In return to Yale, a rising star’s music takes center stage

On Sept. 18, a Grammy-winning choir will perform a composition by Ayanna Woods ’15, but it’s not the first time her music has been featured on campus.
Ayanna Woods

Ayanna Woods (Photo by Kyle Picha)

In just a few years since graduating from Yale College, Ayanna Woods ’15 has become one of the most sought-after young composers in the United States.

A Grammy-nominated performer, composer, and bandleader, her music has been featured in films, theater projects, and the acclaimed web series “Brown Girls,” and she has toured the U.S. and Canada with the Chicago-based performance collective Manual Cinema as a bassist and musical director.

Her original compositions have also been performed on multiple occasions here at Yale, including as part of “Project 14,” a program by Yale Glee Club, Yale Bands, and Yale Symphony Orchestra that highlighted works by composers of color, and the premiere of one of her pieces, “Archive Alive,” during the Glee Club’s 2022-23 season.

Woods will return to campus again this month for a performance by The Crossing, an innovative professional choir for which she is currently composer-in-residence. During the concert — part of a series, “Crickets in our Backyard,” which explores how we react to love, violence, and grief — the group will perform Woods’ new piece “Infinite Body.” The event — which will be held at 7:30 p.m., Sept. 18 in Battell Chapel — is hosted by the Yale Glee Club.

In an interview, Woods describes why it’s such a joy to collaborate with The Crossing, the origins of some of her compositions, and how her relationship with the Yale musical community continues to inspire her.

You’re returning to Yale this month with The Crossing, a choir that has received wide acclaim and that, on this occasion, will be performing your music. Can you tell me about the group and what it’s been like working as resident composer?

Ayanna Woods: It’s been a dream. I first worked with The Crossing in the fall of 2020 for a pre-election concert series that was broadcast on YouTube. [Conductor] Donald Nally gave me a theme for the program — but outside of that, he was just like, “Do your thing.” It feels good to get that level of trust from an ensemble with this much depth and breadth of skill. Not only are they super good at singing together, but they're very adventurous and love to try out different sounds and techniques. They love to be surprised. The music that I am writing for them, I don't think I would write for anybody else.

From the beginning there was a lot of creative back and forth: I’d give them the music in one form and Donald would bring it into The Crossing’s sound, but also add some things. And then I’d say, “Oh, that’s cool, but can we do it this way?” Our ability to creatively go back and forth even in a short time together was really good.

How did that turn into the long-term residency?

Woods: Well, they asked me, and I couldn’t say “yes” fast enough. I had never done a long-term residency with any ensemble before. I’d done summer festivals where we’d be together for a couple of weeks. So, I was excited to be able to get to stir people’s voices individually, to get a better idea of how they operate as an ensemble, and to see what makes each individual in the ensemble excited to sing. It’s always exciting for me to collaborate in a way in which you’re really connected to the people you’re working with and not just their instruments. It’s been a beautiful opportunity to be in touch in this way for a longer span of time.

How would you describe your musical style?

Woods: That’s a question I always have a hard time answering. In any music that has a well-established form, there’s a tendency to make things be representational of a feeling. And I think one thing I’m really interested in is getting straight to what the feeling is. I think choral music is good for that because the form is a little more nebulous because it’s built around text, which can be in any form.

How did your time at Yale prepare you for the work you’re doing?

Woods: I think there are two sides to it. First, my teachers at Yale were amazing. But it also was a bit of a culture shock to come from my music background as a young person in Chicago, which included the Chicago Children’s Choir and my church choir. They were rigorous and deep, but very different from what I would go on to learn through the music major — this was the Western instrumental classical canon. I do feel it filled a lot of gaps in terms of theory that I was less familiar with. I also was involved with the Yale Undergraduate Jazz Collective. It was in its second year when I got involved and it's still going on, but the music culture is very active. Particularly the singing culture at Yale is active.

It’s not the first time that your work has been performed on campus since you graduated. How does it feel to have students learning about your work not long after you were a student here?

Woods: It’s really, really exciting. I'm particularly grateful to Jeff Douma [the Marshall Bartholomew Professor of Choral Music and director of the Yale Glee Club] for continuing to support my work and be excited about it. It really means a lot.

It’s also very cool to remain in touch with the Glee Club, which I was a part of the whole time I was an undergrad. In addition to working on “Project 14,” there was another piece called “Archive Alive,” which I got to write in collaboration with the Glee Club. To do that, we organized a Zoom workshop where I gave the members an open-ended discussion prompt. I was moved that the singers, masked up over Zoom, were open to sharing things about their lives with me. All those things they shared were woven into the text for that piece. It's one of my favorite pieces, still. I’m always trying to find ways to collaborate with larger groups like that, but it can be a little tricky. So for Jeff and the singers to experiment in that way with me was really rewarding.

When The Crossing performs on campus this month they’ll perform your piece “Infinite Body.” What does that piece mean to you?

Woods: I wrote that piece during a difficult period with my personal health. I had a lot of time to sit and think about my body and also think about the ways that I felt separate from the world or felt separate from other people. But I realized that it wasn’t inherently true. So, I tried to be more like, “What would be the decision that I could make right now that would be in my best interest for my body and health? How is that different from me being able to respond to all these emails? What's capitalism asking from my body and what is my body asking from my body?” I don’t think I knew when I started writing the piece what I was writing about. But later I said, “Oh, yeah. Obviously, that's where my head is at right now.”

With my time knowing The Crossing, I feel very comfortable giving them something that’s very personal because I know the level of care and the nuance with which they're going to treat it.

Even in a short time you’ve done so much, and have developed so many different professional identities. Many people, it seems, have embraced the idea of becoming “multi-hyphenates,” of pursuing multiple pursuits they love. Do you see yourself in that label?

Woods: I was talking to a friend the other day and we described ourselves as dragons sitting atop our hoard of hyphens. But the more time I spend making things, the less interested I am in hyphens. I like just picking one super vague word and just letting it be vague. Specificity is helpful, but also can be limiting. I would say “sound maker,” but I’m still deciding.

The Crossing’s “Crickets in Our Backyard” performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Monday,  Sept. 18 at Battell Chapel, located at 400 College Street. No tickets or reservations are required to attend.

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