Miss Simone: The Life of Nina Simone

From the desk of Zach Manzi, Nu Deco Clarinetist

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This weekend, I watched What Happened, Miss Simone?, a 2015 documentary about the life of pianist, singer, and civil rights activist Nina Simone. As Nu Deco prepares to pay tribute to the music of Miss Simone, I’m reporting on this soberingly honest account of the human being behind the performer, a woman who strove at every moment to lead a meaningful existence. I’d recommend watching the whole documentary––it’s really moving––but for now I’m here to bring you some important background on Miss Simone.

Born in 1933, Nina Simone, née Eunice Kathleen Waymon, began her musical career as a classical pianist in her hometown of Tryon, NC. As a young black girl, Eunice had to literally cross the railroad tracks to get to her piano teacher’s house, a white woman pianist who sought to teach Eunice after hearing her play a recital that she put together herself. This teacher established a large fund in Eunice’s name that sent her to study at Juilliard, where she stayed for a year and a half until the fund began to run dry. Her family had moved from North Carolina to Philadelphia to be closer to her, so Eunice moved to be with her family and applied to study at the Curtis Institute of Music. She was denied admission because of her skin color, and never ended up going to the school, saying that she “never really got over that jolt of racism at that time.” Eunice vowed to one day become the first female black classical pianist to perform in Carnegie Hall.

At this point, Eunice felt desperate to make money––for herself and her family. She ended up taking a gig at a bar in Atlantic City for a summer, where she would play piano all night in an evening gown. After a short time, the owner of the bar insisted that she begin singing if she wanted to keep the job. Even though she was unsure of herself, she sang. Eunice began to build a reputation, and in order to protect her mother from learning that she was playing the “Devil’s Music,” she adopted the stage name Nina Simone. Nina because a former boyfriend named Chico used to call her “Niña” and Simone after the French actress Simone Signoret. Miss Simone worked insane hours (12-7 AM) just to make enough. She commented on this lifestyle being lonely, but when asked why she did it, had a firm response: “Couldn’t help it. I have to play, and I needed money. It was always a matter of necessity, from day to day, what I’m going to do. I didn’t even know I was going to stay in show business. I never thought about a choice.”

With this pragmatic yet somehow passive approach to her career, she started to find more opportunities for getting booked, and her career ended up taking off. She developed a beautiful voice, and her piano playing never lost its classical finesse. Miss Simone recorded a famous rendition of “I Loves you Porgy” from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which in the documentary she is seen performing on Hugh Hefner’s 1960s TV show Playboy’s Penthouse (you may not hear a more beautiful performance of this song, so definitely find it around 22:00 in the doc, or listen on Spotify or YouTube). In these prosperous years, she married Andy Stroud, who ended up becoming her manager, and having a child, who became actress and singer Lisa Simone Kelly.

Miss Simone developed a sound the world had never heard. She brought all the complexity of classical music to her performance in jazz and popular music, saying that “when I’m most satisfied with my music, I call upon all the things I have learned in classical music.” She began to settle into her fame and success, at least apparently, and toured all over the world to perform.

These years brought Miss Simone her Carnegie Hall solo debut, although she did not play classical piano as she had once dreamed. Miss Simone seemed to pine for her life as a classical performer, at times waiting a while for her audiences to become silent before she began to perform, saying “I just wanted them to listen to the music like they did in the classical world.” On more than one occasion, she actually left performances before her set was over due to the inattentive behavior of audiences. She endured several bouts of depression during these tours, getting down about the nature of the music business and life of a touring musician.

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To compound the strain on her mental health, Miss Simone revealed to a close friend that her husband, Stroud, was physically and sexually abusing her. Because of a complicated co-dependency, Miss Simone stayed with Stroud for years after revealing this. In journals, she expressed her keen awareness about her troubled relationship with “fire,” as her daughter, Lisa, calls it.

The Birmingham riot of 1963 compelled Miss Simone to turn a corner in her life and career. She found new purpose in using music to advocate for social change, and in a way that was distinctly different from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Miss Simone had no problem promoting the use of violence––and actually at one point told Dr. King to his face that she was “not non-violent.” This new role found her great support from people of all skin colors in the U.S. who supported the fight for equal civil rights. Her unabashedly aggressive rhetoric carried her creative spirit this time, but promoters and presenters were afraid to go near her because of what they saw as radical messages. Her most famous and controversial song from this era, Mississippi Godddam, became a vital expression of the Civil Rights Movement and was banned by radio stations across the country. She performed the song at one of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery Marches, and as her daughter Lisa tells it, “after singing that song, she got so angry that her voice broke, and from Mississippi Goddam on, it never returned to its former octave.” Miss Simone sacrificed her entire being for this work, writing in her journals, “I do not mind going without food or sleep as long as I am doing something worthwhile to me such as this.” This tireless approach to her work continued to take a toll that had started years ago in that Atlantic City bar.

The assassination of Dr. King seemed to take Miss Simone over an edge. After honoring him with a performance at the Westbury Music Fair on April 7, 1968, she made some changes in her career and personal life, divorcing Stroud in the early 70s. At one point, she rather suddenly left her family and moved from the United States to Liberia, where she found some peace away from her career as a performer and the hostile civil climate of the U.S. She described this time as the happiest in her life; however, Lisa reports that upon moving to Liberia to be with her mother, Miss Simone became physically abusive toward her daughter. Lisa thus moved back to the U.S. to be with her father. After a while, when the financial situation became difficult without any work in Liberia, Miss Simone made the reluctant decision to resume her career. Unable to face the U.S., she moved to Switzerland and began taking what work she could get. She gave a peculiar performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival, in which she appeared exasperated and somewhat lost, stopping during a song to command an audience member to sit down. Without sustainable work in Switzerland, she moved to Paris on her own and took work in a bar that paid very little. A friend in France found her in rough shape and helped her get settled into a home in the Netherlands in 1988. In Holland, she saw a doctor, who diagnosed her with Manic Depressive Disorder (now known as Bipolar Disorder). She started taking medication, which began to give her the relief that she had needed for years.

