Brent Michael Davids





Brent Michael Davids’ composer career spans 43 years, including awards from the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission, ASCAP, National Endowment for the Arts, Rockefeller Foundation, In- Vision, Joffrey Ballet, Park City Film Music Festival, Emmy Award, Kronos Quartet, School for Advanced Research, Chanticleer, Meet-The- Composer, Miró Quartet, National Symphony Orchestra, Bush Foundation, McKnight Foundation, and Jerome Foundation, among others. In 2015, the prestigious Indian Summer Festival awarded Davids its "Lifetime Achievement Award" in music.

Davids holds Bachelors and Masters degrees in Music Composition from Northern Illinois University (1981) and Arizona State University (1992), respectively, trained at Redford’s Sundance Institute (1998), and in 2003 apprenticed with film composer Stephen Warbeck (Shakespeare In Love). He has garnered the Distinguished Alumni Awards from both of the universities he attended, NIU (1996) and ASU (2004). In 2011, Davids won a Silver Medal for “Excellence in Original Scoring” from the Park City Film Music Festival.

Many of Davids’ works employ traditional Native American instruments and often instruments of his own design, including a soprano and bass quartz crystal flute, and a dozen other percussion devices that chirp, coo, or whistle. With an expert hand, he inks performable music manuscripts that are visual works of art.

He has worked extensively in the choral field as well, often featured as a clinician for conventions, such as his work with Chanticleer at the 6th Annual World Choral Symposium held in Minneapolis (2003). In 2006, the NEA named Davids among the nation’s most celebrated choral composers in its project “American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius,” along with Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Foster, and 25 others.




What does music mean to you personally?

Whatever fires me up, whether my community passion or my imagination, is the strongest motivation to do something meaningful. At the heart of music for me, is passion to voice something important. In most Native American languages there is no word that translates exactly as ‘music’ or ‘art,’ because the westernized terms are too small and too static. For indigenous people, “music” is music-ing, and “song” is song-ing because that process cannot be separated from the enactment itself. For Native Americans, the doing of music-ing or art-ing is paramount, and it is seen as telling or talking—a relating of culture. When I compose, I want to create important ideas, sharing in the cultural process and proposing effective brainchildren.

Do you agree that music is all about fantasy?

Some compositions could explicitly summon imaginative stories, with discernible narratives, but it would not be necessary for the music’s success. Music is emotionally engaging, exciting our imaginations, and moves us deeply. Music, also, is tied deeply with culture, tied to death rituals, ceremonial enactments, and the large activities of popular organizations. Sometimes, music can also be critical, as a call to activism that questions cultural aspects that cause harm. So, I see composing as an activity of my brain, yes, but also as a practice with cultural bona fides and real world impact.

If you were not a professional musician, what would you have been?

Probably creating art as a graphic designer or illustrator, or building things as a woodworker, would be my career path. I’ve always loved drawing and illustrating, and building stuff. I painted my 1966 VW beetle into a giant turtle, and have constructed musical instruments. I designed my current studio and house using free architect software, and many of the details in the building are customized such as shelves shaped like hands, an open-air round shower, a 50s diner, and of course a 5.1 surround studio for concert composing and film scoring.

The classical music audience is getting old, are you worried about the future? 

I wonder about that a lot, but not so much about audience age. I see greater diversity of works and acceptance of contemporary works in other art forms, such as in the visual arts, that classical music seems to not embrace. If there were more diversity in programming works, with newer works composed by underrepresented composers and women, I suspect interest by audiences would increase. The classical music culture seems slow to change, because many devoted conductors, ensembles, venues and soloists have piloted their careers on the established repertoire and are loath to change. I’m on the executive council of the Institute for Composer Diversity (ICD) founded by Rob Deemer, that advocates for diversity and inclusion in the arenas of concert music programming, music education, research and publishing, and community engagement. I am hopeful that positive changes in the classical music culture will invite more community involvement, diversity of programming and newer works, which in turn will excite audiences of all ages.

What do you envision the role of music to be in the 21st century? Do you see that there is a transformation of this role?

If music is a telling or a voicing, than it’ll be around for sure, because it will keep it’s cultural relevancy no matter the idiom: bells, whistles, old instruments, new instruments, electronic and non-electronic platforms, it’ll be around. There may be a transformation of materials, but probably not of role.

Do you think that the musician today needs to be more creative? What is the role of creativity in the musical process for you?

