Earlier this month, I had the great pleasure of talking with Kristina Boerger about her upcoming virtual performance, A Patient Enduring: Kristina Boerger and Friends, to benefit the Baroque Artists of Champaign-Urbana. In this second installment of our two-part interview I got the chance to ask Boerger about her life and career after leaving Champaign-Urbana.
Smile Politely: Do you have any extra-musical influences that you specifically brought to this BACH performance? Why are they important to you, and what do you feel like they bring to the table?
Kristina Boerger: It’s always a question for me of, “Under what conditions do I want my music-making to be about anything else?” Sometimes I want it very much to be about something else, but other times I don’t; sometimes I just want it to be for its own sake.
There is a very important quote that I cling to that I read in an interview with Howard Zinn, the great activist and progressive historian. It was Zinn talking with another artist—whose name I’m completely forgetting, and of course I can’t recall where I read it. The interview asked both of them [Zinn as an activist, and the other artist] that with life as challenging as it is and this ongoing need for social change, is it difficult to make the argument for art? And Zinn had the most life-saving response—it wasn’t the artist who said this, but the activist—that, “Political organizing is necessary to make living possible, and artistic expression is necessary to make living desirable.”
SP: I love that!
Boerger: That has really helped be ground. You know, back when life was good, when I could just be a musician, support myself, and have a life that I loved all the time, I grappled daily with guilt. Why am I not giving my house away to the homeless, or standing on the front lines, or sitting in jail in protest? The ethical quandaries of my adulthood have all been about what I can do as an individual to fight injustice.
SP: It helps break down this assumption—one that I think a lot of people make without realizing that they make it— that when an artist works on making music (or any other art) that they do it in a vacuum. I think that most people who make any kind of art would recognize that that’s not how it works. Living has to be both possible and desirable.
Boerger: Yes. That [Zinn] quote has stayed with me, and as I look for evidence of its truth in the people with whom I make music or the students whom I help to make music, I see more and more how true it is; I offer it when my students are struggling with the same question. So I would say that I carry that influence with me just to give myself permission to contribute to that part—to making living desirable and not only possible.
SP: You’re well known in Champaign-Urbana as an activist in music. How has your activism grown/changed, especially now that you’re teaching?
Boerger: It’s been very challenging to be a teacher of college students in the arts in these times, because right now in particular we [teachers in the arts] are under tremendous pressure to show the ways in which anything we do responds to current crises of black liberation, of economic exploitation under capitalism, the climate crisis—all of these social disasters that we’re facing.
When I have students in a classroom I have to be able to serve every one of them, and make every one of them feel fully welcome and fully seen. I can’t practice in an anechoic chamber of these issues, because for a number of my students these issues are beating them up daily. Then, we have some students who are directly affected by these events—for example, some of our students of color, while our city was burning after George Floyd was murdered—who need to be able to go into a room and just think about and do music. Some need assurance that their music space will not be co-opted by these struggles, and others need to see how music can respond to these very serious events in their lives. So I’m still figuring out how to thread multiple needles at once.
SP: What has your collaboration and activism with students looked like?
Boerger: My first full year—I’ve only had one full year in the classroom in my new position— culminated in an evening that I called “Water Music.” My students learned music from many continents, eras, and styles, all using texts with water imagery. We opened the evening with a reception in our atrium, and to that reception I had invited hydrologists, water protection activists, a whole panoply of water scientists and water activists so that anyone coming to the reception would pass through the booths and see what efforts were afoot to keep their drinking water clean, or to protect the wetlands up north from the pipeline, and our biology students presenting papers on water health and tadpole populations.
We performed the concert in collaboration with our Religious Studies program, I had a professor from that program who was sort of the priestess of the whole thing. She teaches her students about neurology, how humans respond to symbols, and how we create belief systems and ethics out of that. So we incorporated all of these texts from many different religions, traditions, and cosmologies using imagery on water. We opened the program with one of my Native American students re-telling a Native American creation myth, which is about the water and Turtle Island. Between the pieces that we sang, we also included some really beautiful student journal excerpts from a multi-disciplinary course called the River Semester: students get in canoes on the Mississippi in the Twin Cities, and by the end of the semester they’re in the Mississippi Delta.
All this was to focus people’s attention on how vital water is for us, and how you can’t go very far before you run into water in any kind of artistic expression. We closed with the testimony of a reverend who had gone to Standing Rock—she had been on the front lines as a water protector—and she talked about her experience, and they everyone in the room (audience included) sang impromptu “As I Went Down to the River to Pray.”
This became a way to make my work locally and politically involved in such a way that many people, and not only my students, could participate. Everybody drinks water.
SP: One thing that I’ve been looking forward to asking you for is a favorite memory from your time with Amasong.
Boerger: I was thinking about that question—that was a lovely question. The last thing I did with Amasong was to take them on tour in the Czech Republic, which was pretty amazing. I had no idea when I started a small group in the 1990s that we would end up there. Several of the women had not been overseas before, and the Czech Republic hadn’t been out from under the Iron Curtain for very long—and it’s not like gay rights were flourishing over there at the time—so we had no idea how we were going to be received. It was really a pretty grand adventure.
When you travel with a group of people to a strange place where you don’t speak the language, where the food is unfamiliar, where you have a stressful schedule, everybody hits a wall at some point. We had several micro-emergencies and mishaps that had to be strategized, and sometimes you could just see that one person was coming up against her own limits. Whatever was happening, she didn’t have what she needed to meet those circumstances in that moment by herself. That was a shared experience that just sort of roamed around the group—everybody had it at some point. And I watched as anybody who was coasting toward her wall … three other women saw it coming, and they stepped in and provided the cushion. It was just this rotating dance of awareness, and community care, and responsiveness, and I always say that’s what you develop when you do ensemble singing the right way. You develop the ability, the reflex even to listen very attentively and be responsive, and you develop compassion and real care for one another. You can be better human beings together, and you’re a better ensemble as a result. I saw it happen—it bore itself out so beautifully time and again when we were overseas. It was really the non-musical proof of what we try to do when we sing together.
SP: That’s such a lovely memory, especially since tours can be so grueling. Not all groups could have done that.
Boerger: In my position as leader of the group over nine years I had done what I could to try to make sure that this was the kind of community that we could have. That was not by accident. But also you, the director, can try to do something like that and fail. It was such a beautiful confirmation of both my intention and all of our efforts.
SP: Is there anything that you’d like to say in closing?
Boerger: Yes—I’d like to say thanks again to BACH and to Joseph Baldwin for the invitation to collaborate and to perform, and that Champaign-Urbana remains my heart’s deepest resting place. I miss it all the time. It’s been rough to not be able to just come back and be with people the way that I might have before COVID. I miss the putting down roots, and feeling at home. I really hope that the people who tune[d] in will know that I’m offering this concert as my gift of deep love for the community and my thanks for all the ways in which it helped me grow.