Liberal arts professor Bill Banfield, director of Berklee’s Africana Studies program, writes about the conceptualization and execution of his Symphony 10: Affirmations. 

The performance, creative process, and the development of my new symphony, Symphony 10: Affirmations, has been nothing but one of the greatest creative-art collaborative experiences I have had as a musician. Let’s begin with the opening night. No, even with the rehearsals leading up to the premiere. I arrived three days before the premiere of Affirmations, performed by the National Symphony Orchestra and Sweet Honey in the Rock at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. These two creative forces alone were enough to boil the excitement pots in the heart. Add to this the incredible Morgan State University Choir. As with most symphonic works, there is a rehearsal, giving composers an opportunity to hear the work for the first time, provide ” notes” and suggestions for the premiere to the 100 players, and give some creative insights to the conductor. Then, it’s “on.”

Berklee liberal arts professor Bill Banfield (front row, second from right) composed Symphony 10: Affirmations.

The ladies of Sweet Honey in the Rock approached me in the summer of 2005 at the retirement party for author Toni Morrison, yet another provocative intersection in text and meaning. Enter in several interested orchestras and then the crash and fall of financial markets in 2009, the work was put on hold. Our Affirmations symphony has within its journey more than poetry and themes to mark its meaning. Beethoven had created his 9th Symphony and dedicated its sounding to ideas in the world, and in these ways imagined, imposed or real, I was moved too by the merging of music and ideas.

With the performance of Affirmations, there were three rehearsals, two of which were dedicated entirely to just refinement and some fine tuning of the new symphony. This never happens. All the jitters around whether the piece will be executed the way you intended were taken away. That is huge!

Next, many family members and friends came, which is rare, because people cannot always travel to hear symphony performances in other cities. My nearing 90-year-old dad was in attendance, all dressed up and looking like he was 55! Maestro Thomas Wilkins led the National Symphony Orchestra in works by Adolphus Hailstork, Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington, and Tchaikovsky. The second half was entirely devoted to the Affirmations symphony. It was an incredible and fabulous opening. This concert was repeated on the next evening. The board of directors also threw a huge party for friends, family, and symphony donors on the roof garden of the Kennedy Center! It was a lovely, April 13 and 14 in 2012.

After the performance of Affirmations

In addition to the notes, I think there is also something to be shared about the process of the pulling together of the work. It begins with the poetry, from the ladies of Sweet Honey. I basically had to live in their words, even before a note is written. Setting poetry to music is the most time-consuming work—detailed and intensive for me. You have to “musicalize” the poetry, from flat words to sounding musical pitches, and pour those into a song form that carries the spirit and drama of the poetry. While some of this is subjective, a really well-set piece speaks musically, spiritually, and emotively to the poem’s desires and meanings. In order to do this, you have to live with the poetry. Once that is done and the song is written, you have to then orchestrate the work for 100 players, including sections of strings, winds, brass, and percussion. While this may seem to be the most daunting of the tasks, it is for me the most fun. Orchestration is like inviting the right friends to your home, decorating the rooms, cooking the specialty dishes, and then laying it all out. It’s construction, cooking, baking, and decorating all at once. Music “sounds in the voice of instruments.” You have to cast the piece well, so it sounds good and is effective.

The other challenge is making sure you have the right style and tempos, and the balances are right so the voices are not overpowered by all the instruments.

Then there was rehearsing with Sweet Honey. Ohhhhh, boy!! Sweet Honey in the Rock has been together for 40 years! How do you approach such a veteran performing ensemble? How do you “teach them” the music, then direct them? Most times performers are very grateful for a composer to give them the essentials of the music. So the collaboration and sharing happened for us immediately.

One other essential for this collaboration was the vocal coaching. The fabulous Marvin Mills of Maryland assisted in working through my vocal/piano rehearsal scores, and shaping the ladies over the year. There was also the incredible Eric Conway, principal director of the Morgan State choirs, who worked with the 100 voices. By the time (the rehearsing and prep, which took about a year) the work was to mounted, we were all on the same pages. Everything went like timed clockwork.

After the Kennedy Center, the next week we were off to Minneapolis for a performance with the Minneapolis Symphony in Minnesota. Again, the house was packed and the orchestra performed marvelously.

I guess if there was one thing I remember the most, it was sitting there in the audience, watching the people being moved by not only the ladies’ incredible artistry, but also the spirit of the work, how that “went inside” the people, and you could see it, and feel it, ” in the house.”

Music is more than music. It’s an experience of living sounded-out on tones that reflect people’s ideas, love, needs, and imagination. Affirmations has marked my creative life tremendously. In other words, I have been Affirmed.

Lesley Mahoney
Latest posts by Lesley Mahoney (see all)