Thinking through Music

Thinking through Music


toshi-reagontoshi-reagon-croppedThe first week of classes is hardly a busy one, from an academic point of view of course, so the chances are that you will probably accept a free ticket to a concert if it’s offered. Even though I had not read Octavia E. Butler‘s Parable of the Sower and did not know much about Toshi Reagon’s concert edition of the novel, I took the ticket I was offered and went to the concert, held at the NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Center in early September. I had no expectations — and came out with all kinds of ideas rushing through my head. The American singer portrayed the novel’s ideas in her own musical language, which molded science fiction with African spiritualism.

Lights out, complete silence, and then … nothing. For quite some time, the audience waited with anticipation for the performers to start playing. The orchestra started playing soft African music and the singers’ faces looked like forms of art. When Toshi made her appearance on stage, her voice swayed with cheer and the stage became vibrant; anticipation spread through the audience.

I didn’t know the music — none of us did — but it felt familiar and warm, and intense. Among the singers, two women caught my attention: They were both tall, sitting sideways on chairs and facing each other, and had mesmerizing voices. Their posture and their slight smiles, which they managed to keep through the entire show, held hints of wisdom and passion. Because the opera was co-written by Toshi’s mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon, who founded the African American a cappella singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock, some of the songs reminded me of church songs that I’ve heard in movies. I’ve always found it intriguing how prayer can sometimes be best transmitted through music and dance, and the two women at the back of the circle of singers seemed sometimes to be leading the prayer songs. They looked like the care-takers of Toshi and the other singers. The women’s voices seemed to contain the other voices, bringing them to a communal revolt against what is happening to the world of Parable (and, perhaps, our own).

The songs were my study-guide into the book. Each song turned a theme in the novel into a musical note that reached into the diverse audience. In one song, the stage roared with energy as Toshi raised questions that transformed the roar; she asked us what we would do to be safe, what compromises would we make? The lyrics painted a picture of utter violence and chaos in my head, which the mixture of voices brought to life. The show turned me to the subject of the novel: a girl who can feel other people’s pain and other sensations as if they her own. The songs of the concert allowed me, a member of the audience, the chance to role-play. Suddenly, like the novel’s heroine Lauren Olamina, I couldn’t formulate my definition of things like humanity, ethics, compassion, and other terms I thought I knew so well.

These emotions of fear and worry, however, started me thinking. Maybe this quality is exactly what is needed in this world; maybe people need to feel the pain they’re inflicting on others, whether it’s direct or not, in order to stop all the awful things that have been going on. At least then the world might restore a form of its humanity. And although the humanity obtained this way may seem quite selfish, it’s still better than the reality we sadly live in.

One song in particular brought out my memories of my personal loss, the painful experiences of my loved ones, and the sense of collective loss we feel when we wake up every day to heartbreaking news about the humanity slowly withering away from our world. This song, a solo entitled “Has Anyone Seen My Father” and sung by Shayna Small, was about loss, the inevitable part of life that leaves scars on all of us. The woman who sang stood alone in a spotlight, and the song was soft and slow, so that we could digest the words of confusion and pain that the singer brought to life. She was searching for her father, a hard-working preacher who had suddenly disappeared, and the words repeated, highlighting her sense of helplessness, fear, and despair.

One of the final songs, my favorite, offered a powerful change of tone and emotion. Entitled “God is Change,” the singers stood and surrounded Toshi, as she moved from one place to another. They sang words that I wish a lot of the people in the world right now could hear. Mirroring the novel, the song promoted open-mindedness and adaptation, reminding us that religion is supposed to be guiding and kind, not binding and forceful. The song is a powerful message for all the people of the world to better understand their own religions. Change is good, and people can adapt to the changes of the world without giving up their spirituality. I walked out of the Arts Center with music in my ears and thoughts dancing around in my head, challenging the idea that only homework can get students to think when they’re outside class.


Bertilla Baker, Helga Davis, Karma Mayet Johnson, Tamar-kali, Morley, Marcelle Davies Lashley, Josette Newsam-Marchak, Toshi Reagon, Carl Hancock Rux, Shayna Small, and Jason Walker. Musicians: Robert Burke, Fred Cash, Juliette Jones, and Adam Widoff.


[Image Credit: Kevin Yatarola, courtesy NYUAD Arts Center.]

