American Mirror

Any time artists create anything, they are, by definition, expressing themselves.

But sometimes, this self-expression is less abstract than it is explicitly personal. Sometimes, it's a reaction to current events that others can really get behind. And sometimes, it has the power of a unifying force. In its lack of words (and ensuing failure to trigger defenses), pieces of art music, in particular, are uniquely, disarmingly poised to engender empathy.. 

One such piece is Derrick Spiva's American Mirror. We are truly humbled and honored to perform the world premiere this October 7 & 8. Not only because it is a stunningly beautiful piece; not only because Derrick wrote this for us essentially as a gift; but also because we truly believe in the sincerity of its message, and are grateful for the opportunity to be its first messengers. 

We asked Derrick to share a bit about his inspiration for this profound and timely work here.

~ Maia

By Derrick Spiva Jr. with Kim Nguyen Tran

A few months ago, I was getting ready for an international trip. I had lots of preparing to do.

For anyone who has traveled internationally, we all know that immunizations can be a huge part of the process, depending on which country you plan to visit. In my case, I was going to Ghana, an amazing country in West Africa. One of the most important immunizations required for entry into Ghana was the yellow fever shot. I had received all of my other immunizations, but this one was in short supply globally, so I had to go to one of only two places in Los Angeles that provided it.

Derrick Spiva Jr. (in grey hat) playing axatse (shaker) with an Ewe music ensemble in Anyako, Ghana,  July 2017.

Derrick Spiva Jr. (in grey hat) playing axatse (shaker) with an Ewe music ensemble in Anyako, Ghana,  July 2017.

When I arrived at the clinic, I filled out all of my paper work and waited to be called in. The travel clinic was decorated with some lovely paintings and other pieces of art from around the world. How beautiful, I thought. When I was called in to receive my immunization, I couldn’t help but strike up a conversation with the nurse administering the shot. While looking at my American passport, she asked me where I was from.

“I was born in Santa Ana, California,” I told her. “But I grew up in the Central Valley, and live in Los Angeles now.”

“Oh wow!” she responded. “I thought you were from Bali or something.”

I couldn’t help but chuckle. I asked her how in the world she had gathered that information.

“Well,” she said, “I thought I recognized your accent.”

I thought to myself, I know a few people from Bali who live in Los Angeles. And I absolutely love playing Balinese gamelan with them at UCLA on Tuesday nights.

Derrick Spiva Jr. (right) and his wife Kim Tran (left) with their Balinese gamelan gong kebyar teacher, I Nyoman Wenten (center), after a performance in 2016.

Derrick Spiva Jr. (right) and his wife Kim Tran (left) with their Balinese gamelan gong kebyar teacher, I Nyoman Wenten (center), after a performance in 2016.

If anything, I would have a slight accent from the American South, seeing as my grandparents grew up in Tennessee and Texas -- not the Indonesian island of Bali. I’m not sure how I could even fake a Balinese accent while speaking English, without doing some intensive research and rehearsal. Beyond that: what accent is considered the American accent, anyway? Aren't there multiple dialects of English throughout all 50 states?

Needless to say, there was some identity confusion taking place.

As an American who is a descendant of slaves, I don’t have a complete picture of exactly who my ancestors are. But I am going to claim who I am, nonetheless, as a member of my community -- here in America, here in Los Angeles. Like many people living in this sprawling metropolis, my American identity is shaping up to be the result of the absorption of many different coexisting cultures.

I’ve been mistaken as not being an American before, and I know this experience is shared by many others who live in our country. Sometimes it is as simple as a misunderstanding in an immunization clinic. Other times, it can be downright abusive as it is used as a tactic to separate individuals from a group by using religion, race, sexual orientation, and/or gender. It is a scenario that I have seen play out at every level of our society, including debates about the Americanness of a President of the United States. And not just with Barack Obama. John F. Kennedy’s loyalty to the United States was questioned because of his Catholic religion. Cases of litmus tests in the court of public opinion judging Americanness continue to drive me to ask these questions:  

What does it mean to be American?

Who am I, as an American?

Because I am a composer within the genre of classical music, I ask:

What is American classical music?

Does classical music have something meaningful to say in this conversation, about being American?

The answers to these questions seem to continuously unfold over time, just as the social experiment that is our country seems to do the same. I decided to write a string quartet that I felt sheds light on the America that I have experienced. Of course, after it was done I couldn’t help but also ask:

What have I gotten myself into, trying to tackle these questions in a string quartet !?!?

derrick comic 1.png
derrick comic.png

Despite what its reputation might be, classical music -- especially contemporary classical -- is amazingly open as a musical form. Classical music is one of the most flexible genres in its ability to accept a wide variety of sounds into its sonic world.

Take a look at this list here. It’s incredible that all of these diverse pieces fall within the classical music genre.

Classical music has an ability to open itself up to different sounds, instruments, cultures, genres, and perspectives. Despite this openness, sociological, economic, and historical factors have excluded large groups of people from participating fully in classical music. Women and people of color in particular have had difficulty finding a place in the classical music world.

American Mirror is a sonic reflection of my community here in Los Angeles. The music reflects what I see, hear, and live with in my everyday life as an American in this beautiful city of Angels. Melodically, the piece draws from gospel, West African, North African, and Eastern European vocal techniques. Underneath these melodies, American Mirror use Copland-esque open harmonies not only found in Appalachian folk music, but also many other folk musics from around the world.

Finding a way for all of these musical traditions to exist together in a cohesive, integrative way has taken a lot of time and effort. Through performing, researching, and trying to understand points of overlap that exist between the styles, I found that vocal lines, certain rhythmic cycles, and the embodiment of rhythm through movement were particularly important points of connection. It sometimes felt like playing that old video game Tetris, in which blocks arranged in many shapes have to be connected as efficiently as possible in a given amount of time. The most amazing thing to me is that there are so many points of overlap that compliment each other and make for wonderful moments of inter-connectedness between what, at first, seems to be very different musical cultures.

A young Derrick Spiva Jr. in the UCLA gamelan room in 2005.

A young Derrick Spiva Jr. in the UCLA gamelan room in 2005.

Writing American Mirror was very emotional for me at times. A slow section in the middle of Part II was especially difficult for me. The section begins with solo viola, playing a very vocal melody inspired by the humming of folk tunes, a phenomenon that occurs in many cultures across the globe. Gradually, the other instruments join the humming viola, with their own versions of the humming. At the end of all things, when everything is taken from us (property, technological gadgets, finances), we still have our own voices. Without anything else, we can tell stories, mourn, express infinite things through just our voice. While I was writing this section, my thoughts were with members of our community that have not been able to feel a sense of belonging that we all yearn for. Many of us know what it is to feel like an outsider in our own communities.

One of the main purposes in writing American Mirror was to represent my identity musically, by weaving together my favorite moments of awesomeness in musical cultures that resonate strongly with me, and sharing this with the classical music community. It’s important to understand that each of the individual musical practices that I have brought into the piece are amazing, uplifting, and transformative in their own right, and certainly don’t need my work to shine. But I hope my music could be a doorway for people to learn about musical cultures that they are not yet familiar with.

As I continue to find points of overlap between the musical cultures that I practice, it is becoming clear to me that music has the ability to serve as a model for how we can find points of common ground in our society. The shared experience of music can be a profound vehicle through which people come to understand one another, despite different backgrounds and perspectives. When you understand and empathize with someone (and maybe enjoy their music), it makes it awfully difficult to hate.