|Numinous The Music of Joseph C. Phillips Jr.|
The Numinosum Blog
"I don’t know exactly when in those scary, uncertain early days of the pandemic, in March 2020 at 7 pm each evening, the people of New York City started to lean out windows, fill backyards & rooftops, and gather on stoops and streets to cheer essential workers—those that could not stay home because they treated the sick and dying, stocked the grocery store shelves, or still drove the buses and subway trains so that the city (and the lives of others) could continue, even if only partially.
Most evenings our family would come outside on our stoop and we clapped, cheered, and gave thanks along with everyone else. After the cheering faded everyone would disappear back inside. As the weeks went on however, after the 7 pm cheering, we would stay outside with our neighbors on the stoop rather than return inside. Spread out among two adjoining stoops, we talked, laughed, and shared stories and wine. And evening by evening, the news of growing social justice protests against systemic injustice mingled with our own more mundane individual realities; and story by story, our worries and fears during the pandemic began to lessen as we found true connections with friends. And in doing so, together, we all undisappeared."
This is the background for my new composition “The Undisappeared,” words & music by me and commissioned by the multiple Grammy nominated choir The Crossing and conductor Donald Nally for their new project Carols after a Plague. They commissioned twelve new carols from composers Leila Adu, Vanessa Lann, Alex Berko, Edith Canat de Chizy, Samantha Fernando, Mary Jane Leach, Shara Nova, Joseph C Phillips Jr (me!), Nina Shekar, Tyshawn Sorey, Eric Whitacre, LJ White; and there are three chances this month to catch Carols after a Plague (click on links for tickets):
WASHINGTON DC/MARYLAND/NORTHERN VIRGINIA
December 12th @ 3pm
Dekelboum Concert Hall, College Park, MD
December 17th @ 7pm
Zellerbach Theatre, Annenberg Center @ UPenn
December 19th @ 5pm
Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill
(The performance on the 19th features a pre-talk and post-concert reception with the composers)
And stay tuned for more information about the recording releasing in 2022!
📸: by me; friends on our and our neighbor’s stoops June 12, 2020
The Grey Land has been submitted in the first round of voting for the Grammy Awards!
Any NARAS voting members, please consider in your voting for the 64th GRAMMY® award nominations:
The Grey Land
--Best Opera Recording
--Best Contemporary Classical Composition
--Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance
Rebecca L Hargrove, soprano
Kenneth Browning, narrator
Joseph C Phillips Jr, composer, conductor
“Joseph C. Phillips Jr.’s The Grey Land is a stirring, stylistically varied mono-opera that
draws on its composer’s reflections on being Black in contemporary America.
— Seth Colter Walls, The New York Times "The 25 Best Classical Music Tracks of 2020"
"Mr. Phillips can be heard rendering these varied cultural signals into a heterogenous work of art — but one that has a coherence the world often lacks."
— Seth Colter Walls, The New York Times, "In the Wake of Ferguson, a Style-Blurring Album"
"The Grey Land...[Joseph C Phillips Jr's] most ambitious, and possibly most important work yet."
— John Schaefer, New Sounds, "Top 10 of 2020" (#4)
"That the album arrives at yet another flashpoint in U.S. history elevates The Grey Land
from a breakthrough piece to a necessary statement."
— Steve Smith, Night After Night
"Phillips conveys the sorrow, agony, rage and sheer exhaustion of the struggle
while at the same time radiating a shared strength, beauty, and determination."
— Steph Power, BBC Music Magazine (4 out of 5 stars)
For more press about The Grey Land, go here.
For more information about The Grey Land go here
The summer of 2020 I held my first-ever online fundraiser, in order to help complete the recording of my opera The Grey Land. Yes, I know it was a hell of a time—global pandemic, constant assaults on democracy and ideals of the country, wide-spread protest against racial injustice, and the backlash it engendered—and while I only received one-third of my goal, it was enough, along with my own funds, to help me finish the recording’s production, which is set to be released on November 20 on New Amsterdam Records. One of the perks I offered in exchange for donations was “Numinous will play YOUR Large Ensemble Composition!” I founded Numinous 20 years ago with the express purpose of performing my music—because at the time of the founding, I was not going to wait for someone to express interest in my music or to beg some ensemble to please play my music, I was going to take matters into my own hands! So this young Black American composer, who leans toward contemporary "classical music/new music," founded his own large chamber orchestra, and through hard work, little institutional support but some good fortune and luck, Numinous has performed exclusively my music since the year 2000 (except for when we performed my music alongside that of composer Imani Uzuri as a part of the 2013 Ecstatic Music Festival).
An individual artist-run, independent large ensemble is difficult to organize, manage and fund but I have been able to keep Numinous going for these 20 years (really, what choice do I have to consistently have my own music performed?)! So in preparing the "Numinous plays your Large Ensemble composition" perk with the donors, I began to think about how wonderful it would be if, as a young composer I had had an opportunity to write for a large ensemble. In particular, what would it have meant as a composer who is Black to have that kind of opportunity, which is hard for most composers to achieve anyway, let alone someone who is just starting out or someone with the talent but doesn’t have the connections or chance. As a university undergraduate I asked my band director (and also my conducting teacher) if the wind ensemble could read through my very first band piece. And they did! I lived off of my recording of that reading session, imperfect as it was, for years; I learned so much from hearing my first large ensemble work being played. Later that same year I asked the university community orchestra director if they could read my first string orchestra piece. And they did! And again, I learned so much from the experience. Over the years it hasn’t been easy, but I have been lucky (and stubborn) with making my own opportunities to have my music heard and to find my own voice, which in turn has lead to other opportunities. So while Numinous will always be primarily a vehicle for my compositions, I started thinking of finding a way to give back, to pay it forward—and the Numinous Initiative came to my mind.
Through the Numinous Initiative, my ensemble Numinous will perform the large ensemble composition of six (6) Black, African-American, Black mixed composers that I will choose. I’ll be looking for composers who have a defined and/or intriguing compositional voice/perspective (even if not quite developed or fully achieved yet); music that can possibly fit Numinous stylistically, although I’m not really looking for anything that sounds like what I’d write for Numinous—I want to hear YOU; music that can possibly be realized with a couple of rehearsals—anything overly complex or requiring a lot of rehearsals in order to perform won’t be possible); I’ll also be looking for a program that would be interesting and varied. If chosen you will provide clear and legible PDF scores and parts from one of the standard computer notation products (if you are the high-school student or younger I can help you, if you don’t have experience in formatting scores & parts).
The goal of the first Numinous Initiative performance will hopefully involve:
· One high school aged student or younger composer
· One current or recently graduated undergraduate college or university student composer
· Four other composers, any age;
with a DEADLINE to apply of DECEMBER 20, 2020. I will choose composers and inform all applicants of the results by the beginning of February 2021.
The performance will take place somewhere in New York City and with all of the unknowns about performances my best guess is that it will be sometime in 2022. The instrumentation will be the ensemble I used for Changing Same, with an additional keyboard—21 musicians. While this is not a commission (at least for now), all of the expenses and logistics of organizing the ensemble, rehearsals, and concert, including a recording of the performance, will be taken care of by myself. While it would be wonderful for you to compose a new piece for Numinous to perform, if chosen I’m open to you orchestrating one of your existing works for the Numinous instrumentation, particularly if it’s never been performed before. Whether existing or newly composed it should be between 5-12 minutes long, with 7-10 minutes being ideal.
To apply send an email to [ classicallyblack @ numinousmusic.com ] with the subject line reading:
Numinous Initiative_[Your Name]. Include the following in the email:
· Email address
· Where you live (city, state, and/or country)
· Website address (if you don’t have a website, send a short bio with a photo; if you have a website I don’t need a bio or photo)
· Note, according to your status/age, if you are applying as “HS or younger” or “College” or “Other”
· TWO (2) Audio and/or Video Links of your compositions that you feel are your strongest (website, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, YouTube, Vimeo, DropBox links--DO NOT email me the files); solo, chamber, large ensemble, orchestra, whatever you feel are some of your best work. If the piece is longer than 10 minutes, please include a note about where to start to listen. If any of the compositions you link are ones you are considering for Numinous to perform, please note that. The audio can be live performance, recording, or MIDI/computer realization.
· TWO (2) PDF scores of above links are optional. If your audio/video file is MIDI, then also include a score; if it’s a live performance, score is optional. If you send scores please make them TRANSPOSED SCORES.
Again DEADLINE for me to receive any application is by the end of the day DECEMBER 20, 2020.
