Daniel Bernard Roumain has a challenge for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
“Ask 12 questions to the oldest living person in Wellesley and the oldest living person in Roxbury. Film it and set it to music,” he said via phone. “Where are the children of these communities going to meet? They could be meeting in Symphony Hall. Who’s going to write the ‘Wellesley-Roxbury Meditation’ for the Boston Symphony Orchestra?”
Born to Haitian immigrants and raised in south Florida on a diet of music that included Beethoven, Celia Cruz, and ABBA, Roumain is a classically trained violinist with a doctorate in composition. Artists he has worked with include Lady Gaga, Philip Glass, poet Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and Haitian singer Emeline Michel, and his chamber and orchestral music has been performed by ensembles around the country. Collaboration across disciplines and genres lies at the heart of his musical practice, and he has little patience for the boundaries classical music seems to enforce even when it tries not to.
“This notion of ‘Let’s make classical music into this’ in a nightclub, or a DJ experience, it’s a trap,” he said, referencing the recent trend of trying to attract younger audiences by moving performances outside the concert hall or incorporating novel technology. “Not that I think the idea is bad, but in the pursuit of trying to be more inclusive, you can actually be more limiting,” he said. “By definition, you’re already saying something else can’t participate.”
Roumain lives part time in the Boston area and teaches at Arizona State University in a multidisciplinary program. This Sunday, Ashmont Hill Chamber Music presents him and pianist Yayoi Ikawa performing his “Redemption Songs and Sonatas.” The musicians switch between electronic and acoustic instruments during the course of the piece, a crossing of idioms that Roumain finds natural.
Listening to his music, it’s clear that his goal is not pastiche, but radical integration, and he connects that with our modern habits of music consumption. “I can’t think of another time in our human existence where so much information and so much music is available for free if you have access to it,” he said. “The types of silos and categories of music are dissolving, and I’m glad that they are.”
The black diasporic experience informs “Redemption Songs and Sonatas.” Roumain began it as a theme and variations on Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” and he has added hymns, original musical portraits of his family, and excerpts from his Voodoo Violin Concerto, which is based on Haitian song. On Sunday, an honors quartet from string education program Project STEP will also perform the defiant second movement from Roumain’s Quartet No. 5, “Rosa Parks.”
Roumain strives for representation of black people’s stories in music, and relevance to the communities for which music is performed. His upcoming opera “We Shall Not Be Moved” will premiere at Opera Philadelphia this September. With a libretto by Joseph, it tells the story of a 1985 police bombing that destroyed a neighborhood, using gospel, R&B, spoken word, and dance in addition to classical opera. During Roumain’s younger years, opera’s lack of stories to which he could relate frustrated him, but recent operas exploring more diverse topics around race, gender, and current events have given him hope. “I think opera has an opportunity,” he said. “I don’t know if opera will ever get there, or if classical music will ever be interested in a true notion of being inclusive.”
Which brings him back to the BSO. For him, success lies in how deeply someone or something at any level is connected to the people it serves. He wants to take his young son to Symphony Hall “and have him experience something that is relevant to his life,” connecting him with orchestral music in a way he doesn’t think is possible with the BSO’s championing of composers who are almost exclusively white males with no local connections.
“A cultural institution at its best wants to tell an honest and revelatory story about its community,” he said. “That’s what it means to be a modern artist, a contemporary artist. Tell me the truth, and if you don’t I’ll find someone who will.”
DANIEL BERNARD ROUMAIN
Presented by Ashmont Hill Chamber Music. At Peabody Hall, All Saints Church, 209 Ashmont St, Dorchester. April 23, 4:30 p.m. Tickets $25-35. www.ahchambermusic.orgZoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.