Friday, April 9, 2010

In Conversation---From Spirit Horses to Our Lady of Roses

WM Conversation with American Composer/Conductor James DeMars

James DeMars, composer/conductor of contemporary American classical music with a cultural exchange twist, also teaches composition at Arizona State University in Tempe.  His biography cites, "Composer/conductor James DeMars belongs to a generation of composers that is revealing a new integration of world music with the range, depth and stylistic variety of the classical tradition."

He is the musical descendent of musicians such as Aaron Copland, George Gershwin (symphonic work), Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy and other classical composers that drew inspiration from traditional and folkloric music.  DeMars has produced work and recorded for Canyon Records several times.  His recordings with Canyon Records include, Spirit Horses (1991), Native Tapestry (1993), Two World Concerto (1997) and the opera Guadalupe, Our Lady of Roses (2009).

I caught up with DeMars by e-mail.  And I want to thank the composer/conductor/professor for taking time out of his busy schedule to grant me the following interview.

WME: When I was first introduced to your compositions with R. Carlos Nakai I was reminded of Spanish composers such as Manuel De Falla and Rodriguez who incorporated Spanish folkloric elements in their concertos and other work. I was reminded of French composers Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy too.

Did the works of any of those composers inspire or influence you when you composed music incorporating Native American elements, especially with the Two World Concerto?

James DeMars: Yes, very much so, for several years I listened to Debussy's La Mer as I fell asleep. I have a strong affinity for his music as well as De Falla, Granados, VillaLobos, Milhaud, Ravel, even Ginestera.

WME: Did you research how any of those composers or American composers incorporated another music genre into symphonic work?

JDM: Yes, quite a bit - a strong case for musical integration is made in Watkins book Pyramids at the Louvre in which he discusses the influence of world music on European culture in Paris at the turn of the century. My early avant-garde interests in Stockhausen shifted toward the ever more interesting sonic resources of other cultures and the musically innovative gestures of musicians outside of the Western tradition.

WME: Since you reside in an area of the country steeped in American Indian traditions and are a professor at Arizona State University, were you influenced by Native American music early on?

JDM: When I arrived in Arizona I was still performing the German avant-garde (I had been the pianist in the Zeitgeist Ensemble of Minneapolis), but I soon realized that I was so far from the East Coast that I was truly free to explore all options. By my good fortune Canyon Records producer Robert Doyle commissioned me to write a work commemorating Canyon's 35th anniversary for their premiere recording artist R. Carlos Nakai (I think it was around 1987). In preparation for the work Spirit Horses I began listening to and transcribing the early recordings by Ed Lee Natay (my first serious introduction to Native American music).

WME: You mention the limitations of the Native American flute in the liner notes of Two World Concerto. How were you able to work around these limitations in a symphonic setting?

JDM: It took me awhile to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the instrument and the necessity of incorporating independent tempos, rhythms without bar lines and avoiding pitch doublings. I also chose to not imitate Native American music and this is perhaps the most important thing. Everything that I have created with musicians from other cultures has strived to allow their music to be their own or to create something they can perform meaningfully; I write music for the orchestra in my musical language creating a sort of counterpoint of cultural expressions.

WME: In the same liner notes you also discuss Native American pow-wow drums and you mention pitch as high, medium, and low. How did you work with those pitches in context with the symphony?

JDM: For the most part the pitch memory of the singers was very good and they were able to orient their melodies to the tonal center of the orchestral music. I also sang with the Black Lodge singers; we could work around the variations in beats or phrase lengths but pitch was the biggest problem with the pow-wow singers. For example, during the recording session Algin Scabby Robe was nervous and sang a half step sharp, so I sang with him and we sang an entire verse in parallel half steps! After listening to himself sing an earlier in -tune version, Algin was able to find pitch again.

WME: How many years did you research this traditional music and what other types of music did you research in the process that would give clues to solving the puzzle (of working with traditional instruments)? For instance did you explore symphonic work involving traditional instruments of the Silk Road such as in the work of Yo Yo Ma?

