Performance, Commissions, and Protest: The Political Pianist

UBC Public Scholar and Doctor of Musical Arts in Piano (DMA) candidate Benjamin Hopkins recently commissioned two pieces with political contexts based on today’s global events: Joel Thompson's "My Dungeon Shook - 3 American Preludes," and Peter Shin's "ravel's miroirs no. 3 but you're dissociating at your recital." Hopkins recorded both pieces in UBC’s Roy Barnett Recital Hall in October, and “My Dungeon Shook” received its official world premiere at the Yale School of Music’s New Music New Haven concert series on October 30.


G+PS: What was the inspiration behind both these compositions? 

Hopkins: I met both these composers in 2017 at the Aspen Music Festival and worked with them a bit back then. This is when I first heard Joel Thompson’s piece “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” a piece he wrote in the wake of Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s killings. That piece was the lightbulb moment that got me thinking about where to find more socially relevant compositions and, more importantly, how to support the creation of politically-engaged music. Later, the Public Scholars Initiative helped me to reach out to both Joel and Peter to ask them if they would be interested in writing a piece that dealt with an issue of their choosing.

G+PS: Could you please describe the themes for each composition and how they come together? 

Hopkins: Joel’s composition is made up of three short pieces for solo piano. Its title refers to an essay by James Baldwin as well as a traditional spiritual that was famously quoted by Martin Luther King Jr. in his “I Have a Dream”' speech. The pieces are Joel’s way of processing and reacting to the murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, and they capture his feelings surrounding this summer of protests and outrages. 

Each of the three preludes contains musical references to the initials “GF” and the second spells out “AHMAUD” in musical letters. I think as a whole the piece represents Joel’s struggle to reconcile his belief in this idea of the promise of America and American society. It looks at large systematic failures from the perspective of a Black composer. It is deeply personal. 

Peter’s piece is tailor-made for me. Before he started writing, we had a conversation about well-known piano works that I personally listen to for comfort or relaxation. Peter took one of those, a piece by Maurice Ravel, distorted it by manipulating several audio recordings, and instructed me interact with the recording playback in a real-time performance. The piece is meant to reflect on the turmoil and stress of this year, especially mental health issues that have arisen during the pandemic. 

I am honored to have Joel and Peter entrust their music to me. It is a big responsibility but also an enormous privilege.

G+PS: As a Public Scholar, how do you hope your work might contribute to conversations around these issues? 

Hopkins: I hope people in my field see that this is a rich and rewarding avenue for exploration, and it has produced truly great music. I would love to see people engaging in music that talks about social and political problems, and moves away from our default habit of putting on concerts that are 95 percent made up of works by old or dead white men. It is usually very Eurocentric. I’m thinking about how to de-center this in my work and I encourage others to do the same.

Once we get out of this pandemic and have live concerts again, I hope that these pieces are performed more often. Attending a concert is often a leisure activity, but there is a big opportunity there to raise your issues to people who are maybe more receptive because they are already there to listen to you. Musicians believe in the emotional power of music, and I think it’s a great way to reach out to people on a personal level.

G+PS: You recently premiered both pieces. What was that experience like? 

Hopkins: It was pretty surreal because this was just last month, and we are still can’t have any live audience. The only way that people have seen these performances so far is online. This makes it more difficult to gauge the response to the compositions. When you are in person in a concert hall you have live feedback and a connection with your audience. It did certainly highlight the unusualness of this time.

Tuesday, 01 December 2020