broad sweep of history and its repeating patterns. We begin on March 7, 1965, with a nonviolent march for voting rights in Selma, Alabama. John Lewis and his fellow marchers were met by state troopers, one of whom struck Lewis in the head with a billy club and fractured his skull. 25 years old at the time, Lewis did not expect to survive, much less become a 15-term Congressman serving under the first African-American president. Could he have imagined an eerily similar phalanx of militarized police in Baltimore 50 years later, responding to largely peaceful protests following the needless arrest and death of another 25 year-old black man?

The impetus behind Rise became increasingly personal with the birth of my collaborator’s beautiful son, Maze Tru Cage Conley. As Tameka wrote in a moving essay about our project:

"My son was two months old when Mike Brown was murdered in the street and left there for hours, a gracelessness that haunts and humiliates. Though I have been a professional literary artist for years, I could find no immediate words to express how I felt. There was, instead, profound speechlessness, despair, and an ache I felt I needed to claim, which swelled like a wide river when, months later, Brown’s killer was allowed to walk, free of conviction, as if by killing Brown he had done the right thing. As a mother, I felt there was a clear message to me and to my newborn son: you are not citizens, and your lives do not matter."

Artists arrive at different answers to the question of how best to engage with the world around us. For me, the process often begins with Baltimore, and takes many forms: writing love songs to the city; making music in the city, as a faculty member at a music school and artistic director of a concert seriesrecording my music to raise funds for young musicians in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's OrchKids program. Empowering Baltimoreans from disenfranchised backgrounds to make their own music is critical. I have the biannual privilege of presenting original compositions by boys and girls in the Junior Bach Program; these students will have their latest works premiered at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University this Friday.

Rise invariably has deep roots in Baltimore, a city that embodies the disparity between what David Simon (creator of The Wire) calls the “two Americas.” Tameka and I are eager to bring our project here, now more than ever. In the meantime, I am planning to record and release the Invocation that opens the work, with proceeds going to Freddie Gray’s family. Echoing the patterns of history, the same music returns later in the piece, called for by Tameka’s words: “A horn tells us / a brother has fallen, again…” I now hear it as a lament, a prayer, and a call to action, for Baltimore’s past, present and future.