Maybe it was their shared appreciation of world music and ethnomusicology. Perhaps it was the way that music helped shape both of their childhoods. Or maybe it was their mutual desire to live in a world where socioeconomic and cultural differences were not barriers to friendship, acceptance and personal growth.
Whatever the reason, from the time spouses Shabnam Fasa ’09 and Julius Reder Carlson Ph.D. ’11, Ph.D. ’15 first met as students at UCLA — she was working toward her bachelor’s in ethnomusicology; he was working toward his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology (he also earned a Ph.D. in musicology) — they’ve been on a mission. They wanted to create a welcoming, inclusive space where young people from all backgrounds and cultures could connect through music. And with the Santa Monica Youth Orchestra (SMYO) — their 7-year-old “child” that continues to grow and flourish — they have done just that.
What role did music play in your childhoods?
Shabnam Fasa: I was born in Iran. In 1986, because of the war between Iran and Iraq, my family moved to Denmark. We lived in a refugee camp the first two years. After we got out, I got a violin, and then I didn’t feel like I was a foreigner anymore — I was a violinist.
Growing up, I was part of several youth orchestras. I wasn’t the best violinist, but I was part of this entity. It felt really humbling that we made a beautiful sound that people wanted to listen to.
Julius Reder Carlson: My connection to Shab’s story is through my grandparents, who were also refugees. My grandfather grew up in Leipzig, Germany, going to the opera and the Gewandhaus Orchestra. Through him, I got to spend time with music. For me, music was always a gateway to the past and to my grandparents, who were very important to me.
Music was also a route to exploring the world. I went to the music conservatory at Oberlin College, and from there, I followed the guitar to South America and spent several years in Argentina and Chile. Later on, music took me through Germany, as I followed my grandparents and their experience.
What sparked the idea for SMYO and Opus, the affiliated summer camp?
Fasa: The first time we ever went out was to an El Sistema concert [based on a music-education program founded in Venezuela], and we felt like, “Oh, we have to do something like this in Santa Monica.”
We wanted to create a program where all kids could come, regardless of racial background, economic background, and it had to remain tuition-free for all kids. And not just limit it to Western classical music, but have all these other world music ensembles at the same level. That’s where Opus started, where the koto [a Japanese stringed instrument] is as important as Western classical music. The academic year is SMYO, and the summer is these world music programs.
“I have a tremendous amount of gratitude that we were able to build something from nothing.”
Santa Monica Youth Orchestra co-founder
What was the inspiration for SMYO’s concert at the Hammer Museum?
Fasa: In Dunhuang, China, there are these caves along the Silk Road, and people would travel there from all over the world to trade. Each cave is carved as if it’s a tent, with all of the different cultures — Iranian musicians dancing with Indian sutras — so they’re a celebration of all cultures coming together and celebrating their differences.
The idea of this concert was seeing L.A. as another Silk Road, another Dunhuang, where people are coming from other cultures and celebrating their differences in a really unique way. It was about finding our Dunhuang together.
How did your experience at UCLA impact SMYO?
Carlson: At the beginning, SMYO was an organization that didn’t have much funding. Everyone who was employed there was a graduate student from the university. Many of the foundational concepts of the orchestra came from a lot of the things we discussed as graduate students in the ethnomusicology program, particularly the modeling of Anthony Seeger, who was my adviser and mentor and a great inspiration. A lot of the progress we’ve made in the last few years has to do with people at UCLA, like [executive director of the UCLA Confucius Institute] Susan Jain, being really invested in the program. The UCLA community has been very involved.
Fasa: Ninety percent of our faculty, staff and board members are connected to UCLA.
Was the orchestra an immediate success?
Fasa: Before we opened our doors in 2012, we went to many private and public schools and handed out boxes of flyers that said the first 50 kids that show up will get a free gift basket. We got treats from lots of companies. We thought we were going to run out of baskets, but only nine kids showed up. It was so tragic. I remember thinking, “Oh my goodness, we’re never going to make it.” But we survived that little scare.
I feel so fortunate that I get to build a space where children can find themselves, and I have a tremendous amount of gratitude that we were able to build something from nothing.
What kind of impact has the coronavirus pandemic had on SMYO?
Fasa: We had all of these concerts and retreats planned in the spring, and none of that happened. So being able to physically share music with people and connect with an audience didn’t happen.
Carlson: It was disappointing on one level, but there are a lot of doors that open as well. We can open the door to participation among a much larger pool of people, and we can provide services to a much larger group of people. We can also welcome people in to share resources, information and traditions beyond the geographical borders. Another frontier is bringing in people from other parts of the world, not only as teachers but as students. We’ve planned at times to bring in people from other parts of the world physically, but we can do that now virtually, and we plan to do it as we move forward. So there are some really exciting possibilities that COVID has opened the door to.
What are your dreams for SMYO in the future?
Fasa: I would like to have enough funding to take these kids to other parts of the world so they can meet other children and do orchestra exchanges. In 2028, we would like to open the Olympics with our world music ensembles representing all of Los Angeles, because that’s when the whole world is looking at us. We would like to represent the Dunhuang we have created.