Name: Alexander Lloyd Blake
Occupation: Conductor, composer, singer, music activist, artistic director
Current release: The new Tonality album America Will Be is out via Aerocade.
Recommendations: If I may, I can recommend an article I wrote that might give a more comprehensive perspective in terms of using music in the work of increasing consciousness of social justice issues. Also, in a time when many of my colleagues in the choral field have been wrestling with ways of making our art form more inclusive, a few of us came together to form the Black Voices Matter Pledge to help offer ideas for improving our musical environments.
When starting out, many artists want to "change the world" with their work. What was this like for you? What were some of your early ambitions and in which way were you able to realise them?
My first ambitions with Tonality had not yet developed into the work for which we are now recognized.
As a child, I was always interested in reading books about civil rights and slavery, so there was an interest in social justice. I think the “world” I wanted to change through Tonality stemmed from my experiences as a Black classical musician in educational and professional environments. It was in these spaces where I saw an enormous discrepancy between how classical music and music of non-European cultures was studied, rehearsed, labeled, and ultimately respected.
As I was completing my doctoral studies in choral music, I was given a very detailed and intricate roadmap of how performance practice and historical knowledge of music within the context of its creation was given value as shown through the study and the execution of certain works. It seems simple, but the first step was to give that same kind of attention and value to music of other genres and cultures. This was achieved through inviting other composers and music practitioners to be involved in the music creation, rehearsal, and direction of our musical performances.
The murder of Matthew Shepard seems to have caused a change inside of you. For anyone who isn't aware of this – please tell me about what happened in 2016 and what effect it had on you personally.
I remember learning about Matthew Shepard’s death by watching a documentary about it on MTV. This was the first time I had ever seen examples of gay characters on TV, and as a closeted gay boy in North Carolina, it definitely left an impact, both in seeing his character’s sexuality and the murder.
Later, in 2016, I remember seeing the name on the program right before the performances of “Considering Matthew Shepard” by Conspirare. It was about a second before the music began that I remembered the documentary I had seen as a child, so I was already on an emotional roller coaster before the music even began. The music was amazing and heartfelt, and I was invigorated and inspired to see a musical work address an issue so divisive, especially in a classical space.
But to me, the most influential aspect of that evening was listening to the conversations that occurred after the performance. Some people were in tears, others were debating if the classical concert was the place to bring up such subjects. To me, at least they were talking about something. I remembered thinking, “I want to create music that gets people really discussing issues.”
Even though I didn’t know it at the time, that was definitely the impetus of Tonality’s vision and mission.
I personally wouldn't have expected founding a choir as a response to the events, but the effect of your work proves you were right. In how far can music bring about concrete changes and lead to tangible improvements?
I believe that music - especially choral music - can help bring in a mindset that allows for more opportunity for concrete change to happen.
In my opinion, it is naive and perhaps unnecessary to try to carry all the solutions as a musician. However, one of the biggest issues around these difficult topics is that people are inundated with statistics and moral arguments. The environment that is created by people singing together and singing stories of others is one that creates and supports empathy. The conversation changes, then, when we are not arguing about facts. Rather, we are watching people share their stories and we can put faces and names to experiences. With a more personal connection to these issues, there is more of an impetus to find solutions to problems together.
Our work as musicians is to connect people emotionally, and then to bring organizations to our events so that resources are available for our audience members to get involved in making real change.
Many tend to have a very romanticised vision on the classical music scene as a space of very little relation to the issues of today. From your point of view: Is the classical scene an island or simply turning a blind eye?
The times have certainly changed as of the last 18 months.
Before George Floyd’s murder and the global attention raised toward equality and representation, I would have said that classical music was turning a blind eye. I would say especially in choral music, the music that attempted to touch these issues were done specifically in sporadic performances and were not geared towards efforts of sustained change in the genre.
I’d like to believe that more organizations are doing the work to open their programs toward the issues of today, and those that are slower to this new awareness are starting to feel the pressures of being left behind. There is still a lot of work to be done in this work to make classical music more inclusive and authentic, but slowly the changes are being attempted.
Tonality discusses, in its music and performances, "gun violence, homelessness, refugees, climate change, mental health, women’s rights, and exercising democratic rights". Why is classical music a good medium for these topics?
Classical music, like any genre, is created by humans with stories. Those stories have always included experiences of pain, joy, struggle, heartache, and messages of resistance and change.
