A blue butterfly is on the logo of his record label; he makes music with a turkey caller and a toy squeaky duck; any number of critters may creep into this composer's works -- but Mickey Mouse is not among them. Brent Michael Davids loves kids. In fact, he is currently in residence at the new Minnesota Children's Museum in St. Paul, designing a four-month activity introducing them to both Native American and European concert music. But he isn't going to spoon-feed them pabulum and nursery tunes.
Davids is an enrolled member of the Mohican Nation, savvy in the traditions of Indian music as learned from relatives on the reservation, but also academically trained in the principles of classical music. He holds a Masters in Composition from Arizona State University and has received several important grants from, for example, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Reader's Digest Foundation, and (for the current residency) the McKnight Foundation. His music has been performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC by the National Symphony Orchestra, and he has written works on commission from such eminent groups as the Joffrey Ballet and the Kronos Quartet.
Given Davids' own diverse background -- his mother is English, his father Mohican -- it's no surprise that he thinks of his creative ability in music as a way to "Promote cross-cultural understanding." He doesn't compose music in a vacuum. "I want my music to make a difference," he says, "I want to take Native elements into the concert hall, but I also want to take Native people into the concert hall."
That's why his compositions are written for a mix of instruments from both cultures. His newest compact disc features a piece called Ni-Tcang, the Mohican phrase for "my girl," which also happens to sound like the words "night song" in English. The unintentional pun suggested to Davids a lullaby for the daughter he hopes to have some day, and the result is a work that seamlessly combines conventional symphonic instruments with toy instruments. The woodwinds are present -- flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and so on -- but so are a baby rattle, shell horn, and the unforgettable "toy squeaky duck." The result is not pandemonium, but a piece of music that is tender, mysterious, and riveting.
Some of the instruments he employs are of his own invention, such as the "la fondue pot;" others, like the "turkey caller," come out of the Merrill Lynch Hunting Catalogue. Whatever the source, the bottom line is to find the materials that will enable Davids to create the unique sound-world of his imagination -- a place where the sounds of nature mingle effortlessly with the sounds that emanate from humankind's inventions of wood and brass and wire.
In his work with the Children's Museum groups he will be encouraging them to "regard their instruments less as musical instruments and more as talking sticks, singing reeds, pounding heartbeats, rustling winds, swarming voices, shooting thunder and breathy whispers." He wants the kids to take away a deep sense of wonder from actually making the instruments, then performing the music he creates for them, while gradually sensing the wider implications of artistic expression. Davids will encourage them to experience music in the Native American tradition, as a way of “talking with nature" that helps to perceive the connectedness of all that exists, and to "share with the Earth."
Davids' creativity finds expression beyond the sphere of children's music, however, garnering praise and wide attention from that very adult world of classical music performance. His Canyon Sunrise was commissioned and performed by the National Symphony. The Joffrey Ballet asked him for Moon of the Falling Leaves, which they premiered in 1991. He has written a new work for the esteemed choral group Chanticleer, and is on his third commission from one of the best-known classical ensembles, the Kronos Quartet, whose numerous albums have sometimes crossed over onto the pop charts (e.g., Pieces of Africa).
The new Kronos commission is entitled Native American National Anthem and is a string-quartet composition based on the theme song of the American Indian Movement. David Harrington, one of the Kronos members, first heard about Davids from his mother, who lived near the young composer in Arizona and sent her son a clipping from the newspaper about the then-local phenomenon, the two enthusiastic musicians got in touch with each other, realized they thought much alike, and began what promised to become a long-term collaboration. (Such serendipity is more the rule than the exception in the music world: Davids snagged his Joffrey Ballet commission as a result of knowing one of the dancers from Ballet Arizona, where Davids was once a recording engineer. The dancer was a friend of someone at the Joffrey and .... word gets out.)
Davids first studied music theory in the public schools of Chicago. "It never occurred to me then," he says, "that there were people who actually wrote music. I thought you just went to the store and bought it!" When he finally realized the stork didn't deliver music scores, he tried his hand at creating a couple of his own, and soon found he not only enjoyed it, he was good at it. He wrote two pieces in high school, both for band and featuring the trombone, one of two instruments he played (the other was the piano).
At Northern Illinois University, and later at Arizona State, Davids was a brilliant student of "serious music," but he became dissatisfied with the constant emphasis on technical aspects. "Nobody,” he complains, "ever seemed to want to ask; “what does this music mean?” Feeling the heart was somehow missing from his subject, Davids undertook an additional Masters in Native American Religious Studies (still underway) which has helped him integrate the intellectual and intuitive aspects of his creative urge.
An experimental chamber music piece followed, influenced by one of the great modern classical works, George Crumb's Black Angels. Davids was particularly impressed by "the way that the piece sounded like its title." Ever since then he has sought to make as clear as possible the connection between his chosen "subject," whether it be his future daughter, an owl, or the Hoop, and the musical sounds he employs to illustrate it. "One of my goals is to make the piece achieve the main idea expressed in the title. I work from that idea, then figure out how to make the whole composition go that way. That influences the shape, structure, and length of the piece, and the choice of instruments."
In the classical world this is called "program music," and while some academics and critics look down at it as compared to "absolute music," which is more abstract and thus presumably "higher," Davids feels it has a greater potential to engage the interest and understanding of the average person in the audience -- and that's who he's writing for, not for a small elite of specialists in an arcane field of study.
For Davids, a Beethoven concert at Lincoln Center is not fundamentally different from a powwow. He points out that they are both participatory social events: there is not just music, but colors, food, talking, sharing of emotion. "A classical concert," Davids says, "is like a powwow -- it just doesn't think it is! At Lincoln Center, the focus is on the sound only, and the socializing is understated. At my concerts, the performers don't dress in black, and they're not all on a stage -- some may be out in the aisles. And my movements [sections of a piece] aren't separated from each other as in European music, but transition into each other like the seasons.”
As this Native American composer has written in the notes to one of his own works (Mtukwekok Naxkomao: The Singing Woods, one of the Kronos Quartet commissions): “Our woods and our people, together, invite each season to arrive like a cherished relative, and in turn, every season greets us with a song. These cycles and seasons are systems of communication, sharing, reciprocity and respect. Like vigilant midwives, we birth out intimate songs, then learn to sing them aloud and, together, create the medley of our world. We sing ... the woods sing ... the world sings. In truth and in fact, the eternal song of the seasons is our own song.”