Musical artist PaviElle French on her performances with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra at the Ordway Center—and on setting St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood to music

Interview by Sheri Hansen

PaviElle French first appeared in the Twin Cities music scene at age five. Nearly 30 years later, she’s set to debut A Requiem for Zula with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, a piece for which she received the American Composers Forum grant from the Jerome Fund for New Music. The piece is a love story and elegy for her mother, and it weaves a musical tapestry that brings St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood to life.

Your piece is grounded in the Rondo community. How do you translate something like a place into a musical concept?

The whole piece is about St. Paul and Rondo. I see Rondo growing and rebuilding now. The new Rondo Commemorative Plaza is at the end of the block we lived on. The VFW, which everybody called “the V,” used to anchor that corner of the block. Brooks Funeral Home was one block down. We had party and life on one side, and death on the other. We had Maxfield Elementary behind us, and we lived right behind [longtime Minnesota State Fair police chief] Art Blakey, who was at the center of the community. I always felt I lived in the mecca, the heart of Rondo.

I always tell people I was raised in the last bit of the Rondo village; Rondo is home to me. Home makes me feel degrees of warmth and nostalgia, which I captured in the comforting parts of the story of the song. Biking around the six-block radius within which I was allowed to bike, seeing my grandmother, seeing my friends’ grandmothers and parents. Double-Dutching down the block with my niece and my cousins. Going to Walker West Music Academy, going to the Penumbra Theatre, talking with the old heads. I turn them into sound colors, because it paints pictures.

As I wrote about those times, I constantly asked myself about the colors of the song, because that’s how I create place. People from Rondo will be in the audience, alongside people that are not from Rondo, and the color of the sound can help them all feel what it was like. I wanted to paint this story for everyone.

The piece goes from very warm and beautiful during the story of my mother’s life to very cold, and it captures all the things I felt processing my grief at her death. I was Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz during that period. The turbulence of everything that happened during that time was the tornado, and I woke up when I moved to Hawaii. Hawaii was the technicolor Oz experience for me. The people that I met there showed me my courage, my brain, and my heart. Mom was Glinda the Good Witch. I could hear her telling me, “Click your heels.” So I came back to Minnesota, where my career really took off.

I always swore to myself I was going to be an alchemist with all this pain. A lot of this piece is about grief, and about living with the grief. You still can grow lush life in rocky soil. Not everything’s going to grow there, but you can have a good life.

How did the history of Rondo shape your mother? And how did that shape you?

Mom was 11 or 12 when Interstate 94 was put through Rondo. She was there for the destruction of our community and for everything that happened afterward. She also experienced the aftereffects while living in Rondo in the 1970s. She saw how they rebuilt, and then the destruction that happened again in the crack era. In the early 1990s, my mom started working at Maxfield Elementary; then she got involved with the Inner City Youth League, where she was a counselor. Then Girl Scout Troop 6213, and then Sage Community Gardens, where she taught people how to grow their own food.

My mom was also one of the first home buyers for Rondo Community Land Trust. They knocked on the door asking her to move her car at 3:00 in the morning so they could put a house [they were moving] in a lot across the street from us. She was so inspired; I could see the wheels turning in her head. She talked to the people that ran the trust, and a year and a half later, we bought the house at the end of the block.

Mom had incredible innate power. She could do whatever she wanted to do—no one could keep her from that. That’s astonishing to me as a black woman. I watched her leap over blocks and tall fences of institutionalized and structural racism. Seeing that made me really confident; you can’t really tell me no. Which is how I ended up here, entering the classical field as a black woman. I carry some of her magic, and I carry her.

Seeing the big Rondo sign from the freeway is so cool. We’re still here, and we’ll continue to grow and flourish. I think that this piece honors and stakes claim to both Rondo generally and my family’s role in it. And to get to perform it in St. Paul, for people that may not know about Rondo, is also amazing.

Tell us about your musical background. How did your mother and your neighborhood shape your artistic vision?

I started performing when I was five. I started out with choirs, and then I trained at Walker West and with various performing groups in the Rondo community, including the Penumbra Theatre and the SteppingStone Theatre. I was always a theater kid—dancing, acting, singing. I’m a trained piano player, and I played saxophone like my mom.

My mother was a big jazz person, and she hung out with a lot of musicians. Her brother played sax in this band with Sonny Knight, who was a local musician in a band called Haze. I’m a product of that group of Rondo musicians. My mom was a young, single mom, so she didn’t get to realize her musical dreams; those dreams were realized through her kids. My brother and I are both musicians.

My mom always had this belief that whatever I touched, I could figure it out and do it. Even with reading or fundamental things, she could show me how to do it once, and I’d grab it. She helped me focus my energy on my art. I started going to Mississippi Creative Arts School. I went to dance class, took jazz, tap, and ballet. I went to drama class. I took piano lessons. In everything she did for me, she was very methodical and thorough. She was always looking for other people to pour into my life to help me grow my skills and talents.

You’re best known as a soul singer. How did you make the transition to classical composing?

Classical music wasn’t always common in the black community; we weren’t necessarily historically welcome. But I had an idea for a piece, and I knew that the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO) had several programs through which they collaborate with well-known singers on projects. I decided to send an email, and they wrote back right away.

I wanted to do my own thing, not Beethoven or Mozart. Kyu-Young Kim and Paul Finkelstein at SPCO were interested in working with me on the Tapestry19 festival because I’m a Rondo person, a St. Paul person, and the festival is about the meaning of home. I knew a piece for my mom would be a great fit.

I came back to the next meeting with a working title: A Requiem for Zula. It’s done in classical style, and it’s done in classical form, but it’s still very much me. It’s filled with soulful sounds. It gets 4/4’d, but it doesn’t get squared. There’s scatting, and there are places where I’ve written for flutes to solo in jazz style. It has black American soul influence.

Music like this piece will modernize the complete American music diaspora, not just the classical genre. When people can see people that look like them coming out and doing classical music in their communities, it feels more universal.

How has your first deep dive into classical music compared to other writing experiences?

In writing the piece, I hit a couple of roadblocks. I did a lot of writing using software, and then I took it back to my mentor, Lembit Beecher, who’s the composer in residence at SPCO. He helped me set the ranges of the individual instruments.

It’s also really hard to do runs or unique sound flows when you compose on a keyboard with computer support. I wanted the violins to swirl. My orchestrator, Michi Wiancko, knew instantly what I was talking about, and we created that swirl. Michi arranged the entire piece, start to finish. I recently listened to the piece as she actualized it. Everything I wanted to hear is there. It’s amazing.

I’m so thankful for SPCO, the Ordway, and the American Composers Forum grant. I’m completely indebted and grateful to the people that are helping me realize a dream. They stuck by me all the way and trusted me to do something that I’ve never done before.

What would your mom think about all this?

She would be over the moon! I’d get a lot of hugs from her. Zula was one of those people that didn’t feel that others needed to do things for her. She helped people just to help people, without an underlying motive. All the thankless stuff she did, she did because it was in her heart and it was who she was. I can’t even imagine the kind of happiness that being honored and thanked in this way would make her feel. I think she would be so proud of me and my brother. We do everything in her name.

Zula loved music even more than I do, which is why I wrote this for her. I don’t think I could do anything else in this world to honor her for the way that she raised me, and the way that she honored me, because music was her life. For her name to be remembered everywhere is the highest honor that I can give to her, and I know that she’ll receive it. She can’t not hear it; she can’t not see what’s going on. And our story, and Rondo’s story, continues.

PaviElle French is also the equity, youth outreach, and operations coordinator at the American Institute of Architects Minnesota, which publishes Architecture MN.