For Good Measure, by Ensemble for These Times (E4TT)
Episode 75: Da Capo Conversations with Marcus Norris and Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
Looking for a way to listen to diverse creators and to support equity in the arts? Tune in weekly to For Good Measure!
Today we revisit Marcus Norris’ and Sakari Dixon Vanderveer’s perspectives on music activism. If you enjoyed today’s conversation and want to know more about Marcus Norris and Sakari Dixon Vanderveer, check them out here and here. Parts of this episode originally premiered on August 16, 2021, click here, and May 17, 2021, click here.
This podcast is made possible in part by a grant from the California Arts Council and generous donors, like you. Want to support For Good Measure and E4TT? Make a tax-deductible donation or sign up for our newsletter, and subscribe to the podcast!
Intro music: “Trifolium” by Gabriela Ortiz, performed by E4TT (Ilana Blumberg, violin; Abigail Monroe, cello; Margaret Halbig, piano), as part of “Below the Surface: Music by Women Composers,” January 29, 2022
Outro music: “Lake Turkana” by Marcus Norris, performed by E4TT (Margaret Halbig, piano), as part of “Alchemy,” October 15, 2021
Transcription courtesy of Otter.ai.
Co-Producer, Host, and E4TT co-founder: Nanette McGuinness
Co-Producer and Audio Engineer: Stephanie M. Neumann
Podcast Cover Art: Brennan Stokes
With assistance from Adrienne Anaya, Hannah Chen, Sam Mason, Renata Volchinskaya
Nanette McGuinness 00:00
[INTRO MUSIC] Welcome to For Good Measure, an interview series celebrating diverse composers and other creative artists sponsored by a grant from the California Arts Council. I'm Nanette McGuinness, artistic executive director of Ensemble for These Times. In this week's episode we continue our Da Capo Conversations, a mini series where we'll be giving familiar segments a topical twist [INTRO MUSIC ENDS]. Today we revisit Marcus Norris' and Sakari Dixon Vanderveer's perspectives on activism in music. Here's what Marcus Norris had to say:
Marcus Norris 00:40
There's our music and our time, and for our music, it's like I was kind of talking about with the community in the last question is like, I want to be as authentic to us as I can. And I don't want to have to water that down. I don't want to act like it needs concert music to elevate it, or I don't want to, I don't I don't want to like, I just want to be us. I just want to make things that like people from where I'm from, will love when they hear it, and they'll and they'll recognize when they hear it, you know what I'm saying? And our time means like, I don't want to wait till I'm dead for, you know what I mean for this, for this to happen. Because like right now we're seeing a surge in the performances of black composers of the past who have passed away. And I'm super happy about that, like, ecstatic to see these performances happening. And I pray that they keep going and like even more, but my thing is like, I just don't want to wait till I'm dead for that to happen for me, you know what I mean? And I feel like if I sit passively on these things than that'll happen. And it's not just for me, it's for my contemporaries. Like we did a South Side Symphony concert in February 2020, right before COVID shut everything down, and as soon as I knew this concert was happening, I reached out to like, four or five, like black and Latinx musicians and artists and was like, you know, let's showcase some of your work. You know what I mean? Because I'm big on this, I think I think we need to give these people that we love their flowers while they can still smell them, you know what I mean? And so that's what we try to do. And we try to incorporate that in everything we do. I think that people need to be committed to telling their stories, because when you don't, there's like two things that can really happen. Either one, those stories don't get told. Or two, you can have people from outside those communities telling the stories in a way that might not be authentic, you know what I mean? Which has happened many, many, many times in history. And as for like our artistic goals and aspirations for South Side Symphony, this one's exciting. There's a couple of things. The one big one is that like, like everybody, when this pandemic is over, I really want to get back to doing concerts. We have so much fun, we did like what we call a kickback concert, back in February 2020. And it was like, we try to keep this like familial vibe. And like, how do we scale this up to include, you know, hundreds of people. And I think we were really successful with that, like how I describe it is like, I want you to feel like you're just kind of hanging out at like a family get together. And then at some point in time, your Uncle Mark hops on keys and start playing, your cousin hops up, picks up the violin and starts playing and then you know what I mean? And then your auntie gets up there, and she sings one of her favorite songs type of thing. You know what I mean? It just feels like, like a family. So what I'd like to do, whenever we can do so safely, is take this all over the country. Because I'm so big on community, I'm really big on community partnerships, so I would love to, like, partner with organizations and ensembles and event spaces all across the country and kind of have like, a South Side Symphony, kickback tour. You know what I mean? Where we go all around, and we hang out in these communities for a few days, culminating, you know, maybe there's like some education part to it. And then it culminates in like this, this kickback concert where we all have this exchange of music and love and vibes. So yeah, that's one of my goals, whenever we can get back to doing so safely. And secondly, but also very important to me is, I'm working on starting like an education side of South Side Symphony because, I think that's important when you're talking about these cultures. People need to be able to be the storytellers for their culture and their techniques, and for preserving all of these things. Like I said, because so what happens is either A, these things don't