5 Questions to Oni Buchanan (Ariel AVANT Impact Performance Competition)

An ad for Oni Buchanan’s most recent venture with Ariel Artists might read: “Pianist, poet, and arts manager seeks soloists and chamber ensembles for projects that advance contemporary classical music, interdisciplinary performance, and social justice.” Buchanan founded Ariel Artists in 2009 as means of furthering her vision of making innovative music. She spent ten years as a full-time performing artist, managing her own concerts and honing her vision for the music she wanted to present. Ariel Artists became not only a way for her to leverage her arts management expertise, but also to confront the problems that she sees in 21st century classical music.

The Ariel AVANT Impact Performance Competition has recently put out its first call for entries (through June 1, 2020). This innovative competition asks for soloists or chamber ensembles to submit “compelling interdisciplinary and/or multimedia performance” projects that work toward addressing a social justice issue of the ensemble’s choice. We asked Oni five questions about her career, the competition, and the issues facing our world.

Most young artists get caught up in having to choose a specialty, but your combination of media is unusual—poetry and music. When did you decide that that was your way forward, and how has your vision changed over the years?

I grew up playing piano and reading/writing poetry, but it never occurred to me to think of those things as “career choices.” I also played flute/piccolo, sang in several different choirs, sang folk music/played guitar at coffee houses, and even played handbells. In addition to poems, I also wrote stories, invented coded languages, kept diaries, and did things like fold love letters inside origami shapes that their recipients never thought to open. I was pretty sure that the sciences were a proper pursuit, though, and I loved animals with my whole heart, so with those hazy factors in place, I went to college intending to major in biology.

However, the first thing I did when I got to school was find the piano practice rooms and audition for a piano teacher. I started dating someone who scrawled snippets of Dickinson, Yeats, and e. e. cummings on the dry-erase board outside my dorm room door, and I decided to take some poetry writing workshops with him. About halfway through my sophomore year, in the middle of one of my choir rehearsals in an airy old church, I had an epiphanic moment as all of us singers swelled into the ecstatic outpouring of Bogoroditse Devo from the Rachmaninoff Vespers. I understood that in fact, THIS–the music, the poetry, the art–this right here was the substance of my life. These were the pursuits that I needed to make time for and devote all of my attention to, and treat as legitimate endeavors rather than continuing to relegate them to the cracks of my schedule.

Since that moment, I have spent many, many electric, infuriating, gut-wrenching, and peacefully expansive hours practicing and performing my art, whether that’s writing poetry, practicing piano, or devising/refining interdisciplinary performance projects. What’s so thrilling and terrifying about the creative process is that you’re going on a journey, and if you’re doing it right, more often than not, you have no idea where you’re headed. My experience of that artistic journey has informed my life’s journey, as well. There’s no way I could have planned to be where I am right now. The liberating fact is that the materials of your art–words, sounds, images, pigments, textures, forms–know more than you do. And if you engage with them and pay attention to what they’re suggesting as possible directions, they bring you to places a million times more alive, complex, and authentic, than anywhere you could have just plotted out with your mere intention. The same is true of the materials of your life.

Oni Buchanan--Photo by Mark Stehle

Oni Buchanan–Photo by Mark Stehle

How has your background in poetry and writing influenced the kinds of music that you make and the types of music that you find most expressive?

It is commonly said that poetry is the most musical of literary forms. I understand that to mean that poetry creates meaning on every possible layer simultaneously, the way music does. It’s a machine of words, an architecture of lines and stanzas and enjambments and the cross-rhythms they create with sentences and other syntactical units. The words have their denotative meaning through-line, like a melody, in addition to carrying their implications, insinuations, allusions, their etymological evolution, their cruel or innocent heritage of usage. Words are their own slippage, what they almost spell. They are the occupied space of not-selected words, synonyms or pivots. Vowels and consonants gather in clusters or modulate across a line, accented syllables pile up, or a cadence snaps into incantation. Metaphors fashion revelation out of brilliant overlay. Single blistering images radiate entire emotional complexes. Tones of voice pass through the language like personages materializing in bodily form around word clouds. There is so much meaning happening at any given moment, and that layering of intake channels feels true, like moving through the world with all of one’s senses activated and receiving from a multiplicity of sources.

