Classical Music’s Latest Bloomer

A conversation with composer Joseph C. Phillips Jr. about his sublime marriage of jazz and classical music.

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Like in the first movement [of Vipassana], there’s one part where the vibraphone and the piano are playing by themselves. I had written out a pattern for the pianist, so she could play off of that pattern many variations and eventually go off and do whatever. Eventually the vibraphonists and pianists are intertwined and playing off of each other.  It’s hard to tell where the improvisation and the composed switches.

TR: When you mentioned [rhythmic] patterns—and I know that [modern classical composers] Steve Reich and John Adams play off a lot of them—I thought of jazz saxophonist Steve Coleman.  Did you ever listen to his stuff.

JCP: Yes. I really like his M-Base ensembles. I love the fact that he always has these rhythmic patterns that sort of sound like minimalism. That sort of intricacy of rhythm is very attractive. Plus, his music is often set in this funk aesthetic. His emphasis on rhythm is very similar to what I do and to what a lot of other new music composers do. 

TR: Do you think that’s a byproduct of living in the hip-hop generation?

JCP: Well there are those remix album of Steve Reich’s music [from 1999 and 2006], on which various DJs sort of re-interpreted his music.  I know that some of the new music composers have heard hip-hop, but I find that that it’s less of a direct influence to them. For them, most of them didn’t grow up listening to hip-hop. It’s like me, I heard a lot of music, but there were certain things that I listened to more than others.

But you can’t deny hip-hop’s influence on modern music—just the process of making hip-hop and the emphasis on rhythm and smashing and slicing up things, that’s very influential.  We live in the time where hip-hop and R&B music are the dominant musics; they are today’s pop music.