To speak with Joseph C. Phillips, Jr., and to hear his music, you would imagine an optimistic philosopher, or a student of ancient religious texts. While philosophy and ancient texts are of interest and influence, in truth, this new music composer is more a scholar of feeling – a conduit of emotional imagination, manifested through a set of composed music that is at the same time new as it is familiar.
The compositions of Joseph C. Phillips Jr. and his ensemble Numinous – whose second recording Vipassana was released by Innova recordings in April of 2009 – defies any classic genre definitions. Phillips calls the style, mixed music: organically fusing elements of many different influences into something completely personal, different, and new.
A self-proclaimed “late bloomer” in the composing scene, Phillips is no newcomer to musical accomplishment, starting with his music degrees from the University of Maryland-College Park (later earning a master’s in composition from Stephen F. Austin University). After undergraduate studies Phillips moved to the Pacific Northwest to teach high school music. While leading an award-winning band program, earning an Educator of the Year award from the city of Bellevue, WA near Seattle, Phillips nurtured his growing interest in composing his own music and joined the Seattle Young Composers Collective as a performer and sometimes composer. He was unable, however, to ignore the temptation to do something more with his own music and so moved to New York City to explore his own musical dreams. “I was following my passion,” Phillips says. “I didn’t want to wake up when I’m 60 and regret not at least trying to share what I had to say through composition.”
While in New York in the year 2000, inspired by many other key figures in new music, Phillips formed his own unique ensemble Numinous. A flexible ensemble that is part chamber orchestra, part big band, part contemporary alternative group, Numinous organically fuses elements of contemporary classical, jazz, world, and popular music performance practices and styles. The word numinous refers more to the feeling of awe and wonder that people can experience in many ways, not solely religious, rather than to a literal presence of a god. Phillips wants to be taken on a journey through music – and for him, it’s through its creation. For the listener, it’s a journey outside of themselves, and one that is both familiar and unlike any other they’ve experienced before. In creating something new, he hopes to create a sense of mystery, wonder, and beauty that refreshes and enlightens listeners.
Phillips’s compositional technique is not limited or defined by any one genre but rather it is an amalgamation transmuted into a singular and individual style that has attracted plenty of attention so far. His achievements in composition – over a relatively short period of time, for this composer who started late in his career – have earned him a Meet the Composers Creative Connections grant, an American Music Center CAP grant, two Live Music for Dance commission grants, and was a finalist for the Sundance Institute Film Composers Lab Fellowship In addition to the worldwide performances of his works, including the 2003 Steve Reich Festival at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, Netherlands, new works have been commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) Next Wave Festival, the Kaufman Center and the Ecstatic Music Festival, Simone Dinnerstein and the Neighborhood Classics Concert Series for Face the Music, Dave Douglas and the Festival of New Trumpet Music, the Rhythm in the Kitchen Festival, the St. Olaf College Band, the St. Olaf College Jazz Band, the University of Maryland Wind Ensemble, Edisa Weeks and the Delirious Dance Company, Take Dance Company, Maffei Dance Company, violinist Ana Milosavljevic, and a number of other musicians and ensembles.
Currently Phillips is working on various commissions and projects including compositions for pianist Lara Downes, cellist Gil Selinger, an opera centered around US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, as well as a third Numinous CD, Changing Same planned for eventual release on New Amsterdam Records.