On Melodies & Minds

A few days ago I talked with Dorian Wallace. Dorian is a composer of classical music, an accomplished pianist, and a human rights activist living in New York City. Dorian has worked in the past with the Martha Graham Dance Company, Juilliard, Columbia University, and NYU. He is currently the co-founder of Tenth Intervention. I reached out to Dorian because, like me, he is a veteran who considers himself a part of the anti-totalitarian Left in addition to being a passionate secularist, and he constantly seeks to use his musical ability for the good of both causes. His website is www.dorianwallace.com


So I definitely want to talk about your human rights activism in a moment, but I’m hoping we can talk about music first. I was really moved by your composition Little River Grace. As I’ve told you before, I’m an absolute fool for cellos and violins, and my god, listening to Little River Grace while trying to fall asleep was like floating on an ocean and feeling every wave lift me up and carry me back down. It was incredible. I also really enjoyed your composition Crom Liberates The Monarch. It was very haunting. Especially the beginning where you feel like you’re being lulled into an almost cult-like trance. My hats off to you and Tenth Intervention. I guess my first question to you is a rather basic one, and that is: when did you first come to the realization 1) That you had such a strong love for music that you wanted to become a musician, and 2) That you loved orchestra so much and Jazz so much that you wanted to play those genres?

Well, I'm a self-taught pianist and composer. I started fumbling around on the piano at age 4. My mom is a professional pianist and my dad is a professional Barbershop singer and composer, so music was playing all the time in my house. I started creating my own compositions, but it wasn't until I was 7 that I began taking the instrument more seriously. We went to see a local orchestra in Ohio (Ashtabula Area Orchestra) and I loved the concert, but in the middle of the whole thing, this little old woman came out and played "Rachmanninov's Prelude in C# Minor". I had NEVER heard anything like that before, nor had I any idea that the piano was capable of those sounds. I became obsessed with Rachmanninov's work and focused on playing the piano with crazier technique and emotion. The next major part of my musical development happened when I was 8.

What happened when you were 8?

I wanted to be a Paleontologist and was obsessed with dinosaurs (as many kids are). I watched "Fantasia"specifically the one with the dinosaurs fightingon repeat! It was on everyday, multiple times a day, all the time! Eventually I realized how drawn to the music I was. It turned out it was Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring". The harmonies were insane, the rhythm was both primal and complicated at the same time. It felt like a musical story of the past, while being influenced by something in the future. That was when I knew I wanted to be a composer. There was no turning back.

Eventually I got really into extreme Metal music: Slayer, Meshuggah, Cannibal Corpse, etc. I played keyboard in a metal band all through middle school and high school. That lead me to audition at Kent State University for Music Composition. I got in, though I had no idea how to read music and I didn't know music theory. The next six years for me involved learning about all the technical language of music. It was mind blowing. I had a really great teacher who knew how to speak to me without being overwhelming with information. It was like learning grammar about a language you had already known for years.

While in college, I was one of the only classical majors who improvised, so it was recommended that I audition for the Jazz ensemble. I got in and learned the history of the music, which really affected my playing. It gave improvisation much more structure. It also helped me see the bridge that connected all American music: from the Blues to Country to Hip Hop to Rock N Roll, etc. I consider myself a Classical composer who plays Jazz very well. But, in all seriousness, genres are just labels to make categorizing easier. I love all music, no matter where it comes from, and I love playing/composing as much as possible.

You know, it's funny you mention getting really into Metal. My father, who was (and is still) a conservative Christian minister, loves Hard Rock. He loves it. And I bring up his occupation because it's kind of a stereotype that conservative Christians don't approve of Rock music unless it's Christian Rock. But my father was an 80s child and he loved hair bands. So as a kid I grew up listening to artists like Metallica, Ozzy Osbourne, AC/DC, etc. It wasn't exactly the same Metal you were into, but I do think it's funny that two guys who have come to know each other through their love of Jazz and Classical music also both love Rock. And you're absolutely spot-on about how cool the connections are between musical genres. American music especially forms a sort of chain.

I first got into classical music around the same period of time I started exploring atheism, reading Hitchens, and learning about the Age of Enlightenment. It seems like classical music just goes with that territory. But within the past year or so is when I really started listening to Jazz and Big Band. I began with the “basics” I guess you could say: Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman; but now I’m starting to get more into Brazilian Jazz and Bossa Nova. In fact I just finished listening to Áquas de Março by Luisa Pereira a few minutes ago.

And that's kinda the thing isn't it? The more you listen to Jazz, the more you find that there’s so much variety in the genre. It’s not just annoying I'll-have-to-place-you-on-a-brief-hold music that makes you want to punch somebody in the face over and over again.

Exactly. The point of the genre, like everything else without context, can be totally missed. Many people (outside of professional musicians) don't realize that Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, etc. were revolutionary thinkers for their era. They even considered "Jazz" an oppressive word used by the media to separate black musicians from white musicians at the time.

