PLAYING SEATTLE: Cellist and Activist Ebony Miranda Talks Resistance and Allyship Through Music

According to a 2014 study by the League of American Orchestras, less than 2% of musicians in American orchestras are African American, only 4.3% of conductors are black, and composers remain predominantly white as well. Hence, as a classically-trained cellist and person of color (POC), Ebony Miranda’s music career is in itself an act of resistance.

The classical tradition has resisted the influence of black music and perpetuated white supremacy for hundreds of years, and as one of Cornish College of the Art’s only students of color in the classical program, Miranda fought for more diversity in curricula, the student body and staff until their graduation in 2017.  Years later, Miranda has also become a vocal organizer within Seattle’s official Black Lives Matter chapter, and their free improvisational solo project on electric cello, Undesirable Body, continues to explore and amplify the effects of racial oppression and the injustices faced by African Americans every day.

Ebony Miranda took some time away from supporting Seattle protesters on the front lines to speak with Playing Seattle about how music can be used as a tool in the fight against racism, their thoughts on the music industry’s blackout on Tuesday, and how allies in the music industry can step up to better support musicians of color in Seattle and beyond.

AF: Tell me about your background and how you go into music. Are you from Seattle? 

EM: No, actually, I’m originally from Southern California. I moved up to Seattle seven years ago to attend Cornish. I started playing cello down there, went to a music/arts high school and decided to pursue music for school. I came to Cornish seven years ago, graduated with my degree in music, specifically classical music.

While I was studying classical music I had opportunities to do jazz band and that’s when I got more involved in free improv, in particular. Which is sort of what really set the stage for the music I do now. I never thought I’d be doing any type of improvised music but now it’s almost exclusively what I do and my solo project Undesirable Body is exclusively improv-based. 

AF: And you decided to stay in Seattle. Did you feel you had enough of a community here? What prompted you to stay? 

EM: Definitely, from a music point of view, yes. I was able to develop a lot of really great connections at my time at Cornish, especially in the improv scene, and really able to connect with a lot of different people, especially with those associated with Cafe Racer and greater than that, [the label] Table & Chairs. So I’ve been able to be part of some really cool things like play in the Seattle Improvised Music Festival and host a few sessions as well. The improv community here, to me, has always been a positive environment and has been a really nurturing space for me to develop and explore new ideas. 

AF: What are some of your artistic inspirations? 

EM: I will start with some music influences – I mean coming from a classical background, yes, there are a few composers that stick out. Being a cellist, Bach is a huge influence to me especially in terms of like how I think about improv, and I’m a really big fan of using double stops and I think about intervals pretty much constantly when creating my music. Having learned a good amount of the suites there’s a lot of double stop work in there and a lot of chord work. I think that has, one, made my left hand very strong because I really like to push all the limits, try to get all the weird stretched out chords as I can. Bach is definitely an influence, and I’m sure all cellists would say that, just that kind of style of thick chords and things like that. Also, when I was younger, Shostakovich was a great – his concept of melody. He was someone who lived in extremely dark times, under Stalin and horrible government, and was experiencing great pressure in his life and oppression. You can really hear that in his music, so from an emotional standpoint he always stuck out to me. 

Sun Ra was a really great musical inspiration for me as well. My music may not be fully reflective of that – as a person and advocate for Black people in music. His love for our community. I’ve also sampled some of his work in some of my pieces as well. And really, a lot of what I’m putting into my music, the energy I’m putting behind it, is usually influenced – it isn’t even always necessarily events in my life, but just whatever I’m feeling in that moment. The overall feelings, my lived experience, if that makes sense. 

AF: Once, when I saw you perform, you talked about the tortured relationship you’ve had with the cello. At the time, you talked about how a lot of your music has come out of a desire to untangle cello from the history of white supremacy in classical music. Could you talk a little bit more about that?  

EM: So, at that time I had such a complicated relationship with my alma mater, to put it frankly. I had a complicated experience being one of the only black people in my department and knowing there was already a huge lack of representation there and just trying to find my place in the music world. I was really grappling with those feelings and trying to separate myself from the academia side of things and for myself realized what playing cello and music is about. From an early age I knew I was never going to be, you know, in the concert hall as a soloist, but I also knew I loved playing and for some reason people enjoyed hearing me play, so I think I was just trying to discover what was out there and possible for me as a musician. 

