Composing in the Midst of a Pandemic
17 May 2020
Kerwin Young


18 MAY 2020

KY New Web Logo A

Namhiya Ati: Kerwin, once again it is a pleasure to interview you. Given the fact we’ve always conducted our interviews online, the current COVID-19 pandemic with its restrictions has not affected our ability to communicate. I thank you for taking time out of your schedule to chat with the EOK Times

I’m sure this is a constant question, but how has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your lifestyle? And, by what methods have you managed to continue working?

Kerwin Young: No need to thank me Namhiya, I’m always available for the EOK Times. For starters, being a composer and recording producer, much of my existence is in isolation. Since I began in 1988, nothing much has changed. It’s definitely been a lifestyle in perpetuity; so when the regulations were put in place, I didn’t have to make any adjustments. The only difference is when I go out shopping, I wear a mask and gloves. But, other than that, my lifestyle hasn’t changed at all.

As for work, all of my concert performances were cancelled and rescheduled for later dates. All of my commissions were postponed, and I had a couple of major ones in the pipeline that I now have to wait for. Orchestra and chamber ensemble concert seasons have all been pushed back to 2021/2022. This now means that I also have a delayed income; since certain expected 2020 commissions will not materialize for another twelve months. As a result, this pandemic has put a dent in my financial planning; as with many other earthlings during this time. We’re all affected. Though on a positive note, I’ve been able to teach online as a guest lecturer with college universities. In June 2020, I begin my second summer teaching the Hip-Hop beat-making lab with the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. I’m definitely looking forward to that. Of course, that too will be an on-line course.

Other than these few things, I’m still composing my Symphony No. 8 “End of Reign”, and I’m continuing to collaborate on various projects. For example, I’m producing a rap album with an artist named Khasan. He and I have been working on and off together since 1992. A few years ago, we did a song for the motion picture Dirty Grandpa, called I Want It All. I’ve got a recent commission from ROCO for a fall concert. That’s about it. Whatever future work I acquire, I’d be truly thankful. 

I’ve been spending hours on Zoom and YouTube, getting deeper into my software applications (Digital Performer, Cubase, Dorico). Both MOTU and Steinberg have been offering free online tutorials three times a week; so I’ve been soaking it up. One major issue that I’m having is I desperately need a new laptop to continue working. I’m unable to continue with my current laptop, and I don’t see it surviving through the summer. I can’t afford to purchase a new one, and I specifically need a gaming laptop with a minimum of 32 gigs of ram, and with a one terabyte ssd, like the ASUS Zephrys S17 (2020 edition) or the ASUS ZenBook Pro Duo UX581. I need this to happen before the start of my first class lecture on June 22nd. Wish me well. I’m always working with less; most of the time…

NA Congratulations on your ROCO commission and teaching assignments. Yes, we are all thankful for whatever work we acquire. I know that you live in the Atlanta, Georgia area. Have you been able to engage the film/television and gaming industries there? Have you been in touch with universities there for online teaching?

KY: I’ll answer your second question, first. When the pandemic hit, I contacted the staff at Kennesaw State, Georgia State, Emory University, Clark-Atlanta University, Morehouse, and Spelman Colleges. I mentioned six schools, correct? (Kerwin chuckles) Not one of these schools responded; not one. Major universities and conservatories in other states; however, responded immediately, but here at home… forget about it.

As for media scoring in Atlanta, it’s been an-going quest. Still, one hundred per cent of my work comes from outside Georgia and abroad. However, opportunities that did arise here in Georgia, they were all inadequately funded, and/or presented some reluctance to pay the black guy on the gig; ie: me. I have to deal with a lot of racism and ignorance. Look, there aren’t many black composers. We don’t have any representation, and most black composers are unsupportive of one another. At the end of the day, we get nowhere. You touched on a nerve Namhiya. Though there are successful black composers as Dara Taylor, Segun Akinola, Wilbert Roget II, Michael Abels, Tamar-Kali, Kurt Farquhar, and Kris Bowers, there isn’t any hub for us to convene and learn from one another. Michael Abels founded the Composers Diversity Collective, but it requires a fee to join; when some months ago it was free. Given the current circumstances, many of us cannot pay to join anything. We have to pay for food, water, and shelter. Twenty-four years ago, the Black Filmmaker Foundation supported me at starting up a sister-wing called the Black Film Composers Foundation if I could get two or three established black composers to sit on the governing board. I won’t mention the composers I contacted, but each of them refused. That was in 1996, and still nothing has changed. You see where we are today, still nowhere. 

I think of Wil Vodery, the first black composer in Hollywood. He worked really hard, did a lot; mentored George Gershwin and Duke Ellington, but where is his lineage? Henry Mancini vouched for Quincy Jones to get Quincy in on the action, and Quincy recommended Donny Hathaway; but who else has come from Quincy’s lineage? Where are they and who are they? What about J.J. Johnson, Oliver Nelson, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, and Benny Golson? Each of these men paid enormous dues, but were very successful. Who did they open the door for, and where is that lineage, if any? The question must still be asked, who came from these lineages? I’m not criticizing anyone, nor the actions of those who came before, but the lines remain broken. We have failed to put a system in place that serves to represent and unify us. Getting on as an orchestrator or copyist is just as difficult as getting on as a composer. I’ve joined all the major organizations; including the L.A. local, maintaining membership fees and dues, and I put in the leg work for a lot of years. But, none of this made a difference. Queries go unanswered. The dissemination of information is selective. To add to the pot, promises are never kept. A lot of people who know me, they don’t realize that I’ve composed music for major films, major television network series, and video games. What they also don’t know is that I was never credited. Being denied an agent before beginning the work is tough, but being denied an agent after the work has been acquired is a lot worse; and in my case, 25+ years later is even tougher. You have no idea the sacrifices I made and continue to make so that I can keep busy and afford the means to sustain myself.  It’s not easy, and no one gives a shit. 