So I suppose I love the similar rigorous attention and layering of meaning in music. I love artists that comprehend the power of their materials, that bring their own voice to the table while fostering an open curiosity–maybe it’s humility–in which they listen to their materials and let their own intuition and their medium of expression push on one another until they go somewhere uncharted. As in poetry, I like music that discovers new forms, then discovers the limits of those forms and makes something happen at that boundary of structural constraint. I like music that goes to extremes, following a logic to its tremulous endpoint, pulling in unexpected content it finds along the way. Also, I love work that explores an interdisciplinary connection. It’s taking the rule that the materials know more than you do and multiplying that across languages, with astounding discoveries along the way.

Who are your greatest inspirations/mentors for organizing the Ariel AVANT Impact Performance Competition, and how does the competition reflect their influence on you?

During the second year of my Masters in Piano Performance at the New England Conservatory, I watched the previous year’s graduates be consumed by their fiery reentry to the “real world.” The carnage of that scene motivated me to try to figure out pronto how I could save myself from suffering a similarly crushing fate, and I asked a number of mentors what it took to transition into a concert career. If you map it out, it becomes clear that the demands have mushroomed well beyond “dedication” into an absurdity of check boxes that outstrips human capacity. The list of qualifying prerequisite achievements multiplies, while the goal posts for simply getting paid for a performance move further and further out. How can you even economically survive it to achieve it? All of the above doesn’t begin to account for the profound biases inherent in the very pipeline that brought me to the conservatory in the first place, and the many voices that were de-selected over the course of that journey.

Besides the systemic bottlenecks, there’s also an undercurrent of toxic cultishness in the 21st-century classical music world that contributes to its self-reinforcing emaciation. It’s almost as if we’ve gotten confused in applying our metrics of “excellence” and “mastery,” and have instead triggered a kind of autoimmune response whereby we ravenously attack the richness of our options of expression, thinning out our voices to a rigidly narrow set of participants, and throttling our content to be malnourished, if well-behaved. What if instead, we judged “excellence” and “mastery” as evidenced in artistic “relevance” or “innovation” or “inclusiveness / invitation to participate and converse”? I solved for a performance career by curating compelling programs and creating interdisciplinary projects with fellow musicians, fellow poets, actors, visual artists, and others. I modeled my management company to find artists pursuing explorations of this sort, artists driven by curiosity and dialogue and creating/exploring points of connection.

Having an artist roster characterized by these values, we’ve now built relationships with many presenters who are invested in creating space in their communities for exactly these kinds of dialogues, and who are seeking diverse voices. And therefore, I’m positioned to put out a call to the artistic ecosystem through the mechanism of this competition, not only for innovative ideas, but for new commissions, the new vocabulary needed to express those new ideas. It’s time to hear new voices. It’s overdue. We need more substance, more connection, more materials brought into the mix, more angles of presentation. We need more people in the room. We need reality.

Oni Buchanan--Photo by Andrew Potvin

Oni Buchanan–Photo by Andrew Potvin

How do you think that classical music can address issues of social justice beyond raising awareness?

It’s so important to give voice, to put words to atrocity or injustice–and to beauty! and revelation! Artists have that power. Through finding a way to give voice to issues of social justice, artists are able to give voices to people who have had their voices stripped away, or who don’t have the ability to speak for themselves. Through an artist’s voice, other voices find a channel through which to speak, other people are empowered and given an opportunity. To give voice is an essential act of justice, and it’s the only way to create awareness and open the door to change.   

What do you think is the greatest challenge for would-be competition winners?

I think specificity will be a challenge. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are big and abstract.Artistically, you can’t convince people through an abstraction/idea.You have to channel through a specific angle or voice.And you have to embody that voice, so that you can speak from all the facets of its situation, so that you can “show” rather than “tell.”Someone trapped in a burning house isn’t going to narrate, “My house is on fire.”The key is that the audience needs to feel rather than be told how to feel.

I’m imagining that a successful performance will be based in a full-immersion experience or sequence of experiences, where there’s not even a conclusion drawn. It’s so important not to come with a preconceived conclusion–that’s the whole point of art. It’s okay to show a messy truth five different ways and let it hang there in all its tangled complexity without trying to solve it or come to a facile conclusion. Maybe it needs to reverberate in all its dysfunction, so everyone can feel that rawness and that unspeakable truth. Maybe that experience will give people ideas on what direction to move next.