This week’s open threads will focus on black composers.
Michael Abels (born October 8, 1962) is an American composer. Abels was born in Phoenix, Arizona, and studied at the University of Southern California. His best known work is Global Warming. Other works include the opera Homies and Popz commissioned by the Los Angeles Opera and premiered in 2000.
Abels early years were spent on a small farm in South Dakota, where he lived with his grandparents. Introduced to music via the family piano, he began showing an innate curiosity towards music at age four. His music-loving grandparents convinced the local piano teacher to take him on as a student despite his age. Michael was a quick study, and began composing at age 8, having his first completed work performed at 13. “I was totally fascinated by how music works, what it does. The fact that you can put these notes together, and that they can stir up such emotions, has always been amazing to me.”
Upon graduating from high school, Abels left Phoenix for the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Being of mixed-race parents, Michael chose to live in LA to immerse himself in a multicultural urban environment. He eventually studied African drumming techniques, and joined a Baptist Church to further explore his African-American roots.
The renowned gospel artist Rev. James Cleveland asked him to do some arrangements for an upcoming recording. Soon thereafter, he was commissioned by the Phoenix Symphony to write arrangements for a collaborative event with a local Baptist choir. This commission led to many subsequent arrangements for gospel choir and orchestra. Of these pieces Abels said, “They offer a really great cross-cultural experience. There is no more enthusiastic a group than a black church choir. For an orchestra to share that energy, and vice versa, brings them all to another world.”
During the Phoenix engagement, Abels conceived of his most successful piece to date, Global Warming (1991). His description of how the piece came about is as follows:
“Global Warming was written around the time of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, when the Cold War was ending. Living in Los Angeles, I’ve been able to learn about music from around the world simply by opening the window; among my neighbors are immigrants from every corner of the world. I was intrigued by the similarities between folk music of divergent cultures, and decided to write a piece that celebrates these common threads as well as the sudden improvement in international relations that was occurring. Since the piece was commissioned for an orchestra in the desert city of Phoenix, AZ, “global warming” was the title that seemed to incorporate all these ideas best.”
This genre-crossing work has had over 100 performances by many of today’s leading orchestras, solidifying its place in the repertoire. With elements from Irish and Arabic folk music, Global Warming embodies Mr. Abels’ multicultural leanings.
Also receiving much acclaim is Abels’ homage to black civil rights leader Martin Luther King called Dance for Martin’s Dream (1997). After an elegiac opening section, the piece bristles with celebratory dance rhythms throughout. The work offers an array of styles, from bluegrass mountain music to the vocalized “beat-boxing” technique found in hip-hop (used as an evocation of the chanted slogans of civil rights rallies). Dance for Martin’s Dream expresses “the unbelievable positive difference [King’s] courage and the courage of those who marched with him has made.” (from the composer’s website)
Also during his Watts residency, Mr. Abels began a mentoring program for disadvantaged youths in music technology and production techniques. Students learn how to operate samplers, MIDIdevices, and drum machines; tools used to create much of today’s popular music. As the students sample old vinyl records from their parents’ unused collections, they come up against basic musical ideas such as phrasing, tempo, and key. Abels capitalizes on these moments, finding this a relevant approach to teaching music appreciation. “The traditional method is backwards: usually students are taught how to listen to music they wouldn’t otherwise like. Film classes, on the other hand, generally start with works that are already familiar to encourage critical thinking about film as an art. With this knowledge, they then can appreciate silent films and Citizen Kane. Music appreciation should start by simply spinning the radio dial, and then relate that back to Mozart.”
Other current activities include work on a new piece for orchestra called River of Jewels. Abels is exploring some of the interesting ideas raised by the sampling methods of his music technology students. He generates original materials, and then “samples” himself in various ways. And finally, Cedille Records has a fall ’02 release planned for the premiere recording of Global Warming, performed by the Chicago Sinfonietta. The work is part of a compilation of music by African-American composers titled African Heritage Symphonic Series, Vol. III.*
In 2004, Abels composed and arranged a music score based on operatic themes of Giuseppe Verdi, for Yo, Sam, a hip-hop song about the Watts Towers. The song appears on the sound track ofI Build the Tower, a documentary feature film on the life of the Towers’ creator, Simon Rodia.
Delights and Dancers 2