“Just like we have man-made boundaries that separate countries and land, we have man-made boundaries that separate genre, and these boundaries can always be crossed.”Anthony R. Green
Anthony R. Green (b. 1984) is a Black composer, performer, and social justice artist whose diverse creative output includes musical and visual creations, interpretations of original works and repertoire, collaborations, educational outreach, and more. Anthony’s artistic endeavours centre around ideals of equality and freedom; his compositions have been presented in over 25 countries across 6 continents, and he has performed at venues across the UK, US, Europe, Israel, Turkey, South Korea, and Ghana. He has worked with many internationally acclaimed ensembles such as Alarm Will Sound, the Minnesota Philharmonic, and the American Composers Orchestra, among many others. Anthony is also co-founder of Castle of Our Skins, a new music organisation dedicated to the promotion of Black composers and musicians. Anthony currently divides his time between the US and Europe, with ever-increasing travel to Africa, and spoke to PRXLUDES about his most recent operatic projects, working with text, working with human stories, his different personae as performer and as composer, and more…
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Anthony — thanks so much for joining me today! Where are you — and what have you been up to recently?
Anthony R. Green: Now I’m in Providence, Rhode Island, which is where I grew up. The most recent notable projects I’ve had would be the performance of some opera excerpts. I also played a community piano concert, near where I grew up. Here in Providence, RI, there’s an assisted living facility called Laurelmead; whenever I’m back in the States, they try to have me play there. I love playing there. I’ve played a couple of contemporary works there. I played ‘In A Landscape’ by John Cage, just because it’s really beautiful, but not [in] this past concert; this past concert, I played ‘Bethena’ by Scott Joplin, an English Suite by Bach, Schubert’s Impromptus Op. 90, and ‘Troubled Water’ by Margaret Bonds. It went very well. -laughs- Those are the last two things that I did: something I did for the community, and then the presentation of excerpts for a potential new opera called I Was Shot By a Cop.
Tell me about this potential new opera — what is the premise of the piece?
I am both the librettist and the composer for this opera. In the past, I sent a proposal for this opera to an opera competition in Germany, but another librettist was involved in that project, and we weren’t selected. -laughs-
But I had the idea for this opera brewing in my mind, and I didn’t realise how I could solidify it until I read this harrowing article about this indigenous cop in Alaska. [He] was overworked, he was the only cop in the town, and every congressional committee that was formed to hear the problems of policing did not pay attention to his needs, and never gave him any form of pay raises, or other sources of funding and support. This article has a twist in it that I cannot really reveal at the moment, but after reading that article, that’s when I thought: this is how I can go forward and write [this] opera. The system is so horrible, and I want to address it.
Was this story directly in the excerpts?
Yeah, totally. The other stories I picked based on living my life, and reading the news — and doing other types of research. As a sound-based performance artist, I do quite a number of performances that work with this horrible phenomenon of policing in the United States. One of the pieces that I perform is called ‘Temporary Resuscitation’ — where I write the names of victims who have been fatally shot by police officers on balloons. I blow up the balloons, and temporarily, these balloons have a life — before I pop them and put them into what I like to refer [to] as a “mass grave”. Doing that type of research, I’m always running across names and stories.
The tragic thing about this opera, I Was Shot By A Cop, is that the libretto will never be finished. Because there will always be more stories to tell. But what I really wanted to do, in an effort to increase empathy, is to obfuscate some of the stories, and combine some of the stories — but assign them different genders, different races — and really focus on how, first and foremost, everyone involved in these events [is] human. We need to start from there to solve this problem.
Of course. I guess that also protects the privacy of victims and their families; creating both a removal, but also a kind of universal addition — if that makes sense?
Yeah. I know some of the families don’t necessarily care about having the privacy — because they’re so enraged — but you’re totally right. Victims should have that type of control, and the media can be rapacious.
You’ve written some other operas that centre themselves on sociopolitical themes — such as your short “cabaret operas” — when you’re writing both music & libretto for an opera, does the text tend to come first for you?
I think it all depends on what I’m writing, how it’s coming about. With the opera that you refer to — oddly enough, it’s also unfinished! I feel like I have way too many unfinished operas in my portfolio… -laughs- But this particular opera is unfinished in a very specific way. What you heard — ‘The Smaller Competitor’ — is the first of [what] is going to be a trio what I call “corporate cabarets”. It’s making fun of Walmart. The corporation in the opera is called FloMart… the slogan is “where the money flows up.” It’s not only an attack on this model of department store conglomeration, but it’s also a small attack on trickle-down economics. -laughs- The second opera is called ‘A Rip-Snorting Idea!’, and it’s an attack on McDonald’s and Burger King, and all of those fast food joints. The corporation in [that] opera is called O’Donalds — that’s also a big joke at the end, and I don’t want to reveal it. But that opera hasn’t been performed yet. The last of the trio hasn’t been composed yet, but that is gonna be an attack on Amazon… and the company in the opera will be called Sahara. -laughs-
Honestly, this whole thing sounds absolutely brilliant — I’m excited for it already.