In the later years of her life, Miss Simone discovered a newfound sense of peace and gratitude. She began performing again, opening up to her audiences more and more about her struggles and the toll it had taken on her soul. She lived in Holland mostly alone, which made her sad at times, and in an interview from that time admits that “everything has had to be sacrificed for the music.” She returned to Montreux in 1987 with a new humbling demeanor, performing with the same vivacity and finesse of her younger years. In her last several years, Miss Simone went across the world with a big smile on her face, playing tours she felt might be her last. In looking back on her life, Miss Simone didn’t regret the artistry and activism that had taken so much from her. A family friend and daughter of Malcom X, Ambassador Attallah Shabazz, captures Nina Simone’s life by saying, “Most people are afraid to be as honest as she lived.”

In the later years of her life, Miss Simone settled into the South of France and continued to tour. She received 15 Grammy nominations and the Grammy Hall of Fame award in 2000. Two days before she died, the Curtis Institute, which had denied her admission as a young musician, awarded her with an honorary doctorate. Miss Nina Simone passed away in France in 2003 at the age of 70.

Nu Deco’s latest symphonic suite will feature the music of Nina Simone at The Light Box, February 14-16, 2019. For tickets and to learn more about the all-female composer and artist program, please visit the concert page here.

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Meet the Nu Works Winners: Holly Harrison & Tanner Porter

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The purpose of the Nu Works Initiative is to inspire, enrich, and connect new and diverse audiences through new repertoire for the ensemble, which will compliment the genre-bending musical experiences that Nu Deco already has cultivated in its first two seasons. Last year, composers from all over the world submitted scores and Nu Deco selected two composers to feature––Tanner Porter and Holly Harrison. Both genre-bending artists in their own right, these women have collectively explored genres in their music across the spectrum, from folk to progressive rock to post-minimalism. Tanner and Holly will each have one piece featured on all three of the February Light Box performances, and both works have been set for Nu Deco’s unique instrumentation.

Nu Deco bass clarinetist and blogger Zach Manzi checked in with Holly and Tanner recently to get to know their stories and the pieces that were selected as part of Nu Works 2018.

First up is Tanner Porter. Growing up in Southern California, Tanner made her way to University of Michigan for her undergraduate degree and is now finishing her master’s in composition at the Yale School of Music. Much of her work features her singing and playing, and her website features a great deal of her visual art. I met Tanner last year for the first time and knew about her incredibly diverse yet complementary output, but there was much more to the story than I’d realized.

Q: So Tanner, in addition to writing music, you sing and play the cello. How did it all start?

A: I started playing the cello in fourth grade, which became a pretty strong vehicle for me to compose early on. The first piece I ever wrote was for two cellos and a friend, Leah Hamel, and I played it at the sixth grade talent show. I would come home after theater rehearsal or school, and I had my sister’s old laptop when she went to college, which had GarageBand on it. I spent so many hours just layering tracks of myself playing on cello. So I started composing like that…I guess I was not my cello teacher’s ideal student in that way. I showed up to a couple lessons not really knowing my Fauré, or whatever we were working on. But it was a really fun time of exploration. In regard to singing, I was a total diva child––I would sing all the time for my parents. Also I grew up in a theater family––my mom has a children’s theater company––so I was always a part of those shows, or helping backstage if I wasn’t in them. Although I wasn’t able to keep doing theater in college, the University of Michigan (where I did my undergrad in composition) has such an amazing theater program, so I actually ended up getting to work as a scenic painter for the four years I was there. All of it helped with writing. I love to tell stories, but most importantly I think about the artists and pieces that have been there for me, in times of joy and times of pain, that resonated with me and offered a shoulder for me to lean on. So it’s always been my hope to do that for someone else. If I can write a piece that speaks a bit of someone’s story back to them, that they find useful, I think that would be lovely.

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Q: With such a varied artistic output, who have been some of your biggest influences––whether that’s music or theater or anything else?

A: Definitely Joni Mitchell, she’s a big one. Not only because of her incredible ability to tell stories, but I was also drawn to her visual art. Another big one for me is Sondheim. The crossover for me with both of them is that they’re just such incredible wordsmiths. They also both have such particular sounds. I so respect that their musical languages are so recognizable. From the indie world, Sufjan Stevens was a big person in my life. I loved records that utilized huge orchestrations, so Judy Collins and her song Albatross were really important for me. I’ve always felt a love for women of the American folk revival of the 1960s––Joan Baez and Jean Ritchie. I just love that era of Child Ballad revival and storytelling. When I think of classical composers, I first think of  Ralph Vaughn Williams, whose music my parents played a lot when I was growing up.

Q: What would you like everyone to know about your piece that Nu Deco will be playing this month?

A: Landlord is off of my most recent album, The Summer Sinks. I recorded it with a wonderful engineer in Los Angeles, David Peters, in Oak House Recording Studio--David actually produced Landlord as well. It’s a piece that was written pretty much exclusively to be recorded in the studio. On the track, I’m playing almost everything, except we hired Joe Berry, an amazing sax and flute player, and David jumped on pump organ. It’s a piece that, as it evolved, became not really playable in that configuration in the real world, so it was really a special treat to orchestrate it for Nu Deco. I’ve never performed it, and I’m so excited and honored to get to do it with you guys.