If you’ve never heard Numinous then I suggest going to numinous.bandcamp.com and you can listen to some of our albums, in particular Changing Same or Vipassana; you can also visit my website www.numinousmusic.com to listen to some of the compositions I’ve written. But of course what I do with Numinous may not be what you do so don’t limit yourself!
Since this is new I don’t know exactly what to expect. But I hope, if this is successful, to continue the Initiative in future years and maybe expanding it to a different and wider range of composers. But for now, I encourage any Black, African-American, Black mixed composers, just starting out or established, of any gender to apply; and I look forward to listening to your music!
Of the many concerts I've done, the only poster that hangs in my home is the one from Interlake High School--not Carnegie. It's signed by all those wonderful musicians who taught me lessons about music--about the magic we can create with openness, optimism, desire, enthusiasm, and love.
It's so hard to believe that twenty years has passed since that May 22, 1997 evening, where Maria Schneider and the Interlake High School Jazz Ensemble gave a rousing performance which culminated a week of inspiration and joy that affected the student's lives but also that changed their band director's life (one of these days I'll get around to digitizing the tape of the performance and post it). It really is hard to overstate - everything that has happened to me since, started with that one week. Moving to New York, starting Numinous (even one future Numinous member Carmen Staaf, who was a 10th grader at another school, came to the concert), all of the musical compositions and experiences while here, teaching at PS 321 in Brooklyn, my family, and all of the friends and students I've met. Everything was because I asked Maria- in a really in a spontaneous moment-if she would come to our school to do a clinic and concert. Now of course my life would have been completely different had I chose a different path after that concert (I was debating between moving to New York City or going to graduate school in composition-was accepted at Northwestern, so who knows, I could have met a certain Illinois State Senator while in Chicago and maybe ended up in DC); but I'm thankful that I chose New York City and that my life worked out the way it did and it's all because of Maria and that one week in May 1997!
20 years ago tonight, a special event in my life and the lives of the many students I used to teach at Interlake High School in Bellevue, Washington occurred and I wanted to share a bit of that incredible experience with you.
Let's set the scene: I began the 1995-96 school at Interlake with high hopes, coming off one of the most successful years in the program since I began teaching. That summer of 1995, during my drive to and from Montezuma, New Mexico for International Baccalaureate training, I began thinking about what interesting music to program for the students that upcoming year. For all of my ensembles, I was always interested in performing non-standard repertoire. Sure, at times we played Holst and Grainger in the wind ensemble or Ellington, Basie, Thad in the jazz ensemble, but the preponderance of great high school bands doing the standard literature (groups such as the Garfield and Roosevelt High Schools of Seattle, which are perennial winners at the Jazz at Lincoln Center Essential Ellington contest--the contest didn't include West Coast schools until 1999, after I had left Interlake for NYC) made my contrarian heart bristle to find something else. The more years I taught, the more this feeling became prominent and the repertoire we performed reflected the move away from the typical standards. And the students were totally into it and that non-conformist attitude helped to establish our own identity. So I was looking for something out of the ordinary, something 'different' to perform. For the jazz ensemble, that feeling lead me to remember that wonderful music I heard the University of Oregon Jazz Ensemble under the direction of Steve Owen perform a few years before at the 1992 All-Northwest Music educators convention in Portland, Oregon. This is how I came to know the name Maria Schneider for the first time and come in contact with her music. The UO Jazz Ensemble, along with the many pieces they performed that afternoon by other composers (which I don't remember), performed Maria's "Dance You Monster to My Soft Song" and "Last Season" (which I remember quite well). I had never heard anything quite like it before. While clearly coming from the jazz tradition, it was somehow speaking another dialect; already my proto-mixed music heart could 'feel' the connection to other genres in those two pieces and I filed Maria's name away as 'music-I'd-like-to-play someday.'
So after my IB training session, it came time for my annual summer repertoire hunt for the upcoming year and I remembered Maria's name and went a-looking for the sheet music for "Dance You Monster..." and "Last Season". Once I found out her publisher was Kendor, I called (email was a distant horizon then) and found out that those pieces were not published. The person I spoke with suggested I write a letter to Maria, which they would forward, asking if it was possible to purchase those pieces. I wrote the letter, sent it off, and waited. I don't remember how long of a wait I had (maybe a month or two) when one, nondescript morning the phone rang in my music office. And little did I know when I picked up that phone, that the person on the other side of the line, was about to change the trajectory of my life.
Maria herself called me to say that yes, she had gotten the letter and the request and that, yes, those pieces were available for purchase. She told me how much and I said we'd like to buy them. Then, while we were still talking, basically on a whim, I asked her if she does clinics/workshops for high school bands. She said she did and we discussed what that would entail, including how much it would cost. Even though I had little idea how I was going to get the money, I said let's do it. Over the next few weeks we discussed logistics and throughout that 1995-1996 school year, I began work toward Maria's residency and concert set for May 20-22, 1997: got the students and band parents excited about Maria coming and involved in trying to raise money; found a cool, classic venue in downtown Seattle; planned and worked on an advertising campaign including a poster design; decided on repertoire for concert and ordered the scores and parts; and so many other details, both small and large. I personally called or visited MANY local businesses about sponsorships to help us bring Maria out. And you know the response I received? From almost every single place I contacted, a resounding NO, not interested! Don't they know this is a GREAT opportunity! It's MARIA SCHNEIDER! Although this was years away from her Grammy wins and generally universal acclaim in the jazz world, she was not unknown. From her first two albums (to that date) to her work with Gil Evans, she was beginning to make a name for herself. So certainly Bill Gates and the Microsoft Empire, who were just about two miles from our campus, could drop a little pocket change our way to help out! Starbucks? Hello, I know you were just starting your national dominion back then, but could you spare a dime...or 100,000 dimes? Even Earshot Jazz, Seattle's premier jazz organization, which one would think would want to be involved in bringing Maria Schneider out to the Pacific Northwest for her very FIRST performance in Seattle, had no interest.
How was this residency going to be pulled off if we couldn't pay for it and no one wanted to help us? That would be highly embarrassing and unprofessional to call Maria and say we can't do the residency after all. It was starting to look more and more discouraging. I guess all of the rejections were just foreshadowing for my future life in New York City, where resiliency, determination, and hope is often necessary in the face of 'no, not interested' or the more annoying, ignore-and-hope-they-go-away-if-there-is-no-response-at-all. C'mon, is it really that hard to answer back? Back then is where I learned about turning rejection into a DIY ethos and spirit that says 'you aren't going to stop me from achieving what I want to achieve!' But I'm digressing. So anyway, things were not looking good by the end of that 1995-1996 school year. In addition to all of the disappointment putting together the residency and concert, I had one of the most stressful and least productive teaching years since I started: our jazz band, which had previously won numerous awards from various festivals, struggled mightily amidst internal strife and the loss of senior leadership; the Wind Ensemble and Concert bands were unfocused and inconsistent when a planned East Coast trip was canceled because of parental divisions and concerns. Despite my winning Educator of Year award from the city in the spring of 1996, I felt the program was at one of the lowest ebbs since I got there. Like many teachers, the opportunity to start a new year fresh, to learn from previous difficulties and hardships and improve one's self as well as one's students, is one of the most appealing aspects to teaching. So when the 1996-1997 school year began, I was ready to dig in and work hard to achieve my goals that year; and one of the most pressing, were the plans to bring Maria Schneider to Bellevue that upcoming spring.
After the difficulties of the previous year, things were looking up for the Interlake High School band as the 1996-1997 school year began. As band director and music department chair (and newly starting that year for the school, International Baccalaureate Music teacher) I was organizing and spearheading the plans to take the entire music department to Los Angeles that spring break and unlike the failure of a planned East Coast tour the previous school year, this trip had wide support and was something almost everyone was looking forward to. With the jazz ensemble, we were planning to record our third CD that spring and of course, knowing that Maria Schneider was coming that May for a three-day residency and concert, everyone seemed to have renewed drive and effort. Even the monumental details associated with Maria's visit, which were looking bleak at the end of the 1995-1996 school year, were starting to coalesce into something that seemed possible.
