Music by Women on a Mission

Interview with Ysaÿe Barnwell

Recorded April 15, 2020

April Angilletta: Hi everyone and welcome to Choral Arts! I’m April, and this is our interview series, Music by Women on a Mission. Like many of you, our staff are all working from home and sometimes that presents a few challenges. But despite these challenges, we think it’s really important to bring you these interviews with these female composers whose music was to be featured on our March concert. Our conversation with Ysaye Barnwell brought us such wonderful joy. We hope it brings a little light to your day as well. Enjoy.

Scott Tucker: Well, Ysaye Barnwell. Hello. And how great to talk to you. So let me, let me start by asking you— I know that you were just in Senegal recently. What was that trip about and what were you doing over there?

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Ysaye Barnwell: It was really a trip about fun and just going to the country to see and observe and meet new people. One of the singers in Sweet Honey in the Rock lived in Senegal for a number of years before she came back and came into the group. And there was something about her that I just really was attracted to in terms of her movements, the way she used her voice, the connection that she had to Africa and to Senegal particularly, which is very different from Kenya and Nigeria. And so I always wanted to go there. I had an opportunity to go with a friend who leads tours to different countries and I’ve traveled with her before. And so I was there for a good week and I had a great time. I heard music, I, you know, I went to communities where there were activities and things going on and there was always music in the environment. And so I just really got a good taste, I think musically, in terms of food, in terms of dance, in terms of communities. I had a great time.

Scott Tucker: That sounds wonderful. Like you say, it’s very different than Kenya or maybe other parts of Africa. When I was in my twenties, I spent about nine months in Kenya, in Western Kenya. And I remember that he had a huge influence on me about what music really was, because I was in a very small community in a rural part of Kenya. They just gathered and sang every week just as a community. And I suddenly saw music in a whole different light. I was a trumpet player and I thought about concerts and, you know, being on the stage and doing all that. And then I saw music in this very basic way, and it just turned on a light bulb for me about what music’s about. Now, especially after your time with Sweet Honey, which we’ll talk about, but in this last seven or eight years, you’ve been really focused on community building through singing. And I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about that. And how that became an emphasis of yours?

Ysaye Barnwell: Actually, it came out of my experiences in Sweet Honey, because it was there that the group decided that it wanted to share her music with people in various communities in a different way than being on stage. It’s like, “this is how we put a song together” and finally, you know, here’s the whole room singing the song instead of just five women. And that has just always stuck with me, because there are so many people who want to sing and are terrified at the thought of it. And they feel like if they join a group, they’re going to be called out and somebody’s going to say, you sang the wrong notes! You know, and everybody’s scared to sing in the wrong notes. So nobody’s going to point to anybody else. They’re just going to do their best. And when you realize that it’s just a coming together with people who like to spend time doing something that makes them feel good, it changes the whole environment.

You know, we’re not a choir, but just like getting together to share our voices. And so, I’ve been doing it now for a long time. It started with Sweet Honey and I’m glad that I was able to keep it going. I think, although I’m not sure, that Sweet Honey may still have community sings, but I would need to check on that. So I find that it becomes a vehicle for sharing now in a lot of opportunities. You know, I go to different communities and somebody [shouts] “I know a song about the so and so!” and, for the first time for them, they will be teaching a song. And that’s really exciting as well, because it doesn’t stop with me. It goes on to all of these other people. So that makes me happy.

Scott Tucker: Yeah. Not just you. I mean, I think it sounds actually sort of powerful. You get a little feedback about those sings.

Ysaye Barnwell:: Well, I do. And in fact, it’s really interesting because there was a student 20 years ago, maybe when I was doing this at Levine early on. His name is Micah Hendler. I don’t know if you know him, but he majored in music. Now, he has a choir in Israel, and they come to the United States every now and then. And he’s actually here now and is working with different people and asked me if I would lay a track to a song that he had recorded. So after I finished with this interview, I think I’ll be doing that. And so, you know, it’s hard to know what people are doing and where in the world this is going on because they got an experience that they needed to continue. So,

Scott Tucker: Well, that’s wonderful. I think that’s very cool that, that the grew out of Sweet Honey. Because you know, a lot of us know you, or your experience with Sweet Honey. And Sweet Honey in the Rock has been such an iconic part of, not just this community in Washington, but really everywhere. I was in Boston when I first heard of you guys and it just, you know, rocked my world the first time I heard you. So how did that association come about? You were there for a number of years, right? From maybe 79 or so?

