For Yaz Lancaster, the process of composing a new work of music begins with two questions of self-reflection: “What is important to me right now?” and “What do I have to say?” In 2018, when they were commissioned to write a piece for Washington Squared Percussion, the answer to the first question was the epidemic of gun violence—specifically, Lancaster explains, “mass shootings and the killing of unarmed Black people by police in the U.S.” In exploring these compounding tragedies and the national conversations surrounding them, they composed the powerful work dis[armed] for two percussionists, including two extended pre-recorded passages of news media clips interwoven with electronics.
“Through this piece,” Lancaster elaborates, “I’ve tried to put the separate but related occurrences in dialogue, and parse out my own feelings, meditations and confusion surrounding gun violence/control and legislature. It is my hope that people begin putting both mass shootings and police brutality in the same conversation when trying to figure out where to go from here, and that there is somewhere better to go.”
“A catalyst for change”
The Minnesota Orchestra shares this music tonight near the anniversary of the murder of George Floyd in a state that has already been scarred this year by the police killing of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center in April and a mass shooting at a medical clinic in Buffalo in February. As Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Osmo Vänskä states: “It’s important for artists to share music that connects to the current world around us and that can serve as a catalyst for change. In extreme times, music can be a kind of therapy for people. When we cannot find the words to adequately express ourselves, music can take us to a very deep place.”
With its two performances this month, each featuring a work composed in response to police killings of Black Americans (Carlos Simon’s An Elegy: A Cry from the Grave will be shared on May 28), the Orchestra hopes to bring audiences to that place and let the music give voice to anger, grief and despair, and to also find moments of respite and glimmers of hope.
About the music
dis[armed] received its world premiere on March 6, 2019, by Washington Squared Percussion, at Sō Percussion’s Brooklyn Bound performance series. Initially spanning four movements, the work was revised in 2020 to its current three-movement form.
disjunct. The work opens with a two-minute sonic collage of pre-recorded, layered clips from news media stories about guns and gun violence, with the sound growing progressively more distorted and chaotic. Lancaster explains that the sources include “audio from 2nd amendment marches, Chicago gang violence news coverage, and news coverage of the murder of Jemel Roberson.”
The taped segment concludes abruptly, and the movement proceeds without pause to the live percussion performers, one of whom plays vibraphone while the other plays two instruments: the tenor steelpan, a chromatically pitched instrument that originates from Trinidad and Tobago, and a kick drum—a bass drum operated by foot pedal.
“This movement is about conversation, debate and disagreements,” notes Lancaster, who includes directions in the score such as “blend like one large instrument,” “interrupt” and “as if trying to talk over one another.”
reset. The middle movement “is about accountability,” says Lancaster, and requires no live performers. The focus again shifts to pre-recorded playback, and this time the spoken words come from an interview with survivors of the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, overlaid with electronics. The last line spoken is “…we’re the mass-shooting generation.”
refocus. The final movement calls for two vibraphones and a different set of performance techniques than the disjunct movement—most prominently using a bow that would ordinarily play a string instrument. The first minute is played freely, as the players are given leeway to repeat and reorder notes as they react and respond to each other. Lancaster explains that the final movement “is about listening…breathing, shifting focus and learning how to move forward.”
In portions of this movement, the players are each directed to crumple a newspaper. Later in the movement, the players put down their bows and play the vibraphone with their fingernails, and in another passage, one player uses a bending mallet to adjust the bowed pitches of the other player. The combination of sounds, visuals and symbolism are striking and thought-provoking at a time of reflection and desperately-needed action for Minnesota, the country and the world.
About the composer
Yaz Lancaster is a Black transdisciplinary artist whose activities include composing, performing, poetry and multimedia projects. Recently named by The Washington Post as one of its “21 for ’21” composers who are shaping the future of music, they are primarily focused on the representation and support of marginalized and underprivileged identities in the arts, genuine modes of collaboration and practices aligned with relational aesthetics, and the idea of constellating genre-fluid works that bring in fragments, histories and flavors from various sources of inspiration. Their practices are most aligned with relational aesthetics and the everyday; fragments and collage; and anti-oppressive, liberatory politics.
Lancaster performs as a violinist, vocalist and steel-pannist in a wide variety of settings including DIY/indie venues, contemporary chamber music and steel bands. Their work is presented in many different mediums and collaborative projects, and often reckons with specific influences ranging from politics of identity and liberation to natural phenomena and poetics. Most recently, they have been developing a pop/post-genre duo with Canadian guitarist-producer Andrew Noseworthy.
Lancaster has had the privilege and opportunity to build community in the U.S., Canada and Trinidad and Tobago. They have created with artists like Andy Akiho, Contact (with Evan Ziporyn), Contemporaneous, George Lewis, JACK Quartet, Leilehua Lanzilotti, Rohan Chander, Skiffle Steel Orchestra, and Wadada Leo Smith. Their record of commissioned music for violin/voice and electronics, AmethYst, is forthcoming on people | places | records in 2021.
Lancaster holds degrees in violin performance and poetry from New York University, where they studied with Cyrus Beroukhim, Robert Honstein and Terrance Hayes, among others. They are the visual arts editor at Peach Mag and a contributing writer at I Care If You Listen. Further details on their music, projects and performances are available on their website.
Instrumentation: 2 vibraphones, tenor steelpan, kick drum, newspaper and pre-recorded tape
Program note by Carl Schroeder.