On Being an Artist
On Kathryn Bostic
A love of music came early to Bostic, whose mother was a pianist and composer. “I was three when I started playing piano and remember this like I was meeting a best friend,” she says.
Although she later studied music, Bostic says her passion for performing and writing was especially fed by the fun and joy of making music with friends. “While growing up and in college I played in local bands and always sought out fellow musicians,” Bostic says. “We would have these amazing jam sessions, and play for hours. I had a variety of really talented players around me and were were always creating something.”
Today, the singer/songwriter/arranger continues to create on the keyboard and across different art forms. She has scored Broadway plays (Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph, August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean), films (Middle of Nowhere, Soul Food Junkies), and recently released her own CD, From Me to You.
On September 15, 2013, the Kennedy Center has marked the 50th anniversary of the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama with a performance of Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963. The play is a tapestry of dramatic scenes, images, history, and song shifting easily between people and places of this tragic event where four young girls were killed. Singer-songwriter/composer, Kathryn Bostic, arranged the music for this event. The following is an interview with Ms. Bostic:
Much of your music, like the song “Riverman,” evokes a sense of longing, hope, and carrying on in the face of loss. What inspirations do you turn to as you sit down to brainstorm and compose?
When I write music it comes from a very intuitive place. It is a very organic process even if I have a specific theme or event to write about. Sometimes I will hear the melodies in my mind first and then create from there, or if I am sitting at the piano, the synergy [combination of ideas and energy] will start there. This idea then develops further. I embellish [build] on that until it feels right... or start all over! My song “Riverman” was started just by playing those very simple piano chords at the beginning and then I started humming and felt like I was on a journey of some sort. It felt as if I was in a river being carried away from all the stress of the day. So that’s how that song was written. Often, the songs write themselves.
You have scored music for August Wilson’s cycle of history plays as well as Four Little Girls. What research do you do to get a sense of time and place in African American history?
I research not only the music of that particular era but also what was going on in the consciousness and culture of that time—how music was used as a vehicle for communication, entertainment, transformation, and so on. Music was and is the lifeline and bloodline of African American storytelling and experience.
You’ve described yourself as a kind of musical storyteller. What story do you want your music to tell in this production?
The music for Four Little Girls is a reflection of the music that was popular in the African American community in the 1960s as well as today. The Motown sound, jazz, the church songs, and the freedom movement songs, these were all a huge part of musical tapestry that fueled a sense of hope, urgency, and change. These themes are constantly being revisited throughout our lives every day. The score in this production has these elements as well as the underlying theme of a greater collective consciousness prevailing in the name of humanity. Opportunities that at one time seemed impossible to imagine have become more and more the order of the day.
An artist’s life and art often has an arc of development and change. Where is your music moving you these days?
I am in a very interesting and expansive place as an artist right now. I have had the good fortune of composing the scores for award-winning films and Broadway shows. I have worked with extremely talented visionary artists and directors. I want to continue this because I really do love the art of collaboration; it’s an incredibly enriching process. I also want to sing and perform my own material and that of other composers more extensively. I did a lot of this years ago but had been putting it on the back burner for quite some time, yet now I want to make it more of a priority so keep an eye and ear out for my next CD and performances.
Got a song from the show that especially tugs at you?
The song “How I Got Over”—the great Mahalia Jackson’s version—leaves me speechless!
On Music and Social Movements
In general, what roles did music play in the Civil Rights Movement?
I’d like to respond to that with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., who said this:
Jazz speaks for life. The blues tell the story of life’s difficulties—and, if you think for a moment, you realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music.
I’ll add that during the Civil Rights Movement music was the nonviolent weapon that the African American community had as a call to arms and solidarity. It provided the source of tremendous comfort, courage, and strength in times of harsh adversity. It galvanized people from all over the world. Music transcended barricades and obstacles because it resonated and reverberated loudly throughout the country as well as on an international level. It was and is an unstoppable force once the masses resonate and respond.
What part can music and the other arts play in today’s struggles for justice?
Music, film, theater, and other forms of self-expression have always been able to bring attention to events and experiences of social unrest and injustice. The arts have an ability to coalesce a universal response to situations that call for action and awakening. The advancement of technology has made the world a well-connected community and so the awareness of what’s going on is instantaneous. The transparency is immediate and artists are responding to their environment to affect needed change and action. Many great artists have always been on the front lines of lighting the match that evokes a shift in consciousness by the masses. This is one of the many gifts from the arts.