Ysaÿe Barnwell

JD: I want to use music as a way to help the world come together. In your work with Sweet Honey in the Rock, to what degree does the audience’s presence and intention effect what you do? And how does the music effect the audience? What’s happening?

YB: I did a TED Talk a few years ago about how we’re not singing (as a culture) anymore, and what role music used to play. This year, I did a Community-Sing as my TED Talk. And we did it in the Congressional Room of the Boston’s Edward Kennedy Library. My focus is a discussion of worldview. I realized, at some point, that there’s a Euro-centric view of music and an Afro-centric view. And they are diametrically opposed – one rooted in the note and the other rooted in the sound.

JD: Could you say that the “note” reflects an intellectual understanding, and the “sound” reflects an experiential understanding?

YB: Exactly. The “sound” is about telling our story. And I can’t tell my story very well by myself. And I think this difference is hugely important for musicians to look at. 
Why do we make music? What good is a song if it doesn’t inspire? if it has no message to bring? if the song doesn’t take you higher?

What does the musician get out of it, and put into it?

In the African worldview of music, music ties together all of the spiritual dimensions, human dimensions, and historic dimensions together. It documents our everyday life, from music of spirituals to hip hop. Without music, we don’t have our history.
So, a huge difference between these two paradigms is function. The function of African music is to weave us together on a conscious level.

JD: So is music’s purpose to weave together? Is it about communicating something beyond ourselves? Is it about showing emotion, or bringing emotion out? 
YB: It’s about all of those things, but also about the way in which we tell our history. The musicians are our library!

JD: In the Western tradition, in the medival age, books like Beowolf were intended to be sung, improvised. And the singer carried the information from village to village.
YB: Yes! And that still happens for us. And this is exactly why I’m so focused on worldview. We can be in the same room, using the same words, and mean something completely different.

JD: How do we bridge that?

YB: With audiences I bridge that by working in the oral tradition. I put together different musics from different periods of our development at African-Americans. I try to show how important function and documentation are. I believe that polyrhythms are the ability to make different structures work together. This is my passion right now.

JD: That’s beautiful! I wonder if you can speak to me about how music often gets viewed as entertainment in our culture. I believe that we, as serious musicians, want to bring great integrity to what we do, not just show off a craft. We want to communicate something. But this is an uphill struggle for us because we run into people who don’t understand the power of what we’re doing. How does one work with that? Can music, itself, have such a strong presence that it can teach the lesson of ‘value’? Do the audiences coming to performances of Sweet Honey in the Rock come looking for entertainment? Do they know they’re going to be asked to get involved?

YB: Well our audiences understand that coming to a Sweet Honey concert is an open experience; one doesn’t come just to listen. We brought up issues, questions, allowing people to contribute their own harmonies. I think most people came to understand that the Sweet Honey experience is a different kind of experience. And being invited to participate like that changes people’s attitude. When we performed in Carnegie Hall, people came ready! People came dressed up to match our amazing costumes we used to wear.

JD: I used to be the Organist at a church in Oakland, CA. One day I told the pastor that I wanted to sing a particular Spiritual during the service, since there was no choir that day. She told me that would be inappropriate since the African-Americans in the congregation might take offense at me singing their music. My response was that I don’t have to be Lutheran to sing Bach! And why should I not be allowed to sing the Spirituals I grew up with (in Virginia)? How do you feel about that?

YB: The word “appropriation” comes to mind. I’m not sure how I feel about that word, but I know that I’ve experienced mis-appropriation. That’s where people do not know the innards of a song. The clearest (and most awful) example is when people say: “Oh, it was a ‘Kum-Ba-Yah’ moment!” 

A friend of mine’s mother died. She had requested three songs at her funeral, one of them being Kum-Ba-Yah. The priest, at the church where the funeral was to be held, said that it was inappropriate to sing Kum-Ba-Yah because it was a camp song, not a liturgical song. My friend was crushed and asked me to talk directly to the priest. So I called him up and explained to him that Kum-Ba-Yah is the most sacred invocation that we have in African-American culture. So, in the end, I just lead the song, improvisationally, while everyone was walking out. 

Mis-appropriation happens in a number of ways: When songs, which we hold dear, get sung in strange situations, sometimes the delivery is almost comical, sometimes it’s quite sincere. But often people don’t have a frame of reference about what the song was intended to be and intended to do. 

It’s very important to look at lyrics. For example, look at “Let us break bread together:” Let us break bread together on our knees, Let us break bread together on our knees. When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun, Oh, Lord, have mercy on me.
What??? That song is about Islam coming to the New World!

JD: Ah!!! One faces the rising sun when one faces East and prays to Mecca! That never dawned on me.

YB: There’s all kind of stuff in these lyrics! Many of the spirituals are about the Master/Slave relationship. We still sing these in church all the time even though many African-Americans don’t know what these words mean. We do it as a matter of course. My sense is that a lot of pieces get sung without the singer knowing there is a deep meaning behind the song. When that happens, the person feels free to do it in any style they want. There is a resentment that happens even if we don’t know the deep meaning, because we sense that something is not quite right.

