We recently sat down with Composer and Pianist Haskell Small, who suffered a debilitating stroke that rendered his left hand and foot paralyzed. At the time, Small feared his accomplished professional career would come to an end. Two years later, he is not only playing piano again but has embarked on a nationwide Celebration of Healing tour that recently launched in his hometown of Washington, DC. He will be the subject of a documentary film entitled Small Steps directed by Christopher McGuinness to be released later this fall. We sat down recently to talk with him about the process of regaining his performance abilities.
Did your work become more complex or focused during the time you spent rehabilitating and did it enrich your practice?
HS: “Yes to all! At first I could not use my left hand at all and I focused on writing and playing arrangements for my right hand alone. It kept me active and from getting depressed. I was also practicing with my left hand with help from a physical therapist who specializes in working with musicians with disabilities. Nine months later I started playing again with both hands. The disability is the loss of sensation as well as function — my left hand is not totally reliable and it is hard to control precise timing or to play extra softly. Despite these ongoing challenges, the practice encouraged by the physical therapist to play extra slow has definitely helped me get my left hand almost back to where it was and in some ways better, because I’m very focused on what needs to be done. It has enriched my capabilities in that way. The most profound enrichment though has been having the “privilege” of being able to immerse myself in the Diabelli variations. Parts of it are so beautiful that I can’t keep myself from crying. It’s been a spiritual journey to be inside this sublime music that Beethoven wrote when he was entirely deaf.”
Is it a story about disability as a tragedy to overcome, or more that the experience gave you insight into generating new aesthetic possibilities or something like that?
HS: “The answer is both. It generated a new composition for my right hand alone at first, ‘Diary of a Stroke: the Adventures if Herb and Pete,’ and as I recovered, ‘Etude for 2 Hands’ and ‘Song of a Stroke Survivor.’ But also I had to refocus on what I can and can’t do, rethinking what is important, and what I want to spend my time doing in my ‘autumnal years.’ Right now, I’m at a juncture where I am thinking about what I want to do after the Diabelli variations. I may look at old music or write new music. At this point, I am stepping beyond the stroke but may revisit some things that I did beforehand. May write a full symphony. I would love to do that if there was a possibility of a performance.”
Do you feel you’ve returned to normal? Do you identify as being disabled?
HS: “Walking-wise, my leg has the same lack of sensation as my hand. I’m finding more and more that I can place weight on it, but I don’t think I’ll ever walk normally. In terms of my hand and playing the piano, I would say, functionally, I’m 90-95% back to where I was; in some ways 105% because I have had to practice in a more intense, focused way. The sensation hasn’t returned and I don’t expect it to. But the function wasn’t lost- it was not the hand, but the brain that was damaged. The dead brain cells are lost, but as I understand it, my brain is rerouting the synapses so that I can access parts of the brain that are still functioning and piggyback off of those. By working on this incredibly challenging music, I am both helping my stroke recovery and growing as a pianist and musician.”
We are looking forward to making our return concert at Merkin Hall after last year’s successful debut! Three Great Romantics is taking place on Thursday, November 30th at 6:30 pm and will feature 2 iconic masterpieces –Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture and Brahms Symphony No. 1 – as well as the rarely performed Coleridge-Taylor Violin Concerto in g minor. I am very proud that MOO is presenting this long-neglected masterpiece in New York City after its debut over a century ago. As well, this will be its first performance at Merkin Hall. I am thrilled to be working with MSM Faculty Chloe Kiffer in her MOO debut as the violin soloist in the Coleridge-Taylor. Chloe is an exceptional artist and colleague who will bring her insight and passion to this lyrical and poetic work.
MOO has always proudly had MSM alums in our ranks including our current concertmaster Eiko Kano. Eiko has a thriving international career as a soloist as well as a chamber musician She is a top prizewinner in multiple international competitions such as the 4th International Competition of Tokyo among others. Eiko received her BMus and MMus degrees from MSM as a protege of Glen Dicterow. I am a triple alum of our world-class institution and serve as the Chair of the Alumni Council. I am a proud MSMer!
This concert is a rare opportunity to experience 2 staples of the orchestral repertoire while at the same time rejoicing in the work of Coleridge-Taylor. We look forward to seeing you on the 30th!
Chloe Kiffer, violin
The performance will be on Thursday, November 30th, at 6:30 pm, at Merkin Hall. It is truly exceptional to perform the rarely played Samuel Taylor-Coleridge Violin concerto, which was commissioned at the time by female American violinist Maud Powell. I discovered this piece through my mentor, Patinka Kopec, a few years ago. I love this concerto and I genuinely consider it a hidden treasure. This is one of the last compositions the composer wrote, full of folk-inspired but original melodies put into a canvas of a rich late-romantic harmonic language evocative of American jazz and French impressionism. I am thrilled that my friend Justin Bischof, Conductor and Artistic Director of MOO Modus Operandi Orchestra (and MSM Alumni Council Chair) asked me to join MOO as soloist. I am excited to share the stage with him and many more musicians associated with our school.