All-Terrain: The Kronos Quartet at NYUAD

All-Terrain: The Kronos Quartet at NYUAD


Growing up in New York City in the 1970s, I came to love classical music, particularly music written for the piano. Though I never considered myself to be a “music student,” I started playing the piano in the third grade with a teacher who inspired me, and I used to spend my Saturday mornings browsing through records at Sam Goody or looking through sheet music at Patelson’s behind Carnegie Hall. I once played hooky from school with my best friend, Alik, to line up in front Carnegie Hall in the middle night with in order to buy tickets to see the great pianist Vladimir Horowitz, whom I would be privileged to hear live a number of times in the ensuing years. Alik could really play; his signature piece was Chopin’s G-minor Ballade. And it was he who introduced me to Beethoven’s Late Quartets.

In retrospect, though, we both had a very conventional notion of what “classical music” was. If we’d been asked, we probably would have said that “classical music” was Western high-art music created roughly between 1700 and 1900 — or perhaps 1943 (we both loved Rachmaninov). I also understood “Classical” to mean the period after the “Baroque” (e.g. Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi) and before the “Romantic” (e.g. Beethoven, Chopin, and “Rach”!), exemplified by Mozart and the early Beethoven. I accepted the conventional opposition between “classical music” and “popular music” (which I also loved: it was the heyday of the Stones and Led Zeppelin).

That conventional notion of “classical music” went out the window years later when I began listening to Kronos Quartet‘s Pieces of Africa (1992), which would eventually top Billboard’s chart for “World Music,” a category that became popular in the 1980s as a marketing label for non-Western “traditional” music. Founded in Seattle in 1973 by violinist David Harrington,  the Kronos Quartet sought to overturn the conception of “classical music” that I shared with so many other people. Harrington had apparently been inspired to form the group after hearing a radio broadcast of the avant-garde composer George Crumb’s Black Angels (1971), a work written for “electronic string quartet” that in which the players were required to use (in addition to their stringed instruments) maracas, water glasses, and paper clips (as picks) and to speak and make other vocal sounds. In 1978, the group had formed a tight collaboration featuring Harrington (violin), John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola), and Joan Jeanrenaud (cello). They became known not only for performing an unusual repertoire but also for eschewing the traditional dress code for string quartets, wearing clothes that recalled the styles of New Wave rock’n’rollers. They tried to create a special ambiance in their venues and often played in front of projections. The quartet gained international recognition with their 1987 album White Man Sleeps, which took its title from two pieces by the minimalist composer Kevin Volans that made use of harpsichords, a viola da gamba in African tuning, and Western percussion instruments. In 1989, the group’s recording of Steve Reich’s Different Trains won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Composition.

Since that time, the trio of Harrington, Sherba, and Dutt has been joined by several different cellists after Jeanrenaud left in 1999 to pursue different projects: Jennifer Culp (1999–2005), Jeffrey Zeigler (2005–2013), and most recently Sunny Yang (2013 to present). By one count, the quartet has recorded 43 studio albums, two compilations, five soundtracks, and 29 contributions to other artists’ records. Along the way they would challenge not only the meaning of “classical music” but also the construction of the emerging construction of “world music” as something that was “traditional” but not “classical.” And they would seek to break down the boundaries between the classical and the popular, including arrangements of songs like Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” in their repertoire.

Citing the group’s early “near-total commitment to living composers, and also explored jazz, rock, and folk music,” the New Yorker‘s music critic Alex Ross described Kronos in 2006 as “a kind of all-terrain vehicle in contemporary culture.” The group’s music, he wrote, demonstrated “the constructive power of a pluralist, rather than a fundamentalist, view of the world.”


Harrington once said, “I’ve always wanted the string quartet to be vital, and energetic, and alive, and cool, and not afraid to kick ass, and be absolutely beautiful and ugly if it has to be. But it has to be expressive of life. To tell the story with grace and humor and depth.”

That’s a good description of the music that Kronos has been making during its residency at the NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Center this week. Kronos is presenting five shows during the residency, each featuring a different program, for a total of some 40 different pieces by composers from 27 different countries. All-terrain indeed!

The first piece at the group’s early show on Wednesday, September 16 in NYUAD’s Black Box Theater was “Mugam Sayagi” by the Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh (which can be heard on the quartet’s 2005 album of the same). Yang carries her cello in the dark up a set of steps at the side of the platform stage and began to play the haunting cello refrain with which the piece opens. As the lights slowly rose to reveal her stunning red dress, one could also hear the strains of a violin floating from somewhere, seemingly outside the hall. The mystery is soon solved as the Harrington, Sherba, and Dutt join Yang onstage just before the piece explodes into its brilliant pizzicato section. Yes, Kronos knows how to make an entrance.

The rest of the program featured “Oh Mother, the Handsome Man Tortures Me,” arranged from song by an unknown Iraqi composer”; “Escalay (Water Wheel)” by the Egyptian Nubia composer Hamza El Din; and “Good Medicine” the concluding piece from the cycle Salome Dances for Peace by the American composer, with whom the group has a long relationship. Indeed, the group has commemorated the composer’s 80th birthday by releasing a five-disc box set of its recordings of his work.

