First Contact: Guitarist Robert Phillips and the Orange Blossom Dances – Originally published in Artborne Magazine

Composers of contemporary classical music gravitate toward musicians that are receptive to new repertory. Often, the musicians most receptive to newly composed works are those who play instruments that don’t themselves have big catalogues of canonic pieces dating back hundreds of years. For example, one of the most beautifully intimate and expansive sounds that Western European culture generated is that of the string quartet. But living composers looking to shop around their recent compositions for string quartet have to ask for wiggle room amongst a long list of formidable masterworks that string quartet ensembles have rightfully adopted as standard repertory.

Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven all extensively explored the string quartet’s expressive possibilities. The Romantics, Nationalists and Impressionists that followed in the 19th century found new sonic riches there. In the 20th century, the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok and the Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich each built their own catalogues of demanding, ground-breaking works that expanded the boundaries of performance techniques and pushed for a reconsideration of what the musical conversation between the players themselves and between the music and listener could be like.

Other instruments do not have the same depth of historical repertory, either because they didn’t attract the attention of big name composers or because those instruments are simply newer. The saxophone was invented in 1840. Percussion instruments, generally speaking, have been in existence pre-historically, but when considering the percussion family as a potentially virtuosic participant in the classical tradition, it’s a 20th century phenomenon. Similarly, precursors to the classical guitar emerged roughly 5,000 years ago, but the modern classical guitar didn’t emerge into broad popularity until the 19th century, during which masterworks for the instrument emerged, but at nowhere near the rate or scope of traditional ensembles like the string quartet.

That is good news for composers. Musicians of these instruments are hungry for serious repertory, and some of them go out of their way to midwife new repertory into being by actively commissioning living composers to write for them. They get the added thrill of having input into the creative process and being able to provide feedback.

Robert Phillips is one such musician. A guitarist based in Lakeland, he is an instructor at the Harrison School for the Arts and on the faculty of Southeastern University. He grew up on Long Island, and earned his Bachelor’s degree not far from home, at Hofstra University. He got his first real taste of contemporary music studying with David Starobin while earning his Master’s degree at Brooklyn College. Starobin owns Bridge Records, a label that specializes in contemporary classical music, and Starobin himself has been the catalyst for a multitude of commissions from a who’s who list of late 20th century composers from George Crumb to Elliot Carter to Gunther Schuller.

According to Phillips, “If you’re not playing new music, you’re just allowing the art to die out. A Beethoven string quartet has passed the test of time, which new music can’t. When Beethoven wrote a string quartet, it was a new piece at that time. If you don’t take a chance on new music, we won’t have new masterpieces. And it’s gotten easier as a performer to program new music, because new music has gotten more audience-friendly compared to twenty five or thirty years ago. We’re now in a period where composers are really re-engaging their audience and really saying something that listeners can identify with and understand.”

After graduating with his Master’s degree in guitar performance, Phillips worked the freelancer’s grind in New York for many years, giving guitar lessons and performing. But by the late 1980s and early 1990s, Long Island’s economy suffered several blows, including Grumman Aerospace corporation laying off 9,000 workers at once, adding them to a pool of unemployed professionals now totalling 90,000 people. As so often happens, music becomes an understandably unaffordable luxury when a family’s choices come down to guitar lessons versus dinner, or a business must choose between having live music or paying their waitstaff. Phillips threw in the towel and headed to Tampa before relocating to Lakeland shortly thereafter. He eventually made the decision to get his doctorate in classical guitar performance from the University of Miami, which entailed commuting weekly for a few years between Lakeland and Miami.

The genesis of Phillips’ commissioning project grew from an inability to choose just one of his favorite local composers to write a new piece for him when he got itchy for one. He’d worked with Troy Gifford before. Gifford is a talented guitarist and composer and is the Chair of the Music Department at Valencia College. Rex Willis, another guitarist and composer at the State College of Florida in Sarasota, was another potential candidate. As guitarist-composers, both Gifford and Willis have accessible compositional styles that are heavily influenced by Spanish dance music. The legendary Argentinian guitarist and composer Jorge Morel, whose performing and recording career exploded in New York in the 1960s, is now based in Orlando.

It dawned on Phillips that he didn’t need to choose just one composer — he could think big and commission a whole concert’s worth, a whole CD’s worth of pieces at once, from multiple composers. He cast a wider net by being open to the idea of working with non-guitarist composers. Phillips began a search for composers with some criteria in mind: they had to have an accessible musical voice; they had to be open to composing a piece based on dance rhythms; and they had to be local enough to make collaboration simple. He found his composers and set tentative agreements. He launched a kickstarter campaign to help fund the process that garnered support from over 60 people.

Rex Willis composed Rondo Diabolico, a 5-minute fun and quirky rondo (a recurring theme followed by episodic digressions) with a tango feel to it. Howard Buss of Lakeland wrote Dances and Interludes, an 8-minute journey through dances forms where a Cuban songo, a bossa nova, and a flamenco rumba are connected by interstitial musical material. Orlando’s Benoit Glazer composed TanVal, a light, sophisticated Jazz-inflected conversation between a tango and a waltz, but in 5/4 time. Troy Gifford contributed a neo-romantic waltz called Valsera. Jorge Morel wrote Preludio y Danzas. That work starts with a short prelude that leads to a fast Latin American dance, then a brisk interlude followed by a sesquialtera rhythm (where a duple and triple feel get overlaid simultaneously), and finally finishes with a flourish. My own contribution, Samba Variations, takes a standard Brazilian samba and treats it like fashion show where we get to see the same samba riff in many different costumes. Phillips plans to compose his own contribution to the set, which he has come to think of as Orange Blossom Dances.

The first performances will take place in Madrid this summer in multiple venues, including the Ateneo Científico, Literario y Artístico de Madrid, the National Archeological Museum, the American Museum, the Nicolás Salmerón Cultural Center, and the Villa de Barajas Cultural Center. American performances are anticipated to occur in Sarasota, Oklahoma City, Orlando and Lakeland. Phillips plans to record it and release it on MS Records, an independent label that specializes in classical music that has a fairly extensive catalogue of contemporary works.

