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UofSC Music Series Helps Give Artists a Social Voice – UofSC News & Events

Racial justice, equity grant fund commissions that explore social justice, pandemic isolation



Like many Americans, Marcus Norris’ sense of community has been shaken by recent events, and he was frustrated by what he saw as a lack of sincerity for social justice.

“The pandemic has coincided with the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and numerous racial protests. We’ve seen this increase in the performative alliance of businesses and things that didn’t even make sense,” says the composer and producer from Jackson, Michigan. “Corporations and politicians and organizations would say ‘black lives matter’ or a lot of things like that, but there wasn’t always action behind it,” he says.

From Norris’ perspective, some politicians and celebrities have publicly shown their support but have done nothing to change the policy or take meaningful action to reduce racism.

He recalls a 2020 photo of members of Congress wearing Kente fabric stoles during a moment of silence for George Floyd. He thought, “Can you just get up and go and change something?” You actually have the power to change something, but instead you’re posing for that photo — those kind of token gestures.

Norris is one of two composers commissioned to write pieces for Southern Exposure at the University of South Carolina School of Music. New musical series. The works were written last year and performed at the School of Music Recital Hall in May.

Norris grew up listening to rap and R&B, but says he was “bitten by the virus” from classical composers such as Bach and Beethoven. Now he uses his music to bring different styles together in interesting ways. He says the commission gave him the opportunity to explore how music and the arts have the power to reveal difficult truths and our struggle to confront them.

Composer Nicky Sohn, whose music is characterized by jazz-inspired and rhythmic themes, was also commissioned to write a piece. His body of work includes solo, chamber and orchestra, and his current specialty lies in theatrical music, such as ballet and opera. His composition for the Southern Exposure series focuses on the impact and isolation of COVID-19.

A grant from the Racial Justice and Equity Research Fund at the University of South Carolina helped fund the commissions and their records. The fund supports the university’s commitment to ending racial injustice, racism, and discrimination while promoting racial equity and justice throughout society.

“By providing research grants to our UofSC professors who focus their work on race and racial justice, we hope to be at the forefront of creativity as a university,” says Julian R. Williams, Vice-Chancellor Chair for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at University of South Carolina.

Through the grant program, Southern Exposure Artistic Directors Michael Harley and David Garner saw a way to showcase the talent of School of Music faculty while supporting composers from underrepresented communities.

Creating Art from Frustration

As a young black man, Norris comes from a community that is often depicted in trauma and given false hope — or love. The commission allowed him to express his feelings about a sudden rise of influencers, businesses and industries empathizing with racial injustice.

Our award demonstrates the importance of artistic projects in contributing to racial justice and equity.

David Garner, artistic director of Southern Exposure

Composition of Norris I don’t want your love explores his exasperation. He says that the two movements of the work range from sadness to frustration and irritation.

“I don’t want that kind of fake love and I was thinking about it while writing this piece,” he says.

By poetically calling out the systems that have caused division and calling out the community that brings change and unity, Norris strives to create power and beauty.

“When you write something, you don’t really know how it’s going to sound. When I heard the recording, I said to myself, it’s magnificent. It immediately became one of my favorite things I’ve done. he says.

The poignancy of I don’t want your love This is exactly what Southern Exposure hoped to achieve with its call for commissions from young composers.

“We strongly believe that contemporary classical music and a series like Southern Exposure can have a meaningful voice in the crucial dialogues we as a society have – or need to have – about racial justice and equity, especially in when it comes to the arts,” Harley explains.

Roots isolated

the composition of Sohn, deer friend, exposes another effect of the impact of COVID-19 on the community – the feeling of extreme isolation.

Sohn wrote: deer friend while at Ucross, a residency program for artists, writers, and composers located in northeast Wyoming at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains. With less than a dozen artists in residence, she discovered a different isolation from the separation she had experienced due to the pandemic.

“We were very cautious about COVID, so I was very, very isolated in this beautiful studio with a piano and a nice, big space all by myself,” she says. “I would wake up in the morning and open the curtains and there would be these animal friends visiting me in the morning.”

Those magical mornings brought back childhood memories for Sohn watching “princess” movies with his sister before she left Korea for the United States. She tried to capture the sweet sincerity of those memories in composition to counter her isolation and homesickness.

“It was kind of like a pun to find the title Deer friend. It looks like a dear friend, but it’s actually like the animal deer,” says Sohn. “It was really fun working on the play for the University of South Carolina. Writing for flute, violin, cello and piano was a very, very cool experience for me.

Garner says the commission results are a win for everyone involved:

“I was really pleased that we received funding, as most of the terms used for the grants seemed to focus more on social and historical research than on the arts. Our award demonstrates the importance of artistic projects in contributing to racial justice and equity.


Listen to the tracks

Nicky Sohn, deer friend (2021)

Marcus Norris, I don’t want your love (2021)

The Southern Exposure New Musical Series is dedicated to exploring the rich variety of contemporary classical and world music written over the past 30 years and masterpieces of the 20th century. For more information, contact Artistic Director Michael Harley, [email protected]

Banner image: Marcus Norris by Stay Gold Photos


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Topics: Faculty, Diversity, School of Music