Artist Blog

Joseph C Phillips Jr: To Mixed Music

This past summer composer George Lewis wrote a fascinating New York Times article called “Lifting the Cone of Silence From Black Composers.” In the article he wrote of composer/performer Nathalie Joachim’s wonderful Grammy-nominated album Fanm d’Ayiti (“Women of Haiti,” 2019 New Amsterdam Records) that she brings “musical Minimalism home to the African diaspora from which it has drawn so much” (Ibid). Musical minimalism (or probably more accurately post-minimalism), while only a part of my overall compositional voice and inspiration, is also probably my ur-language. Dr. Lewis’s framing of Joachim’s music could also be said about a lot my own music beginning in the late 1990’s and the beginning of my ensemble Numinous in 2000, to my albums The Music of Joseph C Phillips Jr (2003, Numen Records), Vipassana (2009, Innova Recordings), Changing Same (2015, New Amsterdam Records), and into today with my latest album, my monoopera called The Grey Land (2020, New Amsterdam Records).

Much has been made of the earliest adherents of musical minimalism being drawn to and inspired by jazz music and musicians. It is well known that composers Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass have all discussed drawing inspiration from many jazz figures such as John Coltrane, Kenny Clarke, Duke Ellington, and Miles Davis (even the later post-minimalist composer John Adams, has mentioned how the music of Duke Ellington and jazz influenced his early musical development). And many of those early minimalists also were drawn to music from various cultures from around the world. Whether from India or Indonesia or Ghana, the early minimalists often gleaned musical ideas and concepts from those cultures into their own music and philosophies. The broader expressions of musical colonialism and questions of power dynamics and control have also always been in the histories of those earliest minimalists: the fine line between inspiration, influence, and theft; what are the appropriate ways to acknowledge and attribute cultural source materials; what limited resources are being consumed in musical circles and who is let in and who is left out of those circles. And these are the difficult questions in new music, and classical music in general, that are often veiled from more public attention and scrutiny (the recent controversy about Steve Reich has brought many of these questions to the surface—the classical music industry, like the country writ large, has begun a reckoning which may bear a long-delayed fruit of inclusion and acceptance of music from the many diverse and powerful voices which have been ignored by the establishment for far too long).1Will Robin, https://soundexpertise.org/steve-reich-and-the-politics-of-race-with-sumanth-gopinath/ So when I arrived in New York City in the late 1990s to become a composer, some of these questions and thoughts were in my mind as I was developing what kind of music I wanted to compose and how I was going to have it heard.

While I was always more interested in and influenced by classical music, I was also always interested in jazz and/or improvised music, as well as popular and film music and sought to bring together those worlds in my music. I love John Adams (both of them); I love Maria Schneider; I love Gustav Mahler; I love Prince, and much more. To me there were clear musical connections between minimalism and jazz, and some popular music as well, but I did not want to compose music that was a pastiche or “third stream,” as most compositions in those veins struck me as a sort of Frankenstein. Although the concept of fusing influences into one style I did find intriguing, that music’s ‘otherness’—neither fully “classical” nor fully “jazz”—while sometimes interesting, I found was also never fully satisfying, musically or aesthetically. So in those early years of my composing, in my mind at least, I thought tongue-and-cheekily if producers Gamble and Huff and their “Philly Sound” of the 1970s sought to “put a bow tie on the funk” and to make it “elegant” 2“Make it Funky” episode (Chapter 8) of the David Espar, Rock and Roll documentary, https://vimeo.com/399998317 then somehow I was going to try to ‘bring the funk to minimalism, to make it turn home again to its African diasporaic roots (this was long before I had heard of composer Julius Eastman who was in the same circles as those early minimalists). Author Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” So I was always seeking something different within my compositions, but back in those early days starting in the late 1990s, I still couldn’t quite articulate or fully realize what that different or something was actually going to be. Nevertheless I continued searching, writing and finding parts of my vision, continually looking for my own way and my own voice, and modifying the above quote to, ‘if there’s music that I want to hear, but it hasn’t been written yet, then I must write it.’ And I do!

