By Anya Shukla
Evan Williams lives and breathes music. Along with teaching composition and music technology at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, he composes, conducts, and performs for venues and performances all around the country. Williams’ music, inspired by minimalism and neo-romanticism, incorporates atonal noise, improvisation, and electronic techniques, such as techno and EDM, to create boundary-pushing work. I spoke with Williams to learn more about his artistic journey and thoughts on racial equity.
Q: How did you first enter the music world?
A: My parents are not classical musicians, actually. Growing up, I didn't have classical music in my house. I didn’t know Mozart and Beethoven existed. But I had a pretty traditional route: the first time I played music was in fifth grade band, with the trombone. First, I thought I would write film music; I was always interested in movies, and so I scored my own short scenes. In college, however, I moved to concert-style music.
Q: So your artistic practice has changed over the course of your life… to that end, how have you grown as an artist since high school?
A: In high school, my music sounded like band music; that's the only music I knew. It was very classical in nature—and I didn't know music theory, so it was all by ear or playing on the piano. The breakthrough came in a college wind ensemble when I played a piece called “Child's Garden of Dreams.” That piece was an eyeopener; it had melodic development but also elements of dissonance and patterns and processes. And from that, I grew to find my own voice.
Q: You’ve been composing for over 15 years now. What motivates you to continue?
A: A lot of people see art as an outlet. I never see music as therapeutic; it is very stressful. (Laughs.) I have deadlines; I have writer's block… but I need to do it. Those of us who make art know that we need to do it. And even if we don’t make art, we all need it in our lives: sometimes it's an escape… and sometimes it's a mirror of society.
Q: Could you expand on that? What do you mean by “a mirror of society”?
A: I’ll give an example: I went to school for music, and I often was not only the Black person but the only person of color in my classes, orchestra, choir, band. It never made me mad… sometimes I felt proud; I was special.
Eventually, I realized, “Oh, it’s not that I’m special. It’s that the art of Black and brown people has not been appreciated in our field.” When I was in music history classes, I never learned about Black composers. I only learned about one female composer. We talked about white men.
In grad school, I started struggling with that, so I wrote a harpsichord concerto: “Dead White Man Music.” Lots of people see that concerto as an aggressive statement, yet it’s actually a question: what kind of music should I write as a Black composer? But I’m glad that the piece has started a conversation about what it means to celebrate this classical canon.
Q: On that note, what are your thoughts on the current conversations surrounding racial inequity in art?
A: February is Black History Month, and I feel that this moment is like February, because this is the most interest I’ve ever had in my music. It’s both encouraging and a little bit upsetting, because I’ve been writing music since my teens and fighting for attention for my music, and to have attention come from nothing I have done myself… why should the murder of George Floyd make a positive impact on my career? It isn’t right.
But I also have to remember that the attention is a good thing: I hope people continue to cherish and appreciate the music of Black composers. In this kind of movement, people get excited for a while, and in a couple of years, they go back to Beethoven. I hope a few of us stay in the consciousness of the people once this wave ends.
Q: I've also seen a push for racial equity in arts curriculum and administration at educational institutions. What has your experience been as a faculty member at Rhodes?
A: When I arrived at Rhodes, the music course was called European Musical Heritage. We have a ton of Black heritage in Memphis, so for students to come over to Memphis and not learn the blues and jazz in their history class… it seems like a crime. I’m the only full-time Black faculty in the music department, and I held my thoughts back for two years, but in our last meeting, I spoke up about the curriculum, and the faculty said they agreed with me.
So as people of color, we need to not only be in the room, but be brave enough to speak up, and others need to be able to listen without judgment.
Q: Finally, do you have any advice for teen artists of color?
A: Be yourself. For teenagers, there's pressure to conform; doubly so for students of color, because when you do something out of the norm, you are seen as weird or racist epithets are thrown at you. I went to high school with mostly white kids. When you realize you are a minority in a mostly-white neighborhood, you assimilate, and I was happy to do that because it meant I had friends and people liked me. Don’t do that. Hopefully you can find a community of friends or mentors or family where you can be yourself. I wish I had found that community.
I am so proud of students who are unapologetically Black or themselves and don’t bother to change to please other people. That’s bravery, and I admire people like that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.