Composer Spotlight: Raquel Acevedo Klein – Creating Community During Crisis

As the pandemic prompted shutdowns across the United States and the rest of the world, musicians and audiences watched cancellations of festivals, concerts, and events quickly follow. Enter Raquel Acevedo Klein and MUSIC on the REBOUND, an online festival designed to bring people together through musical exchanges and help performers affected by the COVID-19 crisis. ACO was honored to be part of the project with the inclusion of Connecting ACO Community, which included 19 short works premiered online from April to July 2020.

We are thrilled to be working with Raquel again on Saturday, October 23rd for New Canons, which will include her work Polyphonic Interlace. Recently, she spoke with us about her musical life, artistic influences, and the impetus behind her work.

Lyndsay Werking (LW): Your bio reads, “Raquel Acevedo Klein is an active conductor, vocalist, instrumentalist and visual artist.” Composer is not part of that list. Tell me about that. 

Raquel Acevedo Klein (RK): It’s interesting. I didn’t go to school for composition. I went to school for the things mentioned in my bio. I consider composition or creating music to be part of my musicianship. In the last year, or since the pandemic, much of what I’ve been doing is being a composer. Before then, I wasn’t putting myself out there as a composer. Since the pandemic, opportunities to present something as a composer organically emerged. It’s an interesting question now, “Am I a composer?”

Trailer for Polyphonic Interlace, part of ACO’s New Canons concert on October 23, 2021.

LW: Why were people coming to you to write works? How did that relate to your earlier work?

RK: I also work as a producer. I was creating a project call Se Levanta, which in English translates as “the art of rising.” This was a response to the horrible situation in Puerto Rico caused by hurricane María. I was banding together with my family to create a multimedia song cycle with motion graphic illustrations, and songs, which I wrote and sang. That work had a lot of resonance with people. Lots of universities and presenters wanted to present the work.

In telling the story of our friends and family who were affected by this catastrophe, the music wrote itself because it was so personal. I found myself writing a lot of vocal music and then I reconnected with my composition teacher Conrad Cummings. We had online lessons every week. It was such a wonderful experience. It felt like such a wonderful catharsis. Sometimes I wouldn’t sleep, I would write for 24 hours.

Video of Motherland Dream Sequence from Raquel Acevedo Klein’s Se Levanta

LW: Can you tell me more about Polyphonic Interlace?

RK: I was approached over a year ago by Hanako Yamaguchi, the previous artistic director of Lincoln Center. She approached me about writing a work for a festival at Little Island (an outdoor amphitheater at Pier 59 on the Hudson River). I’ve always been moved by Thomas Tallis and his work Spem in Alium

Writing Polyphonic Interlace, I responded to a need I felt in the pandemic, which was a desire to sing with other people. There were a lot of safety concerns and things at stake for choral music. It was hard to create a sense of robust choral sound safely. I wanted to create a piece that enveloped the listener with an orchestral, symphonic sound. I decided to make a choir of myself. It is 40 voices of myself recording on top of each other.

As I continued to work with my teacher, it was a very cathartic process. We kept asking, How does one write a choral work with one voice? I was writing the work as I was recording myself.

LW: The work is interactive for the audience. Tell me more about the participatory nature of the piece.

RK: Tying into the idea of writing a piece for my voice, another main component speaks to the need for bringing people together through music. I wanted to create a piece that was bringing community together. I knew that so many people were in isolation and lock down. What’s a way we can fill that void and create connection safely? Early on, I worked with ACO, IONE, Claire Chase and ICE, to create the Music on the Rebound Festival.

We hosted a live music performance of Pauline Oliveros’ Tuning Meditation led by IONE and Claire Chase every Saturday. It exploded. We had over 4,600 people over Zoom across all 7 continents. All of these people tuning in at the same time. This was about individualized catharsis and community.

That very much influenced me. I wanted anyone to be able to participate regardless of musical experience or skill. I’ve recorded my voice over different parts. People can play those tracks from their individual phones. By playing music from their phones and walk around the space, they get to pave their own path and be part of the sound emanating from all of those people.

My unspoken mission as a musician is to meet the needs of all of us during a crisis. I’ve put Music on the Rebound to rest for now, but I will bring it back if needed.

LW: What about your visual art? How does that fit into your creative work? Is it connected to music or separate?

RK: I come from a visual art family. Some parents drill their kids in scales and music practice. My parents drilled me in illustration and drawing practice. I had to practice drawing people from life, which Taught me how to find myself as a musician. How to look at something from life and incorporate that into my music. If I’m drawing a portrait, I’m more interested in looking at something and reflecting it on paper. As a composer, I’m reflecting on things and translating them into music, notes on the page and instructions. It very much informs how I conceptualize music. Drawing taught me how to see the world and how to listen.

Illustration by Raquel Acevedo Klein
Illustration by Raquel Acevedo Klein

LW: Do you practice any rituals?

RK: In addition to drawing from life, I improvise every day. This is something I started doing when I was very little. I started piano at 6, and still take lessons with the same teacher. Every week, we start with an improvisation, based on one of the Greek modes. It’s part of my daily practice.

Sometimes, my teacher will place a picture on the piano and ask me to improvise in response to that picture. I have a sense that music, conducting, drawing, is a cathartic way of processing one’s experience and being in the moment. It feels very rejuvenating. If my teacher is in the room, we have a shared experience. We listen and experience together. 

Sometimes it can go on for a long time, sometimes, it is only 8 minutes. It has completely wiped my sense of concrete or conventional time. It’s a meditation. A way of pressing pause on everything going on and being fully present. I can’t imagine it not being part of my day.

LW: Anything else you’d like to share?

RK: Thinking about the themes of New Canons, it’s nice to see programming that speaks to the idea of music being an amalgamation of so many things. It can bring all different kinds of audiences together in person, or a mix of in person and online. That embodies my practice as a musician. I love doing more than one thing: composition, conducting, drawing, singing, piano. Each of those things inform the others. I love conducting because it informs how I deconstruct the music on the page. I love singing because it’s an instrument embedded in my body and allows me to express things outside of the piano like microtonality.

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