KMFA's Residency Program Gives Composers the Keys to the Station

Recapping Clarice Assad's booked-up week of improvisation in Austin

Composer-in-Residence Clarice Assad teaching in the Draylen Mason Music Studio in May (Photo by Wayne Lim)

Enthusiastically participating in a series of rhythmic exercises, 37 restless second-graders from Blackshear Elementary School made the Draylen Mason Music Studio their classroom on the morning of May 22, as they clicked their tongues, clapped their hands, and stomped their feet.

Despite only meeting her young, excitable students for the day just minutes prior, composer Clarice Assad managed a calm composure as she then separated them into four groups. Based in Illinois, Assad visited Austin to make music and connections at the classical radio station KMFA's airy Eastside headquarters, which conveniently sits next door to a short-term rental where visiting composers bunk out. The Draylen Mason Composer-in-Residence program seeks to amplify national voices with a booked-up week of musicmaking in Austin, hopefully echoing out into the larger classical world.

"Most of the time, what you hear in the mainstream is really the influence of the U.S. in other countries," explains Assad from her Chicago studio a week after the residency. "So people will sound more American, even though they're singing in Italian. The music sounds like American pop music everywhere in the world. Not to say this is a bad thing, but it kind of becomes too much of the same. No diversity. And I believe we need more of that in general in the world, not just in music."

“When I see interaction between humans, I’m like, ‘Yay, we need more of that stuff!’”   – Clarice Assad

She gave the kids 30 minutes to come up with rhythmic performances using their voices and bodies as instruments.

"When I first went into one of the rooms, they were all screaming, they couldn't hear each other, and they all wanted to be leaders," recounts Assad, still impressed by the group for deciding to construct a soundscape for an imaginary rocket launch, despite the initial chaos. "All I told them was, 'Please have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and just decide whatever you want to do. Tell us a story.'"

Created in 2015, Assad's award-winning workshop VOXploration places an educational spin on jazz musician Bobby McFerrin's Circlesongs workshop. As a participant, she once shared the stage with 19 other singers in an improvised performance led by McFerrin at Carnegie Hall, following a week of musical exploration.

"What really touched me in that workshop was the energy of singing together and being together with others and collaborating," explains the 45-year-old. "There's something really special about that, because you don't have to talk or come up with subjects to worry about, you're just singing really. You're communicating something with this most organic part of your body without using your intellect. You're just using your instinct."

She adds: "The point of my work is to get people who are participating to create something in the moment. It's important because we also spend so much time looking at screens and not interacting. When I see interaction between humans, I'm like, 'Yay, we need more of that stuff!'"

During the week, the Grammy-nominated composer conducted similar workshops at four other schools, including East Austin College Prep, alma mater of Draylen Mason. The late musician, whose memory the residency honors, was killed at age 17 by the Austin package bomber in 2018.

Assad's inclination toward education ties in well with the aims of the station, which is now in its second year of hosting composers following young Dallas-based Quinn Mason. Conceived by KMFA Director of Broadcasting & Content Anthony McSpadden, the residency joins a series of community outreach efforts undertaken by the station. These include Offbeat, a live concert series spotlighting local contemporary classical ensembles; Star Notes, an intergenerational program connecting youths and seniors through performances and conversations; and Kids on Key, a new music education effort beginning this fall. As part of its Dear Music campaign, the station aims to raise a $650,000 Program Innovation Fund to sustain all of the above.

Workshops aside, Assad's packed week also included a live interview on host Dianne Donovan's Midday Oasis and ended with a live performance alongside local string quartet Invoke for KMFA supporters on that May 26, which would have been Mason's 23rd birthday.

"I didn't sleep very much, you know?" jokes Assad, revealing that she spent her downtime practicing on the piano in the Draylen Mason Studio. "I even, at some point, had the key to walk in. I felt so privileged to have the key to a radio station."

Even after the week ended, the music didn't.

Centrally, the residency commissions new works from composers like Assad and distributes them nationwide for broadcast in an effort to diversify the classical music canon. Though her orchestral work won't be premiered by the University of Texas Symphony Orchestra at the Bates Recital Hall until September, her composition process began before she even arrived in Austin. Previously intending to borrow a passage from the Italian composer Gioachino Rossini, she's since pivoted to combine elements of baião – a rhythm which originates in Northeastern Brazil – and the blues. She plans to call the piece "Baião 'n' Blues."

"It's definitely a conversation between classical music and Latin America," explains the Brazilian American composer.

"I'm not saying I'm tagged as a Brazilian composer, but it is definitely a big part of me. As a creative person, I am always going out into the world and promoting this music because it's very close to home, in my heart. Not to say that that's the only thing that I do, but it's also important to export it."

She concludes: "This is fantastic, what they're doing for the community, bringing in creative people from outside and having them go to the schools, and also, of course, for us, who are given this opportunity to share our music with this incredible community in Austin. So, just a big word of gratitude, and I hope that this has a long life."

The University of Texas Symphony Orchestra will premiere Clarice Assad’s new composition this September, with tickets on sale in mid-July. Coming up, KMFA hosts a free Midday Concert Series performance by Cover to Cover Wind Quintet on July 25 at noon. Find more upcoming classical events around Austin at

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KMFA, Clarice Assad, Draylen Mason Composer-in-Residence, Draylen Mason Music Studio, Bobby McFerrin, VOXploration

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