Girl Power!

by Joshua Roman

Damn, those girls can sing!


Photo credits: Rachel Clee

I recently had the honor of collaborating with an incredible group of young women. Lisa Bielawa, Artistic Director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, asked me to join them for a concert of canons spanning a timeline from the 13th Century to this year, with a world premiere of “Our Voice”, which I wrote this year for the girls and my cello.

I had worked with the chorus and their music director Valérie Sainte-Agathe last year on Vireo, a filmed opera by Lisa, and had been impressed by their musicianship and enthusiastic approach to new music. Our musical interaction in that work was mostly tangential, but it was enough to get the wheels turning in my head about how the cello could fit in the group, or contrast in a powerful way. There was lots of room for experimentation, and not just in the song I wrote. A lot of the canons we performed could easily be complete on their own, without the cello butting in, so it was in some ways a leap of faith that I would be able to complement the girls without distracting from the point of each little piece. I have to say, it was really Lisa’s daring vision that convinced me to embark on this project, and in the end she was spot on.

Most of the program was filled with canons that stuck pretty close to the “rules” – so creativity was definitely necessary to keep things from becoming too formulaic. In “Duo Way Robin” (Anonymous, 13th Cent.), I experimented with starting the canon myself and then moving to drones and rhythmic percussion on the body of the cello. In our selections from Haydn’s “The Ten Commandments of the Arts and other secular canons”, I improvised connections between each short canon. After leading the girls into each canon by playing a predetermined cue, I would mix it up by doubling a voice, taking a voice myself, or sitting out for a while and adding appropriate harmony below. The Franck and the Brahms had violin or viola solos which were easy to transcribe and didn’t require additional arrangement.


“Our Voice”, the song I wrote for the girls, went through several forms before taking its final shape. In the end, I wrote the lyrics myself, something I had never done before. I found it quite difficult, and tried to imagine what I would want if I were in their shoes. I realized that the temptation to write something cherubic was front and center, and thought they must certainly be excited for characters to contrast with that, something with a little more bite. I ended up writing something I hoped would be empowering and also a bit defiant. “Listen to our voice”, and “we can be anything we choose” countered the tongue-in-cheek use of angelic harmonies on the word “angels”. One line, which I never felt I got exactly right in wording, but really felt like the right tone; “sure we’re angelic, but we’re so much more than that” was a transitional phrase that I heard repeated and sung in the hallways backstage. I was surprised and delighted to find it was actually some
of the girls’ favorite line
, and to that end felt very gratified that perhaps some of my words might prove useful to the girls as they build their own identities.

That was both the biggest challenge and the biggest reward; going after the goal of writing more than just a nice-sounding piece. Empathy is an important skill in any music-writing, but setting myself up with something so specific was rather daunting. Especially given the task of writing lyrics for the first time, decided to only play slightly with vocal techniques and canon intricacy, leaving the structure through-composed and letting the voices flock or join together in other ways as obvious turning points in the piece. All I really wanted was to write something they would enjoy, and that would make them feel strong, capable, and proud of themselves. Once again, hearing other people take notes I had written – this time even words – and make real music out of them, moved me far beyond what I expected.


Thank you, girls, for showing me I can do this, too!

2015: Expansion and Anxiety

by Joshua Roman

What a year! As I write this (a little late) looking back on 2015, I can’t help but be glad it’s over. It was, to be sure, a big year. Artistically, professionally, and personally. The ups and downs of previous years seemed somehow magnified as I stretched myself to create and participate in endeavors beyond my previous experience. Along with the pressure that I felt to be excellent (both from outside forces and, naturally, myself) in all of these undertakings, I also felt a pervading sense of anxiety around me as our world seemed to unravel in the headlines and at home.

On the artistic side, I wrote a !@#$ing cello concerto.


Flying high on the way to premiere my first cello concerto!

That’s big for me! Never having taken on something of that magnitude, there were many pitfalls and logistical nuisances I hadn’t expected. Coupled with my ignorance of the process, this made every little decision seem that much more dire and potentially confusing. The lessons I’d learned from writing three other, smaller pieces were little help when it came to writing a large form piece, and then I had to orchestrate it. It wasn’t a bad process, just an intimidating project that I am super happy to have in the past. Now, I can take on the next project with more understanding of what it will be like. And, boy oh boy, the good feeling associated with this creativity is definitely worth it!

