Remarks at a 4.29.18 memorial service for John R. Merrill, longtime music teacher at Gilman School in Baltimore, MD.

Good morning. My name is Judah Adashi. I’m a composer on the faculty of the Peabody Institute here in Baltimore, and a member of the class of ‘94; I was a twelve-year man at Gilman. I’ve only spoken at one other memorial service in my life, and that was for another musical mentor. So while today is a difficult day, I’m grateful for another opportunity to honor someone who has shaped the course of my life.

I met John Merrill in 1990. I sang in the Glee Club and the Traveling Men all the way through high school and, thanks to John, I directed the Traveling Men as a senior. I also took his introductory music course, as all first-years were required to do at that time, and his AP music history class. I can still vividly see and feel all of the hours spent in those rooms downstairs.

For those of us who were passionate about music, this was our world: the Merrill Conservatory of Music. There weren’t as many of us as there were serious athletes, but we were committed, and John created a space in which we could be openly and earnestly ourselves. As conductor Kirk Smith, class of ‘76, put it a recent phone conversation, “John was our sanctuary.”

Almost 25 years later, and a teacher myself for over 15 years, I now see John in a way that I couldn’t have put into words back then. As the concept of toxic masculinity has entered the mainstream, I think about the ways in which an all-boys school can sometimes foster narrow ideas about what it means to be a man, and the consequences for those who don’t fit the mold.

Looking back at my memories of Gilman through this lens, John Merrill stands out as the epitome of non-toxic masculinity. He was a gentleman, in the most literal sense of the word: a gentle man. He modeled what it was to be kind, gracious, witty, and vulnerable. He treated the young men in his care not only with respect, but with genuine tenderness.

On March 25, I learned from a mutual friend that John appeared to be in his last days. Thanks to his niece Linda, I was able to spend some time with John at his home on the 26th. He was sedated, but possibly able to hear. I was troubled by the fact that John wasn’t surrounded by music: his dear friend and colleague Anton Vishio told me that the arts channel to which the TV was usually tuned had mysteriously gone out.

So on March 27th, I came back with my wife Lavena, to make some music for John. Lavena played, beautifully, the Sarabande from Bach’s Second Cello Suite, with Linda, Anton, and I looking on. Lavena and I then moved out to the living room to John’s beloved Steinway, and played, together, the opening invocation from a piece of music that I wrote in 2015 called Rise. I told John that I loved him, and that I carry him with me in everything that I do.

I’d like to share with you now that last piece that Lavena and I played for John, before he passed away in the early morning hours of March 28th. [listen]

No Refuge: For the Love of The Game

On Super Bowl Sunday, my friend Tariq Touré and I released a collaborative track, titled No Refuge: For the Love of The Game. I wanted to share some thoughts about how my part in this project came to be.

I’ve been fascinated by The Star-Spangled Banner for some time. It wasn’t so long ago that I was introduced to my favorite version of the song, Marvin Gaye’s rendition at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game. Gaye transforms the anthem into a love song, at once patient and urgent, his singular gift for phrasing turning each line into a work of art.

I had this version on my mind while writing Inner City (2013), a love song to my hometown of Baltimore, for piano and pre-recorded track. The third movement of that piece, “The Key to the City,” was my own take on The Star-Spangled Banner, intertwined with audio that I recorded in and around Oriole Park at Camden Yards. I also included sounds recorded at Fort McHenry, where Francis Scott Key wrote the poem that would become our national anthem.

After the premiere of Inner City, a former student remarked that the movement based on the anthem struck him as sad. It made sense: the marking at the top of the score was “tender, fragile,” and the C-major chords in the piece glow in the shadow of something darker. At that time, I wasn’t aware of Key’s third verse. It includes a line directed at enslaved Africans, who sought their freedom by fighting alongside the British during the Battle of Baltimore: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.”

I was thinking of Marvin Gaye’s anthem again while finishing Rise (2015), a piece about America’s civil rights journey from Selma to Ferguson. The sixth and final movement of the piece sets a poem, by my collaborator Tameka Cage Conley, titled “MericanAnthem.” The poem ends with a litany, the names of murdered Black men, followed by these words: “Resound -- a drum / like faith / that conceived them / in early light.” It is an epilogue to an unfinished story.

