Saturday, June 5, 2010

Music feature: Violinist-composer Roumain charts cross-genre path

Daniel Bernard Roumain.‭
(‬Photo by Julieta Cervantes‭)

By Greg Stepanich

It‭’‬s not easy to categorize a musician who can write sonatas for turntables and hip-hop etudes,‭ ‬a violin concerto and dance scores,‭ ‬but the world of contemporary classical music is quickly getting used to the‭ ‬cross-genre fluency of people such as Daniel Bernard Roumain.

‭ ‬“I think there are a lot of composers my age and younger,‭ ‬who literally have played in rock bands,‭ ‬go to nightclubs,‭ ‬kind of hang out in what you could loosely describe as anti-classical music establishments,‭”‬ Roumain said.‭ “‬And‭ ‬I think that it‭’‬s reflected in what we‭’‬re all doing.‭ ‬There‭’‬s a whole scene of young American composers who freely embrace technology,‭ ‬work with rock musicians,‭ ‬work with DJs and laptopists‭ …‬ and who are also electronic musicians and remixers,‭ ‬and are adept at the handling of the technology.‭”

Now,‭ ‬with his custom-made six-string violin‭ (‬whimsically‭ ‬named Bernadette‭)‬,‭ ‬Roumain is pursuing a multi-pronged career that sees him as composer,‭ ‬performer,‭ ‬bandleader,‭ ‬teacher,‭ ‬and conductor,‭ ‬a far cry from the regimented concert life he once thought he would be leading when he first heard a violin in the halls of Margate Elementary School and knew what he wanted to do for a living.

Roumain,‭ ‬39,‭ ‬grew up in Margate as the son of Haitian immigrants who moved from suburban Chicago to Broward County when Daniel was just‭ ‬5.‭ ‬After graduating from the Dillard School‭ ‬of Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale,‭ ‬it was off to Nashville for study at Vanderbilt University,‭ ‬then north to Ann Arbor for a master‭’‬s and doctorate at the University of Michigan.‭

Since then,‭ ‬he‭’‬s‭ ‬held enviable compositional residencies at prestigious organizations such as the Orchestra of St.‭ ‬Luke‭’‬s,‭ ‬the American Composers Orchestra and the Seattle Theater Group,‭ ‬and schools such as Arizona State and Drexel universities.‭ ‬He‭’‬s written for theater,‭ ‬film and television,‭ ‬and for world-class instrumentalists such as guitarist Eliot Fisk,‭ ‬who in‭ ‬2007‭ ‬premiered Roumain‭’‬s guitar concerto,‭ ‬We March‭!‬,‭ ‬with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra.

In late March,‭ ‬Thirsty Ear Records released Roumain‭’‬s second album,‭ ‬Woodbox Beats‭ & ‬Balladry.‭ ‬It contains music Roumain has written over the past three or four years,‭ ‬and unlike his first album,‭ ‬etudes4violin&electronix,‭ ‬released in‭ ‬2007,‭ ‬Woodbox was designed to be a showcase for his nine-piece band.

“‬It‭’‬s always about the violin first,‭ ‬and it‭’‬s always about a conversation,‭”‬ he said.‭ “‬The first record was a conversation with other composers‭ ‬– Philip Glass,‭ [‬Ryuichi‭] ‬Sakomoto,‭ [‬DJ‭] ‬Spooky,‭ ‬and so forth‭ ‬– this is really a conversation with the members of my band,‭ ‬DBR and the Mission.‭ ‬It‭’‬s‭ [‬also‭] ‬kind of a conversation between my violin as performer,‭ ‬and my work as a composer.

‭“‬We focused on works that were written down‭ ‬– very little improvisation,‭ ‬including the‭ ‬‘Sonata for Violin and Turntables‭’‬ --‭ ‬and really the conversation had to do with musicians I‭’‬ve been working with for years,‭”‬ he said.‭ “‬And the compositions we‭’‬ve been playing for years.‭ ‬So this is something that‭’‬s much deeper,‭ ‬much closer to home,‭ ‬and I think the record reflects that.‭”

The cover of Woodbox Beats‭ & ‬Balladry.

