5 Questions to Yaz Lancaster (interdisciplinary artist)

Yaz Lancaster is an interdisciplinary artist who combines violin performance, composition, poetry, and multimedia projects. Always in pursuit of expanding their musical capabilities and collaborations, Yaz performs in a wide variety of settings from baroque ensembles to indie bands while focusing their practice on representation and support of underrepresented identities, collaboration, and relational aesthetics. Yaz is a founding member of the contemporary chamber ensemble Quintilia, which champions music by artists from underrepresented communities and pioneers flexible and improvisatory work. Their recent project, “one in one,” challenges artists to write a one-minute solo work in one hour, created during the period of physical distancing as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

How did you conceive of “one in one” and build the project, and what is the most important thing it has taught you?

I really think that project came out of both boredom and necessity! Back in March, I was stuck in Canada with my partner (composer-guitarist Andrew Noseworthy). I love playing games that involve creative thinking–we played chess nearly 3 times a day–and I had a deadline coming up that I was feeling really stuck on. I challenged him to write me a one-minute piece in one hour while I did the same for him, and we set an alarm and everything. Afterwards, I ended up sharing the challenge across all of my social media–I was surprised at how many people ended up writing for me! It’s been so helpful returning to that process of just “going for it” since the hardest part of writing for me is going from abstract thoughts to a realized object. It also pushed me to finally create my own much-needed home recording set-up. Andrew and I plan on releasing those recordings very soon!

Yaz Lancaster--Photo by Sam Soon

Yaz Lancaster–Photo by Sam Soon

How does your writing of poetry influence your writing of music, and vice versa? How does your writing of both words and music influence your performance?

Good question!! I think the foundation in all of my writing across mediums is an element of collage. I’m really into fragments. When I write a poem, it almost always starts as a long list of lines, words, or phrases that I’ve written over a period of time (sometimes spanning months) that are then woven together into a cohesive piece. It’s like putting together a puzzle with these seemingly random ideas or making connections between things that maybe I wouldn’t have connected if I’d just been meditating on one insular topic.

I was writing poetry before I was thinking about composition. When I write music, I always start with outlining and diagramming what I want to happen–mostly in words and sometimes with drawings, and always with arrows everywhere. I think if someone were to look at either of these preliminary stages of my work, they’d be like, “What is this?” (LOL), but what’s fun for me is figuring out how to connect all of these ideas and sources of inspiration to a certain topic or purpose. As a performer, I love the idea of collaging my personal narratives/imagery with what’s there on the page, too.

Many of your own compositions refer to or are based in politics of identity, representation of place, and uplifting underrepresented communities. Can you describe how you approach a new work and how you find your inspiration?

Yes! I find myself constantly thinking about representation–as a Black non-binary artist, I’m often “the only” in some way in many spaces. I’m always meditating on the aspect of wanting to create art within an institution that has historically rejected people like me and rejected the art we create from “the canon.” It’s important to me that I use my platform to engage in anti-oppressive ideology.

The first thoughts behind every composition of mine are, “What is important to me right now?” and “What do I have to say?” Sometimes the answer is something more emotional–the last work of mine that got performed in real life before the lockdown was intangible landscapes, which is about my own personal relationship with New York and the people there. Other times, the answer is more inherently political, like dis[ARMED], which is my thinking through instances of gun violence throughout my lifetime.

For me, I can only really deeply engage with or reflect/meditate on things or issues that are close to me, which is why these things come up. Everything I write is personal to me, even if it’s dealing with a “big topic” influence like violence or prison abolition because those things affect me, and often they disproportionately affect those with similar identity markers as me, and I need to reckon with that–which I tend to do through art.

It’s important to me that I use my platform to engage in anti-oppressive ideology.

What do you hope people take away from your work, both your performance, composition, poetry, and additional projects?

I’m not sure! The work I do comes from the desire to engage with lived experiences. I’m really into the concept of “relational aesthetics,” which points to an art practice that creates space for people to come together and engage in shared social activities or ways of living. Something I think about all the time is when one of my previous writing mentors, Terrance Hayes, mentioned that the pronoun “we” appears in all of my work and attributed that to my musing about human interaction, intimacy, and concerns for the dynamics of relationships. People experience all art in different ways, though I hope other people can sense that “we,” even in my works without words. That would be really special and meaningful to me.

Yaz Lancaster--Photo by Nick Gigante

Yaz Lancaster–Photo by Nick Gigante

As we acknowledge the centennial anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment while highlighting the complexity of women’s suffrage and exclusion to participation, how do you think members of the artistic community can best support individuals, organizations, and work that advances intersectional gender equity?

A big question! I’ll try to be succinct here:

Even though I’m someone who believes in the power of representation, I’d like to challenge everyone to think beyond “diversity and inclusion” and demand decolonization and anti-oppression. Doing a “women composers” concert will get eyes on their music, but–can all women attend your concert? Are you putting accessibility (pricing, transportation, venue, language, etc.) at the forefront of your programming? Does the language you use exclude trans, non-binary, two-spirit, gender nonconforming people, and other marginalized identities? Are you entering a historically marginalized community without knowing that community and without asking how best to serve them? Are you tokenizing, or harmfully extracting instead of extending your resources and platform to them?

Diversifying our programs, syllabi and even Boards/faculty will get us but so far if we aren’t imagining more ways to dismantle racist, transphobic, capitalist, and oppressive structures to pave the way for truly constructive and transformative change.


UNEVEN MEASURES is a series dedicated to amplifying today’s women, trans, and nonbinary artists on the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment leading up to the 2020 presidential election. This series is made possible through a generous grant from The Elizabeth & Michel Sorel Charitable Organization Inc. to the American Composers Forum and their partnership with I CARE IF YOU LISTEN. The Sorel Organization is committed to supporting gender equity in music and addressing systemic inequities by providing greater visibility for women musicians from underrepresented communities.