Smile Politely

Amasong: A longtime staple in a new era of social awareness

Amasong has always been on the cutting edge of choral music since its inception in 1990. Its incorporation of a progressive angle into its song choices and performances was representative of a shift for its creator, Kristina Boerger, from more mainstream political activism to a form of artistic intervention. Amasong was, and is still today, widely known for its active inclusion of feminist and lesbian-identified individuals. And it is always open to new involvement; in fact, you can reach out to director Heidi Weatherford for more details if you so choose.

Despite the influx of barriers to success for choral groups in the midst of COVID-19, newly initiated director Heidi Weatherford asserts that Amasong remains a safe haven for its members and a steady voice for social justice in Champaign-Urbana. I spoke with Weatherford, as well as predecessor Jill Crandall, about their recent shift in leadership; how the chorus has dealt with challenges presented by COVID-19; and the nature of Amasong’s unique impact on the Champaign-Urbana community.

Smile Politely: I’m curious about how both of you originally got involved in Amasong and what the transition between your leadership looked like.

Heidi Weatherford: Amasong has a history of performing in the church where I’m the pastor (McKinley Presbyterian Church). So I was aware of them since I came here in 2002 and went to several of their concerts, and then decided to join and come and sing. I got to know people there, and it was a lot of fun. I have a degree in music as an undergraduate, so it has just so happened that as directors have come and gone, and they’ve had a semester here or a semester there that they needed to fill, I would often step in and do that.

SP: And what exactly was the timeline of all that?

Weatherford: 2012: Jill and I and another woman in the choir directed — the three of us together — for a semester, and then Jill became the director. And then in the spring of 2018, Jill went on sabbatical and I stepped in for the semester. And then she came back, and then last semester was supposed to be her last semester, and then COVID happened.

Jill Crandall: What was really amazing about that was that we had the Sister Singers Festival that summer, so Heidi not only took over for a semester, she took over and prepped the chorus for a national festival.

SP: I’m also curious about what both of you identify as the most unique aspects of Amasong. What is unique to Amasong as opposed to other choral groups or other feminist women’s groups?

Crandall: For me, having directed community women’s choruses before, the biggest change is the actual music. My particular love was emphasis on living women’s music, but feminist choruses tend to emphasize a completely different set of pieces than standard women’s choruses. It’s a lot more politically motivated, a lot more women composers, a lot more world music. Amasong in particular is fearless about doing crazy new music compositions.

Weatherford: We’ve sung in Estonian and Lithuanian, and Finnish, and Russian, and German and french, and Welsh, Celtic, Gaelic… we sing it all.

Crandall: Kathleen Fuller did a count, and from the time she has been in the chorus — she’s not an original member, but she’s been in a while — she counted up 53 different languages that she had sung in her time.

Weatherford: Yeah. That’s pretty unique. And this fall I’m going to introduce Kurdish because I just attended a world music camp a few weeks ago virtually and learned a really great Kurdish song that’s traditionally sung by the aunt and the wedding. Basically, the text is, “You can take care of this man if you want to… You’re in charge of this household.” That’s it! Those are the words. Which is exactly the kind of stuff Amasong loves to sing.

Crandall: Make sure you text me when you start it. I’ll show up for that.

SP: What led to the breadth of music Amasong explores?

Weatherford: I’m gonna say it’s Kristina Boerger, who created this chorus. And she has a love for music from many variations and all over the world, as well as classical music done well. And it’s part of her ethos and insistence of doing music excellently that lifts up women, whether it’s written by women, for women or about women, that has become part of the DNA of the choir. That’s part of what makes them so unique, is that combination of world music and social justice, feminist and LGBTQ advocacy.

Crandall: It seems to me like Meagan Johnson, really. She’s super into world music, and she took a solid groundwork that had been laid out from five or six directors before her, and it exploded under her. I love the idea of programming living women composers. I feel like it’s really hard for composers, especially young women composers, to be heard. And I wanted to be a forum for their voice. 

SP: Specifically in Champaign-Urbana, what role or roles do you both feel like Amasong plays in terms of community, the arts, LGBTQ issues, etc.?

Weatherford: What Amasong offers is its fearlessness in taking social justice stance and being lesbian-bisexual-transgender-inclusive, and also championing women’s voices and women composers. As Jill said, she likes to champion the young women composers. Can you name another woman composer? Can you name five? Can you name 10? ‘Cause almost everybody in Amasong can.

SP: How has COVID and the social restrictions that have come along with it, affected Amasong in terms of rehearsals, funding, etc.?

Crandall: So the week before spring break, I started getting a lot of emails from people saying that they had just read too much about the virus and they were probably not going to come to rehearsal for a few weeks at least and may not come back this semester. All I can say is, thank goodness that people were really insistent on that. Since then, of course, a lot of choruses came back and they have been rehearsing online, and I didn’t do that and I probably should have, but it just personally for me, it just felt too artificial, too hollow, not what chorus is about. I think at this point we are so desperate to see each other and so desperate to sing. I think the whole nation is desperate for beauty right now.

Weatherford: I agree. So much of the revenue for Amasong’s operations comes from our concerts. So it’s a little extreme, but part of my challenge in this coming year is to sing as much public domain music as possible, even as I’m still trying to sing music written by women. I want the choir to have fun, I want them to stay connected, I want them to start learning repertoire so that when we get back in person they at least know the notes and I can work on blend and polish.

SP: If you could convey one thing about Amasong to someone who doesn’t know anything about it, what is the one thing you would want them to know?

Crandall: If you’re a woman who loves to sing in Champaign-Urbana, you’re welcome to come sing with Amasong. No matter who you are, you will find a welcoming community. Fabulous women. Some of the most interesting, amazing women I’ve ever known in my life.

Weatherford: The second thing I would say is that women can be excellent musicians too. That’s it. It’s not just a man’s world.

Top image from Amasong’s website.

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