Daniel Bernard Roumain is a name to learn. He makes that easy by using
the initials DBR. Inspired, perhaps, by FDR, and closer to home, by
DBR uses an Apple laptop, but in spirit, he is closer to Microsoft, the
company that conquered almost the whole world through creative marketing.
DBR is a marketing genius.
A classically-trained musician from Florida, scion of a family from
Haiti, DBR came to the San Francisco Jewish Community Center on Monday
to present an Other Minds-produced concert of his first four string
quartets (the actual output is now up to 5 1/2), and he did what no other
composer - with lesser marketing skills - could come to close doing.
Starting with that nom de plume (or guerre?) of initials (as good or
better than the single-named approach of Kennedy's ilk), DBR brought
out a large audience, including all the local new-music stars and foot
soldiers, he dazzled with his literally long-hair music (dreadlocks
almost three feet long), he had a TV crew record the proceedings for a
CBS News program, he engaged the brilliant and adventurous Del Sol Quartet
to do the heavy lifting (and lift they did, for two hours without fail),
grooved with turntablist (and laptopist) DJ Scientific, played his
amplified violin while twisting, turning and leaping, made the audience
participate with rhythmic clapping - and held attention in many other
ways. Great marketing: a sale was made to almost all of the audience,
Now, as to the music... In a better world, the quality of music should
conquer without marketing, without gimmicks. This is not that world,
and even if it were, DBR's pleasant and entertaining work is not that
music. Not until the very end of the long, and somewhat monotonous
concert, were there real sparks. DBR jammed with the fired-up string
quartet, Kate Stenberg, Rick Shinozaki, Charlton Lee and Monica Smith
taking solo bows, with jazz-concert like individual riffs, the sound
throbbed through the audience, with the kind of physical impact you get
at a good rock concert - body vibrations, not shattered ears. But there
was a long road to that brief segment of originality and authenticity.
String Quartet No. 1, from 1993, and dedicated to Malcolm X, is an
impressive Bartokian exercise, but without Bartok's complexity, weight,
and originality. DBR has undeniable, driving energy, but so does the
song "It's a Small World." Energy, by itself, and "Small World"
repetitiousness great art don't make by themselves.
The 2001 String Quartet No. 2, to Martin Luther King Jr., was quite
different, although in the end, not offering much more substance.
Starting with a simple, warm, Dvorakian theme, the piece builds up to
repeated climaxes with the participation of the composer on electric
violin - everything, including Del Sol was amplified, but somehow DBR
was more electric than others, using all kinds of sound-modifying gadgets
- and the appearance of DJ Scientific, with his turntables, scratching,
beat-boxes, microphone-bumping, and laptop "soundscaping." After the
concert, DJ - or Mr. Scientific, whichever is more cool - explained
disarmingly that he read a book about soundscaping, and that launched
him on his career. What is soundscaping? I haven't read the book, but
I think it has to do with recording sounds and then playing them during
the concert, a technique appearing with sliced-bread impact several
decades ago. However, it is defined by more sympathetic, and probably
knowledgable, neo-musicologists as "sonic excursions into new electronic
String Quartet No. 3, from 2003, and dedicated to Adam Clayton Powell
Jr., has movements entitled "Race," "Reason" and "Resolve." It was played
by the Del Sol only, and only an hour after the concert, I forgot
everything about it, except the dedicated, hard work by the quartet.
No. 4, from 2004, honors Maya Angelou. After excessive non-progressive
ostinato in the first movement (think "It's a Small World," not Philip
Glass), the soundscaped passage from the poet refers to the death of her
grandmother in 1920, with DBR inspired to another whirling, impressive
About the concert's rather title, it appears fashionable, "correct," but
also rather tenuous, supported only by the fact - if not the substance
- of the dedications, and a long string of the composer's recitation of
the phrase "You are not me, I am not free" in String Quartet No. 2.
It might have been a quote from M.L. King, but that's unlikely. DBR's
gratuitous use of the N word as he addressed the audience, and immediate
acknowledgment that he did so only for the shock value, made no contribution
either to Civil Rights education or illumination. Perhaps even more
importantly than in the case of music, marketing alone just won't do in
the great cause of righting wrongs.
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