5 Questions to Sultana Isham (composer, violinist, ethnomusicologist)

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, nearly 200 confederate monuments have been removed in the US as part of a larger political movement against white supremacy and imperialism. A new documentary feature film, The Neutral Ground from director CJ Hunt, tracks the removal of monuments in New Orleans, LA and navigates the issues and histories surrounding them. The film is scored by multi-talented NOLA-based Sultana Isham, a composer, ethnomusicologist, educator, and violinist. Isham has scored previous films like All Skinfolk Ain’t Kinfolk; given lectures and speeches at conferences and universities; released an EP of music for violin with electronics and voice; and performed with a wide range of artists from Pink Floyd to the creole folk ensemble Les Cenelles. Isham and The Neutral Ground project received a grant from New Music USA and SESAC’s inaugural Reel Change Fund for Diversity in Film Scoring in 2021. The film was premiered on Juneteenth at the Tribeca Film Festival, and will be broadcast nationally on PBS’s POV on July 5, 2021.

Congratulations on receiving a grant from the Reel Change Fund! Can you give us a brief overview of your work on The Neutral Ground?

Thank you! I’m appreciative of the fiscal support I received from New Music USA, SESAC, and Christophe Beck to complete this project and encourage other composers to apply. The Neutral Ground is a documentary feature film about the removal of confederate monuments in New Orleans, LA, which has sparked a movement across the country to reckon with our past and present with white supremacy. This film is produced locally in New Orleans by Darcy McKinnon of Gusto Moving Pictures and directed/hosted by CJ Hunt, a comedian and producer for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. Much of this film explores the perspective of confederate apologists to expose the lies, cognitive dissonance, and violence passed down from generations with a touch of comedy. This film also features movements of resistance against white supremacy such as the Reconstruction Era and German Coast Uprising of 1811. Sonically, the score is a mixture of modern, folk, and classical music with confederate aesthetics.

How did you come to writing music for film, and how different is it from your other compositional work?

I came into film scoring in 2017 when British-Ghanaian photographer and filmmaker Campbell Addy approached me to score an art film to launch his modeling agency. I had a pre-existing string serenade in my library that matched his film perfectly. It was like magic! Shortly after, I scored a southern-gothic horror film called BLOOD RUNS DOWN directed by Louisiana filmmaker Zandashé Brown. That was my first time writing original music for a film. Many sacred events happened in that process which has been foundational in my journey as a composer. The film covers the relationship between a young girl and her mother dealing with schizophrenia. While I was scoring that film, my grandmother, who I was very close with, died. She, too, was battling schizophrenia. My purpose in that process became actualized, and from then on, my desire to support a vision bigger than myself cultivated.

This process differs greatly from my compositional work prior. Before, I was my only focus. It takes a truly humble person to be a media composer because it’s not really about us. To remove yourself by becoming a sonic vessel to uplift the story — and influence how an audience receives it — is an extremely powerful act. Now, I have grown to merge both of these practices by submitting to the story while simultaneously exploring my own curiosities with sound. Through this process, I have written pieces I didn’t know lived inside of me. In The Neutral Ground, I wrote a few orchestral pieces and my first choral piece with a libretto in Latin. I’m not sure I would have explored those sounds had not the film called for that type of sonic support.

Blood Runs Down from Zandashé Brown on Vimeo.

You also co-founded Alphabet Sound Observatory, an audio engineer library for Black and Indigenous women and gender-nonconforming artists. Can you tell us about the work you do there?

ASO was birthed after a criminal offense I experienced from an engineer I used to work with. He was claiming my work as his own and held my stems hostage from me; and my brilliant attorney, Jo-Ná Williams, assisted me in retrieving my work. Many women and people of color have dealt with this same dynamic, and my colleague free feral and I wanted to cultivate more autonomy for our vast yet specific demographic as a whole. After a year of development, we received our first grant to begin our operations.

ASO provides access to quality recording equipment and audio engineering training for all sonic architects such as podcasters, song-writers, sound designers, composers, and DJs. We developed a cohort of five people from all sonic disciplines, purchased five studio home kits, and hired a teacher and a TA to guide the engineering classes. We also have an online series called Stargazing Sessions where we highlight the legacy of our pioneers through interviews, lectures, masterclasses and archival studies. We have partnered with Ashé Cultural Arts Center, StereoVisual in Montreal, Canada, and we share a physical space with Girls Rock New Orleans. We are planning our next cohort fellowship for fall/winter 2021-2022, creating a zine, expanding our audio gear library, and developing a gear lending service for others to use who are not in the fellowship.

In your essay “Noise is the Nigga of Sound,” you talk about the etymological connections between “genre,” “gender,” and “race.” How do you think these connections manifest in your own multi-disciplinary work?

I love this question! People generally pay more attention to what they see as opposed to what they hear. I came into film scoring thinking that the labels my being had been assigned wouldn’t matter because I thought of sound as invisible. I felt a sense of freedom within myself to sonically shapeshift at will and thought that my race, gender, or class history wouldn’t influence this.

That fantasy died quickly, especially after a composition lesson I had with a composer who loved my work and mentioned, “You really know how to work dissonant harmonies because a lot of that stuff just sounds like noise.” Sound has historically been gendered, classed, and racialized; and many Black composers are more associated with dissonances, which is an adjective of noise. I now hear that well-meaning compliment differently. I had just the right amount of negritude for my work to still be considered legitimate art music.

Black music is often seen as less sacred and not intellectually equal by the dominant filter, and this power dynamic plays into how we simply listen to marginalized people in speech, text, and music. Everyone, including non-musicians, has suffered from the gendered, racialization of sound, and my awareness on this topic and lived experiences naturally influences how I approach scenes and my work as an ethnomusicologist. Sound is biology and travels fastest through water. Since we are mostly water, we are sound. As water is a commodity, I often ask myself: How are our bodies/sounds commoditized and capitalized today? How can we truly be seen if we are not heard? Through which chamber do we hear ourselves?

Much of your research, writing, and compositional work deals with political subject matter. Can you speak about the approach(es) you take with presenting this work; and about the role of the artist in political movements?

To be completely honest, doing archival-based work feels like a responsibility more so than a desire. I love scoring films of various topics, and if white men composers can score films not related to their culture or lived experiences, I can do the same. I am proud of my archival-based work because it serves a greater purpose and feels foundational to my personal evolution. This work is meant to reverberate beyond the echo chamber to expand our collective imagination, whether that be in essay, lecture, or compositional format. All of these mediums require me to be a vessel to uplift, celebrate, and remove the illusion-based cone of silence that stifles our collective evolution. That is what I believe is the role of the artist in movements towards awareness. I believe our imagination has been the greatest compromise made to create and sustain this hegemonic society. To quote the director of The Neutral Ground, CJ Hunt, “Archival work is not just time travel; it’s a form of repair.”


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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