If you look at the hierarchy of music, classical music is always considered the most sophisticated. But the truth is, it's all sophisticated. Listen to Snoop Dogg and his use of phrasing (not just lyrically but rhythmically). The rhythm itself has traits that can be linked back to indigenous music from Africa. It's all connected. If you follow the history of music, you realize it follows where human beings evolved and migrated. To finish this point, Jazz music is the music of an oppressed people telling their story. Most people don't realize the best way to experience Jazz is to see it live.

Oh the history of Jazz is a beautiful history. Though it started, I believe, in the 1910s, it took off in the 20s. It was a subversive genre created by black Americans in the face of day-to-day oppression. And they played it in the bars, in the clubs, and in the bordellos. It was a type of music that fueled the bootleggers and moonshiners as they defied prohibition laws, and I would argue that the genre actually did a lot as far as integration. Jazz was started by African-Americans, but it wasn't long before Italians started playing it and Jews as well.

And if you consider how prejudiced a majority of white Americans were toward black people in the late 19th and early 20th century, it's easy to see how Jazz might have changed that perspective in a lot of those same people when it finally came on the scene. White Americans who listened to Jazz and liked it were essentially shown that African-Americans weren't inferior, but rather they could create beauty and entertainment and be poets just like everyone else. This isn't to say, of course, that Jazz erased racism. Obviously it did not. But was it a step in the stairway that led toward the Civil Rights Movement? I think so, definitely.

Exactly! There's some great stories of Glenn Miller who would refuse to play at venues if his band members weren't treated exactly as he was. They had to get the same hotels, restaurants, food, sit in the same places, etc., or Glenn would refuse to play. He was one of the most popular artists of the day, so the owners would have to listen to him or they would lose him for the night. I have a personal love of Glenn Miller because he was my Grandma's favorite artist, as well as his role in modernizing music for Military Bands. He died in WWII. No one knows what happened to him, but it is suspected that the plane he was in was bombed. He felt it was important to perform music for the troops and he even played in combat zones, while combat was happening, to give ease to the soldiers.

Glenn Miller was a goddamn hero.

Love him.

Moving on to your activism, you've done a lot as far as merging your passion for music with your passion for secularism and human rights. In a private conversation you were telling me about how you were composing a concerto in memory of the atheist bloggers who were murdered in Bangladesh. The premier of this concerto is happening in the Fall, and the proceeds from it are going to Ideas Without Borders. Where specifically in New York City is this premier being held, and is anyone else involved in the project with you?

Throughout 2015 and 2016, Islamic extremists murdered various atheist bloggers from Bangladesh. Not only is this a horrible tragedy, but it is a form of oppression from an authoritarian ideology. A friend of mine, Lucas Lynch—

Know him. Great secular blogger.

And an incredible cellist! Anyway he's a heavily-involved activist for separation of church and state, and I’ve wanted to write a concert for him for sometime. He premiered a ballet I wrote back in 2013 and it went beautifully, so I asked him recently if he would be interested in premiering a piece of mine with a theme of secularism. He was down, and we decided to address the Bangladeshi bloggers.

I was introduced to Faisal Al Saeed Mutar, Arifur Rahman, and Zerin Firoze, who are all secular/atheist bloggers from the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Faisal is from Iraq and Arifur and Zerin are from Bangladesh. I’ve interviewed all of them to make sure their story is told genuinely and not an exploitation piece.

Since Mr. Trump became president, many secular people from the Middle East were screwed over by the Travel Ban. Faisal has been adamantly outspoken against Trump's administration, which he, as well as myself, see as authoritarian. We realized that it would be important for the premiere to be used as a fundraiser to raise money for secularists who have been fucked by this current administration.

In addition to bringing awareness to the murder victims in Bangladesh?

Yes. We’re still organizing the details, but it should be happening in Fall 2017, either at the Brooklyn Academy of Music or at the Museum of Modern Art. Faisal and I had a long conversation about how art is important for telling stories, and that our movement doesn’t really have art yet.

The secular humanist movement?

Right. We’re full of scientists, philosophers, writers, journalists, free thinkers, etc., but he [Faisal] thinks we should have more art/performances as events.

I do apologize for not being able to commit to attending your particular event in the Fall. It sounds like an absolutely wonderful time and it's certainly an important cause. Unfortunately my line of work prevents me from knowing where on the planet I will be come Fall, or for how long. It’s just the nature of the business I’m in.

Before I wrap us up I can’t let you go without telling you something you are already probably well aware of, and that is that the history of Jazz— which we touched on a moment ago— and your desire to help oppressed secular people from the third world are both kind of “made for each other”. As I said before, Jazz was invented in the 1910s by African-Americans in bars, clubs, and bordellos as a means of escaping the day-to-day oppression they faced in our country, and the idea that that same genre of music is being used by you to free more people from oppression is really cool.

I'm glad to hear that. I see myself more on the Classical side of things, but I do love the freedom that Jazz music has helped with my own artistry.

Well thanks for taking the time to have this conversation, it's been a real pleasure.

It was a pleasure! We're all in this together. It's important that the message gets out there, no matter what the language or culture.