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Callaloo 28.3 (2005) 635-642

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On the Phone with Composer Bill Banfield

An Interview

COLLINS: Can you describe your interaction with Toni Morrison? How did you get in touch with her? Did she just sign on to your and Komunyakaa's project or did you have some kind of preliminary dialogue?

BANFIELD: Well, actually, Ms. Morrison heard of my work because of a conference a few years before I received my actual invitation to come to Princeton. I think it was in 2002. It was at a black literary conference in Utah, actually; I had been invited there to present my work on the connections between music and literature.

At that conference, I talked about my work and it was there I met Yusef. Yusef told me about a collaborative program at Princeton with invited artists, and that at some point an introduction to Ms. Morrison might be forthcoming. About a year or so later, he called me and said, "I've got a project, it's an idea based on the nineteenth-century sculptor Edmonia Lewis. Ms. Toni Morrison would like to talk to you about it, and she's going to call you. This is the kind of thing I think you and I might do, what do you think?"

And lo and behold the next day or so Toni Morrison called. She said, "We have this wonderful program. We wanted to invite you to come to Princeton to work on your project with Yusef Komunyakaa." And that's how it all began.

COLLINS: And so this is a regular program at Princeton. They do it every year?

BANFIELD: Yes. The Atelier is a program Morrison runs at Princeton every year. She invites a visiting artist to come to the campus to work on a specific project that is to be staged on campus. And during his residency the artist works with students. Students are able to do their work while you, the composer, do your work. The fact that you are there and are a professional musician—this inspires the students. They model their pieces on yours. So it's a learning environment; but it's also an opportunity for the artist to, in fact, work out and premier a new piece, free of the public pressure that an artist usually has. So it's really nice, both because of the work with the students who have been chosen to participate, and also because it is expected that the visiting Atelier artist will produce an original work while he or she is on campus during that year. [End Page 635]

COLLINS: What incident in Lewis's life did you find most striking or moving—I suppose there may have been many such incidents? And do you see yourself in any way as a successor to Lewis?


COLLINS: As a successor or a descendant or just somebody who is. . . .

BANFIELD: I think the most striking thing is finding identity. She had to try to find her identity as a black person, as a Native person, as a woman, and as an American; and that intersection and search for her identity as an artist and as a person and as an American led her to actually leave the United States and to settle in Europe. And I found that very interesting—that while for a time her works began to be known, in the end we actually forgot about her, and we only rediscovered her identity long after she was dead, because of a piece that she left in storage in Chicago. It was rediscovered some 70 or 80 years later.

COLLINS: Really?

BANFIELD: That's very fascinating, that idea of kind of negotiating and navigating your identity through your art, and . . . your art finally helps you find out who you are. And that becomes the lightbulb of who you are—your art. It's really fascinating. There are many other things that are fascinating about her life, but the idea of finding your identity through your art, and that mystery, is very...