Muhal Richard Abrams & Daniel Bernard Roumain, Two Generations Jumping the Same Fence In Different Ways
What makes jazz jazz and classical music classical? If we define jazz as "improvised music" and classical as "notated music," what did composers like open-form pioneer Earle Brown and indeterminacy inventor John Cage write? If we define jazz as music we listen to in clubs and classical as music we listen to in concert halls,what shall we call what Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton or John Zorn-all of whose music is heard in both venues-create?
How about "music"?
That's the answer composer and pianist Muhal Richard Abrams would give. Born in 1930 in Chicago, Abrams is both elder statesman of 1960s experimental jazz and a contemporary classical composer whose works have been performed by orchestras and chamber ensembles.
Starting out as a hard bop pianist, Abrams formed the Experimental Band in 1961 with Roscoe Mitchell and Jack DeJohnette, which led to his founding in 1965 of the Association for Advancement of Creative Musicians. Out of the AACM's circle arose genre-breaking musicians like Braxton and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
By the 1980s, the edgy modernism of improvising big bands like the Art Ensemble and collectives like the AACM had gone out of fashion. Composers like Abrams found support in the classical field, with his works eagerly performed by new-music advocates like pianist Ursula Oppens and the Kronos Quartet.
Making such a distinction between orchestral and improvisational music, however, is not a viewpoint shared by the composer.
"I'm not a jazz musician," states Abrams. "I'm not a classical musician. I'm a musician."
Abrams, who has lived in New York since 1977, possesses an acute intellect which has earned him respect in both black and white "concert music" communities as well as in the jazz world.
"I'm flexible," Abrams says of writing in what others may consider antithetical formats. "It's about music. Whatever the occasion, I try to meet the challenge."
A recent challenge met will be unveiled at the January world premiere of Abrams's ACO-commissioned Tomorrow's Song, as Yesterday Sings Today.
"The piece is more or less like life," Abrams explains. "When an event occurs, it can be related to something that came before and also to that which will come afterwards. So it represents yesterday, today and tomorrow."
He cautions, however, that this structural explanation only elucidates his approach to writing the piece and doesn't describe what it sounds like. "That" he says, "is determined by the listener."
Young New York composer Daniel Bernard Roumain also leaves it to the audience to decide just what it is they're hearing, though as representative of a newer generation, he looks to urban pop instead of jazz for his grounding.
"I grew up listening to both," the 29-year-old Roumain says of pop and classical music. "I grew up playing violin in elementary through high school orchestra and playing electric guitar in my rock band. Orchestral music and black music in all its forms have always been part of my life."
Roumain grew up in the Miami area, exposed to a plethora of ethnic musics and international playing styles. By the time Roumain had entered high school, he had already performed and collaborated with artists ranging from Dizzy Gillespie to the infamous rappers 2 Live Crew.
More than just a fan of hip-hop, Roumain is completing doctoral studies at the University of Michigan School of Music (where he has studied with Michael Daugherty and William Bolcom) on the deconstruction and etymology of hip-hop music. "Hip-hop music isn't just a culture, it isn't just a style," he says. "What happens in hip-hop on a musical level is complicated-it's a language."
Roumain applies the structural elements of hip-hop to his orchestral work Harlem Essay for Orchestra and Digital Audio Tape, which receives its world premiere by ACO in January.
His previous "essay" piece, Hip Hop Essay for Orchestra, won the 1997 ACO Whitaker Commission, which resulted in Harlem Essay, a work for which Roumain recorded the ambient sounds of 125th Street and the voices of long-time Harlem residents such as his landlady Miss Logan, whose memories include seeing Josephine Baker for a dollar at the Apollo Theater.
These taped voices and ambient sounds "function as a DJ" to the MC of the orchestra, whose part incorporates rhythmic and structural conventions of hip-hop into the idioms of European concert music.
"What I hope Harlem may become is one of the first works that validates the significance of hip-hop music," states Roumain, who also plays guitar in his band DBR's Mission, writes music for dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones, and runs his own internet record company.
"I don't separate the two," he says of writing "classical" music versus writing "popular" music, echoing the elder Abrams. "Writing a song for my funk band is just as 'composerly' as writing Harlem Essay." aco
Muhal Richard Abrams's Tomorrow's Song, as Yesterday Sings Today and Daniel Bernard Roumain's Harlem Essay will be performed on ACO's January 9 "Roots" concert.