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Anthony Barfield

The Invictus composer discusses barriers, collaborators, and his earned ambition


NOV 15, 2022 | ISSUE 8

Anthony Barfield Courtesy of the Artist
Anthony Barfield Courtesy of the Artist
Anthony Barfield Courtesy of the Artist

One of the things composer Anthony Barfield loves about New York is that when a guy in a dinosaur costume sits next to you on the New York subway, the question asked is, “What else? Is that all you’re going to do?” He’s the kind of person that gets excited by the world around him, the political moment, and music. But he doesn’t want people to be comfortable when he knows they’re ready for something better. His orchestral music draws on jazz, gospel, and hip-hop, as well as the Western classical tradition—a combination that isn’t often included or taken seriously in classical spaces. Now, however, that combination is not only an especially relevant approach to a world reckoning with systemic racism, it’s a sound he knows audiences, both inside and outside of the recital hall, are eager to hear.

sM | How have the last 18 months—the pandemic, the political climate, and the social movements—informed your artistry?

AB — I think, first and foremost, that the pandemic has helped shape me as an artist. We have realized that life is so much deeper, and more meaningful, than we have given it credit to be. We’ve learned to have a deeper appreciation for family, and the day-to-day experiences that we love. Thinking about the fact that we have lost so much throughout the pandemic—time, energy, family, friends—it has personally made me more aware of how important it actually is to spread love through my music and to be true to who I am as an artist.

We are all aware of the Black Lives Matter protests, the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery—I’m sure you saw the news that the three white men who murdered him were convicted, which is, you know, really, really great. I grew up in Collinsville, Mississippi. My mom’s family is from Philadelphia, Mississippi, which is right next door. I went to elementary, middle school, and high school in Philadelphia. In 1964, there were these three civil-rights workers who were killed in my hometown, two guys from New York—two Jewish men—and then one Black guy from Meridian, Mississippi. They came down in 1964 as part of the Freedom Riders. They were killed by the KKK. I grew up having a very deep understanding of what happened, hearing the stories from my family members who knew the family of the guy from Meridian. I grew up a few miles away from the Baptist church that was burned to the ground. The craziest thing is that when I left Mississippi and moved to New York in 2005, that was the year that the head Klansmen was actually convicted for those murders. That type of ‘racial energy’ and bigotry really ran deep in that area.

Thinking about all of the events that have happened recently, as well as my childhood, I feel that it is extremely important to stay true to my inner voice. I grew up listening to soul, gospel, R&B, and hip-hop. Classical audiences tend to think of classical music as being completely separate from those genres. But I feel that it is very important, as a Black composer, to show that there is another perspective on this thing that we call ‘classical music.’ The more optimistic side of me thinks that classical music has always encompassed a great deal of variety, in terms of expression. In a non-political sense, it’s the conservative forces within orchestral music that want to make it something specifically this or that.

sM | How do you define the barriers existing for people of colour in orchestral spaces? And who are some of the forces for good?

That is a hard question to answer. It’s interesting hearing that even at the Toronto Symphony, you know, you do have— more-or-less—a white audience. In my experience of American orchestras: the symphonies are mainly white musicians playing the music of dead white men [laughs], playing mainly to white audiences of an orchestra that is mainly comprised of white, middle-aged to older, board members.

You know, it’s okay. But I think when it comes to the thought of bringing in people of colour to audiences, for me personally, I think that orchestras should simply just program the kind of music I grew up with more. Even if it is somebody like a Jon Batiste or whomever, promote that music in a way that would be a little bit new and fresh. And hip! Because the thing is, we’re living in a society where people are starting to sniff the wind a little bit to see that what’s been inside of this typical box really doesn’t work anymore.

I don’t really have a specific answer to that question. I think that exposure, to me, is the most important thing. Speaking of white people: in my experience, one of the reasons why they haven’t necessarily been as open to accepting Black music or Black classical music, is that they’re ignorant to not just Black music, but ignorant to things that are within our culture. Of course, the Lincoln Center has been very good about trying to spread the gospel, so to speak. One of the things that I appreciate, and have appreciated, about certain organizations are the ones consistently displaying works by people of colour. When the pandemic happened and Black Lives Matter started, you had people that would say, “Ok, it’s time we program this work,” or, “We’re going to put out a statement to say we support Black Lives Matter. We support X, Y, Z.” And then it just fell off. Fortunately, a few organizations have shown that this is not a momentary movement. This is something that we have to once-and-for-all incorporate into the arts.

A colleague of mine—the composer Jessie Montgomery—pardon my French, but she is kicking ass! There are a bunch of people that I can mention of course, but she is one of those people who has been able to just stick the knife in there and just go with whatever she feels. She’s forging a path that will help a lot of younger composers be able to feel comfortable enough that they can actually survive in that space.

I’ve had a lot of white people actually come up to me and say, “I had no idea this was happening.” That’s okay, but I had tried to explain to them that we’ve been preaching the same thing for decades now. But the thing that George Floyd’s death allowed to happen—as well as the pandemic—was for people’s lives to slow down enough so that they could actually be able to listen. Specifically non-Black audiences, because they’d been ready to listen in terms of police brutality and stuff like that, and now their ears are ready to hear the artistic side of it. I think that younger audience members are ready, but I also think that the older ones are ready too, I really do.

Anthony Barfield by Ella Mazur