There’s so much you can do with social references and a desert, you know? I’m excited! So for all of these, I wrote the libretto first, and then the music came. I really had to, because it’s difficult writing comedy — to write things that are funny. So I [thought] a long time, like, “what is both funny and tragic about these situations?” I did steal one joke from Will & Grace to write the libretto to ‘The Smaller Competitor’ — I didn’t steal it word-for-word, but it was necessary to put it in the opera.
Would you call that stealing, or would you call that inspiration?
We can call it “inspiration”… -laughs-
But then for I Was Shot By a Cop, because I could only write fifteen minutes of it, I was thinking: do I write all of the libretto? Do I need to write all the libretto? Because I sketched out how the whole opera goes. And I was thinking “if I write all of the libretto, then I’m sort of tied down to it, and if I need to make any changes then it’ll be much more difficult.” So I just wrote the libretto for four selections from the opera — and if somebody picks it up, then I’ll finish everything and do it that way. That’s the only opera that I’ve been writing music and libretto at the same time, but it doesn’t mean that it’s a continuous process.
How does your approach differ when you’re working with other librettists?
There are two operas I’ve composed in the past [where] I’ve worked with other librettists. In those cases, I didn’t assign any themes, or anything like that: for ‘SLEEP’, I was reading some short stories from one of my friends, and I said “this has to be an opera” — so she turned it into a libretto, and I wrote the music, and that was that.
The second opera was commissioned by a group in San Francisco. So I had mentioned that I know this wonderful queer writer, who I met during a residency in Virginia. For a while, I was thinking about incorporating dating apps into an opera in some way; my idea was to write a really kooky, socially aware, futuristic sci-fi dating app opera with puppets… but that’s not this piece at all. -laughs- I still want to write the puppet dating app opera though. It would be ridiculous.
Considering all of the different artforms and facets you work in — both performing, composing, and running your own organisation — how do you compartmentalise your artistic output?
Everything is rather segmented, but does happen at the same time. In August, I was composing, composing, and composing for random things — while preparing for my Oslo performance, while writing grants for my organisation in Boston, while doing research for future pieces, while booking hotels and flights, and figuring out where I’m gonna do my laundry, while getting ready to write programme notes for the Minnesota Orchestra… It’s just thing after thing after thing which coexists out of necessity. It’s difficult for me, sometimes, to just take a moment and split my mind. I like to acknowledge the fact that when I’m performing, I have a completely different mindset [to] when I’m composing, but there are moments — there have been those moments, and there will be the moments — where I have to prepare for a performance and compose at the same time. [But] if I were to compartmentalise my skill sets into file cabinets, I’m definitely pulling out different drawers when I’m a composer than the drawers I’m pulling out as a performer.
Tell me a bit about your musical background. Did the composing and performing sides of yourself develop organically — did you start out more on one side before moving to the other?
Yeah! When I was five, I started playing piano by ear. My kindergarten teacher told my mom that I had a talent, and it should be cultivated; so eventually, I started taking piano lessons from the age of 10. Throughout that time — from 10 to when I entered Boston University as a piano major — I got interested in all sorts of creative things, like knitting and crocheting… I was obsessed with making things out of clay. I loved doing macramé, and friendship bracelets — I made [one] for my Oslo performance — I was into bookbinding for a while, and I love cooking. I was always making things.
During that time, I did create quite a [few] tunes, piano pieces for my family, and I wrote some songs, as well; but no-one ever really said “Anthony, you can study composition in college!” Because I was the piano guy; I played piano for four choirs at my church, two choirs at my high school, I played in all of the musicals, I was in this piano performance club and I was the president of that, I played for funerals, weddings, cocktail hours… I was playing so much piano, and so many different types of things — I played jazz, musicals, classical, chamber music, contemporary music, gospel — I was just soaking it all up. So everyone just thought “Anthony’s gonna play piano for the rest of his life, and that’s what he’s gonna do”, but… not really! -laughs-
Was there any particular moment that catalysed or inspired you to pursue composition more thoroughly?
Yeah, totally! There were two moments. The first moment was [when] I went to this chamber music camp and I met all of these really cool people, and two [of them] said they were gonna be part of this youth orchestra in Boston the following year. That was before I studied at Boston University. So I thought: if we’re all gonna be in Boston, and my friend Christel is a violinist and my friend Ian is an oboe player, then I’ll just write a trio for us!
