Plane Crash, Ice Storms and Ex-KGB’s: An Interview with Demetrius Spaneas

David Johnston

2011 Composer-in-Residence Demetrius Spaneas


We chatted over email with 2011 Composer-in-Residence Demetrius Spaneas. Demetrius talks about his inspirations for cultural diplomacy, memorable travel adventures, and upcoming projects.

You’ve traveled the world as a cultural diplomat. When did your interest in musical diplomacy begin? And how did you come to work with the US Department of State?

Coming of age and beginning to mature artistically at the end of the Cold War made me passionately interested in Eastern European and Central Asian cultures. The possibility of contact with countries and cultures that had been off-limits for so long had a huge impact on the direction of my creative work. Studying the traditional music of these cultures while in my 20s – beginning in the Balkans and moving eastward – I sought out teachers and traditional musicians to learn from and perform with. In my own work as composer and improviser, I began to adapt this traditional music and combine it with Western European and American forms. This blending and adaptation continues to be my main creative focus. I continually seek traditional musicians to improvise with, and together we create a dialogue using our own musical languages, finding common ground and understanding within melodies and phrases. In my work, musical dialogue leads directly to cultural understanding.

Cultural diplomacy is really an outgrowth of this process. Becoming interested in the cultures and music naturally led to an interest in the individual artists. People want to communicate. They want someone to listen to what they have to say. Cultural diplomacy, for lack of a better word, gives people an opportunity to create dialogue. Diplomacy is really dialogue. Stimulating conversation is the key to any type of collaborative process, be it political or artistic. I want to help people be heard and give their ideas a voice. This is what any individual really wants.

I started making cultural diplomacy the focus of my career in the mid-2000s, mostly due to connections with musicians/artists through social media sites, especially MySpace. It was through this networking that led to many opportunities overseas, including a 15-country Eurasian tour while living in St. Petersburg, Russia for one year. It was at this time that I started working with the US Embassies – first as a lecturer and performer on American music and culture in Russia, then at other locations in the former Soviet Union, where they helped support my collaborations with local cultural organizations.

As an active concert performer and lecturer abroad, what do you choose to highlight?

All of it. My career has evolved me into a composite musician: composer, performer, and educator.  I can’t do one without the other. And now I am expected to do all, usually at the same time!  Leonard Bernstein said that when he was with composers he was a conductor, and when he was with conductors he was a composer. My situation is similar (of course, I still actually want to grow up and BE Leonard Bernstein…).

What have been your most memorable moments in your travels?

Well, there are two parts to this. The first has been the uneasy and somewhat dangerous situations I have been in – political settings and natural disasters. In Uzbekistan, I was trailed all over the country by the NSS (former KGB) and barred from lecturing and performing at many locations. They also threatened teachers, students, and journalists with arrest if they were to work with me. The official line was fear of me starting a “democracy riot.” I’m glad they think that an American jazz musician can have such a societal impact! They even threatened The Samarqand College of Music with arrest of the entire faculty and school shut down if I stepped foot on the campus. In terms of natural disasters – ice storms at 12,000 feet in the Pamir Mountains, no water or electricity, flash flooding, my plane crashing on the runway (yes, that happened).

But…the other side of this has been seeing not only the great impact my presence has had on locals, but their immense kindness and hospitality toward a foreigner. People are people. And many in the former Soviet Union – most especially the Islamic countries – are kind, courteous, and treat strangers as guests. They want to talk to you and know everything about you. They know what you’ve accomplished by going to the opposite side of the world to visit them, and they are incredibly grateful. This kindness and willingness to share and communicate is what keeps me going.

How does being a composer in NYC differ from the other cities and countries you’ve worked in?

New York is magnificent. Simple. The resources of music and musicians are better here than anywhere else in the world. This is especially true as a composer. There are many, many musicians and ensembles who are interested in exploring new music. And these are wonderful musicians who could play anything they wanted, but they choose what’s new and relevant.  No other city has this, anywhere.

One of your upcoming projects is “Roots Music,” which incorporates Irish, Chinese, European classical and jazz musical traditions. Please explain how you conceived of this amazing mix.

I didn’t! The piece is a commission from the Beijing-based TIMI Modern Music Ensemble and their director Benoit Granier. I have collaborated with this ensemble in recent years as both performer and composer here in NYC, Boston, and Beijing. The ensemble is one of the few new music ensembles in China. And as far as I know, they are the only ensemble dedicated to both new classical music and traditional Chinese music. For that purpose, the ensemble mixes western classical and traditional Chinese instruments. In “Roots Music,” I will combine these two styles with American jazz – meaning me as “jazz” saxophone soloist – along with traditional Irish musicians who will be in Beijing collaborating with TIMI for the Beijing Irish Modern Music Festival in March 2012 (yes, it exists…).  My idea for the piece is to take traditional/folk music from each culture (such as Blues and Spirituals from America) and blend them into a large concert piece.  The work will not be a pastiche of styles, but a true blend in which they complement each other. The term “roots music” means music indigenous to a specific group or culture. Much of our roots music is very similar in the deepest layer. It is another way in which we are all connected.

For your Con Edison Musicians’ Residency at Flushing Town Hall, what do you hope to accomplish?

The main goal of my residency is to research and explore the music and traditions that I will incorporate into “Roots Music.” Needless to say, Chinese culture is very important to the makeup of Flushing, which makes it a perfect place to immerse myself into Chinese music and culture. I have been researching Chinese music and poetry styles, as well as mastering the Chinese dizi flute (I have a large collection of world music flutes). I have begun to meet with and play with local traditional musicians and educators, and will be exploring collaborations with them as well.

I am also composing another work for classical instruments (clarinet, viola, and piano) entitled “Autumn Yearning” that is based on the traditional Chinese music that I have researched. This piece, along with other works, including a possible collaboration with Chinese musicians, will be performed at my Con Edison Residency concert on February 18, 2012.

Any more travel plans?

Well, I will be in China for the premiere of “Roots Music” in March. I also have a premiere in Italy of my work “Love Letters in the Ether.”  It’s being scheduled for the spring by the Rome-based new music ensemble Piccola Accademia degli Specchi.  A concert or two in Russia is also in the works for 2012.

What’s next?

In November, I will appear as soloist and will also have a premiere in Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall.  My work for solo saxophone – played by me – is called “Around Monk-night” and is an improvised-sounding toccata based on Thelonious Monk’s famous “‘Round Midnight.”  This event will be a benefit concert created by pianist Elaine Kwon for the charity Best Buddies. In December, I will be performing a solo/duo concert of my music for Composers Collaborative’s Serial Underground concert series at the Cornelia Street Cafe. I will be joined by CCi’s Artistic Director, the great pianist Jed Distler, for the premiere of two works that evening, “The Love We Made” and “Giuffre Sketches,” the latter a tribute to my former teacher, the late Jimmy Giuffre.

To keep up with Demetrius, check out his website and blog.


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