In terms of collaborations, I was lucky enough to work with many artists in new settings or formats for me:

Third Coast Percussion
Vosges Haut Chocolate
Saskia Fernando Art Gallery in Sri Lanka
Bill T. Jones and Somi at TED
You – my online friends who voted for the Bach Suites I ended up performing at Town Hall Seattle
Seattle Youth Symphony and Mentors
Enso String Quartet filling in for their wonderful cellist Richard Belcher
Lisa Bielawa and the cast/crew of her Video Opera “Vireo”
Vijay Gupta and the Street Symphony
Daniel Bernard Roumain and Rafael Bejarano at Summit
Abigail Washburn, Andrew Mendelson, Andrew Nemr, Bora Yoon, Somi, and Non-Musicians Composing For The First Time at the TED Fellows Retreat

Then, of course, there were the many wonderful classical musicians, orchestras, and composers that I worked with in more traditional settings. Playing the new Mason Bates Concerto multiple times, and also tackling the inimitable Dvorak Concerto more than usual, were great experiences! I love the mix of familiar and new as I travel around the United States playing awesome cello music with our large classical music family.


With Mason Bates and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla after the premiere of his exciting new cello concerto in Seattle.

Professionally, I joined this lovely organization, Second Inversion as Artistic Advisor Which means I started blogging again! I also joined the Advisory Board for Street Symphony, and became a TED Senior Fellow. Early in 2016, I’ll be announcing another small but exciting series for the summer in a stunning area of the country. And last and maybe actually also least, I opened an Instagram account.


Testing the microphones at KING FM/Second Inversion – first day on the job!

Personally, sheesh. I went from literally living on the road with no home address to a temporary rental in Cliffside Park, New Jersey – a great room and roommate but too far from my daily life activities – to renting a small one bedroom with a fireplace (!) in the neighborhood of Chelsea, back in NYC on the small island of Manhattan. I went from fairly sedentary to working out with weights every day, to just running and doing push-ups, to swimming, to yoga… quite a cornucopia. And dating? Rough. I divorced a couple of years ago, and this year was fraught with wild tension from beginning to end. 2015 began with the end of a short but intense relationship, and later became dominated by an undefined and ultimately ill-fated relationship with a formerly close friend.

On top of all of this, I read the news every day. Enough said.


My father rockin’ a sweet Fender Mustang electric bass on Christmas Eve.

Again, though, I won’t say it was a bad year. I know a lot more about myself now, and the people around me. There have been some beautiful things to come out of the chaos. And music has become even more personal and important to me, especially as I learn how to connect and engage on a creative level. The last performance of 2015 was Christmas Eve with my mom, my dad, and one of my brothers (photos above and below). The first performance of 2016 will be at my grandmother’s funeral, and I’ll be playing string quartets with my two brothers and my sister. I was able to start confronting pent-up feelings through writing music, and both receive and give comfort through sound at various times.


My brother and mother waiting for the next Christmas tune.

Does this post seem a bit rambly? A bit distracted, disorganized, unfocused? Ambitious in breadth, but scattered at the same time? That’s me, in 2015. Riding the edge, and shooting from the hip. I’ve not yet catalyzed my goals for 2016, but at the center is refocusing. I will continue to do all of the things I began this year, but I will not be seeking out any new kinds of projects. If 2015 was the year of expansion and anxiety, 2016 will be the year of focus and care.

I’ve been asking a lot of friends about their year, and most of my circle is ready for this one to end. I’m always ready to take an excuse, in this case a random day we decided long ago is the First Day of the New Year, and rethink in a more positive way how we can go about things. I think we could all use some of that, and if your 2015 was nothing but up, up, up, please do share and inspire the rest of us!

Today’s playlist will be nothing but the Beatles, in honor of finally being able to stream one of the greatest musical acts of the 20th Century.

The Beatles: A Hard Day’s Night
The Beatles: The Beatles (White Album)
The Beatles: Revolver