5 Questions to Raquel Acevedo Klein (conductor, vocalist, composer, instrumentalist)

Raquel Acevedo Klein is a conductor, vocalist, producer, curator, illustrator, and composer based in New York. Born and raised in Brooklyn in a Puerto Rican, Colombian, and Jewish family of visual artists, she began her career as a teenager performing and recording in New York.

In 2021, Acevedo Klein was an Artist Curator for NYC FREE, a four-week festival celebrating the opening of Little Island, a new public park on Manhattan’s Pier 54 on the Hudson River. As part of the festival, she also composed, sang, and recorded a multichannel installation, Polyphonic Interlace, comprising 40 layered vocal tracks. As a conductor, Acevedo Klein works with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and she has premiered works by Philip Glass, Caroline Shaw, John Adams, Nico Muhly, Paola Prestini, Bryce Dessner, George Lewis, Angélica Negrón, Missy Mazzoli, and Sarah Kirkland Snider.

What does community mean to you as part of your work and life?

The supportive community I grew up with in Brooklyn inspired me to pursue music. Starting at the age of six, I studied with a constellation of teachers from different backgrounds. I integrated classical, jazz, improvisation, Arabic music and new music as the core of my fundamental music education. This opened me up to a vast network of performers and collaborators.

In response, I am passionate about taking on music projects that have a connective tissue to a large social community, something that bonds everyone present through subject matter, presentation, or the creative process behind the composition. I believe that audiences are seeking performances of this nature, as well. That impetus has shaped me into a person who wants to work outside my comfort zone as long as I’m working in that space with someone else, so I find myself seeking out and, equally often, being sought as a collaborator on projects that require new and continually evolving rules. I’m grateful for that; it often yields unexpected rewards.

Raquel Acevedo Klein--Photo by Andrea Arevalo

Raquel Acevedo Klein–Photo by Andrea Arevalo

Who have you seen lead change and make real progress in terms of inclusivity and accessibility in classical music?

Daniel Bernard Roumain is one of the first names that comes to mind. I had the opportunity to work with him last year through premiering Allison Loggins-Hull’s work Can You See? with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Well before the pandemic, he has been advocating for foundational change within the arts world. I also appreciate the work of Protestra, a “volunteer-run orchestra and 501(c)(3) organization that bridges the divide between advocacy and classical music.”

The genesis of much of my own work has been about seeking ways to provide direct relief for people in need. I have produced and performed in concerts that not only gave voice to humanitarian causes, but also provided tangible funding, advocacy, and awareness. For instance, the series of music programs I constructed as a response to the devastation in Puerto Rico from Hurricane María was a case where all the proceeds went to the Hispanic Federation. It was also an opportunity for artists and audiences within the Nuyorican community and beyond to come together.

You’ve worked with the physicality of voice as well as electronic disembodiment. How do physical reality and digital virtuality interact in your work?

In the beginning of pandemic lockdown, I launched Music on the Rebound, an online festival that provided musicians and audiences with communal auditory experiences. We created a hybrid digital/in-person performance of the great Pauline Oliveros’ Heart Chant, which is a piece that invites the audience, acting as performers, to put one hand over their heart and their other hand on the back of a neighbor, while singing a tone. Now how do you spark that intimacy during a pandemic? We brought in an audience of approximately 4,600 people from over 35 countries to join on Zoom. If they were within a group, we invited them to form detached circles of these resonant bodies that could then connect to other parts of our chain online. If they were singing solo, we invited them to put their other hand over their computer speaker, which allowed them to feel others’ vocal vibrations. It was an accessible, democratic way of providing genuine physical contact, even if only through computer speakers. That’s a real person sending you that vibration over the internet, and you’re a real person feeling that contact. Sometimes very simple things can impart genuine impact.

Last summer, I premiered Polyphonic Interlace: an audience-interactive vocal symphony made entirely of my voice in 40 parts, supported with electronic instrumentation. Polyphonic premiered as part of my festival curations at Little Island NYC. The audience participated in the premiere by playing different parts of the music via their phones, using the Polyphonic Interlace smartphone app as a web-based instrument. Writing Polyphonic Interlace, I responded to a need I felt in the pandemic, which was a desire to sing with other people. There were a lot of safety concerns around performing choral music in-person. I wanted to create a piece that enveloped the listener with an orchestral, symphonic sound in a safe environment.

I am passionate about taking on music projects that have a connective tissue to a large social community, something that bonds everyone present through subject matter, presentation, or the creative process behind the composition.

I read that you still take private piano and improvisation lessons from your childhood teacher. What role has mentorship played in your life, both as a mentee and a mentor?

My piano teacher Fiona Bicket introduced me to a music practice that traversed classical, jazz, and modal improvisations based on the Greek modes. She taught me to incorporate improvisation into playing works such as a Bach Prelude or Invention. She taught me to use improvisation as a means of fully internalizing notated music, rather than having me simply follow the instructions, dynamics, and notes written on the surface of the page. This practice has also inspired me to create music that is genre-fluid.

Fiona’s work with me on improvisation continues to provide an amazing avenue for self-reflection and active mindfulness. I have learned to hone in on resonance and timbres that speak to me, and on ways to discover my own musicianship through sound – what I like, what I dislike, how to develop a motif, how to listen deeply to the ambience of the room, how to make all those parts work in tandem. The heightened sensitivity that she’s instilled in me translates into a sensitivity in how I seek to engage audiences. As a mentor, I have woven this practice into the BluePrint Fellowship program at National Sawdust, where I mentor Juilliard student composers and help bring their pieces to fruition.

Raquel Acevedo Klein--Photo by Jill Steinberg

Raquel Acevedo Klein–Photo by Jill Steinberg

What are you currently working on that you’re most excited about?

I have several upcoming projects I’m excited about, including a “charcuterie” of new work and old favorites that I will be performing at Greenwich House Music School in May and a collaboration with Angélica Negrón and Caroline Shaw that I’m bringing to Caramoor in July. But what I’m right in the middle of at the moment is a plot-driven piece that I’m composing for the Five Boroughs Music Festival. The focus of the composition is a character inspired by my mom. She’s in New York in this moment of transition to motherhood, unsure if that’s where she really wants to be, asking herself where she wants to raise her kids, and feeling deserted as her parents have suddenly retreated back to their home island. We’re meeting her on a subway arriving at JFK, and the span of the entire work takes place in this elongated internal moment in the seconds between the opening and closing of the doors at the station. The context is that she has to make a decision in this window that I’m giving operatic heft to – does she get off the train and fly back to Puerto Rico, or does she stay on the train and return to Brooklyn? I’m excited to celebrate the journey that brought my family to make New York City our home.


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