Singing the city's stories

paul crop

Having just graduated with a degree in music, receiving the offer from the Harrison Center for the Arts to write music for the summer with almost complete artistic freedom seemed too good to be true. Soon after, the realization that I would be writing exclusively about one neighborhood in Indianapolis set in. I thought, “I don’t know this city, I don’t know this neighborhood, and I’ve never even written music about a place before.” But I didn’t have much time to allow myself to be nervous, because Joanna Taft got me started right away.

She drove me around the King Park area, stopping first at the Kennedy-King Memorial. As soon as I heard the story of Robert Kennedy’s moving speech, the idea for song #1 was a given. A white man delivering the horrible news of Dr. King’s death to a crowd of mostly African-Americans, saying, “I know you’re angry. You should be. I was angry too when my own brother was killed, but this isn’t what defines us.” I tried to capture the sadness of the message, while not missing the obvious presence of hope for the future, a hope that may have helped the crowds of Indianapolis to sleep that night, rather than rioting like so many other major cities.

It wasn’t hard to turn such a powerful story into a song, but by the start of the next week I realized that I would need to find stories in less obvious places. After a neighborhood tour with artist and history buff Kipp Normand, I began to imagine the bustling area of business that King Park once was. In my second song, I tried to balance the apparent emptiness of King Park now, compared to its past, while ultimately looking forward to a future of possibilities. My third song presented a similar tension, but was more of a personal critique of my own lack of motivation to find the community that exists below the surface, that isn’t necessarily seen right away by a guy from Baltimore. I thought about the things that the boring and selfish side of me might look for in a neighborhood and then set that against what may be a better definition of being in “good health.”

hhs advanced choir

With my fourth song, the musical idea that was running through my head that week prompted me to find a topic that was less tense and even more celebratory. At the end of May, I attended a dress rehearsal for Herron High School’s spring concert. It brought back fond memories of my own high school choir experiences, but I was also struck by the uniqueness of this particular choir in this particular situation. In front of me I saw a group of 30 or so students of different races and ethnicities, from different economic backgrounds, that loved the music they were singing and actually sounded pretty good. Mr. Harris, the choir director, made them laugh in between songs, but had their full attention when it came time to sing. This was a fun song to write.

I want this to be a summer of exploration for me, but for the larger Indianapolis community as well. There are always stories that we haven’t heard, just as there will always be music that hasn’t been written yet. As I keep making music this summer, I can only hope that it gets better, along with my understanding for this city.

CG-See video interview with Paul Smallman below: