Behind the Scenes of IWC’s Who We Are with Artistic Director Meagan Johnson
I heard the familiar “ding” of my e-mail inbox. The Indianapolis Women’s Chorus (IWC) Music Director, Meagan Johnson, had just responded to my request for a Q & A regarding the IWC. I hastily opened and scanned the e-mail for available meeting times. I began to panic.
I had certainly expected a negotiated scheduling process but was wholly unprepared for just how full the Music Director’s schedule would be. I was, at once, made acutely aware of how valuable her time was.
The scope of her many responsibilities only became clearer as we sat down to discuss IWC’s upcoming season, Who We Are, current issues of female identity, and where, in all of this, does choral music play a role.
I should mention that despite her many responsibilities, the IWC Music Director never led me to believe she was, in any way rushed. Rather (even with the persistent whirs of coffee grinders and periodic crescendos of café patrons punctuating our conversation) it was quite easy to understand that she is a person who exudes care—care for this interview, care for her craft, and care for the women for whom she is a musical steward.
The IWC’s new season, Who We Are, begins November 18 and 19 with “I” being the first show in the Chorus’ identity cycle.
I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I enjoyed conducting it.
You mentioned these times and the times that we’re in. We are seeing a lot of things culturally that are starting to focus on female identity. In terms of IWC’s role, how do you see music, and singing, and choral music as part of the bigger picture of establishing female identity?
IWC has been, since its founding, a group that honored individual identity. It was formed as a sibling organization to the Indianapolis Men’s Chorus in 1994. And while the group identity of the Chorus has changed in the last almost 25 years, it was formed out of the LGBTQ choral movement. We’re affirming individual identity and saying, “every single person in this chorus is loved, is valued, is a part of this community for exactly who they are. But I think that the women’s chorus movement in the United States in general has always been more about affirming individual identity of singers than maybe your traditional, more classical choirs. So that’s something I think is very natural for us to think about and talk about.
The other piece of that is that IWC has a long history with social justice and this idea of our music meaning something in the world. Music as a means for self-empowerment. Music as a means for group empowerment—for community engagement—I think is something that IWC has believed and functioned in for a very long time. So it seemed natural for us to approach this in a direct way. Who am I? Who is she? Who are we? This is something that a lot of choruses are really engaged in right now: what is the role of not only a chorus in social justice but as a women’s chorus—and even more specifically, a feminist women’s chorus?
So is it becoming more explicit?
Yes. There is this idea that we’re not just coming together to make pretty sounds and sing music, but to gather as a community for this positive change in our own lives and in the world. In our mission statement, “the power of women in song to transform communities” is plural—our internal community and our external community and our world.
What do you want people to take away when they come see a choral show? How do want them to experience it?
When I program music, I program what I need to be exploring… so when I am programming a concert about “who am I?,” it’s also perhaps part of my personal work. So "who am I? Who do I decide to be in the world? What is my goal in the world? What is my center?" That sounds really egocentric to say that I program what I need for the Chorus, but what I hope for people to come away with is to have a rich and deep arts experience that changes them, that maybe engages them in some of the questions we’re asking.
So when they come to this concert in November, there are going to be funny songs. There are going to be serious songs. There are going to be really upbeat, very rhythmically invigorating songs. There are going to be more meditative songs. But all of the songs are about this question of “who am I? Where do I draw my power from? What is my center?” For some people, “what is my spiritual center?” Or "who am I with relation to the world and nature?”
So I want people to find something in the concert that changes them. That makes them think a little bit differently about themselves, or differently about how they’re engaging with their friends, or with their coworkers, or with the world. Because music is so transformative. Hopefully, people will be entertained and be moved, and challenged, and changed, and celebrated by this music.
It sounds like the show content reflects the multiple “I’s” of people in general, and how people can find meaning about themselves. So it literally is egocentric in the best sense.
Yes, this is something that I have heard a lot of people talking about: that before we can have the difficult conversations that will bring healing in the United States - whether that’s across racial divisions, socio-political divisions, ideological divisions - we each have to know who we are so that we’re not threatened by someone who thinks differently. If I don’t know who I am, I might be threatened by someone who espouses a different political viewpoint. I think that this work is really important for the world and really important for individuals. So I hope people will get something from it.
