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Randall Davidson: Public Housing's Composer-in-Residence

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For 22 years, a New York-based organization called Meet the Composer has been pairing composers with orchestras and choral groups. The goal is to bring the people who write music in closer contact with those who perform it. In recent years, the organization has gone a step further. It has placed composers "in residence" at a public library in Queens, New York, a tenants' association in New Orleans, and the St. Paul Public Housing Agency. Minnesota Public Radio's John Biewen reports.

IN A ROW OF BUREAUCRATS' CUBICLES at the St. Paul Public Housing Agency, there's one marked 'composer in-residence.' You won't find Randall Davidson sitting at the desk, composer's pen in hand. In fact, he's rarely there at all. He does some writing at his home in Minneapolis. On weekends he goes downtown and collaborates with a half dozen kids from public housing projects.

Sound: marimba.
Davidson: "Can you do the accompaniment?"
"What's that?"
Davidson and Arbin: "bum, bum, bum...."
It's Sunday afternoon. Davidson and several teenagers huddle around a marimba in an empty auditorium at the Minnesota Children's Museum.
Sound: marimba music.
As one part of his Meet the Composer residency, Davidson held a series of percussion workshops in the projects. After a couple of months the kids who'd shown initial interest whittled themselves down to these six young men, age 11 to 15. They formed a group they call Class Act. Since last December, Davidson and Class Act have presented regular performances at elementary schools in the city, and once a week they do a program for parents and small kids at the Children's Museum.
Davidson: "I am the composer, quote-unquote, of this piece of music, but I really, really depended on our performers today; we worked really closely together to make this music. "
That's different from the way Davidson has worked for most of his composing career. About thirty American and European orchestras have performed his work.
Music: Plymouth Music Series (Fourth Wise Man).
Davidson has collaborated with other artists, from jazz musicians to humorist Garrison Keillor. But he's written most of his music in the traditional way - at home, by himself, with a piano, cello, or his voice. He says he does not relish that process.
Davidson: "I'm not a person who likes to sit alone. And it really is a discipline that I do of just putting my feet under the table. I much prefer creating something in close contact, and I've always felt that way."
Davidson says in one sense, working with the young men in Class Act has been a high point for him. He's spent hundreds of hours with them; drawing out the meaning of the music they're playing. That's something he says he never gets to do with an orchestra.
Sound: marimba, kids talking.

Davidson: "There's a look on the face of a young performer, a complete immersion, concentration - it's almost revel, reveling in the thing itself, the sound itself. How can I get that in a piece I write for an orchestra or a chorus or a pianist? In the concert world you hand them the music, they play it, and that's it."

Sound: orchestral music.

Randall Davidson is 43. A native Midwesterner, he's lived in Minneapolis for more than twenty years. He's one of fifteen composers across the country currently involved in three-year residencies sponsored by the New York City-based Meet the Composer. Davidson applied for the grant along with the public housing agency and two Minneapolis arts organizations: the Plymouth Music Series choir; and the Children's Theater Company. Davidson's job is to collaborate with all three, says Theodore Wiprud, program director for Meet the Composer.
Wiprud: "What we're hoping to regain in this program is to reconnect composers and artists with the people whose lives they're enriching, and whose lives they're expressing through their music. Really to identify artists as leaders in their communities because they help frame the issues."
Composer Randall Davidson says artists do shed light on social issues. But he says it's a mistake to think that his role as composer-in-residence for the public housing agency is to bring art and meaning to people who lack those things.
Davidson: "This is not about the haves and the have-nots, because we all have meaning."
Davidson says the residency is introducing him to people in his own city that he wouldn't otherwise meet, and that's changing the music he creates. Last fall, the Plymouth music series was preparing a Thanksgiving concert honoring Minnesota's immigrants. Tens of thousands of Hmong from Laos have settled in St. Paul in the last twenty years. Choir director Philip Brunelle didn't know any Hmong music. But he knew that Davidson had taken a Hmong immersion course to prepare for his Meet the Composer residency.
Brunelle: "I said, you're our composer-in-residence, so what have you got that represents the Hmong community?"

Music: Hmong song

Davidson had heard a Hmong funeral chant in his class. With help from Hmong speakers he transcribed the music and words and wrote an accompaniment for the chorus. Brunelle was delighted.

Brunelle: "Absolutely beautiful piece, and people commented later, because it was so different. I mean, you heard a little German and you heard a little Norwegian and Swedish, and, you know, all the other countries, and then you heard Mexican. And then all of a sudden Hmong!"

Some of the most ambitious projects in composer Randall Davidson's residency are still to come. He's working on a ballet for the Children's Theater Company. He also plans to write a choral piece based on the life stories of St. Paul public housing residents. He arranged summer jobs last year for ten high school students who live in public housing. They interviewed older residents about music and its role in their lives. Davidson plans to choose six stories; turn them into lyrics and set them to music for the Plymouth Music Series chorus. He's already picked one subject - an 80-year-old amateur showman named Jon Edmund.
Edmund: "Pancho, I want that money. Psht. Pick it up."
Edmund is a tall white-haired man. He and his performing poodle, Pancho, share a tiny apartment in a public housing project near the state capitol.
Edmund: "Ah, thank you very much. Now how 'bout picking up the cup?"
Edmund has trained dogs for decades. He once appeared on the Ernie Kovacs show with his Hungarian Sheep Dog, Troubles, who played the piano. Mostly, Edmund worked in low-paying jobs - including radio - while acting in amateur theater, writing poetry, and singing for free at nursing homes. Now his walls are covered with his paintings and drawings. And he's trying to find a publisher for a series of children's books he's written about a dog named Zubee.
Edmund: "The imagination has got to find a venue, a way out. I mean, how in the world am I gonna express myself in a lonely place like this?"
Edmund complains that people in his housing complex aren't social; they keep to themselves. Composer Davidson says encounters with people like Jon Edmund and the kids in the percussion group, Class Act, have sharpened his belief that art is almost as essential to human life as food and shelter.
Davidson: "I believe everyone has a story they could tell where something in the arts has really reached out to them - music in their church, a painting they saw or a photograph, a theater production where their daughter was performing - it changes the way you see the world in a way that will never be the same. And it's really something that is significant - it's shattering, sometimes. And sometimes really ennobling."

Sfx: Davidson plays marimba.

Vu: "That's so fresh."

Davidson: "It's 'fresh' and it's 'tight.' Does that mean - is that good?"


Randall Davidson's Meet the Composer residency runs through the fall of 1998.