El Paso native Abeni Merriweather has become the youngest composer for major music publishing company Carl Fischer Music Company.
“Everyone that does music obviously knows who Carl Fisher is. … It’s one of the most well-respected music publishers for literally a century,” Merriweather said. “So I was like, oh, they want my piece?”
Founded in 1872, the New York City-based company has been an education leader and publisher for a variety of music genres such as jazz, concert music and chorals. Fischer is also home to some of the most famous musical catalogs by composers such as Howard Hansn and Norman Dello Joio, a Pulitzer Prize for Music recipient.
“I just think about (how I’m) this one Black girl in El Paso (who) just so happened to get the attention of a major company,” she said.
Merriweather, a 20-year-old junior at the University of Texas at El Paso, caught the attention of Fischer’s choral editor, Denise Eaton, after her a capella arrangement, “Hold On Just A Little While Longer,” was played during the UTEP Concert Chorale in October 2020.
“I saw the comments and she said, ‘Who wrote this piece? Who’s it published by?’” Merriweather said. “So I went to her profile, and messaged her and said, ‘Hello, I’m the arranger of this piece.’ And she said, ‘I really love your piece and I think it would be a great piece to include in our July catalog.’”
The UTEP Concert Chorale switched to virtual concerts in 2020 in response to the pandemic, and performed Abeni Merriweather’s arrangement of “Hold On Just a Little While Longer” at their Oct. 6 concert. An interview with Merriweather about the song is at the 5:45 minute mark, followed by a performance of the song at 8:54.
Two days after her birthday last week, she signed an agreement with the company to give them publishing rights and to be featured in this month’s music catalog. Her piece is also being displayed at the Texas Choral Directors Association in San Antonio this week.
“I’m so pleased to have published Abeni’s first choral arrangement with Carl Fischer Music,” Eaton said. “She is a very talented composer — and I look forward to seeing the success of the piece ‘Hold On Just a Little While Longer’ and future compositions.”
Merriweather said she is still processing what she accomplished as just six years ago, she didn’t know music and music composition would become her passion.
“If someone told me at 14 years old when I was singing that I would end up being a composer, whose piece was published by a major company and doing all these other music things, I would have looked at like, ‘What’s Carl Fisher?’” she said.
After singing “Viva La Vida” by Coldplay during a youth center open microphone session, Merriweather’s interest in singing and music took off.
Now Merriweather said she feels working with music is what she’s supposed to do.
“I think at this point this is what I’m meant to be doing, this is my calling because of how much joy and pride it’s brought me in my life,” she said. “I don’t think music has ever brought me anything unwanted.”
Merriweather’s piece is an arrangement of Black spirituals that date back to the time of legal slavery in America. She said she was inspired to use spirituals after hearing it in a video game.
“I have the core melody that stays throughout and it’s like a slow build up,” Merriweather said. “The sound builds with the chords and this dramatic chord towards the end tapers off in unison. I purposely wanted it to be in unison, because I felt that that was a very important way to end the piece in that you technically start in unison, and you end in unison through everything.”
While the lyrics of her piece are simple, “hold on a little while longer” and “everything will be alright”, Merriweather said it’s the context of those words that adds the emotion.
“I really felt like those particular words were important no matter how simple they were because the message is right there, to just hold on,” she said. “I felt that those words were very important during these times of the (Walmart) shooting, the pandemic and police brutality. The core message of it is that we all have to internally hold on just a little while longer (and) it will be alright.”
Merriweather said she started this piece during her senior year at Andress High School, but took a break until the shooting at the El Paso Walmart on Aug. 3, 2019.
“The only thing I could think about doing at the time was coping through music,” she said. “There was a lot of grief, a lot of pain and anger. There’s only so much I can say, without music.”
She picked it up again during the summer of 2020 after the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
“That was a lot to deal with,” she said. “There (was) so much going on keeping up with the news and the protests. It can be very spiritually damaging.”
On Twitter, Merriweather doesn’t shy away from speaking her mind about her Blackness, racism, politics and other perspectives. But still she says that music does something that her tweets can’t.
“We say the words we want to, but sometimes music, art, expresses things 10 times more than words ever will,” she said. “I can convey, even have the conviction in my voice, about the pain that I feel as a Black woman in America right now. But I can also paint that in songs.”
Although a video game inspired her to use Black spiritual hymns in her arrangement, Merriweather said she always intended to recognize and use the history of the songs.
“From slavery to now, we’ve always used music, not only to cope, but to say something,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that a lot of the time we still sing the same songs from the ’20s, the ’30s, the ’40s, the ’50s to now but I think that’s really where I feel our power comes from. We still sing the same songs because the same things are going on and they still hold the same meaning.”
As a composer for Carl Fischer, other musicians can perform her piece. But she hopes that the message of the song remains intact.
“If they don’t really convey or get the message the song has been lost but it’s not necessarily something I can really dwell over,” she said.
Merriweather said she has provided notes on the song’s meaning for others who choose to perform it. But most importantly she hopes that her presence as a Black woman in music and as a composer helps to pave the way for other Black youth.
“It feels great because growing up until even now, it’s very hard to find Black composers and even more to find Black women composers,” Merriweather said. “I really want more youth in general, but especially Black youth, to realize that if they really feel passionate about pursuing not even just music, but anything creative, that it is possible for it to flourish and for it to be fruitful.”
Jewél Jackson covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.