Ysaye Barnwell: (Laughs) It was a long time.

Well they exist because Bernice Johnson Reagon would have sings, and and actually Levine had a lot to do with that in terms of people coming together and singing. But Bernice Johnson Reagon I think was the inspiration for me. I heard her voice and I thought, “Oh my goodness! Now I’m not embarrassed that I sing low and loud and I don’t want to read the notes. I want to just sing!” And you know, I’m a trained musician. I studied violin all my life, and sang in choirs and played in orchestras, but to just get together and to sing was like, for some reason, this whole new experience that I really loved.

And so out of her experience of leading the group, she actually was a member of the SNCC Freedom Singers. So she had that small ensemble experience, but she also had the church experience from Albany, Georgia, and she brought all of that to bear, and I was just soaking it up. So I really have to give the credit to Bernice for starting all of this. And she was the one, after I got into Sweet Honey, who said Sweet Honey should do a workshop for Levine. And then we started rehearsing there. So that became a regular kind of thing and it just grew. It just grew.

Scott Tucker: How did you first meet her? You just heard her singing someplace or, how did you guys connect for the first time?

Ysaye Barnwell: I’m trying to remember.

I don’t actually remember how we first met, but I did know that she had been part of the SNCC Freedom Singers and that was an amazingly powerful ensemble. But I’m not sure how we actually connected. It will come back at some point. (Laughs) I’ll remember.

Scott Tucker: But you did. And history was made.

You mentioned you were violinist then and your singing voice is so low. Some people who are instrumentalists and then sing, they search for the role of the instrument they used to play in a way- high melody, if you’re a violinist. But you went the other way. Your voice you know, provided this depth to Sweet Honey when we sang with them. And so, did you sing the lowest part? I mean, did you gravitate there from the first time you started singing?

Ysaye Barnwell: Wow, I don’t really know because I actually have high range too, or had one. I had about three and a half octaves that were easy to get to.

There was a man named S Carol Buchanan in Jamaica, Queens. While I was in junior high school, he had put together an ensemble of students and all we sang were Negro spirituals. That was my introduction. Because my father taught violin and piano, I played violin. Well, you can’t live in a house with the teacher and not do what the teacher does, or tells you to do.

I played in All City High School Orchestra. On Saturday mornings we rehearsed. And then we had a lot of guest conductors. And in the spring time we had our big concert at Carnegie Hall. So I was really involved in the instrumental thing. But when Mr. Buchanan you know, sorta let the community know that he had this choir of young people, I ran to join that and all we sang were spirituals. And that was my introduction. And I’m grateful for it because I don’t know where I would have learned what I learned.

Right now, I can sing you probably all of the parts of all of the spirituals that we learned, because that’s how my brain functions. And it came out of that. And then I joined All City High School Orchestra in New York, and we had concerts at Carnegie Hall, and there was this other ensemble, Mr. Buchanan’s ensemble in Queens that would put on performances. And so, it’s just the world I grew up in. So I think I still know in my head probably all of the arrangements of the spirituals that we sang, and I find them popping up for me and you know, I’m like, “Wow, where’d that come from?” But it came from that experience.

Scott Tucker: Well, since you have such a huge range you know, you should, you should utilize this technology that’s out there now and just sing all the parts and put them out for us to hear.

Ysaye Barnwell: Oh dear. Actually, I’ve done it a couple of times, but I don’t know where that stuff is now. Yeah, in fact, I did. I have several recordings that I did for my workshops where I’ve laid down all of the parts so people could remember what they were. I guess they’re still available. I’d have to figure out where. But that’s kinda how I utilize that ability.

Scott Tucker: So when you were with Sweet Honey, you wrote a number of songs that they recorded, and a lot of them are really memorable ones. Did you start writing music there with them, or were you writing music all along when you were a child?

Ysaye Barnwell: I knew I could write and I always sang along with everything. My friends used to get so disgusted with me because they said, “Why don’t you ever sing the melody? You never sing the melody. What’s that you’re singing?”

