Vol. 111 (2021) 

A Conversation with Experimental Composer Joseph C. Phillips, Jr.





Joseph C. Phillips, Jr., is unique among contemporary American composers. His mono-opera entitled The Grey Land was named one of The Best Classical Music Tracks of 2020 and called, ... a stirring, stylistically varied mono-opera that draws on its composer’s reflections on being Black in contemporary America, by the New York Times. The recipient of Grants from the Brooklyn Arts Council Arts, NewMusic USA, American Composers Forum Jerome Foundation, American Music Center and the Puffin Foundation, among many others, Phillips is a deeply thoughtful artist who likes to explore the big themes of acceptance, ostracization, authenticity and identity centered around intractable issues of race, class and power in American society.


Stay Thirsty Magazine was honored to visit with Joseph C. Phillips, Jr., for this Conversation about his life, his work and his important mono-opera.


STAY THIRSTY: Your mono-opera, The Grey Land, features only a soloist, soprano Rebecca L. Hargrove, and a narrator, Kenneth Browning, who tackle your chronicle of a single Black mother and her son in the exploration of race, class and power in 21st century America. Why did you choose this particular vehicle to tell your story vs. an opera with a multi-person cast?


JOSEPH C. PHILLIPS, JR.: My initial thoughts about creating an opera were in 2011. Back then I was focusing on telling a story that reflected “universal themes of acceptance, ostracization, and identity centered around intractable issues of race, class, and power in American society,” but was using Justice Clarence Thomas as a lens to illuminate those themes; even though the opera wasn’t going to be “about” him, I felt aspects of his life’s journey were perfect to illustrate the systemic injustices in the country. So I was reading and researching on him for about three years and thinking the opera would have multiple characters when in the summer of 2014, as my wife and I were preparing for the birth of our child, the killing of Michael Brown and the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, happened. I decided to shift my thinking on the opera and I centered it on a mother (and eventually also added her son). Once I changed focus, I found that while I was still able to target the above themes, using a mother and son to do this allowed me more freedom to explore avenues I couldn’t really do if Clarence Thomas was the lens—I could draw on my own experiences growing up with my mother, for example—and helped to give a more personal nuance to the issues of the mono-opera, and that the listener could connect with and contemplate on more deeply. 

The Grey Land - composed by Joseph C. Phillips, Jr.


STAY THIRSTY: You have developed a signature style of composition that you call “mixed music. How did you arrive at this style and what are its elements?


JOSEPH C. PHILLIPS, JR.: Like most composers, my music has always been an amalgamation of all my inspirations—musical and extra-musical—and it was always difficult describing to others what my music was. So I began thinking of ways I could describe my music, in all the impreciseness that labels convey, and the idea of mixed race children came to mind—where the children have characteristics of each parent and are really both of them and neither of them. I think initially I believed mixed music was the melding in my own work of post-minimalism, improvisation, and various popular music styles. But over the years I have come to see that mixed music can be more broadly defined as music that eschews easy classification and transcends the rigid definition of a singular genre by organically fusing elements of “many different styles into something completely personal, different, and new.”

The Grey Land - album cover

STAY THIRSTY: Race in America is a front-and-center issue today and the Black experience is receiving a much fuller ventilation where survival, loss of hope, the absence of the American Dream and life lived in constant fear are just some of the issues you address. Has The Grey Land achieved what you expected?


JOSEPH C. PHILLIPS, JR.: In terms of the composition itself, yes. I have been thinking on these issues for a long time and glad to see these issues now resonating with more people. But in terms of performance, the mono-opera has not yet achieved what I hoped. We did have a concert version performance in 2018 at Roulette in Brooklyn, which did have some of the multimedia elements, but I did not have the time (or money) to have the premiere be the fully staged production I envisioned. Today, so many more performing arts organizations are reflecting on and revamping their missions and repertoire after all of the social justices protests in 2020. I would hope compositions like The Grey Land and my forthcoming 1619 opera cycle (which I am currently working on developing) that tell stories reflecting the truths in today’s America and the world, will begin to be a regular part of what opera companies and orchestras feel are important to financially present and support and commission rather than just falling back on another Beethoven cycle or staging of Carmen or Madame Butterfly.



STAY THIRSTY: Your libretto draws from writings by a very diverse group ranging from Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor to author Isaac Butler to Abolitionist Frederick Douglas to Mothers of the Movement and others. What inspired you about their words and how did those feelings inform the lyrics you have written?


