Last April, there was a rehearsal inside the Dekelboum Concert Hall, and the members of the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra stood up, leaving behind their traditional seated configuration. Some of the student musicians let out deafening cries while others stamped their feet. And musical improvisation on instruments also happened. Nothing seemed planned and no one seemed to be following anyone else. It was organized chaos.
It was hard to tell when the musicians started and stopped: they played without a conductor, improvising as if each musician were a soloist. Meanwhile, I took a chair at the back of the auditorium, unsure if I was allowed to see this seemingly sacred practice. The unusual nature of the repetition made it seem personal. For the first time, I was more nervous sitting in the audience than I would ever be on stage. My cheeks were hot. I did not know how to receive this experience.
The truth is that I witnessed the original and creative thoughts, feelings and actions of student musicians who had had the opportunity to express themselves through the music of Julius Eastman, a black composer who died young and left a complicated legacy.
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The wind band had rehearsed Eastman’s “Stay On It”. a minimalist composition that encourages theatrical and performance-based improvisation, but demands intense and strict concentration. It’s an advanced discipline to master, but the wind band will meet this challenge May 7 in the Dekelboum concert hall.
“I was a little scared about the whole thing,” said Dr. Michael Votta, director of bands and the university’s wind orchestra. “I have already improvised. I’ve never taught a wind band full of people – most of whom have never really done much improvisation – to try to do any type of improvisation… It’s about finding a way to kind of give them permission and empower them. During this rehearsal, Votta even walked on stage to improvise with his students.
Derek Maseloff, a music alumnus of this university and a composer whose work features in this program, shared that classically trained musicians often struggle with improvisation. Sheet music allows a musician to express himself, and even then, they express the composer’s ideas.
“That kind of intense training and intense knowledge is a straightjacket. We are extremely, extremely connected to what is happening on the page in front of us,” Maseloff said.
Working with their main collaborator, Konshens – pronounced “conscience” – The MC, has been a challenge in the rehearsal room, as student musicians don’t read the same “playbook” as the hip-hop artist.
Konshens, a Washington, DC, native and rapper, will join the wind band featuring his Classically Dope project to combine classical and hip-hop music. He will stand on stage with the ensemble, reciting poems and other texts that reflect the black experience and a broken justice system. He is a teacher, an artist and an altruist.
Konshens’ influences are derived from his experiences in Washington, DC, particularly go-go music, a famous local genre. He eventually made his way to the clarinet, but never fully committed to classical music.
His introduction to this idea of fusing classical music with hip-hop and rap began with a wind quintet at this university in 2015, leading to his EP, Classically Dope. But over time, he pushed the needle even further and entertained the involvement of a large ensemble – ranging from 40 to 50 people.
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“I was a little surprised at how the musicians…were…just to do something different”, Konshens shared. Soon he was performing on ABC, CBS and even at the Kennedy Center.
“We’re all in this together… We’re all on stage in something, and we have to make music together,” Votta added. “And here’s something that hopefully… [inspires] dreams.”
Maseloff’s play “Dreams” is the first on the program, which opens with ethereal, cloudy chords that lie softly beneath a syncopated texture of double reeds, all to complement the therapeutic, cinematic text that Konshens recites: “Dream like it’s your last breath.
The wind orchestra will also perform a composition by Joseph Schwanter, “…and the mountains rising nowhere.” It begins with a thoughtful reading of Carol Adler’s poem “Arioso” from Konshens and includes shimmering and delicate whistles from various musicians, water-immersed gongs and the playing of water-filled wine glasses, non-traditional instrumentation but creative.
“One of the goals behind Classically Dope is to bring [different] people…and put them in the same room and enjoy the music for a while,” Konshens said.
“I was lucky enough to meet Yo-Yo Ma once,” Konshens added, after which Ma continued their conversation with a letter. “In the letter, he was telling me to be a person who recognizes the importance of culture and how to connect different cultures…is an artist’s duty…to understand how culture connects us all.”