“Frederick Douglass was an amazing figure who believed in the power of the American Constitution,” says Dr. Bill Banfield, composer-in-residence with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (WCO). Dr. Banfield took the stage recently for Concerts on the Square alongside the WCO and some soloists to perform his newest composition, Testimony of Tone, Tune, and Time, reflecting on the life and testament of abolitionist and civil rights activist Frederick Douglass.
Dr. Banfield has been with the WCO for a little over a year as a part of a three-year residency where he is working closely with artists and the community to provide amazing work for Madison’s cultural landscape.
“The way we thought about it was that a composer will be in residence with this local, wonderful symphony orchestra,” said Dr. Banfield. “And in that residency, part of the issue is to build community by creating the music to make a connection between the symphony and the university. We had a great first leg of that, which was the first symphony that they did of mine, my Symphony Eight, that we actually partnered with folks at the university to do the film that was the backdrop behind the symphony. When they performed the piece, we had a short film of Paul Robeson that was created by university students.”
Dr. Banfield’s work so far has been in collaboration with not only the university but with the Madison community outside of UW-Madison as he has also gone to public schools around the area to give talks and build connections. The relationships that can be built by the sharing of music are not a foreign concept to Dr. Banfield as his work truly reflects what he sees as the core power of music and art.
“Another layer of that feeling and that inspiration is the power to convey messages and ideas. Art conveys ideas and messages,” Dr. Banfield said. “So when you are cognizant of that, you know that the power of music is to lift someone’s spirit, to transform them in that way…So that’s what the artists are always dealing with. Think about Toni Morrison’s notion as she wrote recently, before her death, that this is the time that artists are supposed to get to work. That they raise the spirit enough to get people to think about things that are meaningful, even in challenging times. As a matter of fact, that’s when the artists are really called to do their work.”
The mission of an artist to touch people’s consciousness and stimulate their thinking was on full display on July 13th as tens of thousands gathered to hear Dr. Banfields newest composition. For those of us lucky enough to hear it, the effects could be felt in the air surrounding the Wisconsin State Capitol as people watched and listened with complete attention.
Testimony of Tone, Tune and Time is a captivating experience highlighted by the depth of emotion that Frederick Douglass’ own words provided the performance. Grace Kelly’s work on the saxophone as a representation of Douglass roared over the Square at times, but also played the role of a collected and composed voice, much like the stature of the legendary civil rights activist. Dr. Alex Gee and Katie Parrish gave direct quotes from Douglass that provided insight into life during the early days of struggle after abolition, and offered space to reflect on the present. A present where such words still hold relevance, emphasized by the boisterous tone of the orchestra swelling towards the passion laced throughout Douglass’ testimony of equality, faith, and the continuous struggle for freedom.
Yet, other moments were filled with what would represent the reality of a life like that of Douglass. Where the mundane lies in a person’s life, so laid the more soothing notes of the orchestra. Moments where tranquility may meet with simplicity were encapsulated when the orchestra met with Kelly on saxophone and Dr. Johannes Wallman on piano; sometimes trading the lead, but never overpowering each other in tone. Quiet like the moments when Douglass would have stepped down from the podium where he led his people, to step into the crowd as one with them. It was in those moments that the Capitol Square shrunk down to the size of a nightclub where you might hear the electrifying yet calming sound of a jazz or blues set. A period between Douglass’ era and the present, shows how the sound and presence of the soul carry on temporally, stopping along the way to grab influence and texture.
The overall piece was unforgettable. Kelly and Wallman ended the performance with an encore fit for a celebration of the life of any Black activist. Once again measured in approach, yet improvisational, and filled with the attention-grabbing flare of a great speech. The power and ability of music was on full display as Dr. Banfield’s work filled every open space of Madison’s Capitol Square with visions of a history worth remembering …truly showing what collaboration, inspiration, and meaningful reflection can bring when sharing music with the community.
The success of the premiere of Testimony of Tone, Tune, and Time was represented by the amount of people who were able to be present for the experience. The performance by Dr. Banfield and his collaborators reflects a goal that is carried throughout his work by opening up spaces for everybody to come together and enjoy beautiful art and culture.
“Art is meant to bring art, culture, history, and heritages along,” Dr. Banfield said. “It’s also meant to create a ritual of exchange, and that ritual exchange means that everybody’s at the table feasting on the goods of that table. So that’s a diverse welcome. People talk a lot about jazz and Black music, that it has this idea that it welcomes everybody. It doesn’t shut the door on anybody, it welcomes people in. I think that’s the critical meaning and impetus of creating creative art forms that do that. I think you see that in ballet and all kinds of music forms.”
When considering the power and influence of music to both bring in and disseminate to diverse audiences, the importance of focusing on diverse histories and representations is a major factor. Dr. Banfield also stressed the importance of how we view American music and culture as it may already have some of those answers we look for in the work already.
“I just think that you don’t have to look very far for the D word, as we say, in American music, because that’s what it’s all about,” said Dr. Banfield “There’s nothing else in American music, except for the notion of diversity. The music of the people is very diverse. There’s not one kind of person or one kind of perspective in art or music. Music is one of the most transformative and welcoming of all the forms because music immediately goes into the psyche. You hear a beat, you hear a line, you hear a melody, and babies respond to beats, rhymes and melodies. So since we’re all babies that have just grown up a little bit, we’re taking the same kind of impulses, and we live our lives that way. Music addresses that in the most powerful way because you don’t need a visual image to create that sense of human impulse.”
When it comes to our own approach to music and culture, Dr. Banfield provided insight into how the community and individuals can keep events such as Concerts on the Square possible. One important part is to get out to local musical events or cultural spaces to show support and keep them active. That includes things like art museums, dance events, and other cultural showcases. The second part is to explore new musical styles or purposefully seek out music you might not spend as much time listening to. Doing so might just introduce you to new ideas, concepts, or cultures while also widening your musical horizons and opening up possibilities for enjoying art in new ways.
To learn more about Dr. Banfield and his time with the WCO, check out his profile page on the WCO website here. The Wisconsin Dells Singers and Dance Troupe will be the featured guest performers at tonight’s Concerts on the Square.