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First Contact: Biblical Fan Fiction and Orlando Fringe – Originally published in Artborne Magazine

“Be true to your own act, and congratulate yourself if you have done something strange and extravagant, and broken the monotony of a decorous age. It was a high counsel that I once heard given to a young person, ‘Always do what you are afraid to do.’” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’m an atheist. I’m an atheist who grew up half-heartedly Catholic, and during CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) classes, around age eleven or twelve, I worked drawings and commentary about my hamster into our assigned journals on Jesus and God’s presence in our lives at every opportunity. The fantastic stories in Greek and Roman mythology I was learning around the same time did not seem too different in tone or likelihood from Bible stories. The only difference, as far as I could tell, was that I was being told only some were true. I chose Thomas as my confirmation name because it was the closest I could get to expressing my doubts at that age.

John the Baptist’s head on silver platter. With fries. Art by Miles Griffin

Yet, I went on to become a paid church singer during and after college for seven years at a Catholic church in Queens and an Episcopalian church on Long Island. This gave me long and regular exposure to Bible readings, sermons, and sacred music. I developed a love for the pageantry and drama surrounding the narrative arc of Jesus’ story, and a fondness for the sense of community that a church can provide. As a composer, I have written many choral pieces for church and synagogue use, and don’t feel hypocritical about it, because I map my personal beliefs about my place in the universe and the beauty I find in science and nature onto the monotheistic beliefs of the faithful.

I am raising two amazing sons without religion. They are good, loving, respectful, flexible, curious, and every other favorable thing I could possibly imagine. And they have very little knowledge of Bible stories. So it made for a fascinating conversation one day about a year ago, as we drove past the Holy Land Experience, off I-4, with its elaborate mural. We’d passed this building many times, but my older son noticed it for the first time and asked about it. As a ten-year-old, his special curiosity about the image of the boat and the animals was unsurprising.

I proceeded to tell my sons the story of Noah and the Ark as neutrally as I could. Their questions were as much revelatory to me about their own sense of right and wrong as they were about the disturbing questions the Bible doesn’t address directly. God was unhappy with everyone? Everyone? Even the kids? Why did the animals have to die?

Joe Llorens. Photo by Charlie Griffin
I began to think a lot about that story. What happened during those 40 days of rain? How did people react to it? Did anybody run for higher ground? What about babies born after the rain started? Did anybody get on or build boats of their own? How would I feel and what would I do if I knew that the world was truly ending? What would I tell my sons then? These thoughts led to alternately humorous and deeply dark places.

I began telling people about my conversation with my sons and my subsequent musings and imaginings, and one of them made the comment that it “would make a great show for the Fringe Festival.” As I’ve written about it in recent months, improv comedy is something that has become important to me, but I’d not considered the possibility of creating a show of my own. I looked into it and learned that the Orlando Fringe has a lottery process for its shows. That’s it. A lottery and nothing else. No curation. You sink or swim if you get in.

I recalled the year I’d ran my first marathon in New York City. I’d caught a flu that knocked me out of commission for a few weeks. I had been training in jiu-jitsu at the time, and when I went back into the dojo and it came time for grappling, I felt like I got tossed around like a rag doll by guys I was tossing around myself a few weeks earlier. I was distraught about it and decided to add one- to three-mile runs into my weekly routine to recover and improve my conditioning. Ludicrously, at some point I decided I would enter the lottery process for getting into the marathon. I had never run much before, and had been at it for only about a month or so. I got in.

Flyer for the show, by Lynde Schmidt.
I took it as a sign to train for it, with the internal understanding that I could stop running and drop out at any time. But as the race drew nearer, I knew I had to go for it. I don’t regret it. Running a marathon (I ran twice in New York City and once in Chicago) was a powerful, memorable experience, and the first one especially felt like a trauma and a triumph at the same time. Much like going to church, there is pageantry and drama, and a strong sense of community amongst marathoners.

What drove me to enter the lottery for the NYC Marathon was the thought that I would benefit from being in over my head. I didn’t know if I could do it, but wanted to prove to myself that I could. Entering the Fringe lottery felt the same way and had the same result. I got in. I took it as a sign. I’m preparing for it. I’m stretching in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I’m writing sketches. I’m writing lyrics. I found other performers whom I have to direct.

The cast includes Joe Llorens, one of my trusted buddies with whom I went through some of Sak Comedy Lab’s improv and stand-up classes; Lynde Schmidt, a great young actor that I met in Art Sake Studio’s Film I/Meisner acting class; and Christie Johnson, an acting and dancing talent I discovered through Fringe’s Unified audition process.

Two months ago in this column, I wrote about one of improv’s time-honored principles, namely the concept of “yes, and.” “Yes, and” demands that an improviser treat whatever their scene partner does or says as an offering that must be accepted as part of the reality of the scene. The improviser then builds upon the offer with their own contribution, and so on. Biblical Fan Fiction is essentially an extended “yes, and” to selected Bible stories. What that means is that we accept selected stories as true, namely Elisha and the Bears, John the Baptist, and Noah and the Ark. Using sketch comedy, improv, video, children’s art, and music, we tell the stories, embrace anachronisms, fill in some blanks along the way, and answer some questions the Bible doesn’t, like: Is God bald? Where do babies come from? How good does a dance have to be to get someone’s head chopped off? Was Noah the only guy with a boat? Why are there no unicorns?

Salome dancing at Herod’s Birthday party. Drawing by Miles Griffin.

When it’s done well, improv doesn’t always necessarily result in laughter. Sometimes a scene unfolds from a “yes, and” and leads to an unexpected place. While imagining an interview between Noah and an animal candidate for admission to the Ark will naturally lend itself to humor, imagining a parent building a boat to save his children from certain death might lead to something more profound. The lyrics for a song I’m working on for the show try to grapple with some of these questions I would certainly be dealing with as a father

Our world is ending soon my child.
For all my sins and heresy,
All the years that I ran wild,
The ground is giving way beneath us.
I’m sorry.

The cost is far too high, my son,
And I can’t let you pay it
When I’m the guilty one.
The tides are rising all around us.
I’m sorry.

Hush my little angel, don’t you cry.
I know what you are thinking,
but this doesn’t mean goodbye.
I’ll do anything for you,
Anything, for you.
My very last breath,
I’d give that to you too.
I’ll build you a boat
Watch as you float
Away, away, away.

Imagine all this falling rain
Isn’t the flood it seems to be;
But a love so overwhelming
That it rocks the world and swells the seas.

My love is stronger than this pain.
Please go on and thrive for me.
Grow up and be a good man.
Live in love and harmony.

Long, long after I’ve left this place,
Even the memory of me
will remember your face.
That’s how much I love you.
That’s how much I love you.
That’s how much I love you.
Love you.
Love you.
Love you.