Over the past few years I’ve gotten more experience, which alone has helped. I also switched to an electric cello and that did a lot for me to expand my sound. Also, [the electric cello] had the potential to be a lot louder, which was something new for me as well. That really opened some doors to explore my instrument, because I was literally playing on a new instrument.  I [still do] some gigs where I play classical music or classical adjacent music or chamber music, things like that, but I don’t feel that burden anymore, that complicated relationship. I think I’ve been able to find what I enjoy most and really run with it. So when I do go back it’s like visiting an old friend – not to sound too corny. I am able to approach that style of music on my own terms now. 

AF: Can you talk about being one of the only POC at Cornish College of the Arts? 

EM: It’s not just the music department – I think in general a lot of POC students at Cornish struggle to find representation not only within Cornish as an institution but also in the curriculum being studied. I think there was a general dissatisfaction with the lack of diversity in the material we were given. I actually formed a People of Color Union at Cornish, a POC Union to help group us together and discuss what the discrepancies were within our departments and within Cornish as a whole. To put it simply, it was just trying to challenge either certain policies that the school had instated, or encourage diversity in curriculum and staff as well. One of our biggest achievements was being able to get a therapist of color on campus, which was a huge thing for us. A lot of universities and colleges, any sort of institution—they could always use a little… input. 

AF: You’ve talked about using music to transform and heal. How do you think music can be used as a tool to fight what’s going on in the world right now in terms of racism and unrest? 

EM: I feel like this can go so many ways. There’s the literal application of putting your personal political beliefs within music. Either through words, or making it a concept, really stamping on, like, ‘this is my statement.’ Literally using the music to fight back or to encourage change. But I think there are other avenues as well, and part of that is representation. Even if the people on stage may not be giving a political performance, it’s also very encouraging to see people that look like you or who are in your community expressing themselves as well. Someone like me, I make strictly instrumental music for the most part but I still get told that the energy I have behind my music, the values I have as a person are very prevalent. I feel just as much whether you have a verbal effect, you also have an emotional effect as well.

Even if it’s for the purpose of just bringing people together. For example, I hosted a fundraiser a couple years ago when all of the protests were happening at the detention centers. I hosted a fundraiser for Northwest Immigrants Rights Project for when the movement of families belong together was happening. But yeah, I hosted, I performed along with two of my friends and it was great. We definitely had some good messages in between. We had a wonderful host that reminded everyone why they were there. But at the end of the day we didn’t necessarily have anything to do with immigrant rights or detention centers but it was just having music there in that space, that energy present really made an impact for folks. 

AF: When did you start considering yourself an activist and getting more involved? 

EM: I mainly started getting involved in things when I was around 19 or 20 – really the Black Lives Matter movement as a whole got me more politically involved in things. I remember I hosted a silent protest once, just me and one other person. That was the first time I did a political action, if you will. And I also participated in a lot of the protests that were happening in 2015. That must have been the officer who killed Mike Brown – that was a big, especially here in Seattle. There was a really big explosive impact and was kind of the start of BLM activity in Seattle. That was when the original chapter was started. So I started getting more involved that way and participated in some protests. There I mainly focused on ways I could act within Cornish since that was the context of most of my life – that’s when I created the POC Union and we put together a yearly show for people of color there and that was really great, and I was in a lot of meetings with administration really trying to push for change there. At my last year at Cornish in 2017, I was an organizer for the Women’s March on Seattle, the first one. For me personally it was a big mess, but it made me learn a lot about grassroots organizing, what I like and didn’t like about it, and got me back into getting more involved in the political scene, since I was finishing school at the time.

At the end of 2017, myself and two other individuals founded Black Lives Matter Seattle – King County as the original chapter had been long gone and dissolved by then. Myself and two others founded that at the end of 2017, and we created our board, got incorporated and got all the official business out of the way. We do go by BLM-Seattle too, for short, but in our mission we incorporate all of King County.