And I was like, “Why? I hear the melody. I know what that sounds like. I need to sing the rest of this stuff”. So when I joined Sweet Honey, it was an inspiration, not only to arrange things, but actually to write things, to compose things. And so there was a playwright that I knew and he asked me if I would write some music for a play that he wrote. And so I did. And out of that came the experience of composing. And that was really kind of what started me. I need to try to figure out, I can’t, I need to remember his name- David? I have to remember his last name and figure out what he’s doing, because he really was instrumental, even though he may not know it, to my beginning to compose things on a serious level.

Scott Tucker: So you mentioned your father was a music teacher and a violinist I think. Is that right? And your mom was a nurse, is that right?

Ysaye Barnwell: Right, a registered nurse.

Scott Tucker: Yeah. So and then so when you went into the foremost study at university ,you went the medical way, right? You went into speech pathology?

Ysaye Barnwell: I did.

Scott Tucker: You have a doctorate in that field.

Ysaye Barnwell: I have a doctorate in that field and I have a postdoc in public health. But you know what, it’s interesting. Because when I grew up, I was aware of Helen Keller. Helen Keller was an amazing woman who was deaf and blind but had learned how to communicate using sign language in the palm of her hand. People would speak to her through her hands. I was like 12 years old, I think, when I became aware of her and how she functioned through a play that was on Broadway called The Miracle Worker. And that play talked about her teacher, Annie Sullivan. I think that’s her name. And it just changed everything for me. It’s like, if you can’t hear, there’s still a way to communicate the music that’s inside of you. And, that’s where that started for me.

It’s like, okay, I’m playing the violin and I’m going to rehearsals and I’m doing all of this. But what about people who can’t hear this? How do you communicate the beauty? How do you get them to understand? And then I began to understand that there are things like vibrations that you can feel and that I think if you are sensory deprived in one area, some things get heightened for you. So that if you can feel rhythm in the kitchen table, you know, if you can feel the pulse of the bass drum or whatever through the floor, if it’s loud enough, it drives everybody else crazy. You’re having a good time. And I had to find like some way to make peace with that and to figure out ways to share it with other people.

That is why Sweet Honey in the Rock has had a sign language interpreter. And when I was part of the group and we were singing and the interpreter was interpreting, I would see the deaf folk and the hard-of-hearing folk, you know, upfront and they’d be signing to! And it just would make me want to cry because somehow the thing that I enjoyed the most was being conveyed to people who normally, quote unquote, would not have that experience. So that for me started with Helen Keller, you know; can’t see, can’t hear, but can still appreciate music. And I thought that was just the most incredible thing that I could process in my little brain.

Scott Tucker: When you were talking about vibrations, I was thinking of- I think she’s Scottish, she plays the marimba and she’s deaf- Evelyn Glennie is her name.

Ysaye Barnwell: We have met.

Scott Tucker: Oh, you have met.

Ysaye Barnwell: We have met very briefly, but we have met and it was wonderful.

Scott Tucker: Now understand. She is, she really feels the music through the floor. Just right through her feet, and it’s quite amazing.

Ysaye Barnwell: It is amazing. It really is amazing.

Scott Tucker: So I wanted to talk to you, or ask you a little bit about two of the pieces we were thinking about singing back in March. And one of them is We Are, which has this wonderful refrain for each child that’s born. The morning star rises and sings to the universe who we are. And I just wonder where that came from. You know, did it just come right out of your mind, or what were you thinking when you wrote that?

Ysaye Barnwell: (Laughs) It’s hard to know where these things come from. It was quite some time ago and I was doing some work with a choreographer. I was writing some music for some of his productions and I think it was part of one of those. I don’t remember accurately these days. But I know it came during that period and I was in Sweet Honey. And so there were always ways that I could try things out and I think We Are was one of those.