As I mentioned in Part 1, I wrote MANY letters to local businesses looking for sponsorship for Maria's visit and the initial response was underwhelming to say the least. Well now that the residency and concert were mere months away, things were starting to look up. While still not getting many positive responses to my requests, I was starting to get some help: the Bellevue Sheraton donated a room for Maria's stay; the local media were slowly opening up (I was able to go on KOMO TV Channel 4's Northwest Afternoon to record a spot promoting the concert and the Seattle Times was planning to send out a reporter and photographer for a story discussing the residency); the music parents were doing a good job of getting volunteers to work during and after the concert. Luckily the lobbying I did the previous school year helped to strengthen our band budget so that I was able to use some of it to pay for the design and production of the posters, for the parts and scores for the concert, as well as Maria's appearance fee and plane ticket (because I wanted Maria to fly first-class, since I thought that would be something she would enjoy (and something in my naiveté I thought she'd expect-we had a good laugh later about that one) one band parent donated airline miles so that I could upgrade her ticket so she could).
So as the year progressed, things were shaping up nicely for the residency. I had chosen an ambitious, difficult but achievable program for the concert: a number of Maria's pieces from her two albums at the time, Evanescence and Coming About, along with works by Duke Ellington, Thad Jones, Miles and Gil, among others. And the band was working extra hard to make the music sound fantastic. Unlike the previous year, the jazz ensemble (as was every ensemble that year, as a matter of fact) was extremely focused and dedicated. A number of years before, I had set-up a sectional system by which every section leader in every ensemble (jazz, wind ensemble, concert band) was required to hold a certain amount of sectionals per quarter. Almost all of them were held during the student's lunch time (by choice) and while I was always available to help (I didn't really eat during my lunch time as students were all over my office and practice rooms sectionalizing and I was all over the place helping), this was strictly lead and run by the students. They decided what needed work, they decided how much time to give to what, they decided how much to hold accountable their section mates. And for the jazz ensemble leading up to the residency, people were doing extra sectionals on their own. Now I was never a Vince Lombardi-type, yelling and instilling fear in the students in order to get them to perform (although I did have my moments, as any of them could tell you), but rather a John Wooden-type motivator: encouraging the students but also not afraid to say when they were honestly disappointing me (and themselves) by not working as hard as they could. I cajoled and impressed upon them that they needed a certain amount of pride within themselves to give their best in order to achieve their best. I was working hard and I expected them too as well. And for this concert, I stressed that there would be no excuses come May 20th when Maria came through those band room doors for the first rehearsal. And you know what? Because I expected high standards, they expected high standards for themselves and rose to the challenge! Here's a story to show you how hard those students worked: when in those final few weeks before the residency I wanted to schedule an extra rehearsal beyond our usual 6:30 a.m. class and no time seemed to work because the students were so busy after school with sports or studying or work, we all settled on an extra rehearsal from 5:00 a.m. (!) to 7:30 a.m. one morning! Yes, 5:00 a.m.!!! And EVERYONE was there...on time! All of this hard work was ultimately rewarded, as throughout the year the jazz ensemble won, or were finalists in, every festival we entered. Although winning festivals was always secondary in my mind to how the students performed relative to their potential and effort, having concrete results certainly helped validate for themselves that their sacrifices and hard work were leading them on the right path for success.
So that spring after we went into the studio to record the third Interlake Jazz CD during my tenure as well as a fun successful music department trip to Los Angeles, we were just weeks before Maria's visit and all of the last minute details were set: Maria and I were faxing and/or calling back and forth, making sure of her schedule while she was in Seattle; the students were sounding great and were excited and anxious about Maria's visit (as was I); the music parents, as was the school, were all mobilized; the posters and advertising were all done; all of the financial aspects were taken care of; I had delivered to Maria's hotel room, the gift basket filled with typically Pacific Northwest-ness from the music parents; the gift we were going to give her at the concert was ordered and ready; my car was washed and cleaned for my "Driving Miss Schneider" chauffeur's role of shuttling her to and from her hotel to the rehearsals at the school and the concert in Seattle. So we were ready! The afternoon of May 20th, 1997 I went to Sea-Tac Airport to pick Maria up from her flight. Since you could go to the gate to wait for someone back then, I was there as she came off the plane and at that moment the theoreticalness of her visit, of that seemly long-ago letter I wrote to her and our conversation about coming to Seattle, was brought to life.
When she arrived at Interlake that evening for the first rehearsal, the students were so thrilled. They had welcomed her with a giant banner across the front of the band room. I could also tell they were nervous about what Maria would be like, but from the moment she stepped in front of the band, from the first sounds they made in front of her, from the great smile of approval she gave them, they were at ease. Of course it helped that Maria was so welcoming and easy going, yet firm and confident in what she wanted from them. They were prepared at a high level before Maria came, but having her there, she was able to offer them a level of guidance, insight, and experience into her music that I did not possess. This led the students to go beyond what they had already achieved with the music before she came. Often the difference was subtle, but the result was not. Even small suggestions about how to play a certain phrase or what the feeling of a particular section should convey, would led to a real understanding of the music. It was a masterclass (and a pleasure) for me to watch her work up so close with the students and to see what they gained by having her in front of them. And she wasn't just a passive participant; during the breaks, she was in the trenches helping to make the students successful: she would talk with a student about how to make something they were doing a bit better; she would demonstrate a particular voicing on the piano; she would offer advice on a way to approach a technical issue. At the end of the evening everyone was exhausted but also exhilarated about the rehearsal. Not wanting to subject Maria to our usual 6:30 a.m. class time, the next day's rehearsal was scheduled for the afternoon, starting during the time I usually had Wind Ensemble and extending almost until the end of school. By doing this, it was effectively an open rehearsal since all of the Wind Ensemble students and anyone else that wanted to attend was there. Again, Maria and students were working at such a high level, and while it wasn't all serious (some of my more gregarious boys were obviously flirting with her during some of the downtime), by the end of the rehearsal, I could see that it was shaping up to be an influential experience-of-a-lifetime for the students of Interlake and that the concert the next evening might be something incredible.
The Interlake Jazz Ensemble concert with Maria Schneider was Thursday May 22, 1997 at the Nippon Kan Theatre in Seattle. Here's what we played that night:
See the World by Pat Metheny (arranged by Bob Curnow)
Beija-Flor by Nelson Cavagvinho, Noel Silva, and Augusto Tomaz Jr. (arranged by Gil Cray)
Bird Count by Maria Schneider
Last Season by Maria Schneider
Miles Ahead by Miles Davis and Gil Evans (arranged by Gil Evans)
Interlude by Toshiko Akiyoshi
Dance You Monster to My Soft Song by Maria Schneider
Conspiracy Theory by Mike Tomaro
Groove Merchant by Jerome Richardson (arranged by Thad Jones)
Love Theme from "Spartacus" by Alex North (arranged by Maria Schneider)
Amad from The Far East Suite by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn
Mount Harissa from The Far East Suite by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn
Jubliee Stomp by Duke Ellington
The Peacocks by Jimmy Rowles (arranged by Bill Holman)
Moanin' by Charles Mingus (arranged by Sy Johnson)
Except for conducting See the World and Conspiracy Theory at the beginning of each set as well as playing the tenor sax solo for Love Theme from "Spartacus" and some scat singing during Moanin', I was able to have the rare opportunity to just sit back and listen backstage. And what a concert! To say that the concert and residency was a success was an understatement. Here is what Maria said about the entire experience during her 1999 Commencement Address at her alma mater, the Eastman School of Music (recalled in the September 1999 (now defunct) Jazz Educators Journal):
I was invited to be a clinician at a school in [Seattle]. They requested specific pieces of mine that they wished to perform--some of my more difficult music, but I sent it.
The day before leaving for Seattle, I became aware that I was going to a high school--not even an arts high school, just a regular high school--playing some of my hardest music. I was trying to finish a commission for the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra and was preparing a new CD. This was "crunch time," and I couldn't believe I was putting all my high priorities on the back burner in exchange for several days of probable torture.
Then at the airport, I became aware that a parent had donated [their] frequent-flyer miles to fly me first class. At the hotel, another parent had prepared an elaborate basket of items for my stay. At the school, the students had made a huge banner welcoming me. And at the first rehearsal, those students were so serious, so excited to work with the composer of their music, that they completely swept me up. I decided I would get that music happening if it killed me. I was on a mission and made those kids work as hard as professionals--probably harder.
When we went on stage, it was with such an elevated energy: the audience was filled with parents and friends with so much pride. And the performance! It was so relaxed--so pure--so musical--so divine. Everything truly essential to my music was there. I had waves of chills. I couldn't believe it, but those kids made me cry.
Of the many concerts I've done, the only poster that hangs in my home is the one from Interlake High School--not Carnegie. It's signed by all those wonderful musicians who taught me lessons about music--about the magic we can create with openness, optimism, desire, enthusiasm, and love.
