Trevor Weston grew up as a choirboy at Saint Thomas Church in New York City, where he learned that being a musician “can connect kids to a professional life” and offer a wealth of opportunity to be in communication with artists at many points in their careers. His composition career bloomed when he met African American composers TJ Anderson and Olly Willson – “also great proponents of the history of African American music and the knowledge of where and how it works.” Ranging from an opera in response to the 1963 Baptist Street Church Bombing to a new orchestral work premiering this September for the inaugural Emerging Black Composers Commission, Weston’s artistic work draws from an urgency to share and communicate cultural experiences with wide-ranging audiences and performers.
Synthesizing his creative sensibility with his desire to both engage in and facilitate accountable artistic environments, Weston will aid in ushering in the new Composing Inclusion program funded by the Sphinx Venture Fund. Initiated by Weston Sprott, Dean and Director of the Juilliard Preparatory Division, Composing Inclusion is a joint effort between American Composers Forum, The Juilliard School’s Preparatory Division, and the New York Philharmonic that will coalesce entire communities for the commissioning of nine Black and/or Latin composers.
According to Weston, the initiative will break down the traditional 20th century’s “separation between contemporary music, orchestras, performers, and pedagogy” and harken back to a model of apprenticeship. “The fact that we have all of these important partners working together is connected to a new way of looking forward, and in that new way, we see the advantage of having people who are really working in a collaborative way so that we can affect real change.”
For the nine composers of Composing Inclusion, Weston is thrilled about the chance for horizontal transmission of creative ideas; as well as the vertical transmission of generational experience(s). Unfortunately, there are many composers – early-career and otherwise – who rarely get the chance to write for orchestras; and for composers of color this opportunity is largely inaccessible without substantial institutional and economic support. Additionally, many of these experiences prove impersonal – often orchestras don’t hold much time and space for workshopping and rehearsing new music. It isn’t uncommon to have one or two rehearsals of a new work (where things cannot be changed on a macro scale), followed by a single performance with no other time to connect with the musicians.
Weston insists on the significance of reclaiming the relationship between composer and orchestra by stating that this project is about “our orchestras” representing who we (composers, performers, and community members) are. Because the commissioned scores are also meant to be flexible or adaptable, they will appeal to a “utilitarian” goal — “meaning it’s something that is artistic, but people in other places and other situations can also enjoy the fruits of the labor of these composers.”
Besides acting as a mentor for the program, Weston will be the tenth composer presenting a new piece as part of the project. When working with the Youth Orchestra of St. Luke’s (YOSL) years ago, he sat down with the young musicians to discern what they liked to play (both genre-wise and physically on their instruments) and what they were interested in. Weston is invested in the collaborative nature of writing, attempting to reflect himself and his culture in a way that can also connect with performers and audiences. He hopes to recreate this process in writing this new work for Composing Inclusion – “I want to go in and find out what they want to do, and really generate the piece from that meeting so that the piece that they are doing is connected to what they’ve experienced and find interesting.”
Additionally, audiences played a large factor in the dreaming and goal-setting of this project. Each of the commissioned composers were asked to connect with New York City through their compositions — not just because the project takes place there, but in an attempt to connect with the larger communities involved. Weston recalls singing in a choir in East Germany, the birthplace of Handel, where local teenagers climbed over fences just to hear them perform. “I realized oh, he’s their hometown kid. His music reflects who they are, and that’s powerful.”
For the performances of the commissioned works, Weston hopes that each student will bring a friend, each composer will gaze upon a crowd that actually looks like them, and that NY Phil regulars will experience something both familiar and new. “That’s not just a powerful visual thing to see, but a powerful sonic possibility, and for that huge sonic possibility to also include people and include the culture and understanding of people who normally don’t go to those events, that makes it even stronger.”
Composing Inclusion comes at nearly 2.5 years since the outbreak of Covid-19 and two summers after the George Floyd Uprisings in the United States; following in the footsteps of numerous organizations and initiatives moved to address the crushing inequality felt by Black people and other visible minorities. However, up to a certain point, DEI and representation efforts alone cannot institute systemic changes. Solely focusing on who is sitting at the table without dismantling the systems of oppression and exclusion that are still largely at play will do very little in terms of creating sustainable equitable practices. It has been noticeable how many new organizations sprang up to address qualms, but have since receded into the background; and that some organizations indulged in ‘black square activism’ but have done very little other than rewrite their mission statement. Truly transformative change requires both deep introspection and tangible material support to back it up.
But for now, Weston urges, one thing we have learned from the pandemic is that things can change. “If someone told me in 2018 that I would consume most of the concerts I listened to in one year on my computer, I would have said that’s not possible… you have to start with a project before it becomes the norm, right?” In order for programs like Composing Inclusion to become obsolete, programming Black and Latin composers needs to be normalized to the point where these initiatives are unnecessary. This project is not an endpoint, but a significant reminder that we collectively need to make communally-centered actions that reflect the programming, artistic collaboration, and care we’d like to see in our spaces. Smaller ensembles/organizations and individual artists have been more successful than orchestras in leading the charge, so the project will double down on creating space for Black and Latin artists in the orchestral sphere. “We can do more,” Weston says, “We know what it’s like not to be able to do it, and now we’re going to improve upon what’s been done.”
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