By Kris Kautzman, ACF Manager of Community Partnerships

Earlier this year we announced1 that Oakland-based artist Julie Herndon is the recipient of ACF’s first Bay Area Composer Residency award, a $10,000 grant for a local, composer-led community collaboration project. Julie will organize and lead Soundvoice 2020 with the Center for New Music and Code Tenderloin. Continuing the legacy of two previous Soundvoice projects, she will engage members of the homeless community in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood to workshop and create a multi-media concert featuring the stories of the participants. Because we’ve seen the powerful impact of artist-led community engagement work across the country, we wanted to share more about Soundvoice and introduce you to some of the people who have shaped and led these programs.

When Julie Herndon decided to apply for the ACF Bay Area Composer Residency grant, she knew she wanted her project to include local people living without a home. As a resident of Oakland and a member and curator at the Center for New Music (C4NM), located in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco, Julie has seen the homeless population expand in recent years. Like many communities across the country, the Bay Area is experiencing a rise in the numbers of people experiencing homelessness. A recent San Francisco Chronicle article2 notes that San Francisco’s homeless population increased 17% between 2017-2019. City programs lifted more than 2,000 people out of homelessness in 2018, but for every person who got housed, there were three newly homeless people.

Like many other local artists, Julie has felt compelled to be involved in supporting people experiencing homelessness in the Bay Area. But how? As she considered project ideas for her grant application, she contacted Brent Miller, Executive Director of the Center for New Music (C4NM), to learn more about the Tenderloin’s human services organizations, and to ask if C4NM had ever done any programming with local homeless people. Brent told her about Soundvoice, a series of music creation and artistic expression workshops for Tenderloin residents that had been designed and directed by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players in 2015, and which were revamped and led again by C4NM in 2018. 

This conversation ignited a spark. Julie realized that the Soundvoice model was the kind of meaningful, interactive work she wanted to propose, and that it was a good fit for her skills and past experience. Pulling together her own ideas with notes from Brent about past Soundvoice projects, she sketched out a series of interactive workshops, which will culminate in a performance of participants’ creations. She reached out to her network across the Bay Area and invited several like-minded musicians to help her teach and perform. Julie describes her collaborators in this project as artists who are “committed to sharing their practice in order to build community and create a shared space.” She also connected with the staff at Code Tenderloin, a workforce development nonprofit, to engage them as a partner in sourcing participants and advising on the project. 

Where did the model come from, and how was this work introduced in the Tenderloin? Bay Area composers, performers, and arts organizations have long been creating innovative, experiential programs for people from all walks of life, and many are passionate about exploring and addressing issues of social inequality through the arts. The first Soundvoice program was the brainchild of Rozella Kennedy, then Executive Director of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP). The organization had been presenting other public, participatory projects, and had recently moved their office to the Tenderloin neighborhood. In 2015 Rozella wanted to stretch the organization’s outreach with an impactful local program, and had an idea to adapt an anthropological research and storytelling method called Photovoice3 to a neighborhood sound project. Photovoice projects provide people with free cameras and empower them to document their communities and share stories from their own, unique perspectives. For Soundvoice, participants were given small voice recorders with which to collect the sounds of their environments. SFCMP staff developed a partnership with Hospitality House, a shelter and resource organization for poor and homeless San Franciscans, and together they planned a series of weekly workshops that would engage Hospitality House residents as music and art creators, and give them agency over their creations. The project was funded by The James Irvine Foundation.

The first Soundvoice project gathered 18 participants of Hospitality House programs for weekly learning sessions where they explored concepts like the foundations of new music and how to tell a compelling story, then put their training to work by capturing the various sounds of their communities to create audio collages, graphic scores, and spoken word.4 Lead instructor Chris Froh shared that working in partnership with Hospitality House was key to the success of the project. He explained that Hospitality House regularly offers arts programs for its residents and understands the importance of offering a safe environment for participants to express themselves creatively. The program evolved over the course of many weeks. Those who realized they were interested in sound collage learned digital editing. Others chose to express themselves through spoken word, hip-hop, and other musical means. Chris shared, “It was a leap of faith for people to try storytelling through such abstract means. We realized that this music and the process of creating it can be available and relevant to anyone,” and that it’s not just for academic settings. All the participants learned how to make their own graphic score, which was performed live by improvising musicians at the close of the workshops. In this way, everyone’s work was both seen and heard at the final concert, which was held at C4NM and attended by Hospitality House residents and SFCMP audience. 