One of the primary differences between producing Biblical Fan Fiction and running a marathon is that I absolutely could not be doing this alone. I’m grateful to my cast and the people who have encouraged me along the way. I love being a part of the arts community in Orlando, and I hope you’ll come out like non-runners do for a race to encourage us and cheer us on. Give us the equivalent of orange slices or banana halves. I’m still scared, but facing the fear is part of improv, part of performing. Richard Bach said, “When you have come to the edge of all the light you have, and step into the darkness of the unknown, believe that one of two will happen to you: either you’ll find something solid to stand on or you’ll be taught how to fly!”

Performances of Biblical Fan Fiction at the Orlando Fringe Festival will take place in the Purple Venue on Wednesday, May 17 at 6:15pm; Saturday, May 20 at 1:30pm; Monday, May 22 at 8:45pm; Friday, May 26 at 7:00pm; and Saturday, May 27 at 11:15am. Tickets are $10.

Pre-Order tickets here.

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First Contact: Celebrating Women Who Compose – Originally published in Artborne Magazine

Composers Sharon Omens and Bethany Yucuis Borden appeared on my WPRK radio show, Zero Crossings on February 27, to discuss their March 7 concert event, Celebrating Women Who Compose, which took place at the Blue Bamboo Center For The Arts in Winter Park. A reprise of the concert was given on March 17 at Christ Church Unity. Presented by the Central Florida Composers Forum to mark Women’s History Month, the music was written entirely by women composers, most of whom live and work locally. Our conversation ranged from the Holocaust to virtual reality to the changing experience of women composers in a discipline with a sexist history. What follows is an excerpt from an hour-long conversation.

Charlie Griffin: Sharon, tell me about the concert.

Sharon Omens: I’m very excited about it. It’s basically a celebration of women composers. There are four composers who are local and other women composers from the past and present.

I have two pieces on the program. One is called “Whimsical Rhapsody,” for violin and piano. I will be playing the piano with a UCF violin student, Jordan Bicasan. And David Suarez is going to be playing a piece of mine for solo flute. It’s a piece I wrote for my dad, who died two years ago. It’s called “Redemption.” He was a survivor of the Holocaust, and he survived a lot of horrific events. He became a successful businessman and overcame a lot of adversity. I wanted to honor him with this piece. It has a mix of tonal music, but parts of it are very dissonant and intense, because he was an intense individual. It takes you on a journey of his life.

CG: What was that like, growing up with a father who had that experience as part of his psyche?

SO: He was a tough cookie. It was not easy. He was fearful and he was mistrustful. Rightfully so. He was a difficult man to get along with. There were times when he was very passionate and charismatic and present, and there were times when he was very difficult to be with and he would push people out of his life because he couldn’t deal with being close to people. As I got older, I made up my mind to make peace with him. Before he died, I spent quite a bit of time with him and just let him know all the things I was grateful for. We were able to make peace. We sang together the week before he died. I held his hand and we sang Jewish songs together and we both cried. It was a kind of a bond that we had—music. So, I felt very strongly that I wanted to honor him musically.

CG: How was music the nature of your bond?

SO: My father was very musical. He had a beautiful, operatic voice. He never trained it, but he loved to sing, and we used to harmonize. He had a beautiful voice and he was passionate about opera. He listened to La Boheme and Madame Butterfly all the time, and that was when he was able to let all his emotions out. He would sit on the couch with a big towel and cry. Music enabled him to access his emotions. It’s kind of why I got into music therapy as a career. I worked with the developmentally disabled for a while. Primarily, I took an interest in the elderly, and got involved with working with Alzheimer’s patients. Music was a way that they could come out of their shell. It would reconnect them to their childhoods or help them focus.

CG: What was the location where your father experienced the Holocaust?

SO: He has quite a story. He grew up in Warsaw, Poland. He grew up in the ghetto. There was a lot of anti-Semitism, and in 1939 when it really started getting bad, he escaped with his father in an illegal ship. After two months on a ship, they arrived in Palestine, and they got shot at and they had to swim to shore. About three months later, he got a letter from Warsaw that his family had been killed. His mother, his brother, his sister, and a hundred of his relatives. He had a huge family, and they were part of the Warsaw Resistance. A lot of them were hiding in cellars and died of typhoid. It tore my father apart.

CG: He had survivor’s guilt.

SO: Absolutely. In order to honor his family, he had to make something of his life. He was like a bull. So, I admired him, and yet he was so difficult at the same time.

CG: You’re the one left struggling to give him a pass on that stuff, right? You have to have the empathy and the compassion that recognizes what he went through, but that has to be hard, too. I can see that.

SO: My other two sisters, they just burned out. He actually died without saying goodbye to them. They just disowned each other. There was no forgiveness there.

CG: Have you been to Warsaw?

SO: I’ve never been to Warsaw. I’ve been to Israel. I went to high school there.

CG: I happened to be in Warsaw during the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising. There was a really powerful set of events and commemorations that were happening at the time. I don’t know if you know this—and this sounds a lot like your father’s stubbornness—but the Poles were determined to rebuild and restore Warsaw brick-by-brick by brick to its pre-war condition so that they effectively undid the damage done by the Nazis, and they were pretty close in 2004. I remember going to the museum there and looking at wartime maps of troop maneuvers, and you could easily see just how impossible their situation was. While I was there, there was this palpable Polish pride in having been resistant the entire time. And nearby, you look at Prague, it was completely untouched because they chose to not resist the Nazis at all. I got to have a conversation with a local, elderly Polish man who was there during the uprising. We were in a main square in the city, and I still get moved by retelling it. He pointed to a building across the street and said, “I watched a Canadian relief supply plane get shot down and explode right there.”

SO: My father actually wrote a book about the Warsaw ghetto and it’s fascinating.

CG: Bethany, how did you get involved with the concert?

Bethany Borden: I met Sharon through the Central Florida Composers Forum a few months ago. When I first joined the Central Florida Composers Forum, I realized very quickly how many different ways you can approach and compose music, and what a variety of talents and skills we have within that group. Sharon and I started working together to plan for this concert, and it’s really worked out because not only have we been working on this event, but we’ve managed to start making music together. We’ve collaborated on a spoken word and piano piece that we’ll do on both concerts, a recitation of a Maya Angelou poem called “Phenomenal Woman.” I got a degree in Music Education from UCF. I was a voice major who also played trumpet in the marching band and other ensembles. I taught music in OCPS for ten years. But in 2013-14, my husband and his friend created a game studio called Outhouse Games. We started with mobile games, and I wrote a piano piece for our first game, Stacker. And that reignited a spark in me that enjoyed creating music. I quit teaching in 2014 to start composing full time. For the concert, I’m presenting a percussion ensemble piece for a virtual reality game, and will include video from the game. I’m using vibraphone, marimba, glockenspiel, and tubular bells. I wanted to take my fundamental background with live instruments and bring that music and style to video games.

