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Pulse is an exuberant display of expressive virtuosity: a demonstration of Nabors’s ability, like a film composer, to shift emotional gears quickly while strongly maintaining the thread of the musical narrative.

Quick Facts

  • Composer’s life: Born April 10, 1991, in Birmingham, Alabama
  • Year completed: 2017 (chamber orchestra version); 2019 (symphony orchestra version)
  • First performance: September 9, 2019, Nashville Symphony Orchestra, Giancarlo Guerrero conducting
  • First BSO performance: January 20, 2022, Elim Chan conducting

The score of Pulse calls for 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion (3 players: vibraphone, wood blocks, hi-hat cymbal, bass drum; crotales, marimba, cymbal, whip, 3 tom-toms; xylophone, tam-tam, triangle, bongos), harp, piano and celesta, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The piece is about 12 minutes long.

Brian Raphael Nabors considers himself an “everything composer”—equally at home in chamber music, song, solo piano music, choral music, and orchestral works—but, when nudged, admits, “I love the orchestra!” The depth and breadth of possibilities for texture and timbre with the modern symphony orchestra Nabors compares to the variety of textures, colors, and figures a painter might deploy on a canvas. As with painting, with the rich sonic palette available to the composer, deciding what and when to leave something out, rather than using everything all the time, has come with experience and a good sense of where an individual piece is taking him.

Nabors grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, in an artistically engaged family. His father is a visual artist, and his mother plays keyboards for church and for other functions. Nabors was mostly self-taught as a keyboardist, picking out tunes on the piano from a young age, and had little formal training until he was about 12. As a composer, he began with piano music and in his teens started writing for chorus. Gospel, jazz, and R&B were his “daily bread,” but he expanded his awareness of the classical tradition via piano method books. Meanwhile, the deft and characterful film music of such composers as John Williams and Danny Elfman revealed the possibilities of the orchestra. By age 16, he says—already having strongly contemplated a career in architecture—he knew that composing was his “destiny.”

Like his father, Nabors grew up interested in drawing and painting; linking his visual and auditory worlds, he has the trait of synesthesia, which in his case correlates visual colors with aural harmonies. His music explores his interests in art, nature, science, and history, including his own lived experience as an African American. Some of his works explicitly address issues of race in U.S. history and in the present day, such as his Paul Laurence Dunbar setting We Wear the Mask, composed for Castle of Our Skins’ I AM A MAN concerts in 2019.

Nabors attended Birmingham’s Samford University as an undergraduate, since returning to join the faculty in a variety of roles. He went on to graduate school at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, where his teachers included Douglas Knehans, Ellen Ruth Harrison, and Miguel Roig-Francolí. He was a 2020 Fulbright Fellowship recipient for study in Sydney, Australia, and has participated in programs with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. Current projects include a consortium commission via NewMusicUSA for orchestras in Berkeley, Detroit, and Seattle as well as the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra (ROCO) in Houston and the Landmarks Orchestra in Boston. For the 2018-19 season he was composer in residence with the Boston-based ensemble Castle of Our Skins, and in 2021 he was a Fellow of the BSO’s Tanglewood Music Center. The Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra performed his brief orchestra work Iubilo in the Koussevitzky Music Shed in August 2021. In addition to these BSO performances of Pulse this week, during the 2021-2022 season Nabors’s orchestral music will also be performed by the Atlanta, Fort Worth, and Nashville symphony orchestras, the Rochester Philharmonic, and the Munich Symphony Orchestra in Germany. Upcoming projects include Of Earth and Sky: Tales From the Motherland, an orchestra work on African legends commissioned by the Fort Worth Symphony for a premiere under Robert Spano’s direction in April 2023, and a new orchestra work for the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, Letters from Birmingham, about the history of the composer’s hometown. The well-traveled Pulse will be played this year by the American Youth Symphony at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in March and by the Chineke! Orchestra at Switzerland’s Lucerne Festival in September. Nabors is also at work on an ambitious Concerto for Orchestra.

As noted above, Nabors’s Pulse began life as a work for a chamber orchestra—single instruments on each part, plus three percussion and a quartet of saxophones. The expanded version for full orchestra gave Nabors an even greater range of instrumental colors and combinations to work with in illustrating the rapidly changing images and concepts in his piece. He writes,

My conception of Pulse began as a long contemplation of daily life as we know it, combined with thoughts of life in nature. The universe seems to have this natural rhythm to it. It is as if every living and moving thing we are aware and unaware of is being held together by a mysterious, resolute force. Pulse is an episodic rhapsody that explores several phases and colorful variants of rhythm all held together by an unwavering pulse. Each episode is meant to symbolize a different scenario of life for the listener, be it a buzzing modern metropolis, a deep wilderness abundant with animalia, or the scenic endless abyss of the ocean. All of these worlds and their philosophical meanings are then brought together in a contemplative theme of “unification” in the strings that symbolizes our deep connection as living beings to everything within, over, under, and around us.

The quote reveals Nabors’s deep interest in the natural world and our place in it. Pulse is also, though, an exuberant display of expressive virtuosity: a demonstration of his ability, like a film composer, to shift through emotional gears quickly while strongly maintaining the thread of the musical narrative. The driven music is enhanced by quick changes in orchestration and occasionally offset by sustained, long-line melodies. A percussion episode in the middle of the piece encourages percussive sounds and behaviors from other quarters, especially the winds; this section ends with a brief pause that marks one of the few resting-points. The constant energy of the pulse is sometimes the foreground, sometimes receding, present largely in the listener’s memory and expectation of its continuation. The onset of glissandos in the strings marks a complete breakdown of both rhythm and harmony for a short time. Lyrical string melodies emerge from this miasma, underpinned by quiet pulsing in the piano and harp—subdued but still present.

Robert Kirzinger

Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Director of Program Publications.