Joseph C. Phillips Jr.: Balancing Act

Like most composers these days, Joseph C. Phillips Jr. has to balance creating new music, getting it performed, and surviving. Seeing him on his bicycle returning from the Park Slope school where he teaches music to kindergartners to his Bedford Stuyvesant apartment (where we spoke earlier this month) seemed a very apt visual metaphor for how effectively he navigates through the various parts of his life. It’s a relatively short ride, although admittedly his composition studio in upstate New York, where he does most of his composing on the weekends, is a bit further away.

Phillips has nevertheless been able to accomplish a tremendous amount of work since he first arrived in New York City in 1998. Just two years after relocating here from Seattle, he began conducting his own ensemble, Numinous, as a vehicle for disseminating his own compositions. Within a couple of years after that, he released (on his own label) a CD devoted entirely to his music—Numinous: The Music of Joseph C. Phillips, Jr.—and in 2009, his second disc, Vipassana, was released on Innova. A third (to be released by New Amsterdam Records) will be out next year. Although Numinous—which now comprises 25 musicians, practically a chamber orchestra—has remained the primary performing repository for his music, he has also received commissions to compose works for pianists Simone Dinnerstein and Lara Downes, Face The Music, the University of Maryland Wind Ensemble, and the St. Olaf College Band. And the projects he has embarked on with Numinous frequently contain additional elements. When I spoke to him, he was in the middle of a series of performances of an evening-length work, To Begin The World Over Again, inspired by the writings of Thomas Paine with Edisa Weeks’s dance group, DELIRIOUS Dances. This week, the New York City re-premiere of Ernst Lubitsch’s The Loves of Pharaoh, a 90-year-old silent film which was only rediscovered last year, will feature a newly composed score by Phillips performed live by Numinous at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Yet musical composition came relatively late to Phillips. A self-described late bloomer, he didn’t start composing until he studied piano while pursuing an undergraduate degree in music education from the University of Maryland, a course of study he didn’t embark on until his junior year. As he explains it:

Originally I was a bio-chem major. I was actually that for two years. But I couldn’t see myself being in a lab coat for the rest of my life, so I took a semester off. Then I thought, “O.K., I want to do music.” That was really my first exposure to most everything: Debussy, all the classical, and even the jazz things. I knew Coltrane before, but it was really in-depth when I started the music program at the University of Maryland. It really got me started because that was the first time I learned to play piano. And as soon as I was in there doing piano, I could do my own thing and I started writing my own things from that point on.

Finding out about his original background in lab science explains some of Phillips’s working methods. Numinous has functioned as an extremely malleable composition laboratory for him, enabling him to explore a wide range of instrumentation as well as performance practices and compositional techniques which range from a Steve Reich-ian pulse-driven minimalism to a keen sense of specific timbre combinations reminiscent of big band composer-arrangers such as Gil Evans or Maria Schneider, to a more amorphous Morton Feldman-esque harmonic ambiguity. While the name Numinous might initially evoke a sense of spirituality (the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “numinous” as supernatural, mysterious, spiritual, and holy), Phillips remains committed to a more scientific approach:

I read Carl Sagan’s Contact and there was a chapter called “The Numinous.” And I thought, “That’s what I want to do musically!” I’m not religious; I’m probably an atheist. But for me there’s a whole other thing out there that connects us. People use religions to make those connections, but I have a science background. I love Carl Sagan’s “we all come from star stuff”; that, I think, encapsulates the kind of connection that the universe has. I made a decision that I want my music to represent that.

Since Phillips creates music primarily for his own ensemble, his aesthetic shares much in common with the great jazz composer/bandleaders of the 20th and 21st centuries. But while his music sometimes incorporates improvisation and his ensemble features several prominent jazz musicians (past and current members of Numinous include multiple winds players Ben Kono and Ed Xiques, pianists Roberta Piket and Deanna Witkowski, vibraphonist Nick Mancini, guitarist Amanda Monaco, and trumpeter David Smith), Phillips does not consider himself a jazz composer:

I use people who have the experience of not just classical music because there are times that I want them to do something—whether it’s improvise or have a [certain] rhythmic sense. I want something more fluid that you can’t always write. … I don’t have that angst of “What is my music?” I’m just going to do what I want to do. … Part of it comes from a jazz tradition: people form their own groups. When I moved I felt I wasn’t quite sure where I fit in. I came here because of the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop. I tell people that and people naturally think I might be a jazz composer, but my inclinations have always been more toward classical. I felt for me coming in, it’s not going to happen unless I do it. I’d rather do it myself than go to someone and say, “Can you do this for me?” I couldn’t imagine coming in and going to Orpheus or even Bang on a Can and saying, “Hey, I have these things. Would you be interested?” Not that I was writing orchestral music, but if I came to an orchestra and said, “Hey, will you play my music?”—they don’t care; they won’t know who I am necessarily. But I’m not going to let that stop me from doing the things that I want to do. Now everyone has their own groups; it’s a way to get their music out. I love to write for other ensembles and I have been commissioned by ensembles that I have no connection to, but I also want to keep doing Numinous and expanding Numinous.

Joseph C. Phillips Jr’s very clearly 21st-century music—incorporating a broad range of styles while being ultimately beholden to none—might seem somewhat at odds with his two most recent projects: the dance collaboration exploring the ideas of 18th-century political philosopher Thomas Paine and the newly created score for the 1922 Lubitsch film about ancient Egypt. But for Phillips, history can also be honored through a contemporary approach:

Edisa [Weeks] … had been thinking about doing a project about democracy and I had just read something about Thomas Paine so I said, “How about Thomas Paine?” His words are very timely still and … his words have been used by many people for their own purposes. … Edisa had this idea about contradancing which was big then. So I was listening to contradances and when contradances don’t form the twos, the fours, and the eights, they’re called crooked. So, I thought, O.K. I’m just going to make them all crooked. So you can dance to them, they’re very fun and in the period, but underneath there are mixed meters or maybe some weird harmonic thing. … With the Lubitsch film, there was actually a complete score that was already there but Joe Melillo [at Brooklyn Academy of Music] wanted something different. When I first got the film and watched it, I did watch it with the score, but after that I really didn’t listen to the score; I didn’t want those solutions to be in my mind. I’m very conscious about how I would feel if someone years from now took my score and said, “We want to get rid of that; let’s get this new thing going.” But we’ve had all this history since 1922 of how people approach getting into a film by [musically] adding to or going against what’s going on on the screen. And the history of music since 1922—there’s so much more that can be added. I wanted it to be my music married to what Lubitsch was doing as if I was the one he asked to do this. But people who’ve heard my other music will be surprised when they hear the music for the film.

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