SF LGBTQ band appoints composer in residence

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Wednesday August 9, 2023
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Mattea Williams is the composer in residence for the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band. Photo: Courtesy SFLGFB
Mattea Williams is the composer in residence for the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band. Photo: Courtesy SFLGFB

To hear Mattea Williams explain it, composing music for a band is different than writing a composition for an orchestra.

"With a band there are no strings," Williams said in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter. "The instruments you're left with — brass, percussion — are very loud."

Williams will have an opportunity to experiment with that as she was recently named the first composer in residence for the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band. The appointment for 2023-24 will see Williams compose two original pieces for the Official Band of San Francisco, as the band was formally recognized by the city in 2018. It's something the college music major and now music teacher is looking forward to.

"It's interesting to think of and use a combination of instruments, like the French horn and oboe," she said of her upcoming projects.

The SFLGFB created the composer in residence program for its Wind Band as a way to increase the diversity of voices composing music for it, a news release stated. The term wind band refers to the band performing in a concert setting, rather than marching in a parade or playing at street fairs, Doug Litwin, a gay man who's director of marketing for the SFLGFB, wrote in an email.

"Another way to think of a Wind Band is as an orchestra without string instruments. In other words, it is our woodwind, brass, and percussion musicians," he wrote.

The appointment of Williams, which was announced by the band on its website last month, is the second phase of the band's Black, Indigenous, people of color, or BIPOC, Commission Program. The first part occurred in May when composer Roger Zare's commissioned work, "Awakening," had its world premiere during the band's "Spotlight on the 1970s" gala concert in Oakland, according to the release.

Williams, 26, is a Black woman who said that she identifies as bisexual. She said that she's appreciative of the band's efforts to diversify composers.

"I feel it's a great program," she said of the composer in residence. "I love 'The Nutcracker' and Tchaikovsky but I feel there is space for up and coming composers as well."

Williams was born in Berkeley and currently lives in Napa. When she spoke with the B.A.R. she was getting ready for a performance of students in her band camp through the Napa School of Music. She received her bachelor's degree in music from Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music in Berea, Ohio and her master's degree in music from the University of Texas, Austin Butler School of Music.

As composer in residence, Williams will write the two commissioned works, workshopping them with the band and its artistic director, Pete Nowlen. There will be three performances, with the first being this September where the band will perform one of her recently completed band works, "The MirageCaster." Her commissioned pieces will be performed next March and September, the release stated.

Williams described "The MirageCaster" as a piece about a fictional character who "is a sorcerer who has the magical ability to cast and manipulate mirages."

"The conductor personifies the MirageCaster, using the baton as a sort of 'magic wand' while the music that is played by the band is the mirage," she noted in the release. "In the middle of the piece, there is aleatoric notation that splits the ensemble into groups and each group has its own ostinato, or group of repeating melodic and rhythmic patterns that can be cued in whatever way the 'MirageCaster' or conductor decides in the moment."

She explained that the rhythmic patterns are written "to purposefully obscure the beat such that when the musical groups are playing together or in combination with other groups, it creates the effect of an auditory mirage."

Williams spoke about where she draws inspiration.

"I'm inspired by nature," she said. "And finding a way to make instruments sound like nature and find a concept to tell a cohesive story."

Nowlen stated that he is looking forward to working with Williams.

"I'm so excited that the band will have the experience of working with a composer for more than a year through performances of three pieces and the creation of two," he stated. "For a young composer, the opportunity to hone one's craft in workshops with live performers is invaluable. For the band, participating in this creative process results in a different perspective for learning and performing these new pieces."

Julie Williamson, a longtime board member for the band, stated it was fortunate that "two outstanding composers" were identified through the BIPOC Commission Program in Zare, who is Chinese American, and Williams.

Williamson, a lesbian who's a flute player in the band, told the B.A.R. that she was on the selection committee that picked Williams.

"We're really excited about working with her. She brings great new energy," Williamson said in a brief phone interview. "The band's excited to work with her. This is the first time a composer has been brought in to work with the band."

Williamson said that Williams is expected to meet with the band next week. And she hopes that the band can fundraise to continue the program after Williams' residency is completed.

"This is a new adventure," Williamson said, adding that the band has looked at how it can diversify its own community for the last three years.

This is the first such residency program Williams has had.

"I'm really excited," she said. "It's a great organization to be working with."

She was equally thrilled shortly after learning the news, writing on TikTok, "Can't wait to share all of the music and world premieres with you!"

Williams will receive a stipend of $7,500, Litwin said. The composer in residence program is largely funded through generous individual donations made at the band's annual "Dance-A-Long Nutcracker," with nearly 700 people contributing, the release stated.

According to Litwin, the band's budget is $166,870. The musicians are all volunteers and pay dues of $75 per quarter, he added. There are three paid positions — artistic director, concert band; artistic director, pep and marching band; and production manager.

People who want to donate to the band, which is a nonprofit, are welcome to do so by visiting sflgfb.org/donate.

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