At its heart, creativity is difference. If the goal is more creative musicians that requires more difference. I’m not sure I value the idea of creativity as much as I once did. As a younger composer, I tried very much to be different, to in effect be more creative. I was searching for my own voice using all sorts of methods. Now more experienced, I prefer to let my voice come through in ways suitable for the message, so that the telling of the music might reach others and be understood, at least somewhat. I hope whatever I do musically will join the cultural context and interact there; I’m sure many creators have similar notions if their work is intended for others to experience. But what I mean is, I really want particular messages to reach others, evoked by way of enacting or performance. I’ve stated this before but it truly is how I think of this question: I strongly believe that when we collaborate and experiment in song, we are discovering life benefits, not simply musical ones. Our interactions as composers, performers, audiences, students and teachers—Indian and non-Indian alike—constitute important relational skills. If we can excite creativity and cooperation in each other, we have accomplished a magnificent thing!

Do you think we as musicians can do something to attract the younger generation to music concerts? How would you do this?

We should invite them. With newer works that are created by more diverse creators, people of color, women, underrepresented composers, we could invite them to participate on entire concert seasons. We could invite them to compose & perform, to participate in ways beyond the traditionally accepted norms, not simply as audience or spectators. Why have a special concert set aside with an orchestra, for example, when we could have new works featured on every and all concerts of a season?

Tell us about your creative process. What is your favorite piece (written by you) and how did you start working on it?

When young I used to have one way of composing, to first find a melody; and like a jigsaw puzzle, I would search out the missing pieces: harmony, rhythm, texture, instrumentation, etc. I had to begin composing like that, always; and if I could not, I would experience writer’s block. But later I realized that I’m not limited to that singular approach, or even limited to those same puzzle pieces. Today, I’ll compose in a variety of ways, and I have no singular way of composing. I shift and adapt as needed by the intent and the material, always with the purpose of the music’s meaning.

I’m not sure I have a favorite work. Sometimes a work will mark a discovery for me—sometimes. I once tried to create additional streams of musical ideas, simultaneously, into a single work, for example, as a kind of challenge to myself: how many distinctly unique streams could I juggle at the same time without losing the coherency of each one. I discovered that I could (and can) manage three while individually retaining all of them. And in that learning process, I improved my skills as a composer, and created a work that still moves me despite the years, The Un-Covered Wagon, for the male chorus Chanticleer. In the work, three different Native American singing styles, with three different songs respectively, are nestled together in such a way that the listener can hear all three tangled together but individually too.

Can you give some advice for young people who want to discover classical music for themselves?

I would suggest lots of curiosity to explore whatever is available. There are old things and new things, red things and blue things—try them all, even if some are unsavory. For all music, the quest does not have to be about matching music to preconceived preferences, like finding the right color painting to hang over the couch. Music, or music-ing, is a telling, and they can be good tellings or poor ones, they’re not all equal. Try them all!

Do you think about the audience when composing?

Always yes. For me, music is shared and not an ascetic exercise.

What projects are coming up? Do you experiment in your projects?

I do experiment, keeping one eye on possibilities and the other on practicalities.

I wrote a song for Houston Grand Opera in anticipation for their upcoming rodeo opera, called Indian Rodeo Queen; it’s a day-in-the-life of a Native American rodeo queen as she sings about her affection for the rodeo. The lyrics were co-written by Juanita Pahdopony and me, Juanita is Comanche.

I’m almost ready to start a one-act project for Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, NY, with writer Mary Kathryn Nagle (Cherokee), who will create the story. I’m also in talks about composing a fully staged opera with another prominent opera company, also with Mary Kathryn Nagle as librettist. For that project, fashion designer Patricia Michaels (Pueblo), and choreographer Emily Johnson (Yupik) will join me and Mary Kathryn. We are hopeful it will start in the coming year.

And finally, a long-term project is my Requiem For America with the subtitle “Singing for the Invisible People.” It’s a 90-minute requiem with a mission of outreach and community-building that is central to each performance. What makes this project unique is the recruitment of Native American singers from local tribes to perform in the work. The requiem subject matter is the genocidal founding of the United States. As demonstrated by persistent, dehumanizing stereotypes and continuing arguments over cultural appropriation, America’s assault on Native American cultures continues to this day. Requiem for America aims to shine a light on historic injustices but at the same time to create solutions in the present, by building collaborative relationships with indigenous artists throughout the country. The ultimate goal is to perform Requiem in every state of the nation, collaborating with the local tribal communities for every performance. By joining forces, each performance hopes to build good relations with, and foster greater insights from, America’s first inhabitants.