Beth York debuted her first album, “Transformations,” in 1983 at the First Existentialist Congregation of Atlanta, so it will be a homecoming on Sept. 22 as she launches her brand new album, appropriately title “Finding Home.”
York was part of the burgeoning Women’s Music scene when her first album came was released on the Ladyslipper label. She was one of Atlanta’s most prominent figures, and her album of work she composed for piano was cherished by many. During the most difficult years of the AIDS epidemic, York played musical meditations for the Circle of Healing held at First E every month. Her music is both meditative and transcendent and her concerts were always full and deeply appreciated.
York’s musical journey took her to Florida for graduate school and to Utah and back home to South Carolina to teach music therapy. In 2008 she recorded “Heartsongs” with her partner Barbara Ester. Since retiring as a professor of music therapy last year she embarked on her current project. Working with Ester, percussionist Phyllis Free, bass player Diane Matheson, flautist Alison Hughey and violinist Roberta Greenspan, York has recorded songs that span the decades of her musical experience in a way to tell her story anew.
When did you begin learning the piano and what was that like for you?
I begged for a piano at age 6, and was originally taught by my Great Aunt Elsie at her home. She had an old upright player piano (but never used the piano rolls). She used the book, Teaching Little Fingers to Play. Mom and Dad finally bought me a piano of my own when I was 9… upright Story and Clark. (the same brand as the concert grand at the ECong!) More formal lessons began with Mrs. Colloms in her home in Converse Heights, Spartanburg. I learned how to read classical piano music, but was later drawn to popular sheet music. Movie soundtracks (“Exodus,” “Gone with the Wind”) and later the Beatles. Mrs. Colloms also supported my learning the guitar when I was 14. I learned chords and began to play more by ear as I listened to music that moved me emotionally. Especially, it seems, songs in minor keys.
What inspired your early album “Transformations”?
“Transformations” emerged during a time of grief. In 1981, I was grieving the death of my Grandmother (who I realized was Mother to me), an abusive relationship, and the beginning of psychotherapy. Coincidentally, that year, our all women’s band, Anima Rising disbanded and John Lennon was killed. I believe that the convergence of those events led to a need to express my grief and the process of healing through music making. The five movement piece was composed organically, via improvisation, then notated for piano. Additional parts for strings, woodwinds, percussion and bass came later as I heard and valued those voices.
Why did you decide to study music therapy?
I learned about the profession of music therapy from my high school choral director during a class devoted to “careers in music.” The summer of my 16th year, I had volunteered with Project Head Start as a classroom aide and brought my guitar to play songs for the preschoolers. One child in particular responded differently to me when I played and sang for him one-on-one. He might now have been diagnosed as ADD or autistic, but had serious attention difficulties, and the teacher asked me to play with him outside the classroom. As I sang and played, he crawled to me on the floor, touched the instrument, pulled himself closer and relaxed beside me. When I heard that a profession devoted to the benefits of music in healthcare existed, I realized that I might have been experiencing that process with this child. It had been a defining and meaningful moment. I often say that the profession was made for me. It incorporated my entire skill set: a healthcare profession that required vocal skills plus piano, guitar, an intuitive understanding of the effects of music on emotion….that music evoked emotion and meaning for me. Of course, now, we know much more about the neurophysiology of music processing that validates the clinical experiences and process.
Your new album is a collection of songs from different times in your life. Can you tell us about some of those songs?
The songs on “Finding Home” represent songs that have served a therapeutic purpose in my own life: lyrics pulled from my journals; songs that I sang to myself to express love lost and found, wonder, awe at the journey of life and surprises along the way. Originally I had no intention of sharing them. The surprise of a breast cancer diagnosis four years ago gave me a new perspective. What would I leave as a legacy to my nieces and family members? What did I need to sing to dear ones who had given me so much? Dear ones at the Existentialist Congregation have been inspirational since I found Lanier and Pauline Clance in 1980. Their guidance shaped my values and became ground for belief in myself and my spiritual connection to music. The first performance of Transformations was performed at the ECong with musicians from the community who had faith that this music held meaning and worth. Their recording of Transformations, produced and distributed by Ladyslipper Music in Durham, NC, literally changed my life and I am eternally grateful.
Why is music so important to us humans?
Much has been written about the importance that music holds in any society. I must, then, speak for myself. I am in awe of the language of music. I am fascinated by the ability of music to evoke feeling, to touch others, to express what is inexpressible. I am fascinated that music evolved in the first place, that humans have brains that are hardwired to hear, remember, interpret, write and represent music, whether it is notated, sounded, or improvised on the myriad of instruments that have been created for the purpose of communicating it. I am fascinated by the range, frequency and timbres, reaching out perhaps to the music of the spheres and at the same time, deep within to our first recollections of the tempo of heartbeat and breath. I feel blessed that music has accompanied, confounded, and informed my life.
Beth York, Barb Ester and Phyllis Free will be performing songs from “Finding Home” at the First Existentialist Congregation, 470 Candler Park Drive (the Old Stone Church overlooking Candler Park) on Sunday afternoon, Sept. 22, at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15-$20 at the door. CD’s will be available for purchase.