Tanner is in progress with several other projects, including a song cycle called Circle, Retrace. It’s a ten-part cycle scored for voice, sax/flute (one player), two percussionists, violin, cello, bass, and electric guitar. She is thrilled to be working on a piece for Albany Symphony and voice in collaboration with librettist Vanessa Moody, and will be attending the Djerassi Resident Artists Program later this year to continue writing “Harbor,” a new work for the stage.

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Next up is Holly Harrison. From one of the most beautiful parts of Australia, the Blue Mountains outside of Sydney, she went on to earn three degrees in composition from Western Sydney University, culminating with a Doctor of Creative Arts (a much cooler title than Doctor of Musical Arts, as it is here in the U.S.). I am being introduced to Holly’s music through the Nu Works Initiative, and through this interview became intrigued by the philosophical and artistic complexity of her music, all of which she spoke about with the most casual and upbeat demeanor.

Q: Holly, since perhaps many of us Americans have never been to the Blue Mountains, what is it like there?

A: It’s very scenic and idyllic, just west of Sydney, and it’s host to the biggest tourist attractions in Australia. It’s sort of in the top five things that you do––a lot of big rock formations and a lot of bush [Australians’ word for wilderness], things like that. I grew up on a property that was semi-rural, so we had horses and lots of animals; now I live in a much more suburban area, but that was my upbringing.

Q: How did you get started with music?

A: I came to music by starting to play trumpet in the primary school band, so I started playing trumpet when I was about four or five, in kindergarten, so I was pretty young. Through that experience, even when I was still young, around nine or ten, I became part of this sort of strange improvised music group that was with musicians who were a whole lot older. I started doing a lot of improvising, very open-ended, aleatoric improv, I suppose, but I was also still playing in bands and orchestras. Then I started playing drums in lots of rock bands and stuff, and began thinking, “yeah, this is pretty cool playing in bands, but I’d like to write my own pieces.” I wanted to find out what would happen if I started to make more decisions creatively and artistically about what other people would be doing. During high school, I started getting a little bit more into composition, but not really until uni [AKA university] did it pave its way into something that I might like to do afterward. I knew that I didn’t really have the nerves, or the passion, to cut it as a performer in the professional sphere, so composition was something that I definitely started to pursue more.

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Q: Who are some of the main artists that have influenced your compositions?

A: Frank Zappa is a really big inspiration for me; I think his stuff is absolutely genre-bending, which is really what I’m interested in––lots of different stylistic juxtapositions stacked on top of each other or next to each other, almost like a mosaic or patchwork. That’s the sort of realm I’m working in. I’m also really influenced by John Zorn. He does some super crazy stuff. And then from a more notated form, I’m a big fan of Dutch post-minimalist composer Louis Andriessen. I really love his rhythmic viscerally. Also Charles Ives, it’s again that idea of superimposing things and overlapping them across each other. I think his stuff is really bizarre but interesting as well, and also really beautiful. And from more of a rock band perspective, a huge influence for me growing up was Queen––I’m really into progressive rock––and also Dream Theater. Lots of bombastic prog rock, that was my “bag” ten years ago. I think it all sort of worked its way into my compositional voice. The first thing that I learned to play properly was the opening of a live Dream Theater record of their album Scenes from a Memory.

Q: What do you want us to know about your piece that Nu Deco is playing as part of the Nu Works Initiative?

A: So, the piece is called And Whether Pigs Have Wings, which is a line taken from Lewis Carrol’s poem, The Walrus and The Carpenter. It’s what you would call a nonsense poem, so it’s pretty strange. It’s about, as you might have guessed, a walrus and a carpenter who are walking along a beach. They come across this group of oysters, and the whole narrative is about them deciding whether they’ll eat them or not. They eat them in the end, and it’s very sad. Then it ends with them crying. It’s pretty warped and a bit twisted as well, and I really like that sort of thing about nonsense, this idea that nonsense is kind of the reorganization of sense. It’s got a bit of a rock opera vibe at times, with a bit of a prog rock ending. There’s lots of hints of jazz, blues, hip-hop, dance and electronic. For me, that’s a metaphor for how nonsense works. It only works from this reference point of sense; we can only really decipher what is nonsensical by what we know to make sense. So it’s kind of my playful little metaphor, lots of stylistic juxtapositions, my nonsensical take on music, kind of like a little joke.

In addition to her work in composition, Holly currently plays in an improvised rock duo called Tabua-Harrison. The group released their debut album last year, which you can listen to on Bandcamp.

You can meet both Holly and Tanner at The Light Box February 14-16. The performance will also feature new music by violist Jessica Meyer, a symphonic exploration of the music of Nina Simone, and a special collaboration with Argentinian singer-songwriter, Tei Shi. For more information and to purchase your tickets, visit the concert page here.

Meet the Musicians: Amanda Gookin

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My name is Zach Manzi, and in addition to playing bass clarinet with Nu Deco, I sit down and talk with my fellow musicians about their lives––work, play, and everything in between. I have never been part of a group with people who do such varying things as musicians, and I’m thrilled to help you get to know them.

On one of the few sub-zero days in New York, I visited Brooklyn-based cellist Amanda Gookin at her apartment to talk about her life and work as a musician. While defrosting myself with tea and the warmth of Amanda’s perfect lap cat Squishy, we had a long overdue conversation about the adventurous path that led her to a career as an increasingly in-demand cellist and thought leader. Born in Boston and raised in Connecticut, Amanda performs across the country with two major projects that she discusses in this interview, in addition to ensembles including Nu Deco, which she joined in the 2017-18 season.

