Jordan Smith, flute, Specialist 2nd year
Jillian Kouzel, oboe, DMA 1st year
Elisha Willinger, clarinet, DMA 3rd year
Kathryn Marks, horn, DMA 2nd year
Allison Nicotera, bassoon, DMA 2nd year
Argo Winds began rehearsing together in the Fall of 2019 as a reading group to help members prepare for their various preliminary exams as doctoral students at the University of Michigan. Since the start of the pandemic, the group has looked for other opportunities to perform and create, such as recording new works, commissioning etudes for their instruments outside of the classical Western music canon, and creating recordings of pre-existing works, such as Umoja.
Umoja is the Swahili word for “unity” and is the first day in seven in the African-American celebration of Kwanzaa. The original composition calls for unity through the tradition of call and response and was first meant to be a simple family sing-along song for Kwanzaa. As it was added to the wind quintet repertoire of Imani Winds, a woodwind quintet that was created and founded by Valerie Coleman, and it soon became a signature piece of the ensemble.
What does it mean to you to be an artist in these times?
Elisha – Because of the current situation and most things being virtual, it’s great to reach out to newer audiences across the world through different outlets. For artists, we have to find creative means and innovative ways of connecting with people. For example, I’ve had the joy of making music with colleagues who live far away from me. One of my closest friends Zack Stump, who played in the Omaha Symphony last year, despite not being able to play together in years, we were able to do some clarinet duo recording together over the internet and post it for people to enjoy on social media! I can also say it has been great putting together this Umoja project with my woodwind quintet colleagues during quarantine.
What inspires you as a performer/collaborator?
Allison – My colleagues. I’m always drawing inspiration from others, people I’m working with currently or influences from other sources. Especially during these unusual times, I feel I am getting a front row seat into the practice rooms of musicians around the world. On the days I’m feeling uninspired, I can always find a video on Instagram or Facebook that sparks my interest and renews my drive to consistently work towards being the best musician that I can be
What is special about Michigan?
Jordan – Besides being based in Ann Arbor, MI and providing many performance opportunities (pre-COVID), the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance encourages its students to achieve high standards of musical excellence through diversity and inclusion, which would not have been possible without the resources provided to us. The University provided music for Umoja by Valerie Coleman and sent our individual recordings to be edited together by Brian Gaukel at Brain Gaukel Productions. As students, we don’t always have the finances to purchase both music and recording time in the studio. So, we are very fortunate to have the support from the University of Michigan and are very grateful to have been chosen for this project. Argo Winds would like to thank Valerie Coleman, Brian Gaukel, Matt Albert and the University of Michigan SMTD for allowing us to put this project together!
How have you adapted your artistic practice during the pandemic? Unexpected opportunities? Jillian – A few months before the Pandemic, I was diagnosed with an injury that was induced by over-use. Though I knew a break was necessary, it was almost impossible to come by being a full-time student while prepping for auditions and recitals. Additionally, I was planning to participate in a two-month summer music festival with an intense training orchestra program. Once quarantine began, I took the time to slow my body down and recover. I practiced intonation in unique ways without the instrument, and I worked on strengthening important muscle groups that could help me play oboe more efficiently. So, I guess one could say this was my “unexpected opportunity.” I’m back to practicing technical pieces again on the instrument, but the time off that I had to figure things out was essential to recovery.
Likewise, this recording opportunity was unique, as a performance of this nature is a bit unusual. Oddly enough, I found that listening to a pre-recorded audio with a click track behind the musical voices was so insightful. Perhaps without the visual aid of my colleagues in a live recording session, I was able to *listen* more intently to phrasing, intonation, etc. With the new “norms” of a pandemic-style rehearsal, I am also finding that intonation is better. We are spread further apart from one another which makes listening more difficult. As a result, I think we all are forced to work harder in that regard.
Do you view music as a platform for social justice? If so, how do you incorporate that into your work?
Kathryn – Composing and performing music is definitely a platform for social justice. There are multiple ways to incorporate this into our work as musicians but the project of recording Umoja is a great example. When we were initially contacted to start the project, we had chosen Paul Taffanel’s wind quintet to record, which is standard wind quintet rep. I forget the exact timeline, but soon afterwards, the video of George Floyd’s murder emerged on social media and all the protests began. We discussed changing the piece we wanted to record and landed on Valerie Coleman’s piece. I had never heard of the piece before and I am so glad I now have it under my belt.
There are, of course, tons of other ways to take part in other musical expressions of social justice. This past summer, in my artistically deprived pandemic state, I organized a backyard benefit recital in my neighbor’s backyard. Myself, another horn player, and our significant others performed works by all Latinx and Black composers and included some readings from The New Jim Crow and The Color of Law. All the proceeds (which ended up being way more than expected) went to a local black-owned restaurant and we had the owner of the shop come and talk to the audience about how COVID-19 had affected his business. Now I’m
thinking I might try to make this an annual thing because it was such an amazing experience.
Most of the people who attended the recital had rarely heard a horn solo performance, let alone pieces written by POC, so it was a great way to broaden their horizons as well as learn some amazing new rep that I might never have discovered. Because most ‘staple’ repertoire isn’t usually composed by minorities, musicians must seek it out and bring it into the light to eventually bring about equality and equity in terms of compositional representation.