Changing the Canon

Monday, October 11, 2021
A collaboration with Black composers creates new classical guitar works for young musicians
By Cami Yates
Students performing Broomsticks by Mason Bynes for Austin Classical Guitar’s 30th season finale.

Students performing Broomsticks by Mason Bynes for Austin Classical Guitar’s 30th season finale.

In the heat of 2020’s political environment Evan Taucher thought deeply about how he might inspire change in the classical guitar community when he realized that their repertoire lacked music from Black American composers. He realized he could make a difference by supporting new works that represent the actual community of classical guitar players.

Right before the pandemic started, Taucher, Hannah Murphy and Phil Goldenberg founded Ex-Aequo, a nonprofit committed to strengthening the bond shared by classical guitarists around the world and serving as the leading voice for the next generation of guitarists. One of their goals was to commission Black composers for new classical guitar works.

“In the heart of George Floyd and all of these huge events happening, we were like, well, how can we make a change in our community?” Taucher said. “We really wanted to help make a change within our own community. Commissioning new works for the guitar community by these incredible composers creates opportunities for guitarists around the world to discover and play their music.”

Co-Founders of Ex-Aequo: Phil Goldenberg, Evan Taucher, and Hannah Murphy

Co-Founders of Ex-Aequo: Phil Goldenberg, Evan Taucher, and Hannah Murphy

With this gap in mind, Taucher and his co-founders got together and created Changing the Canon, a commissioning project with a focus on exposing the younger generation to modern Black composers. Taucher, the first classical guitarist to enter The University of Texas at Austin Artist Diploma program, received a $5,000 Rainwater Innovation Grant to support his project, “Changing the Canon,” which funded the commissioning of orchestral and smaller ensemble arrangements from Black composers.

“We noticed Black American living composers were largely missing from the classical guitar repertoire,” Murphy said.

They began tapping Black composers within their own professional networks and communities as well as using online resources such as Music by Black Composers, among others.

They commissioned nine Black American composers to write solo guitar music, arranged for middle and high school students. The nine composers selected are Mason Bynes, Thomas Flippin, Brian Nabors, Melika Fitzhugh, Nailah Nombeko, Quinn Mason, Cecil Alexander, Jessica Mays and Nick Dunston.

The team partnered with the Austin school district to incorporate the newly commissioned works into the district’s classical guitar curriculum with the help of Travis Marcum (Ph.D., Music and Human Learning, 2017), director of education for Austin Classical Guitar.

“That part of our mission was definitely to get these compositions for guitar in front of young guitarists,” Goldenberg said. “We wanted to show them that composers can come from any background.”

Changing the Canon composers

Changing the Canon composers

Flippin, a composer and guitarist, created a difficult and advanced solo piece, one that he describes as “rough around the edges,” called Not One Shall Leave. The piece is based on Hindu scripture in the Bhagavad Gita that he read a few years ago and that came to mind while he was in quarantine.

In this passage, the conversation deals with the moral propriety of war. Krishna, a major deity in Hinduism, comes down to Prince Arjuna on a battlefield, and they debate whether the prince should fight and kill those in battle. Krishna manifests his powers in front of the prince and explains that he is time and will destroy these people no matter what the prince decides. The passage, to Flippin, represented time and how COVID-19 had affected everyone during a very depressing time, so the themes in the text inspired his composition.

Flippin also said he is aware that he has a responsibility to students and other children as a role model.

“I took the situation very seriously, not in like a model minority way, but like when you’re given a platform, you better have something interesting to justify being on that platform in the first place,” Flippin said. “It was a real honor to write for Ex-Aequo because they are all such accomplished classical guitarists.”

Bynes, a composer, vocalist and multimedia artist, created a beautiful solo guitar piece called Broomsticks, which was then arranged by members of Ex-Aequo into an ensemble piece to make it accessible for students. Through Zoom, she engaged with students from the Austin and Houston areas and discussed the piece with them.

“I think it’s a really incredible initiative Ex-Aequo put together,” Bynes said. “It means the most being able to see its effects directly by being able to engage with these students who are so passionate and so talented and so smart and intuitive and being able to really empower them to be themselves and empower them to be able to write music, play music or speak music that aligns with what they believe in and what they’re fighting for.”

In May, Broomsticks premiered on Austin Classical Guitar’s livestreamed season finale and was performed by 30 students across Austin, recorded in their own homes and edited together by Virtual Guitar Orchestra.

Edan Tapia, a recent graduate of Akins Early College High School, performed in that ensemble. He said that the ensemble met only twice over Zoom to rehearse and discuss any issues they were facing, whether it was technical or performance issues.

“We never met in person because this was a strictly virtual project, to see what our musical minds can come up with whenever we are separated due to a global pandemic,” Tapia said. “We showed that even when there’s lots of despair and worry, there can still be prosperity and liveliness amidst all the chaos.” 

Students performing Broomsticks by Mason Bynes for Austin Classical Guitar’s 30th season finale.

Students performing Broomsticks by Mason Bynes for Austin Classical Guitar’s 30th season finale.

For a project this size, Taucher said one of the most important things he has learned during the process was that although it can be daunting, most people surrounding you are enthusiastic about making a change—it just has to start with an idea and a course of action.

During the fall, Ex-Aequo plans to create a documentary called Changing the Canon, which the Rainwater Innovation Grant will help fund, along with the project’s sponsor, the Augustine Foundation. They will record the nine works commissioned into a CD and a visual album.

“The students learning music by these young Black American composers and hearing from people in the community are what we thought would make a really big change,” Taucher said. “That’s the way we’re hoping to inspire young people.”

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