My philosophy has changed over the years and has both broadened and become more specific; I now described what I write as mixed music. For 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, I wrote: “…a disparate group…composers and musicians eschewing easy classification in their quest to create music that organically fuses elements of many different styles into something completely personal, different, and new. While terms such as alt-classical or indie classical are used to identify a narrow sub-section of this aesthetic, I created the term, mixed music, as an umbrella term that more broadly describes any type of music that transcends the rigid definition of a singular genre. This openness between genres seems to be de rigueur over much contemporary music: classical composers and ensembles openly flirt with popular music (Nico Muhly, Signal, Alarm Will Sound); jazz musicians either influenced by soul/hip-hop artists (Roy Hargrove, Robert Glasper, Vijay Iyer) or contemporary pop and rock music (The Bad Plus, Brad Mehldau, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society); and pop and rock musicians either influenced by classical music (Tortoise, The Dirty Projectors) or actually composing orchestral works (Sufjan Stevens, Jonny Greenwood).” 3“Introductory Statement of Purpose,” Joseph C Phillips Jr, 2011 Masters thesis, page 10

My thesis was in 2011, so in practice, the philosophy, while fundamentally the same concept today, has evolved. In 2013 I described mixed music as, “This miscegenation [between influences/genres] 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.” As LeRoi Jones wrote in his eponymous 1966 essay which my 2013 composition and 2015 album Changing Same borrows as its name and aesthetic underpinning, “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.”4LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), “The Changing Same” (1966) In fact Dr. Lewis’s description of the ‘creole’ in music—“In the late 1980s, the Caribbean writers Jean Bernabé, Patrick Chamoiseau and Raphael Confiant proclaimed themselves ‘Creoles’: ‘torn between several languages, several histories, caught in the torrential ambiguity of a mosaic identity’…African-American composers have explored what it means — and could mean — to be American, helping to foster a creolized, cosmopolitan new music for the 21st century” —is a very close cousin to my concept of mixed music.

To Mixed Music

Before I moved to New York City to be a composer, I knew that at some point when I got to the city, I was going to have my own ensemble. Inspired by those early minimalists I wanted an ensemble that would perform my music under my direction, because at that point, really who else was going to? I knew my ensemble was going to be called Numinous, to reflect what I wanted to do with my music: to “resonate with beauty, mystery, and wonder in order to challenge, enlighten, and refresh.” 5Joseph C Phillips Jr, https://www.numinousmusic.com/about-numinous.html But I didn’t know what the exact instrumentation would be (although I knew it would be some kind of chamber orchestra with strings), nor how I would find people to play, and most importantly, what kind of music I would write and we would perform. I began Numinous on October 5, 2000 starting with 14 musicians (gradually over the 20 years it grew to the 30 musicians today). Since my interests were more aligned with the contemporary new music scene, in particular minimalism or post-minimalism, and I was also interested in improvisation, jazz (particularly Maria Schneider), and various popular music, I wanted the music for Numinous to reconcile my many influences in order to create something that was none of those things, but also all of them; something that was unique to me—a music sui generis. At the time I was years away from articulating the philosophy and coining the term mixed music to help clarify what I was trying to do, but the seeds of mixed music were apparent from the beginning.

(Vipassana album photos: Joseph C Phillips Jr)

“Into all the Valleys Evening Journeys” premiered in July 2003, however, since 2002 I was already at work on the large-scaled composition that would soon envelope it: Vipassana. It wasn’t until after returning from spending two weeks in the Netherlands at the Steve Reich Festival in December 2003 that I was able to crystallize and synthesize what that large-scaled piece would be (the Festival was essentially a symposium on Steve Reich’s oeuvre, where a number of orchestras, groups, and ensembles performed almost his entire body of work in various venues around Den Haag and Amsterdam, as well as compositions inspired or influenced by him or minimalism—my compositions “To Kyoto” and “Into all the Valleys Evening Journeys” were performed during the Festival). Back in the States, I worked on completing the other movements and in 2005 Numinous premiered the 60-minute Vipassana. We performed the piece at least once every year from 2005 to 2010, recording the composition in 2007, with the album being released in 2009 on Innova recordings. Looking back now, Vipassana probably was the grandest expression of the middle way of my earliest musical philosophy between minimalism/contemporary classical music and jazz—and frankly, it was the last time I was interested in melding the two in any overt way. Actually the last movement of Vipassana, “The Nothingness that is the Source of Everything,” which was also the last of the four movements to be composed, one can hear the same fused elements of minimalism and jazz that are more overt in the other three movements, but they are now framed more orchestrally and begin to point toward a different direction that was more integrated, more subtle, and more directly in alignment with classical and new music thought.