get preserved, these stories don't get told, or B, people outside of the cultures do it. And it might not be exactly right. You know what I mean? Last question is, "what would you tell young composers, or musicians of color, particularly in this time?" I love this question, this was one of the questions that made me excited to do this interview, because I wish I had this, you know what I mean? So the biggest thing that I think young composers and musicians of color should keep in mind right now is, play your game, don't play anyone else's game, because they don't know what they're doing really, or they don't know what you should do, I should say, like, for example, if say you're a musician, you're a composer, in, going through academia, is like, they will try to encourage you to write in a specific style or a certain way. Or they'll tell you that you need to like focus on XYZ, and they'll keep you so so busy, and they'll make, they'll make academia seem like the world, and it's not, it's not the world. And it's like, as soon as like you leave the academic space is like, none of that work you are doing matters. I really am thankful for like my OG's for this because they like, I don't know, I just, it's always been inherent in me. And like when I was an undergrad I was still doing, I was doing way more like outside of school because I understood this. This is not to say that your professors aren't brilliant, and don't make great music or anything. It's just the world that existed when they were coming up, doesn't exist anymore. Like that's not the world that you're coming up in, do you know what I mean? I love my professors, like flat out they've changed my life, this is, this is not to disparage academia at all. It's just, it just it's an old model, and it takes a long time to adjust. So I guess my advice is like, don't let them get in your head, and do a lot of research on what you would like to do, write what you would like to write, and just produce a lot, however much you're writing, write three times as much because it compounds over time.
Nanette McGuinness 07:22
Here's what Sakari Dixon Vanderveer had to say:
Sakari Dixon Vanderveer 07:24
The Youth Can Compose Summer Workshop is an online program for students between the ages of 10 and 18, who are new to composing. In the span of four weeks, students learn about contemporary music, visit with guest artists and composers, improvise on their instrument, and write their own piece to perform in a virtual recital. As a kid that age, I was lucky to have the support of music teachers who nurtured my interest in composition even though they were not composers themselves. Although there are more programs being geared towards the development of pre-college composers, I rarely see programs that cater to students who have little to no experience. It's never too late to start composing, but I do think that being a young musician is a perfect time to start. It can be easier in a way since kids tend to have less baggage about how they should or shouldn't write. I have found that students rarely have the opportunity to compose in their K-12 programs, or private lessons, since the focus is on performance. If a composition project is presented, often it's really a theory assessment in disguise. There's nothing wrong with that, but I do believe that those types of assignments do relatively little to develop a student's creativity, and they can reinforce the idea that there's a right or wrong way to compose. I think it's important to recognize that distinction as educators. And if we do such assessments, we also need to provide plenty of open ended activities and a non judgmental, nurturing environment. For example, in the Youth Can Compose Summer Workshop, students began their study of composing through regular improvisation. Depending on the activity, there may be an inspirational prompt to get students students going, such as a story or a picture. These prompts are really open ended, leaving plenty of opportunity for us to practice how to transcribe their ideas and develop them into a full length piece. We also experiment with different techniques such as writing chant music or producing fixed media in Audacity. I've become very devoted to teaching composition to kids, because learning to compose at an early age strengthened my understanding of music significantly, especially since I didn't have private lessons until halfway through high school. Basically, I was able to use the music theory that I was learning to better my understanding of playing the violin. I even use that knowledge to teach myself how to read alto clef when I wanted to take up the viola. Also, not every student who is passionate about music will see themselves in a performing career in the long run. When we fail to give kids a variety of opportunities to express themselves, it becomes a huge source of untapped potential. Essentially, we disempower them. I think we're in a world where we're seeing the effects of having relatively few voices dominate the narrative of our society. And as educators, we are some of the ones who have a unique opportunity to help students find their voice in one way or another.
Nanette McGuinness 10:32
[OUTRO MUSIC] Thank you for listening to For Good Measure's Da Capo Conversations, and a special thank you to our guests for joining us today. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to our podcast by clicking on the subscribe button, and support us by sharing it with your friends, posting about it on social media, and leaving us a rating and a review. To learn more about E4TT, our concert season online and in the Bay Area, or to make a tax deductible donation, please visit us at www.e4tt.org. This podcast is made possible in part by a grant from the California Arts Council and generous donors like you. For Good Measure is produced by Nanette McGuinness and Ensemble for These Times, and designed by Brennan Stokes, with special thanks to co-producer and audio engineer Stephanie M. Neumann. Remember to keep supporting equity in the arts and tune in next week "for good measure" [OUTRO MUSIC ENDS].