Kristo Kondacki on Music as Transformation, 'Sheltering Voices', and Political Exile

September 6, 2018

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Many of you may have seen a video circulating Facebook featuring an orchestra whose choir was comprised partly of women currently experiencing homelessness. The project, called 'Sheltering Voices', is the brainchild of Kristo Kondacki, co-founder and conductor of the Eureka Ensemble, and has gone viral with cities across the country reaching out to Kondacki in an effort to start similar programs in their home-cities.

In person, it's immediately clear that Kondacki is energetic and driven. He has an infectious zest for creating projects that will positively impact and further inspire social change. In fact, his orchestra, the Eureka Ensemble, has two very basic principles that they adhere to: that musicians are social innovators, and that the orchestra is a platform for collaboration. Kondacki looks at music as an opportunity for transformation. For all of his enthusiasm and zeal, it's clear that Kondacki looks at his roots to move forward. A child of political refugees fleeing from Albania, Kondacki's story is both cinematic and heart-wrenching, but serves as a catalyst for the work he is doing today.

Tell me a little bit about what it was like to live in Albania under Hoxha's dictatorship.

You were told what to where what music you could listen to, what you could read. Everything was controlled—even now, in the capital of the city, there’s this neighborhood called The Block that during the communist area it was where all of the government  officials lived. The Block was walled off and surrounded by military guards, and up until the early 1990's it was the only place in the entire country that had running water and electricity 24 hours a day. My grandfather was a musician who went to prison for eight years for playing Italian music. Italy was the closest democracy to Albania so to have music from a western country was absolutely not okay and he was charged with ‘inciting rebellion against the People’s Republic of Albania’. When he was arrested, he was sent to the most severe political prison in the country at the time and at the same time his brother, who was an accordionist, composer, and doctor, would illegally listen to the radio coming in from Italy and France, and transcribe jazz and pop tunes and share them. It was a completely closed country, you weren’t allowed out of the country at all-- just like North Korea. At 29 years old, he was executed for disseminating that kind of music. My entire family was also exiled inside of Albania during those 40 years, the police seized different members of my family almost 13 times over 40 years. My mother was 11 when my grandfather was seized and she actually laid across the street blocking the police car, as the car was leaving she could see his face in the back window; she didn’t see him again until she was 21. After the Berlin Wall fell, I’d just been born and my parents were able to escape so we went to Greece for a few years and then came to Boston with absolutely nothing. I remember the day we came here, it was 1997 and I was 6 years old, and Virgin Atlantic (the airline we flew to get to Boston) gave my brother and I clothes and books. It’s a very American story: we came here with literally nothing, my mom went from selling coffee at a donut shop to being an executive administrator at UMass Boston and now she’s working on her master’s  degree. My mother wasn’t allowed to go to school in Albania because of her family’s political status so she had to do everything here. She’s one of my heros in my life. She started from scratch so now I can realize my dreams as a conductor and my brother is a cancer researcher. This never would have happened in Albania. My life story is the reason for most of my music life. I went back to Albania for the first time when I was 23 because my grandfather, the same one who had been sent to prison, had passed away here in America but we had to deal with the court system in Albania recognizing him. In the middle of the court sessions there, I was sitting at a cafe and became friends with this older gentleman who turned out to be the conductor of the National Orchestra of Albania! Two weeks later, I was in Boston and received an invitation to conduct the opening concert of the new season of the Albanian National Orchestra that fall! They said that they would play whatever program I wanted so I picked Mahler’s First Symphony and Wagner’s Tannhauser Overture, both of which the orchestra had never played before because these pieces had been banned for so long.

It's almost as if your grandfather was passing the torch from beyond the grave!

Absolutely, it felt very beautiful to go back to Albania and make music especially having had that history and to make music that hadn’t been played. The orchestra gave me eight rehearsals, five hours each and we built the Mahler style from scratch! Because of that concert was really beautiful socially because the whole community just exploded with excitement, the whole community showed up, 2,500 people in a hall that fits 1,100! What was really special is that the entire class of the politically prosecuted came, including my grandfather’s cellmate who was 82 at the time and went to prison for 15 years because he translated Dostoevsky into Albanian. I mean, can you imagine? His brother was a party official and turned him in! There’s a lot of social, generational trauma in that country because of those times and to even contribute to an iota of healing because of that concert, to see the whole community show up, was a transcendental experience for me. It was my first professional engagement as a conductor! Mahler 1 was the perfect piece to play for a country trying to find itself. To perform a symphony like that where it’s about this hero who’s trying to rediscover himself and has to die in order be resurrected, in the second symphony, is literally epic. At the end of the second symphony the resurrection is through love and Mahler postulates that it’s only through love can you rise again.

