Q&A with Composer Brent Michael Davids

The Great American Road Trip is bound to be unforgettable—and one of the biggest reasons why is because composer Brent Michael Davids will join us to perform some of his work! Davids has had an exciting career scoring work for orchestras and films, and he has a unique style in which he combines orchestral music with unique instruments of his own creation.

Naturally, we are excited to have him on the tour, so we asked him a few questions about his work:

What was the inspiration for the two works, “Spirit Woman Song” and “Fluting Around, II” featured on this tour?

Guest artist and composer Brent Michael Davids

Jean-Philippe Rameau saw some Illiniwek (Native Americans) dancing in Paris and got the idea to compose a dance-opera. It utilized harpsichord and sounded nothing like Native American music. It was basically a Harlequin

romance novel set to the music of his time period, with an old chief, his pretty daughter, and two opposing suitors. There are Native composers that have written for orchestra, such as Zitkala Sa (“Red Bird”) who wrote the first grand opera in 1913, even winning “opera of the year” from the New York Opera Guild in 1938. Her studies at the Boston Conservatory of Music enabled her to fuse Dakota culture with Western European composition.

Today there have been others trail-blazing Native American orchestral music, such as Dr. Louis Wayne Ballard, a longtime dear friend of mine. He was a Quapaw-Cherokee composer of great accomplishment, a lifetime educator, and he mentored me for nearly 30 years. There are others too, such as Odawa composer Barbara Croall, Choctaw composer George Quincey, Navajo composer Raven Chacon, a wonderful young O’otham composer Tonya Wind Singer, and forays into orchestral composition by many performer-composers and pianist-composers. In fact, Tonya’s premiering a new work with Cape Symphony this Friday (August 25, 2017) for a Wampanoag singer and orchestra called “First Light.”

For almost 41 years now, it has been my mission to create a hybrid between Native American song traditions, and orchestral concert music. The two works featured on the tour are recent examples of this longtime effort!

In your work, you use a lot of instruments that are not common to traditional orchestras. What are some of these instruments and why did you pick them?

The instruments are often my own designs and in collaboration with others. I’ve had several composer “periods” I suppose, and one of them was electronic music. I started composing for concert band 1976, then for small chamber avant-garde ensembles using extended instrumental techniques by creating sounds not normally produced on those instruments, and then a period of electronic compositions, tape manipulation, and “music concrete.”

What I learned in electronic music is the creation of wild sounds are often not reproducible on standardized acoustic instruments. I loved exploring new sounds, but I wasn’t enjoying electronic music so much. When leaving that medium, and going toward orchestral music, I wanted to find ways of creating wilder sounds for acoustic instruments. I started building instruments at that point, out of all sorts of materials, woods, plastics, metals, and even quartz crystal, and I had help from fabricators and even scientists. Many of the acoustic principles of the newly made instruments are ideas gleaned from traditional Native Americans ones.
Who and/or what inspired you most to become a musician?

My parents were the most influential, encouraging me to become musically literate. And I was greatly inspired by composer George Crumb. I first heard his work for electric string quartet called “Black Angels” and was awe-struck by it. It was the first instance where I heard music that sounded exactly like the title of the work; “Night of the Electric Insects” was a section of the work and it evoked exactly that, electric insects. I’d never heard anything like that before, and it drove me to learn more and to start composing myself. Later I learned that violinist David Harrington was also inspired by this work, prompting him to found the renown Kronos Quartet, for whom I have composed.

Your work appears to tell a story. Do you have a narrative in mind when you compose?

Always. In my view, any competent composers can create an acceptable work, passable by any nominal orchestration and composition standards. What excites me, however, are the works that tell something vital. Music works are like grand conversations really, with a beginning, middle, and ending. They are naturally story-like, evocative events occurring through time. But not all stories are alike, and not all stories are good ones. So I try my utmost to create adventures in my music, dynamic and striking tales in sound that have extra musical meaning. I want to tell good stories, and music composing is my best voice.

Besides composing, what other projects are you working on?

I’m composing a large requiem about the founding of the country, called “Requiem for America,” that relates the American Indian perspective of the original founding events in our shared American history. I’m composing an hour-long,  secular ‘anti-Requiem,’ spinning the traditional Christian Death Mass on its head to give voice to America’s invisible people: the American Indians.

I’m continuing to score several films, as well, including “Lake of Betrayal” which airs nationally on PBS this November, and several indie films. I am excited by a scoring project not for film though, but for fashion. I’ve been hired to score the runway show of designer Patricia Michaels for the International Fashion Week in Paris at the Louvre (18 Nov 2017). France’s top youth chorus, Mikrokosmos, has signed on to perform the work! Desert blooms, gentle rain, wind, and birds are musically portrayed by France’s most celebrated youth chorus. Soprano, alto, tenor and baritone voices warble, chirp, trill, and hum an environment of sounds for Michaels’ desert-inspired fashions.

I just finished composing a new choral work, available soon via See-A-Dot music publishing, called “Singing for Water” giving choirs everywhere an opportunity to sing the message of the Native American Water Protectors, with all proceeds going to Winona LaDuke’s Honor The Earth organization. It’s going to be an exciting fall!

Since this is a road trip – tell us about the best road trip you’ve ever been on.

I could weave together a great story about running through NASA security to stow away onboard a space shuttle into orbit, but my most exciting road trip is probably that time I stubbed my toe on a tree root that was obviously trying to knock me over because it did! I did drive to Zion National Park years ago to perform a small concert with a few others, most notably frame-drummer extraordinaire Glen Velez. But with an orchestra?! I’m super excited about appearing with the exceptional Utah Symphony!

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