edge

Sonata from Panorama, for Clarinet

Photographs by Mark Lyndersay

Picture courtesy Mark LyndersayMy name is Professor Roger Henry and my new clarinet sonata featuring Professors Yevgeny Dokshansky on clarinet and Hsiang Tu on piano will premiered last Monday on Virginia Tech’s platform, Music from the Caribbean.

I’m a San Fernando boy, born literally at home in Torrance Street, Mon Repos. My mother was an instructor of midwifery. I’m the youngest of four children and the only boy.

I’m gloriously single and live on my own but lockdown hasn’t been hard. I’m so much of a hermit, I just feel like I’m in my [natural] place. I’ve always been a little bit solitary. My father was always very much “in his head”. I grew up the same way. Find me in a corner, nose in a book. I distinctly remember hearing this sound getting louder and louder and finally realising it’s my mother’s voice, calling me.

We had a room that was literally all books, floor-to-ceiling, all four walls, books. My mother had anatomy books and romance novels, my father, history, biography and politics books. Including Mein Kampf. Whenever I got bored, [I would dip into Edward Gibbons six-volume, 4000-page] The Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire.

I would say my childhood was lonely but it’s such a difficult word to agree to. I prefer to think of myself as solitary. You can be in a crowd and be lonely. You could be in a family and lonely.

I’ve always been aware that I’m very different from the others around me. There was a time that I worried this made me somehow weird. But I’ve gotten past it.

I’m Christian in my faith. I believe in an afterlife and an omnipotent, omniscient God, capable of intervention in human affairs. If BC Pires asks me why he never does, then, I say I think he does intervene but we don’t always perceive the intervention. I don’t go to church though.

There are aspects of the way God perceives that are beyond our knowledge. The dog whistle is an actual whistle dogs can hear but humans can’t. Because it blows at a frequency which our ears hear but our brains tell us is not important. Just that fact – and the placebo effect – tells me there are things about our physical environment that are beyond our understanding. Our brains determine a great deal of what we experience as real. I can’t discount the possibility of God.

Thankfully, I had an inspiring teacher in the San Fernando music institution of Cynthia Lee Mack at Presentation College. Uncle Edward Henry made sure I got a good piano teacher in Edna Haynes, another inspiration. Mrs Lee Mack realised I was a little bit pushy and bossy and I became a choir section leader. Eventually, I realised conducting was really my thing. That kind of developed into the doctorate later on.

I pride myself on having read everything Stephen King has written. As a GREAT storyteller, he’s been influential to me. Because the story you’re telling has to connect with people where their experience lies.This is part of what I try to do when I’m composing my stuff.

Picture courtesy Mark LyndersayWhen people hear my music, they say, “It doesn’t sound very Trinidadian! Where’s the drum track?” But music is so much richer for me. Music interprets the way we think about existence and experience.

In functional tonality, there’s a conversation that happens in music between the tonic, the home, of a key and the dominant, the goal away from home, of a key. Look at the Happy Birthday song: Happy birthday to you-ou-ou; we’ve already reached a dominant space! Happy birthday dear BC, happy birthday to-oo-oo you-oo-oo! NOW we know we’re home! This sense of knowing when the music has reached back home is deep in the back of all our minds, that innate sense of how music should go. And THIS is what I like to play with when I write. There is something I know that you expect, and I want to engage that – and then defy it!

It’s hard to talk about music when I look at it as a buffet and the person I’m talking to looks at it as… McDonalds!

If BC Pires says to me, when you work at a certain level, when you read a writer, you’re not reading what they wrote, you’re reading THEM, I say, “EXACTLY!” That is PRECISELY what I mean [when I speak about the dialogue between the composer of music and the audience].

If BC Pires says to me that Trinidadians reduce anything you could call “the life of the mind” to “a white people thing”, I know exactly what he means. And my answer to that is that Panorama is the bridge. Panorama is not just music, but an event and a cultural expression.

In the Panorama season – which happens to coincide with Carnival but is its own separate thing – people go to the start of rehearsals in a panyard, night after night. They see the arranger, or maybe the bandleader, arrive and start to put the music on the pans. Note by note, bit by bit, they watch and experience the music unfold. Where else in the world can you go to see musicians, in real time, craft the music out of nothingness?

