For ‘Project 14,’ Yale ensembles premiere new music by composers of color
It was near dusk on a recent evening when 20 Yale student singers and five instrumentalists performed “Glimpse Elation,” a piece by composer Derrick Skye, for the final time in the inner courtyard of Pauli Murray College.
The group had been practicing the newly commissioned piece for a couple of weeks since mid-September, and now they were being videotaped as they rehearsed and performed the song under an arch in the college courtyard.
The music began almost plaintively, with just the sounds of a drum and a flute. But soon the tempo picked up and the singers snapped their fingers or clapped as they sang Skye’s lyrics about feeling elation. Nate Widelitz, a doctoral candidate in choral conducting at the Yale School of Music, offered encouragement to the musicians during the performance. A few feet behind him, Yale Glee Club director Jeffrey Douma shared occasional praise and advice.
“Glimpse Elation” is one of 10 new works by composers of color featured in “Project 14,” a collaboration between the Yale Glee Club, Yale Bands, and the Yale Symphony Orchestra (YSO) to mark the groups’ “collective emergence” from the COVID-19 pandemic and their response to social injustices brought to light during the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020.
The new compositions, as well as four past works by composers of color, were performed separately by the musical groups in the courtyards of each of Yale’s residential colleges. A video compilation of the 14 pieces will be posted on YouTube at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 9 as part of the university’s online Family Weekend.
“Project 14” was inspired by a conversation between Douma, the Yale Glee Club director, Yale Bands director Thomas C. Duffy, and YSO conductor William Boughton in the spring of 2020. At the time, the three imagined how they might make music together once the campus reopened after the COVID-19 lockdown. (Typically, the three groups perform a joint concert during the annual Family Weekend.). While they envisioned commissioning a series of short works that could be performed outdoors by chamber ensembles in the fall of 2020, the ongoing health crisis prevented that from happening.
Meanwhile, the wave of protests prompted by the murder of George Floyd and other police killings inspired the musical directors and Yale student musicians to re-examine their repertoire in light of issues about equity, representation, and belonging.
“The Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the world were really moving organizations like ours — choirs, orchestras, and bands — all over the country to rethink their repertoire, mission, and practices,” said Douma. “We realized that this was an opportunity to commission works by composers of color and bring those pieces to our students and into the Yale community.”
The new works, Douma said, come from “10 of the most exciting composers working in America” — four of whom are affiliated with Yale. They are Steve Banks, a saxophonist and professor at Ithaca College; Wayne Escoffery, a saxophonist and lecturer in jazz at Yale School of Music; Tania León, a Pulitzer Prize-winner who is also a conductor and educator; Angélica Negrón, a multi-instrumentalist and mixed media artist; recent Yale College graduate Parker Redcross ’21, who is also a lyricist; Derrick Skye, also a musician who blends different cultural traditions in his work; Yale alumnus Joel Thompson ’20 M.M.A. who is now a candidate for a Doctor of Musical Arts degree at Yale School of Music; Will Wells, also a producer and performer who was the electronic music producer for the hit musical “Hamilton”; Yale College graduate Ayanna Woods ’14, also a performer and bandleader; and media artist Pamela Z.
The groups also performed four historic pieces by José Mauricio Nunes Garcia, Florence Prince, William Grant Still, and Hale Smith.
The performances feature different instrumentalists and singers from the undergraduate ensembles, chosen by each group’s musical director.
“I’m excited that the compositions represent a range of musical styles, from pop to jazz to classical, from spoken word to standard woodwind quintet,” said Duffy. “As a 14-piece suite it’s going to be a real hybrid.”
“This mixture of contemporary compositions from living composers and the heritage works creates a context for what it means for us to be trying to integrate so many different and diverse cultures,” added Boughton. “This is a way for all of us to recognize composers of different genders, races, and ethnicities. The broadening of our repertoire to be more inclusive will have long-term benefits beyond this project.”
In fact, “Project 14” marks just the beginning of more inclusive programming for the Yale Glee Club, Yale Bands, and the YSO, the musical directors said.“‘Project 14’ will not be an isolated initiative,” they said in announcing the collaboration. “Rather, it is part of a substantial commitment in the 2021–2022 academic year and beyond by all three organizations to explore, perform, and commission more works by composers of color, to engage in internal dialog about their mission and their role in performing these works, to expand their work in justice and equity in music education, and to find creative ways of reaching out to new audiences.”
Recent Yale College graduate Epongue Ekille ’21, who is now a first-year student at the Yale School of the Environment, was thrilled to take part in “Project 14” as a member of the YSO, for which she has been a violinist since her first year as an undergraduate. She was one of the instrumentalists for William Grant Still’s composition “Mother and Child.”
“Playing music by people who look like me is really validating,” said Ekille, who has been an advocate for the diversification of YSO’s musical repertoire. “These composers should be highlighted … I’m so excited for this project to be just the beginning of repertoire by people of color and living composers being included on most programs at Yale.”