As an alumna and current faculty member at MSM, in both Pre-college and College divisions, I believe in the institution with all my heart. We create a supportive and creative environment for each student to grow as our next generation of performers and educators.
The band’s guitarist and bassist Guy Brenner tells the backstory: “I wrote the song Monsters five years ago. I taught it to the band, and they liked it. Then I thought it needed a little something, and I changed it. The band approved. Soon it became a joke to the band, that I kept changing the song. During the covid scare, we kept musically active by recording songs — each person recording their parts at home, and emailing the files to me to assemble. We made simple videos for each so we could put them on our Youtube channel. Finally, in January of 2022, I declared (again) that Monsters was finished and we could record it. By then, we could do it all together at my house. The band is relieved that I’m done changing Monsters.”
The lyrics of Monsters borrow from Frederick Nietzsche’s “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”; as well as from Rodney King: “Why can’t we all just get along?”
Brenner continues “I showed Beeb and Buckbuck a book of my old friend Doug Williamson’s cartoons called Fluffy Mammoths. They loved it and agreed we should recruit Doug to make the Monsters video. Amazingly, Doug agreed. I had suggested a montage of images since he already had hundreds of monsters and goofy creatures he had drawn. Doug, however, wanted to make it an animation — a much larger project. I gave Doug carte blanche to do whatever inspired him and take his time. Doug makes cartoons in like half a day. The animated Monsters video took six months of work! Eeek! But we are so thrilled by the result!”
Doug Williamson made the animation on an iPad using Procreate. He then assembled and edited the video with LumaFusion, also on the iPad. This is Doug’s first animation outside of a few 2 second looping GIFs. Oh, and a school project in the fifth grade. It was a stop motion animation using construction paper and a Super8 movie camera called “The Realm of the Gods,” depicting life on ancient Olympus. He filmed it twice as a matter of fact, as the first reel was somehow fully exposed and came out totally white.
Courtney’s Other Neighbors are: Olivia “Beeb” Dempster, who plays piano and stand-up bass; Becky “Buckbuck” Rogot, who plays cello, and Guy “Guy” Brenner, who plays guitar and stand-up bass. They also have an official band dog and mascot, Summit. They all sing, as does Beeb’s sister Celeste Monette, much of the time. To clarify, there is no Courtney in the band! She was Buckbuck’s neighbor in an Oakland apartment house and had another neighboring band. Says Buckbuck: “Courtney declared that we were the preferred band of course!”
In two separate sit-down conversations, both composers were kind enough to share about their lives, musicianship, thoughts on their respective pieces, and what it’s like to be part of this 40th annual Pride Bands Alliance Conference.
I’m in Memphis, and I’ll soon be moving to Boston as I’ll be teaching at Berklee College of Music this fall. But I’m originally from Chicago.
I started with music in fifth grade on trombone. Band has always been a part of me, and eventually I got interested in both conducting and composing. Throughout college, I continued to play trombone, and for a while I was a music education major, because I thought I wanted to be a high school band director. But at a certain point, I felt that I didn’t want to work with kids every day. So I switched over to being a full time composition major, but I’ve continued to play in bands and orchestra whenever I can.
My friend Lee Hartman, who was the head of the commissioning project with Lakeside Pride introduced me to Sweet Home Chicago. I didn’t have too much time to write the piece, so I started from something I previously wrote: a song cycle for countertenor, who was also based in Chicago. When I got asked to write the commission, I drew on my first song from that cycle, and expanded it into this larger piece at about eight or eight and a half minutes. It’s one of those works that I only have performed once, and not even to full performance. So I thought that Sweet Home Chicago would be a way to give new life to that—at least that first movement.
The cycle is called Love Words, Mad Words—and that title comes from a line from the poem “Romance” by Claude McKay. “Love words, mad words, dream words, sweet senseless words; melodious like notes of mating birds.”
I originally came across McKay’s writings by searching for Black poets from the Harlem Renaissance. I hate to say it, but all I knew previously was Langston Hughes. And Hughes is notoriously hard to get rights for. In fact, I did get rights for a poem of his that I wrote for another Chicago based ensemble, Quince, but it took almost a year. And so for this commission I needed something that at least was in the public domain.
Interestingly, half of Claude McKay’s poems are in the public domain. I really was drawn to these poems, and to his life: McKay was a Harlem Renaissance poet who spent his last years in Chicago, who was also bisexual, and who I feel like I have a lot of things in common with. Like him, I’m also bisexual — it’s something I’ve been embracing over the last four or so years. And that’s another reason why I was drawn to McKay, and also that he was very politically left like I am. So for a lot of reasons, I thought, “Wow, I should get to know the works of this person.”
Although McKay’s not the most visible of the Harlem Renaissance poets, I still think he is very well known and loved. One of his most famous poems is “If We Must Die”, and it’s quoted a lot. One day, I was watching Judas and the Black Messiah—it takes place in Chicago, and it’s about the Chicago Black Panthers—and they’re just yelling the poem. I thought “Wait a minute. That’s Claude McKay!”