So I wrote this trio. It’s not a “bad” trio, but it is unplayable — I notated it really horribly, just because I didn’t know how to do anything, because I was really young. That’s the tragic flaw of beginning composition students; you have all of these ideas, but you don’t know how to notate things. So I wrote the trio, and on my own, I was writing an opera about gay marriage. So one of the freshman composition majors saw that I was composing all of this music, and said “why don’t you double major?” That was the first moment where somebody said: you’re composing all of this music, you should be a composer.
What was the second moment?
The second moment was during the end of my sophomore year — which was the first year that I had formal composition training. Throughout that whole year, I thought to myself “I feel like I’m behind, because all of these other students studied [composition] before, and did all of these things, so I need to catch up.” So what I did was, after this one class that I had in a different part of campus, I would go to the music library, take out a score, and take out a CD, and do some listening and score study on my own. One day, I saw this score sticking out of the stacks, and I just thought “this score is really giant, what is this?” — so I pulled it out and opened it, and it was ‘Gruppen’ by Stockhausen.
Ooh. What an experience of a piece…
I saw all of these cut-out [staves], and crazy tuplets and rhythms, and I just thought “okay, what does it sound like?” So I pulled out the CD — [and] I could hardly follow the score and the music, you know — and I thought “this is fantastic! I have to be a composer…” That piece really said: you can do much more than write these linear things. There’s so much more you can do as a composer. And I didn’t stop ever since.
While your performance side and compositional side are quite different — how does your work as a performer impact your artistic practice?
I think that everything I do is part of my practice. I would say the most that I glean from my performance persona is the idea of compositional freedoms. I quite often hear my performers say that they’ve never played a piece where they could pour so much of themselves into it — at least in contemporary music. And that definitely comes from my own selfish desires as a performer, because there are moments where I do want to take a very specific score and interpret everything, do all of the things, make all of the sounds — but for the most part, I want to have an opening [in which] to put myself, and contribute to the realisation of the piece in a greater way than some of those very specifically notated scores do.
Not to say that I don’t like performing those pieces. One of the pieces that I loved performing the most is ‘Now Evening After Evening’ by Milton Babbitt; it’s a gorgeous song, and the notation is extremely specific. -laughs- Even though it’s a romantic piece, I feel like if you deviate one millisecond from those rhythms, then you ruin the piece. When I performed it with my friend Rebekah Alexander, we were so true to the score, and it sounded so good! Unfortunately, we didn’t record it, which is just horrible, because when I looked on YouTube when we performed it, there was only one recording, and it was a terrible performance… -laughs- So I need to find my friend and re-record that with her.
Was there a particular moment that made you consider how performative elements are used in your compositions?
This is something I realised doing a residency in Scotland in 2016. That particular residency was so unique — it was called a “creative artists’ retreat”, and the theme of the retreat was: how do we, as artists, keep on going? There were visual artists, theatre-makers, there was a clown artist… We came from so many different cultural and geographical backgrounds, and ages, and we represented all sorts of approaches to artistic creation. It was the first time that I “zoomed out” and just thought: what is a composer? Really examined that question, and came up with all sorts of meta-conclusions. Those conclusions ended up making me change the way I approach composition. The following year [is] when I took a huge plunge into this performance art world, realising that these boundaries are artificial. Just like we have man-made boundaries that separate countries and land, we have man-made boundaries that separate genre, and these boundaries can always be crossed — because they’re artificial.
“Just like we have man-made boundaries that separate countries and land, we have man-made boundaries that separate genre, and these boundaries can always be crossed.” Anthony R. Green, in conversation with PRXLUDESTweet
When you’ve done collaborative and community work, how have you worked to break these man-made barriers?
I never approach them as barriers, you know? I feel like there’s this echelon of artist that believes there are things they would never do because it’s “beneath” them. But I’ve never been that person. At one point, I cleaned gutters as a summer job, and I had no problem doing that; I’ve worked as a QA tester for an insurance company, I’ve been a church secretary, I’ve painted [houses] … I feel like it’s that approach that I’ve had in my life that spills over to my artistry. If someone says “play for people in an assisted living facility”, I’m gonna do it!
I don’t feel like anything is a waste. If anything, I feel like everything is an opportunity. Not only to learn and grow through experience, but just through the human connection. I’m always wide-eyed and ready to do everything. I’m one of those people that hates saying no; I do recognise there are moments when I have to say no, and it’s usually not out of desire, [but] out of time management and finances. That’s unfortunately capitalism at work.
I can see how that translates to what you’ve been doing in music theatre: telling these very real and human stories, making those connections through themes of social justice. How do you approach telling human stories of social justice through your work?