I was visiting New York for the weekend to represent my clarinet-percussion duo, Conduit, at the 2019 Chamber Music America (CMA) conference. Amanda was performing at the conference with her string quartet, PUBLIQuartet, in a showcase of premier chamber ensembles from all over the country. The group was receiving the CMA 2019 Visionary Award, an honor awarded to one chamber ensemble per year that has “led the field in creative thinking and innovation.” PUBLIQuartet is dedicated to presenting new works for string quartet, encompassing several initiatives that echo the mission of Nu Deco Ensemble—re-imagining older works and creating new ones. In 2013, PUBLIQuartet won the New Music/New Places title at the Concert Artists Guild’s Victor Elmaleh Competition, one of the most competitive chamber music competitions in the country, and had been represented by the Concert Artists Guild since.

In addition to her work as a chamber musician, Amanda started the Forward Music Project in 2016, in which she commissions “new works for solo cello by today’s most forward-thinking composers that encourage social change and empowerment for women and girls.” She discusses the project in the interview, but it’s worth mentioning that the first performance of this initiative took place in residence at National Sawdust, one of New York’s most groundbreaking venues for new music.

For me, Amanda is a major role model for what I hope to accomplish in my career as a musician, so I felt fortunate to spend an hour with her, with Squishy moving from lap to lap, to hear her story.

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Q: Amanda, thanks so much for meeting me after such a busy weekend at CMA. First question—when and how did you start playing cello?

A: I started playing the cello when I was in fourth grade. At my school, you could start playing strings in fourth grade or winds in fifth grade. Of course, I wanted to play the flute or the clarinet, what I thought girls were supposed to play! But my mom told me, no you’re starting lessons right away, so you’re playing a string instrument. I picked the cello mostly because the violin and viola looked very uncomfortable to play, and the bass was just inconceivable at that time. I really loved it, and I had an aptitude for it, and so my mom found a teacher for me and I studied with her until I went off to college.

Q: Were your parents musicians at all?

A: My mom was a great singer and she actually played clarinet growing up, but she was not encouraged to go into music. Her family would say, “that’s a nice hobby you have,” but she went to college for communications and never pursued it. I think she always wanted to—she was always the most supportive of me going into music out of anybody in my family. She understood how special it was.

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Q: After leaving for college, has New York always been your home?

A: I graduated with my bachelor’s from the Mannes School of Music in 2005, and I was unsure exactly what I wanted to do and felt very lost. So when I graduated, my parents asked me what I wanted as a graduation gift. At that time, my sister was in school in Bologna, Italy, so my parents got me a round trip ticket to Europe and I was supposed to be there for three weeks. I visited her in Italy, then a friend in Barcelona. I felt like a totally different person, like I found the meaning of life. So I extended my plane ticket until the very end of the summer and was traveling all around Italy and Spain—I stayed for three months. I actually got a job at an ESL summer camp at what would be equivalent to a YMCA for Italian kids. I just happened upon the job...well, my sister actually made a poster for me that said “English conversation with native speaker” and put it up in town—it’s a common thing to do for some extra cash. She also wrote “cute American girl” or something, I have no idea why, and people were texting her like “are you really cute?” The woman who runs this summer camp found the poster and called, and that’s how I got the job. I stayed in Torino for two weeks with a host family, and they made me the most amazing meals—fresh tarts every morning with fig jam made from figs in their backyard. After living through all of that, I thought, I don’t think I really want to stay in New York and just start freelancing right now. So I came back to the U.S. for my dog, my cello, and my suitcase, and I moved to Barcelona. And I just figured it out. I taught English and played gigs here and there, and I totally made enough to survive.

Q: So why did you decide to move back?

A: When I came back from Spain, it was originally because I was interested in getting a masters degree, and in Spain there was no equivalent to that. I started to look into the audition process, but after some time research decided I didn’t want to do it. Instead, I got back and started working part time at a dog boutique called Doggy Style. Yes, I would answer the phone like, “Hello, Doggy Style, how can I help you?” My boss was super chill, and a lot of really famous people would come into the store with their dogs. While I was working there, I started to get into holistic animal nutrition and care. Growing up, if I didn’t become a musician, I was going to be a veterinarian, so I felt like, maybe it’s possible to be a musician and a vet at the same time (*shakes her head* foreshadowing...it’s not!). After my job at Doggy Style, I got a job as a vet tech in the Lower East Side. I had zero experience, but my boss hired me because I was a musician. He was an amateur jazz trumpet player and said “musicians are very reliable; you’ll learn on the job.” I would wear scrubs and sneakers during the day, then go to gigs at night, and started to think about if I actually wanted to be a vet. But then I got more and more music opportunities, like writing and performing music for plays, and if you’re working in theater, three weeks out of your life disappear at a time. Even this small thing showed me it wasn’t possible to do everything. After two and a half years I gave up working as a vet tech and went fully into music. In 2009, I moved onto a day job co-managing a musician’s union and in 2010 I started PUBLIQuartet. That started to take off and became a big part of my life. I had other jobs too, like working as the coordinator of volunteer recruitment for a crisis hotline after I left the union, which was my last job until I went fully freelance.

Q: What prompted you to start PUBLIQuartet?

