Listening to the creators

Ed Yim, president of the American Composers Orchestra. Photo: Catherine Leonard

Ed Yim of the American Composers Orchestra wants to change the way people think about classical music

By mark nimar

Many people regard classical music as elitist and stuffy: when the genre is even mentioned, images of German white men conducting boring dirges are brought to mind. The American Composers Orchestra, however, is out to change the way people think. Founded over 40 years ago, ACO is a non-profit dedicated to programming contemporary American orchestral music written by composers as diverse and varied as the United States. Ed Yim, the company’s president, is a veteran of the classical music world: in addition to his two years at ACO, he has worked in artistic planning for the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York City Opera and served as the director of the Conductor/Instrumentalists division at IMG.

Straus News spoke with Yim, a Hell’s Kitchen resident, about the company’s upcoming concert at Carnegie Hall on April 11. The orchestra will be presenting the New York premiere of “Where We Lost Our Shadows,” a multidisciplinary work that portrays the story of the European refugee crisis through film, orchestra and Qawwali, a traditional Pakistani genre of music.

We had a lively conversation about ACO’s work with children in the Detroit public schools, the organization’s role in politics, and what to expect if you’re a first-time concertgoer.

What are ACO’s guiding principles?

Our guiding principles are to listen to the composers, to listen to the creator. It’s to figure out where they are going and follow them, not to make them fit into some cookie-cutter notion of what a classical composer is. More and more composers, especially younger composers, are wanting to give voice to some of the things that are bothering them in society today. It’s their way of contributing to the intellectual dialogue of our country and of our city. Issues around social justice, around equity, around diversity. I’m definitely noticing a trend of classical composers wanting to be a part of a larger dialogue and a larger community.

We live in America in 2020 now. America doesn’t look the way it did in 1977 when ACO was born. There are so many gifted composers who happen to be women and who happen to be from underrepresented populations who have not been typically part of the concert music establishment. And to give those artists and those creative voices a platform and to amplify their voices is definitely a big part of what ACO is now.

On April 11, ACO will be presenting “Where We Lost Our Shadows” by Du Yun, and filmmaker Khaled Jarrar. How did this project come about?

Du Yung and Khaled [Jarrar’s] piece embodies so many of the things that ACO wants to embody. She’s an immigrant composer from Shanghai who’s made the U.S. her home both for her work and for her life. She’s collaborating with a visual artist, so there’s a multimedia aspect to it, which I think is part of the evolution of orchestral music, and the piece takes as a starting point a major issue of our time, which is migration and refugees and the situation internationally. Now, they are not specifically commenting per se on the Syrian refugee crisis, but they are using it as a starting point to talk about the timeless story of migration and that people leave their homes because they want to seek opportunity. And I think that’s an issue that obviously is so important right now. It fits everything that we want ACO to be about.

One could say that ACO’s public commitment to diversity and inclusion is a political statement. What do you feel ACO’s role should be in the realm of politics?

It depends on the composer. We follow the composer’s will and their vision. I think what we’re seeing is a lot of composers living in an environment where we all feel a little befuddled, and frustrated and powerless to affect what’s going on in our world. The purpose of ACO is not to be political. But if that’s what our composers that we support are wanting to delve into, then we listen to their voices and we follow them.

Out of everything you have done so far at ACO, what are you most proud of?

There are so many moments. We were in Detroit [recently], reading works with the wonderful Detroit Symphony for emerging black American composers. And we spent a day going into Detroit public schools, which are mostly black, and extremely diverse. So we play [a piece] without telling the kids what they were hearing, and we said, “who do you think wrote that?” And some kids said, “Probably some white German guy.” Because their vision of a classical composer is like Beethoven, or Mozart or someone, right? And we were like, “No actually, the person who wrote that piece is here in this room and we want you to meet her.” And they were like, “Wait, her?” And then Dr. Marian Stephens stepped forward, and they were like, “This composer is not only a woman but she looks like me. She’s a black woman.” And there was an “Aha” moment with the kids who were like, “Oh, this world that I thought was like elitist and didn’t have anything to do with me actually includes people like me.” That was an amazing moment for all of us.

Some audience members may never have been to a classical music concert before, and may be skeptical about spending their time and money at one of your concerts. How do you reach out to these sorts of audience members in non-traditional ways?

I would say coming to one of our orchestral concerts can be challenging, it can be often fun and it’s about discovery. So you don’t have to come knowing something already. We really make an effort to include in the format of our concerts a lot of ways to approach the work, to discuss the work, to have a chat with the composer. Meet the composer after the concert for a drink. That’s the type of experience we like to put out there. I think it’s a very friendly experience.

You can talk to our composers. You can ask them questions. You can ask them what their inspiration was. You can shake their hand. You can’t do that with Beethoven. If people get a charge out of being in touch with these really, gifted, talented, visionary artists, then as much as we can do to bring those artists in contact with the public, I think the more invested the public will be.

Other artistic mediums, such as film or television, have the power to challenge and move an audience. What makes the medium of music unique in serving these purposes?

I think all art serves a purpose. It just depends on what any given person reacts to most viscerally. For some people, it’s film. For some people, it’s theater. For some people, it’s dance. For me, I’ve dedicated my life to orchestral music, because I think the sight and sound of 75 musicians working in synchronicity to create this acoustic sound is kind of phenomenal. Not everyone gets off on that. And I get that. That’s ok. [But] that’s a sound that I love, and that I know a lot of people love, and that I think it has the potential to be loved by even more people. It will speak to a certain kind of person, and those are the people that we’re trying to reach.

Orchestras are by definition a community. The sight of a large group of people doing something with a singular purpose is really what orchestra is about. And I think it’s thrilling when it’s in action.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.