New Recordings Show Strengths, Interests of Music Faculty

Albums offer varied takes on collaboration

Members of chamber ensemble All of the Above pause for a photo during the recording of the ‘Double Portrait’ album. The group uncludes (from left) Scott Jackson, violin; Yijia Fang, cello; Edward Smaldone and Douglas Knehas, composers; Hu Jianging, sheng; Matthew Umphreys, piano; Nave Graham, flute; Mikey Arbulu, clarinet; David Abraham, percussion; and Adam Abeshouse, producer. Submitted photo

OXFORD, Miss. – For faculty members at the University of Mississippi‘s Department of Music, balancing teaching, research, and advising with professional music careers is a way of life. Many professors travel to perform and teach, and quite a few are standing members of ensembles around the country.

Two of these faculty members – flutist Nave Graham and tenor Jos Milton – perform with ensembles that have just released new recordings.

New Music from an Established Collaboration

The latest album by All of the Above, ‘Double Portrait’ features compositions by Douglas Knehans and Edward Smaldone. Nave Graham, a UM flute instructor, is a founding member of the ensemble.

Graham, UM instructor of flute, is a founding member of the contemporary chamber group All of the Above, which collaborates with composers and challenges the traditions of classical concerts to offer unique musical experiences to audiences. Based in Cincinnati, the group was started by Graham and fellow graduate students at the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati.

“During that time, we played a lot of works by student composers and thankfully, we were able to have a rather vibrant performance life after school,” Graham said.

As the ensemble evolved, it began working with other composers who wanted to compose for the group and developed artistic partnerships with two professional composers: Douglas Knehans, professor of composition at CCM, and Edward Smaldone, professor of composition at Queens College Aaron Copland School of Music.

After the success of a concert featuring the work of Smaldone and Knehans, the ensemble decided to keep working with the composers.

“In 2017, both Knehans and Smaldone wrote pieces for All of the Above that we premiered at Carnegie Hall as a part of the New York New Fusion Music Festival,” Graham said.

The following year, the ensemble received a grant from the International Society for Contemporary Music to present a program of new works by Knehans and Smaldone at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music in New York. Later in 2018, the group returned to Carnegie Hall to premiere two new works by the composers.

Nave Graham

“At that point, it was quite clear that there was something special about our collaboration with these two brilliant composers,” she said. “We decided to record a double-disc feature of their works entitled ‘Double Portrait.'”

Two new additions make this recording special, Graham said.

The first came when the ensemble had an opportunity to work with Hu Jianbing, a world-renowned musician on the sheng, a Chinese reed instrument that features several vertical pipes. Jianbing is a visiting professor at the China Conservatory of Music and a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Project.

“As an international soloist and recording artist, Jianbing’s virtuosity on the sheng was an absolute wonder throughout the whole process,” Graham said. “It was a true honor to work with him on this album.

“And where else are you going to be able to listen to a new work for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, percussion and sheng?! It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me.”

The second collaboration that elevates this recording came in the production. Adam Abeshouse, a multiple Grammy Award-winning producer, worked with the group in the studio.

“He has recorded artists including Itzhak Perlman, Joshua Bell, Emanuel Ax, Leon Fleischer, The Juilliard String Quartet and the Kronos Quartet, just to name a few,” Graham said. “He is absolutely at the top of his field.

“I was a bit intimidated to work with someone with his experience, but he was very welcoming and I ended up learning so much about recording from him. The balance, clarity and energy of the record is all thanks to Adam’s brilliance.”

Exploring America with Classical Guitar

Jos Milton

Milton, associate professor of voice, has been singing with Conspirare, a professional choral ensemble in Austin, Texas, since 2009. The group has been nominated for nine Grammy Awards and has won two.

The ensemble’s latest recording, “The Singing Guitar,” features the Conspirare singers with classical guitar quartets – an unusual combination, Milton said.

“The album takes elements of folk and cowboy songs and folds them into contemporary classical techniques,” Milton said. “Classical guitar creates a unique texture, and it was a challenge to work the voices into relationship with the guitars’ sound, but it was tremendous to work with the LA Guitar Quartet – which is especially well-known – as well as quartets from Austin and Dallas.”

The collection “conjures the feel of the vast Western landscape,” Milton said. The album’s standout piece is “How Little You Are,” based on texts from 19th century pioneer women in Wyoming and Texas, he said.

Conspirare’s latest recording, ‘The Singing Guitar,’ features the Conspirare singers with classical guitar quartets. Jos Milton, an Ole Miss voice professor, has been singing with the choral ensemble since 2009.

The composition by Nico Muhly was written for singers and all three classical guitar quartets. The lushness of 12 classical guitar voices combined with the voices of Conspirare’s singers creates an evocative sound and sheds light on why Conspirare is known for its interpretive depth.

Another track, Kile Smith’s “The Dawn’s Early Light,” also explores the American West, but from the perspective of Sara Winnemucca, a Native American, with texts taken from her autobiography, Milton said.

Benefits for Faculty and Students

Both Milton and Graham acknowledge that it can be a challenge to balance their schedules as Ole Miss faculty members with creative work elsewhere, but it is worth the effort.

Milton’s experiences with Conspirare are rewarding in part because “this is ensemble singing at a very high level, and it’s a viscerally moving experience every time I work with them. It helps reaffirm my pursuits as an artist.”

Each time Milton works with Conspirare, he also learns something that he can bring to his work with students in his campus vocal studio, he said.

For example, the Conspirare tenor section often discusses in detail the methods they use to achieve the vocal color or tone the director requests, especially “how we each maneuver different elements of singing technique to comfortably get the unified timbre our director is going for,” he said.

“He never prescribes a specific method, but rather explains the overall mood that he wants, and then we go within our own skill sets to make it happen. I’ve always appreciated this mutual respect, because it makes for a much more organic approach, avoids vocal strain and fatigue, and makes for a very fulfilling musical experience.”

Jos Milton snaps a photo from the tenor section during the recording of ‘The Singing Guitar,’ the latest album by the professional choral ensemble Conspirare, featuring three classical guitar quartets. Evoking the vastness of the American West, the recordings were made in St. Luke’s Methodist Church in Houston, Texas. Submitted photo

Milton tries to emulate a similar approach with his students to help them build healthy singing habits, he said.

“I will often suggest certain methods to them in lessons, always asking how certain things are feeling as we work together,” he explained. “It’s important that they acquire more body awareness as they learn, and I try to gently guide them with these methods as we explore different possibilities.”

Graham’s experience also feeds her teaching, she said.

“My work with AOTA has probably been the most transformative work in my career,” she explained. “Together, we all went from students to post-graduates just trying to find a place for our art, to semi-professionals trying to make a little bit of money for that art, to living professional careers as musicians.”

This process is different for everyone, but going through it with a group of people that you know and trust makes it much easier, Graham said. She tries to use a similar approach to teach and connect with students.

“I understand how important it is to make music with your friends, people you trust and love and respect,” she said. “I understand how difficult it can be to be a young person in school wanting to find meaning and place in art. I understand how scary life after school can feel.

“I try to encourage my students to take those risks and find importance in the art and people and process rather than allowing that fear to keep them from doing something that just might be great.”

Conspirare’s previous album, “The Hope of Loving,” was nominated for a 2019 Grammy for Best Choral Performance. “The Singing Guitar” will be released Sept. 18, and additional information about the record is available at or

All of the Above’s album “Double Portrait” can be found on Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon and YouTube.