By Nate Holley
As soon as Mr Bopp answered the phone, I knew that this was going to be a lively, fun interview. He answered right away, and after my recording setup was ready, we jumped straight into it.
Leonard Bopp is 23 years old and is originally from upstate New York. Today, he lives in Ann Arbor Michigan where he is currently enrolled in graduate studies at the University of Michigan. Leonard, if I may call him that, is quite an accomplished musician and is pursuing an advanced degree in orchestral conducting. In my humble opinion, this is probably one of the more intense musical endeavors. But, he doesn’t seem stressed or phased by it at all. His voice is upbeat and chipper, and listening to him, you can tell right away that this is what he loves. Music is not a career path, it’s part of his identity. So, I began the interview by asking him very simply, how did you get here?
Leonard remembers loving music from a very young age. He began his journey playing the trumpet and initially had plans to make trumpet playing his life’s pursuit. It was in college that he noticed there was a range of topics that sparked his interest, and they extended far beyond the usual bounds of music history and theory. He began to explore these other subjects in earnest, such as literature, queer history, languages, politics and so on. Soon, Leonard realised that this knowledge would be useful and not distracting to his music studies. Wisely, he notes that “…a knowledge of things beyond music only ever made me a better musician…”
He continued to hone his craft and experience in music performance and culture by joining the Black Box ensemble. After a January 2019 performance at St. John in the Village, Leonard had a conversation with Father Graeme about his studies and his interest in conducting and composing music. It just so happened that Father Graeme was working on an LGBT gallery event and one of his calling cards is to procure live music, and even original music if he can, to mark the opening of a new exhibition.
Leonard saw this as a great opportunity and agreed to whip something up. But all of this confidence doesn’t come from nowhere, as soon as he knew he wanted to start writing music in undergrad, he began taking courses in composition and now has a solid foundation to present himself as an artist.
With this new opportunity spurring him on, the idea to compose something based on an event flyer was born out of the intentional blending of his broad interests. He wanted the piece to feel like it was tied to the neighborhood and tied to the history of gay liberation. Usually, composers look for inspiration in poems or literature, but Leonard wanted to use something less common. He wanted this piece to stand out. While rummaging through the online files of the one National LGBT archive located at the University of Southern California, he found a flyer for the inaugural Christopher Street Liberation Day parade.
The flyer itself has some special qualities that jumped out at Leonard and helped him shape the concept for the music. He loved how the flyer felt innocuous or ‘hidden in plain sight’. It was the type of flyer that you might see taped to a lamp post or street sign outside of St. John’s today. As part of his process, Leonard likes to read the material out loud and just listen. He listens to the words, the way it feels in the room, and slowly, the music begins to build itself around the inspiration, organically. What rhythms come out when it’s read aloud? What notes appear? Leonard says it all starts with the melody. This flyer had that unique quality that makes a piece of art simple but multifaceted at the same time. The language on the flyer is very celebratory at first and then morphs into something more exciting as it talks about the gay liberation movement. In the end it sobers up and becomes more profound, stating “…what this will come to, no one can tell…”
Leonard has put a lot of thought and personal attention into this piece, which he hopes will be transferred into the audience when they hear the performance. In our discussion he made it a point to tell me that this flyer wasn’t just written by people promoting an event. There was more than one group of activists and LGBT community members fighting for justice at the time, but they all could essentially be divided into two camps. One group believed that to make progress and to gain traction, the ‘gay’ movement needed to focus on gay issues first and foremost. The other group believed that there could be no ‘gay’ liberation without the liberation of all disenfranchised communities in america, women, people of color, disabled people, poor people, everyone. Leonard knows what group he wants to keep alive and represent. He says that we need to bring attention to the immense stratification that still exists in the LGBT movement. Race, gender, and class still play an important role in how activism plays out today. The murder of black transgender women and encarcerated LGBT people is something we have to acknowledge, hunt down and destroy in order to join that group of people who believed that liberation for one can only come with liberation for all, the group of people who wrote the flyer that Leonard Bopp chose for his composition.
Leonard says he wants the audience to feel all the emotions he’s baked in. “I want it to lift their spirits…But they still need to feel the pain of the people who wrote it…”. Truly, we are on the same journey that those men and women who were just starting the LGBT movement were on. It’s not over. We need to apply the message of liberation to our most vulnerable populations. On June 28th, 2020, the LGBT community will celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Gay Pride March and Christopher Street Liberation Day. Through an online portal, viewers will be able to purchase tickets and experience Leonard’s amazing musical piece that honors the memory and the goals of the leaders of the gay liberation movement. Viewers who spend $25 will also receive the music as a download they can add to their private collection (see article below).
To end the conversation, I simply asked Leonard the same question we’ve all been asking the past two months, How you holding up?
He says that, as a musician, he struggles with the fact that there’s very little live music going on and that live venues will not be opening up for some time. There are many artists who are suffering because of COVID-19 and Leonard is very aware of how social distancing has affected the art community. But at the same time, he’s keenly aware that art is the very thing we need to help us process this moment. He has devoted his time and energy during the quarantine to helping support the art and the artists he loves. “…How am I going to make sure that we [musicians] are still active and producing things that are still relevant…”.
It’s my hope that we all take a note from Leonard and tune in on June 28th to the voices of those that came before us and add their strength, clarity and openness to our strength, clarity and openness to our lives.