So far, each Soundvoice project has been a one-time program, organized by different people and funded by different organizations. After it was decided that SFCMP would not undertake a second year of the program, Adam Fong, then Executive Director of C4NM, obtained funding from the National Endowment for the Arts to host a Soundvoice workshop series and concert in their space. C4NM staff made changes to the program model that matched their artistic and community approach. They put up flyers in local public housing, reached out to the YMCA and other human services organizations, and invited people to come into their space to learn more about the program. Adam shared that even those with very little or no musical training were eager to explore complex ways to express their creativity. It was clear to him that a musical and technical background was not needed to participate fully, and that people have an “innate way of working with sound.” The participants spent intensive time learning the crafts of electronic music and graphic scores, and each was paid an artist stipend at the end of the program. “In offering this program to people who are experiencing housing insecurity, they have access to an opportunity they might not otherwise get. It was important to recognize them as artists – and they were eager to see themselves as artists,” explained Adam. “C4NM is here in the community and serving the community. It’s an experience of collective creative impulse.” He sees a shift happening toward a deeper focus on local needs, and “artists are carrying the mantle.”

In June 2020 Julie Herndon will lead her iteration of Soundvoice, which will take place at C4NM. In the meantime, she’s working behind the scenes to envision and plan for success on several levels. She is documenting her work; coordinating curriculum; developing relationships with human services organizations in the Tenderloin neighborhood; and learning about working with people who have experienced trauma in their lives. She’s also looking ahead: “The Tenderloin needs programs like Soundvoice now more than ever. As the challenge of homelessness persists, so does the need for programs that serve these populations. The arts are a place for people to discover things about themselves and the world around them. I hope that Soundvoice can be a meeting place for learning more about the people and skill-sets that coexist around us. My hope is that it gains enough attention to receive consistent and renewable funding. I hope it can expand to serve even more of the Bay Area community, occuring in different locations and more than once a year, to better serve even more participants. If the project gains enough national attention, it may even act as a model for similar cities where vibrant artist communities co-exist with homeless populations.”

We look forward to sharing more Soundvoice stories with you next summer! In the meantime, if you would like to learn more about this work or be connected with anyone referenced in the article, please contact program manager Kris Kautzman at 651.251.2842 or [email protected]

ACF is grateful to everyone who helped us make connections and contributed their Soundvoice experience to this blog post: Adam Fong, Chris Froh, Julie Herndon, Rozella Kennedy, Brent Miller, and Lisa Oman.

Learn more about Soundvoice 2015
Learn more about Soundvoice 2018

About Julie Herndon
Julie Herndon is an Oakland-based composer and performer working with internal/external space through improvisation, text, graphics, and electronics. Her work explores the body’s relationship to the self, to performance, and to tools like musical instruments and personal technology. Recent electroacoustic work has been described as “blended to inhabit a surprisingly expressive space” (San Francisco Classical Voice). Her compositions have been performed by ensembles including JACK Quartet, Ensemble Dal Niente, Ensemble Proton Bern, Line Upon Line Percussion, TAK Ensemble, Retro Disco, and Left Coast Chamber Ensemble. Performances of her work include MATA Festival and MIS-EN_PLACE Bushwick in New York, Artistry Space in Singapore, Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon, Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, and Hot Air Festival in San Francisco.

An active educator, Herndon has led classes at Mills College and assisted courses in Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Stanford, in subjects ranging from anime to transidiomatic art-making. As a collaborator, Herndon is co-founder of hi, a duo featuring harmonium, clarinet, and electronics, and fff, an interdisciplinary artist collective. She holds a B.A. in Music from St. Mary’s College of Maryland and an M.A. in Music Composition from Mills College, and is currently a Hume Fellow pursuing a doctorate at Stanford University.

About the American Composers Forum
The American Composers Forum (ACF) enriches lives by nurturing the creative spirit of composers and communities. Through commissions, grants, mentorships, performances, publications, residencies, and hosted gatherings, we provide innovative opportunities for composers and their music to flourish, and we link communities and composers through creation, connection, and engagement. ACF facilitates an ecosystem that reflects the diversity of our world, and we partner with a variety of creative musicians and organizations to develop the next generation of new music creators, performers, and advocates.

Citations

  1. https://composersforum.org/2019-bay-area-composer-residency-awardee-announced/
  2. https://projects.sfchronicle.com/sf-homeless/homeless-questions/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4933584/
  4. https://hoodline.com/2015/05/tenderloin-residents-turn-city-noise-into-contemporary-music