The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance premiered “Tethered Voices”, the first of 10 compositions of the Michigan Orchestra Repertoire for Equity (MORE). The project aims to increase equity in classical music by commissioning 10 Black composers in the next 10 years.
Music, Theater & Dance professor Kenneth Kiesler began the MORE project in 2020. He was motivated to commission “Tethered Voices” after reading its namesake poem which was written by his colleague and friend Kalena Bovell. The poem is a reflection on the protests and racial anxiety following the death of George Floyd in May 2020. Kiesler said he knew the first piece of the MORE project would involve Bovell’s work after reading “Tethered Voices.” Kiesler reached out to U-M alum James Lee III (’99, ’01, ’05) shortly after to write music to accompany the poem.
In addition to her poetry, Bovell is involved in the music industry, serving as the assistant conductor of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. Kiesler and Bovell met over 10 years ago at the Conductors Retreat at Medomak.
The performance took place at Hill Auditorium and featured the University Symphony Orchestra.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Kiesler said Bovell’s poem and Lee’s eponymous composition are a powerful combination, living up to his expectations for the first piece of the project.
“Kalena sent me her poem, which she had just written, and when I read it, I immediately was moved by it,” Kiesler said. “I knew that this would be the first piece, so I contacted her right away and told her how I felt about the poem and asked if we could go ahead and have it set to be a piece for orchestra. She agreed later that day, so I asked James (to write the music) and we reached an agreement and the next day he started working on it … it’s an incredibly great piece and the two together — the music and the poem — really have the moving and inspiring impact that I had hoped the piece would have.”
Lee said equity in the music industry is extremely important, and there is always room for improvement. While writing the composition for the MORE project, he tried to emphasize meaningful words in Bovell’s poem and vocalize the emotions felt by many Black people today.
“It’s this idea of being tired of the situation, tired of tears, tired of feeling hopeless, that kind of thing,” Lee said. “The very last line says ‘I’m tired of not being seen’, so it’s this kind of tiredness, of not being seen as equal — not being given equal opportunities.”
Bovell said she knew many people in the Black community shared her frustration and anger, especially following the death of George Floyd. She said Lee was able to convey her emotions in a meaningful piece of music.
“It’s a really powerful piece,” Bovell said. “Musically, when you take the words away, there’s such a darkness and depth to it. I think (Lee) really was able to pull out the emotions that I was feeling when I wrote those words.”
Bovell said she uses her poetry to express her emotions and frustration with the racism she has personally faced and the Black community faces every day.
“I was very angry,” Bovell said. “I was frustrated … but I wasn’t the only Black woman, Black person, that had had enough, the whole entire Black community was tired … Everyone that I showed that poem to has said they know exactly what it feels like to be afraid to walk out of their house because they have brown skin or to experience different levels of microaggressions because they have brown skin.”
Kiesler said he wanted to make a lasting impact on the orchestra repertoire around the world, supporting the work of Black composers and diversifying the field. He hopes that 10 years is the minimum for the MORE project, as he wants to continue to commission Black composers in the future.
“I asked myself the question, ‘What can I do to have an impact on the future of the orchestra repertoire, so that composers who have been historically underrepresented have their voices heard?’” Kiesler said. “It hit me that it needed to be something over a (longer) period of time so that it would have more of an impact than doing one or two pieces. I wanted to do something that would produce a series of works, a collection, and so (I decided) on the 10-year plan. I see the 10 years as a minimum, not as an endpoint. Our first goal is 10 years.”
According to Kiesler, the School of Music, Theatre & Dance has commercial recordings and is able to sell pieces worldwide — an uncommon feature for a university orchestra, but one that allows the MORE project to have a broad impact. Kiesler said that the pieces involved in the MORE project will increase diversity and equity for a global audience of classical music.
“Classical music has an accurate reputation at times for being elitist and serving a very narrow audience,” Kiesler said. “I think this is a shame, because I know that this music is the greatest expression of the human spirit and that people from all kinds of backgrounds have important stories to share. Our audience needs to be broadened and to have a connection with the people who create and perform the music. I think we need to do better in terms of equity within the orchestra, in terms of their membership, and in the audience, and in the people who conduct and the people who create the music that we play.”
Music, Theatre & Dance senior Jacob Ward said he was grateful for the MORE project but wishes the initiative was created earlier. Ward said he hopes the initiative will diversify the orchestra repertoire in the future, leading performances away from common pieces.
“I think it’s great that they’re doing it now,” Ward said. “It’s never a bad thing to take action. I guess my only critique is: ‘Why now? Why wait so long?’ That just goes to show how really conservative the music in academia is. Thinking about the future, I think (the project) is going to be super helpful for starting the habit of performing works that aren’t the norm, or the basic generic repertoire.”
Music, Theatre & Dance Dean David Gier shared his thoughts on the initiative in an email to The Daily, expressing a commitment to diversity in music education and excitement for the broader range of music available to Music, Theatre & Dance School students.
“The School of Music, Theatre & Dance is honored to play a role in making the repertoire of classical music more representative and inclusive,” Gier wrote. “I’m especially excited that MORE will give SMTD students much-needed exposure to living composers, a critical component of any music program. This initiative is a part of SMTD’s broader commitment to elevate and promote a wide range of voices in the performing arts.”
Daily Staff Reporter Carlin Pendell can be reached at email@example.com.