Q&A: Daniel Bernard Roumain

Daniel Bernard Roumain: Symphony for the Dance Floor

The acronym DBR might sound like a spinoff of PBR, the bargain-priced, hipster-approved lager, but it actually belongs to something even more buzz-inducing: the music of violinist and composer Daniel Bernard Roumain. This classically trained musician gets W.A. Mozart aficionados to buy hip-hop records along with symphony tickets and makes clubgoers rock out to sounds inspired by Johannes Brahms and Ludwig van Beethoven.

His latest opus, Symphony for the Dance Floor, is a fusion of electronica, symphonic sounds, and lots of hip hop, created via collaboration with choreographer Millicent Johnnie and photographer Jonathan Mannion (whose shots of Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, and Eminem have appeared on the most memorable album covers of the past 15 years). The piece premiered at Arizona State University on February 5, 2011 and will be performed again this fall at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival.

ALARM spoke with Roumain about Symphony for the Dance Floor, his curious moniker, and how playing the violin can start a revolution, both in the musical world and the sociopolitical landscape.

What was on your mind when you began composing Symphony for the Dance Floor?

I’d been thinking a lot about the concept of performance. There’s a lot of art-making and art consumption in mainstream America right now. There are shows like American Idol, America’s Got Talent, and Glee that have revealed a real excitement about performance in the US, and even in Europe and Asia and East India. So Symphony for the Dance Floor is a response to this unique movement that’s happening, one that makes singing shows the first, second, and third most-watched programs. That’s really unusual and remarkable, and I’m excited for what it means for the violin and for composers.

How would you describe the crowd that attended the world premiere of Symphony earlier this month?

There was a lot of enthusiasm. Both shows sold out, and the audience was really into the performance. We got a standing ovation and great reviews, plus people were dancing all over the place. The show draws people from the classical music world, some hip-hoppers, and some real young folks, plus lots of people who just love music. I like to say that people who attend my shows range from 7-70 years old.

Why did you team up with a photographer for this project?

I love Jonathan’s work. I’ve known and loved his work for years, mainly the album covers and magazine photos, but once I met him, I found out that I really admired the person as well. The more I got to know the depth and extent of his creativity, the more I wanted to work with him. I was looking to combine my love of dance and theater and music and film in a really seamless way, and I feel like we’re really similar people in many respects, so he seemed like the guy to team up with to make this happen. He’s not just a photographer; he thinks about the ways different art forms speak to one another.

How will the performance of Symphony at First Wave Fest differ from the world premiere at Arizona State?

We’re going to have more time to develop it, and the music’s going to change a bit. I’ll be working with the same creative team, but the music, the photography, the lighting, [and] the whole show will be made specifically for BAM’s Harvey Theater — “installed,” if you will. In other words, the piece will have time to mature; we can reflect on it, grow it, and evolve it.

How do you get ready to go onstage? Do you have any rituals that you’ve found helpful?

I don’t eat all day. I like to feel really gutted and hollow. Other than that, it’s really pretty simple: I stretch everything, take a long shower and get really clean, then get to the performance hall and walk through the show. I like to be there all day and make my peace with it. I’m usually at total peace by the time I hit the dressing room. That’s when I get very amped up. You’ll find me pacing and doing push-ups and jumping jacks an hour before I go on. I have a lot more energy than the show requires, but Symphony for the Dance Floor is unique in that we have been doing two in a row, one all-ages show and another for mature audiences, with an hour-long break in between. That requires a lot of energy, even though it’s not a very long show. It’s only 65 minutes, but I think it’s the kind of setup that allows the performers to reflect on what they’ve just done before they return to the stage for the second show. Plus, a lot of people from the first show come back for the second one, so I think we’re doing something right.

When was your “aha” moment with your violin, the one where you said, “Wait a minute, I can play hip hop on this thing”?

I started playing violin in kindergarten, and the instrument chose me right away. It was a sound and a look and a feel that instantly appealed to me. So when I was about 10, I started to experiment. I was always doing the opposite of what my teachers told me to do, and I really wanted to make my violin into a drum or a turntable or a guitar, something other than what it was. I would spend hours in my room trying to change its sound. I’d impress myself first, then share what I’d created with my family and then my friends. Basically, my life’s work has been trying to make the violin cool and relevant.

On your blog, you wrote that your “work as a composer includes thinking about, and wanting to help, our world.” Do you think composers have a responsibility to use music as a social-justice tool?

An artist’s work speaks more to poetics than politics; it’s often about bringing poetry to politics. An artist’s job is to inspire, and inspiration can really change the world. I don’t think that an artist needs to tell you how much property tax to pay, for example, but artists are uniquely qualified to change your life or your perspective on life. Something as simple as titling a piece Symphony for the Dance Floor can have an impact. Even if don’t you know me or care about my work, it speaks to equality of the classical music tradition and what’s happening if you go see Madonna or Lady Gaga play.

It’s the notion that they’re equal; this is what the show is about. A violinist and a DJ and other musicians can have a conversation with hip-hop dancers under the watchful eye of a photographer. The last bastion of democracy might be the concert stage. That’s why in Symphony for the Dance Floor, the audience sits onstage with the photographs and performers. Everyone is there together, participating and reflecting, and that’s the world that I want.

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