Woodbox Beats‭ & ‬Balladry is an energetic,‭ ‬eclectic mix of music that makes use of radically different sound worlds:‭ ‬from the chugging rhythms of‭ ‬Armstrong‭ (‬based on one of Roumain‭’‬s‭ ‬Hip-Hop Etudes‭) ‬to‭ ‬the moody stasis of‭ ‬Simone,‭ ‬with its long,‭ ‬simple piano chords and a melody that climbs by repeated notes slowly up.‭ ‬Although Roumain‭’‬s widely varied violin playing stands out as the focus of the disc,‭ ‬it still has the feel of a band record on its dancier cuts‭ [‬here is the official trailer for the disc‭]‬.

But there are also tracks such as‭ ‬Moonshine,‭ ‬for‭ ‬which Roumain did‭ “‬everything:‭ ‬the production,‭ ‬the keyboards,‭ ‬the track,‭ ‬the bass‭ ‬– and that‭’‬s just not unusual at all anymore.‭”

“There‭’‬s a really big difference between the previous generation of composers,‭ ‬who were more about ensemble work,‭ ‬and who were‭ ‬maybe less comfortable with some aspects of the technology.‭ ‬Maybe that‭’‬s a fair argument,‭ ‬I don‭’‬t know,‭”‬ he said.‭ “‬But certainly what‭’‬s happening now is you‭’‬re seeing composers who have huge interest in film,‭ ‬television and the dance scene,‭ ‬and the rock hipster scene,‭ ‬the indie scene.‭ ‬I think all this is finding its way into their voices.‭”

The final track on the album,‭ ‬Our Country,‭ ‬is a deeply expressive meditative fantasy on‭ ‬My Country,‭ ‬‘tis of Thee,‭ ‬in which the familiar tune is played and then varied in‭ ‬gradually higher registers,‭ ‬most of it over a gentle ostinato pattern in the piano.‭ ‬The piece begins in the lowest strings of the six-string,‭ ‬and it sounds very much like a cello.‭ ‬The violin was made for Roumain by Eric Aceto,‭ ‬a luthier who owns Ithaca Stringed Instruments in upstate New York.‭

“I‭’‬ve been working with him for a few years,‭ ‬and we started talking casually about‭ ‬‘How can we make a violin that has very low strings‭? ‬What would we have to do to make it really sound good‭?‬’” Roumain said.

The scroll of Bernadette.‭

The violin has two added strings on the lower end,‭ ‬a C below middle C‭ (‬like the lowest string of the viola‭) ‬and an F below that.‭ ‬Roumain said he sometimes tunes the bottom two strings to E-flat and B-flat and explores the resulting chord,‭ ‬a nice,‭ ‬jazzy E-flat with a major seventh and a flat fifth‭ ‬and‭ ‬ninth.‭

“It‭’‬s the only instrument of its kind in the world.‭ ‬It has a very unique sound,‭”‬ he said.‭ ‬It‭’‬s also heavier,‭ ‬like a viola,‭ ‬and there was some learning curve for Roumain to get comfortable with it.‭ “‬The first‭ ‬few months,‭ ‬I was getting this weird tennis elbow‭ …‬ It‭’‬s a monster.‭ ‬It‭’‬s not something you just pick up and play.‭”

Roumain,‭ ‬like many musicians of his generation,‭ ‬is working at a time of great change.‭ ‬The advent of relatively cheap but excellent computer technology has radically altered the music industry from the standpoint of recording and distribution.‭ ‬It also has encouraged compositional efforts from writers who until relatively recently would have had little chance of getting a hearing for their music.

‭“‬I‭’‬m not sure,‭ ‬but I would imagine there‭’‬s never been more composers living and working in New York,‭”‬ said Roumain,‭ ‬who also lives there with his wife,‭ ‬Jill,‭ ‬a special education teacher,‭ ‬and their‭ ‬11-month-old son,‭ ‬Zachary.‭ “‬At the same time,‭ ‬it doesn‭’‬t necessarily feel that way‭ …‬ The people getting the attention don‭’‬t necessarily reflect not only the vastness of the industry,‭ ‬they also don‭’‬t necessarily reflect the depth or even the interests of the industry.‭”

Still,‭ ‬while the tendency of cultural activity to organize itself into hierarchies of‭ “‬in‭”‬ composers and players hasn‭’‬t changed,‭ ‬almost everything else has.

“‬The biggest change is you do have access.‭ ‬Composers do have their own websites,‭ ‬they do get their music out over the Internet,‭ ‬they do have their own online mechanisms,‭ ‬not for publication,‭ ‬but for performance,‭”‬ he said.

‭“‬I think that for me,‭ ‬I‭’‬m always thinking about what I want to do next‭ ‬...‭ ‬You‭’‬re kind of always competing,‭ ‬not only with yourself in a way,‭ ‬but the people who came before you,‭ ‬the people right next to you,‭ ‬and the people coming from behind,‭”‬ Roumain said.

