Summer at Skidmore

By Brad Balliett

Every time I return to Saratoga Springs for the Decoda-Skidmore Chamber Music Institute, I'm reminded of what an immersive experience it is for everyone involved - for students, for Decoda faculty, for our enthusiastic young staff, for our guest artists, and for the community. Life outside of the Skidmore campus mercifully comes to a halt as we convene to have real conversations about how to engage audiences, how to make our enthusiasm for our art infectious, and how to rise to ever higher artistic standards.

As always, music comes first, and this year's DSCMI offered a bracing and refreshing range of concerts, both by faculty and students. Decoda was thrilled to return to Ladd Auditorium at the Arthur Zankel Music Center, with its stellar acoustics, to play a program of Stravinsky, Brahms, and a new arrangement by this year's composer-in-residence, Sarah Kirkland Snyder just for Decoda. Not only was the new piece a joy to work on, but we enjoyed watching Sarah make a real, lasting impression on the students in her session about forging careers. Her humility, intelligence, and open-mindedness served as an inspiration and model for these young musicians (and her wise words were not lost on the faculty either!).


Later in the festival, Decoda returned to the Tang Museum on the Skidmore campus for a program of music arranged by its own members, including a set of charming rags by William Bolcom (which will be reprised at Carnegie Hall on January 22, 2020). The audience also experienced music by Reza Vali, Shawn Conley, Olivier Messaien, and a mammoth new work for bassoon and violin (by yours truly) which showed off Anna Elashvili's prowess on both the 1/8th- and 1/16th-sized violins. Finally, Decoda presented a program of lesser known composers (Biber, Lutoslawski, and Janacek) at a concert with a new partner - the historic and legendary Caffe Lena in downtown Saratoga Springs. Not only was the sold-out crowd extremely appreciative of this unusual music, it was very fun to play on the same stage that has hosted legends like Bob Dylan and Don McLean.

The students also present a host of great concerts -- each student played in two chamber groups, performing not only in Ladd Auditorium, but also in Filene Hall and in various community venues. They got a chance to sharpen their skills in a variety of areas, including public speaking and designing activities for very young audiences. Each group rose to the formidable challenges in unique ways.


Outside of rehearsals, coachings, and concerts, students learned in other ways: the Marshmallow Challenge shed light on collaborative dynamics and burned off energy in rousing games of Frisbee-Soccer (both led by violist Nate Schram), in addition to participating in interactive Town Hall lectures on a variety of topics led by rotating members of the Decoda faculty.

At the end of the two weeks, students were asked to sum up their experience in a single word. Although many provided excellent and inspiring words, the smiles and tears of the participants as the final session concluded spoke volumes more than any words could. We just can't wait to be back for the 7th summer in July 2020!"


First Times

By Laura Weiner

One of the more dramatic, fulfilling, and mysterious processes to witness is the birth of a song. The alchemy of blank page to poetry, spoken rhythms to sung melodies, solitary vocal lines to instrumental harmonies, never gets old. In recent weeks, I have participated in two different Decoda songwriting projects: teens and police officers of the Police Athletic League in New York City, and incarcerated men at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina. In both settings, we had a mix of first-timers and experienced songwriters. We had an epistolary prompt inspired by “what the world needed to hear” about these populations. We had Decoda musicians writing, playing, singing, arranging, composing, laughing, grooving, fist-bumping, applauding, crying, and listening. And we had songwriters performing for their peers, advocating for themselves, and sounding just really really good.


Of course, it’s nice that both projects had successful concerts with standing ovations and changed perceptions, but the moments I stockpile for many months and years later are those “firsts”- three cops happen upon the perfect rhyme for a chorus and jump up from the table in excitement; a small group finally nails their 4-part vocal harmony after so much rehearsal; the participants gasp when they hear a live string quartet. These moments come fast and furious in songwriting projects, and each crosses a synapse between people in the room. While the task of creating a concert’s worth of original songs looms, I trust in the snug magic of these “first times” and the musical lattice that they build around us.

It’s easy to see these songwriting projects as metaphors- workshops to practice life skills that participants might rely on later. While the skills of songwriting are translatable in many other contexts, I’ve come to believe that writing and sharing a song is no metaphor, it is the truest embodiment of these “life skills.” What is respect but lending another person your pen to complete your lyric. What is collaboration but blending your note with another’s to find balanced harmony. And what is finding your voice but stepping up to the mic in front of your peers and singing exactly like yourself.


