Over the next four decades as a composer, I continued to mix with orchestras: the London Symphony Orchestra at 19, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra at 40, and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at 45. It dawned on me, even at 19, how extremely difficult it was for people like me to get involved in the orchestral world – a world created around an enduring European tradition that rarely took us into account. This was true of all the various institutions, and even nations, that populated the long road to becoming an orchestral musician or composer. And to a large extent, that’s still true today.
Due to my early experiences at Da Capo or my fascination with the idea that 50-80 people could work together in sync to create music, I had always dreamed of an orchestra that could be representative of the actual residents – and sounds – of the city where he resided.
The Philadelphia Public Orchestra offers an alternative to traditional classical ensembles, with room for all instruments and backgrounds.
The Public Orchestra, a module of Rehearsing Philadelphia, a massive musical/meta-score project created by American artist and composer Ari Benjamin Meyers and funded and produced by a quorum of local institutions, had the same goal in mind. So when they offered me the position of musical director, it was an easy yes! Learn more about this massive project and Ari’s manifesto here.
The Public Orchestra of Philly is a complete reimagining of what an orchestra could or should be. It started with Ari’s question, “How can we be together?” We looked at Philadelphia’s wide range of musical communities – jazz, gospel, soul, hip-hop, classical, folk, Indian, Brazilian, Mexican, Cuban, Filipino, klezmer, Arabic, Korean, West African and many more – and thought about how these could all be represented and coexist within a set of 50 pieces. Only two of the orchestra members are Tchin, who plays the Native American nose flute, and Matthew Law, who plays the turntables. See our stage plan below for a full list of chosen instruments.
Notation is a useful tool, especially within orchestras, whose rehearsals are notoriously expensive. But if you consider the musical traditions that exist outside the realm of Western notation – most of them – this can become a barrier. Not requiring our attendees to read music made it possible to include many more music communities. Repertoire was another area we considered. We knew that the orchestra had to perform new works written especially for it, which would require commissions.
We asked, “What is a composer?” Traditional conventions governing orchestral composition—the typical “top-down” hierarchy involving conductor and score, sections and parts, first and second chairs, and even the idea of pre-composed music—meant that the pool of people who could compose for orchestras was quite limited. However, our pool of composers grew exponentially once we reconsidered them. We commissioned five very different composers: Ann Carlson (choreographer), Ursula Rucker (performing poet), Xenia Rubinos (Latinx electronic music artist), Ari Benjamin Meyers (project architect) and Marshall Allen of Sun Ra Arkestra (97 years old – former luminary of free jazz).
Butch Morris, Anthony Braxton and others explored a whole system of conducting in an attempt to compose spontaneously. Butch’s system, with its wide range of gestures, formed the basis of how I chose to interact with the orchestra as musical director/conductor. With this approach, the orchestra and I were able to create complex improvisations that seem pre-composed, but in fact require no reading. We asked our composers to create works that could be taught by ear and played from memory. Using these two methods, we were all able to create a dynamic 90-minute show representing Philadelphia.
The result? The Public Orchestra’s three performances at Cherry Street Pier included some of the most diverse and truly engaged audiences in Philadelphia. The compositions performed spanned hip-hop and avant-dance, serialism and free jazz, vocals and soaring cadences, and many other unique blends not expected during an orchestral performance. Like the orchestra itself, these shows were not about any tradition or culture. These are moving events, bringing people from all walks of life together to meet, play and create great art together.
To be continued!