Perhaps the highlight of the program came in the middle, the world premiere of “Sunjata’s Time: 3. Nana Triban” by the Malian composer Fodé Lassana Diabaté, who joined the group onstage, playing his signature instrument, the 22-key balafon. The piece was commissioned as part of the group’s “Fifty for the Future” initiative, which is designed both to commission new work for string quartets and also to train students and emerging professionals to follow and extend the path that Kronos has blazed. NYUAD is a sponsoring partner of the initiative, and the Kronos concerts at NYUAD feature world premieres of pieces by Diabaté and by the Chinese composer Wu Man. The NYUAD programs include the work of two other composers who have received commissions as part of the initiative, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh and Aleksandra Vrebalov.

After the performance of “Nana Triban,” Harrington told the audience that it was a privilege to play with and learn from Diabaté, particularly because the final arrangement of the piece will be for string quartet only, with the balafon receding into the history of the piece’s musical evolution. On its website, the group indicates that “digital versions of the scores and parts, recordings, and other pedagogical materials for each work will be made available worldwide at no charge via the internet.” I’m hoping that archive will include versions of “Nana Triban” with balafon as well as without.

You can get a sense of what kind of music Kronos is making at NYUAD by watching and listening to the following two videos, recorded at the Greene Space in New York. Both pieces — Nicole Lizée’s “Death to Komische” and Mary Kouyoumdjian’s “Bombs of Beirut” — are on the program for the final concert at NYUAD.

Both Kronos and NYUAD share what I would call a cosmopolitan vision of the world, in which cultural difference is not a problem to be solved, but an opportunity to be embraced. It’s NYUAD’s goal to ask in all of its practices, “What does it mean to be doing this here (in Abu Dhabi and in the MENA region) and now (at the start of the twenty first century)?” If the NYUAD project is, in part, about rethinking past educational practices in order to revitalize them for the future, then it would be hard to find a better model for that kind of visionary thinking than the Kronos Quartet. Kudos to NYUAD Arts Center Director Bill Bragin for bringing them to Abu Dhabi as part of the Center’s inaugural season.


The Kronos Quartet: [Website] [Facebook] [Twitter]

Kronos Concert Programs at the NYUAD Arts Center: [September 16, early show] [September 16, late show] [September 17]

Kronos Quartet Research Guide (NYUAD Library): Click here.

Interviews with NYUAD Arts Center Director Bill Bragin: [The National] [Time Out Abu Dhabi] [Khaleej Times] [NYUAD Gazelle] [New York Times]

Join the NYUAD Arts Center mailing list to receive information about future events. [Click here]



Diabaté, Bragin, Kronos, and friends at the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi.

[Images courtesy of the NYUAD Arts Center’s Instagram feed]

On Writing “Las Flores del Encino”

On Writing “Las Flores del Encino”


The conceptualization of “Las Flores del Encino” was a mix of artistic experimentation and my personal life. I was going through some hard times after a break-up and my mother recited “Si por haber estado enamorado” by Argentinian poet Francisco Ruiz Bernárdez to me. The impact was such that I still know the poem by heart and I wanted pay tribute to Bernárdez’s words.

electra-street-cristobal-and-teacherThe aesthetic choices, both in terms of harmonics and in terms of the score, came from artistic experimentation motivated by Dimitris Andrikopolous (my teacher and coach at the time). I had a limited amount of time to write the piece and I needed something simple but effective. Instead of imposing a rhythm and melody extracted by the words in the poetry, which would be the usual thing to do, I divided the poem into eight fragments and then came up with eight chords. Each chord would belong to one of the eight fragments of the poem, and the players, including the singers, would be free to choose which note of the chord to play and how to play it in each event. The conductor would freely choose when to move from event one to event two and so forth. Because there was no melody to the piece, it was important to look for something that would make the chords in each section more interesting in terms of “timbre color.” My teacher suggested that I experiment with harmonics, which produce very light, pure sounds. I followed his recommendation and included that element in the piece.

To drive the piece forward to a climax, I used dynamics and created a very basic arch that builds on a continuous crescendo to an apex and then slowly goes down to a resolution. Rather than trying to control all aspects of the piece, I provided the musicians with the necessary elements and allowed the piece to develop organically in performance.

As I reflect on it now, the piece was about letting go more than anything else. I had to let go of rhythm, harmony and melody, which are elements that I usually employ to impose my ideas into the music, and relinquish control over aspects of the piece. The piece became a lesson on how love should be treated: we can’t control its development or impose ourselves on it but must allow it to develop organically as well.