Now of course we worked VERY hard before Maria's visit as I mentioned in Part 2. But when she was there, it was another level; for the students to have the person that wrote the incredible sounds we had been playing for months, standing in front of them, truly brought things into focus. I remember specifically rehearsing Dance You Monster to My Soft Song and while I had the kids humming along in 5th gear, when Maria came, with her experience and insider knowledge, they were kicked into that 6th gear I didn't know they had! She worked with musicians guiding them toward an understanding of her music that was wonderful to hear and see. Certainly from a purely technical standpoint the performance that night was not technically perfect. Don't get me wrong, the students played great that night, incredible in fact, but to say every single 'i' was dotted and every 't' crossed would be false. However from a MUSICAL vantage, there was in abundance, an aliveness and a magical, honest musicality which is the hallmark of any great performance and this Maria put well in her Eastman address about what made the concert so wonderful and special.
After the concert two professional Seattle musicians, who I didn't know at the time, came up to me and congratulated me on the wonderful performance and for pulling off such a great event. One, Geoff Ogle (a wonderful composer, arranger, and educator who became a good friend), asked me, "This [concert] is something that the University of Washington Jazz Ensemble should be doing, how did you get Maria to come out?" I had a little chuckle and looked him in the eye and stated simply, "I asked."
The residency had a great effect on the students that spilled over into the next award-winning school year where in the jazz ensemble we played Maria's Wyrgly and Coming About, in addition to my first-ever arrangements for jazz.
However, Maria's visit really had a profound effect on me. Before the visit I wasn't clear what direction I wanted to take musically or professionally. At the time, I had no plans to leave Interlake. However, the inklings of my departure were certainly already foreshadowed: I had joined the Seattle Young Composers Collective (now the Degenerate Art Ensemble) under the direction of composer/conductor Joshua Kohl only 6 months before Maria's visit and this avant-garde group lead to my meeting and playing along with some great Seattle players (Craig Flory, Amy Denio, Jessica Lurie) and also renewed my interest in composing. But it really was through learning Maria's music from the inside, from watching her work with the students and the incredible passion she brought to working on her music, and just talking with her in those quiet moments we weren't rehearsing, where I said to myself, 'that's what I'd like to do.' And I vowed after her visit to work with more dedication and alacrity on my own music and to find my own sound and voice. Now I never considered (or consider) myself a jazz composer nor did I ever want my music to sound like Maria's nor did I ever see my musical path mirroring her's (while she is generally embraced in the jazz world, I knew even then (in my acute metacognition) that my broad interests and nascent mixed music inclinations, would happily never lead me to be a card-carrying member of the jazz world or the standard classical one as well; this stylistic homelessness and cosmopolitanism, so to speak, has been subsequently borne out over the years here in NYC). But here's what I said about Maria's influence on me in an interview a few years ago:
"...what Maria's music did for me was the same as what John Cage's philosophical musical thought did to many other composers: give me a sense of the possible and a confidence to follow my own musical direction. "
And I can honestly say I probably wouldn't be in New York composing, if it wasn't for Maria. And if I wasn't in New York I wouldn't have met my wife, I probably wouldn't have met all of the wonderful musicians that make my music sound fantastic with my group Numinous, and I wouldn't have found my voice without all of those experiences my NYC years have afforded me. Frankly, I don't know what my life would have been like if she didn't say 'yes' to coming out to Interlake those long years ago. I sometimes wonder if I would have been a Mr. Holland-type lifer at Interlake or would I have found another outlet for my composing and still left teaching anyway? I know for certain that all of the babies I have had since moving to New York would never have been born (now, we are talking musical pieces here, I don't have any baby-mama drama in my life!).
Maria and I have been friends ever since that time and we've talked on a number of occasions about that night and that residency and how special it was for the students, for her, and for me. On this anniversary of that concert, I wanted to share how one seemly small serendipitous experience can have a marked effect on the rest of one's life; how some lessons learned from that wonderful moment (perseverance, the courage to just ask, the true beauty of openness and honesty in the moment) can be monumental. One thing that being a teacher has taught me is that you can never really know how something that you do or say will affect a student years later. I'm sure Maria didn't know that visiting Interlake High School in May of 1997, would influence and touch so many lives and that (now) 20 years later one of those lives would be still be thanking her.
Maria Schneider, Interlake High School, and Me
Part one: The beginning
Part two: Things are starting to look up (Preparation and Organizing)
Part three: The concert and its legacy
I had been to Rio de Janeiro before but never made it up to Corcovado. Having been to both of the peaks of the nearby Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain) and enjoyed some incredibly dynamic and stunning views (including seeing Cristo Redentor from a distance), I just didn't feel any urgency about visiting "the statue" itself. When we found ourselves in Rio again, shortly before the 2016 Olympics, there still wasn't an urgency and it was only when some friends decided they were going to Christo that we decided to tag along.
I'm not sure why I resisted going in the first place, because it was a wonderful experience and well worth it. The ride up Corcovado in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is full of twists and turns and offers tantalizing peeks of beautiful scenery behind and through foliage, before reaching the peak where the famous Cristo Redentor statue stands sentinel over the city, where even more breathtaking unobstructed vistas awaited; Climb is inspired by that journey, and not the destination.
Climb was commissioned by the 2016-2017 Fieldston 7th Grade Band, Riverdale, New York, Mark Attebery, director and will premiere this Monday, May 22nd, 2017 at the Fieldston School in Riverdale, New York.
With the ending of these past eight years, today I will look back to the beginning-to remember a day when hope and possibility in America reached an apotheosis. While those hopes and possibilities were ultimately unfulfilled and unrealized, they are now, in the great dark winter to come, the fuel to resist the cold nights, to stand united in the fires of injustice, intolerance, and ignorance demanding that the great American experiment not end today, but be made to finally uphold those exceptional values and ideals inscribed in its fabric, for EVERYONE.
“…we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for our children and our grandchildren.” – Barack Obama, “Speech on Race” in Philadelphia, March 18, 2008
My project The Grey Land recently received a Jerome Foundation grant for New Music (along with my friend Asuka Kakitani!). Right now I'm doing my J.J. Abrams The Force Awakens mystery thing, so won't be delivering too much details about the "plot" of the "opera" project just yet, but I can say that I've found my soprano: Arielle Armstrong (now Arielle Bennett). I'm really excited to work with Arielle, she has an wonderful voice and her philosophy in music meshes perfectly with the goals of The Grey Land so I'm looking forward to writing specifically for her and her voice in the next few months. Here's a profile of Arielle from a few years ago, to give a little taste of her voice and talent:
It's gonna be a beautiful project! Check back for more details on The Grey Land.
Photo from Ezra Edelman documentary OJ: Made in America (ESPN Films)
“…what with the conventions, the exhibition of candidates, the dubious state of this particular and perhaps increasingly dubious union…There is a carefully muffled pain and pain in the nation, which neither candidate, neither party, can coherently address, being, themselves, but vivid symptoms of it.”
—James Baldwin, “How One Black Man Came To Be an American: A Review of ‘Roots’.” New York Times Review of Books, September 26, 1976.
“I’m not black. I’m OJ.”
—OJ Simpson, Ezra Edelman. OJ: Made in America. Episode 1 (28:58). ESPN Films. 2016.
On December 1, Van Magazine published an article I wrote Flattened Multiplicities: On Musical Genre and Personal Identity. Since the article didn't have links to the source material for most of the quotes I used, I wanted to give anyone who is interested, an easy way to check them out. In order of their appearance in the article:
“judged not by the color of my skin...":
-OJ: Made in America. Episode 1 (29:17). ESPN Films. 2016.
“adamant about not being labeled ‘black’ artists..."
-Thelma Golden, Freestyle
“have always grown up listening to, enjoying, and playing all types of music: rock, funk, South Indian classical, or bluegrass, as well as art music."
-Joseph C. Phillips Jr., masters thesis, “The Music Composition Miscēre, The Historicity Of Mixed Music And New Amsterdam Records In The Contemporary New York City Mixed Music Scene.” Pages 125 & 126. 2011.
“ ‘David, this is the Civil War!..."
-Steven Thrasher, “Q&A: Philip Glass On Black Music And African-American History.” The Village Voice, February 7, 2012.
“It seems that in certain parts of our culture..."
-Jeffrey Mumford, “Who’s in the Club?” NewMusicBox, November 23, 2016.
“for not reaching its potential don’t have any less belief that it’s possible..."
-Joseph C. Phillips Jr., “Never Has Been Yet.” The Numinosum blog, October 18, 2016.
“The canon is so overwhelmingly white and male..."
