5 Questions to Ciyadh Wells (Executive Director, Castle of our Skins)

The work of guitarist, activist, and scholar Ciyadh Wells is a whirlwind of activity centered on increasing access to art. She regularly performs with Duo Charango and is the artistic and executive director of Margins Guitar Collective, both of which seek to commission new guitar music for diverse audiences. Ciyadh also works with Trash Music, a research project focusing on connections between music and environmental justice, and she recently started a record label called Marginal Glitch, which releases physical albums by artists who are expanding the palette of contemporary guitar music.

Ciyadh recently relocated to Boston to assume the role of executive director at Castle of our Skins. The organization is committed to celebrating genre-diverse music by Black composers with a strong focus on the neighborhoods where they work, which has made Castle of Our Skins a mainstay of Boston’s music community. Their 11th season includes portrait concerts of composer Adolphus Hailstork, an interactive exhibit curated by Jenny Oliver — Castle of our Skins’ 2023-2024 Shirley Graham Du Bois Creative in Residence — and a program called “As I heard when I was young,” featuring composers from South Africa, Uganda, and the United States whose work investigates connections across the African diaspora. I recently spoke with Ciyadh about her plans for Castle of our Skins, the role of new-music organizations in their communities, and the function of physical media in contemporary classical music.

Castle of our Skins -- Photo by Robert Torres Photography

Castle of our Skins — Photo by Robert Torres Photography

You just moved to Boston to become executive director for Castle of our Skins. What do you think makes the Boston new music community stand out from other cities?

Every city with a new music community is special in some type of way. Moving around and visiting other places shows you that no one city is better than any other, but there are things that are unique to a city and that cannot be replicated from place to place. The thing that makes the Boston new music community stand out from other cities is trust. People feel that there is a sense of community and trust between organizations, patrons, and artists that keeps the scene growing. Newcomers like myself and even new organizations are able to thrive and succeed here because of the strong relationships that broadly exist in the arts community. Organizations are unafraid to co-present and partner and commit to that for the long term, and that is because they are willing to trust each other’s artistic direction and values.

Another thing that makes the new music community here different from other cities is the variety of new music that is presented in the city. It is not so much that there are more organizations, but that the organizations that are here are committed to the form and process of new music, such that people have to pay attention because the variety is exciting and energizing. All of the organizations here present all kinds of new music and are willing to do things that are truly adventurous.

What’s your vision for Castle of our Skins? How do you see the organization growing and evolving during your time as executive director?

I recently heard someone say, “This work is slow. It’s like planting the seeds for trees whose shade you’ll never benefit from.” Though the context of this quote was about something totally different, it really encouraged me to think deeply about how often so much of the work that we do as artists and arts leaders is work that we will never benefit from directly, or that we will never hear about. Even though we never hear about it or never see the impact of it, we still continue to do the work because we believe so passionately in what the present and future holds for us.

My vision for Castle of our Skins is not so much that we will grow to be 50 times our size in the next 10 years; my vision is for the organization to continue to do what it does best, which is planting the seeds that foster and celebrate Black artistry in a way that is unmatched by any other organization.

In my few months with the organization, I have had the opportunity to meet so many wonderful people whose interest and support of Black artistry has grown because of a seed that was planted by the work of Castle of our Skins. I myself am a product of this work — after learning about the organization in graduate school, I was curious about Black guitar composers, and thus my life’s work now was born.

The most important thing that new music organizations can do is to remember that the majority of our audience members are not other musicians, but people who love and appreciate new music.

Therefore, I do not believe that I would be doing my job as a leader in the organization to steer us away from continuing to do that work. Co-founders Ashleigh Gordon and Anthony R. Green set forth and created a vision for a world that is so vast and that we are diligently working toward in our programming. I will continue to support that programming, which includes events that engage our hyperlocal Boston community, our global calls for scores, our Shirley Graham Du Bois Creative in Residence program, recordings, and everything in between. This is our work and what we will continue to do.

Another part of my vision, though, does include finding Castle of our Skins a home. If I have learned anything from working with new music organizations, it’s that regardless of the city or state, new music organizations need and deserve a permanent physical home. Our organizations need and deserve a space to work, to rehearse, to perform, and, most importantly, to create and dream. Buildings provide gathering spaces for the communities we serve. A 10-year-old organization such as Castle of our Skins is ready to build something that is permanent and lasting, and a physical space that we can call our own is something that I am working toward in my role.

How do you think new music organizations can work to integrate themselves into communities outside of academic circles?

The most important thing that new music organizations can do is to remember that the majority of our audience members are not other musicians, but people who love and appreciate new music. There are many reasons why people attend concerts, but many people attend because they want to feel and see a sense of belonging with like-minded individuals who enjoy the same things that they do. People want to attend concerts because they hope to be moved in some way.

Organizations also need to do more listening to their communities about their wants and needs and how they hope our organizations can meet those needs. Too much music-making and artistic direction happens in a vacuum, but opening lines for communication, connection, and belonging will do wonders for how organizations can better serve the needs of their communities. Successful organizations have found ways to create programming that is entertaining, engaging, and meets the needs of their communities.

Last year you started Marginal Glitch Records, which has been putting out physical releases including CDs and a 7” lathe cut. In a streaming world, can you talk about the role of physical media, especially for contemporary classical music?

In contemporary classical music, physical media plays such an incredibly important role in continuing to grow the genre. Physical media is one of the few ways to directly support artists. There are many ways to support artists including streaming, sharing their work with others, and attending their shows, but deciding to purchase their physical media also demonstrates to the artist that you believe in their art and are willing to make a financial commitment to it. Ultimately, there is no guarantee that the music we love to stream will always be available for our consumption, but if we purchase physical media, we are doing three things: we are directly supporting artists’ work, we are encouraging artists to continue to make great music, and we are guaranteeing our own personal access to that art.

Similar to the argument for physical books vs. digital books, I can make the same argument for continuing to produce physical music formats. I love that holding a CD feels like I’m holding the music. We all love music because it is this thing that cannot be held, but it can be felt — but when I hold a CD, I’m holding music. People still want to hold their music, and owning a record label has taught me such, not to mention that CD art and liner notes are still an important reference tool for musicians and music lovers. Sometimes the design of the notes can impact how the music is listened to and understood. There are many things written in liner notes that you cannot and will not be able to find in an online search, and I think that is because many artists still value the creation of physical media.

Ciyadh Wells (right) performs with Jordan Walsh -- Photo by Jack Kloecker

Ciyadh Wells (right) performs with Jordan Walsh — Photo by Jack Kloecker

Do you have any performances or events outside of your work with Castle of our Skins that we should know about?

I will be performing a new improvised work that I am in the process of creating for guitar and live media called Detras Nuevo Cancion at the upcoming edition of the Splice Festival, which will be held at Berklee College of Music in November. This work is an exploration of the songs from the Nueva Canción movement from the 1950s and 1960s and takes inspiration from the movement’s most famous activists to create a modern protest music using live electronics and video projections. There will be a video recording of it available in 2024.

I am also excited to share that my next album, La Guitarra Negra, will be release on Dec. 1 on Marginal Glitch Records. The album features works for solo guitar by Black and Latinx women composers and was made possible through the support of a 2022 Sphinx MPower Artist Grant. This album has been many years in the making, and I could not be more thrilled for people to hear it. Preorders are available via Bandcamp, and streaming will be possible upon release. The physical CDs will come packaged with a special edition zine. I will also be releasing an EP of solo guitar music on International Women’s Day in 2024. More information about these things is available on Bandcamp and my website.


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