I come across all of these materials that speak to me in very significant ways. Whenever I’m reading, researching, [or] talking with friends, and something pops in my mind, I either make a mental note of it, or make an actual note of it in some form — on an urgent napkin, or in a memo on my Android, or in my notes on my laptop. When I have this material, what piques my interest the most is the depth of potential for people to learn something if they were exposed to the material. It’s a little bit selfish, because when I have these very visceral responses to learning something new, it’s a recognition — a feeling — that I want other people to have; yet, I do acknowledge that not everyone’s brain and physiology functions in the same way that mine does. But still, there is this potential: if I share this story, I could possibly change someone’s life. And in doing so — in recognising that potential — I also feel I have a deep responsibility to work ultra-responsibly with this material. That’s why there’s a lot of research that goes on before I consider writing a note, or a gesture. Basically, that’s my approach to these kinds of pieces.
Tell me about the organisation that you founded to amplify Black voices in new music — Castle of Our Skins — how did the organisation come about, and how does Castle of Our Skins relate to your work as an artist?
In 2013, I was moving to the Netherlands, while my friend Ashleigh [Gordon] — [who’s] a viola player — was moving from Germany back to Boston. She reached out to me and said we should do some sort of concert before [I left]. That concert fell through, but I told her [that] I will make it a point to come back every year, around Thanksgiving, so [let’s] plan on doing something then. And she said “great, what do you wanna do?” — and I said “well, maybe let’s perform music by Black composers,” and she said “great, what should be performed?” …And we both just sort of sat there. We didn’t know music by Black composers, and we’re both Black!
So that’s when we did quite a bit of research on Black composers, and she came up with quite a number of different possible concerts. We both went back and forth: if we’re gonna do this, we should form an organisation, we should have a name [for] the organisation, we should have a website and a mission statement. And organically, this thing happened. So in that first year, Ashleigh was working at some educational institutions, so she had these connections to give workshops. I wrote the music and the text for an educational piece called ‘A Little History’, and together we fleshed the whole thing out to work for a 50-90 minute workshop with children. We had that piece that was performed three or four times for different school-aged students. And then we did one concert at the end of the season; I played piano, we had a string quartet, we had two narrators. It worked really well.
How did you manage to get the organisation off the ground, monetarily speaking?
We did an IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign, and we raised a couple of thousand dollars from that. We got money from the educational workshops. I forget how we got money for our second season, but there were some funds in the kitty — Ashleigh and I never paid ourselves for anything… -laughs- Eventually, we got into a position where we could collaborate with others, and that was fund-generating activity. We also got to a point where we could apply for grants — so we had a fiscal agent where we could apply for grants using their non-profit status — and eventually, we got our own non-profit status. Throughout all of that, we developed more connections, we employed more people, added many more concerts and projects to our season — and now we’re in our tenth season, and we have no intentions of stopping!
How has the platform gone on to amplify Black voices as the scope of the organisation developed?
On a technical level, when you have more funding and ability, then you can create various different projects. Ashleigh and I always put our minds together to see how we can get the most bang for our buck, so to speak. So, of course, programming is one thing; but then on social media, doing features, doing interviews and getting people’s stories out — that’s a completely different thing. But using social media to form connections, to reach out to composers and musicians you don’t know and say “hey, my name is Anthony, I have this organisation, we’d love to support you in some way, let’s get the conversation going.” Quite often, those initial connections lead to something — not necessarily immediately, but over time, the sparks turn into fires. In a good way.
Working in this field, and meeting people who have the same interests as you, creates yet another network of people doing similar work, but in different parts of the world, and in their own ways. For instance, one of our favourite people — her name is Melanie Zeck — we met her when we were doing research at the Center for Black Music Research in Chicago. We got a travel grant to study there, which was really amazing for us. Now she works at the Library of Congress; we know that we can call on her whenever we have research needs, and she’s super enthusiastic, and just so knowledgeable. Also Dr. Kira Thurman – we quite often call on her for various research tidbits and help. It’s fascinating to develop something, not knowing where it will take you, but always being open to being led somewhere.
Anthony and Castle of Our Skins aspire to support and nurture connections with Black composers and musicians – you can contact Castle of Our Skins at:
Anthony’s next concert is on 9 December in Cambridge, Massachussetts – the event will also be streaming, you can find more information at:
More of Anthony’s work can be found at:
- John Cage – ‘In A Landscape’ (1948)
- Scott Joplin – ‘Bethena, A Concert Waltz’ (1904)
- Franz Schubert – 4 Impromptus, Op. 90 (1827)
- Margaret Bonds – ‘Troubled Water’ (1967)
- Karlheinz Stockhausen – ‘Gruppen’ (1955-57)
- Milton Babbitt – ‘Now Evening After Evening’ (2002)
- 5 Questions for Melanie Zeck, I CARE IF YOU LISTEN (2018)