Imani Uzuri – Photo by Yossi Michaeli

5 Questions to Imani Uzuri (composer)

The Sixth Annual Avant Music Festival (February 27-28, March 6-7), will highlight four American vanguards: three contemporaries and one John Cage. We caught up with featured composer Imani Uzuri to find out more about her process and what the avant-garde means to her.

A cursory Google search of your name yields results indicating that you’re a “theatrical composer.” Is that accurate? What would you call yourself?

I have composed some things for theater, which is a fairly new venture for me but one that I enjoy immensely. In general, my compositional work traverses many different areas from performance art, rock combos, sound installations, choral music to my recent new works with orchestra and string quartet. I simply call myself composer.

How have your Southern roots shaped who you are as an artist and musician?

My compositional and performative work is a culled together mosaic of connections. My interest in folkloric traditions from my own rural southern Black American experiences and cultural practices have helped me connect to “folks” from all over the world and their various traditional and vernacular cultures. My rural Black American southern mores and ways have often been my doorway to a deeper engagement with others from around the globe, from singing with Gnawas in Morocco, learning laments from Roma comrades in Hungary to sharing African American Spirituals with Russian musicians. All of these experiences have helped enriched my compositional perspective.

Imani Uzuri - Photo by Petra Richterova

Imani Uzuri – Photo by Petra Richterova

Your new cantata, Conjure Woman, is “…embodied within the coded, polyphonic” legacy of Black American quilt making.” Did you derive some sort of serial technique from that tradition?

I come from a family of quilt makers. I am intrigued by the rich history of Black American quilt making tradition (which has roots in West African Mande textile tradition), the diverse vibrant patterns, the stories and mythologies of how these quilts were used to cover family members, used as secret codes along the Underground railroad and sometimes used as mystical protective amulets—all inspired my ideas about how to approach my new cantata Conjure Woman compositionally.

Quilts are often made from scraps that become a whole. I embedded these ideas within my compositional form using polyrhythms, recurring melodic motifs, multi-layered harmonies and some elements of improvisation. The text for the piece is inspired by poetic memoir reflecting on my rural North Carolina childhood, a traditional Navajo prayer and an excerpt from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon “the singing woman…wrapped herself up in an old quilt…her eyes fixed…she sang in a powerful contralto.”

What does avant-garde mean to you? Do you feel an active desire to keep your work on the cutting edge?

Living as a Black person is being avant-garde. As a composer, I just try to be present and available and follow my creative muse no matter how quiet or wild a place she sends me. I want to be in the center of my creativity and share that.

Music has never been more eclectic and innovative – maybe especially in New York. Can there be such a thing as avant-garde anymore when it’s just about impossible to shock an audience?

My goal is to communicate with the audience, to create a circular emotional conversation and to hopefully provide a cathartic experience for myself, the musicians I am playing with, and for those whom we are playing for.