Interview: Shabaka HutchingsGuest Editor
“Music is a communal endeavour. Music is something that I think brings people and societies together to experience, for certain…
“It’s our moral responsibility, right now, to pay attention to these conversations; to listen to those who are speaking up.”
Anthony R. Green is a composer and social justice artist from the US, based in Berlin. He was interviewed as part of Sound and Music’s newest podcast series, and features alongside Amble Skuse and Nathan Riki Thomson in Episode 4: Portals which you can listen here.
So many people right now are spending most of their days within their individual homes, yet we are connecting more often than we would have connected without this pandemic. So many people are connecting more often with people that they wouldn’t have otherwise connected to if this situation hadn’t happened, and there is a real beauty in that.
There’s a beauty in the fact that a lockdown and a pandemic and a quarantine usually imply isolation and a disconnection, being disassociated with the greater world. But, through technology, we have found ourselves connecting with more individuals and more communities than we probably ever would have. Lockdown for me has been quite a rich experience and an active experience, and I really haven’t had much time to sit with myself and to reflect upon how the world is changing. That reflection happened forcefully, especially when George Floyd was murdered. It was inevitable, especially for black people, to reflect upon what has just happened and take a moment to breathe.
I personally love the conversation process. I love talking to the musicians about their strengths, their weaknesses, their desires, their avoid-at-all-costs. I love to talk to them about things that they haven’t done before that they would be interested in exploring. I love exploring new sounds and new methods of thinking about sound and creating sound — this is what, for me, music is about: it’s not just about the organisation of sound through time, but it’s about how the meaning of that piece can relate to many different people of many different backgrounds in many different cultures. Or how a piece can seem impregnable in terms of understanding, and how perhaps those walls can be broken down over repeat listenings and repeat experiences of the piece.
Piano Concerto Solution was commissioned by Robert McCormick for his percussion ensemble at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Robert put me in touch with Dr Eunmi Ko and I remember that first conversation so clearly: we were talking about the possibilities of this new piece and she said she was very attracted to the social justice aspect of my practice. She started telling me about her personal experience as an immigrant, as a woman in the world of classical music that is so male-dominated and skewed against immigrants, especially from Asia. She was telling me about being disrespected when she travels, about how her voice is not taken seriously, and I immediately felt a connection with her — I, too, have felt not taken as seriously as some of my non-black colleagues in certain situations. There was an immediate connection between the two of us that I wanted to explore — but I also wanted to uplift her story.
I wanted to somehow encapsulate that tension she experienced between the men that have mistreated her and disrespected her, and her own navigation through this world — but also I wanted her to shine as well. That’s why the piece begins with this extremely virtuosic solo; then halfway into the first movement, the percussionists come in with a very simple gesture, and that gesture is wiping the palm of their hand down their arm. That gesture not only has an interesting sound—it’s a very subtle sound—it also symbolises uncomfortable touch. And that symbol was the foundation of this tension for me, and all this comes together within the first movement. The pianist is playing within this sonic environment of body percussion and vocalisation.
The second movement gets more introspective. It’s a time when Dr. Ko can rest and reflect upon these negative experiences, and rise above these experiences.
The only solution for the tension that Dr. Ko has experienced, and that many women and many immigrants and many black people experience within the classical music world, is to keep on going and to keep on fighting. To keep on being present, to keep on creating, and to continue within this practice in spite of all of the negativity. So that’s why I ended up changing its title from Piano Concerto Tension to Piano Concerto Solution. Towards the end of the second movement the percussionists, even the conductor, all end up leaving their stations and invading the piano, the space of the pianist, to the point where the pianist is forced off the piano bench.
But here’s the thing about the very end of the piece: Dr. Ko raises her hand, and when she drops her hand, everybody stops. And that’s really the focus for me of the piece. Dr. Ko is the one that puts an end to the invasion, and she’s doing this through her own sense of agency, through her own desire to continue, despite people invading her space and invading her intellect and trying to take everything that she’s worked for and silence her voice. No — she’s the one that says stop.
That’s what really clinched the piece for me philosophically as well as technically and that’s the symbol of optimism — that, yeah, there is tension, but we can overcome this tension.
I was fascinated by communication and by creating and sharing these experiences with people. Somehow, I didn’t want to read stories about people that didn’t exist; I wanted to just be engaged with people that did exist, people who were part of my life in some way.
My first compositions were basically gifts to people. I think that whole process of reaching out to people and engaging in a conversation definitely played a strong part in how I matured as a composer. My first real social justice practice piece was about the war in Iraq. I remember writing this piece because I had come across an article about how many unreported deaths there were in that war at the time, and I wanted to use music as a platform to get that story out in some way.
While the desire to communicate to people has definitely played a major role in my development as a composer, it’s not the only path that I take in composition. I do have a slew of pieces that are just sound explorations and structural explorations or textual explorations or explorations of an interval.
The first two Collide-oscope pieces were composed as exercises. I saw these opportunities that I could turn to creating pieces of music that I really wanted to create that were not associated with greater narratives, either in social justice or programmatic music or symbolic music representing a piece of literature or a film, etc. These pieces were selfish pieces for me.
Black people have been talking about this problem for a really long time. I’m not saying this to boost my own intentions in any way, but black people in classical music have been talking about the silencing of black composers for a really long time, and these conversations have been happening in tandem.
All of these conversations have filtered into the conversations within the classical music world about systemic racism in our institutions that are responsible for training the next generations of classical musicians and composers and musicologists and scholars, and so on. It’s our moral responsibility, right now, to pay attention to these conversations; to listen to those who are speaking up. To read the stories that are being published, but also to read the infographics that are about white supremacy and systemic racism in general as constructs. It’s our moral responsibility to try to change the direction of classical music moving forward, and the direction of society as well.
Anthony R Green is co-founder and artistic director of Castle of our Skins, a Boston-based concert series dedicated to promoting and celebrating black artistry through music.