CG: Tell me more about Outhouse Games.

BB: Our first three games were mobile games, and what money we made really came from advertising, but the market got really saturated, so now we’re working with virtual reality. We’re working on a VR game, called Ancient Remains, that’s set in ancient Egypt. We have a team of five right now. We have two artists, a programmer, and my husband integrates audio and I write the music. The game is coming out very soon.

CG: A New York Times article from today said that “the popularity of Sony’s Playstation VR surprised even the company. Executives at Sony were cautious about the VR headsets, but after four months of robust sales, the skeptics are converting.” So, it looks like VR is really on the rise. I’m surprised it wasn’t developed faster than it was.

BB: There were some kinks to work out with things like the frame rate. People used to sometimes feel seasick, like when you move quickly, your eyes need to catch up with your brain or vice versa. That’s been eliminated. What we do is we teleport. You press a button and it shows an arc to where you’re going to go, and when you release the button you’re there. The technology has come a very long way in the last three to four years.

CG: Who else is involved with your concert?

SO: Composer and pianist Eric Brook is going to play a piece by Clara Schumann called “Praludium II.” Chan Ji Kim, who is a professor at the Eastern Florida State College, will present selections from a collection of short pieces based on children’s nighttime stories and lullabies, performed by soprano Sarah Cheatham. Soprano and pianist Julie Bateman will perform “Between Worlds” by Anne Marie Davis and “Winter’s Tear” by Jeannie Cotter. Local composer and pianist Rebekah Todia will present two songs: “She Walks In Beauty,” to a poem by Lord Byron, and “The Solitary,” to a poem by Madison J. Cawein. It’s a great program and we’re really proud of it.

For more information, please visit:

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First Contact: Chakra Khan – Originally published in Artborne Magazine

Alexandra Love Sarton and DiViNCi have long, overlapping musical histories here in Orlando. They both co-founded the hip-hop quartet Solillaquists of Sound, and more recently formed a duo working under the band name Chakra Khan. They appeared on my WPRK radio show, Zero Crossings, on February 6th, to discuss their upcoming album release, The Cope Aesthetic. What follows is an excerpt from a two-hour conversation.

Image provided by the artist.

Charlie Griffin: DiViNCi, you’re a producer and an MPC-ist. Some people may need an explanation of what that means.

DiViNCi: Basically, I play drum machines live. An MPC is a MIDI Production Center [MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface—the code protocol used to translate musical information from electronic instruments to computers]. I’ve been called a finger drummer or a controllerist. It’s got a lot of names because it’s a newer art.

It’s a series of pads into which you can load audio samples of any kind, with the additional capacity to run those samples through filters and reverbs, or otherwise process the samples in real time with all sorts of effects on them. And you can layer them, loop them, and create entire songs this way.

DiViNCi: Right, right. I can assign any sound I want to any pad. I can add in drum machines and guitar effects pedals too. It’s like a science experiment on stage. The same thing that I use to create all the music in the studio is the same thing that I bring on stage.

You’re self-taught. When it comes to music, there are only so many formal learning pathways, and they’re very traditional. There are only so many mechanisms available to a curious, creative mind interested in new technologies. The existing mold doesn’t fit everybody. I’m really fascinated by the trajectory that you wind up taking, where you have the passion, you have the desire, and you have a developing skill set, but there’s nobody there to guide your thinking.

DiViNCi: Which is a benefit, I think, because there are new molds to be made. I’m giving a talk at Full Sail University this month, for their Hall of Fame Week, about all the different careers that exist now because of all these different molds. I attribute my secure place in the industry to my unconventional musical upbringing.

In the beginning it can look like a completely foreign, scary territory, and at some point you turn around to look back and discover that you’ve carved something out for yourself.

DiViNCi: Luckily, I started when I was a kid. My ignorance was also a part of my musical upbringing. Because I was driven just purely by passion, with no working knowledge, it brought me to a place where I found my own voice. I grew up in a small town called Womelsdorf, in rural Pennsylvania. My mother was a caterer and a waitress. My father was in the National Guard and Army Reserves. Martial arts was the first thing I got passionate about, and it colors how I look at everything else I know. I pull a lot of things from my martial arts training into my music. I studied a few different martial arts. A lot of Okinawan Kempo. My father is Filipino, and the thing that stuck with me the most was Filipino martial arts, like stuff you’d see in The Bourne Identity. The Holy Grail of martial arts, as taught to me by my father, is the experience of being in flow. When you get a technique down well, you practice it so long it becomes reflexive. You don’t have to think about it. The greatest part of music to me is performing. And that’s where I found the greatest example of the flow in my art, where I don’t think, and things just happen spontaneously. I’m taken care of by something greater. I let the music come through me rather than try to control it.

Is it safe to say that there’s a certain physicality to how you approach the MPC, then? You build up a muscle memory around patterns?

DiViNCi: Right, right, right. It’s definitely all about physicality because the thing that stops flow is when you get in your head. And one of the easiest ways to get out of your head is to get into your body. And I find that both in martial arts and in music. When I’m sitting still and creating music in the studio, the sedentary nature of being at a computer lends itself to getting trapped in my head a lot more, and not really trusting that I don’t need to be in total control to create something that I like. I get to trust a bigger part of myself when I’m performing, because I’m actually trusting my body. It’s one of the reasons why I move so much on stage.

In order to be in that flow, there still must be a preparation phase as well. When you’re at the beginning of building up what will become your track, you must collect in your imagination a palette of sample options, timbres, and textures, and a sense of how they’re going to layer, work together, or contrast before you ever get to the live performance. What is that process like for you?

DiViNCi: It’s a different form of flow, I think. There’s much more of a dance between learning and practicing and playing around and experimenting. I have a ton of options these days. I get the question a lot, “How do you know when something’s done; how do you know when you’ve got the right sound?” For me, there’s a very physical reaction. Sometimes, if a song’s not done, like it’s 98% done, and I feel the 2% is missing, I’ll start to dislike the song. It annoys me. I keep working at it, that little 2%. And then I love it, when I find it.