"Andrew Norman Wins The Grawemeyer Award for Music." NPR, November 28, 2016.
“[Black people’s] hope is tempered by a deep awareness of how thin is the veneer of white civility..."
-Tressie McMillan Cottom, “Finding Hope in a Loveless Place.” Tressiemc blog, November 27, 2016.
“You may be at the top house in Beverly Hills..."
-Rev. Cecil Murray, First AME church, quote.
Ezra Edelman. OJ: Made in America. Episode 3 (1:32:24). 2016
O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
-excerpt from "Let America Be America Again" by Langston Hughes
Pianist Lara Downes contacted me in the fall of 2015 and asked if I had a piano piece that would fit in with the concept for her next recording. I told her that my previously composed piano pieces did not but that I’d be happy to write a piece for her. Now Lara and I have known each other for a number of years, ever since she contacted me—unsolicited, no less—to say she had admired my music and ensemble Numinous (hey performers and organizations, it’s ALWAYS a good idea when you reach out to acknowledge and appreciate someone’s work, even when you have no immediate opportunity to give them or don’t even know them personally); in fact, before she contacted me, she was already on MY radar when I was struck by her recording 13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg (Tritone Records, 2011) and I had been following her career since then. Last fall Lara mentioned that her new recording would be called America Again and inspired by the 1938 Langston Hughes poem “Let America Be America Again”. As Lara writes:
Today, as I write these words, we are living again in troubled times. For too many Americans, circumstance and skin color still keep the promise out of reach, the dream deferred. The hard-won rights and long-sought justice for which our parents and grandparents fought are too easily slipping away. The rifts and rivalries that divide us as a nation seem to run deeper than ever. But still, we dreamers keep dreaming our dream. This music is a tribute to the generations of Americans who dream the impossible: black and white, men and women, immigrants and pioneers. It tells the story of their journeys, their loves and longings, their hardships and their hopes. American music is made of everything we are, coming from so many different people and places, expressing so many different dreams.
She asked if I knew of the poem and would I write her new piece based directly on the words, with the possibility of using some audio of recitation of the poem to accompany the music. Getting to work shortly after agreeing, the first step was to reread the poem—I had first read the poem as an undergraduate—and after revisiting Langston’s words I was immediately confounded that 78 years later it STILL represents a particular ambivalence that some Americans have (and always had) for America. As I wrote to Lara updating her on the composing of the piece:
First, the title is “Never Has Been Yet” and obviously comes from a line in the poem. [Johannes] Brahms and in particular his Intermezzo Op. 118 no 2 was part of the musical inspiration for the piece (although it doesn't sound or feel like the Brahms Intermezzo). The standard dichotomy of Brahms as a Classicist as well as a Romantic is used as a metaphor for how Langston's poem balances the love of America and the hope that it will fulfill its promise someday, with the fact that America is far from fulfilling that promise to many. This fact does not make those of us critical of America not reaching its potential have any less belief that it's possible, despite the long history to the contrary. In particular those of us brown and black faces who often have the most reason to distrust or believe, often are the ones that continue to cling to the fervent hope that one day, that promise could fully include them/us as well. Emotionally in developing the music I focused on the line “Let it be that great strong land of love” as a way to show our hope and belief in America's ideals, however, the music is also tinged (I think) a bit with quiet sadness, resignedness, tension, and unfulfilledness as well (“America never was America to me”).
A quick preview from Lara performing an excerpt from "Never Has Been Yet"
© 2016 Numen Music/BMI All Rights Reserved
One might give a little side eye in my connecting a German #DWG (‘dead white guy’) with the very much living #BLM struggles of people of color in America, but those roiling contradictions and paradoxes within Brahms are within us all and is mirrored so beautifully in many of his late introspective compositions such as the Opus 118 set. And like Brahms (“He was a classicizing Romantic, a loner who was a creature of the musical mainstream, a backward-looking artist who anticipated and inspired the future of music. Brahms scorned women and loved them and fled from them, but inescapably needed them.”) people of color often possess a similar divided nature about inclusiveness and opportunity within the American system (“I have found…no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my White professors and classmates try to be towards me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don’t belong. Regardless of the circumstances under which I interact with Whites…it often seems as if, to them, I will always be Black first and a student second”).
A few years earlier I had already trotted in similar duality between the great American theory and its uncomfortable actualization with my composition “Dreams of Wonders Undreamt” from my collaboration with choreographer Edisa Weeks, To Begin the World Over Again. “Dreams” featured the words of Thomas Paine in counterpoint with those of John Winthrop’s famous ‘city upon the hill’ sermon and Nicholas Black Elk’s powerful words on the massacre at Wounded Knee ("Now that I can see it all as from a lonely hilltop, I know it was the story of a mighty vision given to a man too weak to use it; of a holy tree that should have flourished in a people's heart with flowers and singing birds, and now is withered; and of a people's dream that died in bloody snow"). I often described to Edisa that I thought of “Dreams” as a ‘love song to the idea of the promise of America’. In many ways “Dreams” is the abstract, general dissonance between that love and disappointment while “Never Has Been Yet” is inspired by the very specific quantum-like state of occupying “two places at the same time” many people of color feel in regards to America. (Interestingly, Thomas Paine—without whose stirring words in Common Sense and his exhortation to George Washington and his troops on the banks of the Delaware River that winter in 1776 would be instrumental in even HAVING an America—was excommunicated and slandered from the Founding Fathers 'patriarchy' for daring to criticize the institution of religion as well as for questioning whether America’s democracy was actually democratic). And that the country has never reckoned with its past ‘original sin’, Langston’s line “America has never been America to me” takes on marrow deep resonance for many of her brethren, particularly the brown, black, and Native ones.
This dichotomy has been center stage lately with Colin Kaepernick’s (and now, many other athletes) refusal to stand during the national anthem at sporting events (for some context, read Will Robin’s powerful history of the Star-Spangled Banner as a political statement). Currently I’m rewatching the seminal video series on the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s Eyes on the Prize as part of my research for my forthcoming musical drama/”opera” The Grey Land and have been struck by how some of same arguments against the protestors then—“disrespectful”, “ridiculous”, “offensive”, “arrogant”, "things were ok until they stirred up hatred", etc.—are still in the playlist of today’s critics of social justice protests (oddly, many critical refrains that mostly distill down to 'it’s not what Martin Luther King would do' don’t understand the disruption and upheaval needed to affect change, nor the subsequent hatred engendered by MLK and others in the 1960s); enough so that even liberal stalwart Notorious RGB--“a justice--admirable but imperfect…who argues passionately for minority rights in the abstract without fully understanding how each new generation puts those principles into practice” can lob ill-informed barbs about the motivations and goals of the protests and protestors (although since, she's walked back her critique). Whether it’s the Civil Rights Movement, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the LGTB movement, or many other social movements, they all seek to resolve the great American equation closer to its equality ideal; and those callers for justice that point to historical and continued systemic hypocrisy and inconsistencies in a society that claims to uphold, for ALL its citizens, the sanctity of its meritorious principles and promises is the very definition of patriotic.
I don’t understand what’s more American than fighting for liberty and justice for everybody, for the equality this country says it stands for. To me, I see it as very patriotic and American to hold the United States to the standards it says it lives by.
Unfortunately back in the spring Lara and I decided that “Never Has Been Yet” would not be on her album America Again, but Lara will still be performing the composition in conjunction with some of her performances in her tour for the album. So the premiere will be at the Mondavi Center in Davis, California on October 29, 2016 8 pm and you can hear Lara in NYC at LPR on November 21, 2016, although she will not perform "Never Has Been Yet" (unless you ask nicely…) so you’ll have to wait until winter for the New York City debut. Check out www.laradownes.com to see if there’s a show near you.
What kind of culture allows composers to flourish and what kind of composers do flourish? These above recent questions on Twitter from musicologist/writer (and now Doctor/Professor) Will Robin are in reference to his doctoral dissertation, A Scene Without A Name: Indie Classical And American New Music In The Twenty-First Century. A wonderful and thoughtful read into the development over the past ten years or so of that music scene centered around New Amsterdam Records, and which I am (somewhat) a part of. As I was reading the dissertation, and before seeing these tweets, I was already pondering Will’s questions of inclusiveness, luck, privilege, and opportunity in the new music/indie classical scene, as well as in the broader classical music industry eco-system. Although not my primary focus, a few of the larger themes about inclusiveness that Will discusses in his dissertation, I hinted at in my Master’s of Music thesis, The Music Composition Miscere, the Historicity of Mixed Music and New Amsterdam Records in the Contemporary New York City Mixed Music Scene (2011); one example, from page 159:
The social aspects around the NewAm community reflect a particular early twenty-first century New York City fin-de-siècle: erudite and well-educated, mostly white composers and musicians under the age of forty, whose individual backgrounds, while certainly unique and different, consist of a general similarity of experiences, backgrounds, and socio-economic status. And while all scenes “are, in fact, just quick polaroids of who happens to be in a certain place at a certain time,” can this NewAm boutique community filled with “friends” and people of like minds and similar backgrounds, broaden itself into a substantial movement filled with different kinds of people not like themselves?