JOSEPH C. PHILLIPS, JR.: Actually, it was the words I wrote that informed the other text I chose for The Grey Land. “One Side Losing Slowly,” which became the fourth scene in The Grey Land was the first part of the mono-opera I composed. I wrote the poem to emphasize that the Black mother of the story has the same dreams and hopes and fears for her child that anyone else has. The idea of wanting to show the humanity in the mother led me on different paths to find various text that could represent different aspects of the mother or son: some text, like “We Wear the Mask,” I had read years earlier but came back to because it represented how some Blacks deal with moving through society; others I discovered just in casual reading during the composition process, like Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent in the Supreme Court case Utah v Strieff which I used for “Liberty Bell” because it was a warning about what the dangers unchecked police powers, that Black and brown people have been mostly subjected to, can lead to (and which 2020’s protest over George Floyd’s killing seem have now brought to the awareness of the general population); and the other words I wrote (“Don’t” and “Agnus Bey”) or asked to be written (Isaac Butler’s “Ferguson: Summer of 2014”) because they captured specific feelings and emotions about life as a Black person in America. The words of Frederick Douglas were the last text I found. Originally for scene 10 “Injustice” I used words of James Baldwin (“Well, if one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country…”) from No Name in the Street, but when it came time to go into the studio to record, the James Baldwin Estate was restructuring so wasn’t granting any permissions. That I could find words written almost 150 years earlier echoing the same sentiments as Baldwin, speaks volumes about how much of “progress” the country has made on social justice.

Joseph C. Phillips, Jr.

STAY THIRSTY: How closely linked are “humanity” and “identity” in your mind?


JOSEPH C. PHILLIPS, JR.: I always found it interesting that in many minds, emphasized by media outlets—in particular after a police shooting or let’s say the protests of Black Lives Matter—Black and brown people are often a monolithic identity and therefore their individual humanity is suppressed, denied, or pathologized (“well they must have done something;” “they were a [fill in with whatever negative transgression—real or imagined]”), where white identity—which, until recently, was invisible and unquestioned—is displayed with individualistic humanity and understanding. Some of the reasons behind wanting to create The Grey Land (and my 1619 opera cycle and my other opera of 2020 Four Freedoms) are to show that humanity and identity are really a part of the same thing: to be human is to have identity, and to have identity is part of being human.



STAY THIRSTY: Numinous is your 28-musician chamber orchestra and they participated in the recording of The Grey Land at the Oktaven Studios in Mount Vernon, New York, with you as the conductor. What is it like to conduct your own work vs. the work of someone else? Were you able to reach the vision you had when composing the mono-opera?


JOSEPH C. PHILLIPS, JR.: Two weeks after the last studio sessions for The Grey Land, New York (and the country) went into lockdown for the pandemic. So I feel lucky we even got to finish the sessions at all! But as far as conducting, when I came to New York City I knew that the only way I was going to have my own compositions heard regularly was if I started my own ensemble and if I conducted it. So Numinous was born in 2000 and only performs my music so I don’t really conduct the music of anyone else; most members of Numinous have been with me for many years so I have an advantage of writing for specific individual musical voices. And we all have a good friendship and rapport so that when I’m up in front of them conducting, there is a definite sense that we all are in it together to get the best out of the music I write for them.

Joseph C. Phillips, Jr. in the studio

STAY THIRSTY: How does The Grey Land reflect both the traditions that you embrace and the innovations of the 21st century?


JOSEPH C. PHILLIPS, JR.: As my friend composer and vocalist Imani Uzuri has said, “Living as a Black person IS being avant-garde” so I don’t have to anything to be innovative! Seriously, I’ve always said just because something has been done doesn’t mean that’s how it always has to be done. I think my life as a Black male in America has comfortably prepared me to live in a musical world that I am simultaneously both inside and outside of. So while “classical music” is my “home,” I don’t have any problems flouting its “traditions,” if it serves the creation better to do so. So yes, Numinous is essentially a chamber orchestra, with some traditional instruments (sometimes used in traditional ways), and yes, The Grey Land is an opera, in the traditional sense of telling a story through orchestral music, but there are also ways my group, the mono-opera, and myself are reflective of more contemporary sensibilities than traditional ones, such as: a focus on the Black life and realities; use of improvisation (very miniscule amount in The Grey Land, but something that’s on all my albums); electronics and audio collage; narrative abstractions and temporal displacements; and a freedom to use whatever style or genre as inspiration, incorporating them into my own personal voice, to create my own compositions.



STAY THIRSTY: Of all the themes in your work, which is most the important to you: humanity, identity or resilience – all in the face of societal, economic and cultural issues present in today's America?


JOSEPH C. PHILLIPS, JR.: Humanity. To the ancestors, resilience was key to surviving in lands hostile to them and to thrive against people who didn’t view them as equals; it is, however a testament to their humanity that allowed them to dream and hope for future, better worlds that could exist someday for their children and families to come. 


(Photos of Joseph C. Phillips, Jr.: credit - Carolyn Wolf; Jeff Ogle; Donald Martinez) 


Joseph C. Phillips, Jr.    




All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.