A recording of “Las Flores del Encino:”


“Las Flores del Encino” is the third piece of three-piece set titled “Three Miniatures of Love” or “Tres miniaturas de amor” in Spanish. The other two pieces will be recorded next year.

Cristóbal Martínez Yanes is a junior at NYU Abu Dhabi.

[Photos: Top: performing “Las Flores del Encino”; bottom: Cristobal and Dimitris Andrikopolous.]

Vox in Situm

Vox in Situm


Whenever I teach my “Human Voice” course in New York, about midway through the semester, I ask my students to raise their hands if they speak English with an accent. This request usually generates a little consternation in the lecture hall. Slowly, somewhat sheepishly, the non-native English speakers will raise their hands. I repeat the request, after which a scattering of Southerners and Jamaicans and maybe even a student or two from the Bronx will put their hands up, sometimes defiantly. I repeat the request again. And again. And again, until my point dawns on the class and everyone’s hand is raised in the air.

My rather obvious point is this: there is no such thing as unaccented speech. The accent that currently serves as the unmarked category in the United States (the “news announcer” accent) is no more natural than any other way of speaking. It attained its predominance over time, as a result of social relations, collective decisions, and power struggles—in other words, as a result of politics. The politics of accent can be a high-stakes game, with one’s ability to land and keep a job, assimilate into a group, or navigate among social collectives often hanging in the balance.

The following sound piece emerged out of a series of conversations that my NYUAD “Human Voice” students and I had about the politics of accent this semester. My radically cosmopolitan students at NYUAD are fascinated by accents, and the utterances that are featured here represent a small fraction of their thoughts. As the voices in this piece move up to, and occasionally cross beyond, the horizon of intelligibility, they discuss the strangely fluid character of some accents, the anxiety people often feel because of their accents, the amount of cultural information that is encoded into accents, and the aesthetic pleasure one can get when listening to accents that “sound like songs, like singing.” The piece itself is a collection of beautifully accented voices speaking about accent. The voices belong to Laith Aqel, Leena Asfour, Bouthayna Baltaji, Juan Felipe Beltran, Jessica Boren, Claudia Carrasco Valdich, Emily Eagen, Eric Johnson, Raleigh Logan, Erin Meekhof, Vivek Mukherjee, Samer Nehme, Irene Pañeda Fernandez, Yannick Trapman-O’Brien, and Jorge Zarate Rodriguez.

Accent trial #1

J. Martin Daughtry is Assistant Professor of Music at NYU New York. An ethnomusicologist, he has published articles on Russian national anthems, uncensored media in the late Soviet period, and the intermedial translation of poetry into song. He is working on a book-length investigation of the sonic dimension of the ongoing conflict in Iraq. At NYUAD, he is teaching the Fall 2010 class “The Human Voice” and the Spring 2011 class “Translation as Multimedia Practice and Metaphor.”

[Illustration: The first U.S. serialized printing of Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion (Everybody’s Magazine, November 1914), in which a young English girl is taught to overcome the “handicap” of her lower-class accent.]

New Vocalizations



In the Human Voice class, we explore the significance of the voice in different cultural and historical contexts, including the context of our own classroom. We do this through reading, analysis and discussion, but also, occasionally, through composition and performance. One day a few weeks ago, after we had recorded a piece we were working on, we decided to each produce a vocal sound that we had never produced before. The eighteen “new vocalizations,” one from each member of the class, were then broken up into eighteen individual sound files and placed on our course website. Class members have begun using these sounds as the raw material for vocal compositions. In this piece, by our academic coach Cameron Toman, they are the only sounds utilized–they have been layered, organized, and amplified, but not altered in any other way. The movement begins with introductions to the new vocalizations and then builds to complicated, multi-vocal overlays. Several times all of the voices are layered directly on top of one another—producing a new, collective vocal sound. The piece is a playful mash-up of non-linguistic vocalizations and an attempt to render the voice, that most familiar of human attributes, deeply and productively strange.

Click on the link below.

New Vocalizations

Cameron Toman is the academic coach for “The Human Voice” at NYU Abu Dhabi. He recently graduated from NYU New York, where double-majored in Political Science and Psychology.

J. Martin Daughtry is Assistant Professor of Music at NYU New York. An ethnomusicologist, he has published articles on Russian national anthems, uncensored media in the late Soviet period, and the intermedial translation of poetry into song. He is working on a book-length investigation of the sonic dimension of the ongoing conflict in Iraq. At NYUAD, he is teaching the Fall 2010 class “The Human Voice” and the Spring 2011 class “Translation as Multimedia Practice and Metaphor.”

Pin It on Pinterest