Composer Ron Davis writes for IAM about his new album Instrumental Music Liberation Front, his mixtape approach to genres, and why crossing genres is nothing new.
It’s all about connections.
Bach played Buxtehude. Mozart played Bach. Mozart wrote (what he thought was) “Turkish” music. So did Beethoven. Bartok had Hungarian folk songs. Vaughan Williams, English. Ravel, jazz. Scott Joplin, ragtime and opera. Colin McPhee, the gamelan. Florence Beatrice Price, symphonies and spirituals. And on and on.
Connections. Between diverse musics. Between diverse musicians. There has always been a reticular reality to Western classical music. (Jazz, too – the ultimate multi-wired interlineated switchboard of music-dom. A “great gumbo” as Wynton Marsalis – multi-genre magician himself – has styled it. I digress.)
So, when asked how I combine different sub-genres of classical music in my compositions with my Symphronica ensemble, the answer comes easily. Music for me is all about the connections. And the connections come easily. They have always been right there in Western music. In other musics, too, no doubt.
Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. I am classically trained. I grew up listening to 60s and 70s pop. And I’m a jazz pianist and composer. How could my music not turn out to be multi-connected, multi-genre? How could my personal evolution not reflect Western classical music’s historical crossbreeding?
Interconnectivity is the overt aesthetic of my newest Symphronica recording, the Instrumental Music Liberation Front. The title refers to my conviction that non-vocal music has been unfairly marginalized in society. But that’s not the point of this piece.
The core of the Instrumental Music Liberation Front is its visible embrace of multimodal musicmaking. Whereas in the past, I was content to be slotted as a jazz musician, and Symphronica a jazz group, with this new record, I decided to come out and put on display the many influences in what we do. I put the plumbing and wiring on display, rather than hiding it behind a finished plaster wall.
And so, starting from a jazz base (whatever jazz is – we’re not going to solve that headcracker any time soon), I opened myself up to melodies and harmonies of any origin and any kind, but which simply felt right together. For example, my tune Sergei’s Shuffle began with the realization one day that the fourth movement of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No 7 was a boogie-woogie in 7/4 (especially as Glenn Gould plays it). That led me to write the tune as it is, but with the improvising “blowing” section built on a basic blues/shuffle/boogie pattern. Or again, our fantastic string section leader, violinist and composer Aline Homzy, took Bach’s E Major Violin Concerto, and dropped a funkadelic solo section in the middle. And it works!
Then there’s Brahms – the track on my record, not the guy. I must’ve been 15 years old when I first heard Bruno Walter’s version of Symphony No 3. When the third movement allegretto came along, I was done. Done! The susurrant undulance, the well of inspiration (literally, the music inhales and exhales), the systole and diastole of the heartfelt melody – it all took me into its emotional clench. I was moved then and am moved to this day by the music. I had to make it my own. But Symphronica is not an orchestra, and we don’t play symphonies. How to play the allegretto nonetheless? How to adapt it to our style and our sound?
First, I created what chefs might call a reduction: a piano arrangement of the salient bits of the piece. Then I worked at improvising – blowing – on the harmonies to get a sense of the possibilities they offered. Then, I handed matters off to the brilliant arranger (and all-around musician) Louis Simão. Using a harmonic and rhythmic scheme no doubt influenced by his deep understanding of Brazilian music – although by no means is the arrangement of Brahms Brazilian – Louis crafted what you hear on the record. Voilà. A piece that connects different sounds and styles while still honouring (I hope) Herr Doktor Brahms.
It’s 2020. It’s the era of music without borders. Playlist mixes. Streaming mashups. And whether musically, artistically, or socially, as far as I’m concerned, the more we are all connected, the better. It’s all about connections.