The true pan aficionado does not get bored in Panorama. What they are experiencing is a musical moment that lasts for months and has inflection points at various stages of the competition. [Panorama arrangers] aren’t “just arranging” – they are composing! And, after 60 years of experimentation, they have developed a series of tropes and common devices specific to the voice of the pan. And they use them in deliberate ways to whip up the audience. The band makes a lot of noise and then, all of a sudden, hit… and get very, very soft. Then they crescendo! And the audience starts to scream! And THAT is deliberate.

I reject [calling] my music “classical" because “classical music” comes with this colonial baggage. I prefer to use the term, “formal composition” or “art music”. We have painted art and sculpted art. So why can’t we have art music?

If “art music” is “white”, then painting is white. And we shouldn’t paint!

Peter Minshall’s description of Carnival and why he designs what he does has been another inspiration for me. Because it’s a complete revelling in the Trinidadianness of a thing. When Minshall starts talking about, “the mas”, you want to sit down and listen forever. Because it’s a high concept of who we are, how we see ourselves and what we value.

I grew up when we only had one TV station in Trinidad and EVERYTHING was on that station! You didn’t have a choice. If it was Sunday midday and you wanted to watch TV, then you watched the Indian movie! And when Mastana Bahar came on, you watched that. I approach music the same way: I’ll listen to anything that’s on. But if something is structurally boring, I listen, I see what’s there and then I’m ready to move on.

I push the idea of recontextualising our calypso melodies. Not because I believe they belong on a violin or an oboe but because I believe these melodies stand up to scrutiny wherever you play them because they are beautiful [by and in] themselves. Wherever [and however] you play them, they will sing! And they will tell the story of who we are. I tell my music history class there is always a reason and a world of philosophy [behind] why somebody moves from “doe” to “ray”, from one note to the next; and it’s tied in to how he sees the world and how he sees himself. And this is how I see the melodies of Trinidad & Tobago.

With the National Philharmonic Orchestra, I reinterpret the calypso melodies we know as orchestral arrangements. I arranged David Rudder’s 1990 as if it were a cinematic exploration of melody. This man came up to me and said, “That song sound so familiar but I don’t know where I heard it before!” I told him it was 1990. He said, “You know, David Rudder had a song named that!” He just couldn’t [accept] that you could take that melody and have it performed in that context.

At the end of the day, as a composer, if you’re going to grab somebody, you have to grab them by the gut. I’m inspired by Mozart, who wrote a little bit for the connoisseurs and a little bit for the plebeians. Everybody was able to enjoy Mozart’s music. I try to do that.

When I was 28, there was no music degree in Trinidad & Tobago. UWI had JUST started a music programme, which I didn’t qualify for, because I didn’t play the pan. My first day at Indiana University, I was listening to a piece of music by [Bohemian classical composer Johann] Stamitz. I was thinking, “I’m actually here, in music school! About to start learning about music!” And I had the single tear running down my face very, very cheesily. I had longed for that for so long! I felt like a dry sponge that you drop into water.

The longer I stayed at Indiana University, the more I realised that what I really wanted to do was to come home and give voice to our music.

We have room to build an industry around the composition of music that is Trinidadian. And people would spend their money to come and see that, just as they spend their money to come and see Panorama. So every dollar spent on the National Philharmonic Orchestra redounds to our benefit. We might not have oil [any longer]. But we have art! I look at investing time and talent in our cultural business as a win-win.

The composition premiering this week is a sonata, a solo instrumental piece, for clarinet, accompanied by piano. The typical sonata is four moments. Mine is five. For me, it’s an exploration of what the clarinet is capable of doing. [My former UTT colleague] Yevgeny Dokshansky commissioned the piece. I keep trying to write something that will push him to his limits. He is really just A BEAST on the clarinet. He can play ANYTHING! I keep writing these [challenging] things and he keeps shrugging them off as if they’re nothing. So, this time, I decided, okay, I’m going to write the most extreme version!

The last movement of all my works is always a piece in what they call “cut time”. It is always based on a kaiso or soca-type theme. A movement of pure, Panorama-style joy.

Desmond Waithe basically created the genre we know as the calypso chorale. You take a calypso and put it on a choir, just like Panorama, but with voices. It’s really fascinating to watch! These are the things I consciously work with when I set myself the task of composing a new piece.

I’m really excited about this week’s piece and interested to see how it will go down. But I am staying right here in Trinidad until I get the vaccine! Chook me, please, and then I’ll go anywhere.

The last movement will sound very familiar to anybody who’s been at Panorama. I’d prefer not to talk about the first movement. Because I don’t know how to explain it. You have to hear it and THEN I can talk about it.