JD: Another example of that is the hymn Lift High the Cross. The refrain says “the love of Christ proclaim ‘till all the world adore his sacred name.” That’s about British imperialism; and it was written at the height of the British Empire. And has that militaristic beat to it.

YB: Wow! Yes. It’s important for us, when we go to the music of other cultures, to understand the etymology.

JD: What I believe we are talking about is the power music has, in and of itself, that we need to connect with.

YB: Yes

JD: We can’t just do it because it’s a pretty tune, or we remember hearing our grandmother singing it. We have to think about what a piece of music is saying, and whether it is expressing who we are. It means not taking anything for granted. It’s not: music as entertainment.


JD: Music is a tool.

YB:  There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole; There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.

What is sin-sick? And who are the wounded? The sin-sick are the slave masters. The wounded are the slaves. And Jesus says that there is a thing (a balm) that can heal all of that stuff.

JD: You’ve got to write a book about this!

I had the joy of going to college with Moses Hogan. He was the most brilliant pianist at Oberlin the entire four years I was there. After college, he sort of burned out of that piano world and went back to New Orleans where he eventually started directing choirs, and then, eventually, became the leading arranger of African-American spirituals in the world. I re-connected with him on one of his trips to California, a few years before he died. I was really struck, at the time, how the Spirit can work through him, through each of us, completely without our foreknowledge, and help us touch countless lives. 

Clearly the Spirit works through you in the millions of lives you have touched as a musician. As musicians, I think we have this very special role. “To heal the sin-sick soul.” We are here to be an instrument of healing for those who are hurting, and to challenge those that are doing the hurting (many unwittingly). Perhaps our task is to help people understand the patterns that lead to hurt.

YB: I think the interesting thing about the Sweet Honey concerts is that it caused audiences to look at lyrics and texts differently. I want people to have a new frame of reference, a re-interpretation of music. You pay attention to Bob Dylan lyrics because you know he was talking about something.

JD: Where is music going now? I’m concerned that 99% of the music that is happening today happens through electronic speakers. Alice Parker told me that we don’t need Music Directors anymore; we need Song Leaders.

YB: Alice and I are working on a project together, for the past four years. The goal is to teach people to be Song Leaders. Alice and I have different backgrounds and approaches to this subject. I’m more steeped in the oral tradition; Alice comes from the other end of that spectrum.

JD: Why do we want people to be engaged in music?

YB: Because music forces our breath to come together. You breathe together; your hearts beat together. It draws us into community in ways that we aren’t even aware of. There’s something about rhythm, I believe, that pushes our blood flow in the same way. 

I stayed up half of the night watching the television following that dreadful shooting in a music venue in Paris. And at some point, someone started to sing the “Marseillaise.” That was the moment when they reclaimed their courage. Everybody joined in! That’s the best example of how music makes us strong and announces who we are. Music defines who people are at any moment in time. I will never forget that. 

That’s why I do what I do.

András Schiff

JD: I want to start by thanking you for speaking out against Orbán and the Hungarian government. It was a very courageous act, and puts you in the category with Casals, Bernstein, and Masur! These great artists believed that there is no separation between art and politics.

AS: Not so courageous! But thank you.

JD: How do you see the relationship between us, as artists, and our association with beauty, and the world of politics, with its role of making society a better place to live in? Do you see a relationship? And how do they intertwine?

AS: There is an obvious relationship. In my opinion, they are inseparable. We are part of society. We always have been in one way or another. The artist always contributed to society. They were dependent on society – whether it was the royal court, or the Medici family in Florence, or the Church. Nothing could be more wrong than to say “Shut up, and do your art without looking to the right or to the left.” We would have to live in an ivory tower, unaware of all that is around us – all the injustice! We have to speak up even if we are of very little significance what we, as individuals, can do. But together, it does contribute to something larger. All of those little drops of water in the desert! Altogether something can take shape. It can give courage to people.
I also don’t look at art as just something that is beautiful. Art is also reality. Music is not always beautiful. Sometimes it’s terrifying. But still, it always gives hope.
Look at perhaps the most human of composers, Beethoven. He suffered so much, but I never find depression in his music.

JD: Anger sometimes.

AS: Anger, but no self-pity. He embraces mankind and gives a shining example of how to overcome adversity. Also never lose your sense of humor.

JD: Or another example, Bach! His was not an easy life. There were many disagreements with employers. And yet he created an unbelievable testament to joy and praise. It’s quite striking to me.

AS: Well not only economically was his life difficult, having all of those children running around would have been a huge distraction. What sort of inner peace he must have had!

Art, and music in particular, can be an example to politics and society because we talk a lot about liberty and democracy. If you take great music, certainly all notes are important, but some are more important than others. At a given point, when you play chamber music, you are often in a leading position, then a secondary position. It changes from moment to moment. You have to give up your ego for a higher goal. 
This can serve as an example. And this is why I believe education is so crucial. If children don’t play an instrument, then they should all sing. If they sing in choirs, it’s a better education than sports. In sports there’s a winner and a loser. But with music, we don’t oppose each other, we strive towards a common goal.