A: Originally a friend of mine, horn player Deryck Clarke, and I were trying to launch a residency at Harlem School for the Arts. I wanted to have a quartet-in-residence as part of it—working with composers and having kids write for chamber ensembles. Right at that time, the school went through some funding issues and so the project became infeasible. I met Nick (viola) and Curtis (violin) at a gig, and subsequently we read quartets together for fun, so I asked them if they would be interested in starting a quartet. Then Jessie Montgomery, one of the founding violinists, and I had heard of each other for years through a mutual friend in college, but had never met. One day, we were randomly substitute teaching together at a middle school on the Lower East Side. We were both like, “You’re that person I’ve heard about forever!” I’d never heard her play a note but knew she was a great violinist, so that day I asked her if she was interested in starting the quartet with us. So we all met at a Starbucks in January of 2010, and that was it. We started out playing pretty traditional repertoire, but after a year or so, we were at the Banff Centre in Canada and began to mess around with improvisation. We started re-working traditional repertoire because we found that we really enjoyed it—the four of us were pretty non-traditional in general, all with interests in composition or alternative music or improvisation. We ended up finding a way that the four of us could express ourselves. Two and a half years in, Jannina (violin) joined, and at that time we were still trying to have our feet in the traditional and non-traditional arenas because of a fear that we wouldn’t get booked if we didn’t have Beethoven on our program! And then, it was just watering down our mission. It’s very rare that a group is good at every single type of music, and I think it’s important to specialize. So, we let all of the traditional rep go and focused on contemporary music and improvisation. That was about four years ago and everything has improved since—the mission makes more sense to people.

Q: Where did the Forward Music Project originate?

A: In 2014, I went back to grad school, many years after undergrad. I was a fully-fledged adult! I was going up to SUNY-Purchase and had long drives, so I had a lot of time to think and reflect. Because I was back in school and focusing more on cello repertoire, I realized I didn’t want to solely play in a quartet. I wanted to explore other facets. I was listening to a lot of NPR, and I had done a lot of this other kinds of work—the crisis hotline, the union, and the vet. And I felt like so many parts of my life were about helping people or public service, but I didn’t really feel like there was a connection between my music work and real life, outside of music education. And of course I understood that women were severely underrepresented in programming, so I wanted to be able to continue helping raise awareness of —using music as a platform because that’s my life, the thing that’s closest to me. I asked seven women to write pieces for me based on personal stories of theirs or an issue they wanted to highlight. Some of them wrote pieces about things that don’t affect them personally, like child marriage, and then others wrote pieces that were very personal—a range of topics from their heritage to issues like sexual assault. It was an opportunity for me to understand other women and an opportunity for them to express their stories in a way that’s healing. This season I am premiering five new works as part of my artist residency at National Sawdust.

Q: How did you get involved with Nu Deco, and why do you make the effort with your busy schedule to come down?

A: My introduction to Nu Deco was an intimate one because the first concert I did was with Nucleus at the Sagamore during Art Basel. We were performing at the 2017 Sagamore Brunch, and everybody had to dress in white, on a super rainy muddy day! I also played at Barry University with the full Nu Deco Ensemble. I think it was the best way to enter because I could form solid friendships—that’s the first time I met other wonderful people in the string section like Chauncey (viola) and Michelle (violin). I made a lot of nice friends because I was able to hang out with a small group of people for the whole week. I have quite a few friends from New York that also come down and it’s like a big party! The second time I came down was to record the album last summer, and then I jumped on for this season as much as I can be there. I love getting to travel, getting to play other places, and meet new musicians. I do not encourage people to stay in New York forever, or if they do settle their roots here, they should really try to travel and perform with other people as much as they can. I was really excited because Nu Deco is a great opportunity in a really fun city—the first time I went down was December, so I was like Miami? I’ll be there! And the ensemble is so amazing and innovative - why wouldn’t I make the effort to play with them? It makes total sense and I’m thrilled to be a member of this musical family.

Q: You’re clearly really passionate about change. If you look at the big picture, what is your ideal vision for the future of your career and the classical music field as a whole?

A: I would just love for musicians to play the music they are really passionate about and not have to worry about anything else. I know there are other cities around the world, like Miami, where audiences are more open to hearing new sounds just for the sake of it or taking a chance on “risky” concerts. It would be great for us musicians to be able to create without fear. Also, I would love for the definition of classical and contemporary music to change. Programming-wise, I want to see a lot more equitability—we talk about it a lot in this field, but the changes are very slow. For example, we need to look back in history and perform more works from earlier decades and centuries by women and people of color, as well as continue to support the work of living composers. Identity is also important to me, like what working as a classical musician looks like, what a typical conservatory student is and how they’re accepted into schools. A friend of mine faced pretty traumatic judgments in a conservatory they went to and actually ended up leaving. They wrote music on the queer experience and felt very threatened because people there were aggressive and defensive toward that mission—“it’s too political.” I would love for all of that to continue to move toward a better future and allow more opportunities for all people. In terms of my career, I have a pretty clear vision. Essentially, I want to continue to perform, I want Forward Music Project to grow (that’s my biggest passion), and am interested in continuing my role as an administrator, where I can have an impact on the field to direct initiatives that contribute to all of this change we’ve been talking about.

Amanda will return to play with Nu Deco on April 18 at the Arsht Center. In the meantime, follow her on Facebook and her website to keep up with her busy performance schedule.

The music of TWYN meets Nu Deco Ensemble

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My name is Zach Manzi, and in addition to playing bass clarinet with Nu Deco, I sit down and talk with my fellow musicians about their lives––work, play, and everything in between. I have never been part of a group with people who do such varying things as musicians, and I’m thrilled to help you get to know them.

This summer, I sat in close proximity to pianist and composer Jason Matthews during the Nu Deco album recording, and I could immediately see why Sam and Jacomo brought him on to be a core member of the group. His presence is strong, in a chilled-out way, and he plays every instrument in front of him with palpable energy and grace. In addition to the other musicians from non-classical backgrounds in the group, including drummer Armando Lopez and guitarist Aaron Lebos, Jason felt absolutely synonymous with Nu Deco that week, bringing new rhythmic and sonic elements that have started to characterize the Nu Deco sound. Jason plays all over Miami in several groups, including a band that he’s in with Lopez called Electric Kif. At the North Beach Bandshell on January 26, Nu Deco will perform music from one of Jason’s other groups, TWYN. I learned about this group while prepping for the Bandshell program and have been listening to their songs on repeat since then. I recently asked Jason to talk with me a bit about himself and TWYN, and what it’s going to be like to collaborate with Nu Deco on their music.

