Born c. 1971, in Skokie, IL; son of Haitian immigrants. Education: Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, bachelor of music degree (cum laude), 1993; University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, master of music degree, 1995; doctor of musical arts, 2000. Addresses: Record company---Miscellaneous Records, 203 N. Washington St., Ypsilanti, MI 48197, website: http://www.miscellaneousrecords.com. Management---Fine Arts Management, 201 W. 54th St., #1C, New York, NY 10019, phone: (212) 974-2470. Website--Daniel Bernard Roumain Official Website: http://www.dbrmusic.com.
An African American violinist, composer, musician, performer, recording artist, educator, lecturer, and record company founder, Daniel Bernard Roumain is considered a rising star, a classical composer who is changing the face of concert music through his affinity for contemporary sounds and his distinctive visual appearance. Roumain (who goes by his initials, DBR) has been credited with helping to redefine the form and broaden the scope of classical music, giving it a fresh relevance, especially among young people. In his works, DBR has combined classically influenced pieces with musical genres such as jazz, rock, electronica, and, especially, hip-hop. He writes for orchestra, chamber orchestra, string quartet, solo instrument, voice, and rock band. The compositions match DBR's main instrument, the violin, with a variety of ambient and electronic sounds, such as spoken dialogue and sampled beats. He often works with DJs, dancers, and performance artists, as well as with other composers and musicians such as avant-garde composer Philip Glass, jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson, and turntable artist DJ Spooky (Paul Miller).
Characteristically, DBR draws on African American subjects and themes for his works, often using issues of race as his inspiration. For example, he dedicated a series of string quartets to prominent figures in the civil rights movement: Malcolm X; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Adam Clayton Powell; and Maya Angelou. Compared to classical composers Mozart and Beethoven, as well as to funk-rockers Prince and Lenny Kravitz, DBR appears onstage wearing dreadlocks, piercings, and tattoos, a look that captures the attention of younger audiences. As an educator, he is well known as the creator of the Young Composers Program that is part of the Orchestra of St. Luke's in New York City, where he is assistant composer-in-residence. As part of his curriculum, he has introduced youthful composers and string players to classical music flavored with hip-hop, and has inspired them to compose pieces in their own styles. DBR plays approximately twenty instruments, including violin, piano, guitar, bass, viola, and drums, and also does occasional vocals. He also leads DBR's Mission, an eight-piece band that includes an amplified string quartet as well as a bassist, drummer, keyboardist, and DJ.
Discovered the Violin at Five
Born in Skokie, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, DBR moved to southern Florida as a small child and grew up in the Fort Lauderdale area. His parents, immigrants from Haiti, had a strong impact on his musical development. They introduced him to Haitian folk music as well as to a wide variety of classical and contemporary music. As a youngster he listened to the country/rock band the Eagles, Swedish popsters ABBA, R&B legend Stevie Wonder, the works of Beethoven, and ethnic music from the Cuban, Bahaman, Dominican, and Puerto Rican communities in southern Florida. At the age of five he became infatuated with the violin. He began studying under the tutelage of bandleader Mitch Miller, who had a popular television series in the 1960s, and started to play in orchestras. As a sixth-grader, DBR played the electric guitar and synthesizer in his own band, which performed rock and hip-hop. As a student at Dillard High School for the Performing Arts in Sunrise, Florida, he played in the school jazz orchestra, backing such prominent musicians as Dizzy Gillespie and Ray Charles. After graduating from high school, DBR almost skipped college because he was producing and playing for the notoriously ribald Florida rap group 2Live Crew. Eventually, DBR's father convinced him to attend Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where he was awarded a full scholarship. Majoring in composition, he graduated with honors in 1993, and then earned master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he also conducted classical works. In 1998 he headed for New York City, settling in Harlem, a place with a rich political and cultural heritage that influenced his music.