JD: I’m very interested in your book, Music kommt aus der Stille. I’d like to know your thoughts about using music not as entertainment but as a tool, either to find one’s way into the soul of mankind or as a tool to help people.

AS: I completely oppose the idea of music as entertainment. Probably there is such a thing, but I don’t want to know about it. Yes, the listener should have a good time. But there’s much more to it than that. It should be a learning experience for both the performer and the listener. It would be good if, after a concert, people go away thinking and contemplating. “What have we heard; what have we learned? How can we translate this into other spheres of life?” Of course many composers have written divertimenti (entertainments). But quite often – such as Mozart’s divertimenti for string trio, it’s a colossal masterpiece with volumes of things to think about.

JD: Do you think the venues we have used, the concert hall, recital hall, living room, and church, might shift because of modern technology? Where is all this headed?
AS: I’m not a pessimist. A lot is being said about the crisis in Classical music. There are as many or more concerts than before. I’m worried about the quality of the actual listening, however. People come by the thousands to hear Classical music today. Compare that to the age of Bach. It’s perhaps 100,000 times more popular now than it was then. But as we improve technology and the other tools, it is imperative to use these tools in an intelligent way. So, as good as recorded music is, it’s not the real thing. People will always want to hear and see the real thing. It’s an event. It’s a one and only event each time. Each day is a different performance; we are not machines. 
So the venues play an important role. We often play in huge venues, like Davies Concert Hall here. It’s wonderful for Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang, but it’s not right when you play a Schubert Impromptu. But having said that, even in a huge space you can create the illusion of intimacy.

The Church (Catholic & Lutheran) contributed tremendously to the develop of Western art. Bach’s main goal was to write for the glory of God and for the community. That’s why I consider him the greatest: because he has no ego. It’s not about himself. Even Mozart and Beethoven considered writing for God as the highest goal.

JD: It seems to me that both Mozart and Beethoven saw themselves as servants to the music. The music is foremost, and they serve that.

AS: Absolutely. And you can see it in the Mendelssohn Lobegesang that we’re doing right now. The second movement is an intimate chamber piece. And then you have the glorious sacred movements interchanging with the worldly elements. Bach did this in his cantatas and Passions – These pieces are full of secular elements and dances. Instrumental pieces go hand in hand with the sacred.
It would be very good if works like that were written again.

JD: Certainly Arvo Pärt led a whole generation in that direction.

AS: Yes, that’s true.

JD: Music being ephemeral, do you ever wonder what happens to the sound as it goes out from the instrument you’re playing, whether that be a piano or an orchestra, and reaches the audience. How is it perceived? In a way this is a ridiculous question because there is no answer. But is “what happens” a question you ever ponder?

AS: Yes. I believe that each sound we ever produce is preserved somewhere in the universe, or cosmos. I wouldn’t call myself a religious person, but I am a believer of sorts. I don’t believe in materialism. If materialism was a valid philosophy then we couldn’t explain art. Physicists can explain sound, of course. But great scientists know that, at a very high level, there is a certain poetry in science and in mathmatics. 
So, for me, music-making is the imagination and the realization of making a sound. In order to make that, you must first have imagination. Then you convey that onto the instrument, coupled with the techniques one develops in order to realize our craft. 
I try to listen to the beginning (and you will know this, as an organist), the duration, and the end of a sound. What happens at the end of that sound? I think it goes out into the universe, into the cosmos, and it’s there! It also comes to the individual listeners. But the individual listener interprets the sound; this is their freedom. That’s the beauty of it. We don’t have to command the listener. The listener has the ability to associate.

With all the arts, each person has his or her interpretation, what a picture or a poem reminds them of. It’s all different. But nowhere is it more abstract than in music. That’s the beauty of it.

JD: We have a special privilege, as musicians, because we are caretakers of the soul. That’s a responsibility that I feel almost every time I play. On some small level, I am helping people make a connection, even a transformation, that they might not otherwise. It’s a weighty responsibility, but a joyous responsibility.

AS: Yes! I love Indian classical music very much. They are great artists. And one of the great Indian musicians once told me: In our culture, we never play a note without Divine inspiration. It’s our responsibility. 

I try to learn from that. Before you produce a note, a sound, think about that!

JD: Hazrat Inayat Khan’s book, The Music of Life, talks about how musicians in India play music based on their spiritual attainment, as opposed to their technical mastery. So, in my case, that means I wouldn’t dream of playing the Bach Passacaglia until I had some depth of life to express. It’s that concept. And I’ve always thought that was such a beautiful concept. Yes, we have to have technical mastery; but that’s not the goal. 
Thank you for sharing your ideas with me, and especially for the opportunity to work together in the Concert Hall.

AS: It’s been my pleasure!

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