Returning Back Home

Bargemusic, “kick-off” week 2012

I started my time in the Academy, or what’s known now as Ensemble Connect, exactly 10 years ago. At that time, I was freshly out of school and grateful to feel attached to something and not completely unmoored in New York City. I think that there is a special connection people make at this vulnerable stage in our lives and this was forged within those two years of the fellowship. I was inspired by my “fellow-fellows" and was happy that we worked to create a community of people who were looking for creative ways to be musicians and of course to survive in New York! 

As we left the comfy luxury of our Carnegie fellowship, this community decided to dive head-first into the deep waters of self-run-freelance-chamber-ensembles. A challenging proposition, but we were into it! So Decoda was born (or… The Declassified…as covered by the NY Times before our name change). It is amazing to remember the amount of work and effort we all gave to the process of creating our group. We pooled our resources to perform in as many places as possible and to expose ourselves and our name to the world. I recall quite clearly our “kick-off” week in 2012; we worked tirelessly, running around the city, and rehearsing wherever we could possibly find free space. There’s really nothing quite like that feeling of being young, scrappy, and all in it together. 

Very serious rehearsal, 2012.
Note: still not matured.

Over the years, it’s been thrilling to see how we as artists and the group itself has matured. Each year was a learning experience and as we rotated leadership, we saw different facets of the group come to life and we really started to hone our identity. Now, with nearly a hundred concerts and residencies performed around the world and under our belt, we are primed and EXCITED for our return back to our first home, Carnegie Hall. 

We would love to see you at our concert this Wednesday, November 14th at 7:30pm in Weill Hall! Doors open at 6:30pm. Join us after the concert for a drink and discussion in the Jacobs Room.

Remembering a night at The MET

by Caitlin Sullivan

Saturday, October 3rd, 2015 at 7:00pm
Musical Portraits in Vélez Blanco Patio at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Decoda's program was in conjunction with the exhibition Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, which was on view June 30th - October 4th, 2015. Read more about the program here.

Portraits in Paint and Sound

Portraits in Paint and Sound

Who grows up in a household where there is a kiln AND a darkroom in the basement? Well, that would be me…and although I grew up to become a musician, my artist parents had an undeniable influence on my musical life. Those countless childhood visits to galleries and museums really stick with you in unexpected ways!
In my second curated concert for Decoda at the MET Museum, I was inspired by the MET’s special exhibit of the portrait painter John Singer Sargent. These were portraits he created of his close friends – artist friends. It was fun for me to reflect on childhood memories of my parents’ fascinating and brilliant friends, and I immediately wanted to translate this concept to music – what kinds of musical portraits have been composed to portray those in a composer’s inner circle?
My Decoda friends and colleagues constantly inspire my thinking about music; one example of that is creative programming, and how it can (and should) result in a truly engaging, illuminating, and unexpectedly eclectic journey. Inspiration, whether from parents or colleagues, is the fuel of art. It’s fascinating how art begets art, to create new art…
A nice announcement for this concert was featured in the New Yorker:

"As a pendant to its dazzling exhibition devoted to the portraiture of John Singer Sargent, the musicians of Decoda, for whom versatility is a watchword, put together a unique program of incisive musical portraits by such composers as Britten, Ravel, Schubert, Ned Rorem, Aaron Jay Kernis ('Mozart en Route'), David Lang, and Charles Mingus ('Self-Portrait in Three Colors').."

-The New Yorker

Road to the White House

by Claire Bryant

Several years ago, at an early meeting for Decoda, we submitted our ‘big dream’ proposals for the future of our ensemble.  Mine was the White House.  This year, that dream came true.

This past April, Decoda was fortunate to have columnist Kathleen Parker from the Washington Post - "With a song in prisoner's hearts" -  join us in Bishopville, South Carolina for our second week-long songwriting workshop at Lee Correctional Institution.  Kathleen dedicated one of her weekly (and nationally syndicated) columns to sharing her experiences from the prison, witnessing thirty incarcerated men collaborating together to write nineteen new and original songs based upon the theme ‘Transformation’, inspired by Decoda’s concert repertoire that week (at the Fine Arts Center of Kershaw County) which included Strauss’ Metamorphosen. Hear three of those songs here.

Kathleen was struck by the same things we have also been struck by when music enters and envelops an environment such as a prison — the transformative powers these musical experiences expose and the soft-skills they provide are conclusive: a safe space to create, a sense of hope, feelings of self-worth, collaborative skills, self-reflection, problem solving tactics, personal motivation, listening skills, a sense of accomplishment, risk & reward, leadership, adaptability, conflict resolution, and empathy, among many, many others.