Do you see music as a precursor to conversation?
Absolutely. It’s a cliché at this point, but music builds bridges. It’s a way to bring people into a shared experience that builds common life to grow from. Especially singing with someone. But even a shared concert experience where there is a performing group and an audience where there is a little bit more division, music has this ability to move us in a way that words alone do not. Music has a way of being able to touch someone even if they don’t totally agree with what you’re saying. That was the original purpose of Crossroads Performing Arts, which was the former umbrella organization of the Indianapolis Men’s Chorus and Women’s Chorus—to build musical bridges of understanding between the LGBT community and the wider community. IWC now has a broader, slightly different mission than our former parent organization, but still that recognition of music’s ability to connect people. When you see and hear a group of people singing beautifully and passionately, you have a much harder time hating them.
How do you see the upcoming IWC season as a development from the previous one?
This is my third season with IWC. I have been with IWC since 2015, and in my first season we talked about voices: our own voice, having one voice, ancient voices, and living voices. Last season was about living from the heart and exploring that idea. What warms your heart? What connects you to your friends and your loved ones? In the midst of that second season, we had a presidential election. There was so much analysis of what happened, what changed, what we did and didn’t see coming from all different angles; and I think what that changed in me was that it now wasn’t enough for me as a choral musician to make pretty concerts. So I think this season is an outgrowth. What is the heart of this organization? What is the heart of each singer, and me as an individual? And what is our heart as a broader community? Who do we decide to be? How do we create community? How do we care for those who are in our community? How do we mend broken relationships? Who do we want to be? If our world is, as I’ve heard from so many people, in a transitional phase, what are we going to build? What are we deciding to do? So I guess it is an outgrowth of last season in that way.
You mentioned a little bit of the repertoire and what you hope people will get from the repertoire. But more explicitly, what type of repertoire can people expect at this first concert?
One of the things that I think is really exciting about this concert is most of the music was written by living composers. These are people you can go meet. You can hear them talk and hear their stories—which I think sets IWC apart from some traditional choirs who might sing more music of who we think of as the Western master composers. We are featuring some composers who are women, some composers who are men, some composers who are African-American, some who are European-American. Most of the pieces are in English. A couple of them are in foreign languages, but we have translations available. We have pieces inspired by jazz, inspired by gospel music, inspired by West-African music, inspired by folk music, and bluegrass. We have very lyrical, beautiful music, and we have really invigorating get-up-and-dance music.
Where do you see this hopefully taking the Chorus in the future? Next year will also be the 25th anniversary season and so where do you see that in the arc of what the IWC is doing?
IWC is a community chorus. Every single person who is there as a singer is there because they want to be there. They’re giving of their time. They are dues paying members of an organization, and so I really want the activities and the musical engagement that the IWC takes part in to be something motivated by our singing membership. So I don’t necessarily know where it’s going to go. But for me, it starts with trying to draw from the singers, “what do you want to be doing?” Our leadership is really doing a great job of engaging that question.
In the past, IWC has sung in the women’s prison—reaching out to women who are incarcerated in a way that we can bring some beauty and some joy into that environment. There are other things that people are suggesting we do that might cause us to be more actively engaged in non-musical ways in the community. But for me, I really want the Chorus to trust itself to know that it is good at what it does. That’s part of this identity season too. When you are learning about yourself you discover what you’re good at, and you celebrate those strengths and say that these are the things that we do really well. So I want IWC to feel confident in their choral abilities and organizational abilities.
One concrete thing we want to do is to be performing in different parts of the city in venues that are accessible to more people than just being in churches on the North side of the city. We don’t want to stay in one location or one area because it makes us less accessible to a large part of the city. It limits our identity. This season, our April concert is going to be at the Eiteljorg Museum. Our June concert will be at the Tube Factory Art Space, which is really out of the box for us, so that will be fun. So we’re looking into the 25th season and how we can be in our community in ways that make this music available and accessible to the broadest variety of people we can—and how do we do that in a way that honors the Chorus as a community chorus. It is an evolving process.