I’m very proud of the middle movement. I sent Yevgheny a piece of text from Barack Obama’s 2015 speech on race, that begins, “We the people” and asked him to record himself reading it. I took pictures of his voice reading the speech and mapped out the pitches in his speech as musical notes – and those notes became the melody of the third movement. [This was inspired by] a fantastic living composer, Steve Reich.

The best thing about the piece is being able to compose and having a great performer perform the work. The worst thing is the self-doubt. I worry that it will not be good enough.

I don’t know, it’s an aspect of being Trinidadian that renders people incapable of being confident in their own success. [As a composer] I operate from a deep well of insecurity. I fight against that the way I always deal with challenges: I persist my way through!

Trinidad & Tobago has a voice [but] it’s as if you [abuse] a prism. You shine the light into it and you see the rainbow [come out]. But, for some reason, we choose to ignore everything about the rainbow that’s not red. The only colour we put out to the world is red, when there’s orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet still there to be employed. I feel people like me and [composer] Dominque Legendre are ringing the Trinidad bell and showing the other colours.

My mission is to try to get younger people to have the confidence I never had as a young person, to think that the music that would pop into my head would be worthwhile on the world stage. If they could see me doing it, then it gives them the confidence to do better. I’d love a person quarter my age to say, “You’re just feeling your way” – and then really show me how it’s done!

I spent 15 years in the USA and nobody can tell because I never lost my accent. I could never let go of it because I see my accent as part of who I am. How I speak is who I am. I don’t talk down to people and I don’t put on airs. I try to speak in my authentic Trinidadian sound wherever I go. I speak the same way to whether I’m talking to the prime minister, my students or a two-year-old. Everybody gets the same level of sarcasm all the way around.

A Trini is anyone who accepts that their navel string belongs here and completely accepts the heritage and Trinidad & Tobago ethnicity. Which is not whether your hair is straight or curly, but where you’re from and what you claim.

To me, Trinidad & Tobago is the place where I walk down the street and disappear. I always felt I stood out in the places I lived outside Trinidad. But, every time I came home, I walked through the airport and completely disappeared. It’s the comfort of being in your own place.

Sonata from Panorama, for Clarinet

Photographs by Mark Lyndersay

Picture courtesy Mark LyndersayMy name is Professor Roger Henry and my new clarinet sonata featuring Professors Yevgeny Dokshansky on clarinet and Hsiang Tu on piano will premiered last Monday on Virginia Tech’s platform, Music from the Caribbean.

I’m a San Fernando boy, born literally at home in Torrance Street, Mon Repos. My mother was an instructor of midwifery. I’m the youngest of four children and the only boy.

I’m gloriously single and live on my own but lockdown hasn’t been hard. I’m so much of a hermit, I just feel like I’m in my [natural] place. I’ve always been a little bit solitary. My father was always very much “in his head”. I grew up the same way. Find me in a corner, nose in a book. I distinctly remember hearing this sound getting louder and louder and finally realising it’s my mother’s voice, calling me.

We had a room that was literally all books, floor-to-ceiling, all four walls, books. My mother had anatomy books and romance novels, my father, history, biography and politics books. Including Mein Kampf. Whenever I got bored, [I would dip into Edward Gibbons six-volume, 4000-page] The Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire.

I would say my childhood was lonely but it’s such a difficult word to agree to. I prefer to think of myself as solitary. You can be in a crowd and be lonely. You could be in a family and lonely.

I’ve always been aware that I’m very different from the others around me. There was a time that I worried this made me somehow weird. But I’ve gotten past it.

I’m Christian in my faith. I believe in an afterlife and an omnipotent, omniscient God, capable of intervention in human affairs. If BC Pires asks me why he never does, then, I say I think he does intervene but we don’t always perceive the intervention. I don’t go to church though.

There are aspects of the way God perceives that are beyond our knowledge. The dog whistle is an actual whistle dogs can hear but humans can’t. Because it blows at a frequency which our ears hear but our brains tell us is not important. Just that fact – and the placebo effect – tells me there are things about our physical environment that are beyond our understanding. Our brains determine a great deal of what we experience as real. I can’t discount the possibility of God.