 

“Into all the Valley Evening Journeys” from Vipassana
By Joseph C Phillips Jr
Ensemble: Numinous, conducted by Joseph C Phillips Jr
Soloist: Dave Smith, trumpet


“The Nothingness that is the Source of Everything” from Vipassana
By Joseph C Phillips Jr
Ensemble: Numinous, conducted by Joseph C Phillips Jr
Soloists: Dan Willis, flute; Skye Steele, violin

“Into all the Valleys Evening Journeys” and all of Vipassana you can read more about it: https://www.numinousmusic.com/the-numinosum-blog/category/inside-vipassana

 

By the year 2012, my compositions for Numinous were already moving away from a conscious ‘middle way’ between classical and jazz, and more toward the contemporary classical/new music world proper (years before, my small-group chamber compositions and works for wind ensemble had already moved). And while certainly some jazz elements were still there at times, they were now subsumed in less obvious ways than in my previous compositions. Another change, the ensemble itself, while still essentially a large chamber orchestra, had switched from being a more equal representation between classical and jazz musicians in its earliest days, to now, being filled mostly with musicians coming from the world of contemporary classical/new music. Of course this also affected the music I composed for Numinous; this change, while as I mentioned was hinted at earlier with “The Nothingness…” and other works, really went into overdrive when I was commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in 2012 to compose, conduct and perform to film with Numinous, a new score to Ernst Lubitsch’s 1922 silent movie epic The Loves of Pharaoh at the Next Wave Festival. Although only scored for 18 musicians, The Loves of Pharaoh is really a 100-minute orchestral score, fully utilizing techniques from post-minimalism and contemporary classical music.

 

 

The Loves of Pharaoh
Act One, Scenes 1 & 2
By Joseph C Phillips Jr

Ensemble: Numinous, conducted by Joseph C Phillips Jr

 

(Changing Same album art design: DM Stith)

A few months after The Loves of Pharaoh premiere came Changing Same. Commissioned by and premiering at the Ecstatic Music Festival in March 2013, we recorded the work that year and the album was released in August 2015 on New Amsterdam Records. The concept behind the six-movement composition was: “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…[f]rom 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 is mixed music.” 6Joseph C Phillips Jr, https://www.numinousmusic.com/the-numinosum-blog/changing-same The opening piece from Changing Same, “19” really came from a ‘can I make Schoenberg funky?’ challenge question to myself. “19” was featured this August in the New York Times “5 Minutes That Will Make You Love 21st-Century Composers” and there is a link in the article to part of my thesis discussing the musical underpinnings of the composition. And Changing Same’s last movement, “Unlimited,” with its inspiration from my attendance at Barack Obama’s first presidential inauguration in 2009, to the music of both Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra and Gamble and Huff, one could hear it as the musical manifestation of what I wrote earlier about trying to “bring the funk to minimalism.”

 

“19” from Changing Same
Ensemble: Numinous, conducted by Joseph C Phillips Jr
Soloist: Mike Baggetta, guitar

 


 

“Unlimited” from Changing Same
Ensemble: Numinous, conducted by Joseph C Phillips Jr

 

To The Grey Land

Today Numinous is fully immersed in the contemporary classical scene. When I moved to New York City in the late 1990s, I had hopes that my musical world might someday be a part of that scene—but being a newly arrived young Black male with classical orchestral ambitions and also no connections to that world, I had no idea how it could happen. I came to New York to write, and I wrote. I worked very hard, and things were not always easy but I also knew I was incredibly lucky. Over the years, through truly organic developments, experiences, and help and inspiration from many people in my life, I found my way and found my voice in classical music/new music.

This year 2020, a truly annus horribilis, if there ever was one, I have luckily had a bright spot to focus on—The Grey Land. Numinous finished the studio sessions just before all of the lockdowns and I’ve been working remotely ever since, with the engineers and co-producer Oded Lev-Ari, on preparing the album for the upcoming release on November 20th on New Amsterdam Records. The Grey Land is a monoopera, scored for my largest Numinous ensemble to date—30 musicians—and is my most ambitious undertaking yet. The beginnings of my thinking on the opera were in 2011, but it wasn’t until 2014 and the protests in Ferguson, Missouri that The Grey Land really came into focus. The opera, in its 13 scenes, explores universal themes of humanity and identity through the intractable triumvirate of race, class, and power in American society, and comments more specifically on the larger longstanding systemic societal, economic and cultural issues the various police shootings and protests since 2014 have brought to a wider public consciousness.

And while my music no longer overtly references jazz, that musical language has been integrated into my overall voice, whether it’s in my usage of certain rhythmic ideas or some of the various harmonies I use or by occasionally just still allowing space for improvisation in my music. One example of this in The Grey Land is Scene 12 “The Sunken Place.” The last section of the scene I have the six vocalists (Aubrey Johnson, Tammy Scheffer, Sara Serpa, Bogna Kicinska, Emilie Weibel, and Amy Cervini) improvise over their own vocal harmonic pad. While certainly not ‘jazz,’ the same spirit of openness and sound exploration was what I was looking for; and with me assembling and adding an electronic collage of their voices, the composite effect creates the atmosphere that helps to encapsulate the mood behind the meaning of “[t]he sunken place is this metaphor for the system that is suppressing the freedom of black people.” 7Jordan Peele, https://www.indiewire.com/2017/11/get-out-jordan-peele-explains-sunken-place-meaning-1201902567/