Q: Hey Jason! First, where are you from, and how did you end up in Miami?

A: I am originally born in Ridley, PA, just outside of Philadelphia. When I was in elementary school, my family moved out to Kennett Square and I went to school in Unionville for the remainder of grade school. In High School, I applied to University of Miami and got in for Music Education with a Jazz Emphasis. Throughout college, I was playing in the Miami club scene with my original projects so when it came to graduating in 2013, I stayed down here to develop those projects.

Q: Who have been some of your biggest musical inspirations and how have they shaped you as a musician?

A: The band that inspired me to play piano/keyboards was YES. I loved Progressive rock. I was literally obsessed with them when I was 13 years old; I knew every album and saw them 4 times as a teenager. That’s not a normal band to be obsessed with when you are 13 lol. I actually had a band with my brother called 'Grove' at the time that tried to write in a similar style. We used to rock the High School coffee houses.

Herbie Hancock, Brad Mehldau, Ahmad Jamal, Aaron Parks & Robert Glasper were huge influences for me as I dove further into playing jazz. These guys were perfect examples of learning the tradition of the music and making it your own. I even studied with Aaron Parks a handful of times when I was in college and he taught me a lot about composition and how to really practice and exercise something you want in your playing.

Artistically, I am inspired by Radiohead, Little Dragon, Jimi Hendrix, Blonde Redhead, Led Zeppelin, Anderson Paak., Emily King, and Kendrick Lamar. I want to make powerful records like those artists.

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Q: Where are your favorite places to play in Miami?

A: Well Lagniappe House has been an important hub for bands in Miami. So that's number 1 for me. I dig 1-800 Lucky and Gramps in Wynwood. Also, The Corner on Tuesday nights for jazz and Floyd any other night for underground dance music.

Q: So—what’s the story behind TWYN and the piece with Nu Deco?

A: The piece we are working on with Sam (Hyken) for January 26th is a collection of 3 themes that my bandmate, Aaron Glueckauf, and myself wrote for TWYN. We are a live experimental duo (drums and keys) that often improvise in the moment. I use a looper pedal to create palettes of sound and I improvise melodies over these looped progressions while Aaron creates the rhythm and feel of the song. It is very spontaneous. The meaning of this piece is really to showcase our chemistry as a duo and what music we come up with in the moment.

Q: What are you most looking forward to on collaborating with Nu Deco on this?

A: I just love the orchestra. It can be the most powerful ensemble when you use it with the right feel and intention. I also appreciate what Nu Deco stands for and what they are trying to build. Aaron and I are stoked we get a chance to premiere our songs with a badass ensemble. We want it to feel epic and hypnotic, so hopefully we can achieve that with this piece.

Q: Okay, last one, and I know it’s one that you get often—what is a Moog synthesizer? (This is one of the main instruments that Jason plays with Nu Deco)

A: A Moog synthesizer is electronic analog instrument that was invented and developed by Robert Moog in the 1960's and early 70's. It's an instrument that can be sculpted and manipulated by the player and has endless combinations of sound and patterns. The most famous Moog synth is called the Minimoog (played liked a keyboard) and manufactured from 1970 through 1980. Because of the organic properties of the instrument, they blend really well within the orchestra if you know how to use them. [The instrument is also known for being used in all kinds of cinematic music, including the music of NETFLIX hit show, Stranger Things.]

After you hear TWYN’s music played by Nu Deco at the Bandshell on January 26, you can see TWYN performing as a duo at Wynwood Yard on January 31st. Follow them on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

Meet the Musicians: Anna Brumbaugh

Zach Manzi

My name is Zach Manzi, and in addition to playing bass clarinet with Nu Deco, I sit down and talk with my fellow musicians about their lives––work, play, and everything in between. I have never been part of a group with people who do such varying things as musicians, and I’m thrilled to help you get to know them.

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Clarinetist and original Nu Deco member Anna Brumbaugh, from Boulder, CO, performs with Florida Grand Opera (FGO), Palm Beach Symphony (PBS), Central City Opera, Lakes Area Music Festival, and of course Nu Deco. We sat down one October evening to talk over Anna’s spontaneously-crafted homemade margaritas, hidden away in her North Beach condo, which is lovingly overgrown with plants of all shapes and sizes. Across one wall nearest to us is a healthy collection of worn LPs and books, and in the kitchen, dozens of tea varieties from her mom’s tea shop. Miles Davis plays over the record player, and we sit by candlelight.

Q: Anna, I know you play music all across the board on a weekly basis, but what do you spend your free time listening to?

A: I’ve been listening to a lot of jazz recently. I love that there is live jazz in Miami, and that’s something that’s been expanding my own creative impulses. Hearing something that’s live and being written in the moment is the most inspiring thing you can listen to. In the car I listen to all of my mom’s 70s CD’s––The Cars, The Police, The Eagles. That’s my favorite driving music. At home, a lot of opera, including the operas that we play in FGO. I always come home and listen a lot to prepare of course, but I also re-listen to them. I’ve probably listened to La Bohème, which we’re playing now, thirty times this year.

I grew up listening to opera. My mom was a pianist, and my great-grandmother was a rehearsal pianist at the Metropolitan Opera (the Met). My mom grew up in Poughkeepsie, NY and started going to Manhattan every weekend when she was eight because she was accepted into School of American Ballet as a dancer and the Juilliard Pre-College Division as a pianist, probably the two most musical ways you could grow up. Eventually she lived in Manhattan with my great-grandmother. The way she describes it, she grew up under the piano at the Met or at the critics desks at the top level of the opera house, where she would do her homework. She eventually was accepted to dance in the New York City Ballet.