How did Solillaquists of Sound, and more recently Chakra Khan, get formed?

DiViNCi: I came down here to study in Full Sail University’s Recording Arts degree program in 2000. Towards the end of my time at Full Sail, I was introduced to MC Swamburger, who knew Alexandra Love Sarton from Chicago. We started working together. He brought down Alex. Alex and I knocked an album out in a week. And we all hit it off. We formed Solillaquists of Sound along with my wife, Tonya Combs. We’ve all been living together since, for the last 15 years.

CG: (To Alex) How did you and MC Swamburger come together?

ALS: I went to Columbia College in Chicago to study film directing and editing. I met Swam there and we became good friends, and he heard me singing one day. He said, “Wait, why are you going to school for film? You should be singing.” I hadn’t really thought about it before. But he and I started making music before he moved back to Orlando because his parents were here. After he met DiViNCi and Tonya, they all came up to visit me in Chicago. They came on a Sunday, and by Wednesday I’d given away all my stuff to move down here. I hadn’t planned on doing music, but when he said it, it felt right.

CG: And you all live in a house together?

ALS: Yes, we live in a house together, which is great, because it’s a big enough house where we all have our own space, but then we can make music constantly. So it has been like a non-stop factory of creativity for over a decade.

CG: Here’s what I’ve picked up about you from knowing you at Sak Comedy Lab, but even more from your presence on Facebook: You seem devoted to creativity in every form that you can muster. You sell mandala and other types of coloring books; you have several musical groups that you belong to; you are very philosophical on Facebook and spiritually generous about it. The language of self-help is common on Facebook. But you have a higher signal-to-noise ratio than most. I wonder what kind of stuff you’ve studied to arrive at the things that you’ve said.

ALS: For me, it’s weird to talk about these things because it’s so easy to fall into cliché, and I’m hyper-aware of that possibility. I share authentically, and the BS factor is way down, or non-existent, because I don’t live in that place. I try to just use my own experience and the things I’ve learned from it. Moving from Chicago to Orlando and starting over, trying to be an entrepreneur, building something up in the music industry, going on tour in the country and then the world—there are a lot of lessons in all that.

CG: What stood out for you on tour?

ALS: A recent performance with Solillaquists was a festival on an island off the coast of Madagascar. France has an unlimited amount of creative, beautifully put together festivals. But I most love performing in natural, outdoor spaces.

CG: You just opened for Lauryn Hill. How did that come to pass?

ALS: DiViNCi’s been working with her for the past five years, so we got know her and her crew.

CG: What about your musical background? I imagine you’re doing the bulk, if not all, of the composing for the women’s vocal group you lead, Beautiful Chorus. Are you writing some of these songs for Chakra Khan too?

ALS: I played the violin for nine years. I grew up playing in an orchestra. I sometimes will write lyrics and a melody and give them to DiViNCi, or sometimes he will give me just a drum track, and I’ll create a symphony of voices over that. I write all the Beautiful Chorus stuff. We do full rhythmic songs; we do a cappella hymns; we do wordless waves of harmony with music; and we do mantras, which are, for lack of a better term, positive affirmations repeated in harmony.

CG: What’s the story with the newest Chakra Khan release, The Cope Aesthetic?

ALS: We’re releasing the album song by song. We’re releasing one on Valentine’s Day. And then a song every few weeks from there for two or three months, and then we’ll release it as an album and have a party.

DiViNCi: We just want people to follow the process, follow the website, and have an extended experience of the release instead of dropping it all at once. With all the projects we do, we want to include people in the process as much as possible.

ALS: I’ll be making music videos for many of the songs. And artwork for the album. For the cover, we’re going to work with geometry. It’s about looking at our lives like, this plus this is creating this reality for me, so if I can change one of the two variables involved, then my trajectory is different. What it equals can change. The Cope Aesthetic is like looking at things differently, which to me always feels like geometry. Ever since growing up, I felt like there was an equation to life that we could implement that would help make it easier. And I feel like my life experience has been about uncovering what that means for myself.

Follow the release of The Cope Aesthetic at

First Contact: Chakra Khan – Originally published in Artborne Magazine Read More »

First Contact: Yes, and Dave Gibbs – Originally published in Artborne Magazine

Improv comedy is alive and well in Orlando, and it’s as fascinating a world on the inside as it might seem from the outside. I caught the improv bug about two years ago, following a whim instigated by a coworker who was going to try one of Sak Comedy Lab’s free trial improv classes in downtown Orlando. Back in New York, more than a decade ago, I’d been on a couple of dates with a woman who animatedly swore by the power of improv. Although I can’t remember her name, her love of improv somehow was registered permanently within me as something worth trying.

Amy Poehler told Charlie Rose that, “Improv turns me on, because it’s truly dangerous. It’s an alchemy. It’s dependent on the other, on listening actively and taking risks and chances.” It’s also a tool for unfiltered self-expression—for being accepting, present, and spontaneous—and for mental flexibility. It’s not for everyone. It can be a helluva lot of fun. And it can be rough. To clarify the distinction between improv comedy and standup comedy: improv is a form of theater where most or all of what happens on stage unfolds collaboratively in real time between the scene partners, without a script or prepared dialogue. Short-form improv usually overlays a game of sorts over the improvisation, while long-form improv usually creates strings of short scenes that are somehow linked by interrelated themes, characters, or stories. Most improv scenes take a suggestion from the audience to inspire the start of it.

Sak Comedy Lab has become a powerful regional force for quality improv comedy. They offer six levels of classes that fill regularly. There are two levels of advanced, non-professional performing ensembles. They additionally offer workshops and public performance opportunities for aspiring improvisers such as the Rookie Rumble series and The Brawl for All. Many smaller improv teams have formed in recent years after going through Sak’s classes, and are successfully performing at improv festivals throughout the Southeast. The pro ensemble also does special corporate performances.

Improv workshops and seminars have become a frequent feature in corporate training and development since the 1990s. Corporations often want their employees to embrace at least one of improv’s time-honored principles, namely the concept of “yes, and.” “Yes, and” demands that an improviser treats whatever their scene partner does or says as an offering that must be accepted as part of the reality of the scene. The improviser then builds upon the offer with their own contribution, and so on. As Forbes magazine puts it, “These skills turn out to be particularly useful in workplaces that rely on adaptability.”

