Arts & Culture

Davis explains how he makes his operas swing

5 min read

A former Harvard professor returned to campus last week to explain how he makes opera swing.

Anthony Davis, a composer known for his diverse approach to music, incorporating diverse elements like jazz, improvisation, minimalism, and the Javanese gamelan (an Indonesian musical ensemble that includes gongs, xylophones, and bamboo flutes) into his work, recently discussed his unique spin on the art form in a series of talks sponsored by the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

Instead of using harmony and melody to carry the drama in his operatic works, Davis employs repeating rhythmic structures. This idea takes a page from the minimalist’s use of repetitive themes, he said, while incorporating other African-American inspired twists.

“I can do minimalism,” Davis told a diverse crowd at the Barker Center’s Thompson Room, “but what happens when minimalism meets James Brown? What happens when minimalism meets Thelonious Monk? … [It’s] this idea of really trying to create a new kind of swing.”

Davis, a one-time professor of music at Harvard, and current professor of music at the University of California, San Diego, offered his perspective on the vocal art through the Du Bois Institute’s Alain LeRoy Locke Lectures titled, “Deconstructing Opera, Creating Opera in a Post-Colonial World.”

Critics laud Davis’ operatic compositions for infusing new life into the conservative art form with his jazz-inspired motifs and politically and socially charged themes. The pianist and composer acknowledged the sense of incongruity he sometimes evokes — a man known primarily for his work in jazz and African-American informed music who is simultaneously captivated by a traditionally Western European-inspired tradition. Davis explained that his original interest in opera wasn’t a musical one but something more abstract.

“I was drawn to the philosophical discourse on the art form,” he said, recalling his fascination with “The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music,” the work by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche that examines the conflict between reason and passion.

“He discussed the dichotomy between the Apollonian and the Dionysian through an understanding of art as form and structure or [in contrast] as art in the spirit of revolution — the irrational and passionate aspect of artistic expression,” said Davis, adding, “It became apparent to me that this dialectic in music was best represented in American music, a music rooted in European and the African, a music formal yet improvisational. It was obvious to me that jazz embodied this dialectic of form and real time inspiration.”

Davis’ true introduction to opera came in a classical music course in college, where he was “force-fed” the work of Richard Wagner. As a joke, he let his subversive tendencies take hold, and wrote an operatic jazz suite based on the feminist science fiction work, “The Left Hand of Darkness,” complete with his own leitmotifs, a type of recurring musical theme Wagner is well-known for employing throughout his operas.

“Turning Wagner upside down,” said Davis, set the stage for how he would redefine opera.

“[I liked] the idea of a subversive reworking of a lot of the stuff, a lot of the ideas, to suit my own purpose. … I began to work in this idea of rhythm as structure and, in my operas particularly … on the interaction of rhythmic material as a basic building block of an opera.”

The subjects of his works are often emotionally charged — and that’s how it should be — noted the composer, whose first opera, “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X,” premiered with the New York City Opera in 1986.

“Why wouldn’t someone do an opera about Malcolm X?” he asked, answering his own question: “It’s operatic; it’s an operatic story; it’s about transformation, … [about] someone who went into the fire.”

Another technique in Davis’ operas is his use of the trickster, a troublemaking character in folk tales around the world, one who is usually central to the plot of a story and instrumental to how the story unfolds. In his opera “Amistad,” the tale of the 1839 mutiny aboard a ship of slaves bound for America, a god who narrates much of the action and has a hand in the fate of the characters on stage embodies the trickster.

Using this trickster god, said Davis, who can transcend time and place, allows the story to cast a light on both history and the present day.

“It’s always about this idea of retelling, how history can be used to address where we are now, who we are. … Also, the trickster can draw upon this whole jazz world that I inhabit. … So I can introduce this kind of rhythm, this kind of beat, because basically the trickster is able to tell and recast this story and think of history as a creative act.”

Davis’ operatic works often include sections of improvisation for the musicians. Frequently, he incorporates his own players and soloists into the orchestra, and he casts singers who are equally versed in opera and jazz, enabling them to combine their varied training and repertoire to create something totally new.

“It’s about looking at this material as transforming material,” said Davis. “Things that make music completely different than what it could have been, things that influence each other … to evolve a different kind of music.”