Love Words… is probably the sixth or seventh band piece that I’ve written. What was different about this though, is I’ve never written for a conference. They’d asked me to include a lot of instruments that I’ve never written for before. So, I wrote for alto clarinet and concert bass clarinet, and all different types of clarinets, and at the time, I didn’t yet know what transposition they play in.
I’ll be at least one rehearsal, and then I’ll be at the performance. I am excited to hear it soon, as there’s going to be a lot of people playing this piece at the concert!
I’m 21, and from Maryland. I’m from a very small town called Saint Leonard in Calvert County. Very rural, not much to do around there, an hour or so south from the Baltimore/DC area, I go to University Maryland in College Park, Maryland and I plan on graduating in the Spring of 2023. And I hope to go to school for film scoring.
I’ve been into music from a really young age. My parents are musicians—not professionally, but interested in music since they were really young, and they still play. My mom plays piano, my dad plays saxophone, and they do church gigs every now and then. So, for me and my older sister who plays violin—it was expected of us to do music.
Around third grade, they kind of gave the option to choose an instrument, and because my mom wanted me to play violin like my sister, and I wanted to be different, I chose trumpet, and played that for a couple of years. Some time in middle school, my band director suggested for me to switch to French horn. So when I was 13, in 8th grade, I started to get more serious, I was devoted to practicing, and I was thinking maybe I should take lessons, and get into music school.
When I first talked to Melissa Terrell from Lakeside Pride about this commission, where she wanted to go with the piece, I asked her if she had any requests or specific notes. And she suggested to have some sort of connection to Chicago, or some sort of reference to Chicago. And I don’t really know anything about Chicago, because I’ve just lived in Maryland my whole life. (laughs)
This concert will be my first time in Chicago, and I’ll be traveling with my sister for the event, and then my parents are going to be flying in for the concert day. The only time I’d been to the Midwest was to Detroit a few times. So in researching for the piece, I looked up Chicago Pride specifically and Queer History in Chicago. And then I found Miss Major Griffin-Gracy.
She was a Trans activist from Chicago, and a part of the Stonewall Riots. I think that was really interesting because we talk so much about Marsha P. Johnson. I kind of feel like that’s kind of the ‘staple name’ for that time period in Trans activism, but it’s important to know other names too. That was the thing that clicked, the spark of inspiration for the piece. I thought, “Oh! That’s a pretty unique name. I feel like I don’t really see that often.” And it’s symbolic. A mythological griffin is symbolic for bravery or strength.
This is my second time writing for a band. I’m most used to writing for chamber works, so it’s definitely challenging in terms of keeping track of all of the lines and staves, all the little moving parts, engraving, and technical things can be a bit difficult. But sometimes, in terms of writing the music I almost find it easier. Because I really like creating warm harmonies and textures, and that’s easier to do with more instrumentation. I have an advantage because I’ve played in band for so long. I was one of those students who wanted to overachieve in music, especially because my music programs in high school and middle school weren’t well-funded. I just wanted to do as much as I could: take lessons, do honor bands, and marching band.
Griffin runs little over seven and a half minutes. I knew I wanted the piece to be celebratory, more lighthearted and upbeat. I wanted to convey this duality; to have some sort of contrast of this bravery, and this strength, and kind of this more grandiose element, and then the opposite of this kind of more slower, somber element. Overall, my goal was to not only represent the griffin as a mythological creature, but also this other symbolic side. How does this relate to Queerness, and can I as a Queer person be powerful and be uplifted? And how can I deal with these moments that are also more serious, and struggles.
I was definitely very excited about the opportunity in general, to be able to attend this conference, and to write this piece. I know it’s a Queer organization, and I thought, “Oh! This is really cool!” But now that I’m actually thinking about it, I’d say that it means a lot, because I definitely—along with many other Queer people—have struggled with internalized and external homophobia. So being recognized not only as a musician, but a Queer musician, is definitely really important.
It’s important that people are able to see what I can do—that Queer people are able to see what I can do.
Directed by Chilean-born and New York-based filmmaker Nicole Costa, this 20-min. short film follows the journey and heart of the upcoming Tremün concert.
Touching on the music, poetry, birdsong, and the endorsed and active celebration of Indigenous Chilean culture, the film features captivating and multifaceted interviews with Tremün’s artists and their involvement in creating this platform for BIPOC artists.
Tremün: Celebrating Indigenous Rootsis Notes For Growth Foundation’s debut concert at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall in New York City.
Tremün means “growth” in Mapudungun, the language of native Chilean people known as theMapuche,and this concert is a celebration of music by and inspired by Indigenous peoples around the world including Peru, Mexico, Jamaica, and Chile. This program is poised to amplify the powerful words and voices of Tremün’s collaborators to a new audience in New York City.