A wonderful feature of the pro-ensemble performances at Sak shows and on many of their corporate run-outs is that there is almost always another performer off-stage, unseen but definitely heard. Sak utilizes a bevy of improvising pianists: Kristin Eley, Dave Gibbs, Chris Leavy, Steve Merritt, Anthony Riley, and Tim Turner.

Dave Gibbs, photo by Jason Fronczek
I spoke with Dave Gibbs, who has been playing piano with Sak for almost 15 years. He began formal piano training at age six, and was classically trained for 11 years. He almost finished college with studies in chemistry and microbiology, working towards a pre-med degree, but music kept luring him back to its path. Not only a pianist, Gibbs is also a talented vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter. Just like improv, music careers are often built on “yes, and.” We say yes to everything. Sometimes too many things. Gibbs joined or fronted bands that sometimes got close to that elusive combination of synergy and timing that allows for an emergence onto a broader-than-local stage. One band, Alter Ego, had some regional play. Another, Canvas, almost got signed. Gibbs also worked at Sam Ash and Mars, demonstrating and selling keyboards and related technology. He started a career teaching music theory, songwriting, and project development at Full Sail University, where he still is teaching today. At some point in there, Gibbs said “yes, and” to Sak and added that to the mix, too.

A work-mate from Mars Music, John Wagner, who was playing piano for Sak at the time, invited Gibbs to a performance. Gibbs thought, “It looked like fun. I watched a few shows and I just started doing it, working in the Lab. I did that for a few years pretty regularly, on the weekends. It was a steady income.”

What drew him to it was the sense of fun, but he also discovered aspects of his musical self in the process. “Because of my range and classical training, I discovered I could apply a film score to something instantaneously. I always felt that whenever I watched anything or composed anything, I could move emotion around musically, almost instantly, innately. Some musicians really like to know in advance what they’re going to be playing, but I really like playing off the cuff. I really like improvising.”

Even though it’s happening nearly instantaneously, there’s still a process underneath. “You have a filing cabinet, a bag of tricks that you’re used to. I know how to make something sound like depression, or joy, or French, or this or that. I’ve got all these little tricks. I’ve gathered them over the years, and if you know music theory, you can remember it, because you understand what makes up the [intended] musical language.”

One of the things that sets Sak apart from many other improv troupes is just how often on-the-spot songs are improvised by the actors. “With songwriting, you learn how to guide them through the songs that they make up. You know what a chorus is. You know what kind of chords to use. You know the places in the scale you want be. And how to raise the tension and release it, because that’s all it really is in the end: tension and resolution.”

Gibbs loves the behind-the-scenes aspect of performing with the actors. “One of the most beautiful things about it is you’re not the center of attention. I get to be something else. It’s not me on stage playing for a crowd.” Since he has been doing this for so long and has become so familiar with the language of improv, Gibbs gets to be another actor. Which means that he gets to make offers to the actors. “I really try to support them. To make the jokes that much better. I play like an actor. When they’re doing a Forward-Reverse scene, I’ll play what I just played backwards whenever they need to go backwards. If they slow down, I’ll move down in register. I remember because they have to remember, too. They taught me so much about music, about not overdoing it. To create space. To get to the heart of it.”

What Gibbs has gotten from playing improv sounds a lot like what my date in New York got from it, and what I myself have gotten from it: “It not only changed my sense of humor, but it’s elevated my conversational skills. And my teaching! I listen. I’m more accepting. Being silly and free is really cleansing. To let go and have that trust, and to find laughter in it is really illuminating. Every musician should experience a role like this. There is no sheet music. You’re not the center of attention. You’re improvising, but not soloing. It’s a musical place that every musician should get to try.”

Gibb’s most recent original music project was the band The Deep Field Now, a creative future-rock sound collaboration. More currently, he is concentrating on writing solo singer-songwriting music for guitar and piano, and writing music for a new project called The Peace Lounge. A new rock band is also in development. You can hear some of his work with The Deep Field Now at

You can see more at:

First Contact: Yes, and Dave Gibbs – Originally published in Artborne Magazine Read More »

First Contact: Voices of Light – Originally published in Artborne Magazine

Founded at Rollins College in 1935, the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park is the oldest continuously operating arts organization in Central Florida. Led by artistic director and conductor John Sinclair since 1990, the Bach Festival Society has forged a reputation as a mainstay of our cultural calendar and a pillar of the arts community. That reputation rests in part on the formidable forces brought to bear: with a full-sized professional orchestra and a more than 150-voice auditioned volunteer choir, Sinclair is able to lead the group through live performances of massive works that are themselves considered mainstays of the historical repertoire, such as Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Brahms’ German Requiem or Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.

Bach Festival performance, photo by Jason Fronczek

Alongside the Bach Festival’s longstanding commitment to devote its resources to these large-scale masterpieces is their commitment to honor the new. On November 18 and 19, the Bach Festival presented Voices of Light, a large-scale multimedia work conceived by composer Richard Einhorn in 1994. Voices of Light merges Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc with a live performance of Einhorn’s original music for orchestra, chorus, and soloists.

By itself, the film has a fascinating history. Based on the actual transcript of the trial of Joan of Arc, and starring Renée Jeanne Falconetti, the film depicts her captivity, trial, and execution in England. Henry Maldonado, The Enzian Theater’s president and collaborator with the Bach Festival for the event, says that we “watch these classics in the present. Great films stand on their own. We don’t need to make allowances for them.”

What Maldonado means about the power of classic films when viewed in the present, is that a classic film’s direction and treatment of themes allow viewers to identify sympathetically with the film’s characters, and within that identification, to recognize our own humanity. The Passion of Joan of Arc thematizes feminine power in the face of patriarchal oppression and persecution; individual power vs. institutional authority; and personal beliefs versus doctrine. The film is intense, with a focus on Joan of Arc’s experience: her courage, her doubts, and her renewed resolve in the face of mounting pressure are all presented in often extreme, close-up detail. The authorities scan like living portrait paintings—wrinkled, grey, and imperious. The film is, at times, uncomfortable to watch, with its passionate foreground hyperrealism set against a background deliberately skewed to be expressionistic and off-putting. The added fact that Voices of Light was performed in the The Knowles Memorial Chapel at Rollins College created a setting conducive to viewing the film in the present.

