New Music composer Joseph C. Phillips, Jr. and globally inspired vocalist and composer Imani Uzuri team up for an evening of collaborative debuts at the Ecstatic Music Festival, presented by the Kaufman Center. Inspired by the funk-compositions of Curtis Mayfield and Prince, Joe Phillips has composed a unique musical memoir (Changing Same) that tells the story of his compositional career. Imani Uzuri debuts a new work (Placeless) inspired by psalms, performed by Phillips’ new music ensemble, Numinous. The 2 composers also will be premiering a collaborative work titled Awe and Humility. They debut on March 16th at 7:30 pm at Merkin Concert Hall.
Joe Phillips had a few minutes to discuss the premieres.
CM: Where did the idea come from to do Changing Same? The concept sounds really interesting and crazy!
Joe: Well I hope it is the good kind of crazy! Sometimes I relate my process of creating some of my compositions to the theoretical sciences where you are constantly thinking about what ifs and other imaginative and (seemly) outlandish postulates and then figuring out a way to actualize the concept. While my music on some level has always been influenced by vernacular music, with the rise of alt/indie classical over my years in NYC, there finally was public discussion and acknowledgement among composers of alternative rock, rock, and other forms of popular music as engines fueling their musical development and at times directly impacting their compositions. One thing I noticed however was that there was much less talk or recognition from some about being influenced in the same ways by R&B, hip-hop, funk, some of the very musics I grew up with.
For me, this was encapsulated by writer John Murph in an interview in 2009 when he stated,
“…there’s the whole idea of what is deemed more artistically valid… [with] artists incorporating contemporary pop music. I notice a certain disdain when some black…artists 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.”
Frankly I don’t know if this is true, or if it is true, the reasons behind why it would be so, but the statement did make me think about my own musical background growing up: my pre-high school years filled with the R&B and funk of the Stylistics, Stevie Wonder, Parliament/Funkadelic, go-go music, Gamble and Huff, etc. and my teenager years superseding that and bringing forth into my purview alternative/progressive/guitar rock (even had a synth rock band in high school!) and later classical music and jazz. Now I’m generally of the Miles Davis “don’t look back” philosophy, but perhaps because I’m older now, what reading John Murph’s statement created in me was a desire to do the opposite: to actually look back where I’ve come from musically (and culturally), to “come home” and directly acknowledge some of those early influences.
So I think of Changing Same as a sort-of musical scrapbook or “memory book” where I use some of those musical influences and/or personal and cultural events that happened during my lifetime as a basis for my composition. With Changing Same I was looking not to juxtapose ideas in a montage/mosaic but rather finding ways to fuse ideas and thoughts into something new; creating something that is more than the sum of its influences, something that has as a deep structure of those influences, yet sieves them all so that the surface structure is really none them.
CM: In what ways have you found R&B working really well with symphonic music?
Joe: James Reese Europe, Clarence Cameron White, Will Marion Cook, and of course Duke Ellington and William Grant Still and others, were interested in creating a music that featured merging elements of ‘black’ vernacular music such as ‘jazz’ and spirituals with classical, so there is a long history. Certainly during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s you could look to R&B artists such as Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway, Michael Jackson (with Quincy Jones), Barry White, Isaac Hayes, Grover Washington Jr., musical producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, and many other artists who were interested in expanding their musical languages by finding ways to add a more orchestral sound and structure to some of their music. In fact some of my earliest musical memories feature the orchestral arrangements on many songs from the above, in particular many Gamble and Huff produced tracks; and while some credit them with having set the template for the signature “disco sound” Gamble and Huff’s highly orchestrated, original dance music was not a maudlin or cheesy ‘formula’ but rather was recognized as just funky. One of my favorite quotes of all-time is from James Brown Band trombonist Fred Wesley, who in the 1996 PBS/BBC documentary Rock & Roll says of the music that Gamble and Huff produced “it like put a bow tie on the funk. It made it elegant.”
