Composer and conductor Joseph C. Phillips, Jr.

If you’re a fan of new music, be it “indie-classical” or whatever it’s being labeled this week, then you must check out the music of composer and conductor Joseph C. Phillips, Jr. Phillips’ music, composed and arranged for his ensemble Numinous, a large chamber group (or small orchestra?) of woodwinds, brass, strings, tuned percussion, electric instruments and vocalists, is a complex, finely detailed amalgam of classical, minimalist, South American, Asian, and African American influences, with a distinctive “sound” that is instantly identifiable, yet full of surprises. (You know those descriptive terms “Brahmsian” or “the Mingus effect”? It’s like that.) Phillips’ latest album, Changing Same, due out August 28 on New Amsterdam Records, is perhaps his most autobiographical musical statement to date.

While his previous recordings, Numinous: The Music of Joseph C. Phillips, Jr. and Vipassana include notes that detail the inspiration for his compositions, Changing Same has no notes; just a quote from 1966 by writer, poet and playwright Amiri Baraka (then Le Roi Jones) that describes a “post-black aesthetic,” one that unapologetically digs both the down-home and the downtown, the highfalutin and the funky, the Anglo-centric and the Afro-futuristic, the “what it is” and the “what the hell is goin’ on?” The titles for each of the six movements of Changing Same offer some additional clues . . . “Behold, the Only Thing Greater Than Yourself,” “Miserere,” “Unlimited,” “Alpha Man,” “The Most Beautiful Magic.” The first track, “19,” which can be streamed and purchased here, refers to November 19, 1970, the date of the publication of James Baldwin’s essay, “An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis,” Arnold Schoenberg’s Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke, opus 19, from 1911, and the age Phillips began studying music as an undergrad, after two semesters as a bio-chemistry major.

Changing Same is another intriguing chapter in Phillips’ journey, from growing up listening to both Holst and Prince, to conducting Numinous onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a performance of his score for the 1922 silent film The Loves of Pharoah, to producing this latest release. In the following interview, Phillips provides some details about that journey, and explains how his life experience, be it past, future or present-day-craziness, is reflected in the music of Changing Same.

On the back of your new album, there’s a quote by Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) from his 1966 essay, The Changing Same:

“R&B is about emotion, issues purely out of emotion. New Black Music is also about emotion, but from a different place, and finally toward a different end. What these musicians feel is a more complete existence. That is, the digging of everything.”

So, my first question with regard to this quote is, do you dig everything?

Well, of course, I have my standards. [laughs] There are things I like and don’t like.

In that essay, Baraka is explaining the spontaneous compositional processes of the creative improvisational people at that time, and putting them in a continuum of what had come before in terms of black music. He’s saying look, these guys might seem like they’re acting wild and crazy, But really, this “New Black Music” harkens back to earlier music.

When I read the essay, the quote just jumped out at me. I thought it was a perfect encapsulation of what I’m doing or hoping to have happen with my piece. With Changing Same, I wanted to take the cultural and musical things that I grew up with and incorporate them into piece. When I read Baraka’s essay, I thought, yes, I grew up with the black music continuum, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and Prince. But I grew up with classical music as well, like Holst, Bach . . . like any other composer, I have a potpourri of influences. Sometimes you can hear these influences very specifically. For example, on the fourth track, “The Most Beautiful Magic,” the initial bass line is actually coming straight from Prince’s “Purple Rain.”

The quote from Baraka comes from a time period in the U.S. where the Civil Rights movement was giving way to what is broadly described at the Black Power movement, and there were a lot of changes happening in the arts that reflected this change.

Your album is dropping at a time when there is a lot of national conversation, some of it hostile, some of it healthy, about race. Did you consider how the Baraka quote might apply to what we, as a country, have experienced in the past year?

Definitely. The thing that got me thinking about this particular piece was Duke Ellington’s 1943 composition Black, Brown and Beige, which he described as “a tone parallel to the history of the Negro in America.” I thought, “Well, maybe I could do kind of an update of the history of the American negro.” But then, very quickly, I realized that’s a big subject to take on. [laughs] And no one document could capture the diversity of what has happened since 1940 to the present day. So I decided to make a more personal statement. I looked at myself, and what has happened during my lifetime, and then applied the cultural influences and some of the historical events I grew up with. Things like the James Baldwin essay An Open Letter to my Sister Angela Davis, which was published on November 19, 1970. Things like the 1967 decision Loving vs. Virginia, that effectively ended laws prohibiting interracial marriage. The track “The Most Beautiful Magic” was inspired by that. The title of the second track, “Behold, The Only Thing Greater Than Yourself,” comes from the mini-series Roots. Kunta Kinte as a baby is held up to the sky by his father who declares, “Behold, the only thing greater than yourself.” Again, it’s a way of saying you can do . . . whatever!

“Unlimited” was inspired by my being on the National Mall in 2009, when Barack Obama was sworn in as President, and the two million people there — it really was like black, brown and beige. It was like a new hope, a new beginning. I can remember growing up and not even thinking that was even a possibility. Whether you like Obama or not, the fact is, he’s a historical figure, and now that potential is there. That’s what “Unlimited” is about. All of the sudden, things open up, and you can be whoever you want to be. Look, we can do more than what people think we can do.

