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Vermont Composer and Poet Offer Music and Words in Celebration of Black Culture

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Published January 25, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.


Erik Nielsen - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Erik Nielsen

In two performances this weekend, the works of composer Erik Nielsen and poet Rajnii Eddins will celebrate the influence of African American artists and activists on U.S. history and culture. The compositions in "We're All in This Together," to be presented in Richmond and Montpelier, are connected by a longtime commitment to racial and social justice, the composer said. The works on the program are dedicated to people such as singer, dancer and civil rights activist Josephine Baker; baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, who played in the Duke Ellington Orchestra; and Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was shot and killed by police officers in Louisville, Ky., in March 2020.

Nielsen, 72, studied composition at Bennington College and has composed opera, choral music, chamber music, orchestral pieces and solo work. In a phone conversation with Seven Days, the Brookfield resident called himself an "eclectic" composer influenced by the Renaissance, the Beatles "and everything in between."

"I like to say that I'm a 'kitchen-sink' composer," Nielsen said. "Everything including the kitchen sink goes into my music."

Eddins, 42, a poet and teaching artist who lives in Burlington, said Nielsen asked him last year if he'd like to collaborate on the program. He plans to recite new, original poems that recognize the dedicatees of Nielsen's music. He'll also read work that speaks to a "larger theme of consistent, abundant and vital contributions of Black people's work and energy that is too often undermined and overlooked or relegated to lesser value," Eddins said.

Eddins' readings will alternate with the performances of Nielsen's compositions — five pieces for solo instruments and a quintet — by local musicians.

"There's always power in the word itself," Eddins said. "But I think, combined with music, it can give that language brand-new life in multiple dimensions that opens doorways to new altitudes of light that were unattainable before."

Nielsen wrote the ensemble piece, "This Time," in 2022 for the five instruments featured in the solo compositions: piano, violin, flute, tenor saxophone and baritone saxophone. He customized the piece for the tenor player, Dan Liptak, by writing parts for clarinet and bass clarinet, too.

Liptak, the band teacher at Crossett Brook Middle School in Duxbury, plays all three instruments in the one-movement quintet. "The cool thing about working with a living composer is that they can tailor what they write for the player," Liptak, 36, said. "And this is a case in point."

Due to the unusual instrumentation of the piece, Nielsen said he had "a little bit of trepidation about how well the instruments would work together." He was concerned that the potential volume of the reed instruments might overwhelm the sound of others.

But the instruments "balanced out really well," he said. The higher pitch of the violin and flute allows them to be heard.

Nielsen composes at the piano with pencil and paper. He uses this method for any instrument or combination of instruments he's writing for.

"I'm a real old-school guy in that way," Nielsen said.

Rajnii Eddins - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Rajnii Eddins

He recently attended the first rehearsal of the quintet, which consists of Alison Cerutti (piano), Jane Kittredge (violin), Hilary Goldblatt (flute), Liptak (tenor saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet), and Kyle Saulnier (baritone saxophone).

Such a session can be a "dangerous thing" for both composer and musicians, according to Nielsen. The composer could be anxious hearing his piece played live for the first time, and the players "don't want the composer anywhere around," Nielsen said. "They want to get in and get their hands dirty and make some sense of the piece."

But this rehearsal was a "lovely" occasion, he said: "It's very gratifying how hard [the players have] worked on it."

African American music and musicians have interested Nielsen for decades, he said, from jazz to blues to popular releases on the Stax and Motown record labels. Some of his earlier work paid tribute to that influence, including a movement in his 2000 collaboration with writer David Budbill, the opera A Fleeting Animal. But his recent compositions articulate more "overt" nods to Black music, Nielsen said.

"I'm not being imitative," he said. "I'm conjuring from my own experience and from my background and from my listening background ... those sounds from myself that are giving those pieces an identity."

Several pieces in "We're All in This Together" were written during the pandemic. Nielsen was particularly stirred by the recent period of racial reckoning in the nation, brought on by incidents of police violence against people of color.

"I felt that I needed to say something about what was going on," Nielsen said.

In his three-movement piece for tenor sax, "Long Time Comin'," the second movement is based on the rhythm of the speech that Martin Luther King Jr. delivered after the March 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., Nielsen said. In that speech, King repeats the phrase: "How long? Not long."

"It has this very musical cadence," Nielsen said.

The other movements in "Long Time Comin'," called "Funk" and "Swing," are directly influenced by African American music, particularly jazz, Liptak said. He'll play the piece at the upcoming shows.

"Harmonically," he said, "you can almost picture a jazz quartet playing with the tenor saxophone on this."

The program "is done in a really authentic way," Liptak said. "It's paying homage to all of this music that we all love, but it has Erik's spin on it."

The sliding-scale admission to "We're All in This Together" will benefit the Clemmons Family Farm, a Black-owned farm in Charlotte. As Nielsen and Eddins look forward to the performances, both artists suggested that the very act of making and performing art can help build community and bring people together.

"I hope that people find inspiration and empowerment in the creative expression shared amongst the performers," Eddins said. "And that it gives people some added insight into the need to work together, collectively, for justice and freedom and peace."

The original print version of this article was headlined "All Together Now | Vermont composer and poet offer music and words in celebration of Black culture"