Art Works Blog

Art Talk with composer Mary Watkins

“When I was a little kid playing cowboys with my brother and other neighborhood kids—chasing the bad guys on our ‘horses’—I was singing the action music; modulating up and up, louder and louder, as we got closer and closer to catching the bad guys.” This is a childhood memory that music composer Mary Watkins recalls. Little did the younger version of Watkins know that not only was she going to have a successful career in music, but her compositions would shine a spotlight on big social movements. As Watkins says herself, she didn’t aspire to be a “star” performer, but rather, to be a part of something that mattered.

Watkins has composed music for jazz ensembles, symphony orchestras, choral groups, and more. She’s written music for several documentary films, three of which were nominated for Best Documentary Academy Awards in 1995. Moved by the persuasion and power of music during the Civil Rights Movement fight for freedom, Watkins was inspired with the idea to compose a full length opera. The opera called, Dark River: The Fannie Lou Hamer Story, opened up the space for the composer to convey the high drama and emotions of the movement.

In an interview with Watkins, we learned about her personal journey to the music world, how art helped her convey feelings, and also about the influence of social movements in her work.

NEA: For over 35 years, you have worked in music. Tell us about how it all got started.

MARY WATKINS: I started this musical journey in Pueblo, Colorado, as a little piano student. I was not quite four years old and didn’t have any idea why I was being given piano lessons. I don’t think I had shown any interest in playing the piano, but it was my mother’s bright idea that since my cousin was playing the piano at three, it would be a wonderful idea to get me started early. From the very beginning I was admonished to confine my piano playing to the written notes on the page because it was of great importance that I be “literate.” Playing by ear was forbidden. For that reason, I was not interested in piano lessons though I did as I was told. Not until I dared to cross that forbidden line (using my ear), did I really become interested in music. When I thought no one was listening, I would play the hymns I heard at church and other songs I heard and liked. At some point, and it didn’t take too long, my teacher and mother knew I was playing by ear as much as I was reading the music—and since they actually liked what they heard, they didn’t bother me about it. I soon took up the violin, and later the trumpet, and played in the school orchestra and band. In high school, I played the tuba.

Music programs in the schools is where I think my interest in music really broadened. I was fascinated by the combinations of instruments playing together, the colors, emotions, and moods it created. It was magical. I also played at the church I grew up in. I was a natural accompanist, so I was always very busy playing in community talent shows, and things like that.

It’s been a long road, but nothing lost. I worked as an organist in churches, worked in musical theater, was a music director, resident composer, and pianist for a company called Ebony Impromptu in Washington D.C. Many years later I found myself in Los Angeles transcribing music for R&B, rock, and jazz musicians. My career was focused mostly on performance, playing with my own ensemble, and also touring solo across the country. Performing my own music led to a commission to compose a piece for the Bay Area Women’s Symphony, and soon thereafter I was approached by Krissy Keefer, director of Dance Brigade, a San Francisco-based dance company, to write a jazz version of The Nutcracker Ballet which became known as, The Revolutionary Nutcracker Sweetie

NEA: There are a couple of NEA awards under your belt including fellowships for Jazz Composition (1987) and Jazz Performance (1981), and support for the Women’s Prison Tour (1980). How did this recognition impact your journey moving forward in your career?

WATKINS: The NEA grants put me on the map. It was because of an NEA grant that I was invited to participate in the Djerassi artist residency program in Woodside, California, in 1988. The NEA grants definitely made me more viable as an artist with a track record for granting organizations.

NEA: You were trained in classical music at Howard University. What drew you to this concentration?

WATKINS: I’ve always moved comfortably between genres. For instance, I played boogie-woogie piano and played and sang with a country band for a very short time as a teenager. I also played the great Protestant hymns of my church as well as gospel music. All the while I was also playing a lot of Chopin, Bach, and Beethoven. I loved all kinds of music, but always dreamed of composing larger forms rather than the standard 32-bar song.

