5 Questions to Mari Esabel Valverde (composer, singer)

Mari Esabel Valverde is a composer and singer whose music is full and rich, with texts that delve into the subjects of gender identity, immigration, and nature. She is equally comfortable with poets both contemporary and from centuries past, and her work has been commissioned by the Texas Music Educators Association, the Seattle Men’s and Women’s Choruses, Boston Choral Ensemble, American Choral Directors Association, and others. Valverde has taught voice at the high school level and currently teaches singing and transgender voice training with TruVoice Lessons.

The 19th Amendment was groundbreaking, but only for a frustratingly narrow group of individuals. Would you talk to us about an event, an activist, or piece of legislature that you would also want to be at the forefront of political discussion right now?

To have a feminist movement—to liberate us, to create art to memorialize it, to teach it to recollect its lessons, and to regard it as progress—while ignoring the works of BIPOC women and queer and/or trans or non-binary folks is setting a dangerously low bar. We have more than history in print. We have eachother, now, and it’s late. When the prevailing political ideology dismisses our fighting for genuine freedom as “un-American,” the hours are aching for us to pick up where revolution left off.

Can we shout out to Black and Brown trans women? Activists or not, we are all survivors, and I love and revere us. An LGBTQ history that ignores Miss Major Griffin-Gracy ignores Black trans history and thus tells not “the whole truth.” Similarly, we cannot adequately address immigrants’ rights or prison reform while ignoring the contributions of Bamby Salcedo. These are just two trailblazers who have devoted a lifetime to activism that many of us do not know.

And let’s shout out the Black and Brown transgender and non-binary brilliance of our very generation: actor and CEO of TransTech Social Enterprises Angelica Ross; illustrator, vlogger, and speaker Kat Blaque; singer Breanna Sinclairé; poet and writing coach Amir Rabiyah; and performance artist Alok Vaid-Menon, to name a few. Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi—actor, singer, dancer, author, playwright, and teacher—is my collaborator for an upcoming musical work titled “We Hold Your Names Sacred.” I enthusiastically mention these artists because they have so much to teach the world in a space and a time that is trying to erase all of us from existence.

My collective experiences have placed me at this intersection between vocal music, social justice advocacy, and my own half-Indigenous, transgender, female identity. And I am humbled to have had opportunities to create songs like “When the Dust Settles” in honor of the life of the aforementioned “veteran” of the Stonewall Riots Miss Major:

your heart bigger than any cage
even in the midst of so much loss
you remind us to dream
to hold tomorrow between our lips

“When the Dust Settles” © 2018 by Amir Rabiyah

Our footprints on the path towards liberation will concretize only if we hasten to find, fund, and make way for those we have forgotten. Policy matters, of course, but your sisters will die waiting for legislation.

One of last performances of your work before the pandemic hit was mezzo-soprano Laura Mercado-Wright and pianist Austin Haller performing “The Soul Selects Her Own Society,” a piece that takes its text from Emily Dickinson’s poem of the same name. What’s your take on Emily Dickinson’s preference for solitude?

Yes! When I was contacted by Conspirare, I expected an inquiry on my choral music, but instead they asked for an art song I composed nine years ago.

The melodic apex of the three-minute work is the phrase, “Choose One.” In the next breath it concludes, “then close the Valves of her attention like stone.” To me, it means, “This is the moment and the company I have chosen for myself.” And “choosing yourself” is something assumed feminine bodies are still denied today.

Reading and singing beyond gender, choosing your own path in life is often regarded as unpopular. Dickinson, on the contrary, suggests that choosing your own path expresses that you have chosen to focus on things that really matter, things that truly define who you are. With my music, I want to say, “It’s time to face the darkness. Double-down on who you really are despite the shame that is constantly projected onto you.”

Mari Esabel Valverde conducts the Seattle Men's Chorus in a performance of her work "Crossing"--Photo by John Pai

Mari Esabel Valverde conducts the Seattle Men’s Chorus in a performance of her work “Crossing”–Photo by John Pai

As a follow-up question, how has the place for solitude in your own creative process as a composer changed over the course of the pandemic?

It has been debilitating. I miss traveling and experiencing new people and their musicmaking. To respond more thoroughly, how about I share a poem I wrote in May? I might yet set it to music, so please, at least credit me:

I sing to pass the time
I sing to pass today

I sing to make the precious sleep
And sing to astonish the beasts
I sing to mend the living heart
For longing has worn my bones to stillness
I sing to shine light on pieces of truth
For searching has questioned my questions
I sing because my mother sang
And sang for the children to sing

I sing because I am alone
I sing because you may be too
I sing because our song together
Can tie a bow from me to you

I sing to pass the time
I sing to pass today

“Two-Part Song” © 2020 by Mari Esabel Valverde

I recently read an article in Chorus America by Dr. Jace Kaholokula Saplan about your work, and was impressed and moved by your prompt to the singers of the Seattle Men’s Chorus during a rehearsal. Could you tell us that story and talk about how this kind of prompt positively affects the concert experience for all involved?

You are referring to “Crossing.” This was one of (so far) five musical settings of texts by my beloved collaborator Amir Rabiyah, whose writing comes from a queer, trans, mixed race, disabled lens. I interpreted their poem, titled “Risk,” as a metaphor for coming out of the closet, which is a subject whose pertinence extends to cisgender heterosexual men and women who choose trans folks as lovers and partners.

In rehearsal with Seattle Men’s Chorus, I simply pointed out that in the B section—where vertical lines, asymmetrical to horizontal lines, walk us through the parallel minor—we find the word “tremble.” It’s not a word we use every day, so I asked the singers to describe what makes them tremble. Then, they shared stories of being followed home on the street late at night, of fearing for their mother’s health, of being physically threatened or assaulted for appearing gay.

I have asked this question of multiple ensembles now, and when I insist on such honesty from the performers, it inspires bravery from them. Surrounded by Seattle Men’s Chorus, an ensemble predominantly consisting of cis men, it was healing for everyone in the room to be reminded of the gentle humanness of each other. When this is the tone set before we sing, what follows is expansive, affirming, and transformative.

You are proficient in several languages (you’re currently adding Swedish to the collection!), and have many music-related translating projects in your portfolio. What is the most interesting or unique text you’ve ever translated?

Learning Swedish language to become more proficient in Nordic music was a passion project of mine upon completing grad school. While this is still a source of inspiration, my focus has since shifted to composing, teaching, and speaking on social justice issues.

English is my first language. Spanish is my second. French and Brazilian Portuguese would be tied for third, but it’s French that has influenced my ear for music the most. As far as translations from French to English, I have translated letters, poems, songs, and even a libretto from Ravel’s opera L’Enfant et les Sortilèges. In any case, I am fascinated by a variety of languages. Every language from Farsi to Nahuatl harbors whole universes of unheard stories which could be tapped for inspiration and even self-discovery.


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.