By Greg Cahill | From the September-October 2022 issue of Strings magazine
In the wake of the Covid-19 lockdown, many artists sought to convey their experience in isolation—violinist Johnny Gandelsman, a member of the critically acclaimed Brooklyn Rider string quartet, went a step further by creating a musical time capsule that reflects the experiences of nearly two dozen composers pondering not only the modern plague, but also the state of the nation.
His three-CD recording This Is America: An Anthology 2020–2021 (In a Circle) features 22 new works from a broad crosssection of American and U.S.-based composers creating music that expresses their feelings about the deadly pandemic, social justice issues, and climate change. He calls the anthology “a snapshot in time, documenting a tiny slice of the creative thought and output in this country today.”
Amplifying the voices of others, whether it’s those of centuries past or ones of today, is an essential part of being a classical musician.
The featured composers are Clarice Assad, Kinan Azmeh, Layale Chaker, Christina Courtin, Olivia Davis, Nick Dunston, Adeliia Faizullina, Rhea Fowler and Micaela Tobin, Rhiannon Giddens, Marika Hughes, Maya Miro Johnson, Bojan Louis, Dan Lyn, Angélica Negrón, Ebun Oguntola, Tomeka Reid, Terry Riley, Matana Roberts, Aeryn Santillan, Anjna Swaminathan, Tyshawn Sorey, Conrad Tao, Akshaya Tucker, and Kojiro Umezaki.
“Some, like Kinan Azmeh, Christina Courtin, and Kojiro Umezaki, have been dear friends for decades; others, like Maya Miro Johnson, Ebun Oguntola, and Anjna Swaminathan, were new connections. All were musicians whose artistry I respect and admire,” Gandelsman writes in the anthology’s liner notes. “As more parties signed on, the project grew… rising to the surface were themes like loss and uncertainty, but also joy, friendship, gratitude, and love.”
Strings asked Gandelsman to discuss the project.
What was the impetus for This Is America?
The project developed at the height of the pandemic. On March 16, 2020, my family packed our Subaru Outback and left Brooklyn for a small place on a lake in the White Mountains region of New Hampshire. We thought we were leaving for two to three weeks; little did we know that we would spend the next six months away from home. While there, we watched in horror as the country got slammed by Covid, George Floyd was murdered, wildfires ravaged California, and the election cycle escalated to an unprecedented level of volatility. Across the country, the national conversation seemed to focus on what America was, is, or should be—the tone was full of certainty and a lot of anger.
It was strange to be in this idyllic place in New Hampshire, far away from our community during that time. In thinking about ways one person could make a small difference, it occurred to me that in many ways amplifying voices of others, whether it’s those of centuries past or ones of today, is an essential part of being a classical musician. I decided to commission new works for violin from American and U.S.-based composers, asking each to reflect in some way on the time we were all living through. I hoped that through their works, a more nuanced picture of America could emerge.
What were your immediate goals?
Some of the goals: finding a way to support composers during a difficult time, commissioning work from people I’ve never worked with, commissioning work from my friends, learning. New work was created, composers got paid a decent amount of money to do what they do, and I ended up learning a lot in the process.
How did you fund the project?
I reached out to presenters across the country— out of 22 new works, 20 were supported by presenting organizations, the other two were supported by individuals. I was hoping to get a recording grant for the project, and when that didn’t come through, I considered running a Kickstarter campaign. However, with everything that has been going on in the world, and with so many truly important things that are in constant need of funding, doing a crowd-sourcing campaign for an album didn’t feel quite right. I ended up paying for the recording myself.
How much direction did you give the composers?
Not much. I asked for a piece between five and eight minutes, and for them to consider reflecting on the then-current times.
What were the responses like?
Most responded in direct and outward ways. A good way to get deeper into the background for each composition is to visit inacircle-records.com/thisisamerica—there you will find videos from composers, performance videos, etc.
New music often gets lumped into an amorphous mass, but these compositions reveal a range of creativity and styles, including folk music from Appalachia
There are certainly different schools and styles of writing and performing classical new music. This collection is attempting to look both inside and outside of that world—it is simply music written very recently by interesting musicians and composers.
What are the benefits of working with contemporary composers?
The biggest is a simple reminder that what we do is a living and breathing art form, not a history museum. Regardless of how much information or instruction a composer gives to the performer in the score, each work contains an additional 100 percent that is simply impossible to notate—sometimes impossible to explain in words. That is a useful lesson when approaching music of pretty much any classical composer of the past—I want those works to feel and sound like they were written yesterday.
Why did you select these particular composers?
They were chosen from a long list—much longer than 24—of musicians and composers whose work I admire and am curious about. I’m now starting to think of the next installment and the list keeps growing.
There must have been logistical challenges.
I don’t know if there were any unusual logistical challenges—many of the works were delivered during the height of the pandemic, so meeting composers in person was challenging, if not impossible. For example, during the pandemic, Terry Riley moved to Japan, so all of our back and forth was via Zoom, and me sending him short phone recordings via email for feedback. It took a while for the two of us to narrow down what the piece was and how I should approach it. This would have been much easier in person, but that was our reality. I think most of us got used to this new way of communication, so it didn’t feel too daunting.
Sometimes you lacked the skills required to play these pieces. That must have been daunting.
Well, at first, I freaked out. Attempting pieces I was unfamiliar with, or plain bad at, was terrifying at first. I was lucky to have the composers’ gentle guidance—they were encouraging, never demanding. That was comforting. Being stubborn might have also helped. For example, once I decided that playing Marika Hughes’ and Bojan Louis’ songs could only work on guitar, I had to figure out a way to do that, even though I probably had no business picking up that instrument.
What do you hope that listeners take away from this recording?
My hope is that this anthology will reveal something unusual to the listener, or something that will pique their interest and make them want to explore that thing a bit further. Another hope is that other musicians will find works in the collection that they will want to play, or maybe commission brand new works from these composers.