A classically-trained musician’s education usually proceeds like a history class, in which old comes before new. Most musicians will make first brush with recently composed music in college, if they do at all; a few will discover that it exists while in high school, but may lack the infrastructure to be able to perform it. Musicians who engage substantially with new works anytime prior are practically myth.
For musicians of older generations, to watch the pre-college musicians of Face the Music perform Pamela Zon Feb. 11 at National Sawdust was to attempt to mute one’s envy. Organized by Kaufman Music Center, Face the Music is the country’s sole youth program dedicated to working with living composers, and is regularly featured at the city’s forward-thinking venues—BAM, Roulette, and the Ecstatic Music Festival among them. Here, joined by the singer and podcast host Helga Davis, Face the Music showcased its students’ latest explorations with a program of largely improvisation-based works by black female composers.
An arrangement of Janelle Monáe’s protest song “Hell You Talmbout” was a chance for violist Oriana Hawley to demonstrate her singing tone. Next came Pamela Z’s Twenty Answers, which arms eight players with Magic 8-Balls and scores in the form of a card deck. In a nod to chance operations, players use what results from shaking the 8-Ball to determine which part of the deck to play. Face the Music did its bidding dutifully, performing at first with an endearing reserve that loosened as the piece proceeded. Towards the conclusion, the pianist, rolling her 8-Ball across the keys, at last smiled slightly to herself as the audience had surely been smiling all along. Whispering to themselves, looping voices, and playing brief, intersecting lines, they conveyed the sense of walking down a hallway of practice rooms, noting those instances – more common than you might expect – where the collisions of sound form sense.
For Trumped by a Joker aka Who’s Gonna Pay for That?!, violinist and composer Mazz Swiftborrowed the jazz musician Butch Morris’s notion of “conduction,” a portmanteau of “conduct” and “improvisation” that describes a system of hand gestures a conductor may use to solicit improvisations from an ensemble. Swift put her baton through numerous acrobatics (at one point it fell out of her hand), twirling, pumping, and pointing the stick to generate all manner of quickfire musical shifts in dynamic and expression from the flexible group. Sitting at the head of the otherwise all-male ensemble was trombonist Taja Graves-Parker, whose hearty solos alongside those of her ensemble-mates in and of themselves comprised a manifesto for their program.
Shelley Washington’s A Kind of Lung, written originally for an ensemble of Western and non-Western instruments as part of the Bang on a Can summer program, sought further improvisations from Face the Music, now assembled as an orchestra. A Kind of Lung draws an analogy between breathing and improvising, both of which Washington presents as acts of individual and collective expression. The concertmaster and trumpeter put forth decisive solos over energetic, wavering phrases, which piled upon each other before sailing into a spirited rock beat.
Helga Davis’s singing voice is bottomless—in song, in conversation, and on her eponymous podcast, where she asks artists to articulate the ineffable about their creative processes. Courtney Bryan’s Yet Unheard, with text by the poet Sharan Strange, considers the life of Sandra Bland, a black woman who hung herself in her jail cell after being pulled over by a state trooper in Texas. Davis, with a supporting cast of singers, gave Bland her voice, intoning a call for redemption and resistance over wailing strings and commanding brass. “Sing her name,” Davis repeated at the end, her voice of ironclad resolve.
For Face the Music’s students, this was just another school night. In the upstairs wing, the children had spread themselves out. Homework was a pressing matter, with several at work on their own compositions; one labored over a few measures titled Penguin, distinguished by a number of highly penguin-like arpeggios. A few munched from Tupperware. In the corner, one was hunched over a video game on a large laptop, urging a character with a lightsaber toward victory over evil. It is a lucky life in which such evenings are rote.
Jennifer Gersten, from Queens, New York, is a freelance writer pursuing a DMA in violin performance at Stony Brook University. Her essays, journalism, and reviews appear or are forthcoming in The Kenyon Review online, Harvard Magazine, Bachtrack, and Guernica, where she is a senior editor. She won the 2018 Rubin Prize for Music Criticism, and was a 2015 Norman Mailer College Writing Awards finalist in nonfiction. See her portfolio here.