It was because of Kathleen’s efforts that our work in the justice system landed on the desk of Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to President Obama.  I received an email from Ms. Jarrett in late July and from that point on, things moved very quickly. About one week later, Brad Balliett, James Austin Smith, and I were at the White House for a meeting with Roy Austin, Jr. and his team.

Roy Austin, Jr., the deputy assistant to President Obama and director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs, Justice, and Opportunity, was a most warm and welcoming host.  He is also a huge music and arts lover!  His spoke of his father, Roy Austin, and told us of his father’s belief and use of music of to bring significant social change to his homeland territories of the Caribbean.  There was no need to sell him or the administration on the power of the arts to transform lives; it was a mutual position, thus the reason for our invitation.  During the meeting we were able to get into the details of our projects, our future goals, and where we can turn our focus to create chartable change over the next few years.  How do these programs and projects work together with the President’s commitment to bringing substantive reform to our country’s criminal justice system - from prevention, to incarceration, to reentry?  There is much to think about and consider - where can we as an organization make the most impact right now through music in the justice system?

To our surprise and delight, Ms. Jarrett stopped by our meeting to say hello and to lend her support.  We were able to leave Ms. Jarrett and Mr. Austin with CD’s of original songs and thick books of letters and testimonials from the men at Lee Correctional about what this music program has meant to their progress during incarceration.  We left feeling challenged and activated.

Read Roy Austin Jr.’s blog about the December 17th event at the White House here.

Over the next several months, Mr. Austin personally and graciously introduced us to several excellent contacts each of whom are involved in innovative arts programming in the justice system around the country. One of the individuals I had the chance to get to know over email and phone was Sabra Williams, the director of the Actors’ Gang Prison Project, a California-based theatre organization who's Artistic Director is Academy-Award Winner Tim Robbins.  Sabra and her colleagues are doing some incredible work through theater at prisons all over California - please take a moment to check them out here.

Through their outstanding leadership and efforts, Sabra and Tim cultivated an event (put together very quickly!) at the White House for December 17th, in collaboration with Ms. Jarrett and Mr. Austin's phenomenal staff, dedicated entirely to innovative arts programming as part of the President’s criminal justice reform, with particular attention to reentry into society. 

The entire afternoon was extremely thrilling and inspiring.  The event, held in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Offices, had a robust array of attendees, including keynote speeches from Valerie Jarrett, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and Roy Austin, Jr., to members of Congress (bi-partisan representation!), governmental agencies (such as Department of Justice), governmental and private foundations, a multitude of arts organizations and advocates dedicated to criminal justice reform with the inclusion of the arts, state and federal wardens and officers from correctional facilities, and formerly incarcerated people who have not only successfully reentered into society but are now giving back their time and energy to this very issue.

We were honored to present three original works written by incarcerated men (one of whom has been released and one who will be released later this year) during our work at Sing Sing Correctional Facility (with Carnegie Hall’s Musical Connections Program) and our project at Lee Correctional Institution. We were lucky to be joined by the wonderful jazz vocalist, Sarah Elizabeth Charles

Following our performance, which came at the top of the program right after the eloquent and passionate words spoken by Valerie Jarrett and Attorney General Loretta Lynch, I participated in my very first panel (whoa - at the White House!!) moderated by E-News Host and actor Terrence Jenkins, as I sat alongside the prominent arts and justice advocates/activists Jane Chu, National Endowment for the Arts Chairman; Vivian Nixon, Director of College and Community Fellowship; and Claire Schwadron, from Class Act Arts.

We were elated to have had the opportunity to share the music and stories from our work in the justice system with such an esteemed community of caring and committed individuals.  Our experience at the White House solidified that artistic programming in the justice system - with youth, with incarcerated communities, and our continued relationships with the formerly incarcerated - is notonly critical, but vital.  All people, no matter their previous experience, exposure, or expertise, deserve the freedom for their own creative voices to be empowered through the sole gateway which provides such an honest potential for transformation, change, and reform: the arts.

So, where do we go from here?  In February, our program at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, SC continues and grows, with a weeklong songwriting workshop with 35 men from their community in a program designed by the men themselves called, ‘Seasons of Life’, inspired by the Vivaldi Four Seasons.  The men have progressed on their own since our last visit - now possessing 10 of their own music instructors teaching over 120 inmates instrumental classes, songwriting workshops and hip-hop workshops.  In addition to a host of guitars, basses, keyboard students, and thanks to several generous donors, the prison now has its very first string quartet!

