piano outside The King Center
life, music composition, piano

A Shift in My Creativity

Ground Zero conditions can arise from a unique conflation, a complex matrix, of ethnic, religious and ideological tensions, triggering massive upheaval and a shift in public consciousness. Ground Zero may be defined as a symbolic center of a shift in awareness, not limited to nuclear devastation. -Makoto Fujimura, Silence and Beauty

The book Silence and Beauty is part-memoir and part-exegesis of Endo’s novel Silence and the intersections it leads to among Japanese culture, Western culture, Christianity, and art. Last week, I paused after reading this quote to ponder what moment would be Ground Zero for my current music-making. It was my Moshe for Martin concert on January 18, 2015.

In Fall 2014, I realized I wanted to do something besides a service project for MLK weekend. I was still figuring out what it meant for me to be a musician while teaching full-time, but I decided to give a concert. Previously welcomed to create at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, I was grateful this space served as my venue. I finished composing Burning Bush Variations, my set of variations on the spiritual “Go Down, Moses,” and premiered them at the concert. Not wanting to be the only African-American composer featured at the event, I added a work by Scott Joplin. I also played “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin and an improvisation on Bach.

I could not have known how significant the concert would be to my career, but I did countdown the days to the concert through a series of Facebook posts.

January 11, 2015

A note on Moshe for Martin, coming in 7 days: My first performance of “Go Down, Moses” had 10 verses. For my high school English class, we gave presentations on Bible stories because they are referenced in a lot of Western literature. With a portable cassette recorder/player, I captured myself playing the spiritual ten successive times on the piano. I created lyrics so that each plague had one verse. I sang the arrangement accompanied by the cassette player as my presentation, but I don’t remember my class’s response. Next Sunday’s “Burning Bush Variations” include the same melody from that time with nuance I have accrued since then.

January 12, 2015

A note on Moshe for Martin, coming in 6 days: I was told, “You’re ghetto if you ever called a Kool-Aid flavor ‘red.'” I was told that “ghetto-fabulous” sleds were made of cardboard and garbage bags. “Being ghetto” was the swagger or the ridicule of making a life out of poor living conditions. Without being told, I sensed that a ghetto in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama was on Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive. I later learned that a ghetto was also a Jewish quarter created by force in a European town. I never lived in a ghetto, but I noticed that most of the African-American spirituals I knew were based on ancient Jewish stories. Musing on this shared term and this borrowed history, in college I wrote a musical diptych on “Go Down, Moses” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” for clarinet, viola, and piano. I called it “Out of the Ghetto.”

January 13, 2015

A note on Moshe for Martin, coming in 5 days: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out…” I read aloud with a friend, his family, and their guests at the first Passover Seder I attended in a home. To recite the suffering coupled with the deliverance is a powerful ritual I never experienced in the African-American community. We were slaves, and while equality still eludes many, our lives are much better than they were before. I can go to school from kindergarten through doctorate, study a field of my choosing, and get a job teaching anyone’s child who wants to study my field at my institution. Giving this concert on the eve of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a way of recollecting what we were and what we are.

January 14, 2015

A note on Moshe for Martin, coming in 4 days: Through a mistake in hearing, I spent several years of my childhood thinking that Martin Luther King, Jr. died during my lifetime in 1986. I knew that he was some kind of hero and that many African-Americans were sad that he had died. I was sorry I had missed hearing him speak in real time. I discovered my error when I learned about the context of his 1968 death as part of the civil rights movement.

I recently learned that MLK Day passed a congressional vote to become a federal holiday in the year of my birth. For most of my life, I have treated the day as just another day off, but for the past few years, I have used it to reflect on King’s words and actions or to gather with people of various backgrounds. Some gatherings I attended were concerts, and I am excited to share my own music in honor of this holiday this year.

January 15, 2015

A note on Moshe for Martin, coming in 3 days: Before a photograph introduced me to Abraham Joshua Heschel, I thought Jewish people existed only in ancient times. As a child reading a caption about him marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, I realized for the first time that present-day rabbis lived and were connected by blood and tradition to the Abraham of Genesis. Heschel alongside King taught me about faith-based battles for social justice and about collaboration across racial and religious boundaries. Moshe for Martin is a concert birthed in their wake.

January 16, 2015

A note on Moshe for Martin, coming in less than 2 days: The title of the piece I’m premiering is “Burning Bush Variations” because that is the Biblical phenomenon through which God claimed Moses’ attention before sending him on his mission to “ol’ Pharaoh.” A few years ago, I thought my mission might be to a performing arts center Spain, but when that process went up in flames along with my first (unsatisfactory) dissertation defense, I paused to listen. My mission was not to a place but to a vocation. Today’s insight came while I was driving up Eden Road. I am now doing exactly what was determined then: teaching music and making music.

January 17, 2015

A note on Moshe for Martin, coming in 1 day: I wanted to have some music by Mendelssohn (Felix or Fanny), Mahler, or another composer of Jewish heritage, but I had to settle for my favorite song by a son of Russian Jewish immigrants who studied African-American spirituals so that he could compose an opera.

January 18, 2015

On Moshe for Martin, coming in a half hour: On my drive up to Brooklyn, I listened to the On being episode featuring civil rights leader John Lewis. He is a man who deeply believes and practices loving enemies, pacing oneself, and hope. It is my hope that through my gift of making music, I may fan the “spark of the divine” in every person that he mentioned in his talk.

What came from my Ground Zero concert was, in Fujimura’s words, “a shift of awareness” of the significance of whose music I choose to perform. Although I have encountered a few African-American composers in my music education and career, I had never thought to highlight them. My first composition teacher was a woman, and I did not notice until graduate school how few women were featured in my studies or by renowned music institutions. A few months after the concert, I reconnected with my love of Cuban music. Since 2015, every concert I have performed has included music by at least two underrepresented groups because I believe that sharing unheard voices is one way to reckon with society’s brokenness.

My MLK 2015 concert also caused me to reflect on why an audience might be asked to listen. I realize it is rare for people to gather, to be physically present together, to be silent together, and to be listening together. There are more resonating bodies in a venue than the instruments. I hope that my choice of repertoire and the context in which I present it gives listeners an opportunity to say to themselves “Hmmm,” “I never _____ that before,” or “I, too, feel this.” Two more MLK weekend concerts, my recent talk/performance/sing-along of protest songs, and my upcoming concert with inspiration from Mark Twain would not have happened if I had not been steeping in the words and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Latasha Morrison over the past few years. As I plan for future performances, I continue to incorporate this sense of discovery and unity.

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