When you think of the first responders who rush to the scene of a shooting, a group of classical musicians is not what most people imagine. This dissonance is purposeful for the Black String Triage Ensemble, a group of Black and Brown musicians who play orchestral music on the scene of tragic events in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Autumn Maria Reed joined the ensemble in 2020, shortly after graduating Berklee Online with her bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies.
“I just hope that the work that I’m doing with the ensemble can shine a light and just say, ‘Hey, we’re not okay with this. This isn’t normal.’ And it’s not normal to play string music on the streets of Milwaukee behind the police ‘no crossing’ tape, but it’s also not normal that there are children that are exposed to gun violence in this country,” she says.
The Black String Triage Ensemble is the subject of a new PBS documentary titled Black Strings, produced by filmmakers Marquise Mays and RJ Smith. The documentary won awards at the Cleveland International Film Festival and Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Film Festival. Reed is featured in the documentary and was also interviewed on the Milwaukee PBS program, Black Nouveau.
The mission of the Black String Triage Ensemble is a personal one for Reed, who has lost multiple friends and family members to gun violence. The opening scene of the documentary quotes a statistic from the Wisconsin Examiner that reads, “From January to July 2020, Milwaukee experienced a 90% increase in homicides and a more than 65% increase in nonfatal shootings, compared with the same seven-month period in 2019.” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel tracks the latest homicide data, which shows that 2021 and 2022 continued to break these already grim records.
“This isn’t some abstract thing where it’s like, ‘Oh, I am just playing, and I don’t know what happened,’” says Reed. “Of course, we don’t know what’s happening at the time until we see the news reports later, but this happens in families. I am with these families. Not only can I empathize with these families, I can sympathize because I’ve experienced this myself.”
Black Strings details how the ensemble gathers in the evenings where they’re on-call, monitoring the Milwaukee County dispatch website. If they see there’s a disturbance or that shots have been fired, they’ll grab their instruments and drive to the scene of the event.
“If there’s no emergency vehicles we just leave because it’s not safe,” says Reed. “But if there are people, ambulances, police, even fire trucks, we set up behind the police tapes—we don’t want to interfere with the service in progress—and we play music that we rehearsed, music written by Black and Brown composers.”
Reed says the ensemble starts with the Frederick Douglass Funeral March by Nathaniel Clark Smith. The repertoire also includes works by artists like Florence Price, Astor Piazzolla, James Weldon Johnson, Billy Strayhorn, and more, including a selection of Negro spirituals. Traditionally, the ensemble prepares six songs that represent the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, with the addition of faith.
One event that stands out in Reed’s mind was an evening where the ensemble showed up on the scene of a shooting and began to play after the coroner had pronounced someone dead when she saw a little girl standing outside. Reed wasn’t sure if the little girl was related to the victim or if she was a neighbor, but she appeared to be about eight or nine years old and was wearing a Rugrats T-shirt.
“I saw myself in that girl because I liked the Rugrats as a kid,” says Reed. “This girl does not need to see something like this. We began to play and I felt like, I’m glad I could be here tonight so that she can hear this.”
In addition to being a member of the Black String Triage Ensemble, Reed is continuing to grow as a composer, producer, and orchestrator. She recently traveled to Brazil to see the Orquestra Sinfônica Teatro Nacional Claudio Santoro with Maestro Cláudio Cohen perform her piece “RESILIENCE.”
Reed is also a substitute music teacher in Waukesha County in Wisconsin. While she says she enjoys working with students, it has made her more aware of the lack of diversity in the suburbs of Milwaukee, and the concentration of people of color closer to the city.
“This isn’t a fluke; This is by design,” she says. “We don’t want to live in a violent community. And then with gun violence and shootings and drug overdoses and unstable housing and lack of access to education and food, it’s just the way it is. And people want to get out, but there’s no pathway.”
Reed says if there’s one thing she wants people to understand about her work, it is this:
“PTSD is very prevalent in many communities, especially marginalized communities. And what can we do in my own community that I’m a member of to mitigate it? The best thing is the same thing that I did for myself growing up: music.”