Atwater leads his own 75-member ensemble, the Soulful Symphony, in his own music, which draws from African-American traditions.
Atwater leads his own 75-member ensemble, the Soulful Symphony, in his own music, which draws from African-American traditions. Michael Stewart
Darin Atwater is an unusual voice in the world of classical music. The 38-year-old composer and conductor combines strands of gospel, jazz, R&B and even hip-hop in his orchestral music. In the process, he's redefining what has remained a quintessentially European art form: the symphony orchestra.
Practically everything about an Atwater concert stands in contrast to a standard symphony: the musicians on stage, the people sitting in the audience and, most of all, the sound.
Atwater doesn't have the pedigree of a conventional orchestral composer, either. He studied composition at Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory of Music, but left after a year. Actually, he was encouraged to leave by composer John Corigliano.
"He said, 'Man, this isn't the right place for you. You have such a defined sound; I'm afraid this is going to box you in,' " Atwater says.
Atwater says he's grateful for the advice. What he was doing — almost without realizing it — was writing orchestral versions of African-American spirituals, gospel and jazz. He says it was a little bit like what Alvin Ailey was doing with dance, or the artist Romare Beardon, with his collages and photo montages. All were bringing African-American folk art into America's finest concert halls and museums.
A Beardon Breakthrough
Atwater says he was studying Beardon's art when he finally understood what kind of music he wanted to write.
"He was layering different African-American experiences on top of cubism and on top of all these different forms," Atwater says. "And that's exactly what I was trying to get to. I'm almost layering, like a musical collage."
The first piece he composed after that revelation was Song in a Strange Land. Atwater says it was a creative breakthrough for him.
"Everything coalesced with that piece," Atwater says. "I wanted to find a framework where I could elevate American vernacular music, and of course it all started with the spiritual. And for me, I said, 'Let's start with that and kind of weave together all the different musical products that have stemmed from the spiritual.' "
But the piece begins with music that came before the spiritual — music of the drums, which Atwater calls the heartbeat of all African music and its derivatives.
Atwater explains that the first generations of African slaves brought drums and used them to communicate with each other, sometimes causing insurrections on plantations. So slave owners confiscated their instruments.
But there were exceptions, including Congo Square in New Orleans, where West African slaves were allowed to play music together in public. It became one of the places where African rhythms got a foothold in the U.S.
Still, African-Americans, Atwater says, found ways to express themselves in places where they were deprived of instruments.
"Any time you hear Negro spirituals, you hear them without any instrumentation," he says. "There's a real strong vocal component. You don't have as much rhythmic freedom in gospel as you do with jazz and its cousins. So what I wanted to do was reintroduce the spiritual with that vocal component, along with all these other rhythmic possibilities that kind of went off into the secular trajectory with jazz."
Atwater created the Soulful Symphony, a 75-member orchestra with vocalists, to perform his Song in a Strange Land.
"When I got almost through writing the piece, I thought it would be great to have all African-Americans on stage for the premiere," he says. "The spirituals, African-Americans, we're paying homage to our ancestors."
Benefits In Baltimore
In 2004, Atwater and his Soulful Symphony caught the attention of executives at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, who were looking for ways to connect with the city's African-American community. Atwater and the BSO formed an artistic partnership that has been hugely successful. When the Soulful Symphony performs at the BSO's concert halls in Baltimore and near Washington, D.C., it routinely sells out the house.
Jazz musician Wynton Marsalis says he knows why. He first met Atwater about 10 years ago.
"I remember I came down to play some of his music, and it was unbelievable to me," Marsalis says. "He had a whole symphonic orchestra playing with great orchestration, so many different grooves. And he was combining a lot of different styles of music that are very difficult to bring together with a degree of craftsmanship and seriousness. And he has a good basketball game, too."
Broad Music Mix
Atwater grew up outside Washington, D.C. His father worked at IBM and his mother was a teacher. Both of his parents sang in the church choir, so music represented a large part of the family's focus and faith.
He started playing piano when he was 4, learning on his grandmother's upright Wurlitzer. He's largely self-taught and says that if he'd had more classical music training, he'd probably now be a concert pianist or conventional orchestra conductor. His mother often took him to hear the National Symphony Orchestra and gave him a broad view of music.
"Because she immersed us in so many musical milieus," Atwater says, "it's sort of morphed into the way I conceive music — you know, everything from taking me to hear the NSO to Ella Fitzgerald, to church to whatever you can name musically."
Atwater says he still seeks out all kinds of music, and that he loves rap and hip-hop, though he doesn't always like the message. So he wrote his own hip-hop composition for the Soulful Symphony. It's called Paint Factory, and he chose the Baltimore hip-hop group M.E.P. to perform it.
"It's important that we provide a counterstatement to what's going on in popular music," Atwater says. "It's like the worst part of us is the thing we celebrate. So I wanted to take the qualities of hip-hop and the form of it and show how it could be elevated again."
With his music and the Soulful Symphony, Atwater is making the voices, brass and strings of his symphony orchestra speak with a distinctly American accent.