Joel Thompson Brings Introspection and Imagination to New ACF-led Commission

“I don’t know if you know, but I’m, like, allergic to the public eye,” composer Joel Thompson told me via Zoom with his distinctive gentle laugh. “I don’t have a website, I’m barely on social media. I just want to be in a cave and explore my soul. But at the same time, I write music that prioritizes community. I’m a contradiction, like everyone else.”

Joel is one of the kindest people you will ever meet, and his introspective and emotionally complex works often hold a mirror up to our society. He is perhaps best known for his breakout work Seven Last Words of the Unarmed (2015), which honors the lives of seven unarmed Black men who were killed by the police. But Joel’s music is about more than grief. He is inspired by artists who transcend labels and have a clear sense of identity — people like Nina Simone, Janelle Monáe, and Cécile McLorin Salvant. He is committed to mining the depths of the human experience. And he uses music as a vehicle for empathy and connection.

Joel is currently in his second year of a five-year appointment as composer-in-residence at Houston Grand Opera. He is collaborating with Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton, the former poet laureate of Houston, to create “a songbook of Black Houston” from interviews with local luminaries. His residency will culminate in the premiere of a new full-length opera in the 2026-27 season.

Living in Houston and being immersed in the community is allowing Joel to approach composition in a holistic way. “It’s not a thing that classical music is known for, but I’ve always wanted my art to be in dialogue with people,” he says. “In the gospel music tradition and in jazz, you see more of this symbiosis of a community making art, and art creating a community. I’m trying to bring that perspective into the classical music space, which is much more hierarchical and top-down.”

Joel Thompson

Joel Thompson

Joel’s other major work in progress is a new orchestral co-commission from American Composers Forum, the New York Philharmonic, the Atlanta Symphony, Aspen Music Festival and School, and Bravo! Vail Music Festival, with ACF as the lead commissioner. Joel says that having ACF lead the charge has set the tone for the collaboration and made him feel “absolutely supported as an artist.” In addition to advocating for the composer’s perspective throughout the commissioning process, ACF helped arrange workshop time with musicians at the Aspen Music Festival and from Gateways Music Festival. Joel says these workshops have allowed him to be vulnerable, try new things, and work out the kinks before the piece makes it to the New York Philharmonic and Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

When we spoke in October, Joel admitted that it’s difficult to discuss a work that is still being shaped, but he offered a glimpse into his process. The 20-minute commission marks his longest instrumental work to date, and it is inspired by quotes from two Black women artists, including the last line from N.K. Jemisin’s science-fantasy novel The Fifth Season. The book is a whirlwind of love, violence, and apocalyptic circumstances, and the final line — “Have you ever heard of something called the moon?” — pulls everything into sharp focus.

“I felt [that line] in my gut on such a deep level, especially since the majority of my music is looking at the world around me and responding to it,” Joel explained. “Very rarely have I looked up at the sky, looked up at the moon to see if it’s missing or not. So this piece is a chance for me to not necessarily focus on the apocalypse of my circumstance as it relates to my identity as a Black man in hyper-capitalist America in 2023, but to look up at the sky, to look up at the moon.

Joel also drew a line from the song “Thunderclouds” by Cécile McLorin Salvant: “Sometimes you have to gaze into a well to see the sky.” Joel says: “This line asked me to examine the circumstances in which one’s head could be so craned towards the ground that you would have to look into a well in order to see the reflection of the sky. It asked me to engage in an active introspection that’s even greater than what I usually engage with as an artist looking inward.”

While Joel is usually meticulous in planning out the elements of a new composition, he has left some room for himself with this commission to figure it out as he works. “I don’t know what it’s going to sound like, but I’ve chosen my materials, and I’m just working through it while doing the soul excavation necessary to fulfill my goals for this piece… Rather than prioritizing a response to my environment or my inner world, I am instead trying to think of music as a place to imagine.”

Another one of Joel’s goals for the commission was to include music from his Atlanta roots, including Southern hip hop beats and Afro-Caribbean rhythms, though he admits he was hesitant at first. “When Dvorak or Janáček bring in Czech melodies, or if there are Romani melodies in the Hungarian dances by Brahms or Liszt, no one questions the genre,” he explains. “But if there’s a hip hop beat or a sort of Afro-Caribbean thing, people question if it’s still classical music. I’ve always been reluctant to bring in those influences — but it’s 2023 and I figured, why don’t I try?”

In the workshop readings, Joel received feedback from the musicians, which informed how he notated rhythms in the subsequent revisions: “It’s a big risk, so what was really helpful in the early readings was to put those rhythms in there and see if conservatory-trained musicians would be able to pick up on those nuances of style, and for the most part, it did work.”

Joel Thompson -- Photo by Tian H. Bui

Joel Thompson — Photo by Tian H. Bui

But writing music that includes one’s identity and culture is still a vulnerable thing for artists who have been historically excluded from classical music spaces. “I think the way that capitalism has infected our cultural consciousness plays a role in [the trends that we’re seeing in the classical music world],” Joel says. “We’re looking for something else to colonize… And what we have learned in the last three years is that there’s this whole group of people that we have been excluding — women, people of color — ah! Now we can exploit what we have been ignoring because we have run out of our typical resources.

“[Artists] are feeling that, but that doesn’t mean that what we have to express is not legitimate,” he adds. “But it also means that those emotions can be exploited, and we have to be careful about being subsumed by the machine. So these are some things that I’m thinking about daily as an artist: What happens when this is no longer the resource to be exploited? What happens when this ephemeral career just evaporates and dries up? What would I do for that same sense of fulfillment?”

For Joel, the answer includes eschewing institutional validation and instead making art for himself and for the community he represents. It also includes looking to the past. “I’ve been looking at artists whose music, I feel, is at the intersection of art and social justice, like Beethoven or Shostakovich. Their music has transcended that label, even though it is true… The example is already there; I just happen to be a Black male in 2023 doing the same thing, so who knows? Maybe I’ll have a career in which I do transcend that label. Do I want to transcend that label? I don’t know. I just want to make art that is true. That’s all.”

Joel Thompson’s piece is co-commissioned by the American Composers Forum, New York Philharmonic (Jaap van Zweden, Music Director), Atlanta Symphony (Nathalie Stutzmann, Music Director), the Aspen Music Festival and School (Robert Spano, Music Director), and the Bravo! Vail Music Festival (Ann-Marie McDermott, Artistic Director).

American Composers Forum support is made possible by The Thelma E. Hunter Fund in honor of the 100th anniversary of her birth.


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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