So it’s those kinds of experiences that planted the seeds of starting a group like Eureka.


One of Eureka's cornerstones is community involvement, correct?

I call it ‘music as transformation'. It's how you use the impact that music makes and the way that it brings people together, especially classical music because of the way it involves a large group of people who have not necessarily worked together before, and make it a model for community? For Eureka the mission is that we mobilize the next generation of musicians to nurture social change through all of the music we love. We play all of the big classical works we love but to add this tinge to it of having a real impact for people who don’t know that they love it and can facilitate some kind of change in the community.

There are two principles for the orchestra:  
  1. An orchestra is a platform for collaboration in that different groups of humans. In our case trumpets, horns, string, of different shapes and sizes come together and have to work together in order for what they do to sound good. They put their individual stuff aside to sound good together which is a very interesting model for community when you think of it.
  2. Musicians are social innovators. This is one that a lot of classical musicians don’t actually understand but classical musicians really are social leaders. I mean, you wouldn’t think that of people who spend 6-8 hours a day by themselves in a practice room but I always ask the musicians like what do they think they’re doing when they’re practicing? Think about it, all of those hours that you spend where you dedicate all of your energy, and focus and patience and love and generosity and intelligence to something as simple as an articulation. You give it every little bit of energy that you can to make it perfect. What would happen if you transfer that process to how you treat other people and how we all treat each other? That amount of attention that you give to a single note transferred to how you treat another person. It’s another model of community, one that I think musicians are masters of because they get this space in their life to actually work on those skills, just not with people, but with music. The brain won’t distinguish much difference, it’s the same skill set. Perspective-wise, it’s just shifting things over.

If you can give 4 hours to finding the right way to do a staccato dot in context of a piece then you can sit down for three hours and be a diplomat with another human being.

Those are the two basic principles and the way that we try to be impactful is by picking a social cause in the community. For our May concert, our social cause was empowering women in music and we created partnerships with organizations pertinent to that cause. From there we created a way to use music to very directly address that cause. We had this concert called ‘Sheltering Voices’ where our goal was to empower women in music so we put together a program of all female American composers, dead and alive. We played an Amy Beach symphony and a Rebecca Clarke viola sonata, and then with our composer-in-residence, Stephanie Ann Boyd, we came up with our commission project for the year, a piece for soprano, women’s chorus, and orchestra called Sheltering Voices, the  namesake of the project. It’s a five-movement work inspired by the five stages of recovery from emotional or sexual abuse and for the lyrics, we have a friend who is a poet and women’s rights activist, Jessica Lynn Suchon, whose work deals with this topic in a way of using poetry and art as a way to recover from trauma and abuse. This concert in every way was created to empower women in music. To go even further, to really target the local community in Boston, we created a choir fellowship program in partnership with a few shelters for homeless women because how do you empower women in music? You focus on the most voiceless members of the community which is homeless and abused women.

We had this choir fellowship program where singers from the community received a $300 stipend, meals at rehearsals, access to vocal training--one on one-- and the opportunity to premiere a work that’s written for them in front of 1,000 people. The youngest person we worked with was 23 and has been experiencing homelessness since she was 16 and the oldest was 84. To put people like that through the process of learning a piece-- I mean, think back to that whole process of energy and care that you show a single note, we did that together around this piece, and for them it’s basically a feeling that they’ve lost. Being homeless in psychological terms means constant trauma because there’s a lack of stability in every part of your life. If you live in a shelter you have to go through a lottery everyday to secure a bed, it’s never the same bed. You can imagine when even if your day ends and starts with a different bed everyday, how can you function and build on top of that? How can you build a functioning life where you are able generate energy and self-worth everyday? It’s very difficult. Working on a piece of music, giving so much attention to sounding good together, giving so much attention to asking to give care and love to words and notes was very regenerative. Then to take that put it on stage in front of the whole community was overwhelming for everyone. Can you imagine being given flowers and applause after being looked down on for so many years?

