Bending genres to the world’s shape

"Classical music remains racist," composer DBR declares. His vital music breathes the air of Prince, hip-hop, Rosa Parks and Nina Simone.

In the heatwave of the Black Lives Matter movement and the thirst to hear new multicultural classical music, composer Daniel Bernard Roumain is a force to be reckoned with. 

His striking, genre-bending music will be spotlighted at this season’s third virtual Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival concert on Saturday, Aug. 22, from Sokol Blosser Winery in Dayton, Oregon. His pieces include “String Quartet No. 5 (Parks),” which speaks to Civil Rights matriarch Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her bus seat in 1955 in Montgomery, Ala.; and “Hip-Hop Studies & Etudes,” 24 works in each musical key. His compositions are programmed with Ludwig Van Beethoven’s final “String Quartet, Opus 135” and the little-known Baroque composer/nun Isabella Leonarda’s “Sonata #12” for violin and cello. Roumain served as one of three virtual composers-in-residence for this year’s Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival. (See my previous festival stories, Flights of music from a barrel room and Chamber music and a virtual toast, at Oregon Arts Watch.)

Composer DBR: “My work has always been a very small part of that big fight for justice.”

DBR, Roumain’s professional name, is “an important voice, now and in the future, and his music is stunning,” festival co-director and violinist Sasha Callahan said earlier this month. “The `Parks’ quartet we’ll be playing is fierce, bold, beautiful and full of life. It’s really evocative and distinctive” — and it includes clapping, a practice that reaches back to ancient cultures. 

“As a Haitian-American composer, I was raised by Haitian immigrant parents who experienced American life both before, and after, the Civil Rights Act of 1964,”DBR said about his 2005 “Parks” quartet in program notes for 45th Parallel Universe, which sponsored his music in a 2019 Old Church concert in Portland. “Their views were informed by life on a free island nation in Port-au-Prince, Haiti; life in the suburbs of Chicago; and life in the complex diversity of Pompano Beach, Florida. They identified with Malcolm and Martin, Maya and Rosa, and the great Haitian warriors, Makandal and Toussaint. Civil rights, for our household, was global, local, and part of the very fabric of our lives and culture. I created `Rosa Parks Quartet’ as a musical portrait of Rosa Parks’ struggle, survival and legacy. The music is a direct reflection of a dignified resistance. It’s telling that this work may, in fact, be performed on stages that didn’t allow the presence of so many, so often. I often refer to the stage as the last bastion of democracy, where all voices can and should be heard, where we are all equal, important, and necessary.“

Roumain is a tireless collaborator, virtuoso violinist and teacher, and social activist. For 20 years he has worked with such arts powerhouses as Philip Glass, choreographer Bill T. Jones, jazz singer Cassandra Wilson, dancer Savion Glover, pop star Lady Gaga, and others.

DBR is classically trained, but not traditionally bound. His violin sounds include a heady mix of genres: hip-hop, jazz, urban, Caribbean, electronic and folk, among others. His compositions span spoken-word, chamber, orchestral, choir, opera and film. He earned his doctorate in music composition from the University of Michigan, teaches at Arizona State University, and serves on boards of the League of American Orchestra, Association of Performing Arts Presenters, and on Creative Capital, the advisory committee of the Sphinx Organization.

Some of his recent works include “The Just and the Blind,” commissioned by Carnegie Hall and a collaboration with spoken-word artist/writer Marc Bamuthi Joseph, who like Roumain is the son of immigrant Haitian parents. Other recent compositions are “Falling Black into the Sky,” based on the artwork of James Turrell for Washington State University’s Symphonic Band, and “Cipher,” a pocket opera with libretto by Joseph, about  Black boys’ incarceration. The Philadelphia Boys Choir will perform it.

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DBR answered a number of Oregon Arts Watch questions this summer about his musicianship and life. Below is the unedited interview:

OAW: How old are you?

DBR: I feel timeless. (Author’s note: He was born in the early 1970s, according to several internet sources.)

OAW: You’re from Florida, right? Broward County? What town/city?

DBR: I am proud to be from Margate, Florida, in Broward County. 

OAW: Where do you live now?  Somehow I think Boston?

DBR: I live in New York City, Norwood, Mass., and Tempe, Ariz. 

OAW: Your son, Zachary, is 10, right? You mentioned he didn’t much like his music class?  Do you see him pursuing music?

DBR: Zachary is 11 years old and makes music in baseball and soccer and basketball and flag football and lacrosse. 

OAW: How do you know Sasha (Callahan) and Leo (Eguchi), founders of Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival?

DBR: A shared love of music and music education.  (Author’s note: Eguchi said they met while music students at the University of Michigan. Eguchi closely followed one of DBR’s bands, DBR & the Mission, in the early 2000s.)

OAW: Did you take up the violin on your own, or was it your parents’ idea? At what age did you begin to play? What violin do you play now?

DBR: Sometimes an instrument chooses you. When I was 5 years old the violin chose me. And I chose the violin. My family always supported me. I play several violins I’ve been in collaboration with for decades. 

OAW: Do you compose on the violin? The piano? Singing? All?

DBR: I compose within a broad and clear imagination.  I’m always composing and creating and thinking about my work as an artist and creative spirit. 

OAW: You talk about your early mentors, including Mrs. Griffiths in middle school. Was she the one who first encouraged you to compose? (Author’s note: I had just listened to the Violin Channel’s June 17, 2020,  broadcast with Young Concert Artists’ President Daniel Kellogg  featuring Nokuthula Ngwenyama and Roumain, in which he talked about early mentors.)

