Xavier Muzik Channels Emotion, History, and Culture into his Compositions

“Anything you do is art,” my colleague Xavier Muzik told me in a recent video call from Los Angeles, where he lives. “There’s an art to having a conversation, an art to working in an advocacy organization — with what we do at American Composers Forum, there’s an art to organizing a community of music creators.”

Xavier is a composer and producer who is quickly amassing commissions, awards, and accolades. And he is also ACF’s Executive Assistant, where he supports our Executive Director Vanessa Rose, and the senior staff and Board of Directors.

Most recently, Xavier was announced as the winner of the third Emerging Black Composers Project, which will be renamed the Michael Morgan Prize in honor of the late music director of the Oakland Symphony, who co-founded and chaired the project until his death in 2021. A joint effort between the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the San Francisco Symphony, the annual program offers a $15,000 commission to compose a new orchestral work to be premiered by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the San Francisco Symphony in the 2024-25 season, mentorship from the project’s committee members, and resources to workshop the composition with students from the conservatory.

Xavier Muzik -- Photo by JonJon Blunden

Xavier Muzik — Photo by JonJon Blunden

Though he’s not quite sure yet how the commissioned piece will take shape, Xavier suspects it will reflect his interest in “ephemeral moments,” or “the idea of things and experiences being very temporary, our friction with how we experience them, and finding peace as a person in that space or within that friction.”

For Xavier, creating music is a practice of striving to be present in this fleeting, impermanent space while also recognizing how these spaces are positioned within history and culture. “Music doesn’t exist on a physical plane; it exists on a temporal plane, and history and culture also exist on that temporal plane,” he explained. “In composition, you’re not necessarily just writing notes — when you hear specific musical ideas, they carry a history and a cultural way with them.”

Looking back through music history, Xavier feels a certain kinship with early-20th-century Black composers. “I have a mixed racial heritage; both my parents are half black and half white, so that leads to a lot of gray area as to how I feel in certain situations. Similarly, a lot of these composers were trying to understand what it even meant to be a Black person, let alone a Black composer, in the context of the United States and the world. When I listen to their music, I feel that conflict, but also an easiness with exploring that conflict that I relate to.”

Xavier’s music is often categorized as dealing with racial and social issues, but it’s more complex and nuanced than that — his compositional practice is a vehicle for emotionally processing the way he experiences the world. “Composition has been a personal way for me to deal with my own racial identity; my identity isn’t necessarily limited to my racial identity, but it’s all interconnected and intertwined,” he said. “Just because of who I am, the music I write is always going to be music by a Black composer. That’s the reality of the world. But there’s also a way to turn that around where no matter what I write, it’s going to be a statement about racial identity in some way, shape, or form.”

When he applied for the Executive Assistant role at ACF, Xavier was admittedly skeptical about nonprofit organizations. He had completed a graduate minor in Creative Community Development while pursuing his master’s degree in composition at the Mannes School of Music. A course on nonprofit finances had left him questioning whether these organizations were actually achieving their stated missions. But ACF felt different. “I really appreciated the clarity and humility that I saw in things like ACF’s Equity Report Card, and the specificity about racial equity goals,” he said. “I saw an organization that is working toward a lot of the things that I want to see realized in the world.”

He had also taken a course in sustainable creative placemaking, which helped him realize that he didn’t need to be the sole changemaker in any given scenario — that instead, he could work with others toward a shared goal. “Part of that thinking comes from the idea of being a facilitator,” he observed. “At ACF, I feel like I’m a big facilitator. I don’t always work with specific departments, but I’m a team player and I can help a lot of people increase their capacity so they can reach their goals.”

Advocacy and composition have become mostly separate pursuits for Xavier. Some composers use their platform to write music that explicitly addresses social issues, but Xavier’s community and social engagement are rooted in things like his work with ACF, or volunteering for political campaigns to help enact policies that will make a tangible impact. “Music and art are also important ways of interacting with people and trying to change hearts and minds, but I need my own personal space, and I don’t necessarily feel that musical ideas that arise from social issues are the most authentic way for me to express that, or even the most efficient way for those points to get across. I think music is a lot like movies; the ones that hit the hardest are the ones that show and don’t tell — where, through some emotional journey, I’m brought to a point of realization of what’s important as opposed to just being told.”

His piece Pillow Talk (2022) is an introspective window into his emotional experiences. Commissioned by the string quartet ETHEL and flutist Allison Loggins-Hull, the work is a sonic reflection of the internal dialogues that unfold in the early morning hours, somewhere between sleep and full awareness, where emotions can drastically range from euphoria to insecurity. Gently languid flutters grow to a stirring restlessness, marked by string pizzicato and tightly-wound motivic bursts. Agitation builds with sawing bow strokes and undulating arpeggiations before returning to the opening serenity, but this time, imbued with a sense of unease.

Xavier’s ongoing project, A Series of Lullabies, will eventually reflect how he has grown and evolved as an artist over the years. The three existing pieces in the collection are a meditation on seeking serenity through surrender, featuring diffuse, murky chords, melting and meandering chromaticism, and twinkling, whimsical arpeggiations.

Xavier says he hasn’t always felt like he could be fully emotive in his life; music is how he is transcending those restricting behaviors he learned in his formative years. “It’s always the ‘negative’ emotions that cause the biggest blockages — is it safe to be mad, or is it safe to be fearful, and to express those emotions… Respecting people’s boundaries and respecting your own boundaries are important aspects in building a safe space for everyone to be emotionally expressive.”


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, and is made possible thanks to 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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