In 2016, The Star-Spangled Banner became the site of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality. Initially, Kaepernick sat on the bench during pregame performances of the anthem. After conferring with former NFL player and U.S. Army Veteran Nate Boyer, he decided to kneel instead. In Boyer’s words, “soldiers take a knee in front a fallen brother’s grave, you know, to show respect.”

As team after team passed on signing Kaepernick in 2017, Tariq Touré wrote and began performing a stunning new poem, entitled “Colin Kaepernick: For the Love of The Game.” Tariq captures the dilemma faced by Black athletes who choose to speak out against injustice: “I assure you they love me! / surely they’ll understand today / So when I take this knee / as that anthem starts to play. / You think they could look at me / with this passion in my face / And truly be able to say / this is the land of the free / and the home of the brave?”

I had written some essays about what was happening in the NFL, but it was only after hearing Tariq’s poem that I realized I had already written a musical response as well: one that could work as an epilogue to “For the Love of The Game.” I changed the title to No Refuge, set aside the pre-recorded audio, and cut the final C-major chord. The last, low note hangs in the air, leaving space for a country that, so far, even Marvin Gaye couldn’t sing into being.

Full Circle

Bryce Dessner and I were classmates at Yale in the late 1990s. I remember sitting in the basement of our residential college together, trying to work through counterpoint exercises for our freshman music theory class. Bryce treated me as though I were the classical-music expert between the two of us, which, in hindsight, is both touching and amusing. As sophomores and relative outsiders to campus life, we sought out singles at the far ends of a giant, 9-person suite. Both of us mostly kept to ourselves, though I occasionally ventured downstairs to hear about his latest projects.

I was a huge fan of Bryce’s band, Project Nim, one of many endeavors undertaken with his twin brother, Aaron. They occasionally played at school, usually in our dining hall, and put out three fantastic albums that I wore out. Once, Bryce asked if I would be interested in an eleventh-hour opportunity to cover keyboards for them at a show in New York. I said no, probably because I didn’t quite believe that I could hold my own. I sometimes half-wonder if playing that show would have changed my artistic trajectory!

As I tried to get my bearings in the strange world of contemporary classical music, Bryce, who had stayed at Yale to earn his Master’s degree in classical guitar, was already recording on John Zorn’s label, and playing with the Bang on a Can All-Stars. He and Aaron were among the co-founders of Brassland Records in 2001, which put out two important debut albums that year: one by Clogs, an unusual quartet (bassoon, viola, guitar, and percussion) that Bryce and composer Padma Newsome formed at Yale, and one by The National, an exceptional band that Bryce would officially join in 2003.

Fortuitously, Bryce and I started to move in concentric professional circles over the past few years: when So Percussion closed out the 10th anniversary season on my concert series, Evolution Contemporary Music Series, I was thrilled when they suggested Bryce’s beautiful, inventive Music for Wood and Strings to anchor the program. That same year, our mutual friend Caroline Shaw played my piece my heart comes undone on a festival that Bryce curated in London.

Tonight, I'm going to see The National -- to my mind, the best American rock band of the 21st century -- for the first time. And tomorrow, on my birthday, I’ll be presenting an evening of Bryce’s recent solo and chamber music on the Evolution Series, with the composer on hand. Despite not having seen each other in nearly two decades, everything tells me that Bryce is the same gentle, thoughtful artist I immediately gravitated towards in college. The chance to reconnect with someone I like and admire so much is the best birthday gift I can imagine.

The Beauty of the Protest

In August 2014, 18-year-old Mike Brown -- an innocent, unarmed Black man -- was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, and left lying dead in the street for over four hours. Amidst the wave of protests that followed, one took place at a St. Louis Symphony concert; protesters situated in the audience chanted “Black Lives Matter.” New Yorker music critic Alex Ross noted that “much of the audience, and some musicians in the orchestra, responded with applause.”