Thankfully, I had an inspiring teacher in the San Fernando music institution of Cynthia Lee Mack at Presentation College. Uncle Edward Henry made sure I got a good piano teacher in Edna Haynes, another inspiration. Mrs Lee Mack realised I was a little bit pushy and bossy and I became a choir section leader. Eventually, I realised conducting was really my thing. That kind of developed into the doctorate later on.

I pride myself on having read everything Stephen King has written. As a GREAT storyteller, he’s been influential to me. Because the story you’re telling has to connect with people where their experience lies.This is part of what I try to do when I’m composing my stuff.

Picture courtesy Mark LyndersayWhen people hear my music, they say, “It doesn’t sound very Trinidadian! Where’s the drum track?” But music is so much richer for me. Music interprets the way we think about existence and experience.

In functional tonality, there’s a conversation that happens in music between the tonic, the home, of a key and the dominant, the goal away from home, of a key. Look at the Happy Birthday song: Happy birthday to you-ou-ou; we’ve already reached a dominant space! Happy birthday dear BC, happy birthday to-oo-oo you-oo-oo! NOW we know we’re home! This sense of knowing when the music has reached back home is deep in the back of all our minds, that innate sense of how music should go. And THIS is what I like to play with when I write. There is something I know that you expect, and I want to engage that – and then defy it!

It’s hard to talk about music when I look at it as a buffet and the person I’m talking to looks at it as… McDonalds!

If BC Pires says to me, when you work at a certain level, when you read a writer, you’re not reading what they wrote, you’re reading THEM, I say, “EXACTLY!” That is PRECISELY what I mean [when I speak about the dialogue between the composer of music and the audience].

If BC Pires says to me that Trinidadians reduce anything you could call “the life of the mind” to “a white people thing”, I know exactly what he means. And my answer to that is that Panorama is the bridge. Panorama is not just music, but an event and a cultural expression.

In the Panorama season – which happens to coincide with Carnival but is its own separate thing – people go to the start of rehearsals in a panyard, night after night. They see the arranger, or maybe the bandleader, arrive and start to put the music on the pans. Note by note, bit by bit, they watch and experience the music unfold. Where else in the world can you go to see musicians, in real time, craft the music out of nothingness?

The true pan aficionado does not get bored in Panorama. What they are experiencing is a musical moment that lasts for months and has inflection points at various stages of the competition. [Panorama arrangers] aren’t “just arranging” – they are composing! And, after 60 years of experimentation, they have developed a series of tropes and common devices specific to the voice of the pan. And they use them in deliberate ways to whip up the audience. The band makes a lot of noise and then, all of a sudden, hit… and get very, very soft. Then they crescendo! And the audience starts to scream! And THAT is deliberate.

I reject [calling] my music “classical" because “classical music” comes with this colonial baggage. I prefer to use the term, “formal composition” or “art music”. We have painted art and sculpted art. So why can’t we have art music?

If “art music” is “white”, then painting is white. And we shouldn’t paint!

Peter Minshall’s description of Carnival and why he designs what he does has been another inspiration for me. Because it’s a complete revelling in the Trinidadianness of a thing. When Minshall starts talking about, “the mas”, you want to sit down and listen forever. Because it’s a high concept of who we are, how we see ourselves and what we value.

I grew up when we only had one TV station in Trinidad and EVERYTHING was on that station! You didn’t have a choice. If it was Sunday midday and you wanted to watch TV, then you watched the Indian movie! And when Mastana Bahar came on, you watched that. I approach music the same way: I’ll listen to anything that’s on. But if something is structurally boring, I listen, I see what’s there and then I’m ready to move on.

I push the idea of recontextualising our calypso melodies. Not because I believe they belong on a violin or an oboe but because I believe these melodies stand up to scrutiny wherever you play them because they are beautiful [by and in] themselves. Wherever [and however] you play them, they will sing! And they will tell the story of who we are. I tell my music history class there is always a reason and a world of philosophy [behind] why somebody moves from “doe” to “ray”, from one note to the next; and it’s tied in to how he sees the world and how he sees himself. And this is how I see the melodies of Trinidad & Tobago.

With the National Philharmonic Orchestra, I reinterpret the calypso melodies we know as orchestral arrangements. I arranged David Rudder’s 1990 as if it were a cinematic exploration of melody. This man came up to me and said, “That song sound so familiar but I don’t know where I heard it before!” I told him it was 1990. He said, “You know, David Rudder had a song named that!” He just couldn’t [accept] that you could take that melody and have it performed in that context.

