Collision: Bill T. Jones and Daniel Bernard Roumain

dancer Donald Shorter in Blind Date
Dancer Donald Shorter in Blind Date
Photo by Paul B. Goode
Premiere performance at Montclair State University, New Jersey, September 2005

BTJ: I think there was once a time when we thought there was such a thing as the avant-garde. Those of us that dared believe in that quaint notion understood that the majority of the world did not share our values. Now you are from a generation where we expect that the great stages, the world that Western Europeans stake out for themselves, is supposed to be other than what it’s always been. But many of us believe that if you’re really hip, you’re going to be in a small community that not everyone will dig or understand. So even, myself, where did I get this notion that I think that the great art palaces and institutions should be anything but what they traditionally have been: bastions and defenders of an ethos, oftentimes outdated, that originated in Western Europe? We have got to be clear about who we are and who our audiences are. That is the heartbreak of the counterculture. Some people I know who are radicals on the left say, “To hell with that term counterculture; counter to what? We want to be mainstream culture.” That’s what you’re saying. You’re demanding that all culture be suddenly what we used to call counterculture. Then it’s a different fight. But don’t expect others to change who they are, because, quite frankly, do you think hip-hop is diverse?

DBR: Hip-hop culture or hip-hop music? I actually can’t answer that.

BTJ: Racially it has become more diverse.

DBR: Absolutely.

BTJ: That’s what we’re talking about, race. Certain battles are not won yet, but I don’t really want to live in a battlefield. The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company was founded by a 6’1″ African American and a 5’4″ Jewish-Italian American, both of whom happen to be homosexual men. The company has been fighting that battle so long I’d like to think the battle was won; let’s just get on to the art of making transcendent beauty. But every once in a while I dip into that rhetoric. And it is rhetoric, because the arts have always been multicultural. The best art has already been borrowing freely and has been very open to influences. Daniel and I have had a very vibrant conversation around the meaning of Western classical music and hip-hop, jazz, and rhythm-and-blues. I always insist on singing spirituals in our work, not that I’m a card-carrying Southern Baptist like my mother was, but those songs seem to bring in an important voice that there’s no other way to represent.

DBR: I’m a composer. I like to think I’m an American composer. But oftentimes I’m referred to as a black American composer, of Haitian descent, or a dreadlocked violinist. These are little minefields. In some ways, I’m being set up. As much as classical music has a diversity to it, I don’t know if it’s necessarily diverse. When I say classical music, I’m talking about the industry: the musicians, the composers, the administrators, the audience. I’d like to participate in that arena on their terms.

BTJ: On their terms?

DBR: Absolutely. I went to college. I have a degree in music composition. I write for the orchestra. I happen to use popular forms in my music, but even that is part of classical music, particularly in the last century and this century. But there’s still resistance to my work specifically and to hip-hop specifically. Hip-hop began as an avant-garde music. I’m a defender of classical music. I work for the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. I’m a violinist.

BTJ: The content of the work is as much determined by the artist as by the audience that consumes it. I say that every work that’s made, [even] Swan Lake, is political. I say that Beethoven is political. It was political in its time, but it’s political now in the way it works in the society right now. There is an order, but for lack of a better word we can call it a political order, that depends on a certain vision of history that Beethoven reiterates. Great artist, but they use that thing to say “this is culture, this is culture, this is culture,” and they maintain a status quo.

They have found what they think really lasts, and it is a great thing. However, the question then is: what is the function of art in my life as a means of expressing extra formal or extra aesthetic ideas? Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test quotes Ken Kesey, “Politics is being up front at all times.” Have you ever tried that? I used to try that, and that’s how I got the reputation. Whenever someone says something that you don’t agree with, even if it’s at a dinner party or you’re sitting in front of a room full of funders, call them on it. Now that’s politics. Politics is being up front at all times. In this climate, in this art word, it’s a kamikaze act because one gets the reputation of being boorish and un-nuanced. In other words, in every situation, if you don’t approve of the way someone talks about things, describes art, and you call them on it, the discourse stops, the flow stops, something else starts. So, in that way, the arts have got to be very, very subtle. The art I want to make can be in your face, but its message has got to be demonstrating something a bit more provocative and persuasive. To say that war is wrong is a non-event. It’s a political statement, but it’s boring, stupid. To say that racism exists, what’s the point? You don’t just shout slogans, but you have to demonstrate something that people feel in their guts. It doesn’t always succeed, but that’s what I’m going after.