There are those who view the concert hall as a politics-free zone. But musical protest endures in the work of many composers, with the support of arts organizations committed to activism and social change. My wife, Lavena, and I are proud to be part of this latter community. In 2016, I wrote a piece of music for her to play and sing, called The Beauty of the Protest. It was inspired by photographer Devin Allen’s images of the 2015 Baltimore Uprising, a movement sparked by the death of another innocent young Black man, Freddie Gray, at the hands of police.

Lavena is a cellist. Her first love is playing in small ensembles, or as a soloist. But she is a freelancer, which means that she also plays with orchestras from time to time. This isn’t her favorite kind of gig, in part because orchestras can be uncomfortably hierarchical ecosystems. Once, at an orchestra rehearsal, a personnel manager was dispatched by the concertmaster (second-in-command to the conductor) to tell Lavena to remove her hat. This sort of thing can make for an unhappy work environment, one that isn’t worth the paycheck it yields.

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, orchestras with which Lavena is especially happy to play, and she had a gig with one of those ensembles this weekend. The only catch: this orchestra begins every one of its concerts with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This was not news to Lavena, but it registered differently this time around.

The national anthem is currently at the heart of a major protest movement, sparked in 2016 by then-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick sat, then kneeled during the song, to protest the murders of Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, and countless other Black Americans by police. Kaepernick has effectively been blackballed by the league for his actions. The anthem’s words, written in Baltimore by Francis Scott Key in 1814, embody the never-fulfilled promise of freedom for all citizens. The third verse contains the line, “no refuge could save the hireling and slave / from the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.”

The painful implications of the anthem are especially vivid in the NFL, where some 70% of the players are Black, and nearly all 32 team owners are white men. The number of Black musicians in a symphony orchestra is often vanishingly small, reinforcing the insularity of classical-music spaces. While the anthem is hardly a symphonic staple, it is unsurprising that it has yet to become a flashpoint for protest in the concert hall. (Curiously, the Baltimore Symphony began and ended a free, outdoor concert during the 2015 Uprising with the piece.)

The prospect of playing the anthem with the orchestra in question had arisen for Lavena at a gig a few weeks earlier, during which other white musicians made nervous jokes in rehearsal about whether they ought to kneel. As it turned out, only the brass section played the anthem at that concert. This weekend, the whole orchestra was expected to play. On her drive to the gig, Lavena passed a billboard that said, “Maple Donuts Takes a Stand and not a Knee.” It was absurd, but the message was clear: whether it’s the NFL, an orchestra, or a donut shop, Black lives are never as important as whatever an American institution is selling that day.

At the Saturday evening concert, Lavena took a knee during the anthem. Nobody said anything to her that night, nor did she hear anything the next morning, before the Sunday afternoon concert. 15 minutes before the performance, she was approached by the orchestra’s director of operations and a union representative. They were friendly, saying that they agreed with her action and the principles behind it. They explained, citing documentation, that they couldn’t necessarily protect her if the orchestra’s leadership wasn’t OK with what she was doing. Minutes later, after she had started warming up onstage, she was told that she wouldn’t be playing the concert, a decision made by the conductor.

The orchestra’s representatives indicated to Lavena that the issue was not her protest, which they supported, but the fact that she didn’t play, as she had been hired to do. They invoked the NFL protests, noting that those players weren’t abdicating any of their in-game responsibilities. In legal terms, perhaps this is a sound argument. Morally, it isn’t, and I suspect the orchestra’s staff is well aware of that. They agreed with Lavena. They felt badly about sending her home. She will still be paid for the whole weekend. But the outcome sent a message as clear as the one on the billboard: musicians have to check their principles at the stage door, or they may be dismissed.

I’m proud to have as my partner in life and music someone who is unwilling to accept the hypocrisy of playing music about racial injustice one week and “The Star-Spangled Banner” the next. I’m less sanguine about the prospects for arts institutions that are limited by the same constraints of will and imagination as the politicians that their members bemoan offstage. Last week, the Houston Texans owner Bob McNair said of protesting football players, “we can’t have the inmates running the prison.” His subsequent apology notwithstanding, at least we know where he stands. To condemn statements like McNair’s while operating even loosely in their spirit is where the real danger lies.

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!


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,


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.