‭ “‬I think that‭’‬s also a big difference.‭ ‬John Cage didn‭’‬t have to compete with a‭ ‬16-year-old who has‭ ‬200,000‭ ‬views on his website.‭”

Much of Roumain‭’‬s work life is taken up with education.‭ ‬He has just finished a year of occasional stops at‭ ‬Vanderbilt as a visiting associate professor of composition,‭ ‬and during a recent appearance in Boston,‭ ‬he toured six schools in the Massachusetts capital.‭ ‬The chief question he gets from aspiring musicians is this:‭ ‬How do I do what you did‭?

When they ask,‭ ‬Roumain tells them who his models were:‭ ‬Philip Glass,‭ ‬Prince,‭ ‬Madonna,‭ ‬Nina Simone,‭ ‬Thelonious Monk,‭ ‬among others.‭ “‬And sure,‭ ‬I definitely have a whole list of activities,‭ ‬my kind of Ten Commandments for a career,‭ ‬and I just try to give them very practical,‭ ‬specific guidance.‭”

Roumain also defines himself as a Haitian-American artist,‭ ‬and he remains passionate about aiding his parents‭’‬ native country,‭ ‬especially in the wake of the Jan.‭ ‬12‭ ‬earthquake that killed an estimated‭ ‬230,000‭ ‬people.‭

“Every opportunity I get I‭’‬m flipping my previously scheduled concerts into relief efforts,‭”‬ he said.‭ “‬I think,‭ ‬moving ahead,‭ ‬it‭’‬s my job as a self-proclaimed Haitian-American composer to just keep talking about it,‭ ‬to remind people that Haiti still needs help.‭”

Roumain will visit Haiti this summer with other artists to give some concerts,‭ ‬and he notes that music has the power to bring people together.‭ “‬The thing about a concert,‭ ‬or the arts,‭ ‬is that it really gives you a sense of your humanity,‭”‬ he said,‭ ‬and he hopes‭ ‬the music will help Haitians who have lived through such a punishing catastrophe be reminded of their humanity as well.

Daniel Bernard Roumain finds inspiration in many different genres.‭
(‬Photo by Julieta Cervantes‭)

One major event still to come this year is scheduled for Sept.‭ ‬25,‭ ‬when the New World Symphony in Miami Beach will give the premiere of‭ ‬Roumain‭’‬s new‭ ‬Symphony for Dancers,‭ ‬Dreamers and Presidents,‭ ‬written for the Sphinx Foundation,‭ ‬and scheduled for performance by‭ ‬11‭ ‬other major symphonic ensembles including the Detroit,‭ ‬Philadelphia and Cincinnati orchestras.‭ ‬Roumain has written a good deal of music for dance,‭ ‬having worked for six or seven years‭ ‬with‭ ‬the eminent‭ ‬choreographer Bill T.‭ ‬Jones,‭ ‬and plans to soon release a recording of some of that music.

‭“‬I have found a way to make all‭ ‬of these endeavors have a fluid and effortless conversation with one another,‭”‬ he said.‭ ‬“And that‭’‬s good for me.‭ ‬If you talk to my wife,‭ ‬I tour too much‭;‬ if you talk to the band,‭ ‬we don‭’‬t tour nearly as much as we should.‭”‬

Most recently,‭ ‬last month he led the New England Conservatory of Music student orchestra in his new‭ ‬Symphony for the Dance Floor,‭ ‬and he‭’‬s begun work‭ ‬on another commission for the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Despite all these different activities and the relentless pace of change in the‭ ‬industry,‭ ‬certain things about an artist‭’‬s life are the same as they ever were,‭ ‬Roumain said.

‭“‬Changes involve a hyper-branching out of many different things at once,‭”‬ he said.‭ “‬The only thing you can do as an artist,‭ ‬the thing that has not changed at all,‭ ‬is that you have to know who you are,‭ ‬you have to understand your audience,‭ ‬and you have to build it and cultivate it every single day.‭”

“In that sense,‭ ‬nothing has changed,‭”‬ he said.‭ “‬The commitment‭ ‬– that hasn‭’‬t changed at all.‭”

Daniel Bernard Roumain‭’‬s website‭ ‬–‭ ‬– has a large selection of sheet music excerpts from his compositions,‭ ‬which helps gives visitors a better idea what his music is all about.

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