Anthony Davis was born February 20, 1951, in Paterson, NJ, and lives in San Diego, CA. He wrote You Have the Right to Remain Silent on commission for Miller Theatre at Columbia University in New York City. Clarinetist J.D. Parran was soloist in the premiere with the Perspectives Ensemble at Miller Theatre on April 15, 2007. An expanded and revised version was first performed by Parran and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project at Amherst College in Hampshire, MA, and Tufts University in Somerville, MA, in 2011.
The score of You Have The Right To Remain Silent calls for solo B-flat clarinet and contra-alto E-flat clarinet, solo Kurzweil synthesizer, and a small orchestra of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, 2 percussion (I. drum set; II. vibraphone and marimba), harp, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The concerto is about 25 minutes long.
He had put his siren on when he stopped me, and I was going to say, what the hell is going on? I’m going to be late for my concert. [My wife] said, “Don’t get out of the car, because he has a gun.” He had his gun pointed at me.
—Anthony Davis, recalling a Boston traffic stop in the late 1970s that partly inspired his concerto You Have the Right to Remain Silent
The music of Anthony Davis displays the musical cosmopolitan’s incredulity (to borrow from Jean-François Lyotard) toward master narratives of genre that channel and police not only the practice of free expression, but also, and more ominously, the act of listening itself. One effect of this genre refusal is to expand the purview of classical music past above-the-fray individualism toward (in composer Michael Dessen’s memorable phrase) a decolonization of art music that can freely eschew notions of absolute music toward the embrace of ideals of social justice, collaboration, and real-time creativity. Emblematic of this embrace are the composer’s two best-known operas, X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X (libretto by Thulani Davis; 1985/86) and his more recent The Central Park Five, which was premiered by Long Beach Opera in 2019 and subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize for Music.
Davis’s music allows a multiplicity of sounds to coexist, receptive to the sounds of the whole earth. The temptation to hear his work as postmodern pastiche, however, fades in the face of the music’s focus on integration rather than fragmentation. His compositional style is marked by constant motion and kaleidoscopic permutation; the musical structure seems to refuse any notion of rest.
One finds a kind of nonmetric, indeterminate repetition already in such Davis works as Estraven (1978), but with the Wayang series of compositions Davis begins to harness the powers of strong, memorable melodies carried by tricky polyrhythms and sustained by forms of repetition informed by Javanese and Balinese musical culture, which before Davis had inspired Claude Debussy, Henry Cowell, Colin McPhee, Harry Partch, and Louis Andriessen, among many others. One can imagine that what might have attracted Davis to Javanese and Balinese forms was the emphasis on cyclical forms. His work deploys cycles within cycles, advancing complex, overlapping syncopated gestures that seem almost to spontaneously recombine.
Rather than the process music orientation of Steve Reich or Philip Glass, however, Davis superimposes his “clones,” or metric blocks of meaning of differing durations, upon each other. Often, as in his Notes from the Underground, the clones switch codes and exchange orchestrations, taking on altered guises in a move that is perfectly compatible with the postmodern understanding of identity as fluid. In You Have the Right to Remain Silent, a clone of the solo clarinet line suddenly appears as an electronic doppelgänger in the synthesizer.
Strongly in evidence in Davis’s operatic and orchestral works is improvisation’s “warp signature,” that singular combination of indeterminacy, agency, choice, analysis of conditions, and the “collapse of the choice function”—a quantum moment of decision whose motivation can only be unpacked speculatively, ex post facto. Improvisation in Davis’s music requires not only virtuoso technique and an ability to rapidly code-switch between different musical idioms, but also a bifurcated concentration that obliges performers to consider the impact of their improvisations upon the overall form of the work. In other words, improvisation within a Davis work reduces to irrelevance the traditional, preciously
ideological dialectic between improvisation and composition, already under serious threat since 1950 from musical experimentalism.
Davis’s use of improvisation in the classical context is anticipated by William Grant Still’s optimistic 1930 belief in the viability of a “Negro Symphony Orchestra.” Still predicted that for the players in such an orchestra, “their training in the jazz world will even have enhanced their virtuosity, and they will be able to play perfectly passages that would be difficult for a man trained only in the usual academic way.” Still himself, as with Davis today, would have been a model for such a performer, given his own experience as composer and performer in diverse idioms.
Now, many contemporary performers and composers are trained in multiple performance traditions that embrace improvisation. In many of Davis’s works, for example, we hear the drumset, an instrument invented by Louis Armstrong collaborator Warren “Baby” Dodds that transformed a single drummer into a percussion ensemble. Until Davis’s groundbreaking opera X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, this instrument was as foreign to the orchestra as the saxophone.
Nearly every African American, as well as non-white citizens in various European countries, learns to accept the near-certainty of being accosted by public authority in one form or another; the spurious motivation for many of these encounters is impossible to deny despite the strenuous efforts made in some circles to do so. In Davis’s You Have The Right To Remain Silent, what is unspoken rivals the open utterance; the second half of the title phrase, of course, is “Anything you say may be held against you in a court of law.” Both halves come from one of the most disputed rulings of the US Supreme Court, Miranda v. Arizona (1966), which sets boundaries for police interrogation and for the admissibility at trial of evidence obtained from suspects’ statements.
Davis’s title has particular resonances for members of visible minorities, who are by far the most frequent targets of “stop and frisk” police actions. In New York City, for example, African Americans reportedly experience more than fifty percent of the stops; over ninety percent of all those stopped, regardless of race, were shown to have committed no offense. Both here and abroad, a form of black humor emerges in response. In the US, the pretext for an otherwise inexplicable traffic stop is humorously framed as “driving while Black”; in one Francophone country, young people of Arab descent adopted a method of saving the police time and effort, by wearing t-shirts announcing that they have been “déja controlé” (already checked). Davis deploys a similar humor, which suffuses the work.
Further title-related ironies abound. You Have the Right to Remain Silent exemplifies Davis’s long career as an opera composer, sensitive to the power of depiction, a trope in American music reaching at least as far back as Amy Beach’s Gaelic Symphony, through the works of Charles Ives, Duke Ellington, William Grant Still, and Carl Ruggles, as well as Ruth Crawford’s proto-conversational String Quartet (1931) and after. The understated contra-alto clarinet multiphonics, deployed by the soloist in a lonely-sounding section that could recall Martin Luther King’s pre-Miranda “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” leads to harmonies that evoke the work of Charles Mingus, whose work Davis has studied extensively.
The music of Anthony Davis points the way to an American musical culture that can connect its classical music with an African diasporic sonic culture whose worldwide influence throughout the 20th century and into the 21st can hardly be overstated. More broadly, this music poses the question of what a new classical music might sound like in a post-colonial world. Here, instead of a right to remain silent, Davis’s music asserts its right to speak, to take part in the social, and not least, to sing the blues.
George E. Lewis
Edited, with the author’s permission, from booklet notes to the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s 2014 CD release of Anthony Davis’s work.
George E. Lewis, a 2002 MacArthur Fellow whose compositions engage chamber, orchestral, computer, and improvised music, is the Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music at Columbia University. His widely acclaimed book, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music received the 2009 American Book Award.