5 Questions to Shelley Washington (composer, saxophonist)

Shelley Washington is a self-described composer, performer, collaborator, and educator from Kansas City, Missouri. She writes music inspired by jazz, rock, American folk, and other musical things. I first met her in Columbus, Ohio, when Shelley had a performance funded by the Johnstone Fund for New Music. I’m thrilled she has an upcoming premiere in my hometown with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra on October 15-16 as part of New Music USA’s Amplifying Voices project. Her piece, Both, is about navigating all the different aspects of her art and life.

You describe Both as being inspired by the many dualities of your life. However, in your program note, you say that these are not conflicting and fixed binaries but exist in a contingent aggregate, “a spectrum from point to point” connected to the mathematical definition of the term. It’s a thrilling idea but, for me at least, conceptually dense. Could you explain further your sense of the expanded self and the benefits of embracing it?

I like to think of my music as layered both in sound and meaning, and hope that it gives the listener a sense of choice in how deep they want to go to find what resonates with them. So Both is sort of an intentionally “wrong” title — the listener can come in with the expectation of “this piece will be about two things going against each other,” and while yes, it is about those two points on the line, it also includes the lines connecting them. To me, the piece is an exercise in empathy and introspection on how we view the labels we give ourselves and to others.

When I was studying education, I learned the theory of self-fulfilling prophecy, where someone accepts the label placed upon them, and the label becomes true in practice. Growing up, Hollywood/society/social groups taught me that to be pretty, I needed to be thin. To be cool, I couldn’t act like a nerd. Queerness and Blackness were the butt end of every joke. Everyone wants to fit in, so I changed the way I interacted with the world so I would feel accepted, even though it wasn’t who I actually was.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years actively getting to know and befriending my “shadow self” – Jung’s concept of that unconsciously suppressed self that’s been buried under a heavy mask of trauma.  Through a lot of introspection, I’ve given myself a type of permission to fully experience my life in a more meaningful and authentic way. Though I still have lots of work to do, I like all the parts of myself — the good and bad, the simple and complex, the orderly and the chaotic, the old and new, everything between.

I want the people who perform or listen to this piece – those who might feel stuck, or compressed, who were once told that they weren’t enough or that they were too much, or who were told that some brilliant shining quality they possess isn’t “acceptable” – to feel seen. You and your entirety should be cherished and protected and loved without compromise.

Shelley Washington--Photo by Adrian Brown

Shelley Washington–Photo by Adrian Brown

How do you represent this conception of duality musically, and how did you decide what aspects of yourself you would examine in Both?

In terms of choosing which aspects of myself to include, I started by listing every label I embody which includes the bi- prefix, so starting with bicoastal (lol), and zooming into my being biracial, bipolar, and bisexual. While they aren’t defined specifically in the music, I did my best to highlight textures, gestures, rhythms, and specific instrumentations that I restructured later on in the piece. Every stand-out moment returns at some point in a different contextualization, which is my representation of fluidity: each iteration is valid regardless of the different environments, and each separate thing forms the whole.

So for example, the second movement, “Teeny Tiny Little Things,” is the cutest thing I’ve ever written and excludes the strings (sorry y’all), which felt like a sort of “anti-classical orchestra” thing to do. There are some people who believe that cute or simple music can’t be taken as seriously as extremely complex music which, in my opinion, is pretty boring and lazy thinking. I sing silly things to my dog, Rodeo, and the opening rhythm that forms the second movement and then supports the third movement later on is based on:

“He’s a Rodeo
He’s a Rodeo
He’s the best in show
He’s a little tiny puppy”

 That rhythm pops up later on in the piece, but no spoilers on exactly how!

Shelley Washington and her dog Rodeo in Brooklyn--Photo courtesy of the artist

Shelley Washington and her dog Rodeo in Brooklyn–Photo courtesy of the artist

Your compositions regularly explore performance’s social, physical, and psychological dimensions. Did writing for the traditional ensemble of a chamber orchestra pose challenges to these aspects of your work?

Yes it did! I have slowly been moving towards writing for larger ensembles, and learning the culture and certain rules that orchestras run by was a bit of a learning curve. Also, I learned a lot about the great puzzle of orchestration, mostly through trial and error, but I’ve had so much support from the LA Chamber Orchestra and the performers at its debut performance in Aspen. I asked a lot of questions about what they are and are not allowed to do, and also what they are willing to do, like performance techniques that are slightly out of their comfort zone.