In the spring, we will be back at Sing Sing Correctional Facility and at Belmont High School in Brooklyn, NY, an after school program for at-risk youth, both projects are part of Carnegie Hall’s Musical Connections Program.

Future dreams for Decoda and our justice initiatives: more programs right here in NYC - at Rikers Island for their juvenile detainees, and our own free, after-school songwriting program in Washington Heights for at-risk youth. This White House dream realized is a reminder that with a steady and energetic vision, dreams can come true, and the future can be changed, one person and community at a time, through the power of music and the arts.

James, Brad, and Claire following August meeting at White House

James, Brad, and Claire following August meeting at White House

Siwoo Kim, John Marcus, Claire Bryant, Meena Bhasin, Sarah Elizabeth Charles

Siwoo Kim, John Marcus, Claire Bryant, Meena Bhasin, Sarah Elizabeth Charles



Terrence Jenkins, Claire Schwadron, Vivian Nixon, Claire Bryant, and Jane Chu

Terrence Jenkins, Claire Schwadron, Vivian Nixon, Claire Bryant, and Jane Chu

Sabra Williams, Meena Bhasin, Tim Robbins, Claire Bryant, Sarah Elizabeth Charles, John Marcus

Sabra Williams, Meena Bhasin, Tim Robbins, Claire Bryant, Sarah Elizabeth Charles, John Marcus

Decoda at Lee Correctional Institution, SC - April 2015

An account from Decoda Project Leader, cellist, Claire Bryant

Before reading on, please check out this column in WaPo: 

'With a Song in Prisoners' Hearts' - Washington Post column by Kathleen Parker

Eight members of Decoda had the fortune and honor to present a week-long workshop at South Carolina's largest maximum security prison, Lee Correctional Institution (LCI), earlier this month.  This was Decoda's second project in the past year at the prison, and the result was transformative and life changing for all involved.  Over six days, thirty participants from BLIC (Better Living Incentive Community, a character-based dorm by application) and the eight artists of Decoda, Owen Dalby, Anna Elashvili, Meena Bhasin, Nathan Schram, Caitlin Sullivan, Kris Saebo, Brad Balliett, and myself, became BLICODA, one bond, one heart, one band.  The result were nineteen original songs written and performed, and every single one of them was powerful. The anthem of the week became this song, "Look at Me Now".  The chorus goes: Look at me now/ I’m not who I once was/ The trials in my life/ Have come to make me strong/ So look at me now.

Hear it here: 


I was raised in Camden, South Carolina, about 25 miles down the road from Bishopville.  Growing up, I had no idea there was a maximum security prison in close proximity.  To be honest, I never once thought about incarcerated people.  But to be really honest, I believed in the stigma that society fed me: 'incarcerated people are all bad people', 'they are all criminals who aren't capable of change', and 'we should lock them up and throw away the key'.  Now, with immense perspective and real-life experience in several correctional facilities, I feel dirty and ugly that I ever thought those things.  It's upsetting that this is the way our society thinks about the incarcerated population, and that we so easily forget them, shun them, even after serving sentences for their crimes, they face incredible hardships as they try to re-enter society.  

The great thing about music is that everyone has a relationship to it; we are all equal; no one is smarter, better, or more touched by it than anyone else.  Everyone is inspired by it, everyone has their own tastes, and everyone feels the power of music individually.  The other great thing about music is that it is a group sport.  It's something that can truly build trust, community, encourage dialogue, self-expression, generate feelings of pride, success, and accomplishment.  Decoda's work in community venues such as prisons, schools, homeless shelters, and health care facilities, have been the best thing to happen to our group both personally and artistically.  

Here's a great example.  One Day 1 at LCI this month, we performed the epic septet version of Strauss' Metamorphosen for the men.  This piece is filled with deep meaning: of destruction, oppression, expression, and hope.  The work is 25 minutes with no break and we were eager to share the work with them, while introducing the week's theme of 'Transformation', for which the Strauss is a seminal example.  The thirty-person audience surrounded us in a circle.  The acoustics in the prison's chapel were not ideal - carpet everywhere, dry as a bone, and over-air conditioned. But this particular performance was particularly important to Decoda.  These men perhaps have never heard a live classical performance, certainly not this piece (most people have never heard it, buffs or not) and especially in such an intimate and relevant space. We played, we poured our hearts into the music, we gave it all we could.  It was a spiritual moment in time - in the midst of Strauss' music the men and we were one - audience and performers no longer, just a group of people experiencing the Metamorphosen together. 