AF: I saw you posted on Facebook about protests – I’ve heard that the BLM activists weren’t involved in a lot of the Seattle protests over the weekend, is that true? 

EM: It’s about half and half. It’s been hard to decipher information, but essentially there was one protest – well, let’s back up. There was a protest happening on Friday that was organized by local anarchist and leftist groups. There was a demonstration on Saturday at noon that was being put on by a white ally [who] brought in some people from the King County NAACP [to speak]. And then there was another one that happened later that day that was hosted by a black organization called Not This Time, and they’re most known for putting on the campaign to get I-940 passed, that’s what they’re connected with. And then there’s another demonstration happening on June 14th, that claims to be the original BLM “chapter,” but it is an individual who was involved in those movements back then. He essentially hosts the majority of any protest that we’ve seen with Black Lives Matter. You know how they have the Black Lives Matter Friday and things like that? He is hosted those events. He’s an individual, not a chapter. There’s a lot of confusion. 

AF: It is really confusing. It all gets muddled on social media too. Can you tell me how the George Floyd protests have affected you, and have you been involved in any of them through BLM or individually? Can you clarify your BLM chapter’s stance on protesting during the pandemic? 

EM: It was a pretty tough decision – a lot of events were popping up this past weekend, and as we’ve seen continuing throughout the week, so as an organization our board is not currently hosting any in-person protests for a couple reasons, the main reason being we’re still in the pandemic, COVID-19 is still extremely vicious and prominent within black and brown communities, and as an organization we figured it would not be best to encourage our community to go out and protest. We are a thousand percent behind those who do feel the need to demonstrate and we’re not going to tell people not to protest because we fully understand why people do, but if they’re feeling on the fence about it, we want people to know we are understanding of the fact that we are still in a pandemic. We do care about our community first. In lieu of that, we have mainly been working behind the scenes to provide support for those who are deciding to protest. So, we have created our bail fund which got fully funded, and which I am extremely excited about. We created a protester safety guide that is on our website. It has COVID safety information as well as a lot of different resources for folks that are going to be out there. And then, with the bail fund we are also working on helping bail out protesters who are getting arrested. That’s all happening right now. 

It’s such a weird juxtaposition  of feelings — there’s so much crisis happening, I’m emotionally exhausted and there’s so much grief happening, but at the same time it has been extremely encouraging to see how much community support we’ve been getting. Our [local] chapter has not gotten this type of attention ever really and we’ve been around almost two years and have been doing a lot of really great work. It’s been really incredible seeing people come out to support us and support the work we do [and] we’re still with our community and still want to support people in any way we can. 

AF: What can the music community do to support BLM and more broadly, POC musicians? 

EM: I have a lot of different thoughts pop up. I think a really great example is the Seattle Symphony hosting a march, which I was really shocked at! I thought it was really cool. It goes back to my personal experience – there’s still a lot of racism and sexism within music community, especially in the classical music community, and there’s always so many talks about how we create diversity within classical music, whether it be on stage or in the concert hall. How do we do outreach, how do we make this music accessible to people? Performances are going to be on hold for a long time so this is the perfect time to really strategize on how we can make classical music in particular more accessible to marginalized communities, whether it be in education, or performance, or just accessibility to hearing that kind of music. A lot of symphonies and organizations and music unions and educators should be thinking about those things. It’s really reflective of the amount of time that I’ve been criticized because I couldn’t afford lessons, because my mom was working two jobs so I could go to my arts high school. Lack of resources [is something] a lot of young Black and POC kids experience when trying to pursue a field that’s incredibly expensive. I think this is the perfect time to think about that.

In terms of the greater music scene, especially when we’re all starting to really feel the effects of COVID-19 in terms of our work, supporting Black and POC musicians, making sure their music is getting played and they’re getting the support they deserve. Again, it just comes back to that – even in mainstream festivals, there’s still a big lack of diversity. So again, how do you make sure you’re curating your venues to really be diverse – not to just tokenize, but truly be diverse. What audiences are you really advertising towards? Who’s your audience and why? What crowds do you want in your establishment? There’s still gatekeeping in that sense. I can very much tell if the space has me in mind or not, whether I’m playing at a venue or attending one. 