I'm sure also to have a sense of purpose and self after so many years must be transformative.

In that video even, there’s a women who says, “My name is Rottisha and I’m not just homeless.” One of the woman used to work at a hospital. You never know what’s going to happen, it can happen to anyone.

Think of this: it takes music to get people to listen to stories like that. You pass people like that everyday but how many times would you ever sit down and talk to people about their story and take it in as if you could go through that? People don’t want to hear really bad or sad things. It takes of a piece of music to get people to listen. That’s a really cool power we have as artists.

Because of the concert, one of the donors was so moved by the transformation of these women from the first rehearsal to the concert, that they came up to me 2 weeks after the concert and said I don’t care what it costs--I’ll fund it-- I want this to be a permanent choral program. Design the program and I’ll take care of the costs. Together we designed what we’re calling the Women’s Chorus and it’s launching after Labor Day and it’ll be a permanent choral program for homeless women in Boston! That’s the way an orchestral concert can have a meaningful impact! Even aside from that, we got sponsors to donate toiletries and haircuts and other things for the concert! The whole community really came together, just like in Albania.

How long was this process? Did the women audition to be in the choir?

The design of the project took about six months, July through December, but the bulk of the work came between December and May. In January, I started going to the shelters every week to talk to the women and introduce the idea and out of 100 or so women that I met, we had 35 women sign up for auditions and had 18 auditions. The first audition was about 4-5 hours and it wasn’t traditional in like you’re in or you’re out, but I would sing something simple and I wanted to see if they could sing it back and how in tune it was. It turns out that there was a lot of talent in the community! We’d also exchange stories and I had them sing after me or sing a piece that moved them or even just Happy Birthday.

One of the women in the first group, she’s actually in the video, she talked about how she was in an abusive marriage and found the energy to leave because she was basically dying. She left the marriage, got an apartment, and built a life and then her ex-husband found her and stabbed her 11 times, now she’s undergoing constant surgeries. She said this and then she started to sing a popular song but she started to cry in the middle of it and then the other women held her hand and finished the song for her. That’s when i realized how intense and how special this project would be. That’s when I knew that music as transformation would be possible through this experience. We ended up having 8 official fellows that made it through a 2-month process, it’s very hard to commit to a long-term project like that regularly in that situation, things can change day by day so you just have to be ready for anything. Out of those 8 people they were the of the most committed people. They demanded that we recorde their parts so they could listen to them and study them. They would listen to them everyday to the point where they all memorized the piece! One of the fellows was in a car accident in the middle of the project and she sent her daughter to apologize that she couldn’t be at the rehearsal and she had even been practicing with the recording from the hospital!

There’s all of these archetypes that we come up with, and this archetype for this process was giving a voice to the voiceless. We also always referred to them as the Eureka Fellows, never as the Homeless Women, and that was incredibly empowering for them. When we referred to their homelessness it was never that they were homeless people, it was that they were just experiencing homelessness. It wasn’t a category of their identity or existence, it’s not a permanent status of living and they really appreciated that psychological distancing from that because that didn’t define who they were. Energy wasn’t detracted, it was added, just from that description of Eureka Fellow, instead of homeless woman. Just very simple principles that help our technique is a very powerful leadership skill.


If you think about the survival aspect of music,  why did the human species find music? What’s the point? It doesn’t help us eat better, it doesn’t give us food. It’s because music brings people together very naturally and it makes individuals feel part of a group. Drumming around a fire or singing something in harmony or being in an orchestra. Music is of the most primal instincts we have for feeling human and not animalistic. It helps us come together. It connects human cultures from around the world. A orchestra is just the evolution of that process.

What has the impact been like?

This video impact has been crazy! We’ve gotten hundreds of emails, there are three in particular from Seattle, Maryland, and Calgary, they want to use what we did here to start something in their communities. We’re going to start the core choir here this year and come up with a kind of how-to document and then share it with those communities! All you can do is throw all of your energy into a and be as genuine and passionate as you can be, it’s like sailing a boat out into the water, it’ll go where it goes. Our measurement of success isn’t quantity of people served, it’s the depth of transformation achieved.

