Called to Be: Access & Excellence

Title:Suite of Sound

Author: Sara Piccini
Date Published: April 12, 2024

Evolving from scholastic and sacred roots, music at Georgetown today showcases a vibrant range of forms and genres

Professor, composer, and pianist Carlos Simon (above) performs “Requiem for the Enslaved” with Hub New Music in Gaston Hall.
Professor, composer, and pianist Carlos Simon (above) performs “Requiem for the Enslaved” with Hub New Music in Gaston Hall. | Photos: Elman Studio


“A musical reckoning allows us to consider hard things in a different way—it gets at things we feel before we have words for them.”

—Benjamin Harbert
Chair, Department of Performing Arts

In Fall 2023, Georgetown’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies held a launch event with music as the centerpiece—a live performance of the powerful
and haunting “Requiem for the Enslaved.”

Composed by Carlos Simon, an associate professor of music at Georgetown, with a libretto by hip hop artist-in-residence Marco Pavé, the requiem was commissioned by the university in 2021 and nominated for a Grammy the following year. Honoring the lives of the people enslaved by the Maryland Province of Jesuits and their descendants, the piece infuses African American spirituals into a Catholic liturgical musical form.

The use of music to launch the center, whose mission focuses on remembrance and reconciliation, was especially fitting. Perhaps no other form of human expression can evoke joy, sorrow, longing, and passion as directly and immediately as music.

“That was the first time we actually performed the piece on this soil. Georgetown soil,” says Simon. “It felt surreal. The ghosts are here, the ancestors are here, and I can see them being happy that we’re here and finally made it great.”

Recognizing music’s integral role in all our lives, Georgetown’s Music Program—part of the university’s Department of Performing Arts—offers students and the broader community a rich variety of opportunities to explore diverse musical genres, as well as to learn about the music industry as a whole.

“We’re here in Washington, DC, and our students are engaged in real-life issues that musicians are facing, studying the crossover between music and public policy,” says Benjamin Harbert, chair of the performing arts department and director of undergraduate studies in music.

Music is fundamentally collaborative, and Georgetown’s alumni involved in the music industry have been generous in sharing expertise and inspiration. Multiplatinum songwriter Jim McCormick (C’90), for example, has hosted students in Nashville for an insider’s look at both the artistic and business side of music.

McCormick’s words about songwriting can aptly be applied to music at Georgetown in all its manifestations: “It’s about creating something remarkable.”

Études: Music in the Classroom

“Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace.”

—Professor Anthony DelDonna
(quoting Plato’s The Republic)

Beginning with the ancient Greeks, the study of music has been an essential element of a liberal arts education. “It’s historically part of the quadrivium, along with arithmetic, astronomy, and geometry, so it’s a foundational pillar,” says Anthony DelDonna, the Thomas E. Caestecker Professor of Music.

“More specifically, music—like these other disciplines—stresses critical thinking, logic, collaboration, and creativity,” he continues. “These are the skills that we try to nurture in our students, whether they’re in the sciences, or the business school, or SFS.”

As DelDonna explains, many students come to the Music Program simply looking to fulfill a humanities requirement. “Then they get hooked,” he says. “I think it’s because so much of the work we do is student-centered, student-driven.” Cameron Newman (C’24) is among those students who became captivated by the program. Although she grew up performing in musical theater, she applied to Georgetown with the intent to go straight into government and politics.

Intrigued by Georgetown’s performing arts curriculum, she took a class called Writing About Music in her first year. “I was so impressed by the professor, Anna Celenza. I saw how seriously Georgetown treats music as a scholarly undertaking,” Newman says. Newman went on to declare a major in American Musical Culture, pursuing the musicology/ethnomusicology track. Now in her senior year, she is working with adviser Benjamin Harbert to write a thesis on how songs have shaped the mythos
of California.

Established in 2008 through a collaborative faculty effort, the American Musical Culture major is unique to Georgetown. “We wanted to leverage the fact that our students are so strong in the liberal arts, and so many of them have some touchstone to music,” DelDonna explains.

“But we also wanted our students to focus on music that is creative, that is practiced,” he continues. The result is an interdisciplinary major focusing specifically on American musical traditions, incorporating history, anthropology, linguistics, social justice issues, and much more.

Harmonic Progression

“For the Friday Music Concert Series, we had to learn pretty quickly how to record all different genres—bluegrass, classical, Latin. It’s been a remarkable experience.”

—Ian Devine (C’24)
Recording Arts Teaching Assistant

The American Musical Culture major has three tracks—musicology/ethnomusicology; music and media studies; and sacred music—which reflect the program’s comprehensive approach to music as an academic and creative pursuit.

“Performance is part of our program—it’s not the end goal, but if you study music it’s really important to have that musical experience,” Harbert says. “I teach a rock history course, and I require all my students to learn basic rhythms on a drum set.

“While they’re studying the history and evolution of styles, they’re also getting a sense of a history of Black contributions to rock and roll.”

DelDonna also notes that the program emphasizes skill acquisition. “Students in our music and media track, for example, take courses in recording techniques using a professional recording studio,” says DelDonna.