One of the techniques that threads its way throughout the piece is something I called “Chatter,” where I would give them a specific topic and ‘dynamic’ level: whisper, murmur, inside voice, and exclaim, etc. If you aren’t used to talking during a performance as part of the music, it can feel pretty scary. To help guide them, I gave them topics to discuss ranging from “celebrity crushes” and “grocery stores” to “a funny story your friend told you” and “what is your favorite childhood memory.” At the first rehearsal in Aspen, there were some musicians who were more uncomfortable than others. However by the time of the premiere, I could see their confidence chatting by themselves and having much more fun chatting to their neighbor.

Shelley Washington--Photo by Peter Yankowsky

Shelley Washington–Photo by Peter Yankowsky

More broadly, I want to ask you about your conception of the listener experience and the intended effects of your music. For example, in your website bio, you describe moving a listener with “grooves, melody, and harmony” with the intention of “shaking the cages [and] raging against the machine.” It reminded me of how the artist Yinka Shonibare once characterized his work as using pleasure to remain political without preaching politics. Would you agree with this assessment? And if not, how would you portray the relationship between harmony and confrontation?

I definitely agree with this sentiment. It reminds me of the old saying that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t force them to drink. I can’t force someone else to feel a certain way, even if I write my program notes or accompanying poetry as an invitation to consider a perspective or emotion that might be foreign to them. It relies a lot on the mindset a listener comes in with. Also, not everyone is going to like the way my music sounds, and I am completely fine with that, they don’t have to! I hope that either the text, or separately the music, is something that they can “take home” with them, and if they happen to replay any of it in their heads later, the message of the piece remains attached to it. Though I think of the music and the texts as one in the same, they can function separately.

My pieces have a range of more conceptual topics. For example, my bari sax duo BIG Talk is about sexual harassment and rape culture. Of the topics I’ve written about, this is one where my message to the performers and audience is specifically about a single thing without a ton of room for interpretation. The performers are required to read the poem I wrote out loud before they perform, and they must wear a consensually agreed upon outfit that places them into the shoes of someone who has been forced to live in a culture that doesn’t always protect us. I’ve been asked if it would be possible to re-arrange it from a bari sax duo to another set of instruments, but it is specifically for bari because of the athleticism it takes to play the horn. It is a physically taxing instrument to play in general (Very heavy! Lots of air!), and the repeated phrases utilize notes that take the most musculature to hold. I wrote it to repeat those strenuous phrases to the point where I physically could not play them anymore, to the very end of my rope. To me, it’s a representation of the endurance we are forced to possess just to be able to live.

Finally, I just want to say that I am so happy for you. Your selection to the Amplifying Voices Consortium is another well-deserved commission and highlights a real strength in your career. You are a composer adept at advocating for herself and her composer collective without compromise. What advice do you have for emerging art workers who don’t fit current conceptions and categories? What keeps you true to yourself?

Thank you so much for your kind words! I feel very lucky to be able to do what I get to do, and I am grateful to every friend, family member, and mentor who has believed in me and trusted me along the way. It’s been a wild ride!

As far as advocacy for myself and others, I’ve become an increasingly outspoken person because the position I’m currently in has allowed me to do so. As someone earning a PhD at an Ivy League institution and teaching at New York University, this place of privilege has given me both a platform and access to some of the same tables industry leaders sit at that I wasn’t invited to before. You shouldn’t have to be An Established Person to be taken seriously. However, there are many key-holders in our field that are…stale to say the least. I’ve been told some very hurtful things in my past, and at a certain point, I became too fed up to tolerate it. I decided to no longer yield when someone tries low-balling me, or using my image in a virtue-signaling way, or making decisions about me or my colleagues without consent. Some people were more receptive to listening than others. Honestly, self-advocacy was born from spite and is currently propelled by my hope of making things better for us. Even if it’s just a little action, just a ripple.

For those just getting started out, here’s some stuff to keep in mind for finding your corner, your community, and yourself:

  • Know your worth. Your entirety is invaluable and to be treasured, you are loved, you are enough, you deserve to be treated with dignity, and you should be really proud of yourself for choosing the path towards what you love even with the knowledge that it will not be easy. You belong, even if you aren’t quite sure where that is yet. You can do it!
  • Take care of yourself first. Music isn’t life or death, so no matter what that deadline is, please give yourself time to relax, nourish your body, and to rest.
  • Treat yourself like you would treat your best friend. It isn’t always easy or possible — try to give yourself grace to feel what you feel. I have a sticky note on my computer that just says, “You are doing a good job,” and honestly sometimes that super simple message is the only thing keeping me going.
  • It is ok to advocate for yourself. It isn’t “shameless self promotion” to ask for the things you deserve if they aren’t being offered to you.
  • Even if you think you aren’t making a difference, you are.
  • Do you, haters can stay mad.


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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