So, we only listened to classical music––opera and tons of ballets constantly––and my mom was SO insistent on exposing us to classical music at a young age. She was really insistent on exposing us to classical music and took us to Central City Opera [in Colorado] and Santa Fe Opera every summer. We would spend the year studying for that. And of course when we were in New York, we would go to the Met and the Ballet.

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Q: What is the piece of music that has been the biggest part of your life?

A: It would hands down be The Magic Flute by Mozart. It’s the first opera I ever saw, at Santa Fe Opera, when I was 3. We walked in and we were all dressed up, and her big thing was to take my sister and me down to the opera. We drove down to Santa Fe, and she planned these naps so that we would be fresh because the operas started super late––it’s outside and they plan them around the sunset. It probably started at 8:30PM and it’s a three hour opera. We got there, all dressed up, and the usher looked at me and said, “She’s not five.” And my mom was like, no, but if she makes one sound we will get out of here. We had done so much studying that it just wasn’t an issue. Other kids grew up watching Sesame Street but we grew up watching tapes of operas, so it was this thing that was familiar to me but like I’d never seen before. It was probably like watching Sesame Street live for another kid!

So the next year in kindergarten, I dressed up as Princess Pamina, the main character in the opera, for Halloween. I really worked on my costume; we got this really cute blue dress and everything. I showed up to school and nobody knew who I was. I was totally devastated; to me it was the same as dressing up as a Disney princess! I came home and was upset, and my mom was like, “don’t worry about it.” She emailed her entire office and said, “I’m going to show up with my daughter dressed as Princess Pamina, and nobody knew who she was at school.” So then I went around her work and everybody complimented me, telling me what a beautiful Princess Pamina I was.

I have to say Magic Flute was always in my blood, in a way, and this summer it came full circle––it was my first opera at Central City. That’s when it hit me, how well I know this music, and that the music is so timeless, that it could speak to somebody as a three-year-old, and be resonant and make sense.

Q: Did you plan to get two jobs playing in opera pits?

A: I think I just never got away from what I love. I’ve never loved the idea of audition excerpts, but there was something so catchy about practicing opera excerpts, so I probably just practiced them way more than I practiced other ones. At Santa Fe Opera, I would always ask to go on the backstage tour because I just liked seeing the opera pit. And I’ll never forget the first time I walked into FGO. It was surreal; I had always imagined myself there. I love playing in an opera pit. I like the anonymity––I like the role of the clarinet in an opera, we get all the good solos––but I don’t like being on stage with the lights and stuff, that feels super weird. I love that we’re in a pit, I like the role of the singers, and I love the role of the story, that you’re part of something so much greater. That’s how I was introduced to classical music. As much as I love symphonies and think they’re really important, I hope that I’ll always be in an opera company.

Q: In addition to all this performing, you teach, right?

A: Aw, yeah, that’s probably the most special thing I do. So I teach at the NWSA, high school division, and at Miami-Dade College. I have eleven amazing little kiddos who I love. When I started at New World, I was nervous about what I could give my students as a teacher, like how much knowledge I have. It feels like having these eleven little lives who depend on you. These people entrusting me with their feelings about being vulnerable as performers. Preparing their hearts with that is a daunting task, and you feel responsible for making sure they feel comfortable in that moment. They’ve changed me in every way for the better, in having more conviction in what I believe, because I have to translate that to them. I really love each of them. I have to say that knowing them has made Miami feel more like home.

Q: Going back to your performing work, why do you think opera should be played still today?

A: The music is universal. I started going to opera before I could read and when I learned how to read subtitles. I never was one to read the subtitles, and it never bothered me, and I think that shows how much the music transmits the story. You can feel the music without knowing precisely what’s going on. The people involved really have to strive for perfection on every level, and that was the exciting thing about going to the opera to me, seeing people strive for these high notes. It’s exciting to know something could go wrong. Also, opera always took me to this other place. I loved being taken out of reality, I loved the darkness of the theater, it gets so much darker than a symphony theater. I noticed that the first time I played in an opera too––we’re in a dark pit with stand lights, and it took me out of my own reality. So selfishly, it transports me to this other place as well.

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Q: That’s interesting, it seems like opera is similar to movies in this way––one director, one set of characters, one story––and should therefore be the most relatable performing art there is. Some people think opera is not for everyone.

A: Yeah, and I realize it’s easy for me because I grew up going to it. But everybody has experienced heartache and loss, and nobody shows that better than in an opera, just the utter terror of losing a loved one. They just do it to the nth degree. So if somebody doesn’t know where to start with opera, I would concentrate on the story. It’s all about these universal human experiences that we all have. I would also suggest to understand the performers, like what it takes to sing like that. Watch them in a master class or understand the acrobatics of the voice. I think it’s so intense that sometimes people don’t even know where it’s coming from, it’s so foreign, they don’t even know how the human voice produces that sound, so we shut off. I play opera because I always secretly want to be a soprano, which I can’t, my voice never really showed up. Playing clarinet is the next best thing. But understanding how incredible it is, for an acoustic, human voice to fill a hall, always gives me chills.

Q: Who are some singers people should listen to?

A: The best master classes, hands down, are with Joyce DiDonato. That goes for anybody––there’s really nothing she speaks to that isn’t relatable to everybody in some way. She started doing them at Juilliard, in Paul Hall. I remember being there and somebody telling me, “Joyce is doing a master class,” and I told them I had to practice! I’ll never forget that I was literally upstairs when she was giving one and just didn’t go. I make all my students listen to her classes, just the way she talks about sound production, spinning air, and connecting notes just completely changed my clarinet playing, and my approach to teaching. The human side of it––being okay with failure, and understanding the process. She was late in her career to get signed, and she always doubted herself. I guess she taught me to have that trust, investing in the work and the process.