Played Hip-Hop at Carnegie Hall
After arriving in New York, DBR worked as a rehearsal pianist for dance companies, among them the Julliard School, Joffrey Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Center (now the Ailey School). He worked as much as 14 hours a day, seven days a week, while also working on his own compositions. In 1999 he won the Helen F. Whitaker Commission, an award given to him for his work Harlem Essay for Orchestra and Digital Audio Tape. DBR performed this composition at Carnegie Hall in 1999, thus becoming the first artist to perform hip-hop in that prestigious venue. In 2000 the American Composers Orchestra performed Harlem Essay at Carnegie Hall as a world premiere. DBR's performance brought him to the attention of Philip Glass, who became a major influence on his work, as well as a future collaborator. DBR also met dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones, who directed the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zanes Dance Company. Jones commissioned DBR to write the music for The Breathing Show (1999), a program that blended movement, music, and film. It also included an improvised duet between DBR and Jones, where the latter danced to the music of the former. DBR has credited Jones with helping him to learn performance skills. In 2002 DBR became the musical director of the company, the first in its 20-year history.
Praised for Quality of Compositions
As a composer, DBR has been recognized for his creativity, innovation, and musical sophistication. For his Harlem Essay, DBR recorded the sounds of the area's main thoroughfare, 125th Street, as well as the recollections of some of its residents. The composer then played the tapes against an orchestral background, which meshed European-style concert music and the rhythms of hip-hop. In Hip-Hop Studies and Etudes, Book I, a composition modeled after the work of Glass, DBR wrote for two violins and a cello. He presented thematic cells, or short compositions in major and minor keys, and musicians were encouraged to rearrange and repeat any portion of the cells as they saw fit, much as DJs do with the music they sample. Writing about Hip-Hop Studies and Etudes in the New York Times, Allan Kozinn stated, "True to form, they vary greatly in style, from slow, introspective Neo-Classical ruminations to rhythmically complicated, riffy pieces that would not be out of place in a dance club." DBR based a work that he wrote for Jones's dance company, Reading, Mercy and the Artificial Nigger, on a short story by Southern writer Flannery O'Connor. In the original production, Jones and actress Susan Sarandon spoke O'Connor's words against music based on Protestant hymns. The music was provided by piano, violin, and cello, as well as by an audio montage of electronic and ambient sounds. The work was considered unique because it has no written score. Although DBR wrote one, he dispensed with it when he discovered that the narrators could not read music. In order to compensate, he had his musician sit by the narrators and play variations based on the themes of their words.
Released Original Recordings
In 2000 DBR released a series of original recordings for his own label, DBR Music. These recordings included compositions that he wrote for the theater, concert hall, and club circuits, as well as for modern dance. In 2004 he premiered a solo show, I, Composer. Played mostly by the artist on acoustic and electric violin, it incorporated classical, rock, blues, jazz, and hip-hop. This piece and the composer's Dred Violin were played by a 100-piece "Hip-Hop Rockestra" along with DJ Radar, in Phoenix, Arizona. Writing about I, Composer on the Creative Capital Channel website, Daniel Felsenfeld commented that DBR is "one artist who continues to crumble the boundaries, to smash the walls, and to call into question the whole notion of possession ... The work leaps and splits genres. ... It is intentionally-and importantly-cross-cultural." In addition to his own compositions, DBR has contributed to works by other musical artists, including DJ Spooky, composer David S. Ware, New Age musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, and pianist Matthew Shipp. In working with the latter, DBR added violin to Blue Series Continuum: Sorcerer Sessions in 2003. In his review in All Music Guide, Thom Jurek called the recording "aural dynamite."
Young and Brilliant
In assessing DBR's career, observers have generally called him a boy wonder, a brilliant composer and a performer whose groundbreaking, varied works and unusual approach make him one of the most exciting young artists in music. By honoring history and tradition while exploring new ways of making music, DBR has earned respect in both the classical and pop worlds. He also is well regarded for his work with young people. Kozinn wrote, "Mr. Roumain has found that once people get past the visual image and hear his inventive, energetic music. ... they want to hear more. And having seen him, they don't forget him." John Beck of the Press Democrat stated, "In an age of pervasive musical labels, Daniel Bernard Roumain is unclassifiable. ... If he's pushing the bounds of classical music, he's also re-examining its roots." Daniel Levine of the Nashville Scene observed, "Roumain renders the classical gestures and parts of his works in a spirited way that maintains their historical authority. Yet his manner of playing the violin-moving about the stage, tapping accompanying rhythms with his bow on the bridge, vocalizing as he forcefully draws a chord-makes the audience feel his urge for wider musical latitude."