To See Things As They Are

So again my music has continued to change with the times, although like the concept of mixed music, the seeds for the change have been there since almost the beginning; it’s only now, with these times that those particular seeds have begun to bud and awaken, evolving again into something different than before. Or perhaps it’s not something else or different, but perhaps just more of myself. As Carl Jung once wrote, “Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakens.” 8Carl Jung, Letters Vol. 1, Page 33 This spring, in a response to a Twitter post about Vipassana, I wrote:

In response to the state of the world, the subjects for my recent musical projects have almost all been more focused on these contemporary cultural and societal issues: To Begin the World Over Again (2012/2016), inspired by advocacy for freedom and democracy; Changing Same (2013), explores the richness and complexity of being black in 21st century America; “Never Has Been Yet” (2016), balances love and criticism of America in the Langston Hughes poem “Let America Be America Again;” The Grey Land (2018), a mono opera that is a story of a Black mother trying to survive the reality in this land that doesn’t fully see her or her son; Four Freedoms (2020), a chamber opera updating the unrealized themes of freedom of speech and worship, freedom from want and fear, that are illuminated in President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union speech; and my forthcoming 1619 opera cycle, in which each opera will reflect the predacity of American life and how this country “begins in black plunder and white democracy, two features that are not contradictory but complementary.” 9Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/ This particular moment in our country, I feel, does not afford me, an American Black male, the privilege of being silent about the systemic issues our country has never had the willingness to fully tackle. I don’t know where my musical path will take me next but with the recent protests around Black Lives Matter and police brutality, frankly I have an obligation to myself and to the ancestors to raise my musical voice in solidarity and in truth, and in my own small, musical way, to help illuminate a way toward a better world.


About the Author:

(Photo Credit: Jenny Wohrle)

The compositions of Joseph C. Phillips Jr. are not limited or defined by any one genre but rather are an amalgamation, transmuted into a singular and individual style. Phillips calls his style, mixed music; the term is inspired by mixed race people who have traits and characteristics that come from each individual parent, from the melding of the two, and their own uniqueness. Mixed music is an organic fusing of various elements from many different influences, forming compositions that are personal, different, and new.

He has received a Brooklyn Arts Council Arts Fund grant, NewMusic USA project grant, a American Composers Forum Jerome Foundation grant for New Music, a Meet the Composers Creative Connections grant, an American Music Center CAP grant, two Live Music for Dance commission grants, two Puffin Foundation grants, and was a finalist for both the Sundance Institute Film Composers Lab Fellowship and the Opera Company of Philadelphia Composer-in-Residence. In addition to the worldwide performances of his works, including the Steve Reich Festival in The Hague, Netherlands, new works have been commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) Next Wave Festival, the Kaufman Center and Ecstatic Music Festival, Maryland Opera Studio, pianist Lara Downes, the NextNow Fest for the Invoke String Quartet, Simone Dinnerstein and the Neighborhood Classics Concert Series for Face the Music, Dave Douglas and the Festival of New Trumpet Music (FONT), the Rhythm in the Kitchen Festival, Concrete Temple Theatre Company, St. Olaf College, University of Maryland, University of Denver, the Fieldston School, Edisa Weeks and the Delirious Dance Company, Take Dance Company, Maffei Dance Company, and a number of other musicians and ensembles.

Currently Phillips is working on various commissions and new projects including recording The Grey Land, a monoopera exploring universal themes of acceptance, ostracization, authenticity, and identity centered around intractable issues of race, class, and power in American society. The Grey Land will be released November 20, 2020 on New Amsterdam Records. He is also beginning work on 1619, an opera cycle inspired by the 2019 New York Times series The 1619 Project and the 2014 Ta-Nehisi Coates The Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations.”

Header Image Photo Credit: Jenny Wohrle

Footnotes

Will Robin, https://soundexpertise.org/steve-reich-and-the-politics-of-race-with-sumanth-gopinath/
“Make it Funky” episode (Chapter 8) of the David Espar, Rock and Roll documentary, https://vimeo.com/399998317
“Introductory Statement of Purpose,” Joseph C Phillips Jr, 2011 Masters thesis, page 10
LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), “The Changing Same” (1966
Joseph C Phillips Jr, https://www.numinousmusic.com/about-numinous.html
Joseph C Phillips Jr, https://www.numinousmusic.com/the-numinosum-blog/changing-same
Jordan Peele, https://www.indiewire.com/2017/11/get-out-jordan-peele-explains-sunken-place-meaning-1201902567/
Carl Jung, Letters Vol. 1, Page 33
Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/