JDM: From the time I was in graduate school 1970s I was looking into music of other cultures; at that time the rage was Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menhuin. I loved it. By the time Yo-Yo Ma came along it hardly seemed groundbreaking. My interest ran to Arabic music (Faruz and others), Indian music and African music. However there were times of intense study especially for Native Drumming, by far the most difficult work. For Spirit Horses and Two Worlds Symphony (mixing Arabic music with African drums and Native American flute) and also with Two World Concerto, I was working with R. Carlos Nakai (a friend), and we worked on his part together.

For Native drumming I made several trips with Robert Doyle to find the musicians and then spent time transcribing pow-wow recordings, learning to sing along with the pow-wow songs and finally composing a pow-wow song that the Scabby Robe family (the Black Lodge Singers) took to very easily. They even invited me to sing with them at the premiere but they were scolded by members of their community and I was kept away the second time, but the third performance I was invited back!

WME: Okay, so as if Two World Concerto was not ambitious enough, along comes an even bigger project, an opera involving three worlds and three languages (Spanish, English and Indian dialect). You bring in a traditional Aztec musician, Native American flute, and opera singers trained in European classical music. Where did this project originate?

JDM: Two producers asked me to write a Requiem Mass to commemorate the Hispanic immigrant laborers that were losing their lives crossing the desert to find work in the US. I was sympathetic to their cause but since I had just written An American Requiem I felt there had to be a better project. Producer Richard Romero took me aside and informed me that he was a "Guadalupe devotee", and for the first time told me the story of Juan Diego and La Virgen de Guadalupe. I began reading and I came to realize that it was suitable for an opera. In fact it would be an ideal project because I could bring together the many cultural factions of the Americas in a celebration of Guadalupe, the Patron Saint of the Americas.

The project was foundering when Robert Doyle stepped in and said he would produce the work that would bring together R. Carlos Nakai, from the Two World projects and from the Requiem project Isola Jones and tenor Robert Breault (a real "all-star" cast).

WME: How many years of research and collaboration went into the process of producing this opera? Or is it an oratorio?

JDM: Approximately 2 years. I believe it is an opera because the message is for me primarily secular; it is a story that tells us how to solve the public disdain immigration and foreign cultures.

WME: And why the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe? Was the interest of a spiritual nature or geographical one (since there are many Mexican-Americans in the Southwest)?

JDM: It is a beautiful story with beautiful art and a multitude of meanings; it was a chance for me to work with the Hispanic community and get to know better my Southwestern home of now thirty years. My interest was primarily political but in our libretto we certainly recognize the importance of spiritual thought and the courage to act for the greater good. It highlights the critical moment when Zumarraga recognizes the spiritual good will of the Native American Cualitohuac (Juan Diego) with the simple words, "I believe you."

WME: What were the biggest musical challenges you overcame in composing Our Lady of Roses?

JDM: Getting the work performed; the music flowed very easily because it was the project that allowed me to draw on all that I had learned from the numerous intercultural collaborations as well as the traditional vocal productions with singers of the caliber of Breault and Jones. The music was a joy to write.

WME: What other works have you done, not related to Native American music? I hear strains of French Impressionist music, as well as, what I like to call American Impressionist music (George Gershwin, Aaron Copland and Grofè). Are you influenced by those composers?

JDM: Yes, I am strongly influenced by all of the composers that you mention; I support myself by teaching at Arizona State University where my specialty is writing in the styles of the classical masters. The larger works that I have written include the Violin Concerto for Boro Martinic, the Piano Concerto for Caio Pagano, a cantata on text by Alberto Rios and of course, An American Requiem. For these works I draw freely from techniques and sonorities I have learned from studying traditional classical music; for example, a recent commission for I Solisti, a string orchestra from Zagreb, Croatia was an unusual blend of Bach and Debussy and modern string techniques.

WME: What’s next for you musically speaking?

JDM: A collaboration with poet Alberto Rios for a choral work commemorating the statehood of Arizona for performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, a new work for R.Carlos Nakai and string orchestra (on themes from Tarot cards), songs for coloratura soprano Julia Kogan and I hope, a new opera.

You can find Professor James DeMars recordings on Canyon Records

This interview appears in my book Whole Music

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