DBR: For me, my music especially is an antidote. I don’t know if all art is political or if art is political. In fact, I’m already thinking how I can I contradict that idea. I have to play Hip-Hop Studies and Etudes with Philip [Glass] on Saturday night. These are musical vignettes; that’s it. You can make associations and assignments to it, and people do, by the way. You say etudes, and there is something kind of safe, and, let’s face it, white, about it. You say hip-hop studies and etudes, people laugh sometimes. Why is that? The point is that to me it’s very real. To me, my Hip-Hop Studies and Etudes were a response to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, to Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts, to Bartók’s Microcosmos. Composers do that systematically, looking at each key. Mine happened to look at each key, but in a particular musical vernacular.

Bill T. Jones in Blind Date
Bill T. Jones in Blind Date
Photo by Paul B. Goode
Premiere performance at Montclair State University, New Jersey, September 2005

BTJ: For you to use the language—some people might once have said—of European oppression, the etude is a notion that in order to be a good musician, you must make a study. For somebody who comes from a tradition that is coming out of individual experience, group experience, who doesn’t read music on paper, music comes from God, music comes from the group, you are forcing one language into another context. Already there are tensions that are, I believe, historical and about the distribution of power. Which one of those traditions is the authentic one? “Etude” implies that you are an insider into the grand canon of Western art. And the grand canon of Western art, like colonialist ideas of racial supremacy and all of that, could be anathema to this other idea that I’m talking about, improvisation or what have you. Are you trying to tell me that you think this folk form is on the same level as this form? In my mind, that is a political judgment. Now someone could say, “No, that’s purely aesthetic.” But, no it’s not purely aesthetic; it’s a power balancing that’s going on there. And someone is making a judgment, that’s why it’s funny. You think that someone who can’t even read music and who goes “bobabobaboba,” is going to share the stage with someone like Claude Debussy, the refinement of late 19th century/early 20th century, the delicacy and the refinement of that? Who are you trying to fool? That’s why I’m saying that even in something innocent like that, it’s about the language. Now, maybe I’m wrong, you might take me on when I say all art is political; [but] the function of all art is ultimately political.

DBR: Ah, that may be true, but I can’t answer that. I’m approaching it as music that I am listening to and am well-versed in, a language that I grew up with. Hip-hop music is about the same age that I am. [My] Hip-Hop Studies and Etudes tries to speak to and legitimize black folk music in the same way that Bartók tried to legitimize Hungarian folk music, and Stravinsky tried to legitimize Russian folk music. Look, this is particularly a problem in America, I think, not so much in Europe. Let’s be honest, in the classical music arena right now, when you try to introduce something that is about African-American folk music…let me be more specific, when you try to do something that is about black contemporary folk popular music, that is a cause of friction. But I’m not even approaching it that way.

BTJ: But Bartók, well-trained conservatory student of Western music, took those folk rhythms and melodies and put them through rigorous processes that would be accepted ultimately by the academy of classical music. But you would like to bring those things in untransformed and uncut into this canon. And people say, “It has not been digested through your intelligence and process.” Meaning that you accept the Western canon. That’s where the fight is. Nobody is going to care if you break down James Brown’s “I Feel Good” into the notes and make it fugal in structure, or what have you. (You’re the musician here, I’m not.) It can be brought in there and the smart ones in the audience will say “You see that tune, that’s ‘I Feel Good’ from James Brown.” But what it sounds like is Aaron Copland.