DBR confided to Kozinn, "I used to be a black man. Then I became a black American composer. But if you ask me today how I feel, I'll tell you that I feel like a very lucky young man. ... I've been able to combine the music I grew up with ... and, in some ways, to be an ambassador, certainly for what's going on in Harlem, where I live, but also for what's going on in contemporary classical music. I think contemporary classical music has found its soul, or maybe regained its soul and found its heart." He told Paul Boakye of Drum, "I've had a lot of critical success in the classical music world. My application and responsibility as a black composer is now to create opportunities for other composers." Speaking to Dina Di Maio of the Square Table, DBR confided, "Statistically speaking, I should be in prison--young, black, single; music is my 'anti-drug.' So, it's not an exaggeration to say that music both changed my life and saved my life. I hope music plays the same role for my students." He concluded to Boakye, "For me the arts are like a religion. It's like this friend, literally, that I've had all these years. I still have and play the same violin I played when I was five years old. ... This inanimate object, the violin, has been the one constant thing in my life."
by Gerard J. Senick
Daniel Bernard Roumain's Career
Began playing the violin at five in Florida orchestras; backed Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, and others; worked with rappers 2Live Crew as producer and performer when just out of high school; original composition Harlem Essay for Orchestra performed by Vanderbilt University Orchestra, 1993; played composition Harlem Essay for Orchestra and Digital Audio Tape at Carnegie Hall, New York City, 1999; became composer-in-residence and chair of music department, Harlem School of the Arts; became assistant composer-in-residence for St. Luke's Chamber Orchestra, 2002; composition Human Songs and Stories performed by San Antonio Symphony Orchestra, 2002; initiated Dredlin Music Projects for school-age children and communities, 2003; composition Hip-Hop Essay for Orchestra performed by Dallas and Memphis Symphonies, 2003; conducted Buffalo and Seattle Philharmonic Orchestras, 2004; collaborated with jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson and electronica artist DJ Spooky, and worked with 100-piece "rockestra," 2004; collaborated with composer Philip Glass, 2005.
Daniel Bernard Roumain's Awards
Silver Knight Award (Miami-Dade County, FL), 1989; Benjamin E. Mays Award for Academic Excellence, 1991-92; University of Michigan, Rackham Merit Fellowship Award, 1993-98; American Composers Orchestra, Helen F. Whitaker Commission, 1999; Meet the Composer, Inc., Grant Awards, 1999-2001; Meet the Composer, Inc., Van Lier Fellow, 2002; Creative Capital Grant Awardee, 2002; American Music Center Copying Assistant Program Grant, 2002; New York Resident magazine, Top 100 New Yorkers, 2005.
- Selected compositions
- Haitian Essay for Orchestra 1993.
- Dance for the Wavefield 1995.
- Grace 1996.
- Hip-Hop Essay for Orchestra 1997.
- Seven Enigmas 1997.
- The Breathing Show 1999.
- Harlem Essay for Orchestra and Digital Audio Tape 2000.
- Funktionlust Slut Suite 2001.
- Fast BLACK Dance Machine 2002.
- String Quartet No. 1: The X String Quartet 2002.
- Human Songs and Stories 2002.
- Reading, Mercy and the Artificial Nigger 2003.
- I, Composer 2004.
- Dred Violin 2004.
- (With Philip Glass) Seen and Heard: Glass and Roumain Together on Screen, Stage, and in Sound 2005.
- Selected discography
- Dance Music: Native (Vol. I) DBR Music, 2000.
- Dance Music: Coyote Dances (Vol. II) DBR Music, 2000.
- Dance Music: Black Man Singing (Vol. III) DBR Music, 2000.
- More than Woman DBR Music, 2000.
- The Fascination EP DBR Music, 2000.
- (Contributor) Optometry (by DJ Spooky), Thirsty Ear, 2002.
- (Performer) Blue Series Continuum: Sorcerer Sessions (by Matthew Shipp), Thirsty Ear, 2003.
- (Performer) Riddim Clash (by DJ Spooky), PLAY, 2004.
- Drum, June/July 2004.
- Nashville Scene, October 22, 2004.
- New York Times, January 2, 2005.
- Press Democrat, February 24, 2005.
- "Daniel Bernard Roumain," The Square Table, http://www.thesquaretable.com (January 12, 2005).
- "A Good Idea Is Hard to Own," Creative Capital Channel, http://www.channel.creative-capital.org (April 2, 2005).
- "Review of Blue Series Continuum: Sorcerer Sessions," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 2, 2005).