Composer Joseph C. Phillips, Jr. Talks about his Ecstatic Music Festival Premiere, "Changing Same"
Posted on Wednesday, March 06, 2013
by Joseph C. Phillips Jr.
2. Behold the Only Thing Greater than Yourself
4. The Most Beautiful Magic
5. Alpha Man
Premiered by Numinous
March 16, 2013
Ecstatic Music Festival
Merkin Concert Hall at Kaufman Music Center
by Joseph C. Phillips Jr.
“R&B is about emotion, issues purely out of emotion. New Black Music is also about emotion, but from a different place, and finally, towards a different end. What these musicians feel is a more complete existence. That is, the digging of everything.”
-LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), “The Changing Same” (1966)
"Changing Same" is a philosophical and musical departure for me: it is a conscious acknowledgement of my early heritage in black popular music and culture. Previously my work was little interested in specifically or overtly reflecting this background in my musical language; my philosophy was (and still is) representative of a ‘post-black’ artistic freedom to explore any creative interest, unburdened with the obligation of only representing or being influenced by ‘the race.’ I am a composer, not just a ‘black’ composer. My journey ‘home’ began a few years ago when I was taken aback by something writer John Murph stated in an interview: “…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.”1
While my influences growing up (and now) are quite catholic—an inter-cultural fluency wherein James Brown and Yes, Eddie Van Halen and John Coltrane, go-go music and minimalism provide equal inspiration—I wondered if John Murph’s statement was really true and if so, why was it true? Regardless of the validity of the charge, this question provoked a challenge in me. Fueling a desire, like Duke Ellington in the 1940s with Black, Brown, and Beige or Wadada Leo Smith recently with Ten Freedom Summers, to create music that speaks to the “dichotomies of high and low, inside and outside, tradition and innovation”2 within black culture and explores the richness and complexity of being black in 21st century America; but also music that resonates a more universal artistic expression filtered through an intimately autobiographical perspective.
So-called indie classical/alt-classical is a reflection of alternative rock and other vernacular music as a palimpsest for the creation of new contemporary music of an expansive and open definition and vision. I wanted to express similar aesthetic ideas however using black vernacular music as the main source, testing John Murph’s assertion. From these musings the gestation of Changing Same began. Musically each movement, with the exception of “Behold,” is influenced by a fragment, motive, or chord progression from various black popular music influences I grew up with. I, however, wanted to recognize other sources of inspiration as well—a “digging of everything”—so almost all the movements are connected to various influential classical music and/or personal and cultural memories during my lifetime. This miscegenation is done not in a post-modern sense of ironic collage, but rather as a genuine search to create an organic fusion of artistic and cultural influences, to create a new personal artistic statement that is more than the sum of its parts. This is mixed music.
“[W]e must fight for your life as though it were our own—which it is—and render impassable with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.”3
The composition “19” is partly inspired by a number of seemly disparate musical sources: Arnold Schoenberg's Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke opus 19 from 1911 (one of the first Schoenberg pieces I studied), Curtis Mayfield’s “Little Child Runnin’ Wild” from his seminal score to the 1972 film Superfly, and a hint of the go-go music of Chuck Brown. The emotional timbre of “19” however, is inspired by the activist Angela Davis and her iconic status in the black culture of my youth. James Baldwin's November 19, 1970 “An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis” is stirring in its description of Davis as a soldier in the on-going struggle for racial and social equality and a martyr in the “enormous revolution in black consciousness…[that] means the beginning or the end of America.”4 The letter, while condemning the false arrest of Angela Davis that summer, goes on to describe the contemporary state of racial dynamics in the United States in biting and incisive commentary.
“Behold the Only Thing Greater than Yourself”
Dedicated to my mom
The title comes from a scene in the mini-series "Roots," when the family patriarch lifts his newborn child to the star-filled night sky and proclaims, “Behold, the only thing greater than yourself.” Those words are a powerfully plangent call valuing one’s intrinsic self-worth and potential in spite of societal resistance often working in opposition to maintaining a positive self-evaluation. Throughout America’s history, blacks confronted this resistance, as James Baldwin wrote, by “groaning and moaning, watching, calculating, clowning, surviving, and outwitting” with “some tremendous strength…nevertheless being forged, which is part of [black] legacy today.”5 And today it is often single mothers left to hold on to that legacy, presenting their children before the world with the gift of love, resiliency, resolve, and strength.
Mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s 2003 Nonesuch recording of J.S. Bach's cantata Ich habe genug BWV 82 and Donny Hathaway's song “Someday We'll All Be Free” from his last studio album, Extensions of a Man, are my musical inspirations behind “Miserere.” Whereas the words and music of the Bach and Hathaway works reflect a faith in salvation in the hereafter, “Miserere” does not seek any kind of religious statement or connotations, rather it is a vocal lament. Taking inspiration from the Bach, whose title translates to “I have enough,” the original lyrics of “Miserere” begin with "I have had enough" and continue expressing weary frustration and doubt in the ability to come to terms with one’s many struggles and problems. The lyrics of “Miserere” convey a muted sense of earthly hope in the face of a seemingly increased hopelessness. And perhaps it is that hope in the face of hopelessness and doubt, one will "emerge from all the suffering that still binds [us] to the world."6
“The Most Beautiful Magic”
Dedicated to my wife
The seminal 1984 album Purple Rain by Prince and the Revolution was a major influence on my personal musical development. As a young teenager listening to the then just released Purple Rain was revelatory. With its virtuosic and vertiginous mixture of rock, funk, R&B, pop, and electronica, Prince’s “Minneapolis sound” was a perspicacious vision of music as an integrated fusion of styles and genres that wholly resonated with my own nascent mixed music aesthetics, philosophies, and aspirations. “Purple Rain,” “Beautiful Ones,” and “Computer Blue,” three songs from Purple Rain, are the deep structures that help build “The Most Beautiful Magic,” with the emotional inspiration coming from Richard and Mildred Loving. The Lovings were the couple at the center of the landmark June 12, 1967 Supreme Court decision, Loving v. Virginia, effectively ending America’s miscegenation laws banning interracial marriages. “The Most Beautiful Magic” title is a quote from the movie, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince where one character describes the singular beauty that comes from a basic and simple (magical) act. This seemed appropriate to describe the affirmative power and courage of the Lovings to marry despite unjust laws legally denying them the opportunity to do so. As Mildred Loving explained in a speech celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision, their act of defiance “wasn't to make a political statement or start a fight. We were in love, and we wanted to be married.”7
"You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto. Mamma mia! Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest."8
I did not grow up in a ghetto, but that sentiment most definitely fit me in my younger years. Glasses, check; Comic books, check; computers, check. And while I was an outstanding athlete growing up, and had that to fall back on in the neighborhood social hierarchy, one of my younger pursuits was drawing my own comic books. One character I created was called Alpha Man: a lowly Earth physician who through a freakish accident (naturally) was imbued with the ‘cosmic force.’ Initially he was (ambivalently) on a team of evil, but after a nasty defeat he was banished to the far reaches of the galaxy, where he became a solitary exile wandering the universe; in the process he became a wise and sage protector. While one can detect hints of the Silver Surfer, the character of Alpha Man was more influenced by Carl Sagan. In his groundbreaking television series, Cosmos, which I watched as it premiered on PBS, a number of episodes imagined an interstellar space-ship, piloted by a single life form, traveling the mysteries of the universe collecting information for an ‘Encyclopædia Galactica’. This image continues to hold a particular fascination for me. Profane, beautiful, ebullient, and melancholy, it speaks of the eternal; not only of the infinity of the universe itself, but also the infinite capacity and imagination of the mind to explore the unknown (and the unknowable).
About ninth grade Gustav Holst’s The Planets was the first cassette tape I remember asking my mom to buy me. The entire piece, which sounded little like anything I had ever heard to that point (well maybe John Williams’s Star Wars), had a deep impact on my beginning musical aspirations. The movements “Venus” and “Saturn” were not my favorites back then (“Mars” and “Jupiter” were) but since then have offered inspiration that found its way into “Alpha Man.” “Saturn” from Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, an album that was a tutor in my early musical schooling, was another appropriate addition to the development of “Alpha Man.”
“…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.” 9
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." 10
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.”
Joseph C. Phillips Jr. © 2013 All Rights Reserved
Changing Same Notes
Interview with John Murph on Open Sky Jazz “Ain’t But a Few of Us: Black jazz writers tell their story pt2,” http://www.openskyjazz.com/2009/06/aint-but-a-few-of-us-black-jazz-writers-tell-their-story-pt2/
Touré, Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What it Means to Be Black Now, 32 (Atria Books, 2011).
James Baldwin, “An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis.”
“Da entkomm ich aller Not, Die mich noch auf der Welt gebunden.” J.S. Bach, Ich habe genug, translated by Pamela Dellal, http://www.emmanuelmusic.org/notes_translations/translations_cantata/t_bwv082.htm - pab1_7.
This statement from Mildred Loving was prepared for the 40th anniversary of the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision. See http://www.freedomtomarry.org/pdfs/mildred_loving-statement.pdf
Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, 22 (Riverhead Trade, 2008).
From Barack Obama’s “Speech on Race” in Philadelphia, March 18, 2008. (Transcript, New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/18/us/politics/18text-obama.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0).
Quote from Fred Wesley, trombonist in James Brown Band. From "Making it Funky" episode of PBS/BBC documentary by David Espar Rock & Roll (1995).
Also portions of the notes were adapted from my Master’s Thesis The Music Composition MISCĒRE, the Historicity of Mixed Music and New Amsterdam Records in the Contemporary New York City Mixed Music Scene (2011).