I don’t know if I’ve become cynical, but there was a time when I used to think that Arnie Zane and I were going to take over the world. We were going to kick ass in lower Manhattan, and then we were going to be choreographing for every major company in the world, and wouldn’t it be great. Well, you know, quite frankly, I don’t think I’m necessarily the best choreographer for someone on point shoes. When I look at the bodies of many ballerinas, I respect what they can do, but the weightedness that I need, the way in which I want a person to inflect something with the pedestrian movement that modern dancers have been working with now for 50-60 years, I find that maybe there’s something that’s not prejudicial but that I don’t really want to do.

I worked as the choreographer-in-residence at Lyon Opera Ballet, a company that I think doesn’t have any pieces on point at all. They like to think of themselves as able to do everything. The director and I had a lot of discussions about what that meant. I would always say, “Lucas, why don’t you have people of color?” And he said, “Well, they don’t come to me. They don’t come to our auditions.” I found that weak. I thought, “You’re not trying hard enough to find them.” Ultimately, I don’t think he felt he had to find them. Because his audience wasn’t really interested in diversity; they were interested in the formal qualities of the company. I don’t think I had a lot to bring to it. So, I’ve made my peace with the classical world. I have a full plate just trying to make my very personal work in the world that has opened up for the likes of me.

The question to you is, have you? Can you make your peace with it? What makes you subversive to people? Is it only hip-hop? I think you do yourself a disservice. I think there’s something about the breadth of your vision and your methods that may be challenging classical music’s notion of what is legitimate.

DBR: I’m making my peace. I have not made my peace with the classical music world yet. But I’m not in an argument with it.

BTJ: He says today! I know this dude!

DBR: The Beatles set out to emulate black music, and they created something that was not black music. Philip Glass set out to emulate rock music, and he created something that was not rock music, something that’s very personal. And he created a new audience for it. I’m not setting out to create a hybrid form of hip-hop and classical music. I am simply, as a proud product of the iPod generation, emulating all the music that I’m listening to and have listened to. It’s classical music forms and the totality of black music expression: rock, soul, hip-hop, jazz. That’s maybe the best definition. The problem is when I walk into a room with an orchestra and my score says, not in Italian, play this as though Prince were playing it, fiercely funky.

BTJ: You need to take the time to break down what you mean by funky.

DBR: Even within the rules of classical music, there’s a regimen toward learning new performance practices. You don’t have to be German to play German music. You don’t have to be French to dance on toe. You don’t have to be black to play my music.

BTJ: I think there are composers right now that would say that they are bringing complex materials into the canon of western classical music. Are they societal materials? Are they materials that exist outside the formal norms? That’s another issue. When you use laptop, you’re essentially saying that you think laptop is a language that represents a whole social discourse outside classical music, and it has a great validity when you bring it into classical music world. I don’t expect everyone to have your experience or even your taste for laptop. The way you and I work is about experimenting in combining and recombining. A friend of mine, Robert Longo, once said, “You guys are engaged in not collaboration but collision.” He was talking about work Arnie and I were doing. But even now, you and I do it. I’m really excited to continue exploring collisions like that.

Recently, Daniel encouraged me, out of the blue, to use a heavy metal, rock-based, hardcore band called Regain the Heart Condemned. And I said, “What are you talking about Daniel? Look at the fragility of these dancers, what we do in space and time. This music is like a sledgehammer. You know me better than that. You won’t be able to see the movement.” Ultimately, I did find some ways to respond to my aesthetic agenda in that group, and I learned something. I’m following your lead so I don’t become stale and fearful.

But pushing all the buttons about hurt and difference and being an outsider, I’m not so interested in anymore. I carry my hurt and outsiderness with me just like my face. That’s never going to go away. But I have to realize at age 54, I’ve been given so many awards, nobody’s standing in the way of me getting through the door. And they teach me in the universities. My life threatens to become that of the academy. Therefore I have to keep doing things with the likes of you that surprise even me about my prejudices about what is allowed on stage and what music should be like.

I don’t want to work with the Bolshoi or the Kirov of the New York City Ballet. It would be nice to be invited to do something, but I don’t lust to do that. Your ambitions feel thwarted because of the nature of your form: you want to work with large forces of 70 musicians. Where are those large ensembles that you can access? That’s where you and I diverge.

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