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Hitting a High Note with Professor Karlton Hester

Professor Karlton Hester (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

Music Professor Karlton Hester has mixed feelings about Black History Month. The composer, saxophonist, and flute player believes that it’s important, but one month is not enough. 

There should be a focus on Black history all year, along with women’s history, Latinx history, and the history of other Indigenous groups, he said. All have been neglected for too long. 

“The truth is there are many other things happening on the planet outside the colonial perspective—many important things,” he said. 

All people of all ethnicities need access to this wider field of knowledge, he said. 

“Let everyone benefit from diversity, equity, and inclusion,” he said.

Hester was recently named the first ever associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the arts for UC Santa Cruz’s Arts Division. He said the job is a good fit. 

“That’s essentially what I’ve done all my life anyway,” he said.

In his research, he has found that the only thing that has historically stood in the way of the development of African American music and culture is the lack of equity, diversity, and inclusion. 

“When that’s removed, there’s a different result,” he said. 

He points out that jazz operates in a way that’s democratic. Within African American jazz practice, each musician contributes equally to the creation of musical canvases regardless of their particular instrument. 

“If 70 percent want something, they get 70 percent of the total resources available to achieve what they want and 30 percent get 30 percent of the total resources available to achieve what they want,” he said. “There’s no bullying the minority.”

In contrast, he said, the colonial perspective is whoever has the biggest guns and is the strongest will get their way. 

Hester grew up in a music-loving family in El Paso, Texas, where he started playing piano at age 2. He began by imitating the R&B songs he knew from artists like Fats Domino and Little Richard, and by age 4, was taking piano lessons. A few years after that, he was singing in the El Paso Boys' Choir. The choir gave him a rich education in the classical tradition, with instruction in music theory and experiences performing with professional groups, including the symphony, ballet, and orchestra. In 6th grade, he began learning flute and other wind instruments. Outside of school, he took every opportunity to learn from African American music masters. 

He says he’s always loved all types of music. 

“Music is all interconnected,” he said. “Everything is interconnected. A note is a note and that’s all there is to it.” 

He studied music at the University of Texas and then headed to Southern California, where he got a job as a music educator. Hester earned a doctoral degree in music composition from City University of New York, and taught for a decade at Cornell University. Eventually tiring of the snow that could last October to June, he returned to balmier California to take his position at UC Santa Cruz. 

Hester describes his musical compositions as “premeditated, spontaneous, and electro-acoustic” works. He has written a wide variety of styles for woodwinds, chamber groups, music videos, and electro-acoustic symphonic works.

“I usually tell people to listen to my music if you want to understand me,” he said. 

He adapts his compositions to fit his reactions to environments depending on where he is at the time. When he lived in Seattle, he explained, it felt slow compared to San Francisco, so he created music that was more intense. New York was intense so he created music that was mellow when he lived there, he said. 

At UC Santa Cruz, he serves as director of the Digital Arts and New Media program, which brings all the digital arts together. 

“In the 21st century, most of the traditional arts have a digital component,” he explained. 

Hester has been working with electronic music and sequencing for decades, especially as a way to fill out his compositions when he hasn’t had access to enough live musicians. 

“I’ve always been into multi-layered music,” he said. “When you don’t have enough musicians, you still want to hear the sound.” 

He developed his own style of music he named Hesterian Musicism. He was inspired by masters like John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Duke Ellington, who all came up with their own vocabulary. 

“I started thinking about my own skills, chords, timbre, and texture, and I did it systematically,” he said, adding that Hesterian Musicism came out of that research. Hester’s music is inspired by his spiritual practice, which comes from an “omniversal” perspective. He believes that nature is his best teacher and that everything is interconnected. 

“It means using your surroundings to figure out how things flow,” he said. One of his recent compositions, named Quantam Elders Consciousness Vaccine, aims to “demonstrate the uninterrupted connection of vibrational consciousness that exists between Earth’s molecular, spiritual, and intellectual intersections that bind with the Ominverse.” Hester believes humanity as a whole would benefit if more attention was paid to traditional knowledge, from knowledge of herbs in the rainforest to democratic principles used in powwows. More focus on Black history and Indigenous history means a healthier society for all, he said.