Through coursework and faculty mentoring, Ian Devine (C’24) has become so proficient on the production side of music that he is now in his second year working as a teaching assistant for the Recording Arts class.

Similar to Newman, Devine came to Georgetown with a love of music but no intention of becoming a major. In what he calls a “blessing in disguise,” Devine applied to and was rejected from the business school. “I did some soul-searching, and realized I’d probably be more successful in life if I did something I’m really interested in,” he says.

“I started with classes like experimental audio production with Professor Jay Hammond,” Devine explains. “I also took the music industry seminar with Professor [Anna] Celenza—she retired afterwards, so I was lucky to be in her class. It was sobering to hear about the exploitative nature of the music business, but also inspiring to understand the mechanics of the industry.”

Devine’s work as TA is twofold. First, he supervises students on individual projects where they learn how to record their own performances. Equally important, he oversees the class as they record each performance in the Music Program’s Friday Music Concert Series—a huge responsibility, especially given the prominence of the artists involved.

“They learn how to use the gear, then record and mix the performance with the help of Professor Hammond and me,” Devine says. “It’s been very, very cool getting to do real, hands-on work with both students and artists.”

a student wearing a Georgetown shirt sings
“I’d always seen music as connected to theater and storytelling,” says soprano Cameron Newman (C’24). “The faculty here opened my ears to the magic of purely instrumental music.”

Joyful Noise

“When we go to Dahlgren, there’s the full orchestra, the soloists, the audience, and it’s just so many voices filling the room. It’s absolutely glorious.”

—Cameron Newman (C’24) on performing Handel’s “Messiah”

Devine describes the diversity of artists performing for the Friday Music Concert Series as “jaw-dropping” and a glance at the lineup over the past several years confirms that description.

Recent performers have included the Argentinian Alejandro Brittes Quartet performing in the 400-year-old chamamé musical genre, born of the encounter between European Jesuits and native Guaraní cultures.

Premiering the Fall 2023 series, violinist David Kim, concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, performed Carlos Simon’s “Loops”—commissioned by the New York Philharmonic during the pandemic—along with more traditional works.

The lunchtime concerts are held in McNeir Hall, an intimate venue in New North. They are free to all Georgetown students, faculty, and staff, as well as local residents. “There’s no financial barrier—it’s a great way of making music more accessible to the community at large,” says Newman.

Complementing the Friday concerts are regular performances by Georgetown student instrumental and choral ensembles, including the Georgetown University Orchestra conducted by Professor Angel Gil-Ordonez, and Georgetown Concert Choir, led by Frederick Binkholder.

Newman, a soprano in the choir, singles out one concert as an especially memorable experience—a presentation of music by 20th-century Black composer Margaret Bonds, performed in Gaston Hall in Spring 2022.

“The Concert Choir had the opportunity to premiere some of her works, including an awesome song cycle called ‘Simon Bore the Cross,’ synthesizing Black spiritual and classical Western music traditions.

“It was a superb selection of music, and a huge honor to share this music with everyone.”

World Music

“I tell students that a musical career doesn’t come without a price—time, money, and sacrifice.”

—Carlos Simon
Associate Professor and Composer

The Georgetown Music Program provides many opportunities for students to “go on the road.”

In addition to an internship with the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities, for example, Newman had the once-in-a-lifetime chance to study abroad in Milan.

“Being in Italy showed me how American musicals are very much grounded in the Italian operatic tradition of connecting music and storytelling on the stage.”

Newman took five music courses and went on field trips to Milan’s famed Teatro alla Scala opera house, as well as the State Opera House in Prague. “The biggest influence was my incredible voice teacher. I did operatic singing for the first time, which was very humbling. In choir, you’re always trying to blend in. My teacher told me that my voice needed to be bigger,” she says.

“The voice is a muscle, so it was like strength training—like boot camp.”

Devine has spent the past two summers gaining industry experience at studios in New York City. He got one of those lucky breaks musicians dream of this past summer as a post-production freelancer at Gigantic Studios, working on the indie horror film Crumbcatcher.

“The music supervisor was waving the red flag, looking for more affordable options,” Devine says. “Through persistence—and charging a lot less for my work—two of my songs ended up in the score.” The film went on to win the Gold Audience Award at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival. “I was incredibly grateful the director gave me a shot.”

DelDonna expresses particular gratitude to the network of alumni, especially those involved in the Georgetown Entertainment and Media Alliance (GEMA), who help place music students in internships at high-profile arts and media organizations—including Teddy Zambetti (C’80), one of GEMA’s founders and the senior director of music production and in-house composer for Sirius XM Radio.

“Teddy is incredibly fair and always very helpful,” DelDonna says, noting that Zambetti provides clear feedback on students’ potential in the field.

