Classical Music’s Latest Bloomer

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

Photo courtesy of Carolyn Wolf
Photo courtesy of Carolyn Wolf

The 42-year-old, modern classical composer Joseph C. Phillips Jr. is a self-described “late-bloomer.” Now one of the brightest new lights on the modern classical scene, he studied music at the University of Maryland and began his career as an award-winning high school director near Seattle.

He honed his gifts as a composer while he was a member of the Seattle Young Composers Collective and began to make a name for himself after moving to New York City in 2000. Recognition quickly followed: He was a finalist in the BMI Foundation’s Charlie Parker’s Composers Competition in 2003, a 2007 Sundance Institute Composer’s Lab finalist and founder of the New York City-based composer’s federation, Pulse. 

In April, Innova Records released his sophomore release, Vipassana, on which his 25-piece ensemble, Numinous, displays his knack for melding the worlds of jazz and classical into a singular, distinguishable voice. His music captures the wonder and immediacy of the late science-fiction writer Octavia E. Butler’s prose. A hypnotic rhythmic undertow guides his music and is informed by influences from the world of literature, philosophy and religion.

The Root talked with Phillips the day after he premiered The Gates of Wonder at his alma mater. Not only did he talk extensively about the makings of his music, but also about modern classical music’s relationship to other music, such as jazz and hip-hop, and about his experiences as a new composer in a genre in which racial barriers for many African Americans are often prevalent but quietly ignored. 

The Root: Let’s talk about your new disc, Vipassana. I noticed that there were passages that were obviously borrowed from jazz. Does your music call for improvisation or were even those parts thoroughly composed?

Joseph C. Phillips Jr.: All of my pieces have improvisation within them. There are certainly sections where there are solos. There are times within the ensemble that the musicians are doing aleatory music, where artists are playing whatever. Hopefully I blend the jazz and classical worlds together so that you’re not conscientious of it all the time.

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.