Bach Festival performance, photo by Jason Fronczek

John Sinclair has made a regular habit of presenting works by living composers out of personal interest and a sense of obligation to the historical role that conductors often play as facilitators of new masterpieces. “I’ve always felt that an organization like the Bach Festival should also do new pieces. Bach’s music was also once new. Bach would feel the same way.” Sinclair loves “the challenge of being the first interpreter, along with the potential to affect performance practice. I get to participate in the spirit of creative composition.”

Einhorn’s music indeed afforded Sinclair an opportunity to participate creatively. For example, the opening chant melody is unassigned by the composer in terms of who sings it. Einhorn chose to leave that to the discretion of whomever is performing the work. Sinclair chose to treat it as a candle-lit processional sung by college women from Rollins, as a subtle thematic tie-in that primes us to make the connection between the film’s depiction of the oppression of women and the continued persistence of the issue in contemporary society.

There are also unusual challenges for the conductor. The film is a fixed entity that will not change in terms of its timing. In Hollywood, a film score is typically the final audio element added to a film, after the dialogue, foley, and additional effects are finalized. When a film score is recorded, there is a tempo-based click track that the conductor can follow over headphones so that the timing of the music lands precisely with the intended hit-points. To aid this process, SMPTE (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers) time-code is stamped onto contemporary films to aid with synchronization of all audio elements. Sinclair didn’t have the benefit of SMPTE time-code or a click track. It was no easy task, but he feels that it enhanced his appreciation of the film because he had to identify for himself where he thought the hit-points should be, choosing things like “left foot hits tile,” or “kind monk nods.” It meant behaving as though he was an accompanist to the film, manually speeding up or slowing down his massive ensemble to adjust for the demands of both the music and the film in real time.

Bach Festival performance, photo by Jason Fronczek
The success of Voices of Light is representative of a trend. Other recent, well-received Bach Festival Society concerts have also featured contemporary works. Paul Moravec’s Music, Awake! was commissioned by the Bach Festival Society to celebrate John Sinclair’s 25 years as Music Director in 2015. In 2014, an evening was devoted to the music of Morten Lauridsen, including his O Magnum Mysterium and Lux Aeterna. The Lauridsen concert also represented another collaboration with The Enzian, who screened a documentary film about the composer called Shining Night. These events have typically included appearances by the composers themselves for panel discussions and other events and classes that benefit audiences and students.

Especially exciting is John Sinclair’s renewed commitment, starting in 2017, to presenting not just contemporary works, but new works by composers living right here in Central Florida. Sinclair states that “the success that we had with the Lauridsen concert helped pique the interest of the local audience. It helped break down stereotypes about new art. This is going to allow an ongoing flow of this, on a bigger scale. Maybe it can lead to a whole evening of new, local work.”

In the 2017-18 season we will hear Dan Crozier’s new double clarinet concerto, and starting in 2018-19, with the cooperation of the Central Florida Composers Forum, at least one new choral work by a local composer will be presented annually.

Commitments like this to nurturing local artists at the grassroots level make Orlando an increasingly exciting and promising cultural scene.

The Bach Festival Society;
The Enzian Theater;
Richard Einhorn;
Voices of Light was made possible by Gladdening Light, an organization whose mission “is to explore transcendent elements of art through hosted conferences, exhibits & public performance, cloistered retreat, and pilgrimage.”

First Contact: Voices of Light – Originally published in Artborne Magazine Read More »

First Contact: Keeping Time – Originally published in Artborne Magazine

It’s Tuesday night at Orlando’s Marks Street Senior Recreation Center, and a small but enthusiastic collection of seniors are here to dance. At 7pm, nine couples are already on the dance floor and ready to go. The hall is dimly lit, with six of the nine ceiling fans illuminated and spinning above. There sits a thin, wooden platform overlaid on standard vinyl tile, which is flanked on three sides by large, unadorned banquet tables capable of accommodating five or six couples each.

Tony Pizzurro on trumpet, photo by Jason Fronczek

On the fourth side of the dance floor is Trumpet Blues: an 11–piece band founded over 25 years ago by trumpeter and now-retired mechanical engineer, Tony Pizzurro. The musicians come at this from many angles: for some of them this is the only public music-making they do all week because of non-musical day jobs, while for others it’s one fun gig amongst many.

The other trumpeter is Eric Wright, an Adjunct Professor of Humanities and History at Valencia College. John Babb, the baritone saxophonist, works for Charles Schwab and is also a real estate developer. I knew Melissa Davis as a yoga instructor at Warrior One on Corrine Drive in Audubon Park before I learned she plays second alto saxophone in the group. The singer, Barbara Jones, is an executive assistant at The Wyndham. Kurt Sterling, on tenor saxophone, does instrument repair and makes mouthpieces. They blend in seamlessly with the working musicians: the lead alto saxophonist Gerald Retner, bassist Larry Jacoby, trombonist Will Rogers, drummer Bill Cole, and Howard Herman—the pianist, composer, and frequent arranger for the band.

Herman has created over a dozen arrangements for Trumpet Blues, including some original compositions. His contributions complement the more than two hundred songs the band has ready to go at any given moment. Meringues, rumbas, sambas, cha-chas, tangos, and foxtrots make up the majority of tunes requested of the band. Pizzurro consults with Jones and calls out tunes by their number so the musicians can locate them easily in their thick binders of sheet music, and the dancers come so regularly that they have some of the tune numbers memorized themselves. Most of the songs are understandably on the moderately paced side.

I see grace, dignity, and playfulness as couples revolve past each other, occasionally offering greetings to each other as they rotate past. I engage a few couples in conversation as they take small breaks, with a lot of repeating ourselves to be heard over the band.

93 years old and still incredibly spry, John Ticen and his wife Clarice have been coming to Marks Street for 20 years. Joe grew up loving planes during the Great Depression in Indiana and served as a pilot in the Air Force, flying patrol and interception missions in Panama during World War II. Using the GI Bill after the war, Joe became an engineer and moved to Florida in 1957 to work for Martin, which would eventually become Lockheed Martin. He’d wanted to be a pilot his whole life, but the timing was wrong for him to become a commercial pilot. By the time that would have become a possibility, he was already an engineer with a family. He started dancing lessons in 1972, and found that he “enjoyed the hell out of that.”

Faye Novick and Maurice Salamy, photo by Jason Fronczek

One of the dancers makes a request for Herman’s arrangement of “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?”

