With independent house concerts happening all over the country and orchestras like the LA Phil reinvigorating the concert hall, this is one of the most exciting times for classical art music in America! The variety of sounds, genres, and musicians working today is astonishing, and there are thousands of talented composers tirelessly honing their craft. One of the goals of Deus Ex Musica is to introduce new audiences to some of the exciting voices working today – both established and emerging artists! And we are particularly interested in celebrating the music of composers who both seek a rich spiritual life in Christ and actively explore their faith in their music.
This month’s Composer in the Spotlight guest is Dr. Shawn E. Okpebholo. He is an award-winning American composer on faculty at the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music (IL). Shawn’s music is a powerfully expressive integration of contrasting musical languages reflecting an appreciation of non-western artistic aesthetics. His music has been performed throughout Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas, and he regularly receives commissions from noted soloists, chamber groups, and large ensembles—artists who have performed his music at some of the nation’s greatest venues including the Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, the Kennedy Center, and the National Cathedral.
Shawn, tell us about your journey into music. How did you begin?
My musical journey is one of perfect timing due to God’s grace. I grew up in government housing ('the projects') in Lexington, KY. Around the age of 7, The Salvation Army Church bus came across town to the projects where I lived and took the neighborhood kids, my sisters, and me to a Wednesday night youth club. My mother, being the overprotective woman that she was, went with us on the bus, and every Wednesday night after. After months of attending the mid-week youth program, we were invited to come to the church on Sunday. My mother, who appreciated the care and compassion given to us, allowed the church bus to pick us up on Sundays, as well. The Salvation Army church has a strong and vibrant musical tradition. Since starting to attend the church, they gave my sisters and me brass instruments to play, and we began singing in the youth choir. Growing up in The Salvation Army church, I had access to world-class music instruction from fellow parishioners, musically participated in weekly worship services, and even attended Salvation Army-sponsored music camps in Ohio, New York, and Texas. From early on, I was interested in writing music, and when I was 14 years old, I wrote a simple arrangement of "Be Still for the Presence of the Lord" for the baritone horn that I played at church one Sunday. Among the many incredible musicians who attended my church, there was James Curnow, a prominent composer. After that performance, he generously began donating his time every week to give me private composition lessons, which was hugely instrumental in paving the way to what would be my future profession. So essentially, my music education consisted of free music lessons at The Salvation Army church, and for this, I'm truly grateful.
What’s your first memory of music?
My first memory of music was winning a small songwriting contest in elementary school. I was around 7 or 8 years old, and I simply recorded myself singing a song I wrote called, "Where Does the Sky End?" I'm sure my mother still has a copy of that white cassette tape. I'm even more sure, while probably cute, the little song was pretty bad.
Do you have a favorite sound?
As a composer, I often strive to create interesting harmonies and compelling counterpoint, and as a listener, I appreciate that, as well. But lately, I have been drawn to the sound of unison, especially experiencing more than one timbre simultaneously on a single melody. Silly, I know, but so satisfying.
Your orchestral work Kutimbua Kivumbi (a Swahili phrase that loosely means, “Stomp the Dust”) won second place in The American Prize Composition Competition (orchestral division) and was inspired by a sabbatical trip to Kenya. This work pulses with life and with surprise – often in the form of rhythmic and orchestrational shifts. How do you typically start writing a piece and how do you “develop” your musical ideas?
First, I should say, before I compose a single note, I am intentional in discovering the clear purpose of that which is ultimately going to be created. My compositions are not mere abstract constructions—music for music's sake, if you will (not that that is a bad thing). But rather, my works are about something: inspired by, a response to, a study of, rooted in, etc. That said, I start with form. I create a rough outline of the composition, working out the shape, architecture, and scope—not rigid, though. It is then that I begin formulating harmonic language, motivic ideas, and style. I find with this approach, developing ideas comes more easily to me, and musical cohesion is more successfully achieved.
“After a ferocious percussive invitation, the work begins with a violin solo, musically depicting the leader of a call-and-response, freely singing until the rest of the people join in and sing the synchronized tune. The primary theme of this piece is an adaptation of a welcome song that was performed for me by the Akamba people.” What sorts of changes were made to this welcome song? Do you often incorporate pre-existing tunes into your music?
Great question. There was an 11th-hour change with my "welcome song" quotations in this work. If you listen to the Kenyan women dancers singing this melody, parts of the tune are displaced by a sixteenth note—nuanced syncopation. To our Western ears, this appears to be a mistake, as if at times, the performers come in a little late. I actually loved that rhythmic subtlety and had initially included it in the composition. As I was finishing up the piece, I guess I chickened out, so to speak, and adjusted the melody to neatly fit in our Western box. While I still enjoy the work, I do regret that last-minute change.
To answer the second part of your question about incorporating preexisting melodies, I'll just say this: there is a reason why Charles Ives is one of my favorite composers.
Of your visit to Kenya, you’ve said that the “entire experience was moving: witnessing the drumming; the call-and-response singing; the dancing on the dry land; and, yes, watching the dust rise.” Kutimbua Kivumbi culminates with a musical depiction of one final stomp “with dust slowly rising and gaining intensity—a final plea for rain.” Could you unpack the significance of rain and rain dances in this part of Africa?
I'm not a scholar in this area, but water and its importance is one of the few things all cultures have in common. It's our primary life source. The Akamba people experience much of the year with very little rain, to the point where it's hard to simply live. So, to plead for rain, just for mere sustainably, is significant. I do know that the Akamba people are spiritual people that believe in a higher being. Dancing is a way to plead to that higher power.
America is a melting-pot of global cultures. All non-indigenous Americans who live here are from somewhere else with cultural roots in Europe, Asia, Latin-America and Africa. How do you answer the question: where are you from?
Simply, I'm from America, of which I am proud. My cultural identity, however, is beautifully more complex: a Nigerian-American who was born and reared in Kentucky. My mother is African-American, and my father is African. The vast majority of my relatives live in Nigeria, who I try to visit as much as I can. So while I'm from America, I feel Nigeria is also just as much my home.
Classical composition is still a white European-dominated profession, what’s your experience been like as a black man in this field?
Unfortunately, it is the reality that I'm in the minority, culturally, in most of my circles, both professionally and nonprofessionally. But, my world of classical music composition has been the most welcoming. I've been intentional in exploring my musical heritage: Negro slave songs (the music of my African-American mother) and West African melodies and drumming (the music of my Nigerian father). Creatively, I've felt free to mix my cultural roots with my Western classical roots, a synthesis that has been supported professionally, and through programming. And when I compose a work that falls within the boundaries of what we perceive as mainstream contemporary classical music, I feel I've been mostly viewed as a composer who happens to be black, rather than a black composer. This is, perhaps, why I feel most comfortable in this world.
While my experience has been mostly positive, I believe more progress is still needed in the area of diversity within the field of music composition. Ensembles need to be more intentional in programing music by women and people of color. The academy needs to allow room for more composers from unrepresented groups. This may require the field to reexamine and expand what it means to be a contemporary classical composition, to better reflect our diverse society. The community needs to better embrace traditional art forms presented in nontraditional ways; for example, what if a modern opera dealing with racial injustice were a part of the canon?
Again, while my field has mostly been accepting of me as an African-American composer, there is still room for growth.
On a Poem by Miho Nonaka: Harvard Square is your most frequently performed piece and winner of the 2016 Flute New Music Consortium Composition Competition. It was not your intention to text paint every word; instead your “tried to evoke the essence of the poem’s meaning.” Tell us about the inspiration for this virtuosic music.
This was initially going to be a study piece—a work intended to stretch me compositionally. As a composer, if I had to name elements of composition where I felt most comfortable, it would be harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration. If I had to identify areas where I thought I needed the most growth, it would be rhythmic and timbrel ingenuity. So, I decided to write a solo instrumental work where I couldn't rely on harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration. Additionally, I didn't particularly care for the flute as a solo instrument (which I've since made a 180-degree shift). So to challenge myself even more, I decided to compose a solo flute piece.
Around the same time, I became acquainted with and captivated by the poetry of Miho Nonaka. I needed to somehow work with her. And while flute was not my favorite instrument, one of my favorite performing artists was flutist Caen Thomason-Redus. He had masterfully performed one of my earlier chamber works, and since then, I had been eagerly wanting to collaborate with him.
I had the motivation (to stretch my craft). I had the inspiration (the poet). I had the performer (the flute virtuoso).
Now, all I had to do was compose. So I wrote "On Poem of Miho Nonaka: Harvard Square."
This was a collaboration with flutist Caen Thomason-Redus. What was your process like for this piece? Do you collaborate directly with musicians often?
Caen was a significant part of the creative process. Not only did I listen to many recordings of him playing—to understand him as a performer—but I also engaged him quite a bit. We lived in different states, so we would Skype. He would have his flute out, and I would ask him lots of questions. For example, I would have an idea of a particular timbre I wanted to include in the work, and he would demonstrate many possibilities. He was even, at times, helpful with notation, as some of the extended techniques I composed was unconventional. As I wrote parts of the piece, I would send sections for him to try and provide feedback. A huge reason for the success of this composition was due to Caen being a part of the creative process.
I often tell my composition students, a brass player, for example, "your creative margin may be much higher, but that violinist will always know how to write better than you for the violin." So work with them.
So, yes, I often collaborate directly with performing musicians: creative partnership makes my art stronger.
Does your Christian faith shape your music? If so, how? Are there aspects of your faith that have been influenced by your work in music?
This question is the most important in this interview but will have one of the shortest responses because it is simple: it is impossible for me to create without the hand of God—the Creator who created all of us as creative beings. Most of the music I write is not sacred programmatically. However, everything I compose I call sacred because my creative process is a spiritual journey.
You collaborated with opera rising stars J’nai Bridges and Will Liverman on Steal Away – an album of re-imagined Negro Spirituals. What’s the inspiration behind this project?
First, I would like to say that working with J'Nai Bridges and Will Liverman has been incredible. I used to refer to them as rising stars, but I don't use the qualifier "rising" anymore as these two have already solidified their places in the opera world. On Steal Away, I also collaborated with other extraordinary musicians, such as pianist Paul Sanchez, flutist Caen Thomason-Redus, and violist Dorthy White Okpebholo. Next year we will be releasing my second album of Negro Spiritual, of which I'm very excited!
The inspiration for the project was my mother. As referenced earlier, I had a strong desire to explore the music of her heritage. And being an African-American, my mother's musical roots in this country begins with slavery and the Negro Spiritual—a beautiful musical traditions that grew out of one of the ugliest times in our country. Secondly, I wanted to pursue a project that my mother would enjoy that hopefully would also have it's place in the academy (though that was secondary)—in other words, a project that was full of depth musically and conceptually, but also more widely accessible.
The process of reimagining Negro spirituals has been the most life-giving to me as a composer as I connect to my heritage in this unique way.
Interview with Shawn Okpebholo conducted by Josh Rodriguez via email between Aug. 18-Sept. 14, 2019
To hear more of Shawn’s music, please visit: http://www.shawnokpebholo.com/
If you are interested in contributing an article or would like to recommend a topic for exploration, please send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org Photos used with composer’s permission. Other photos from various online sources including Unsplash.com
 Program Notes for Kutimbua Kivumbi
 Program Notes for On a Poem by Miho Nonaka: Harvard Square