Music students at Georgetown also have the invaluable benefit of gaining advice from practitioners on the faculty such as Carlos Simon, currently composer-in-residence at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

“I tell students that a musical career doesn’t come without a price—time, money, and sacrifice,” says Simon.

a man sings onstage while surrounded by colorful lights
“In a very direct way Georgetown prepared me for my career,” says Jim McCormick (C’90). “It required a lot of self-discipline, a lot of sacrifice. So did breaking into Nashville’s songwriting business.”

Lyrical Inspiration

“The biggest gift of this whole journey has been the fact that now, 25 years later, I still love getting up in the morning to write a song. I’m so grateful the fire still burns.”

—Jim McCormick (C’90), Songwriter

During his musical career, Jim McCormick has written hit songs for a pantheon of stars—Trace Adkins, Tim McGraw, Trisha Yearwood, Harry Connick Jr., Kelly Clarkson. The New Orleans native has garnered multiple Grammy and Country Music Association nominations; McCormick’s song “The Good Ones” won Favorite Country Song at the American Music Awards in 2021.

His advice to aspiring musicians is similar to Simon’s. “It’s a joyful path to take, but it’s full of heartbreak. If you love it enough, though, it doesn’t feel like heartbreak. It feels like part of the route that you’ve got to take to get there.”

McCormick’s career in music had, as he puts it, “a longtime gestation.” He’d played in bands in high school and especially loved songwriting. As a Hoya, however, McCormick started out in the business school. Then he enrolled in a poetry seminar with poet and professor Roland Flint, and everything changed. “The lightbulb went off. I knew what I should study.”

He received a Lannan Fellowship at Georgetown and the Academy of Americans Poets poetry prize, going on to earn an MFA in poetry at the University of New Orleans. But music still called him, and he went on the road, playing in a rock band he started with childhood friends.

“We were eating 99-cent menus, sleeping four to a room in Motel 6, and barreling across the Southeast to every college town playing original music. I had the time of my life,” McCormick says. “And it was there, in that band, that I learned how to write songs with other people.”

During tours, he’d encounter older musicians who encouraged him to make a go of it in Nashville as a professional songwriter. Eventually he decided to spend a weekend there, checking things out.

“I just fell in love with it, all of it,” he says. “In Nashville I saw a respect and care for the lyric that equaled the respect and care for the poetry that I’d been part of for so long,” he says.

After four years of sleeping on friends’ couches, he got his first break—one of his songs appeared on a major record label. Publishing houses took interest, and he subsequently signed his first deal with a music publishing company and his career took off.

McCormick has returned to the Hilltop a number of times to guest lecture and appear on GEMA panels, as well as performing at the Friday Music Concert Series. Despite constant change in the music industry, he tells students that the old adages still hold.

“It still comes down to remarkable melodies and remarkable lyrics. You’re not going to luck into it—you’ve got to fight for it.”

a man in a leather jacket sits at a piano
“As a composer, I want to use music as a platform to talk about issues of our time,” says professor Carlos Simon, whose “Requiem for the Enslaved” received a 2023 Grammy nomination.


Isaac ran away
Why was he captured in the first place?
Runaway slave is a crime for the brave
Please give me death instead of new chains

—Lyric by Marco Pavé from “Requiem for the Enslaved”

Composer Carlos Simon’s “Requiem for the Enslaved” is both inspiring and anger provoking, lyrical and harsh. Above all, it is a call to action.

As Simon emphasizes, “It’s a sendoff for those in the audience to reflect on what they heard, and ask the question of themselves, ‘What can I do, what is my duty?’”

The requiem’s evolution began with Simon’s extensive research about the 272 enslaved children, women, and men sold by the Maryland Province of Jesuits to benefit Georgetown. He pored through the university’s Slavery Archives and traveled to Louisiana’s cotton fields to walk in the steps of the enslaved.

He also felt it was imperative to speak to members of the Descendant community. “I wanted to get their blessing,” he says. “I wanted to make sure I was telling the right story in a way that honored them.”

Simon, whose father is a Pentecostal minister, decided to employ the traditional Catholic Requiem Mass as the vehicle to celebrate and mourn the community’s departed ancestors. Rather than working with a full orchestra, Simon—a pianist—collaborated with the chamber ensemble Hub New Music, creating a more intimate sound, and recruited trumpeter MK Zulu for additional accent and texture.

Fortuitously, Simon joined the Georgetown faculty in the same year that Memphis-based hip-hop artist Marco Pavé began his residency. The two artists joined forces.

“Marco is the griot, the storyteller, the keeper of the truth,” says Simon.

As he was composing the requiem, he also brought pieces of the work into the classroom to share with students. “Students get feedback on their work, and I’m not exempt from that. They’re of a different generation, and they receive and consume music in a different way than I do. Understanding how they listen to music really helps me to craft my compositions.”

Although Simon had performed and also recorded the piece for Decca Records prior to the requiem’s premiere at Georgetown, taking his seat at the piano in Gaston Hall brought him to a different spiritual place. “Nothing really prepared me for that performance. It resonated with me in a way I wasn’t expecting. Even in rehearsal I could feel something different.”

“It’s an honor to be a vessel to tell the story.”


To learn additional details about “Requiem for the Enslaved,” read previous content or watch the video.

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