For music creators in the North Star state, ACF’s Minnesota Music Creator Awards (MMCA) are an opportunity to expand on the work they have been building and take the “next step” in their creative journey. Supported in part by the Jerome Foundation, MMCA offers each awardee $3,000 to pursue a project designed to advance their creative development. As the 2020 cohort of Carlisle Evans Peck, Leyna Marika Papach, and Tony the Scribe conclude their award cycle, we checked in with them to talk about navigating being a creator in the time of Covid and a heightened fight for social justice in America.
Carlisle, Leyna, and Tony received their awards in July 2020 as many opportunities for creators were disappearing into the world of venue closures and municipal lockdowns. For some, this was a time to rethink their practice. For others, it was a time to dig in and explore what their practice means. “I received the award just before the start of the pandemic, which felt cosmically miraculous,” says Carlisle. “It gave me the means to continue and deepen my composition practice and explore what it even means to be a composer and performer in the midst of a pandemic that flattened the performance industry and seemed to call into question the feasibility of making a living in music.”
The award is much more than just being part of a grant cycle that expires. It’s a rare approach to award-giving, and I think it’s very stabilizing and affirming for anyone who receives it.
Leyna had recently moved to Minnesota when she received the award, which was a pleasant surprise for her. “I took it as a kind of a wink from the universe that I made the right choice to come here. It’s been over a year since the award, and [ACF and I] are still in communication with each other and planning new things — it kind of surprised me that the award is much more than just being part of a grant cycle that expires. It’s a rare approach to award-giving, and I think it’s very stabilizing and affirming for anyone who receives it.”
For many winners of this award, it has been the first major recognition of their music. “[MMCA] was really validating and helpful for me in a variety of ways,” says Tony. “In hip-hop, artists often have to develop on our own, without a lot of institutional support, funding, or recognition. Receiving the MMCA opened me up to a new array of opportunities and possibilities, and reinforced that I can compose and move in lots of different musical worlds.”
Like many artists during the past 18 months, so much had changed for Carlisle. “Spring, summer, and fall of 2020 were full of gigs and projects that all fell like dominoes to the pandemic, [but] MMCA allowed me the opportunity to quickly pivot and devote a season to exploring a new creative direction in my work, absent the constant push to perform.”
They spent most of the year living on a small farm in the wooded ridges along the north shore of Lake Superior developing their work Requiem Sylvarum (Requiem for the Wilds), created and performed in collaboration with endangered wild natural spaces around Minnesota. “I grew food from that land. My day-to-day was profoundly connected to heatwaves, drought, and wildfire smoke. I learned to listen to the orchestra of sounds.”
They also spent time traveling throughout Minnesota, visiting each biome. “I developed a practice of immersive deep listening, collected field recordings, composed melodies and rituals, and created ephemeral altars. It was so much more than the creation of new music, it felt like setting off down a path that I may well be traversing the rest of my life.”
This building of connection with Minnesota’s landscapes coincided with the construction of the Line 3 tar sands pipeline across the wetlands and forests of the northern part of the state. “As a person of white settler lineage, it is an imperative responsibility to be actively decolonial in all aspects of my life…That work connected with Requiem catalyzed a more meaningful engagement with environmental activism and helped me enter the space with humility, respect, and reverence for the leadership of Indigenous peoples who have called this land home for time immemorial.”
Leyna admits that her journey through the pandemic felt hectic and disorienting — especially being a parent. But overall, she says, the experience “had a simplifying effect on my existence, highlighting who and what is important to me, and what still stands true after all the noise subsides. I found real peace in music, and relief from all that was going on.”
As she worked on her MMCA-supported project, PERSON/a requiem, Leyna was reacting to the events unfolding around her, from protests to the election and people voicing a wide range of opinions. She says that what she learned about herself during this time is that “the subjects that I tend to gravitate towards in art, no matter what is happening in my life, will probably always be about the grey areas of life — situations where there are no clear answers. Maybe it’s kind of a boring outcome after all that we went through collectively, but I feel more at peace with my ways — more so than before the pandemic. Seeing life through music — everything is still a mystery to me.”
Tony the Scribe initially wanted to use the MMCA to investigate how to “engineer the organic and digital elements of [his] music so that they sound like parts of a greater whole.” Over the past year, this has manifested as a focus on creative development: learning more music theory, taking lessons, and experimenting with different sounds and workflows. “Obviously it’s been a really chaotic year, but in some ways, that worked to my advantage — other than the extremely intense first few months of the George Floyd uprising, the pandemic has encouraged me to spend more time alone and working on myself. So there’s been some unexpected space to redefine my relationship with my art.”
Tony plans to spend the next few months on a similar musical sabbatical, devoting more time to composition and long-neglected projects. He also hopes to continue working toward part of his MMCA project goal to collaborate with more session musicians and move from being an individual artist to more of a hub, bringing different musicians together to create work. “I’m excited for the results of all of those, but I think I’m most excited for the process — I have no doubt that learning how to build my life entirely around music will be a gift that will keep on giving for the rest of my life.”
ACF’s ongoing equity and inclusion work specifically focuses on belonging and widening the number of people who see themselves as part of our community. This includes looking at how the very words we use might actually be distancing us from artists who could benefit from our support, and who are already adding so much to our ecosystem.
Until recently, the Minnesota Music Creator Awards were named the Minnesota Emerging Composer Awards. “Emerging” has always been a sort of nebulous term where the circle of who belongs expands and contracts almost arbitrarily. And the historic use of the term “composer” has always had a way of excluding music makers operating outside of Western music styles.
Carlisle, Leyna, and Tony are a part of a proud Minnesota family of creators that have won this award, and they are even more proud of the recent decision to change the name.
The word ‘composer,’ sadly, can feel inaccessible to so many people who don’t make classical music.
“Words are powerful. ‘Music Creator Award’ feels like a big warm umbrella over all kinds of musicians,” Leyna states. “‘Emerging’ is a confusing word in the context of being a composer. Emerging from where? …when? It tends to evoke unnecessary questions in my mind that takes away from what the award wants to celebrate. I think this title change… sends out a totally different message, and so the response will probably bounce back to meet it.”
Tony agrees, adding, “I think it’s a great idea — the word ‘composer,’ sadly, can feel inaccessible to so many people who don’t make classical music. It took me a while to realize that what I was doing was composition, in addition to being songwriting, producing, and everything else. There are lots of unconventional music creators who I think will feel more encouraged to seek support given the change.”
Carlisle also “wholeheartedly supports” the removal of the word “composer.” “The term holds so much baggage and feels very gatekeeper-like,” they explained. “ [Music is] an act that anyone should have the opportunity to explore and foster, so it’s important to break down the barriers that lie in how we define and value who creates music.” But Carlisle still finds themselves wondering about the term “emerging.” “It does seem important to have specific opportunities dedicated to creators who are just getting started in their journeys. But I suppose that ‘emerging’ does carry connotations of directionality as if this opportunity must necessarily lead to the pursuit of more opportunities — as if we aren’t always emerging.”
This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board Operating Support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.
I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF.