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    Pacific Edge Voices Welcomes a New Leader

    By David Landis–

    Ash Walker is the new, conductor of the 40-year-old ensemble East Bay-based Pacific Edge Voices (PEV). I had the pleasure of speaking with him for the San Francisco Bay Times prior to PEV’s upcoming Bay Area concerts April 2 & 8.

    David Landis: What inspired you to go into music?

    Ash Walker: I am from a family of 9 and my mom wanted us to have a particular focus. I gravitated towards music at a young age, singing in the church choir in Philadelphia. I auditioned for the Philadelphia Boys Choir: that was an awesome awakening. We travelled around the world, performed at the White House, went to the Sydney Opera House in 1996 and South Africa in 1997. That trip taught me being a choral musician was possible. I joined ensembles in school at Millersville University. While there, I started a men’s choir and had my first conducting experience. I focused on music from different cultures: Latin America, Africa, and Eastern European countries. Then I made the decision to come to California to study with Buddy James at Cal State East Bay (Hayward). Afterwards, I got the audition at PEV and now I’m also vocal choral professor at Los Positas College in Livermore.

    David Landis: In addition to singing, what instruments do you play?

    Ash Walker: I am a baritone but sometimes sing tenor. I play piano and played trombone as a kid. I also do African drumming and drum corps (marching band on steroids!).

    David Landis: How did PEV survive the pandemic?

    Ash Walker: I started in 2020 after Lynn Morrow stepped down after 15 years. When I became director, we were into masks and no vaccines. We couldn’t meet in person for safety. We didn’t want to lose the continuity, so we met over Zoom. I didn’t meet many of the choir in person until a year after working with them. A new software, Jack Trip virtual studio technology, allowed us to sing together and connect from home in real time over an audio connection. We created The Great Event (inspired by Leonard Cohen’s music) in March 2021—a virtual program with audiences listening via Zoom. The program was about the end of the world and the beginning of the new world: an apt moment for where society was in that moment.

    David Landis: PEV’s next concerts are called After the Rain: Echoes of Nature. Why?

    Ash Walker: I needed an arranger and I stumbled upon Henrik Dahlgren. He had a song called “Hymn of Acxiom,” hauntingly beautiful, about society’s dependence on technology. We popularized and recorded this song in America. I reached out to him regarding a program about music in nature and we started a partnership. I noticed how green and beautiful the hills were after it rained. Where did we all go for safety during the pandemic? Outside. Beaches and parks. Our safe space. Because of that, it’s worth celebration. The other composer we’re featuring is Forrest Pierce, who wrote “Gratitude Sutra (giving thanks to nature).” 

    David Landis: Why is it called PEV?

    Ash Walker: The group’s original name was the Pacific Mozart Ensemble. But the group wasn’t Mozart specific—they needed a name that was better representative of the music they performed. PEV has always had a storied history with uncommon collaborators: Meredith Monk, Bobby McFerrin, Sweet Honey in the Rock. The name was meant to better serve the group’s mission. We’re just under 40 members now. We have a lot of members who also perform with the Opera or Symphony Chorus. Members come from multiple professions and multiple disciplines. It can be a great place to find musical experiences that people who don’t work in music need in their lives. Robert Shaw eloquently said, “Music is not a luxury, but a necessity.”

    David Landis: Tell us about your journey as a gay, Black man and musician.

    Ash Walker: It’s pretty obvious that there are quite a few gay people who sing in choirs and participate in art. In Pennsylvania, it wasn’t easy to be out. I didn’t come out until I moved here. I wasn’t denied my identity; I just didn’t’ feel comfortable expressing it. In California, identity and representation matter—culturally and gender-wise. It behooved me to be honest with myself. Once I did that, my life opened up. Being in the closet affected my musical prowess. Being able to be my whole self has allowed me to express myself, not just musically but also as a writer and composer. That’s who I am. I want to show the world through my art that being out of the box is okay.

    David Landis: Are you single or married?

    Ash Walker: I am single. I live with college roommates. I don’t find myself to have a lot of time for a relationship, but I need to have better focus on it.

    David Landis: What do you like to do when you’re not making music?

    Ash Walker: Typically, I’m making music when I’m not making music. But I have a dog Rex, a Husky. I love my garden on my porch. I’m a huge Star Trek fan. I also like drum corps. I like hiking and walking. I always try to find ways to link aspects of my personal life with music.

    For more information about PEV’s upcoming April concerts, visit: https://pacificedgevoices.org/

    David Landis studied piano at Northwestern University, is Curator for the Amateur Music Network and an avid music afficionado, and also writes “The Gay Gourmet” column for the San Francisco Bay Times.

    Published on March 24, 2022