I find that success in any field, I don’t care what field it is; success comes from a form of nepotism. It’s about who you know. Having an agent, a lawyer, an inside connection is all nepotism. I’ve been told by certain established composers that this isn’t true, but they’re delusional. You’re lucky if your talent lands you work; which for most people isn’t the case. It’s a daily battle. How to get inside and have work is a constant fight. This is the flavor of the game. So, living in Atlanta; where there are lots of film and game production studios, much of the music they acquire is either from a  library, or they hired a composer who does not live in Georgia. Although the films and games are produced in Georgia, the music is outsourced. And, not being represented by one of the agents who negotiates these type of deals will leave the job-seeking composer out on their ass. 

NA: This is certainly a handful of truth and insight to swallow at once. Throughout your career, you’ve demonstrated an enormous sense of perseverance and fortitude; and I gather these are attributed to your martial arts background?

KY: True indeed! Without my martial arts training, there’s no telling what would have become of me. My martial arts training includes the spiritual aspect as well. In both music and martial arts, I’ve been blessed to work and study with the masters. It’s been rewarding in that sense, and so far, I’ve able to through the toughest of times.

NA: Has this global pandemic forced you in any way to restructure your business or to revise your business strategy?

KY: It most certainly has, Namhiya. Because of fear, there will definitely be a decrease in social gathering. Virtual communication will continue to increase and allow for a greater amount of virtual collaboration. In either situation, we can still work, but it requires this type of foresight to know in what way one’s business can expand in the midst of such dynamics. The downside is that certain laws have already been implemented to pay unsustainable royalties for on-line streaming. However, depending upon which medium one is engaged, the royalty rate can be much higher. There’s online teaching as we’ve mentioned earlier, and that offers an added option toward re-structuring my business. Instead of teaching on a seasonal basis, it would be wonderful to teach full-time. However, rejection letters from university review boards are frequent, and the common lay-person has no idea how frustrating this becomes over time. The amount of rejection letters I receive is overwhelming, and a bit ridiculous. 

I think the idea of online concerts presents a problem for composers. Composers will not earn as much from the streaming of a concert performance as they will from a concert performed in a live venue. Going back to the laws that have been passed, the royalty rate is much higher from venues than from streaming services. Another point to mention is that composer commissions for new works will have to increase in the amount paid. In fact, I urge that composers demand higher commissions. So, these are some of the things I’ve looked into during this time.

NA: Not having any solidarity among black composers poses a problem, but among the whole of composers, I’m sure there is a circle of composers in which you engage. You’ve recently composed a work, Eva’s Ashes, as part of the GLFCAMGigThruCOVID in an effort to raise monies for performing artists. You collaborated with violist, Edwin Kaplan of the Tesla String Quartet. How was that experience? How are these works to be premiered? How did this opportunity arise?

KY: Absolutely, there are a handful of composers in which I communicate. None of these are media composers; but we do share upcoming opportunities and happening insights among ourselves. As you know, I was already a resident composer with the Gabriela Lena Frank Composer Academy of Music for Cycle-12 (January/2020 – June/2020). Through this affiliation with GLFCAM, several composers were paired with professional musicians to compose a short work to be premiered on-line. GLFCAM will stream all of the premieres via their YouTube channel. We each have about two weeks to compose the new work. Edwin and I Skyped to discuss the work, its concepts, our likes and dislikes; our musical tastes, etc… It was pretty straightforward, and then after taking a bunch of notes, I went off and wrote the piece. The title of the work came about from a phone conversation with my brother, Saladin.

NA: You also have another premiere rapidly approaching with the Del Sol String Quartet. Will this conclude your residency with the GLFCAM?

KY: Yes, it will. Prior to COVID-19, all of the GLFCAM resident composers were scheduled to reconvene in San Francisco, for our concert premieres with Del Sol. But, since all that has been compromised, it’ll now all be on-line. These too may also stream live via the GLFCAM YouTube channel; though I am uncertain at this time. Namhiya, there’s also another premiere with the Inscape Chamber Orchestra that had been postponed. That concert has not yet been re-scheduled, and as soon as I learn of the premiere date, I will post it to my website events calendar.

NA: We’ve discussed the madness you face in the Georgia media world, but are there any media composition activities in which you are presently engaged?

KY: Just for fun, I’m participating in the Spitfire Audio Westworld Scoring Competition to keep my media scoring chops up. They’re offering a few prizes, but I already own much of their gear and am participating in it just to maintain the practice.

NA: What words of encouragement would you care to impart to our readers as we close this interview?

KY: Continue to manage your diet as best you can, exercise daily (stretching, deep breathing, and muscular-skeletal isometrics), practice cleanliness, and utilize the time we have to build stronger networks; building international networks through collaboration.

NA: Kerwin, it is always a pleasure interviewing you. I hope that by our next interview, you will have received your new gaming laptop and will have acquired work as a media composer.

KY: Thank You, Namhiya, I sure hope so too.

Namhiya Ati

Senior Editor, EOK Times

<October 2020>

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