Hit play below to listen to our KUSC Out and About feature with Tonality.
Hit play below to listen to an extended interview with Tonality’s Alexander Blake.
When is music more than just music? When does a collection of notes become a powerful human statement of peace and unity? Here in America, we’ve been asking these kinds of questions lately as they relate to sports, patriotism, and the right of people to use their platform as athletes to raise awareness of injustices in their lives and the lives of their friends and family members. That conversation has been less than civil.
This week, in the wake of yet another mass shooting — the deadliest in our country’s history — we find ourselves once again filled with grief, anger, and despair, and we ask ourselves anew, how can we stop this? How can we heal? Solutions are difficult, but they demand conversation. These conversations also tend to be less than civil.
However you feel about gun control or athletes taking a knee during the national anthem or any other extremely contentious issue, the reality is that different people have different experiences as Americans. How we respond to our shared diversity reveals a lot about who we are. One way we can begin to learn how to understand one another’s perspectives is through the common language of music.
Music can be a tool for us to connect with people (and their stories) who are different from us. Music can be a force for peace. We only need to listen.
Alexander Blake can remember the exact moment that sparked his desire to become a classical musician.
“I was sitting in a choral performance,” Blake told me recently during a visit to the KUSC studios, “and I saw an African-American baritone singing a Bach Cantata. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it kind of clicked for me that this world could be for me, seeing that.”
Blake says, as a young, African American man he has often felt like an outsider in the world of classical music.
“I guess now thinking about it, I felt like I was tiptoeing around a field that I could do, but that wasn’t mine. To see [that baritone], for me, was just an open door, like: this can be you. This is not something that you’re borrowing. You can be a part and a real impact in this genre and this vocation.”
Tonality’s Alexander Blake
Blake tells me the issue of representation of people from all races and cultural backgrounds is one of the reasons he founded the Los Angeles-based choir named Tonality.
“My experience as a musician of color who, often times, has been in a situation where I am the only one or one of few [made me think], ‘What if there was a group that really spoke to different perspectives and different cultures and represented them in the ensemble, in the singers, as well as in the repertoire?’ And I thought, ‘What if this group of different colors, different perspectives, and different cultures came together to speak a united message of peace and social justice?’ That’s how Tonality formed.”
That was last year. Now, Tonality is getting set for its second season, which opens this weekend. Alexander Blake tells me the group doesn’t shy away from hot-button issues. For example, Tonality’s first concert this season is called “Put Your Guns Down,” and includes music written on the subject of gun violence.
“This is a subject that is personal for a lot of people,” Blake says. “In our concerts — especially this concert “Put Your Guns Down” — we want to start conversation. I don’t expect that everyone will have the same opinion, but I really think knowing about gun violence, supporting opinions against gun violence, and then finding a personal way to act toward that support for peace is the bridge that we’re trying to overcome.”
Much of the music on the program is a call for peace, with examples from different spiritual and religious traditions. Composer Reena Esmail’s This Love Between Us juxtaposes texts from the seven major religious traditions of India. (Tonality will perform two movements: Buddhism and Jainism.) Shawn Kirchner’s Eye for Eye (a portion of which is embedded above) is a meditation on Gandhi’s famous quote, “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind,” coupled with words from the Gospel of Matthew. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and increasing anti-Muslim rhetoric in the United States, composer Erik Banks was inspired to study the Qur’an to see what it really says. His 12 Qur-anic Visions sets texts from the Qur’an. (Tonality will perform #12: “The Paths of Peace.”)
These calls for peace are interspersed with powerfully emotional works that speak directly to incidents of gun violence. Composer Ryan Murphy grew up in Newtown, Connecticut, and had attended Sandy Hook Elementary School from kindergarten to 2nd grade. When 20 six- and seven-year-old children and six adults were murdered there five years ago, Murphy was deeply shaken. In response, he set Eugene Field’s poem “A Lullaby” in a profoundly moving way.
There is a little one asleep
That does not hear his mother’s song;
But angel watchers–as I weep–
Surround his grave the night-tide long.
Perhaps the most viscerally moving work on the October 7th Tonality program is Joel Thompson’s Seven Last Words of the Unarmed. Thompson has set to music the final words of seven unarmed black men who were killed by authority figures, in most cases police officers. “I came to realize,” says composer Joel Thompson, “that many of the barriers that exist between us — racism, sexism, and other boundaries — are the result of people not being willing to have those experiences in which we step into other people’s shoes…I felt that the piece would be able to offer that opportunity.”
The seven men, and their words, are:
Kenneth Chamberlain, age 66: “Officers, why do you have your guns out?”
Trayvon Martin, age 16: “What are you following me for?”
Amadou Diallo, age 23: “Mom, I’m going to college.”
Michael Brown, age 18: “I don’t have a gun, sir. Stop shooting.”
Oscar Grant, age 22: “You shot me! You shot me!”
John Crawford III, age 22: “It’s not real.”
Eric Garner, age 43: “I can’t breathe.”
“This, for me,” says Tonality’s Alexander Blake, “is a way to have other people feel, personally, some of the complicated emotions that go into wanting to trust an institution that may not always have your best interests at heart. For whatever reason-fear, lack of understanding. But, police brutality is an issue that happens to ‘those people over there,’ and I think to bring this piece to an audience really forces people to engage with this in a personal way. Hopefully, with those emotions, people will start to really think and rethink about what this might mean for people who might not have the same experience.”
Tonality will perform three movements of Thompson’s Seven Last Words of the Unarmed: Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, and Oscar Grant.
Blake says he hopes the conversations sparked by Tonality’s performances will open us up to one another. Music, after all, invites us to listen to someone else’s thoughts, their experiences, their fears, their hopes, their dreams, their reality.
Alexander Blake is the founder and music director of the choir known as Tonality. On October 7th, Tonality performs its first concert of the season at 7pm at St. Johns Episcopal Church.
Please note: this interview took place before the tragic events in Las Vegas.