5 Questions to Valerie Coleman (composer, flutist)

According to the Institute for Composer Diversity’s analysis of 120 American orchestras’ 2019-2020 plans, 94% of music programmed for that season’s mainstage orchestral concerts was written by white composers. New Music USA initiated “Amplifying Voices” in 2019 as a co-commissioning initiative with the Sphinx Venture Fund and orchestras around the country to support and promote composers of color. Valerie Coleman was one of six composers to be awarded a commission and positioned in a creative and advisory position. 

Congratulations on this award from The Philadelphia Orchestra and Amplifying Voices! Of course we know you as an internationally acclaimed flutist and chamber musician, but you started composing long before that. You wrote three symphonies and won competitions by age fourteen. How did your compositional and performance training inform each other early on?

Although pretending to play flute with fallen tree branches was a part of my playtime as a toddler, composing music was at my creative disposal first, as that part of my playtime growing up did not have the stigmas of needing permission in order to “do.” I had these two cassette players that I would play and record, play and record, looping back and forth, adding my voice or the sounds of a cheap keyboard with each pass. I’d like to believe that creating with youthful fearlessness allowed free expression of emotion, musicality, and personality, and perhaps gave a young Black girl a glimpse into the opened window of artistry and belief. Composing actually prepped me for when the time came in fourth grade that the band director visited class to offer the chance to study the flute. I had waiting my entire young life for that moment! It was a day I will never forget!

Valerie Coleman

Valerie Coleman

Your work has always tackled a wide range of themes, yet your music is still described as buoyant and soaring. Our times are heavy and your hometown of Louisville, Kentucky has been the site of much attention since Breonna Taylor‘s murder. How does social context interact with your compositional interests?

Exploring the ranges of humanity (or lack of) and the variations of how it unfolds within the context of historical moments has always interested me. Within that lens, the creative process becomes attuned to uncovered details and accounts of both tragedies and triumphs, which are then either deciphered, translated, or coded into concepts and emotional moments. At a certain point, the responsibility of conveying a message becomes the most important thing, almost a divine mandate, and with that, all doubts or fears fall away. Within the writing process, I am never satisfied until what needs to be said is fully said.

Expansion seems to define your relationship with The Philadelphia Orchestra. You premiered Umoja (Swahili for “unity”) in September 2019, which expanded a short piece for flute choir into a larger work. Now they’re inviting you back at full firepower. What stories are you interested in telling within this larger framework?

Umoja was originally a work for women’s voices. Shortly after that, it became a wind quintet work and one of Imani Winds’ signature pieces. I was grateful that this work that represents unity was the starting point for working with The Philadelphia Orchestra, who has a long track record of opening their doors for collaborative investments. While the story of the new work has yet to be born, one thing is clear: the previous two commissions embedded the Philadelphia sound into my ear and soul. This new commission will be a gift of familiarity to the TPO family.

It seems like you are teaching everywhere. Having participated in so many educational arenas, what initiatives do you consider worth amplifying? What is an overlooked concern that could increase equity for young students if addressed?

While I would always look towards initiatives of diversity as crucial and needed now more than ever, one of my favorite moments within residencies and touring is meeting creator-performers, who play works for me that they have written.

Hybridity is often overlooked and undervalued by institutions, but is one of the most treasured, career-sustaining traits an artist enjoys in the real world, especially in the field of chamber music. Hybrid artists will always have to challenge the boundaries and stigmas put in place that say a person cannot possibly show excellence or dedication in both areas. The idea that a person should be known for one discipline or the other fits conveniently into external labels for comfort’s sake, but proves deadly to aspiring creators seeking to define themselves. I would amplify the need for codified representation for hybrid artistry. Representation matters, as do resources.

We need things to look forward to these days, so give us a teaser of what musical ideas you have brewing with the orchestra and beyond.

I believe in the power of words and the impact they have within the creative process to inspire, create possibilities, or to construct a cage that can limit imagination through locked in themes and tonalities. I believe a new work in its conceptual stages needs room to develop, so it is better not to speak upon projects that have yet to begin in earnest. Other current projects in motion that reach into the beyond is a chamber music ensemble-composers collective with violist Nokuthula Ngwenyama and harpist Hannah Lash, called Umama Womama which means “Mothers of Music” in Zulu. These brilliant women are so very inspiring, and I consider this ensemble to be a creatively and musically powerful ensemble that I believe provides a high leveled artistic and social representation that we all need right now. Our first works will be debuted this year.