5 Questions to Idith Meshulam and Eleanor Cory (Ensemble Pi)

New York based Ensemble Pi presents “Music and Captivity” on Saturday, October 10, 2015, at the new Sheen Center for Thought and Culture. We talked with pianist and Artistic Director Idith Meshulam and her longtime collaborator, composer Eleanor Cory, to learn more about it. 

You’re about to present your 10th annual Peace Concert; how has this idea evolved?

Idith Meshulam: Ensemble Pi is a new music collective that uniquely connects pressing social and political issues and the idioms of contemporary classical music. We began our Peace Concerts series 10 years ago in response to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and have since presented annual chamber music concerts giving voice to the struggle for peace and social issues. Every concert includes at least one commission, as well as contemporary classical masterpieces to address the historical tradition of “socially conscious” compositions. We do care if you listen and we often use other media to more effectively address an issue. In the past, we’ve collaborated with visual artists, writers, journalists and actors – including South African artist William Kentridge and American journalists Naomi Wolf and Jeremy Scahill – and have featured the music of John Harbison, Frederic Rzewski, Dimitri Shostakovich, and Krzysztof Penderecki. Our series has voiced protest against the Iraqi invasion, but also the censorship of media, fracking, Apartheid, and more.

Ensemble Pi members Airi Yoshioka, violin, Idith Meshulam, piano, Katie Schlaikjer, cello, Moran Katz, clarinet (photo by Daniel Hess)

Ensemble Pi members Airi Yoshioka, violin, Idith Meshulam, piano, Katie Schlaikjer, cello, Moran Katz, clarinet (photo: Daniel Hess)

What are your plans for this year’s event?

Idith Meshulam: This year’s theme is Music and Captivity. We have selected music, text, and theater works that focus on the rise of mass incarceration, the racial disparities it reveals, and the emotional toll it takes on inmates and their families. The concert opens with Rzewski’s minimalist masterpiece Coming Together, composed in the wake of the 1971 prison riots at Attica in upstate New York, powerfully expressing the frustration of life behind bars and anger about injustice. The evening’s highlight is the world premiere of Rikers Island by New York composer Eleanor Cory, inspired by the anthology These Are Hard Times for Dreamers.  Joseph Assadourian, the narrator for Coming Together, will also perform an excerpt from his tragi-comic play, The Bullpen, based on his own incarceration. We’ll close with the sublime Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (1941), composed and performed in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp in Gorlitz, Germany. It captures the hardship and sadness of being in prison, but also conveys optimism.

How did the inspiration for Music and Captivity arise?

Idith Meshulam: My involvement with incarceration began with my teaching music in prisons. When Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time was premiered at Gorlitz, outdoors on a rainy January day, Messiaen later recalled: “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension.” My experience of teaching inmates in Woodbourne is similar. Their musical appreciation, dedication, and progress are extraordinary.

Also, last April, I attended a live reading by women inmates inside Rikers Island prison. The event was the fruition of a two-year creative writing workshop led by NY Writers Coalition, and launched the publication of the beautiful anthology, These Are Hard Times for Dreamers. This has been another inspiration for the concert. We hope to raise the audience’s consciousness about the magnitude of mass incarceration, and to advance a more forgiving and embracing way of dealing with the consequences.

Composer Eleanor Cory (photo: Sarah Hampton)

Composer Eleanor Cory (photo: Sarah Hampton)

What can you tell us about your new work, Rikers Island?

Eleanor Cory: I recently started writing poetry as a corollary to composing music. Over time my poems have become increasingly political. When Idith asked me to set some of my poetry for Ensemble Pi, I was writing about people who were wrongfully jailed for expressing their political ideas: 1960s radicals, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the Russian band, Pussy Riot. I began setting “Occupy Wall Street” as a way to make musical sense out of the dramatic arrests of the speakers, artists, musicians, and children who participated. As I was writing, Idith gave me a copy of These are Hard Times for Dreamers. I was particularly moved by the poems of Chelsea Grin and Ashley Mote and decided to set Chelsea Grin’s “Internal Dialogue” for instruments without singer. The poem wrestles with the fragmentary emotions experienced by inmates. The music focuses on sudden disruptions, amorphous wanderings, angular shapes, and instrumental “shouts” that capture the chaos of captivity and incarceration. After writing the piece, I was thrilled to learn that Chelsea Grin and Ashley Mote had been released from jail, and Ashley will be reciting her memoir pieces at the concert.

You’ve had a long tenure with the Association for the Promotion of New Music; how does the APNM serve the cause of new music?

Eleanor Cory: The Association for the Promotion of New Music is a community of American composers who share common musical values and professional support. APNM fosters the compositions of its members by offering performances in New York venues, as well as publication and promotion. Recent APNM concerts include tributes to composers Milton Babbitt and Mario Davidovsky and a concert featuring violinist Rolv Schulte at Merkin Hall. Annual Calls for Scores seek submissions from members and emerging composers. APNM is affiliated with BMI, ASCAP and Subito Music, which publish and distribute members’ scores. An active website features recordings from its concerts. Idith also has had a long affiliation with APNM.  She and I have worked closely as President and Board member to select music for our concerts, many of which have been performed by Ensemble Pi.


October 10, 2015 at 7:30 PM: Music and Captivity, at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture