Classical Music’s Latest Bloomer

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

TR: What did you listen to growing up?

JCP: Growing up in the D.C. area, I listened to go-go music in high school, and I loved Prince. I started a job my senior year in high school. That’s when I first had money. So I eventually started buying tapes and eventually CDs. I tried to listen to whatever. I still listened to popular music, but I also started listening to a lot of jazz. That’s when I began knowing about Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. I even listened to the avant-garde stuff like Ornette Coleman and Anthony Braxton. Once I got into college, everything sort of opened up. Not only did I have money, but I also had the music library, so Claude Debussy and Gustav Mahler became big influences. Basically, I listened to whatever I liked.

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TR:  What defines modern classical music today?

JCP: Well, there is this movement of young composers who are cross pollinating things. Earlier people were stuck in these categories. It was either you’re European classical music or that you’re avant-garde jazz or jazz, etc. Partly it was because composers grew up only listening to that respective particular music; now composers are coming out who grew up listening to rock music, R&B or hip-hop. And those genres become a part of their musical vocabulary.  And I’m a part of that, too. Growing up, I heard no classical music beyond film music.

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Two of my idols, Steve Reich and Philip Glass sort of rebelled against the classical establishment, mostly because the classical establishment wasn’t going to play their music. So they decided to do their own thing. That’s been a model for a lot of people now.

TR: Have you had to deal with any challenges within the classical music world due to race?

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JCP: Being in the new music realm and going to various concerts, I rarely see many African-American people. I don’t know the reason. I’ve always been inclusive in terms of friends and my music influences.  So I don’t feel like I have to be in the “black” world or the “white” world. But I am conscious of the lack of African Americans in the classical world. I find that even in my own groups, a difficulty of finding African-American musicians who want to play my compositions. I do have some African-American musicians, though.

I know from growing up and hearing about James Reese Europe and William Grant Still, there have been some black American composers who have gotten in. But one thing I don’t want to be is sort of marginalized. I don’t want to be “the black composer.” I want to be known as “the composer who happens to be black.”

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In many ways, I’m not interested in the conventional classical world. Of course, if the New York Philharmonic Orchestra or the San Francisco Symphonic Orchestra asked me to write a piece, I would. Again, that goes back to that Steve Reich model. I feel like if these doors are closed, find another one.

So I don’t know how much race is a hindrance for me. Maybe it is, and I just don’t know it. But I do feel the twinge of wanting to see more black people coming to new music concerts or seeing more black musicians perform modern classical music. For conductors, it’s even rarer to see blacks. I would hope that people would look at me and say, ‘Hey, there are some African-American composers out there in the classical world.

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John Murph is a regular contributor to The Root.

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