St. Louis based composer LJ White's piece Way Down Yonder is featured on our Sunday August 19th concert "GIVING VOICE". His thoughtful relationship with the text by poet Rickey Laurentiis broadens the original context of the poem to reach all of us.
Tell us a little about your path to becoming a composer and how you ended up here in st. Louis.
I grew up in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, and was fortunate to have a really great public school music education there. I sang and played the trombone, and I knew I wanted to have a career in music, but I didn't really realize that there were living composers, and that I could be one, until I got to college and saw others majoring in composition. I got a Bachelor of Music degree in trombone performance and composition, and then I pursued a doctorate in composition and landed a job at Washington University. I moved here last summer and am really enjoying it so far.
The theme of this year's Gesher Music Festival is Voices Rising. How would you describe your musical voice? And how do you see the voice of an artist in today's social, political, and cultural landscape?
I try to make music that is direct, communicative, and socially relevant. I also try to break down barriers of genre by considering all of the elements that make up music (such harmony, rhythm, phrasing, timbres, etc, etc) individually, and bringing together musical signifiers that may not typically be juxtaposed, if it helps me to get at a mood or purpose as best I can. To me, challenging classification is something of a political act: as a transgender person, I have spent a lot of time thinking about traits that inform outward identity and about forming such an identity outside of the options stipulated by our culture, effectively by making lots of small decisions rather than conforming to a big category (like male or female.) All of that said, though, in this piece, my main goal was just to elucidate Rickey's words and explore how they must have been feeling when they wrote the poem -- essentially, to support their voice with music.
What can you tell us about your piece, Way Down Yonder?
It's a setting of Rickey Laurentiis's poem of the same name, which is about their return to their childhood home of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. They have told me that it's about how much they love the city and also felt betrayed by it, even while thinking that that feeling was sort of irrational. There's a palpable appreciation for the unique culture of the city in the poem, too, and it has a lot of musical quotations - the title is from the song "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans," and "Amazing Grace" is quoted, and it talks about dancing and music, all of it sort of in a jumble that is more felt than intellectually understood. I blended in quotations from those songs and others, and tried to construct the whole piece like a sort of feedback loop, with material moving about as if being tossed in the wind or reflecting off of water, which are important images in the poetry.
Your music is included in a program entitled Giving Voice, intended to feature underrepresented composers and also voices lost. How do you think you as a composer and the poet Rickey Laurentiis fit in with this theme?
Well, to be truthful, I remember I had some questions for you about this when you first asked me to be part of the show! I'm happy to be represented on any concert whose organizers are interested in my work, and I'm a big fan of the Gesher Festival and thrilled to be part of it. I'm really glad to see a plurality of experiences represented on this concert within the festival theme of Jewish identity, as well as beyond it, and I'm proud to add my work to the spectrum of what is created by Jewish artists in the modern era. Certainly, there aren't many visible trans composers in the field; I think that perhaps I can bring a unique perspective for that reason. Rickey is transgender, as well, and is black, and their racial identity, at least, informs the circumstances of this poem. To me, the poem is, in a broader sense, about being cared for: Are we safe and valued in the cities we love? Are those in power keeping us safe and protecting what is sacred to us, and doing so for everyone equally?
What's your favorite hang in STL? Where are people likely to find you and what will you be eating/drinking?
I just moved to the Cherokee Street area and love it there. You might find me checking out exhibitions at Monaco or the Luminary, or eating at any of the restaurants nearby - there are too many good ones to choose!