October 19, 2020
Los Angeles is nothing if not a city teeming with diversity — in its population, its cultures, and its arts. And who better to embody this than composer/musician/educator Derrick Spiva Jr. An American who has Ghanaian, Nigerian, British, Irish, and Native-American ancestry, the 37-year-old hails from a family whose musical roots include gospel, funk, and jazz, and whose own compositions have been described by the Los Angeles Times as “something to savor” and “enormous fun to listen to.”
Adding to his illustrious biography, Spiva, who studied at UCLA and CalArts, was recently announced as Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s artistic advisor. No stranger to that organization, Spiva worked with LACO during the 2015–2016 season when he was awarded a composer residency through New Music USA’s “Music Alive” program, as well as having served as the organization’s first artist-educator since 2018. And in May, his most recent work for LACO — commissioned and performed by that organization — was a livestreamed excerpt from Prisms, Cycles, Leaps Part III: “To Be a Horizon,” the third in a series of pieces on a similar theme: building bridges between different communities through sound.
LACO had also performed the previous two parts of the opus that integrates musical practices from numerous cultures into a Western classical setting, so it’s no surprise that Spiva is the artistic director of Bridge to Everywhere, a new music collective and arts organization that he founded in 2015. With core members numbering from 10 to 12, the group recently snagged the Best Chamber Performance award from SFCV readers for its October 2019 concert at Boston Court Pasadena.
“What the ensemble is about,” explained Spiva, “is musically and through community interaction, finding these commonalities between musical practices from different areas of the world and making art pieces out of those commonalities. That’s what we love doing.”
Indeed, “Horizon” includes rhythmic elements from Ghanaian drumming, Persian classical music, and Indian classical tala, as well as melodic elements found in West and North Africa, Bulgarian folk music, and American genres from blues and gospel to bluegrass music. Spiva pointed out that the logistics of filming the work were intense, with some 25 musicians, including Spiva himself on trombone, as well as dancer Yeko Ladzekpo-Cole contributing movement.
“I was coordinating pretty much everything on the creative end, with LACO management staff helping me coordinate musicians and their recordings. There were also audio engineers and videographers, so there was a lot of synching and layering. You only have so many people that can be involved and it’s also a bit of a tech curve — it was quite something.
“For me,” continued Spiva, “the only music videos I saw coming out of classical music were mainly musicians playing. I knew that wasn’t going to be enough. Usually a dancer is more visually stimulating and since you’re not at the concert where you can take in every aspect, you’re kind of stuck with a person with a camera. In that case, I thought we should have a dancer for the piece, so I brought in my teacher and friend from West Africa. I also danced a little because when I saw her do it, I thought, ‘Now I have to do it.’”
It’s this kind of inclusion that is also the essence of Spiva’s composing, as well as at the heart of Bridge, the group having initially begun as a vehicle for his work. “Experimenting is something I’d been working on ever since I left school. There are other composers in the group that have that kind of vocabulary in their work, as well. This makes more music being made that explores commonalities.
“Now,” continued Spiva, “it’s not just my compositions, but anybody who’s got that vocabulary and is looking for an ensemble to be able to explore that. A good handful of members also compose, which makes me happiest. That’s also part of the Bridge to Everywhere — that it shouldn’t focus exclusively on my work.”
Rachel Iba, who has degrees from Oberlin Conservatory and CalArts, is the group’s concertmaster. The violinist also performs with a number of other ensembles, including Synchrony New Music Collective and the Vitamin String Quartet. In 2015, while at CalArts, she began teaching for the Santa Clarita Valley Youth Orchestra, where she met Spiva, who is also music director of that ensemble.
“We immediately hit it off and I loved what he was doing,” Iba enthused. “I’d worked for many different organizations and he was bringing all of this music from different cultures to the kids, alongside classical music. The kids seeing those different types of sounds in the same place, re-conceptualize your idea of what classical music is.
“Derrick mentioned that he was trying to start this group based on a similar philosophy,” added Iba, “but on a professional level and it went from there. I do a lot of other freelance work around L.A. and it’s easy for musicians, after you reach a certain point, if you’re doing the same type of gig over and over again, it’s more difficult to feel a sense of tangible growth as an artist. But playing with Bridge to Everywhere, it’s challenged me to develop new techniques and learn about different cultures.”
Iba also noted that Spiva’s music is quite physical and counting can be tricky. “It requires you as a musician to internalize rhythm physically and this is a technique that is applicable to our classical canon. The experience of playing that music and coming back to the more traditional repertory refreshed my perspective.”
