Track By Track: Elsa Nilsson, “Hindsight”

Swedish-native, New York City-based flutist/composer Elsa Nilsson translates the language of political movement to music on her third album as a leader. Hindsight was released on February 21 and it is a direct reaction to the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, as well as the issues that have manifested since. A collection of ten resistance compositions, the album finds her leading a quartet featuring guitarist Jeff McLaughlin, bassist Alex Minier and drummer/percussionist Cody Rahn.

“The music became a record of our reactions to the changing world around us,” she explains. “My mission with Hindsight is both to express my feelings around the topics I care deeply about, show solidarity with everyone who is directly affected and gratitude for everyone who is showing up to make a difference in any way they can.”

We asked Nilsson to take us through each of the tracks of Hindsight to understand the inspiration behind each composition and some of the work that went into the making of this new album.

“Changed in Mid Air”

“Changed In Mid Air” came out of the Travel Ban, capturing the unfolding of the events at airports after the executive order was put into place. I used a lot of different rhythmic devices to depict the experience of the traveler believing everything is fine while on the flight, and having that not be true upon arrival.

For the intro, the bass plays a division of threes, the standard pace of travel, with the flute melody dividing the beat into all sorts of crazy ways against that showing the uncertainty and uprootedness of the traveler. When the groove hits everything is in a division of fives, but no one plays them all. I wanted to create a groove for this that sounded familiar, but something was kind of off. At the end of the melody the whole band unifies and focuses in by moving to threes and then twos for the rhythm of the chant “Say It Loud, Say It Clear, Refugees Are Welcome Here”. This chant was repeated for hours by the protesters who came to the airport to show solidarity and the lawyers with their laptops on the floors of the terminal working for free for people they didn’t know.

The song is meant both to extend an acknowledgment of humanity to anyone who has had to flee their homes and a rebellious counter-statement to those who believe that a refugee’s humanity is somehow less than their own.

 

“Worth the Risk/Maria”

“Worth The Risk/Maria” is a continuation of the immigration story and describes the refugee experience of being forced to leave your home. The groove for this is ominous and odd, depicting the ever-present danger that forces people to leave their homes. The farther into the piece we get, the more tense and strange it gets until we hit a breaking point and things fall apart. The flute freaks out alone (with all the pedals) showing the loneliness intrinsic to these types of decisions. Then, the music shifts into a moment of imagining a better life, the dream of who you could be if you manage to get to where you can be safe. The bass solo starts in this emotional state of imagined safety. In the guitar solo, reality creeps back in. The return of the original melody brings us fully into the journey, the dangers, risks and uncertainty.

No one chooses to be a refugee, but some things are worth the risk. The build this time takes us to “Maria”, where the whole band becomes the storm. Both the literal storm of Hurricane Maria hitting Puerto Rico and the figurative storm of the dangers of immigration and the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers at the border.

 

“Will Help Come”

“Will Help Come” expresses the long wait for aid after Hurricane Maria hits Puerto Rico. It captures the apathy both towards climate change and how it has increased the intensity of these storms, and of leaving so many people stranded for so long. I wanted to write a piece that starts in observation, surveying the damage and devastation, with the belief that help will come. Particularly in light of the aid that poured into Houston just weeks before. As the waiting begins, I wanted to have the hope replaced by a gradually increasing sensation of desperation and frustration. This treatment of Puerto Rico showed such a lack of respect and dignity from the mainland government, and I wanted this music to hold a space for that experience. It is also my way of showing respect and solidarity. The song was written in December 2018, over a year after the storm, when there were still some on outlying islands who had not had their power restored.

 

“Enough Is Enough”

“Enough Is Enough” is 6 minutes and 20 seconds long, the exact length of time that the gunman was active at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High school. What I was aiming to do with this piece was to capture the experience as it was described, the surreal way that time morphed, by those who lived through it. I wanted to pay respect to both the lost and the survivors and felt the way to do that was listen to what they had to say and create based on that.

