Minneapolis Public Schools recently commissioned two local artists, hip-hop artist/writer Dessa and composer Jocelyn Hagen, to collaborate on a work for mass choir and orchestra to be premiered April 28 and 29 at the Minneapolis Convention Center. I spoke with both artists about this work in progress.
I’m excited about this project for a number of reasons. One of my passions is that I want kids to be inspired about music, period. Whether it’s classical or pop, if they are inspired by music and excited about it, it can have a lasting impact. I’m speaking from experience, from growing up on the inner city streets of Memphis, and I know how music changed my life. I think it’s great that y’all are collaborating together. This is really exciting for the Twin Cities. How did this project come to fruition, and how have you collaborated in coming to a singular vision for this project?
Dessa: I received an e-mail, out of the blue, from a man named Calvin Plocher Keasling, whose e-mail indicated that he worked for the Minneapolis public school system. He described a commission project for an original collaboration between a composer and someone from a different field. I work in hip-hop and pop music, and I really liked the idea of creating something in that kind of permeable genre. I liked the idea of working outside my comfort zone, having the chance to collaborate with a composer and hearing a piece live with so many voices. In rap music, it’s just a few performers at almost every show, so I was really excited by the idea, and it was easy to say yes. And then I had a chance to meet Jocelyn and become familiar with her works. Arriving at a singular vision on this project has been less about intellectualizing a shared goal and more about learning by doing. We ended up honing our ideas and identifying our objectives by sitting at a piano, singing together, or listening together on Finale as the notes come together. This piece, for me, has been informed by the process, as opposed to an intellectual statement of purpose.
Jocelyn Hagen: That was a really great way of describing it: the idea of “jump in and start creating.” That’s recently been my philosophy. I tend to get my hands dirty with the materials first, feel what I’m working with, and then go from there. That’s typical of my process, but it’s fun inviting someone into that process as well. I’ve never had another musical collaborator like this before. I’ve collaborated with choreographers, conductors and performers, but never with another artist at the compositional level. And that’s been fun, and it takes quite a bit of the pressure off, too. If I don’t have an idea for what should happen next; chances are, Dessa will.
To hear you both talk about it makes me even more excited! It sounds like a process that’s been formed and developed through experience. And I can tell you, from being a classroom teacher, that’s the way we want our students to learn: by doing. Not just sitting around and talking about it. Dessa, this question is for you. Before this project, what experience, if any, have you had with classical music, and more specifically, choral music?
Dessa: I think that my experience with players in the classical realm has been limited to sectional experience. At my big shows, like when I’m releasing a CD, oftentimes I’ll see if I can’t wrangle up a string quartet, or pull some favors to see if some of the Twin Cities’ best female vocalists will join me on stage to perform a piece that has a lot of dynamic harmonies. It’s been an aesthetic I’m attracted to. I love layering voices. But usually I’m limited, by virtue of expense, to using my own instrument [voice]. So I’ll sit with my laptop and multitrack, layering my own voice two or eight or even 12 to 15 times to get the desired effect. That’s nice because I take direction from me really well. on the other hand, I’m limited to that singular instrument, a low register alto. I don’t truly have access to those clear-ringing soprano notes when I’m the only singer at my disposal.
Jocelyn, what difficulties have you faced composing music that fuses several musical styles/ genres into one product?
Jocelyn: Well, there’s a difficulty in creating a popular sound in classical, notated form. When Dessa and I are singing together, we are singing in a natural and popular style, and translating that to the page can be very tricky because we tend to sing with a lot of syncopations added in. As you know, Tesfa, when you see lots of rhythmic syncopations on the page, that can be hard to read, especially for younger voices. For music readers who are just learning to read notes and rhythms, it can be overwhelming to see lots of syncopations in the score. So trying to keep that to a minimum, while keeping the popular style, is a challenge and a compromise.
What have you found to be pretty easy about this compositional process?
Jocelyn: Because I’ve been a fan of Dessa’s work and listened to her music for years, I know her style, and her musical and vocal tendencies. So that all feels very natural once we start improvising—and a lot of fun.
Dessa, do you see yourself venturing into other “classical” collaborations like this in the future?
Dessa: I do. Already I’ve learned a lot. I would echo Jocelyn’s sentiments, that for me this has been a learning experience, about syncopations particularly! Because I am such a fan of syncopations, so much so that I don’t even realize when a line has been syncopated. So, listening to Jocelyn and learning what’s doable makes me excited, so that in another project, I can push limits. I’m excited to see what can be done and what can’t be done, and see how these musical styles fuse well, and when and why. And when they don’t work, why don’t they work? I’m looking forward to better understanding the world of classical music. I’m looking forward to doing a bit of study after our collaboration is complete so that in my next collaborative venture I can be an even more informed contributor.
Fantastic. I was a schoolteacher for five years, a high school choir director. I know first-hand the impact that music can have on young souls. So I want to ask both of you, how do you envision projects like this impacting music education programs across the country?
Jocelyn: I think that anything that music teachers can do to bring the idea across that music is a living art and that people are creating it now is really wonderful. It’s not just dead white guys! Here are these people trying new things, and in the classical realm. I think we’re used to hearing about and seeing what popular musicians are doing nowadays, but what is happening in the contemporary classical world is not nearly as public. With this collaboration, the students see popular and the classical music coming together. This doesn’t happen very often. It’s a pretty unique collaboration, and I’m proud of Calvin Plocher Keasling and Minneapolis Public Schools for having the idea and putting it together. I think these students are going to experience something that not many students get a chance to experience.
Dessa: Well said, and I think, to be totally honest, it’s too soon for me to know! I think I’ll know more April 28. I look forward to working with students and seeing where the enthusiasm lies.
Do you think a collaboration like this could be duplicated and used across the country and have some impact on student learning and retention?
Dessa: That’s interesting. I tour maybe three to four months of each year, so timing can be a challenge. And some of the collaborative ventures that happen in Minneapolis can be challenging to execute elsewhere because Minneapolis is an unusually collaborative and genre-permeable market. In a lot of other places in the country, it’s very difficult to have a three-act bill where each act hails from a different genre. We do that in Minneapolis a lot. Musicians like Jeremy Messersmith and Adam Levy both work with classically trained musicians frequently. We have a lot of willingness to reach across the aisle, a lot of patient classical artists and popular artists. Minneapolis does this exceptionally well. Can this be duplicated? Yes, if you have a willing community of artists.
Wow. I can tell you that you are meeting the students where they are, and you will lead them to greater things. I’m excited to be included on this conversation. It’s great to see projects like this happening.
Controlled Burn will premiere at the Viva City Fine Arts Festival on April 28 and 29 at 7 p.m. at the Minneapolis Convention Center. The performance is free and open to the public. Controlled Burn will also premiere at Orchestra Hall on the VocalEssence Made in Minnesota concert on Sunday, October 26 at 4 p.m. That concert will also feature the world premiere of an original choral work by Dessa, and one of her hit songs co-arranged with Grammy-nominated artist Andy Thompson.
Tesfa Wondemagegnehu is producer of Classical MPR’s choral music stream and blog. This interview is adapted from a feature that originally appeared in Star of the North, the newsletter of the American Choral Directors Association of Minnesota.