As the question above hinted at earlier, the avoidance of certain issues and experiences and stories within classical music has been a choice that hopefully is being reconsidered.
And aside from the contemporary classical compositions recently created within the classical genre, there are works within the classical genre that have included cultures and experiences that have simply been excluded from performances.
One declared goal of Tonality is to "amplify the voices of classical singers of color." Can you describe their situation in the USA right now and the challenges they face?
Through direct actions or indirect messages, many singers of color experience microaggressions and other forms of “othering” within both performance and educational settings. Some of these actions are so nuanced that it can be hard to decipher, but it is felt, and it gives the impression that certain identities and cultures are valued and celebrated while others are attempted and estimated.
When programming, offerings of performance practice study in various styles, and leaders of classical music ensembles and organizations start to reflect the diversity we seek within the pool of singers, I believe that we will finally realize the inclusion that is craved.
Again, some of these steps are occurring. Until then, singers of color will continue to struggle with a genre that has rarely shown equal respect and representation, especially in the case of genres that are not based in European styles.
You're also presenting new work by very interesting living composers. What are some of the qualities you're looking for when commissioning a piece, as for example, for your new album release?
Thank you for that.
First, I think the most important aspect of the compositions that we look for is the text. Is there a perspective or a story that we feel strongly about sharing and supporting? That is at the center of what we do, so it is crucial that the words align with our mission and purpose.
After that, there are several considerations that deal with diversity and representation in the context of an entire program. For each of our concerts, we always work to show the various genres and styles as well as cultural and ethnic backgrounds. The question, then, always becomes about who is “seen” and “heard” through our choices.
For our album, we strive to highlight composers who speak toward the issues of our time in various ways, and a lot of works come out through direct conversation about what is on the mind of the composer. It is a joy to be able to offer an environment where people feel free to express their heart on these issues through performances with Tonality.
Does your artistic work in any way feed into your activism - and vice versa?
Yes, I would say both feed into each other. For instance, the curation of concerts and choosing music on social justice issues inform me on organizations directly involved in the work of change, and I have either been directly involved or have donated to many of them. I do not think that I would be as knowledgeable of these organizations if the music did not offer a chance to do the research and make the connections.
And while I do most of my “activism” through my work as a musician, I have been involved in various marches and service opportunities. Being directly involved gives a broader perspective and a more informed view of the problems, and the choices Tonality makes in music is influenced by the experiences working directly with leaders or victims of the topics we present.
You've worked on some major movie productions, among others. Do you feel as though these engagements and exchanges have actively contributed to a wider awareness of your causes?
Absolutely! And what an unexpected joy it has been to be involved in some of those projects with Tonality.
Actually, I should start off with the fact that I would not have been involved in any of these projects without Tonality, where I had my first introduction with film composers and vocal contractors who hire vocalists for these productions. The specific mission of bringing awareness and prioritizing diversity at a professional level is a specific combination that does not occur regularly, and I believe that the composers and contractors in town find Tonality’s mission and makeup of ensemble to be one that aligns with their interests.
This was certainly the case with Kris Bowers, the composer of Space Jam 2: A New Legacy that Tonality sang on. Also, film composer Joe Trapanese joined our Board of Directors after we discussed the need for more opportunities of younger musicians of color to see representation in professional settings.
After being involved in these projects, more people have started to ask about our work and have become attendees of our concerts. This really opens the door for what we are able to achieve, as more awareness of our mission provides more opportunities to broaden our reach and our efforts. We have spoken about possible tours and larger commissioning opportunities, so hopefully the increase in support can make these potential goals a reality.
What are the limits and potentials of what Tonality can achieve?
I believe we share those with almost every performance organization.
We continue to work to ensure that our singers and staff are supported financially and compensated fairly for the amazing work they produce, so working on these productions and gaining new ground in terms of supporters can help us achieve this goal as well.
Singing together is one of the most unifying and communal acts. Maybe this is a naive question, but do you feel as though many issues could be resolved if we occasionally sang with our opponents instead of fighting them with words?
I do not think the question is naive, but I also do not think the answer is as simple as a “yes” or “no”. Singing together provides opportunities for community to foster, and there have been scientific studies that show physical adjustments when people sing together.
Again, I would instead focus on what we are singing about. Instead of singing about or centering the issues, I would focus more on singing and centering stories. It is a lot harder to argue about someone’s experience than to “take sides” on the facts of a situation, which rarely changes minds and hearts. Creating musical spaces where people can come together and hear each other would be a great place to start.