The melody that came from that space was the searching bass that slithers through as the guitar and flute repeat the rhythm of “Enough is Enough” played along with a clock. The flute takes over an altered version of that melody, and the instrumentation change is meant to bring the events out of the surreal into the real, the moment of realizing that this is really happening. When the second melody using the rhythm from “we call BS” enters, the guitar is added to symbolize the shared experience and outrage, both in the moment and after. At this point we begin to improvise over the structure, the guitar playing melodically and the flute gradually bringing in the chaos. I wanted a constant build throughout the piece, with a sudden unexpected ending. Short moments like these change and define our lives. What has been seen can’t be unseen, the bell can’t be un-rung.

 

“Hindsight”

“Hindsight” is the seed of this entire project. It is a reaction to a broken system, a system where people feel their votes don’t matter, resulting in a government that they feel doesn’t represent them. “Hindsight” begins with the flute and guitar alone and frantic—how I was feeling before Jeff McLaughlin, my guitarist, sent me videos of protests in the streets on his way to a gig on November 9, 2016. When the bass and drums come in, they rage with us, but the spots they hit are not in line with the spots the melody hits. It’s as if we were all lost together, trying to see how to move forward in the mess we find ourselves in.

The first theme returns, now with the rhythm section together and when the disjointed B section comes we play the same hits but fill the spaces, drawing parallels to finding paths forward in what seems like a hopeless situation. After the solos, the bass and drums drop out, but instead of feeling naked the melody gathers momentum into the punk rock anger version of the theme. We then start playing the rhythm for “this is what democracy looks like” together, and let it gradually drift apart. Much like it would in a protest when people are chanting in the streets. If there are enough of us over a big enough distance we can’t hear each other or stay together.

 

“What Can I Do”

“What Can I Do” stems from the rhythm of “Black Lives Matter”. This piece is built around the rigid structure of an eleven note tone row that we then have to navigate within, much like how we all have to figure out how to exist within the structures of institutionalized racism and its effects on our psyche and society. The understanding that personal safety is such a different reality based solely on the color of one’s skin has been one of the harshest realizations of my life. Seeing these continuing instances of brutal violence against people of color makes me sick every time, but I struggle with how to take action. I don’t want to be acting like some sort of savior, but I desperately want to step up. I don’t think this is an issue for people of color only, it’s an issue for all of us. 

Traditionally this compositional technique uses 12 notes, but I left one note out to represent what we are leaving out in how we relate to each other on issues of race. The initial melody follows one version of this tone row and the improvised section opens it up a little. But this opening is an illusion, the tone row is still there, and we have to use what is given to improvise with. This to me is the most difficult section on the whole record to execute. How do you create something within such a rigid framework? I wanted to use this as a metaphor for the experience of not getting to be one’s whole self, to be defined by one’s color and not one’s humanity. 

After the solo, the band plays the rhythm for “Black Lives Matter” under the melody from the beginning. They all use the same sequence of notes, and the rhythm offset them. For the flute, I have used every difficult sound I could find. The multi-phonics require a specific balancing point of the sound, something that I fail at a lot. I wanted this stumble in and out of the center of the sound. This song needed to be hard to play, not for the sake of being impressive but for the sake of it feeling like the difficult conversations that we all need to have around this issue – particularly those of us with the privilege of feeling safe in situations as commonplace as speaking to a police officer. 

 

“Trickle Down”

“Trickle Down” is based on “We Are The 99%.” The chant is hidden in the bass and drums because the 99% are the foundations of our world, but get the least credit. The intro uses a dripping sound that starts in the flute and guitar and moves to the bass and guitar to depict the idea of trickle-down economics. The melody with strange moments of multiple dissonant notes represents people looking for ways to hide their money, keep it from trickling down. Human greed doesn’t allow for enough trickle to actually provide basic human dignity and rights for a society. We’ve seen this again and again throughout history. Money means power and people in power want to stay there. Income disparity is such an effective way to hold this status quo.

