World Premiere Musical Performance Gives “A Voice to the Voiceless”
On September 14 at the Queens Theatre in New York, composer Landon Knoblock will premiere “A Voice for the Voiceless,” a stirring new social justice music project inspired by and created with young people experiencing homelessness and housing instability in New York City public schools. Commissioned by the Queens Council on the Arts’ Artist Commissioning Program, the piece sets out to amplify the voices of some of the community’s most underrepresented and at-risk children through the emotional immediacy and connectivity of music.
Composed around children’s’ voices, “A Voice for the Voiceless” acts as a collection of vignettes, framing their stories in a mix of rock, electronic jazz, and hip-hop. Some songs frame spoken word with modern trap beats, while others encompass creative short stories with bubbling synths and charming melodies. Snippets of voices float among electronic beats, melodic synths, and guitar solos. Knoblock plays piano and keyboards, and triggers recorded samples of the students’ voices. He is joined by guitarist Pavel Rivera (Twintapes) and drummer Bryan Bisordi (LPX, Raia Was). Some of the students will perform their poetry live with the band.
In the months leading up to the concert, Knoblock has spent valuable hours working with public school students struggling with the additional burden of housing instability. Through the auspices of non-profit and community organizations, the composer engaged with at-risk children in a very direct way, conducting workshops, introducing them to musicmaking technologies and encouraging them to share their experiences through their own words, songs and poetry. Knoblock demonstrated music creation technologies including laptops, synthesizers and the production software Ableton Live, then asked the participants to use these methods to collaborate on their own songs. Afterwards they engaged in in-depth conversations about the hardships these students face on a day-to-day basis. These dialogues form a major part of the inspiration behind the final project, and the children’s ideas, along with samples of their actual voices, have been woven into the songs of “A Voice for the Voiceless.”
“First and foremost,” Knoblock says, “I hope this music can give a voice to children who really don’t have a voice or might not have advocates within our system. The issue of homelessness is usually just pictured as a panhandler on the subway or somebody sleeping under the train tracks, but housing instability is far more complex than that and can affect people that you might not realize.”
Throughout his career, Landon Knoblock has endeavored to tell stories via his music, whether through his work as an in-demand soundtrack composer for film and television; through his cutting-edge sonic contributions to podcasts and video games; or through his formative years as a touring musician with rock and pop bands as well as his own genre-blurring music. With “A Voice for the Voiceless,” he places that gift for narrative in service of young people from his own community whose stories far too often go unheard.
“I was really surprised by how aware these kids were of social justice,” Knoblock says. “Their minds were already framed towards looking ahead to what they could do for their communities. That possibility really excited them.” Along with the topics broached, the music of “A Voice for the Voiceless” also takes on a form that these students can engage with. Knoblock hopes the songs will be infectious enough that the messages contained within them take hold. “At a really basic level, everybody connects with stories,” he says. “Whether it’s in folk tales or film or books, storytelling is one of the most fundamental things that connect all people together. Creating music that can be inclusive and bring people together really resonates for me with what it means to be human and be a part of a community. Hopefully people will come away from this performance inspired to become more involved with the youth of their communities.”
The piece was was commissioned by the Queens Council on the Arts’ inaugural Artist Commissioning Program, which provides local choreographers, playwrights and composers with funding towards the creation and production of original work. The focus of this new initiative, funded by the Scherman Foundation’s Rosin Fund, is to produce new, significant works of art that diversity the American canon, as well as build a growing culture of arts support in Queens. For more information about the ACP, visit: www.queenscouncilarts.org/art-commissioning/