Born and raised in Indianapolis, Joshua Thompson is known for his tremendous skill as a pianist and for spearheading unique programs that highlight works by composers of African descent.
Joshua Thompson: Opening Indy’s Eyes
Joshua Thompson is a classical pianist, born and raised right here in Indianapolis. Thompson comes from a musical family and began playing piano at the age of 5. Thompson studied music throughout his childhood, having weekly private lessons and later on continuing his education as a music major at DePauw University. He wasn’t content, however, to travel the path that a traditional classical musician walks. Thompson remembers from that time, “I spent so much time practicing, even from a young age with my private lessons. I was at DePauw, putting in 8-9 hours every day in the practice room, and I was like ‘I’ve done this. I’ve done all this practicing before, I want to do something else…’ I’ve always wanted to do something BIG.” After leaving music school, and having an outstanding career in Sociology and Arts Advocacy, Thompson found that something else.
What sets this pianist apart from most musicians is his passion for developing and executing compelling programming, with an emphasis on works by composers of African descent. “I wanted to use my abilities and knowledge to highlight the artistic contributions of Africans and African Americans in the fine arts.” Although some progress has been made to bring diversity to classical music in America, Thompson regularly experiences surprise when he informs locals of the community that he is a classical musician. Thompson says that when he tells strangers about being a pianist, there is an assumption that he is a jazz musician and an inevitable state of disbelief when it is later revealed that Thompson is, in fact, a classical pianist.
Thompson says when people seem shocked that an African American can be an extraordinary classical musician, it likely comes from implicit bias. “With classical music there is this assumption really perceived with an inherent sense of sophistication and refinement, so if you don’t associate black people with being classical musicians that also means, by default, you don’t associate black people with refinement… Those associations are really important, and they affect perceptions of an entire group of people.” The fact that these assumptions exist drives the work that Thompson does to highlight the black aesthetic in classical music. The expression and precision of compositions by these composers show that the belief of a lack of refinement among African Americans is incorrect. “Performing their works gives the opportunity to present black people in a much more holistic, comprehensive, and accurate manner.”
These experiences in the classical music community are what led him to help create Village Voices: Notes from the Griot, a production that shines with passion, bringing to life the works of musicians, dancers, poets, and visual artists of African descent. The show was held at some of the top Indiana institutions like Newfields, the Eiteljorg Musuem, the Central Public Library, and more. Village Voices is a semi-staged production that presents music exclusively of African descent, and invites audiences in to experience the often unsung history of African American artists. In the production, Thompson performs works by William Grant Still and Margaret Bonds, two composers who made immense contributions to American classical music.
One of Thompson’s goals is to get audiences to expand what they consider to be classical music to include the great legacy of African American composers. “It’s not original [highlighting works of musicians of African descent], I’m not the first person to do it, but it is absolutely necessary… The works I play need to be standards, not just played in February.” At the end of a show, Thompson says he doesn’t care if the audience thinks he is perfect or not – he wants the takeaway to be “Joshua opened my eyes to these great composers [Still, Bonds, etc.] and gave me enough that I can go look them up on my own.”
[Above, Joshua Thompson playing Marget Bonds’ “Troubled Water”]
Thompson’s mindset focuses on telling an accurate history of composers of color, while looking to build a more inclusive future. Thompson’s vision for the future of classical music is for the music to be incorporated in more unexpected kinds of ways, like Hip-Hop artists sampling classical music for their beats, and having classical music present in non-traditional performance spaces. “The traditional experience still needs to be there, and I am all about it, but whether we want it or not, the technology for a different kind of experience is here, and we have to give it room to breathe.” Thompson says he may not like all of the classical music of the future, but he’s more interested in understanding and experiencing than anything else.
[Above, Joshua Thompson performing movement 2 of William Grant Still’s “Three Visions: Suite for Piano” – “Summerland”]
Thompson has several great projects lined up for the rest of the year. He is the monthly feature for the Marianne Tobias Music Program at Eskenazi Health, information on these performances can be found here. Village Voices will also be providing educational programming for around 1,800 youths in November thanks to the Pike Township LEAP program. In September, Thompson will be presenting Clothed in Classics, a special event that pairs classical fashion with classical music performance at Bier Brewery and Humble Creations studios. Thompson is also on the Board of Directors for Arts for Lawrence.
For more information on Joshua Thompson, visit his website here.