How Music Responds on WRTI: A Conversation with Composer Valerie Coleman

Jun 15, 2020

Valerie Coleman has written works for The Philadelphia Orchestra, The Library of Congress, and a host of other organizations and ensembles, including the Grammy-nominated Imani Winds, of which she is the founder and former flutist. She talked with WRTI's Susan Lewis about writing music in today's difficult times. 

"I need to step up and be a force for healing" - Valerie Coleman

As a very small child in Louisville, Kentucky, Coleman pretended to play flute with sticks she found in the yard; later, she began picking out tunes on an old organ in her house, inventing her own notation and recording the music she created in layers on two tape recorders.

Today, as a busy composer and Assistant Professor of Performance, Chamber Music, and Entrepreneurship at the University of Miami, she says that writing music is her way of responding to the traumatic events of the past weeks.

"I'm exhausted, quite frankly, but I'm renewed through all of this negative energy. Something kicks in for me that says, I need to step up and be a force for healing. When that happens, I start to write."

"These times are truly devastating and I know more than ever, the role of artists is so incredibly important. Music can reach minds in a way that just regular dialogue cannot."

Her piece, Seven O'Clock Shout, commissioned and premiered online by The Philadelphia Orchestra, was inspired by the way New Yorkers have been celebrating the front line workers each night at 7 PM during the pandemic. "That's exemplar of how, in the midst of everything, our cries, our heartfelt encouragement to one another, are on full display."

In the midst of the pandemic, attention has been drawn to the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, and the underlying racial divisions in our country. While the resulting protests across the U.S. have signaled the opportunity for change, Coleman says, we as a nation, people of all races, have to be focused and watchful.

"Where we as, as Black people ..." Her voice fades.  "I have no words. But there is this general feeling that it's now time for allies to step up and address the systematic oppression that has occurred for so long; that we as black people can not fully address it. We're only a part of the solution."

"I think it's a matter of, for those who are on the side of unity and caring for one another across racial lines, we have to be vigilant. In a time of peace, we become complacent.... And we also have a short memory due to the 24 hour news cycle."

"I want to hope for the best, that things are going to be so much better, but it takes time. And can we, as a people, stay focused? And we're not just talking about a year, we're talking about lifetimes, really.... Children are being born in hateful situations; they're taught to hate. Generations and generations. How does one address that? "

Yet, Coleman is optimistic, laughing as she hears her daughter's joyful squeal from another room. "Yes, we have to have hope and we have to keep fighting this fight for healing and caring for one another, because hearing my daughter's shriek right now—she doesn't have a care in the world and I'm so grateful that we're able to provide that for her.

But we have that responsibility to provide that for future generations all around, not just my daughter, but our neighbors and the world."