Composer and vocalist Jasmine Barnes is a fast-rising star in the classical-music realm. She’s also a newish member of the musical collective known as the Blacknificent 7, who’ll perform original works in the season’s first CSO MusicNOW concert on Dec. 3 — including the world premiere of Barnes’ MusicNOW commission The United States Welcomes You. Here’s what she had to say about that work and her career.
On the creative and emotional roots of The United States Welcomes You:
The United States Welcomes You is a poem by Tracy K. Smith that is completely written in question form, an interrogative style. This poem glances into the existence of preemptive fear within law enforcement and suggests how fear is the divider of the United States. I decided to do some of my own research and decided to start the piece with “The Stars and Stripes Forever” by John Philip Sousa.
What many people don’t know is that this piece, in its earlier years of existence, acted as a “Distress March” that was often used in entertainment like circuses and theaters. When played, it was a signal that something dangerous was happening and staff needed to evacuate the audience. I thought it befitting to tie that song to this piece as a metaphor for America. “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” blaring in all its patriotic glory, covering up the deep-rooted and systemic issues within our country. I use this theme motivically, changing in mood and texture throughout the piece, to execute this interrogation.
On how she was and still is influenced by history:
Growing up in Baltimore Maryland, history was something of importance. Baltimore, despite its “The Wire” reputation, carries a great deal of American history within it, and I was always in the position to learn so much of it. What I know most about history is that it repeats in new forms, centuries and events. History is always relevant because we’re always creating it. This influences my compositions, because I’m aware of how history has been erased, revised and rerouted. I feel it’s my personal responsibility to tell it, and art is the best space to do that because historically, it has been used to tell the stories of those who were silenced. My goal in writing is to always tell a story of purpose.
On her evolution as a musician and artist:
In my earlier studies, I learned about the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Schubert, Verdi, Puccini and so many other great composers. The common thread between them is that they are all, for lack of better terms, white men. For quite some time, I viewed my writing as unsuccessful if I didn’t write like those composers. And music education programs across the nation further this narrative that the only way to write classical music is to preserve the way it’s always been.
But I always found it intriguing that other art forms don’t push this narrative. Other art forms evolve with the time period, appreciating and respecting former versions of themselves. My evolution came with exploring composers not of European descent, many of whom pushed the boundaries of what classical music sounds like. It was then that I started to peel back the constraints I’d put on myself and changed what I thought was “good” classical music. I can find beauty in so many types of music, and I think the classical community could benefit from embracing new music and still hold dear space for the “canon.”
On seeing her notes and emotions jump off the page during performances of her work:
Experiencing my music in real time amazes me. “I wrote that?” crosses my mind in every instance. I think I’m so enthralled because I’m not someone who grew up with classical music, or someone who felt reflected in it, and I think, “How lucky am I to get to be that representation for someone like me.” I think every composer’s goal is to make the audience feel or think. I feel like my work is most effective when I can gauge how it’s experienced from the performers’ perspective first, and then an audience’s reception. There’s no other feeling like it in the world. It makes me feel like I’ve done something meaningful with my gifts.
On what the future holds in terms of singing and composing:
I’m fortunate to say I have a few opportunities forthcoming, including an opera premiere (On My Mind, with librettist Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton), commissioned by Opera Theatre of St. Louis as part of its New Works Collective in March 2024, as well as an orchestral workshop of a full-length opera (She Who Dared, with Mouton), commissioned by American Lyric Theater, in fall 2024. Both works feature Black women leads, and Deborah and I are a Black woman composer-librettist team!
It’s all a part of why I transitioned more into writing opera in the first place. I started as a singer, felt underrepresented in the available roles and decided I could best create space by creating operas that provided those roles. I love storytelling and I love that I get to do that musically and with Deborah, one of my favorite collaborators.
My mountaintop would likely be having multiple commissions and performances of main-stage works, commissions and performances of concert work, and something I haven’t done yet but would love to do: write a film score. Over all, I just want a successful career [where I] bring new audiences to classical music. I feel so blessed as is, but I would love to experience sustainability.
And just to put it out there: There are no large companies — at least in the United States — that have ever commissioned and premiered an opera from a Black composer. There have only been performances of pre-existing works. And while those performances of these operas have been fantastic and a huge step forward in the classical community, I’d love to see Black composers being commissioned, and hope one day that could happen for me.