When the groove kicks in, it becomes the rat race, a representation of how we are taught to believe that if we work hard we will get what we deserve. The idea that life is a ladder, that A leads to B, and hard work is the steps between. Unfortunately, this is not true for most people as there are so many factors involved: socio-economic background, race, gender, privilege, debt, luck to name just a few. The melody switches between two divisions of the beat, creating the stunted forward momentum of working hard to catch up to something imaginary. The groove stays representing the status quo, held intact by the distraction of everyday life just to make ends meet. We move through the resistance of the structure put in place to hold us back, and the air feels like syrup.

 

“I Believe You”

“I Believe You” and “Fill The Courts” are the entire progression of Dr. Ford coming forward for the Kavanaugh hearings. The melody of “I Believe You” represents the time period leading up to the hearings. There is fear in there, the threats and harassment she went through as a result of coming forward. The rhythm for “Her Body, Her Choice” gets played in the middle and end of the head, showing those who supported her and defended her. The melody is lonely and struggling against the highly altered chord changes. I wanted the melody to reflect how I imagined Dr. Ford felt in all of this, and the chords are meant to reflect the dissent and media battering. The solos begin with the same chord changes, but now played in their simplest and prettiest form. This is for how good it felt to hear Kamala Harris say “I Believe You” to Dr. Ford. As someone who posted “me too” on social media along with millions of others not being believed is a button for me. Hearing these words felt really, really good. I wanted the solo to start there, and I wanted to be the one to take that solo. The section gradually descends into darkness, bringing the harmonic tensions back in slowly to represent the gradual loss of that hope and the realization that none of it mattered. That it wasn’t going to change a thing. The end of the song is the confrontation in the elevator between the woman’s rights activist and Senator Flake.

 

“Fill the Courts”

“Fill The Courts” is the incessant forward march of conservative judges flooding the courts under this administration. There are an undeniable momentum and sense of inevitability to it, and I depicted that musically with a Soundgarden-inspired, through-composed rhythm section part set against a melody that stacks unrelated notes in the flute. It’s a depiction of making whatever you want happen without any consideration for other opinions or perspectives. The guitar solo seethes in this realization of inevitability, and the return of the melody is a blend of frustration at allowing this to happen and determination to pay closer attention and be more involved going forward. What we do now has more effect on the future than we realize. This piece contains a lot of rage and it feels really good to play on days when I’m angry at the world.

 

“We Show Up”

“We Show Up” is an anthem of gratitude for everyone who stands up and gets involved in the causes they believe in. I wrote this song in my brother Daniel’s living room in New Orleans. The spirit of that city inspired me in this way. The cracks are so visible there, and still, people are kind to each other. Take care of each other. Magic and madness and hope coexist. And the echoes of Hurricane Katrina can be heard in the sigh of the wind at night. 

Nothing about this record has been easy to make. Rehearsals were intense, we had long conversations about all of these issues and how to communicate them through the music as a band. The recording was two days of bunker-like isolation, living in these emotions as intensely as possible. Mixing and mastering were the same. Every step of the way to the release of this material has been accompanied by rethinking my role in and perspective on the issues. A big part of what spurred me to keep going with such ferocity was seeing the people stepping up. It’s so easy to get discouraged, so easy to forget that our actions have an impact on the world around us. But, every time I would see anyone take action, stand in line outside their polling location, speak out on behalf of others or change their own ways for the better, it gave me hope. This song is to honor that hope and the best in all of us. Whether we are Greta Thunberg or Emma Gonzales being a voice for our generation, an activist giving everything for the issue we burn for, or a middle-aged white man questioning how we move through the world and treat others, I truly believe we are not alone in this. We don’t have to agree, but the urge to make the world better is a fundamental human instinct that we need to nurture. 

“We Show Up” is to acknowledge and honor that. It starts uncertain with a search for direction, but after the solos the uncertainty lifts and gives way to clarity. Hope. Action gives us a sense of purpose. Let’s hold on to that together, and keep each other from becoming complacent or bitter. Thank you for reading this. We need each other, and I need you. More than you know.

To find out more about Elsa Nilsson and her new album, visit her online.

Featured photo by Bettie Hu.

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