Five questions with: composer and performer Damien Sneed

We Shall Overcome — A Celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., featuring Damien Sneed

Hancher — Thursday, Feb. 21 at 7:30 p.m.

Damien Sneed brings his We Shall Overcome program to Iowa City on Feb. 21. — courtesy of Hancher

On Feb. 21 at 7:30 p.m. at Hancher Auditorium’s Hadley Stage, Damien Sneed — an award winning composer, conductor, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist — will present an audience with his masterful program, We Shall Overcome — A Celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Tickets range from $10 for youth to $35 for adults. Sneed’s most recent album, also titled We Shall Overcome, was released in January.

The performance integrates Sneed’s background in Broadway, classical, gospel, jazz, R & B, spirituals and other traditionally African American forms of music. The overall result invites audiences to join in a joyful, beautiful vision of American potential. I was able to speak with Sneed on a snowy January morning while he was touring in California — and found that he is as articulate in speaking about his music as he is brilliant in performing it.

You have amassed and mastered a really diverse range of musical forms — what’s the common keyboard or tonality that you sense beneath what most people hear as being different genres? Is classical your first language?

I think about Handel’s “Harmonious Blacksmith” as it goes through variations. I know in R & B style how the bass should move; if it is gospel, I know the rhythms. If it is jazz, I know how to change the voicings and how to give the bass a different lane. If it is Romantic [or French Impressionistic], I know how to improvise there.

I do some of the improvisation under MLK’s speech — I’ll pull out 12 tone, start with Yankee Doodle Dandy. My master’s is in film scoring, so I think of it like that. I use every possible tool — I have a large palate with different colors.

I always hear music … in its pure form. I grew up listening to different styles — it was always changing. I just hear it as it is. In a Sonata by Mozart or Schubert, there are different movements — different executions of expression.

Yes [classical is my first language]; when I learn something, I do it from the mindset of a composer. I’m breaking it down at the same time I’m listening to it.

You’re also a multi-instrumentalist. Can you comment on ways that knowing different musical instruments gives you a deeper sense of what each voice in a band or musical group offers — especially as you compose new forms of how they come together?

I played clarinet and saxophone — I grew up playing countermelodies and the melodies. The clarinet has a wide range, so I learned harmonies, melodies, low notes. I play piano, too. I grew up in a church context, so vocally I learned how to teach all parts: soprano, alto, tenor, bass. Where other people [today] see it as a feat or something larger than life, it’s something I always saw.

What do you sense is the common element that underlies MLK’s political and spiritual visions that you’re able to hear and express in musical forms? Can you describe how you hear politics, speeches, sermons, spirituals and jazz as being different modes of articulating a similar vision? How would you articulate that vision in words, rather than music?

I grew up as an African-American male in Georgia, and music was how an artist used a platform to give a voice for those who didn’t have one. Songs were protest or reconciliation. The music grafted in me was artists in America, in an era where they were creating new sounds, talking about what was going on in the present day. There was no Facebook or tweets; opinions were made in art form.

In 19th-century literature, you could look at a culture and see their literature, their fashion: It was expressive. In America, music — especially in the ’60s and ’70s — was expressive of what was happening in that time. For some, it was the only way to express it, or the only way to transport and whisk them into a place, not of euphoria, but where they could deal with the vicissitudes and negativity they had no control over.

I was adopted [by older parents], so they lived through segregation, through MLK’s life, Robert Kennedy’s assassination. They had a house, they had a job. [Unlike a lot of people in my generation], things were taught to me from an early age.

We Shall Overcome, which is a new release this year, provides your audience with a synthetic element that ties your diverse musical experiences together — as an album, it really expresses a united vision that makes traditional genres somewhat irrelevant. How has it been to tour on the album? How have audiences responded to it?

It’s been the best project with the most responses of anything I’ve done in my career. It makes sense [because] my album is American Roots music, with every expression of it. There’s 12-tone pieces, piano, slave songs, folk songs, gospel, R & B, neo-soul, urban. It’s American expression …

That’s what’s interesting in the tour: to hear responses from different parts of the country. Sometimes people aren’t familiar with [Biblical sources] … but people from the South, in the Bible belt, it’s familiar. It’ll be interesting in Iowa.

Although much of your music works within a history of music, your work within it seems oriented toward the future — doing more to create, rather than merely recreate, a kind of music. As a composer, can you describe the kinds of thinking that you’ve learned that allow you to engage in this sort of process?

Ives, that’s sort of what he did. Neo-Classicism, I did a lot with that in my doctoral work. Renaissance, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper — they recreate. Part of [my approach] is my mentor, Wynton Marsalis. He knows music, from every continent that’s inhabitable, and all kinds of modalities.

I’m trying to gather people from all age groups and demographics together. I’m carrying people on a journey; I tend to do a lot of recording now of a lot of jazz standards and a lot of classical music, and then I’ll be in a place where I can show all the new music inside of me. I’m trying to win people over now, and then I want to propagate a new sound on the earth.

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