AF: Speaking of taking advantage of the pause, what do you think about #theshowmustbepaused social media campaign? 

EM: It turned into a giant mess. I didn’t even actually know that it was started by the music community. I think people very quickly realized how damaging it could be to fill up a very relevant hashtag with a bunch of blank images. I think people understood the harm that has caused, but to the original purpose of it, what it was meant to be, it wasn’t anyone’s fault that it got misconstrued. That’s just how social media works at times. From what I remember from reading, it was a way for the music community not to promote anything and really pause everything to honor POC.

My personal feelings on actions like that, while I think the visual and yes the more performative aspect of those types of actions can have a lot of impact on people, for someone like myself who’s been doing this work and been involved in this type of environment for a long time, concrete action and consistent concrete action is always the most impactful. I always tell people, any action you do, you can do one really big action but it may not be as worthwhile as even like a smaller but very consistent action. As we always say it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. In two weeks, Black people are still unfortunately at high risk of getting killed by police in this country. These record companies want to take a stand – that’s great, but again, you really need to apply that in all elements of your company. Who you’re signing, payment of your artists, the money they’re able to make from you and feel supported and feel represented as well. 

Stay tuned to Ebony Miranda’s website for ongoing updates and new music.

PLAYING SEATTLE: Simon Henneman Explores “Non-idiomatic Shred Guitar” with Cantrip

Cantrip plays the release show for Authentic Luxury at River Dan’s on May 4th.

Seattle has a vibrant community for free improvisation, and guitarist Simon Henneman is a veteran member. Since the early 2000s, Henneman has been playing at Cafe Racer, a local hang known for its weekly free Racer Sessions jam, and eventually he began curating other jam sessions in the city and collaborating with several other legendary Seattle musicinas, like drummer like Greg Keplinger, who toured as a drum tech with Soundgarden and Pearl Jam.

For his part, Henneman plays in a variety of different groups, from his group with Keplinger called WA, to Diminished Men, a local favorite since 2007. And though he’s interested in a variety of different styles, Henneman’s musical voice is defined by angular melodies and sound-play, and is bolstered by his loyalty to a variety of local jam sessions.

He defines his most recent release, Authentic Luxury, as a work of “post-modern shred guitar,” which rapidly moves between different time-feels, melodies, and moods. Released with improvisational trio Cantrip in May, the LP really captures Henneman’s exploratory and “non-idiomatic” guitar work as well as his creative bond with other local musicians, highlighting why his relationship to the Seattle’s scene is so supportive and progressive.

AF: What was the impetus for this new album? Is there an underlying theme that drives it?

SH: I was mostly just trying to make a non-idiomatic shred guitar record or a shred guitar record that didn’t seem like a shred guitar record. It’s really just a way to sum up what I’ve been working on the last few years, but in a rock trio kind of format. I think a lot of it is really funny and deadly serious at the same time. I hope that comes across.

AF: What got you into the guitar? When did you start playing?

SH: I was a really nerdy kid into computer programming and Dungeons and Dragons – I didn’t really know anything about or listen to music, though I had some piano lessons when I was younger. I couldn’t get into the basic electronics class that I really wanted to get into and a friend told me guitar was cool so I took that class and became totally obsessed with the guitar. It was a really badly structured class; after roll call the music teacher just hung out in his office doing paperwork while the guitar class all hung out learning from each other. [It was] a lot of people asking each other, “What was that you just did? Can you show me how you did that?” which was actually really great. I started playing guitar when I was thirteen, so thirty something years now.

AF: How long have you played music in Seattle? What bands/groups have you been a part of?

SH: I was born in Seattle but grew up in Arlington, a former logging town, about an hour north of Seattle. I’ve lived here off and on my whole life. I was really into free improv and free jazz when I first started hanging out in Seattle and there is a great community for that here. There are always free improv jam sessions happening, right now and for quite a few years the Racer Sessions at Cafe Racer, before that was the Mt. Non Fiction sessions at the Blue Moon on Sunday nights that I curated for a couple of years, and before that was a great session called Sound of the Brush which was curated by Tom Swafford and Gust Burns. Right around the same time as Sound of the Brush Monktail, I was really active with their Coffee Messiah improv session series.