Going back to Will’s follow-up question, as I was contemplating “what kind of composers DO flourish (emphasis mine)? If it is white + male + privileged, these are problems to address”, composer and Twitter friend Garrett Schumann tweeted, and I replied:
Now I think I get what Garrett was intimating—indie classical is to classical as craft beer is to beer—but as I thought more on the issue, maybe he was more right than even he thought. I had read the article, “There are Almost No Black People Brewing Craft Beer. Here’s Why” many months ago but it was the first thing I thought about when I saw Garrett’s tweet last week; and the parallels between the various cultures became apparent when you substitute “(indie) classical/new music” for “beer/craft beer” below:
It’s important to note that no one I spoke with for this story claimed or even hinted that the enthusiasm gap between white and black consumer bases was driven by racism. Instead, the takeaway of many of these conversations boiled down to a simple fact: craft beer is white because the overall American beer industry has always been white.
With #Oscarsowhite, #Hollywoodsowhite, the recent “whitewashing” controversy of casting in movies Aloha, Gods of Egypt and Ghost in the Shell (of course this has been going on for a long time), the Paul Ryan photo of interns in Congress, and many other examples in contemporary society, one can see that those who mostly have easier access to and more chances at institutional opportunities and resources are the same as they’ve always been: white, privileged, and mostly male. Just as in the accumulation of wealth in white families over generations, often at the expense of others being able to do similar because of systemic inequality and injustice, today’s classical music landscape hides advantages already “baked into the system” for some; and that a few non-whites and females find some notice, is in spite of said system, not an indication of a post-racial or post-gender equalitarianism. Like in the society writ large, for those not already in positions of privilege or advantage, the Horatio Alger myth of working hard, developing an innate talent, doing great work the “right” way, is no guarantee of any kind of opportunity or success or social mobility. While it never has been easy, this new music community with it’s incredible openness and, if you will, a very liberal sensibility (using this here not in a political term, although could certainly also apply in that context to describe many) to varying viewpoints seemed to auger for better (as quoted in the above article about craft beer, but certainly fits in this context—the new music community is “‘one small area where we can make an effort to take a chunk out of racism, rather easily’ because it is a relatively progressive enclave. ‘If we can’t do it here -- when everyone’s feeling good and giving high-fives–then we’re in trouble’”). Unfortunately this “historically unprecedented moment of opportunity as young artists” as Clare Chase stated in her graduation speech at Northwestern University (and Will quotes in the dissertation), is not referring to everyone.
In today’s hyper-segmented society with a vast universe of metaphorical background “noise”, how can one establish a signal bright enough that will bring enough attention to allow a sustained and continued musical career, if you are not a white male, under 40 years old? One way is to have benefactors/mentors to help advocate your way forward; when Meryl Streep was just trying to get her way into the door with Kramer vs. Kramer she had some early help that, if wasn’t there, the world could have missed out on the future MERYL F**KING STREEP:
Getting Meryl [Streep] past the studio hadn’t been easy. Some of the marketing executives at Columbia thought she wasn’t pretty enough. “They didn’t think that she was a movie star. They thought that she was a character actress,” Richard Fischoff said, describing exactly how Meryl saw herself. But she had her advocates, including Dustin Hoffman and Robert Benton, and that was enough to twist some arms. (Vanity Fair, March 2016)
Or this story of film composer Bear McCreary getting his break through a chance meeting, which helped him meet a composing idol:
And quite frankly, I think the only reason that a 24-year-old kid with no credits is the composer of Battlestar Galactica is because it was a television show… [Bear] McCreary's career goes back to a chance encounter when he was a junior in high school. The local rotary club in Bellingham, Wash. named him "student of the month," and at the awards luncheon it came up that he was interested in film music. After the event, a man named Joe Coons came up to him and told him he had a friend in the business. And I thought, 'All right, whatever, man,' McCreary recalls. And he says, 'Have you heard of Elmer Bernstein?' And my jaw hits the floor. I mean, this guy had written some of my favorite melodies, ever"….That's how I met Elmer Bernstein. And I ended up working for Elmer for seven to 10 years.
Honestly, it’s hard to fathom that a 24-year old black or brown kid with no film or TV credits (and who didn’t have Elmer Bernstein opening doors, or more sadly, even if they did) ever getting to even BE in a position to get that kind of opportunity with a major studio production (hey Marvel, while I have written music for film, I would LOVE to have that “McCreary shot” for the upcoming Black Panther (or Captain Marvel) movies... I'm serious--you know where to find me…). Actually Bear’s story illustrates two points about how composers can get the opportunity to flourish: one, he got to meet an advocate, who while offering advice, also helped open doors; but the second, more salient point was that he had a network that included friends and acquaintances that had access to someone influential and necessary in helping to get the opportunity to even start his trajectory in the first place. In my thesis I quote composer/vocalist Shara Worden (now Nova) from the article “Playing Between Rock and a Classical Place” (Wall Street Journal, Jan. 15, 2011) encapsulating some of the interconnectedness baked into the indie classical scene:
The really beautiful thing is that it's really based on friendship. There's a crew of us, and it's a bit incestuous.
This quote always bothered me. Now, I understand and actually agree with the basic premise of what she is saying: life’s too short to waste time and energy on crazy so that working with friends, people you know, like, and are comfortable with is joyous and rewarding. But in its effect, it feels a little like “cafeteria tribes”—if you are lucky enough that your tribe includes people who are already “in” (or can more easily GET in) and then can hold the doors open for friends, everything is great. It reminds me of a little like living in New York: if you have lots of money, the city can seem to offer unlimited possibilities and pleasures; if you don’t, it’s a different city of constant struggle and hustle…with few pleasures. Now this illustrates some of the implicit privilege or luck, which is in the DNA of the system for some. This ties directly into answering Will’s question about what kind of composers get to flourish in the current environment (and partly, the how),
I believe luck is preparation meeting opportunity. If you hadn’t been prepared when the opportunity came along, you wouldn’t have been ‘lucky.’” Could I ever say with a straight face that luck played no role in my career? Of course not. There are plenty of talented writers out there who don’t have the good fortune to have friends already working in media who will invite them to a party where they may make a connection that will change the rest of their lives. But as I also explained in my interview with Levo League, I work extremely hard. I try always to be prepared so that when an opportunity comes along, I’m ready to make the most out of my lucky break. After getting my book deal, I turned in a finished book in six months while simultaneously finishing a master’s degree at Columbia University. That part, and the positive reviews that followed, had nothing to do with luck. That, as Sklar might say, was all my sweat and ‘giving a damn’ (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/05/19/i-m-not-ashamed-to-admit-i-got-lucky-and-neither-should-you.html).
Of course, having the luck/privilege of going to the “right” school, living in the “right” neighborhood, having the “right” background, financial stability, and friends all goes in to helping some have the opportunity to be in a position to be able to give all your “sweat” and a “damn”, which more likely can lead to early success.
But what is success or flourishing as a composer anyway? Commissions from classical music institutions? Putting out well-received recordings? Ability to tour? Making your living off of music? Getting tenure at a university? Having Philip Glass as a mentor? Certainly the answer is different for everyone, but as Will states above, the possibility of achieving whatever one’s definition of success is, is more and more “complicated and bleak” in today’s society, even for the privileged. Success/flourish is obviously often not one or two points but a continuum, a cloud if you will, that is built upon by various steps over time; the accumulation of the “right” elements, which are different for different people—family and musical background & experiences, temperament, talent, social network circumstances & opportunities, and just plain luck—that builds upon itself (the cloud metaphor is appropriate here: not only in how clouds form, but also as seen from afar—they look formful & defined, but upon closer inspection you realize that where it begins is often undefined and diffused but once you are fully in it, you know). Like how people talk about the achievement gap, if you don’t start off with the opportunity to accumulate those first steps in development then you are always playing “catch up” and you’ll face stiffer and deeper difficulty than if you had the plow cleared for you early on (and this doesn’t mean one CAN’T make headway to overcome the deficiencies, just means more struggle to achieve).