The violinist said that she also enjoyed finding a diverse community of people, with everyone coming from different musical backgrounds and where all the musicians learn from each other. Recalling when Spiva first asked her to be concertmaster, though, she was prompted to ask herself, “Does it make sense for this group to have a concertmaster? What does that role mean in this context?”
“In a traditional orchestra,” Iba maintained, “it’s hierarchical, but my job as concertmaster of this group is to actively facilitate collaboration and make sure everyone is being given the opportunity to contribute, as well as work with Derrick to plan repertory and keep everything democratic. We’re trying to foster a sense of community with the group and with audiences. It really is a bridge.”
While Iba also composes, the ensemble hasn’t yet performed any of her works, which involve text and performance art. “Bridge to Everywhere is interested in pushing the boundaries of what a concert environment feels like. I think it’s part of the reason the audience enjoys the concerts so much. It’s direct, fun and moving away from the formality of a typical classical music concert. I’m sure we’ll do some immersive experiences that will involve some of my work in the future.”
LACO’s new executive director, Ben Cadwallader, who assumed his post last March as the pandemic was beginning to surge, had previously held the same title with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra beginning in 2015. Prior to that, Cadwallader was the education programs manager for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he oversaw educational initiatives and managed the Composer Fellowship Program from 2012–2015.
“Derrick was one of the teaching artists I was responsible for,” recalled Cadwallader, “and when I was considering this job with LACO, seeing the longstanding relationship that LACO had with Derrick — the way they invested in him — that was also a huge plus for me.”
Cadwallader pointed out that his job is to create the right conditions in order that LACO outlives “all of us. Sustainability writ large is always on my mind, especially during COVID, so it’s about what we can do to make sure LACO is here in another 50 to 100 years. That’s the stuff I love dreaming about — and with the people who have the brains and hearts and talent like Derrick has.”
Since COVID-19 has created the need to think outside the box, in this case, the concert hall, Cadwallader has, like all arts-organization executives, contemplated moving forward. “How can LACO innovate in the concert hall now [that it’s] very much outside the concert hall and in classrooms that are now digital classrooms? I can think of no one I would rather solve these nuanced challenges with than Derrick. He’s one of the most wildly creative and optimistic composers/educators I’ve ever encountered.”
To that end, Cadwallader said that the reception of Spiva’s latest work was overwhelmingly positive. “Even those folks who don’t like new music were completely enamored with it. It’s impossible not to feel something when you experience that piece. That’s just one example of why he’s such a special and crucial component of LACO’s artistry.”
LACO’s all virtual 2020–2021 season, “LACO Close Quarters,” is a robust slate of 16 original digital programs with wide-ranging repertoire and visual elements, all directed by James Darrah, who helmed world premieres of Ellen Reid’s Pulitzer Prize-winning prism and Missy Mazzoli’s adaptation of the Lars von Trier film, Breaking the Waves. Darrah was recently named LACO’s creative director of digital content, with Spiva’s LACO-commissioned newest work, Mother of Bravery, also making use of actors from L.A.-based Robey Theatre Company. The premiere is set for January 29, 2021. (See details below.)
And while COVID has irrevocably changed the world, Spiva, who has had his compositions performed by, among others, the Dayton Philharmonic and Albany Symphony, said he’s excited about what comes next. “My hope is that the broader classical community will be a bit more open to the use of technology in general. I would love to see more music videos from orchestras, either contemporary or music from various periods in time [with] more kinds of video/audio recordings becoming a staple in the budget.”
Spiva acknowledged that this would also help emerging composers. “One of the most frustrating things as a composer is trying to get into the field. It would be an all-around benefit for the orchestras and other ensembles to be able to hear and see composers — what their work is — and for composers to see what an ensemble is about.”
It’s comforting to know that with the challenges of the coronavirus, Spiva also sees opportunity. “Creatively, I see myself experiencing a new universe that comes out of this COVID transitional experience, that because all of these barriers were mostly logistical and not creative, they just don’t exist anymore. The endless amount of creativity hasn’t been tapped yet.”
LACO Close Quarters Episode 7
The Soldier’s Tale (Part 1) + Spiva
Premieres Friday, January 29, 2021, 6:30 pm (PT)
Derrick Spiva Jr. — Mother of Bravery (LACO-commissioned world premiere)
Stravinsky — L’Histoire du soldat (The soldier’s tale) (Part 1)