Anthony Davis, prominent young American composer of the opera, "The Life and Times of Malcolm X," will headline the opening amphitheater program of the Utah Arts Festival, at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday. Performing his compositions will be his Group/Davis, consisting of soprano Cynthia Aaronson, himself at the piano, several wind instruments, violin, cello and percussion.
"Ever since my parents brought a Thelonius Monk record home 25 years ago, I have known I wanted to compose," said Davis, via telephone from his New York home. "From Monk I learned how to develop my own identity, he gave me a vocabulary to create within the Afro-American idiom. Though I combine many traditions in my music, I guess the Afro-American is predominant. I trained in and played with many groups in that idiom, including jazz."He acknowledges many other influences. An expert pianist, he began study at age 7 in the European tradition of Chopin, Mozart, the Romantics, and 20th century masters such as Stravinsky, Janecek, Berg and Bartok. He admires Japanese composer Tora Takenitsky, and in no particular order he cited his love for Balinese, South Indian and African music (especially drumming), especially Ghanaian flute music; also contemporary Nigerian music.
Davis is often characterized as third stream - that type of music that combines classical with jazz and ethnic influences such as his Afro-Americanism, "but I like to think it's bigger than that, that I don't really fall into any movements. I'm very individual," he said.
He loves touring America and communicating his musical message in person, as he will in Utah, and he welcomes encountering an audience that is unfamiliar with his music. "After a little adjustment period, a first time audience is usually very exciting, because they often open up quickly to my music," he said. Listeners will likely respond to Davis' jarring chords, demanding repetitions, percussive insistence and interesting melodic innovations.
Davis was born in Paterson, N.J., into a cultivated home. His father, Charles T. Davis (a descendant from the Hampton Davis family of Hampton Institute renown) was the first black professor at Princeton. Charles Davis went on to become chairman of Afro-American studies at Yale, and as a devoted amateur musician, his acquaintance with many jazz greats gave Anthony much firsthand exposure.
Though he first thought of doing "philosophy and other things" as a Yale undergraduate, Davis soon gravitated to composition. Following graduation he performed intensively with jazz ensembles led by Leroy Jenkins, Leo Smith and Anthony Braxton. And he wrote for his own group, Episteme (knowledge in Greek). He has taught at Yale, where he was the first Lustman Fellow in 1981-82, and has been in residence at Cornell and Columbia Universities.
On Tuesday, June 19, at 8 p.m. in Devereaux House, Davis intends to discuss the music he and his group will perform here.
Among programmed numbers in his "Wayang Number IV." "This piece, which employs repeating patterns of varying lengths, was the basis for the overture of my opera, `Under the Double Moon,' he said. (A wayang, Davis explained, is a form used in Bali, often for the Shadow Puppet Theater, played by the gamelan orchestra.)
"Some Springs" is a music for narrator and soprano, set to a poem by his cousin, Thulani Davis. "The Ghost Factory' (1989) was inspired by a drawing by my son, Timothy, and its theme came originally from the second movement of my violin concerto, `Maps.' It's really a miniature concert for violin and the ensemble," he said.
"Still Waters," inspired by a line from the 23rd Psalm, is a work in four movements for septet, integrating improvisation and composition, and "Beginning of Light of Time Passing" is part of a song cycle for soprano.
Despite his composition in many other forms, Davis finds himself greatly drawn to opera. "I began at Yale, exploring Wagner and Strauss opera in a required course - which I hated as a matter of principle. But I was intrigued in spite of myself," he said.
His first big splash was with "X - The Life and Times of Malcolm X," a work of pulsating rhythms that developed through a metamorphosis of workshop, and revisions to its performance by the New York City Opera in 1986, to sold-out houses.
With book by his brother, Christopher, and poem by cousin Thulani, the opera is a powerful re-creation of the controversial leader's development from "child, criminal, youth, preacher and demagogue, visionary," said New Yorker critic Andrew Porter, who called it "a dramatic poem" reflecting "the wealth and variety of the black community in America."
The Boston Globe calls "X" "one of the few American operas ever born alive, kicking and screaming, a work full of fire and anger, conviction and understanding, musical and theatrical vitality." New York City Opera will repeat it within the next year or so, and many feel it should enter the mainstream of American opera.
Davis will tell Utahns a little about "X," with material from one of his most popular tour lectures, "X-cerpts." "People misunderstood Malcolm X," he said. "There was a lot of prejudice against him, but his message was pertinent - that the black's economic development must come along with his civil rights."
His second opera, "Under the Double Moon," was produced by the Opera Theater of St. Louis. "It's very different from `X'," he said. "Small, only seven singers, two acts, very lyrical, with a science fiction theme, and I'm happy with it."
He's already working on a third, "Tanya," based on the Patty Hearst kidnapping and the Symbionese Liberation Army.
"At first I composed mostly orchestral pieces, but I find myself increasingly drawn to setting songs and choral music," he said. "All along I was doing drama and theater pieces with Thulani, setting words to music."
Davis' music has been performed by the Brooklyn and New York Philharmonics, the American Composers' Orchestra, the Kansas City Symphony and Das Orchestrer der Beethovenhalle in Bonn, West Germany, among others.