I was always struggling with myself not to over-write; always wanting to say and control much more of the music when playing with groups than was normally done in pop, R&B, or jazz. This often put me in conflict with other players. I had to relax and learn to let the music breathe and give the players more freedom. This was the frustrated composer in me struggling to stretch in a genre that was not conducive to where I wanted to go with the music. I needed a larger palette for expression—one that properly gave me more control over the outcome of that expression. So, I jumped at the chance to major in composition. For me, it meant I could justify spending hours in the practice room fooling around experimenting with harmonies, interesting rhythms, etc., instead of practicing, since I never played in any of the ensembles I wrote for. It also meant I would not have to struggle and justify expecting to hear the musicians play what I had written. It was now expected that I would know what I wanted to hear and that as a composer, I would be very clear and exact in conveying to the musicians what and how the music should be played. 

NEA: Having worked for theater and film, can you talk a little bit with us about the differences and similarities in composing music for the two genres?

WATKINS: In film, the music must serve as underscore to the images and dialogue. Only at the end, during the credits, can the music stand on its own. In musical theater and opera, it is the music first and foremost. In a film, viewers may not even be aware of the background music even though the music is serving either as commentary or mood and has an important effect on the way the viewer perceives the film. In opera people will sometimes only remember the music, and maybe something about the story.

NEA: Where do you draw your inspiration from?

WATKINS: I draw inspiration from the spirit of the subject matter, the story, the characters, their circumstances and environment in which the story takes place. Last but not least, first and foremost, that something called GOD.

NEA: You have also composed a full length opera, Dark River: The Fannie Lou Hamer Story, which taps into civil rights history. What drew you to Fannie Lou Hamer’s story?

WATKINS: I knew that one day I would write an opera about the struggle of African Americans. It was close to my heart. I had lived it in the north, where I grew up, and I had experienced and felt the weight of racism in my life. I saw how it affected my family and my community. Yes, we lived in the north in a small city where to our white neighbors there was really no racial problem. However, if they could have been a fly on the wall they would have understood so much more of the subtle and not so subtle insidiousness of racism and how it impacts the psyche and therefore the everyday lives of the people affected by it. I experienced the way my people prayed and sang their way through the ugliness of being on the receiving end of institutionalized racism.

An opera would give me the space to express the fear, the anger, the sorrow, the love, the faith, the determination to overcome, the joy of working together for a higher cause, the triumph and glory of achieving together. It was all of that, the dignity and spirituality of the movement, that hooked me. It was high drama and, to me, it had to be expressed through the medium of opera. It was my way of paying respect to the greatness of the ordinary people who suffered and died to bring about change in this country. I did not arrive at Fannie Lou as the central figure right away. I read lots of books, biographies, articles, and watched many films and videos before deciding to focus on Fannie Lou Hamer and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

NEA: Can you explain how you see the role of art in telling history?

WATKINS: Art gives the breath of life and spirit of truth to the story.

NEA: As a teacher, a mentor, what do you tell your students when they ask, “What does it take to be a successful artist?”

WATKINS: I say set your intention and believe your goal is possible. Do all the things the person you want to become would do. Study and be open to opportunities that move you in the direction of your goal, create as few enemies as possible, and support others in their endeavors to realize their dreams. Never take your eye off the prize.

NEA: Speaking of success, can you talk about the role of failure and success in your work? 

WATKINS: I’ve risked failure over and over. I’ve learned from failure and I’ll probably keep risking it for the rest of my life. There was no way for me to go forward without that risk. I have had to endure some of those dark periods of failure—but I could not and would not give up.

NEA: What has been your proudest moment so far?

WATKINS: It was in 2009 when I was in Chicago standing in the corridor outside the auditorium. I heard the orchestra rehearsing the second movement of my suite for orchestra “Five Movements in Color.” The music wasn’t flashy, technically challenging, or anything like that. It was serene, beautifully executed, and I let go of whatever it was I had been holding on to. It was the first time I really felt validated as a composer.

NEA: Complete this thought. The arts matter because….

WATKINS: Art expands our consciousness, our awareness. It raises our vibration and brings us closer to our higher selves. If there was more appreciation and promotion of the arts in our country, I believe we would have a very different kind of society.   


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