So reading Will’s dissertation I remarked at the “general similarity of experiences, backgrounds, and socio-economic status” of the people written about (young-ish, white, mostly male, middle/upper middle class, Ivy League educated), and, while the ones I know personally are some of the hardest working people I’ve met, they nonetheless have benefited because of “the academic settings, institutional ties, and privileged backgrounds that have allowed this generation to flourish, the rhetoric of ‘honesty’ and ‘naturalness’ in ‘music without walls’ runs the risk of misleadingly valorizing entrepreneurship. As Andrea Moore has documented, the promotion of arts entrepreneurship is increasingly common among music schools in the United States. When careers of such ‘self starters’ as [Nico] Muhly, [Judd] Greenstein, and [Missy] Mazzoli are used as models for such programs—without necessarily telling the ‘full story’ of their musical backgrounds—it can perpetuate false narratives of replicable success (Robin, pages 260-61).” I often think about those many others not in the scene—those not already in resonance with critics whose “personal histories… are drawn to something that they were each already, in a way, looking for” (Robin, page 96); those “…African American experimental musicians…often ignored or critiqued by writers who subsequently lionized the comparable boundary crossing of white artists…” (Robin, footnote #34); those black artists that “channel R&B, funk, and hip-hop, while their white contemporaries get kudos for giving makeovers to the likes of Radiohead, Nick Drake, and Bjork” (Interview with John Murph on Open Sky Jazz “Ain’t But a Few of Us: Black jazz writers tell their story Part 2”; those composers discussing and building their own wonderful scene of community and support on #Musochat—that given similar chances (and frankly luck/fortune) could create and develop into similar levels of success and acclaim but find it increasingly more difficult with the decks more stacked against, and “the mechanisms that allowed indie classical to gain prestige and institutional support have been disrupted. Future cohorts of composers will continue to emerge, but is not clear how they will transform cultural capital into economic capital to create the kind of sustainable careers that New Amsterdam has sought for its artists. The rhetorical positioning of indie classical—that it came into existence outside the ‘strictures’ of the concert hall and the academy—may create the false impression that the next generation could thrive without the traditional infrastructure of classical and new music.” (Robin, pages 260-61). The path(s) taken by those younger composers in the dissertation, which itself was/were originally blazed by those composers in the 60s and 70s, to take advantage of Claire Chase’s “historically unprecedented moment” is/are harder and harder to see for more and more composers now, but especially composers of color.
Many years ago I used to substitute teach in NYC public schools. I went to schools all over the city—anywhere from the Upper West Side in Manhattan and Park Slope in Brooklyn to East Harlem—and was always shocked by the disparity between the amount of resources available to those schools in wealthy neighborhoods compared to those in less affluent areas. Now in every school and neighborhood there were smart, inquisitive students (and also those less so); but always with the less wealthy schools, I would lament for those talented, smart black and brown faces I saw (because that’s usually the only faces I did see in those schools) because I just wished that those kids could have had the chance to be in a school environment with the same resources, to have similar life experiences that I found with the students in the richer areas. Of course I did not wish those kids in the wealthier districts didn’t have what they had, I just wanted something similar for all those other talented kids in the other districts, who I KNEW would benefit from the same opportunities those Upper West & East Side/Park Slope/Carroll Gardens/Brooklyn Heights kids had—a good chance to fulfill their full potential; I SAW and FELT the gaping disparity and but for the factor of circumstances they didn’t control, those kids COULD have had but didn’t. And reading the dissertation, while happy for how some composers were able to rise above to be heard and noticed, I also felt that same pang for all of those other composers out there that would not get the same chances.
How can it change? Well one way, short of having more POC and women in boardrooms making programming decisions or others on the "inside" the club to look "outside", maybe there needs to be some kind of indie classical/new music “Rooney rule”. While not perfect, the Rooney rule has helped people of color in the NFL to be considered to high level positions. So next time a symphony or institution relies on the bromides about how they can’t ‘find’ women or black/brown composers or when they say, “Hey what about [any-number-of-names-we’ve-heard-before-and-who-will-be-fine-if-they-don’t-get-that-commission/award-from-your-esteemed-organization] for that commission maybe the Rooney rule could be there to say, ‘you know, there are other great composers out there that aren’t friends/acquaintances/people someone went to school with/in our usual circle, let’s find out more about them.’ Hey, as I said in a tweet:
I've been off FB for 3 weeks so have only now been hearing and reading what has happened with the BMI Composers Workshop here in NYC. I'm sadden by the news. No, sadden does not totally encapsulate what I'm feeling. There's so much to say, that can't be really said. How can you capture in words, something that changes one's life so completely, so fully that to contemplate not being part of it means you are someone else and not who you are now. Some might be thinking I'm speaking in hyperbole, but for me, it is true.
When I moved to NY I knew three people: Maria Schneider, Anita Brown, and a friend from college. So for me, the Workshop, wasn't only a place to write, but really was my 'home'; the composers and musicians associated with the Workshop, became life-long friends and I drew upon many to play in my group when I started Numinous two years after joining the Workshop.
I literally moved to New York to be in the Workshop. I had a choice between going to grad school or coming to NYC and the Workshop. I left my job teaching a quite fantastic, award-winning high school band program outside Seattle and moved to NYC to pursue a crazy dream of being a composer. I was in my very early 30s,a late-bloomer to composing, and I wasn't quite sure exactly what kind of composer I wanted to be. While I never considered myself a "jazz" composer (at any point before, during, or after the Workshop), and really hadn't written any "jazz" music when I applied, I did know I had something to say and knew the Workshop was an opportunity to WRITE! It was a beginning, an 'in' to starting the composers life. Really, it was the only path that I had going forward.
I was in the 'B' group when I was accepted and was the precocious guy who ate up EVERYTHING. Amazed and feeling fortunate to be in such a great environment, I went to every class every week, even started going to the "A' classes. I wrote; I learned; and on the reading sessions, I was excited to listen to not only what I wrote-- performed by some of the top musicians in NY-- but to soak in and learn from what my colleagues and friends were doing too. When I was chosen that first year for the year-end concert at Merkin Hall and Jim McNeely and Manny Abam informed me that the next year I'd be in the 'A' class, it was incredible. In subsequent years, while officially in the 'A' class, I still went to the 'B' classes too. Soon there were four more concerts, including a finalist for the BMI Award, MANY more compositions, and through it all my musical voice developed and deepened. Jim and Manny would always say that the Workshop did not teach you how to compose, but rather helped you find your own way to what you wanted to say in music. For me, I was the guy in the Workshop always talking about Steve Reich and John Adams, not Thad or Basie. But you know, Jim, Manny, Mike Abene, and Burt Korall, not to mention the other composers, all made me and my music feel welcomed. This was one of many great things about being in the Workshop: you could bring a composition or idea into class that was quite left of center or something that was a straight-ahead swinger and Jim, Manny, and Mike would approach it with openness and clear-eyed questions and analysis of what you are trying to do and suggestions on how to make it more of what you want (or less of what you don't want). Not to mention Jim could read every score on the piano, which was ALWAYS impressive! The Workshop influenced some of the things I did after leaving: I started a composer federation Pulse (all composers from the Workshop; originally, myself, Darcy James Argue, JC Sanford, Joshua Shneider, Jamie Begin, Yumiko Sunami, Bill Apollo Brown). And while I didn't attend many concerts after leaving, nor kept up much with the composers that came after (although I reviewed one concert in 2009), I am happy and proud to know I was a part of continuum of composers, musicians, and music that has such a wonderful linage. Who knows what the new BMI Workshop will be, but those of us who know what the Workshop was, will lament for those that come after, who will miss out on something that was unique and special.
So Jim, I am one of many people who owe so much to you and the Workshop, and I know that thank you can't fully convey the appreciation we feel, but I'll say it anyway: Thank You. Thank you for taking a chance on a me all those years ago, thank you for your incredible musicianship and leadership, thank you for providing a forum where composers could find themselves and the music within, thank you for your support of all of us throughout the years. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Here's a recording of my final concert in the BMI Workshop, a finalist for the BMI Award, this is a performance of "Into All the Valleys Evening Journeys", which eventually became a part of my composition, Vipassana, for my own ensemble Numinous. Featuring Mike Rodriguez on trumpet.
You can now watch scenes from my new score to Ernst Lubitsch's 1922 film The Loves of Pharaoh. Commissioned for the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) 30th Next Wave Festival and performed live with a screening of a restored version of the film by Numinous October 18, 19, 20, 2012 at BAM Harvey Theater (audio recording was done live at October 19, 2012 screening).
