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And you also write works that commemorate happy events. Three of the pieces on this program honor birthdays, and one of them will have its premiere at this concert.
It's called "Helga." Helga Siegel lives in Atlanta, and Charles, her husband, wanted to commission a work for her 70th birthday, so he asked me to write it. They're dear friends, and I thought it would be significant to put on this program.
In what ways has being an African-American, in what is considered a predominantly white and European genre, had an impact on your composition -- on the music itself, that is?
I don't know. I've never thought about color and music at all, or genre. The only thing in which color plays a role is opportunity. The real question should be: How do you function in a world of music to which very few Americans listen in the course their daily lives? Art music is what I know. Jazz is art music as well. People have these general notions of what that all means based upon their own personal experiences.
And what has been the impact of life in Atlanta itself upon your work?
The city is very protective in the sense that nobody bothers you. You're not bombarded the whole time by so many events, or noise for that matter. I travel a lot, but I'm always happy to come back here. My friends in "big" places always wonder, "Why are you staying there?" I'm staying here because I'm productive, I've got a community of friends, and my wife -- I met my wife, Lisa, here. And I've had significant work done here. To be able to work over a period of years with one ensemble [like Thamyris] is a gift. I was composer-in-residence with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and at Spelman College, and I've really got a lot of respect within this community.
So why should you go somewhere else?
Exactly. Home is home. And when does home become home? It's not only because you're born there, but because you've spent a significant time growing there. And also, I think more importantly, because both of my parents are Southerners, and they always talked about experiences that they wished I could have. And when they learned I was coming to Atlanta, they were pleased.
They were both from South Carolina?
My mother was from a town called Clinton, which is near Greenville, and my dad from a little town called Ehrhardt, which is in Bamburg County, near Orangeburg. Ehrhardt is a farm town. My grandfather knew everybody in that town. And the people you didn't know, you'd still say hello and wave at them. I remember sitting on the porch at the end of a workday with my grandfather, and he'd see somebody going by in a wagon or a pickup truck [and wave].
A Southern cultural tradition. I would not expect that in New York.
New York is very different. I think New York is friendly, but it's friendly on a need-to-know basis. Like for instance, if you stand in New York on a corner and look like you're lost, two or three people will come up to you and say, "Can I help you? Can I show you where to go?" Other than that, people go about their business. You can be anonymous in New York.
Yet, with family that has Southern roots, you wound up being born in Brooklyn?
At the time that [my parents] went to New York, everyone was going to industrial places for work. They met in New York, and got married in 1938. I was born in 1940.
So as a youngster in Brooklyn you had a particular, let's say, geographical perspective of the world?
Well, no matter when you grow up, you don't travel that far from home. As a teenager, going to Manhattan was a big deal. I mean, when you said you're going to get on the train and go to Manhattan, you'd immediately tell all your friends so they'd be impressed.
Did you have to "get dressed" to go downtown, and spent the whole day there?
Absolutely! That's just my parents. That's from their Southern roots. We had to get dressed to go into town, or just to go shopping. And of course I hated it, and my sister hated it.
But you still wanted to impress all your friends.
Oh yeah, for sure. I got accustomed to that, and years later when I was looking for some part-time work in the summer, I got a job working for a CPA firm just because I happened to have been the only one with a coat and tie on at the interview. [Only] later I found out it was because of that. After high school, I started studying accounting, and they wanted me to stay at that firm because they said I had a future there. I did until I couldn't bear it anymore, because the music thing was growing inside of me, and I eventually quit.
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