For me R&B is only one part of who I am and I don’t usually reference this side of me overtly, but I have over the years found that when I do, R&B can be a powerful spark for my creations. One of the first pieces I wrote for Numinous back in 2000 was a composition called “Madame Press Never Had to Holler at Morty”, and it came out of me wondering what would happen if I mashed together the flute motif from Morton Feldman’s “Madame Press Died Last Night at Ninety” and the bass line from Meshell Ndegeocello’s “Makes Me Wanna Holler” (which itself was based on Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler))”. I have composed a couple of other similar pieces, so this idea of using R&B music is long-standing. In general for me I think it is the way R&B grooves and has that purposive rhythmic sense which forces the body to move that interests me most (this is a similar reason why I’m also attracted to minimalism as well). At some of the rehearsals for Changing Same at times I can see the musicians bobbing their heads and moving their bodies, so I think you’ll hear some of that groovin’ on the 16th.
Joe: Artistically the collaboration has been very smooth and we’ve gotten to know each other well over the year or so we’ve been planning. From the beginning phone call, I believe we both felt a good connection with each other and with each other’s music, so it was no surprise that the collaboration went so well. Judd [Greenstein] contacted me over two years ago, just as the Festival’s first year’s concerts were starting, to ask if I’d be interested in being apart of the Festival in the future. It took a while to find the right collaborator but when Judd suggested Imani last spring (with neither of us knowing of the others work before Judd connecting us), I think we both recognized that we shared an interest in reflecting the ‘numinous’ of the universe in our music as well as a desire to be ‘beyond genre’ and that we would be a good fit working together.
Since Imani comes from the oral tradition of music making and has never worked with an orchestra before, I am also the orchestrator for (almost) all of her music. And like any orchestrator sometimes you are actually an arranger and at other times you are just making instrumental decisions. This has been an incredible way to get to know Imani and her music; in general she provided a lead sheet of her music and a recording of her performing or rehearsing, we discussed what her clear directions and intentions were for the piece and what was possible, and I would work on it, with feedback and redirection from Imani. The process has been very interesting, because while in the past I have done arrangements of other’s songs for Numinous, usually my goal then is to make the piece my own. Well, with orchestrating Imani’s music here was an occasion where the job wasn’t to make the piece sound like me, but rather make it sound like Imani. In some ways this was the most difficult part for me of the collaboration, trying to get in the head and creative space of another composer but it was also a rewarding challenge and I think people will hear how successful on Saturday night. We intend to work together again so hopefully this won’t be the last you’ll see us together!
CM: What are your thoughts on her piece Placeless?
Joe: With its directness, immediacy, and powerful lyricism and emotion, I have learned much from working with Imani and her music. The first movement of Placeless “Evenly Yoked” I told Imani reminded me of some of Arvo Pärt’s music; not that they sound alike but rather the similar affecting way both use melody to create mood or emotion in their pieces. The second movement, “Hush Arbor (River)” shows off Imani as experimenter; originally created for a sound instillation, for our performance, the piece is transformed into an instrumental mediation. The third movement, “Shall Guide Me” and the last movement “My Place is Placeless” both create a lovely beatific sense of peace and uplift.
Interview clip of Imani Uzuri
CM: Can you please talk about the collaborative piece Awe and Humility and how this went working together?
Joe: After a number of brainstorming sessions about what theme to use as basis for our collaborative piece, we settled on ‘awe’ and ‘humility’, both of which are in our aesthetic wheelhouses. We then discussed a structure of the piece: five movements in total, with each of us taking the lead on composing two, with a final movement being a completely joint collaboration. After discussing various texts and words to use for the piece and reading various passages to each other, for Imani’s two movements we settled on a section of the poem “Peonies” by Mary Oliver and a poem by Imani herself and for me, my translation of the first stanza from Heinrich Heine’s poem “Es Stehen Unbeweglich” and a short paragraph near the end of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake. With the final movement I structured it very similar to the “Épilogue” in Maurice Ravel’s Valse nobles et sentimentales, where melodic and harmonic fragments from previous movements form the basis for the final movement with a twist that there is a prescribed part (the strings) along with a more independently tempo’d ‘In C’-like playing of those melodic fragments by the non-string musicians.
Joseph C. Phillips, Jr: A Tear of the Clouds (Numinous @ Roulette’s Children’s Concert; 10.27.07)