How does that translate into your upcoming program about healthy eating?

Yeah, now there’s a cool project! Very experimental! Remember the formula is pick a social cause, create partnerships, and then find a way to use music to address that cause.

This time our cause is eradicating childhood obesity and so how do we do that? We’ve partnered with the Codman Square Health Center which is one of the largest health centers of its kind; it’s basically one level beneath a hospital, it’s in Dorchester and it serves 109,000 people a year, all locally. They have a very interesting way of treating medical issues: a doctor won’t just give you a prescription for drugs, they’ve created partnerships with the local gym and the local grocery store so they’ll give you a prescription for a month of exercises. That’s most of the issue, lifestyle! The change of lifestyle with the medication with really help leaps and bounds, it’s a very forward way of thinking about treating people! Anyways, the hospital has a black box theater in the health center and our first performance is going to be there.

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One of the other partners is the Eradicate Childhood Obesity Foundation in Boston which is based in Cambridge, they’re our main partner. Our other partner is the Daily Table which is a not-for-profit grocery store. Larger grocery stores take excess produce that’s within 60 days of the expiration date and throw it away. So Daily Table takes all of that perfectly good food, repackages it, and sells it at 10% of cost so families end up getting a gallon of organic milk for 25 cents or 75 cents. For a family below the poverty line, this is huge!

The problem we’re tackling very directly is the problem of added sugar in food. In the US it’s a major unregulated issue because 74% of all processed food has added sugar, including table salt. You know Morton’s Salt, look at the ingredients, you’ll see salt and dextrose, dextrose is added sugar. What ends up happening with most people across the economic spectrum but especially for people who are dependent on processed foods, you end up consuming huge amounts of sugar.  Most American adults consume over 100 pounds of sugar a year. That’s insane! There are over 240 names for added sugar in the industry. We looked at an organic baby formula—39 grams of added sugar labelled, but that ended up being false, there was actually 80% more added sugar than originally said! That’s food for a baby! You need to know what you’re looking for, so the Eradicate Childhood Obesity Foundation created an augmented reality app called Sugar Poke and when you’re shopping and you see a product in the store, and the app will tell you in teaspoons how much sugar is in a product. That baby formula had 93 teaspoons of sugar.

So how do you use music to influence change and motivate people? We commissioned composer Nick Davies and librettist Kevin Hong to write a piece modeled after Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” so for orchestra and narrator. Our piece is called “A Sweet Fairy Tale” and it’s infused with nutritional principles. The idea is to use music as an active strategy in nutrition information and the storyline follows a brother and sister in the woods and they come across a huge picnic spread of sweets and treats, and the brother, who is younger, gorges himself on food and falls into a sugar coma. The sister has to figure out how to save the brother and while she’s looking at the labels of what he ate and trying to figure out what he ate, these six figures come out of the forest, the Added Sugar Gang and they make a case for their products like, “They taste delicious, just try this!” Meanwhile, behind her thats been there the entire time is this apple tree, similar to The Tree of Life, it wakes up and begs her not to listen to the Added Sugar Gang. So her choice is between the apple from the tree and the sweets and so she chooses the apple because it’s the simplest thing, and she gives it to her brother and he wakes up. It’s fun and it’s written like a detective story in a way.

The idea is to motivate kids and families to be like detectives and make looking at nutritional labels feel like a game. Kids are very good at creating games. We have two versions, one for narrator and septet and one for full orchestra. The septet instrumentation is the Soldier’s Tale instrumentation. We also try to give kids and families the tools to do it as a way of connecting the community with what they have already, that’s why we have a septet version because it can travel to schools easily. The Eradicate Childhood Obesity Foundation has put together a cookbook with just very simple recipes that will be given to schools and we’re creating a partnership with Cambridge Public Schools so we can go play in the schools too. It’s all an experiment! My dream is to make an animated version that can be used in schools but the goal is to sail the sailboat and have no idea what the impact will be, we’re just putting it on a boat and launching it. It might be impactful, but it also might not be. Even if it doesn’t work, we will learn a lot and fix it and make it work.