DBR: I was already composing but she allowed my music to be played by the orchestra and that changed my life. It gave me the confidence to compose for larger ensembles and in a more complex manner. 

 OAW: Who are some of your favorite or most influential composers — any genre, of course! Do we hear echoes of them in your music?

DBR: I feel Nina Simone and Prince are composers and just as important to me as Beethoven and Ellington. 

OAW: How did you become such an ardent collaborator? Somehow I don’t think you’d be satisfied with being an orchestral soloist or classical musical conductor (unless things radically change).

DBR: It was the 1970s. Everyone was doing many things at once. If you were a musician, you played multiple instruments. If you wanted to be an artist, everyone could sing and dance and play and compose. We were all collaborating all the time. I never stopped. I never wanted to. 

OAW: Can you tell me a bit about the pieces WVCMF is playing: “Parks” and the “Hip-Hop Studies and Etudes”?

DBR: All of my string quartets are musical portraits of iconic figures from the Civil Rights era. Rosa Parks refused to move from her bus seat and was an integral part of a movement of disobedience towards a common goal of equity and dignity and pride and purpose. My HIP-HOP STUDIES & ETUDES are 24 works (one in each musical key) that explores and examines aspects of hip-hop music that I find most interesting and attractive. 

However, as a Black, Haitian-American composer, so much of my work continues to suffer within a field that is not inclusive or compassionate. 

Classical music remains racist. 

Classical music organizations continue to disenfranchise BIPOC people, and not only BIPOC audiences, but their families and our audiences and our communities. Not nearly enough progress has been made. There are openly racist people with power in classical music. Names are important. Peter Gelb is the General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Based on his work and the values of the Met, he is by all accounts racist, insensitive to the needs of BIPOC opera singers and musicians and continues to adhere to antiquated norms of how to create an equitable and active anti-racist practice at the Met. He has and continues to be an example of the type of exclusionary practices that white supremacy continues to occupy within classical music. He should be removed from his position and replaced with any number of far more qualified BIPOC arts administrators. 

OAW: What might Beethoven say about your music? (As you know, you’re on the program with him.)

DBR: I don’t know and don’t care. He’s dead. I’m alive. 

OAW: Though you do many things – compose, play, teach, lead  a band, advocate, protest, sit on boards — would you say your main objective in each of these endeavors is to create something new in the name of social justice? Is social (in)justice your largest preoccupation in creating music?

DBR: No. Creating music is my largest preoccupation in creating music. It’s a privilege to be able to make one’s passion your vocation and to be able to serve so many communities simultaneously. I have had an audience for a very long time. It’s an honor and a precious responsibility. There’s a certain trust shared between any artist and their audience. I suppose that’s a type of activism that together we can explore and hear and heal one another. BIPOC artists continue to fight for equality in a cold and racist America. My work has always been a very small part of that big fight for justice. 

OAW: How do we get more black and brown kids involved in music?

DBR: First, I would refer to them as Black and Brown children. Second, plenty of Black and Brown children are involved in all types of music. Third, perhaps more classical musicians could respond to the music they love and start programming and collaborating with and commissioning those artists more regularly. For example, why not use the music of Ellington or Eminem towards the study of harmony? Why not use Drake or Public Enemy to best explore complex rhythms? Let’s use Billie Holiday or Sade to understand melodic structure. How about Prince to understand timbre? Perhaps the better question is how do we get white people more interested in Black and Brown music? 

OAW: I did a story on composer Jessie Montgomery, another Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival composer-in-residence this year and last. She said she felt as if she were “having a moment” as the artistic world was becoming more  interested in voices outside the mainstream. What about you?

DBR: These moments come and go. This moment is different. It’s world-wide. It’s built on rage and resistance. It has depth and vision built in. The world is on fire gripped by a dual crisis of pandemic and a fight for social justice. I want war, a real, loving war. George Floyd didn’t deserve to be lynched by a cold and ignorant police officer. Too many police officers are cold and ignorant. My weapon of choice is my violin. Unfortunately, my violin can’t kill or defend me from law enforcement officers who have threatened my life numerous times. I have to use my music as an agent of change. For me to do that, I have to live. Too many cops kill. I don’t want to die. I want to live. 

OAW: You stir things up: Do you consider yourself an outlier, an agent for change, or just a multi-talented persuasive guy? 

DBR: I’m a Black, Haitian-American composer who farms and frames ideas. I’m not stirring anything up. I’m resisting and fighting for change. I want to live. 

OAW: What is on your mind for the future?

DBR: Creating a better space for my child and all children. I want my Black child to live, too. 

OAW: Add anything else you wish.

DBR: If you’re white, stop talking and start listening with your whole white body to BIOPOC people. 

OAW: And thank you so much. I know you are busy. I can’t imagine all the things you do!

DBR: I don’t work as hard as my parents did for me so, if anything, I need to work harder for my people. 

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The Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival’s virtual concert from Sokol Blosser Winery on Saturday, Aug. 22, will feature composer Daniel Bernard Roumain’s “String Quartet No. 5 (Parks)” and “Hip-Hop Studies & Etudes”; Ludwig van Beethoven’s “String Quartet, Opus 135”; and Baroque composer Isabella Leonarda’s “Sonata #12” for violin and cello. The concert is at 5:30 p.m. Get tickets at the WVCMF website.


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