My favorite singer right now is Jonas Kaufmann. His voice is incredible and breathtaking, and I think that’s universally accepted, but his acting––he just captures everyone. It’s visceral and exciting, and he’s so intense and intentional about every word.

Q: What do you think is the entry point opera?

A: I would say anything Puccini or Verdi, really. The stories are thrilling, and they’re not that complicated––some operas are like, “Okay what’s going on? Who’s married to who?” But Puccini and Verdi are easy to follow. I always think about my dad with this. He came to the two operas I played this summer.  He was excited about Magic Flute just to tell everybody around him that I was playing principal clarinet, but then he came to Il Trovatore by Verdi, the other opera we did over the summer, and we got in the car after and he was like, “Whoa, that was really good! That was like 10x better than Magic Flute!” And I was like, I mean yeah, it’s Verdi! It’s a lot more exciting. He said, “They just did so much more! I never got bored.” It reminded me, he’s not a musician by trade, but it was nice to know that he loved the tenor hitting the high notes and the fast-paced orchestra tuttis.

Modern operas are now set on topics that are very current––there was recently an opera about Steve Jobs, premiered in Santa Fe. Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie is probably the best opera I’ve seen in my life, which was at Central City Opera in 2014 or so. That production, with my friend Michael Mayes singing the lead role, was the most incredible stage production I’ve seen in my life. So, Puccini to get into the love of opera, but don’t be afraid to explore.

Q: What has been your favorite Nu Deco moment?

A: This was two years ago, when I was living in Boca, and it took me forever to drive to Nu Deco. I was actually late for rehearsal a couple times. I just remember feeling lost, like I didn’t really know what I was doing with my life, and I wanted to feel a little bit more guidance. I remember going to rehearsal, and there was something really sweet about the fact that we all came from different places in Miami, and we all have different playing experiences. It’s people from the opera and the ballet, and some people fly in and now we have these cool guys in the rhythm section who play at Lagniappe all the time. The fact that everybody was just there, I felt this really intense feeling of comfort and togetherness. I know these people because I’ve played with all of them in different capacities, and here we are all playing together, and I felt very at home. I’ve always kept that when I’ve played with Nu Deco––something here feels right. I love my job at the opera, but I love that I can turn that off sometimes and go to something really different. It was this feeling that we all need variety but that we also need community, and to not be afraid to admit that to each other. As long as I’ve known Sam and Jacomo, they’ve treated me as a little sister in the best way, that they’ve always believed in me. I’ve always felt welcome there and I’m really grateful for that.

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5 Things To Know About December 15

by Zach Manzi

Nu Deco is back at the Adrienne Arsht Center on December 15 for a soul music-infused program featuring superstar Macy Gray, R&B singer/songwriter BJ The Chicago Kid, music of Aretha Franklin and Leonard Bernstein with the Miami Mass Choir.

In preparation for all the exciting things to come on this performance, we have a list of 5 Things to Know before you attend the performance…

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Aretha Franklin

Who: Known as the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin was a soul and R&B legend active from the 1960s until her passing in August of this year, aged 76.

To know: Her cover of the song Respect, released in 1967, became the unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights Movements in the 1960s.

Listen: This video at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors shows the Queen’s larger-than-life presence in a celebration to honor the music of Carole King, who can be seen teary eyed and in sheer awe at Aretha’s performance.

Macy Gray

Who: The unabashed Macy Gray has recorded 10 albums and sold over 25 million records worldwide.

To know: Her real name isn’t actually Macy, it’s Natalie McIntyre. One day, eight-year-old Natalie McIntyre was riding her bike, fell over, and upon getting up, saw a mailbox that said “Macy Gray.” Since then, the name stuck.

Listen: She recently released a new album called Ruby, and this video of I Try put her on the map as a 21st century icon.

BJ The Chicago Kid

Who: BJ the Chicago Kid, né Bryan J. Sledge, a singer and songwriter who frequently collaborates with artists like Pulitzer Prize-winning Kendrick Lamar, came from a background in R&B and gospel music.

To know: Born to two choir directors in Chicago, Bryan grew up singing in church, but was inspired to pursue a career in music when he saw Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation World Tour in 1990.

Listen: Turnin’ Me Up is a tribute to American singer Marvin Gaye.

Leonard Bernstein

Who: Leonard Bernstein, one of the most famous American composers and conductors, worked across genres of all kinds––musicals, symphonies, opera, chamber music, jazz, Latin American music, to name a few.

To know: Bernstein has received all kinds of mentions in film and TV, including on the Flintstones, when Betty and Wilma go to the Hollyrock Bowl to hear Leonard Bernstone conduct.

Listen: An ensemble of young Venezuelan musicians called the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, led by conductor Gustavo Dudamel, has made the Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story” suite very popular with its wild performances of the Mambo, complete with twirling trumpets.

Miami Mass Choir

Who: The Miami Mass Choir is an ensemble whose genre-bending artistry reflects the Nu Deco way. Started in 1995 by Pastor Marc Cooper, the Choir sought to bring together South Florida’s top gospel singers and songwriters to collaborate on bringing new gospel works to life.

To know: This ensemble has been performing in Miami since its inception over twenty years ago and is in residence at the Arsht Center as part of the Free Gospel Sunday series.

Listen: They have released several albums, which can be found on Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music. Listen to one of their most popular songs, Lord of Everything, which they recorded live at the Arsht Center in 2016.

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