You spoke about what’s happening now, and even though what’s been happening lately happened after I had written and recorded Changing Same, I feel like it’s a very timely piece. We’re now we’re having this conversation about the police and a police state, and the brown and black faces who bear the brunt of all sorts of profiling or targeting. . . . In his 1970 letter to Angela Davis, James Baldwin was talking about same stuff we’re dealing with now.

How would you describe your relationship to minimalism?

Minimalism is a big part of what I write, whether it sounds like it or not. It is there, even when it’s not there.

I was in college when a friend of mine first played me something by Phillip Glass, and I thought, “What is this? I don’t like this stuff.” I couldn’t stand it! But then, gradually, in various courses I came across pieces like (Reich’s) Piano Phase, and I began to explore the music on my own.

Minimalism is part of our time. We grew up listening to it, just like we grew up listening to rock or R&B. Once I began to explore it more, it became another piece to help me find out who I was. It helped me figure out where I wanted to go. For me, minimalism is just another technique. It is a big influence on me, but it’s my own take on what it is. It only says what I want it to say, not what Phillip Glass or Steve Reich says.

You transcend your influences . . .

That’s what you hope!

There are times when a person is put into a box. I get this a lot when I meet someone and say, “I’m a composer!” They see me, and the first thing that comes out of their mouth is, “Oh, what kind of music do you do? Jazz?” So there’s this assumption, he’s black so he must be a jazz composer. But on everything I’ve done, even my most “jazziest” pieces, almost all of my influences have come from the classical world. This is where the labels can come from. Oh, you’re black, you must be like this! But when you look at someone, you don’t know what’s really there.

I’ve had plenty of people say to me, “You look like a composer!”

[laughs] You look “smart,” right?

My favorite composers, I don’t put into a box. Some writers are of course very good at describing how a composer’s music sounds, but I think music ultimately has to speak for itself.

No composer wants to be boxed in. I do understand this grasping for “a way in” and that a label can be a way to give the listener a starting point. But that’s not actually what happens. Sometimes, when you label someone, people get lazy and they decide okay, that’s what it is. Too often, people feel they can dismiss the music, or dismiss the person who is making the music.

How was Changing Same was recorded? Was it all tracked live?

Every track is live except for the third track, “Miserere.” All of the instrumental stuff was done in two sessions, and then I had another session for just the voices.

On “Miserere,” the soundscape that follows the setting of your poem, sung by Melissa Hughes, has a real organic quality to it.

With “Miserere,” I was thinking of Miles Davis and producer Teo Macero and how they used the studio as an instrument. We first recorded a live take of “Miserere.” I then had some of the musicians play by themselves (over) that take. I conducted each musician and directed them do little effects here and there. I processed those performances separately, and placed them where I wanted them to go in the mix.

What was the inspiration for “Miserere”?

It’s a lament. There’s the famous Bach cantata, Ich habe genug, which means, “I have enough.” The title refers to being fulfilled, in this case, with God’s love. You’re just . . . fulfilled. You have what you need. And I wanted to change that. I wrote the lyrics for “Miserere” while going through a very difficult, frustrating time. So “Miserere” turns the title of the Bach piece around to say, I have had enough, and I don’t have enough, I am not fulfilled. The lyric is kind of ambiguous, in the sense that there’s no real resolution. Just like in life. You have all of this doubt, you have all of this questioning within you about yourself, and there is no answer. I think, having an answer is not how life works. Sometimes, things are ambiguous.

There’s that lecture Leonard Bernstein did, “The Delights and Dangers of Ambiguity,” where he talks about the move away from tonality, and how when there’s no resolution, it can be this tension-filled, beautiful kind of thing. But it can also be maddening, because you want some kind of resolution. You want an answer. But in “Miserere,” you don’t have an answer. Sometimes there’s no solution and you have to live with that. You still have to go on.

If we can go back to what we were talking about earlier, about what’s happening in society today, you look at all of the problems and issues we have and sometimes, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to get any better. You hear about another black male killed, and you might see it one way, while other people see it a completely different way. It feels like nothing is ever going to get solved, because everyone is at odds. I think “Miserere” can speak to this time we’re living in.

Bernstein ended his lecture by playing Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, and it’s so intense. He says that with that symphony, you can hear that Mahler knew the horrors of World War I were coming. He foresaw it. And Bernstein ties this into the death of tonality. [laughs] But what Bernstein was saying is that Mahler was of his time. We can read about what it was like before World War I, but we don’t know exactly what it felt like. But Mahler was there, and he was picking up on something.

As an “alt-classical,” “indie-classical,” or whatever it is that I do composer, I feel like, as a black male, I’m coming from a completely different angle than a lot of composers in my circle. There are things I have to deal with, just walking down the street, which many of my friends and colleagues don’t. So naturally, how I feel about that internally, how it feels to have someone cross the street to avoid you, or follow you around in a store, when all you’re doing is just trying to live, finds its way into my music, (even if unconsciously). I want to be able to just write what I want to write. I don’t want to have to be the “weight” of black America in classical music. But, I also want to be able to reflect on that part of me that is there and that you don’t hear in a lot of new music and classical circles.

Going back to “Miserere,” that lamenting feeling is part of the time we are living in. It does feel frustrating, it does feel hopeless. But that doesn’t mean you give up hope. If you asked me when I was 12, if one day we would have a black president, I would have said, “I don’t think so.” But that’s actually happened in my lifetime. Even in just the past five years, with laws being changed to allow gays and lesbians to marry . . . change can happen so quickly, and it can’t help but be reflected in the music we compose.