And I really kinda liked how things come to you and you say, “Wow, that makes a lot of sense for each child that’s born.” You know, there’s a star and there’s a melody and there’s a way of celebrating that child that has something to do with forces that are bigger than we are. So it sort of came out of that thinking that there are bigger things that celebrate who we are and sometimes we don’t know that we’ve been celebrated. And  I think if you never have an [entry] into thinking that there’s something bigger than you that celebrates the fact that you exist, it diminishes you in terms of how you support yourself and celebrate yourself and how you allow yourself to connect with the larger world. And so I think inside of that song is that feeling, to just say to people, “Wake up because there’s something that celebrates you and who you are and what you’re doing. No matter how minimalist you feel there’s something there for you.”

Scott Tucker: You know, when I first asked you that question, you were sorta like, “Where did that come from?” Some very creative people describe the act of creating as not as building something in your brain, but kind of tapping into something that’s already out there and just kind of channeling it. I don’t know if that makes sense to you, but I wonder if when you write some of this music, it feels that way too. Like it’s out there and you’re just kind of tapping into it. You know what I mean?

Ysaye Barnwell: Yeah. I can’t accept credit for it. Because you know, I do feel like the energies and the forces are much bigger and I think, someone who says to me, “Oh, you should write a piece”, or “Can you write it?” And I say, okay, and then I have to just leave it alone, because I realized it’s not a mechanical thing for me. I don’t care about the IV-V-IV progression. I don’t care about any of that. Although I’ve studied it. I don’t know where it exists in the things that I write. It’s just like something happens and I can’t tell you sometimes whether the words come first or the music comes first. Sometimes it all comes at the same time. And I can’t tell you any more about it.

Scott Tucker: It’s a mystery.

Ysaye Barnwell: It is a mystery. It really is. It really is. Yeah. And I, and I don’t usually pull on that energy unless someone asks me to write something. That is, I don’t just sit down and start writing just for the fun of it. You know, somebody says, “Can we commission you, or can you do so and so on and so on.” And so it was like, “Oh, okay.” Then something starts to happen inside of me. And so I’m grateful for that. I’m not sure that I would know that I had that ability, accessibility, if I hadn’t been asked to do like the first piece, whatever that was. So I’m grateful and I have some big things! I have some big pieces, like full musical kind of things with movements and instruments and you know, full orchestra and full choir and soloists and stuff.

Scott Tucker: I know you have written a cantata not that long ago. Is that right?

Ysaye Barnwell: Yeah, yeah. Fortune’s Bones is one of the bigger pieces that I’ve written and a couple of others. Yeah.

Scott Tucker: I wanted to circle back to another song you wrote for Sweet Honey and that is Wanting Memories. And unless I’m mistaken, I think you wrote that about your father, is that right?

Ysaye Barnwell: Well, yeah, I mean I think it certainly relates to him, but I didn’t write it for him. It’s really interesting because, I think in the last like 20 years, I’ve had what I consider a really bad memory. And so, writing that song was like, I actually do want these memories to come back to me. I really do. I don’t want to forget them. I don’t want it to like, just leave me. Because memories are so important, and the things that you remember, and when you remember them is very important because it’s hard to know when something is going to trigger a memory that seems totally unrelated to what’s going on. And yet there it is. And so that was it. That song for me is pretty deep. In terms of a deep personal longing to know what happened, what was said, why did this happen, et cetera, that I feel like I don’t easily have access to. So there you go. Therapy.

Scott Tucker: Yeah. So also, I’m just thinking about the fact that your mom was a nurse, and that you grew up in the New York area. These past two weeks have been so disastrous for the whole country. But particularly it’s been heartbreaking to see in New York: the hospitals and the caretakers, nurses, and doctors being so overwhelmed by taking care of so many patients for COVID 19. I’m wondering if you’re thinking about that at all and what your impressions are, especially in light of having grown up with a health care worker right in your house.

Ysaye Barnwell: I have been thinking about it a lot, and it really it brings me to tears sometimes, and I have no idea what I can do to be helpful. And you know, every now and then I think, “Oh, something will come to me and then maybe I can put it online or whatever”. I don’t know. But really, it’s very painful. It’s very painful. I grew up in Queens, in Elmhurst and I know that area very well. But I also know Pittsburgh, and I also know Rochester, New York, you know, because I’ve spent time in all of those places. And it’s not that all of them have been hitting the news, but New York is pretty devastated. And yeah, I think about that.

Scott Tucker: I know you were there a long time ago. Do you still have any connections there?