I got to know a lot of the free players through these sessions. I started playing with my band Diminished Men in 2007. I have a group called WA with Seattle drum legend Gregg Keplinger. I play in a country band called Contraband Countryband. I have a fifteen-piece big band that occasionally plays my music called Meridian Big Band. I play in a band called Shitty Person which is kind of a downer rock thing. I have a band called UbuludU that started as a version of Cantrip, but is now a really loud stoner rock power fusion kind of thing. I do a dual guitar instrumental rock thing with the Dave Webb Band (which is also sometimes called the Simon Henneman Band). We’re doing a tribute to ’70s fusion music at the Royal Room on May 16th. The last few years I’ve been doing a ton of tribute gigs to Marc Ribot’s Cubanos Postizos, Black Sabbath, John Coltrane, Frank Zappa, metal versions of Thelonious Monk, Eric Dolphy, and others. I really just like all kinds of different music and playing whatever I like. I don’t really subscribe to any strict genres.

AF: Aside from a guitar focus, what influences do you bring to Cantrip? I hear psychedelia and certain world music styles—is it reflective of your most current listening?

SH: Cantrip came about initially as a way to return to some of the music I had maybe only done once at a tribute or other gig. It then became a way to sum up what I’ve been up to the last few years and the chance to play some [of my] material, like “Zeno’s Klaxon” or “Machingo” that I never thought I’d be able to play with people.

I’ve really gotten into the guitar in a big way in the last few years, so it’s definitely a guitar record. There’s a lot of improvisation on the record—I don’t like to write out guitar solos, I think it’s way more exciting to improvise them. In that way, the group is always related to current listening because what I’m listening to comes out in [the improvisation], but some of the tunes are a decade old and some are a year old.

As far as what actual direct influences, I’d say Frank Zappa, John Coltrane, Diminished Men, Hermeto Pascoal, Steve Vai’s Flex-Able record, and the guitar playing of Shawn Lane, Ruth Crawford, Kaija Saariaho, and probably a lot more. Right now, I’m listening to a lot of technical death metal like Obscura, Necrophagist, Viraemia, as well as 20th and 21st century classical and Western art music, and stuff like Billie Eilish and JLin.

AF: Haha, right on! The particular group on this album—tell me about them. Do you play with this group a lot?

SH: It was originally a trio with me on guitar and a different rhythm section for each gig until I played with Chris Icasiano and Mike Murphy. The way they played the material was really close to how I was hearing it in my head so it solidified this line-up. I’ve known Chris for years through the improv sessions at the Blue Moon initially and then through the Racer Sessions and [label] Table and Chairs. Mike and I just met about a year and a half ago through a friend that was in a great theatrical prog rock band called Moon Letters. We don’t have a lot of gigs in town lined up right now, but I’m booking a West Coast tour for us this summer.

AF: What does Cantrip mean?

SH: Cantrip is a Scottish word that means either a short spell, incantation or a witch’s trick.

AF: What parts of Seattle’s music scene inspire you?

SH: There’s a lot of different people doing different things. There are so many amazing and unique drummers here. The folks that I’ve met through the Racer Sessions are really inspiring. I feel like I can do just about anything musically here that I’d want to – there’s people to work with for almost anything a person would want to do. That being said I’d still like to find a twenty-something shredding metal drummer that’s down to rehearse three times a week and can improvise like a champion so I can do some of the technical death metal stuff I’ve been working on live, ha.

AF: You’ve been making music here in Seattle for a while,- what are your future goals for your music?

SH: I’d like to have more people hear it, or at least have the people that are out there that would be into it in other places be able to find it. As great as the internet is, there’s still a parsing problem when it comes to finding new things. I’ll bet there’s all kinds of amazing music I can’t find yet. I’d like to continue to grow and learn as much as I can.

AF: How would you define the kind of music maker you are?

SH: Curious. Rigorous. I enjoy the work.