The Loves of Pharaoh Act 1 Scenes 1 & 2
Synopsis: A message is received by the King of Egypt from the King of Ethiopia offering an alliance. An accident occurs at the Pharaoh's treasury.
The Loves of Pharaoh Act 2 Scene 2 Ramphis & Theonis
Synopsis: The son of Pharaoh's Treasury builder, Ramphis, and the slave girl stolen from the Ethiopian King's daughter, Theonis, begin their falling in love but the Pharaoh has other plans.
The Loves of Pharaoh Act 3 Scenes 1 & 2 & 3
Synopsis: Pharaoh "loves" Theonis, Theonis loves Ramphis, so Pharaoh plans to kill Ramphis, unless...
The Loves of Pharaoh Act 4 Scenes 3 & 4 & 5
Synopsis: Theonis becomes Queen to save her love Ramphis while the Ethiopian army approaches Egypt; Ramphis escapes the prison quarry and returns to his father
The Loves of Pharaoh Act 5 Scene 3
Synopsis: Ramphis goes to Pharaoh's Treasury to seek revenge on the imprisoned Queen for the cause of his father being blinded and finds an unexpected surprise
The Loves of Pharaoh Act 6 Scene 3
Synopsis: After being believed killed by the Ethiopian King in battle, King Amenes returns to Egypt to claim his wife and maybe his throne
The Loves of Pharaoh Act 6 Scene 4 & 5
Synopsis: Two Kings and one Queen, the Game of Thrones begins…
Flutes: Jessica Schmitz
Clarinets/Saxophone: Ken Thomson
Trumpet: Stephanie Richards
Horn: Lis Rubard
Tuba: Jacob Garchik
Guitar: Amanda Monaco
Vibraphone: Tom Beckham
Piano/Keyboard: Carmen Staaf
Celtic Harp: Maeve Gilchrist
Voice 1: Sara Serpa
Voice 2: Jean Rohe
Violin 1: Ana Milosavljevic
Violin 2: Scott Tixier
Viola 1: Hannah Levinson
Viola 2: Brian Lindgren
Cello 1: Richard Vaudrey
Cello 2: Mariel Roberts
Bass: Matt Aronoff
Conductor: Joseph C. Phillips Jr.
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Thursday October 10th Numinous will perform on pianist Simone Dinnerstein's Neighborhood Classics concert series. This series features well-known classical artists such as Richard Stoltzman, Maya Beiser, Pablo Ziegler, Zuill Bailey, Simone herself, and many others who donate their time to perform an evening concert at a local NYC public school, with all of the proceeds benefitting programs at that school (the series started at P.S. 321 in Brooklyn and since has expanded to a couple of other schools in the city). It's a wonderful series with incredible performances and ALWAYS sold-out with enthusiastic crowds of parents, kids, and neighbors.
For our show, a reduced-sized Numinous will play live with a screening of a few scenes from my score to Ernst Lubitsch's silent film The Loves of Pharaoh, which premiered at last year's Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM)-this will be the first performance with the film since the premiere last October; in addition, we'll perform some of my chamber music including an audience interactive piece based on seeing synchronous fireflies in Malaysia a few years ago and a new composition based on a children's picture book.
Thursday October 10th, 2013
Neighborhood Classics concert series
P.S. 321 Auditorium
180 7th Avenue
You can order tickets here
To get you in the mood below is the promo from the Next Wave Festival performance at BAM last year, with music for a scene from my score to The Loves of Pharaoh.
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Next weekend there's a special performance of my music at the Rhythm in the Kitchen Festival in Hell's Kitchen in NYC. On June 8th at 10pm Ana Milosavljevic, Maya Bennardo, Hannah Levinson, and Richard Vaudrey will be playing my music for string quartet. Technically this isn't a Numinous gig since I will not be involved in the performance (except being in the audience) so if you are around come to this special event. The quartet will premiere my string quartet "110 percent" (inspired by sports, but in particular basketball); Pharaoh Scrolls (an arrangement of music from my film score to The Loves of Pharaoh); and two other of my compositions I've arranged for string quartet. (And be sure to check out some of the other great artists performing on the Festival; it is wonderful having my music performed by such great musicians among such a lovely lineup).
The Seventh Annual “Rhythm in the Kitchen” Music Festival
The Church for All Nations
417 West 57th Street
between 9th and 10th Avenues
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Not that there was ever any doubt on this, but now got word that officially not "unfair"... 'nuff said.
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Tomorrow the Ecstatic adventure continues!: Moderated by Ecstatic Music Festival curator Judd Greenstein I'll be discussing my composition Changing Same, my Festival collaboration with Imani Uzuri, as well as other musical sundries on Wednesday March 20th at 6pm at the Merkin Concert Hall upper lobby. Attendance at the talk is FREE and various libations and eats will be available for purchase.
This event takes place just before the penultimate 2013 Ecstatic Music Festival concert with Steven Mackey, Rinde Eckert, Big Farm, and JACK Quartet and if you don't have tickets for what promises to be an outstanding show, you can purchase at Merkin. I'm going to the concert after the talk, so hopefully I'll see you at both!
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An incredible night of music last Saturday March 16th as myself, Numinous, & Imani Uzuri took the stage of Merkin Concert Hall in NYC for our performance at the Ecstatic Music Festival. It truly was a magical experience with the enthusiastic audience showing us love for the premieres of my composition Changing Same, Imani's Placeless, and our joint piece Awe & Humility. Luckily it was recorded and will soon be available to listen on WQXR's Q2, but for now you can check out Facebook for some of the great official photos taken by David Andrako (you don't have to be on FB to view). Also be sure to check out David's website where you can see some of his other amazing photos including from previous Ecstatic Music Festival concerts).
Thanks to all of the musicians, the Festival, curator Judd Greenstein, Merkin Concert Hall, Kaufman Center, all those in attendance, and of course to Imani Uzuri for the wonderful experience.
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This post is the sixth in a series profiling some of the inspirations and thoughts behind the six movements of my composition Changing Same premiering March 16th, 2013 at the Ecstatic Music Festival in New York City. Previous posts in the series featured:
“…we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for our children and our grandchildren.” 1
In January 2009 I stood freezing on the National Mall in Washington D.C. with two million others witnessing Barack Obama become President of the United States. Standing there with faces black, brown, and beige there was a palpable sense of excitement and anticipation that the truly unlimited opportunity the original “promise of America” represented, seemed finally reachable to not only someone like me, but seemly anyone and everyone with ability, a dream, temerity, perseverance, and luck. That day felt like a beginning, where the phrase “one nation” took on renewed resonance and meaning. And while the realities of governance since then have tempered the fires of hope, they have not extinguished them. No matter her ultimate direction America is forever changed, not only for the now but for the “unborn millions to come” in the long now.
Producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff with their “Philly Sound”—an often energetic and richly orchestrated dance music—are sometimes credited with laying the foundations for disco in the 1970s. In my ancient early days growing up, before I had any idea of who Gamble and Huff were or exactly what disco was, the songs they produced—such as “Me and Mrs. Jones,” “Back Stabbers,” “Now that We Found Love,” “Love Train,” “For the Love of Money,” “When Will I See You Again,” and “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)” (also known as the Soul Train theme song)—formed an indelible imprint on an impressionable little kid. Often I was less interested about what the singers actually sang about (was too young to understand much anyway). Rather, I enjoyed the mood, atmosphere, and energy those songs created; the sophisticated way they moved you or made you want to move, “it like put a bow tie on the funk. It made it elegant." 2
Echoes from “The Love I Lost” by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes featuring the incredible lead singing of Teddy Pendergrass and “Love’s Theme” by Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra (an artist influenced by Gamble and Huff) can be heard throughout “Unlimited.”
(note: the YouTube video of the 1994 documentary Rock & Roll is from the BBC version, and NOT the version that aired on PBS and that I recorded on my VCR back then; among some slight, but noticeable differences between the two versions are the PBS version was narrated by Liev Schreiber and also featured some different musical acts shown. The opening part on the above video clip features the song "The Love I Lost" and is in both versions)
From Barack Obama’s “Speech on Race” in Philadelphia, March 18, 2008. (Transcript, New York Times
Quote from Fred Wesley, trombonist in James Brown Band. From "Making it Funky" episode of PBS/BBC documentary by David Espar Rock & Roll (1995).
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To all things that create a sense of wonder and beauty that inspires and enlightens.