Ysaye Barnwell: I have some friends there, but we’re not we don’t connect very often. And I think, for about 10 years after my parents died, I rented out the house that I had grown up in. And when I sold that house, I was like, “Yikes, I’m cutting this cord for real”, but I still see that house so clearly. I see the driveway, you know, I see the backyard, I see the little fountain we had in the backyard.

My father was an inventor and the basement, that was his territory. He was an inventor and he was a musician. He was a classically trained violinist. He taught me violin and he had students. That teaching occurred in the living room where the piano was, the grand piano that’s now in my living room. But the place where he piddled was in the basement, that’s where he invented things. And he actually has had three patents for things that he invented, which, you know, I think that’s where I get my certain kinds of inquiry going on, you know, “how does that work?”, because of my father. It’s an interesting thing to put together a mechanical field with a musical field, and to not have the music feel mechanical, but to understand that there are mechanics that make music work. And I’ve juggled that in my life, all through my life.

You know, if you can tighten this screw, this thing will work better or loosen the screw, this thing will work better. So if you can sharpen that note just a little bit, it’s going to sound much better. It’s so funny how pieces come together that you would not expect, but those two concepts lived inside of my father and he passed both of them onto me. And so, you know, my friends know that I have this mechanical thing, [thinking] “Oh, I can fix that. Okay, well, I can fix that musical thing” And I’m glad we’re having this conversation because I’ve never about this before. So thank you.

Scott Tucker: Well, you know, speaking of mechanical and music, at least what you wrote for Sweet Honey, has this rhythmic interlocking sense. You know, there’s interlocking parts often like gears almost in a lot of that music. I wonder if that’s related to this mechanical sense. You love rhythm. I could tell it’s just such a basic part of the way you write.

Ysaye Barnwell: You know, when I was 12, I studied African drumming with a man named Olatunji. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard his recordings or anything like that, but he was the first person to bring West African drumming to the United States where it became commercial. You could hear it on the radio. And so I think that has also a lot to do with it. You know, that there’s a foundation to everything. How do you express that foundation musically? Wow, this is a great conversation. You’re reminding me of so many things! Thank you!

Scott Tucker: Well, you were wanting memories and so here we are.

Ysaye Barnwell: Yeah, there you go! I’m getting them. I’m getting them. Thank you. (Laughs)

Scott Tucker: You and I met-when did we meet? About seven or eight years ago when we honored you with the Choral Arts Humanitarian Award.

Ysaye Barnwell: Yeah.

Scott Tucker: And you know, it’s just as you’ve been such a pleasure to get to know you a little bit through that time, but especially today, to hear all that you have to say you know. Like all our composers, if I’m finding a common thread of talking to all of you, there’s a great, very present curiosity. It’s that really deep curiosity and that you follow up on, and a spark in all of you that I’ve talked to so far that’s just a common thread. It’s so beautiful to see. It’s so beautiful to talk to you and I just wanted to thank you for giving your time today to us.

Ysaye Barnwell: Thank you. Thank you so much.

Scott Tucker: Yeah, it’s a great pleasure to talk to you.

Ysaye Barnwell: Thank you. I’ve enjoyed it.

Scott Tucker: April, I didn’t give you a chance to chime in at all. Did you have any questions for Ysaye before we close?

April Angilletta: Really, just how are you doing now that you can’t go anywhere and you’re staying at home? What are you doing to keep yourself busy?

Ysaye Barnwell: Oh, I’m doing interviews. I have a pile now of books I’ve wanted to read. Have I started reading them? No. You know, I look at my dining room table and I want to clean it off. Do I clean it off? No, I’m just in a fog. I think I’m just in a fog and I feel like I’ll get out of it eventually. And then my daddy limp table will mysteriously be organized and cleared. But what I realized is this is my environment. This is what I stood in the middle of when I am creating. Maybe that’s a sign that I should be creating. I just haven’t given myself permission yet. So we’ll see.

Scott Tucker: Okay. Good.

Ysaye Barnwell: We’ll see. I enjoyed this conversation very much.

Scott Tucker: I did too. I did too. Very much. Okay, well, take care.

Ysaye Barnwell: All right. Back at you.