A little side note, Strauss makes a huge Beethoven reference all over Metamorphosen with the dotted eighth-sixteenth rhythm and motive, and at the very last phrase of the work, he directly quotes the Funeral March from Beethoven's Third Symphony, the 'Eroica'.  It's an earth-shattering moment. We pointed that out to the men, and to our amazement, the next day when we arrived into the chapel, they were blasting Eroica's slow movement on the speakers as we arrived.  Talk about musical connections.  At the end of the week, one of the men, Sportio, made a public testimonial at the culminating performance that the experience listening to the Strauss was the first time in eight years that he has felt an emotional release and at peace with his daughter's death.  Music is truly amazing. 

On Day 2, at the beginning of our share session, the following song (one of seven that had been written overnight by the men after our first day) was brought to our attention. 'Thinking Out Loud' was written as a 3-part collaboration between some of our musical and poetic leaders of the bunch, Big Hurk, DX, and Big Greazy.  I don't think I will ever forget the moment they introduced it to us - a completely professional performance filled with passion and emotion kicking off Day 2 of our workshop.  Thankfully, 'Thinking Out Loud', our workshop's initial song, made it onto the final concert, and it is so powerful. 

Listen here: 

This particular workshop was over six days - five workshop days (3 hours usually, and a double workshop on Day 5).  Day 6 is dedicated to a culminating and celebratory performance featuring the songs written over the week (nineteen for this project!!!) performed by the men and Decoda, a band affectionately known as BLICODA. 

The week flew by, and everyone was working so hard, and so well together.  It was a mesmerizing display of collaboration, filled with respect.  Everyone worked so well together - and supported each other's ideas, validating the talents of everyone in the room, merging lyrics, melodies, rhythms, and songs.  I don't think in my professional life I've ever seen such beautiful displays of sharing and collaboration. Personally, I loved seeing the leaders in the room transform into a supporting roles, the unsung talents rise to starring roles, the potential and talent in the chapel at Lee was evident and truly before our eyes, we were witnessing transformations.  

Quick backstory: LCI has incredible musical talent and leaders within the BLIC - Rob (guitar and BLIC"s incredible music director), Terry (pianist with superhuman ears), and Big Hurk (drummer and master MC) serve as the house band along with Decoda's own, bassist Kris Saebo.  The BLICODA power quartet learned all of the nineteen songs and backed everyone up with zero ego and complete professionalism.  We couldn't have done it without them, or without the fantastic sound engineers and guitarists, Keith and Russ!

I think the music speaks louder than my words ever could about the quality of the collaborations with the men of BLIC.  This next song was a duo between Lee's house-band pianist, Terry and the choir director, Stewart. Both of these guys are master musicians, but with different personalities and tastes in music. However varied their backgrounds, the result of their working together was an über-collaboration.  Listen to this beautiful country song, with an unexpected middle section that will take your breath away.

We were incredibly lucky to have Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and Washington Post columnist, Kathleen Parker, accompany us on our last two days at LCI.  Click the picture up top to read her thoughtful column where she truly captured the raw essence and pure joy of this collaboration.  Decoda and all the men at LCI are so grateful for her coverage and honest account of the project. 

Since BLICODA 2.0, we have received many messages of support from people around the country, thanks to Kathleen's column.  We are grateful that the conversation about arts programs, education, and quality of life for incarcerated communities is a hot topic.  It really should be. Many of these men at LCI will spend the rest of their lives behind bars. But why should their lives have no sense of meaning, and no sense self-purpose or worth?  And many of the men at LCI will be released and be back in our communities.  It is vital for them to have experiences that are worthwhile that bring hopeful and positive motivation, that cultivate a sense of collaboration, community, trust, build social skills, breed a sense of accomplishment, pride, and success.  And is a vehicle to make these things possible for anyone. 

The men we had the pleasure of working with I believe truly are working to become better people.  Many of them are there - sincerely wonderful and giving members in their community.  It was beautiful to see these men forging down that path of renewal, like so many of us are also striving for in our own lives.  My Decoda colleagues and I have been transformed by knowing and working with these men. They are part of our musical family now, and we wish each one of them the very best for their futures.  We look forward to our next collaboration with LCI and other correctional facilities around the country.

Stay tuned and let us know your thoughts below...