At the end of the day, as a composer, if you’re going to grab somebody, you have to grab them by the gut. I’m inspired by Mozart, who wrote a little bit for the connoisseurs and a little bit for the plebeians. Everybody was able to enjoy Mozart’s music. I try to do that.

When I was 28, there was no music degree in Trinidad & Tobago. UWI had JUST started a music programme, which I didn’t qualify for, because I didn’t play the pan. My first day at Indiana University, I was listening to a piece of music by [Bohemian classical composer Johann] Stamitz. I was thinking, “I’m actually here, in music school! About to start learning about music!” And I had the single tear running down my face very, very cheesily. I had longed for that for so long! I felt like a dry sponge that you drop into water.

The longer I stayed at Indiana University, the more I realised that what I really wanted to do was to come home and give voice to our music.

We have room to build an industry around the composition of music that is Trinidadian. And people would spend their money to come and see that, just as they spend their money to come and see Panorama. So every dollar spent on the National Philharmonic Orchestra redounds to our benefit. We might not have oil [any longer]. But we have art! I look at investing time and talent in our cultural business as a win-win.

The composition premiering this week is a sonata, a solo instrumental piece, for clarinet, accompanied by piano. The typical sonata is four moments. Mine is five. For me, it’s an exploration of what the clarinet is capable of doing. [My former UTT colleague] Yevgeny Dokshansky commissioned the piece. I keep trying to write something that will push him to his limits. He is really just A BEAST on the clarinet. He can play ANYTHING! I keep writing these [challenging] things and he keeps shrugging them off as if they’re nothing. So, this time, I decided, okay, I’m going to write the most extreme version!

The last movement of all my works is always a piece in what they call “cut time”. It is always based on a kaiso or soca-type theme. A movement of pure, Panorama-style joy.

Desmond Waithe basically created the genre we know as the calypso chorale. You take a calypso and put it on a choir, just like Panorama, but with voices. It’s really fascinating to watch! These are the things I consciously work with when I set myself the task of composing a new piece.

I’m really excited about this week’s piece and interested to see how it will go down. But I am staying right here in Trinidad until I get the vaccine! Chook me, please, and then I’ll go anywhere.

The last movement will sound very familiar to anybody who’s been at Panorama. I’d prefer not to talk about the first movement. Because I don’t know how to explain it. You have to hear it and THEN I can talk about it.

I’m very proud of the middle movement. I sent Yevgheny a piece of text from Barack Obama’s 2015 speech on race, that begins, “We the people” and asked him to record himself reading it. I took pictures of his voice reading the speech and mapped out the pitches in his speech as musical notes – and those notes became the melody of the third movement. [This was inspired by] a fantastic living composer, Steve Reich.

The best thing about the piece is being able to compose and having a great performer perform the work. The worst thing is the self-doubt. I worry that it will not be good enough.

I don’t know, it’s an aspect of being Trinidadian that renders people incapable of being confident in their own success. [As a composer] I operate from a deep well of insecurity. I fight against that the way I always deal with challenges: I persist my way through!

Trinidad & Tobago has a voice [but] it’s as if you [abuse] a prism. You shine the light into it and you see the rainbow [come out]. But, for some reason, we choose to ignore everything about the rainbow that’s not red. The only colour we put out to the world is red, when there’s orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet still there to be employed. I feel people like me and [composer] Dominque Legendre are ringing the Trinidad bell and showing the other colours.

My mission is to try to get younger people to have the confidence I never had as a young person, to think that the music that would pop into my head would be worthwhile on the world stage. If they could see me doing it, then it gives them the confidence to do better. I’d love a person quarter my age to say, “You’re just feeling your way” – and then really show me how it’s done!

I spent 15 years in the USA and nobody can tell because I never lost my accent. I could never let go of it because I see my accent as part of who I am. How I speak is who I am. I don’t talk down to people and I don’t put on airs. I try to speak in my authentic Trinidadian sound wherever I go. I speak the same way to whether I’m talking to the prime minister, my students or a two-year-old. Everybody gets the same level of sarcasm all the way around.

A Trini is anyone who accepts that their navel string belongs here and completely accepts the heritage and Trinidad & Tobago ethnicity. Which is not whether your hair is straight or curly, but where you’re from and what you claim.

To me, Trinidad & Tobago is the place where I walk down the street and disappear. I always felt I stood out in the places I lived outside Trinidad. But, every time I came home, I walked through the airport and completely disappeared. It’s the comfort of being in your own place.