By Gail McCarthy
Gloucester’s Robert Bradshaw, an award-winning composer, will be part of a special program delving into the world of music and disabilities tomorrow at Harvard University.
The Salem State University music professor’s new venture began when a flutist with cerebral palsy reached out to the composing world to craft new music. The topic struck a deep chord with Bradshaw.
Musician Catherine Branch, who has cerebral palsy, sent Bradshaw a video of how she moves so he could see how she walks. The composer, whose mission involves creating social connections through music, took up this new charge in 2009. That piece was “Concerto No. 2 for Catherine.” Out of that effort grew a CD titled “At the Root of Identity.” This is the topic the two will share at tomorrow’s presentation, part of a weekend symposium related to music and disabilities. The symposium is free to the public.
During the symposium at 2:45 p.m., the two musicians will explore the relationship of personal performance and the language of disability through the release of their CD.
Branch is a national Leadership, Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (LEND) research fellow. Founder of a project titled “Music of Difference,” Branch’s objective is to start positive public conversations about social change and disability and diversity, using the arts as a vehicle to promote social inclusion for people with disabilities.
Branch, who earned a Master of Music at Eastman School of Music, was awarded a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship in 2008 to research the role of art in social activism around the world. She is now at work on a doctorate.
“It’s hard to describe Catherine. She’s a force and she affects everyone around her in a positive way,” Bradshaw said. “She just changes people’s lives. I’ve done so many of these presentations with her all over the place, and you see the people in the audience who just have to talk to her afterward.”
Branch and Bradshaw have been using music to discuss socially relevant issues since their first collaboration in 2009.
The composer first learned about Branch when she was traveling the world on the Watson fellowship. She was meeting with other artists who lived with disabilities in every field, from dancers to visual artists.
“During our first conversation, she told me about how someone had mentioned to Catherine that her walk reminded her of her own mother. That got her thinking about movement and mobility and motion,” said Bradshaw, whose imagination was fueled by the notion of making movement into music.
Branch made a videotape of herself walking around the conservatory in Australia where she was traveling at the time.
“We came up with a plan to translate her physical motion into music. I used video software to map her unique body movement based on the video she sent me. I listened to the resulting rhythms and turned the visuals marks into sounds,” Bradshaw said.
The result was a flute concerto, which will be part of their presentation. Bradshaw will show the video and talk about transforming those images of her manner of walking into a concerto, which will be performed live.
Bradshaw said the title of the CD was inspired by a thought-provoking book, “Whistling Vivaldi,” written by psychologist Claude Steele, the I. James Quillen dean for the School of Education at Stanford University.
Bradshaw’s new composition, “At the Root of Identity,” is for flute, baritone saxophone, violoncello, two percussionists and laptop — or orchestra. The composition premiered and was recorded at the Eastman School of Music, in Rochester, N.Y., featuring Branch on flute, and the Music of Difference Ensemble.
“Catherine and I are dealing with words and disability and music. We talk about tough issues. But through music, it is non-threatening. This is pure joy. Music for me is not separated from society, but it is an emotional connection to society,” Bradshaw said. “It is my hope that this piece of music embodies our collaboration using art music to encourage positive discussion about social change.”