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Some birthday presents are bigger than others. In honor of the Community Music Center’s 100th birthday, composer Cava Menzies is producing a gift worthy of the milestone: a commissioning project to create 100 new works of music.
Now, she’s about to unveil those works. “(Re)Imagine: 100 New Works From Cava Menzies and Community Music Center” makes its debut in streamed performances available April 4 to May 23, and a live, in-person event on May 14.
Composing, producing and performing are nothing new for Menzies, an Oakland-based musician, visual artist and educator. The daughter of famed jazz trumpeter Eddie Henderson, her musical roots are deep, and her collaborations have included work with artists such as Daveed Diggs, Coldplay, Dave Grohl and others.
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When she learned that Community Music Center (CMC), the 100-year-old nonprofit music school and performance space with branches in San Francisco’s Mission and Richmond districts, was turning 100, Menzies — a founding faculty member at Oakland School for the Arts — went to work on the new project, enlisting a wide range of students and professional musicians to compose new works.
In a recent interview, Menzies recalled the early days of the pandemic, and said the cancellation of classes was devastating, both for her and her students.
“Just the abruptness of it, the lack of access to my students, was pretty heartbreaking,” she said. “The norm in our classroom was to have a musical space where everybody was always collaborating. At lunchtime, we’d always keep the room open; people would be playing piano, drums, and I’d sometimes jump in there.”
One day Menzies, using an online app, asked drum student Jayla Hernández to send her a drum groove, and reached out to New York MC Ajai Kasim to contribute. With Menzies on keyboards, the impromptu trio created a new work; she posted it online, and the response was startling, she said.
“I immediately started getting a flood of texts from other students, saying, ‘That’s so cool, can I do it with you?’,” she said. “It started out with students, and alumni started to catch wind of it.”
Soon she was getting messages from South Africa, Jerusalem, Madagascar, Mexico. “It just started to build a life of its own – everybody wanted to connect with each other.”
The CMC project, she added, seemed to come at just the right time.
It was Sylvia Sherman, CMC’s advancement director, who suggested the 100 years, 100 videos concept. That morphed into the “(Re)Imagine” project, which pulled in 50 student groupings — duets, trios, brass and woodwind ensembles, jazz duos and quartets, Latin jazz and vocal music.
Half of the resulting 100 works are by Menzies and her collaborators; the other 50 are by international and local musicians, CMC’s Young Musicians and Mission District Young Musicians programs.
Today, Menzies says that the turbulence of the time — the COVID shutdowns, the epidemic of homelessness, the killings of Black Americans like George Floyd and others — yielded an atmosphere in which musicians had a lot to express.
“It was like a pressure cooker,” she said, one that yielded responses from dozens of students and artists she knew.
“It’s been really cool to go there and work directly with the students, come up with ideas with them, and just watch how they’re creating with each other,” said Menzies, who continued to create a compilation of her own videos — the initial works from 2020, along with new collaborations.
As it progressed, three principal themes emerged: community, cultural identity and international music. Menzies said that many of the younger students wanted to focus on community issues, and they spent many sessions delving into that.
“If the topic is homelessness, what does that feel like?” she said. “What’s the climate of homelessness? Is it warm, cold, hard? How do you represent that in music? We did a lot of exercises like that, exploring how to take thoughts and ideas, and make musical representations of those.”
CMC executive director Julie Rulyak Steinberg praised Menzies’ work on the project.
“Collaboration, inspiration and empowering the music in everyone have been fundamental values of Community Music Center since it was founded 100 years ago,” she noted. “Our centennial is more than a chance to look back at a century of music making — it calls us to imagine a future of learning, loving and making music together. ‘(Re)Imagine’ is a bold demonstration of the power of music to unite and inspire.”
Menzies believes that the pandemic, in an unexpected sense, freed students to work in new ways.
“Working in music education, there’s all these technical standards of being a musician,” she said. “The idea was just to take all that off the table. I felt like all the preconceived notions we had about what life was supposed to look like, how we’re supposed to function, what does productivity look like, didn’t really matter during COVID. Everything got sort of flipped on its head.
“Part of the philosophy behind this project was that every kid could enter wherever they were at. There was no right or wrong expression. That was very freeing.”
In that way, she added, “(Re)Imagine” was an apt title for the project.
“I think as a creative person, re-imagining is something that you always do,” she said. “You’re always re-thinking, reflecting, re-building; taking things apart, building them back again. So I love the idea of ‘(Re)Imagine.’ It’s not a fixed thing. If there’s anything we’ve learned from this time, it’s fluid. There’s still a lot of ambiguity. It’s a time stamp of this moment, versus anything fixed.”
“(Re)Imagine: 100 New Works From Cava Menzies and Community Music Center” will be offered as videos to stream April 4 to May 23. A live, in-person event will take place at 7 p.m. May 14 at a venue to be announced. For more information, and to register to receive the videos via email, visit https://sfcmc.org/reimagine/.