Joe and Lucy Birkemeier travel weekly to Orlando from Ocoee. The couple has been coming to Marks Street for upwards of fifteen years, when the band playing was smaller, and the dancers were far greater in number. Joe had done competitive dancing in a Balkan folk dance group in his youth in Ohio. The Birkemeiers are 87 and 85 years old, respectively, and an observation shared by them and other couples is that the reduction in dancers is for obvious reasons: they are aging and dying, which is impossible not to notice because there are fewer and fewer younger people taking up ballroom dancing.

But there is one younger couple dancing amongst the seniors. With a buoyant, irrepressible energy, JoHelen Breen-Skinner, “Jo! Helen! With an haitch! No space!”, is an Irish-born bundle of energy in a fedora and short dress with a machine-gun speech pattern reminiscent of a 1920s flapper girl. She is there with her new dancing partner, Dancin’ Dan, a dance instructor here in Orlando. They are joyful on the dance floor, with the confidence of experience and talent, but they clearly also take care not to show up their floormates. They’re respectful regulars, and JoHelen knows many of the couples there. She suggests I talk to another couple who has a truly remarkable story, and who visually stood out to me, too, because they seem about forty years apart in age.

The band starts the slow introduction to their arrangement of Irene Cara’s “What a Feeling” from Flashdance—the fastest piece of the night so far. Lucy Birkemeier dances Joe along a path to where I am sitting with JoHelen and Dancin’ Dan. She leans close to me with a conspiratorial twinkle in her eye, and whispers a warning, “Watch what’s going to happen next!” I disappoint her a little by informing her that I know that the song is going to pick up speed, and feel a twinge of guilt at unintentionally robbing her of successfully surprising the newcomer. The floor is a little emptier, but the remaining dancers handle the tempo with panache. Handkerchiefs emerge at the end to mop sweat from brows.

Photo by Jason Fronczek

I make my way to the opposite side of the hall to discover the story of the couple that JoHelen and others suggested. It’s a story more touching, poignant, and lovely than I ever would have guessed. Maurice Salamy met Sally, “the most beautiful woman [he’d] ever seen,” when he popped up on the street level from a New York City subway during Fleet Week in 1947, and immediately asked her to go dancing. A single mother of two girls, Sally tried to put him off, but he was persistent. She relented on the condition that of the dance halls nearby, he take her to “the expensive one.” Fast forward through 64 years of married life, parenthood, and dancing to the year 2011. Sally was now ready to celebrate her 100th birthday. And because they’d never had an official wedding ceremony, they made a double party of it by having a vow renewal ceremony at their synagogue. Faye Novick, a local event planner, handled the details for the occasion. Three years later, at 103, Sally passed away, leaving behind several children and a lifetime of happy memories for Maurice, twelve years her junior. Faye Novick had been deeply moved by Maurice and Sally’s romantic story. After Sally’s passing, she committed herself to start the process of learning ballroom dancing so that Maurice would continue to have a dance partner. It is Faye—elegant, graceful, and smiling—who Maurice now twirls, cradles, and steps with.

What happens on Tuesday nights at the Marks Street Senior Recreation Center is a small slice of magic. It’s not Disney magic. Nothing flashy or fancy or loud or attention-grabbing. It’s small, unassuming, joyful, sweaty, human magic. There’s music, dancing, love, camaraderie, and stories. So many stories. For $5, it’s open to the public.

You can see more at:

First Contact: Keeping Time – Originally published in Artborne Magazine Read More »

First Contact: Infamous & Twin – Originally published in Artborne Magazine

I’ve been teaching music composition at Full Sail University in Winter Park since the summer of 2010, when they launched their Bachelor of Science in Music Production (MPBS) online degree program. I was the third hire into the degree program, and had some voice in shaping the early curriculum. I saw MPBS’s rapid early expansion become the largest degree program offered, which was then followed by an eventual contraction to something more modest and efficient. Along with this diminution came countless refinements and adjustments to the curriculum—instigated, likely, in equal measure by both the upper administration and the faculty on-the-ground.

It was a fascinating, pedagogical challenge to teach music courses online—one that I feel we rose to meet quite well. It took adjustments in how we think about communicating through video, the written word, and virtual classrooms, but we were innovative, and shared strategies and discoveries with each other.

Having taught in traditional, brick-and-mortar educational environments for many years, one casualty of switching to teaching online—along with Full Sail’s structural model, where classes are always four weeks long—was a sense of staying with students long enough to form lasting impressions. It does happen occasionally, either because a student is, undeniably, so talented that I have to take notice, or their personal story is shared in such a way as to forge a connection. Still, even when that happens, there’s always a new month and a new cohort just around the corner, and it becomes painfully easy to forget a name or a face, or both.

That began to change when Full Sail elected to launch a parallel, on-campus program in early 2014. However, because the students progress through a specifically designed track of courses in a specific order, I didn’t start seeing students in the campus course until September 2015.

It’s a lot easier in the face-to-face, concentrated atmosphere (up to six hours in a day) of Full Sail’s campus classes to get to know the stories and personalities of the composers in my classroom each month. Students come from everywhere and from every background: Brazil, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Mexico, Switzerland, and all over the U.S. The numerous ex-military students are almost always colorful characters and models of respect and discipline. Others are boisterous and practically uncontainable, funny and enthusiastic, or introverted and so quiet I have to strain to hear their replies. I’ve learned to never assume what a student is interested in based on their looks or heritage, and talent is the same way.

One huge talent that grabbed my attention recently is Mike Capps, a 27 year old rapper and producer from Little Rock, Arkansas who goes by the professional name Infamous—inspired by an action-adventure video game of the same name, whose protagonist, Cole MacGrath, starts as a bike messenger and soon gains comic book style, electricity-based superpowers in an explosion.

Capps came to Full Sail out of frustration, boredom, and restlessness, with the support and encouragement of his twin brother, Colton. Neither brother stuck with college. They worked numerous jobs: lifeguarding, fast food, jewelry sales, retail, life insurance, waiting tables, and more. With a population of less than 200,000, Little Rock, for the Capps brothers, had a cloying, small town feel, where, according to Infamous, “Everyone’s stuck. No one thinks big. No passion. They all serve. I was in a Little Rock rut. I used to drink a lot. [I thought] there had to be more than what I was doing. I sold my car and left.”

It’s kind of hard to have this conversation
Staring out the window, watch it catching condensation
I tend to find, I lose my mind, in the compilations of the constellations
Stay true and you’ll make it if you got the patience,
When surrounded by the fakest like in the Matrix, please heaven don’t forsake us
When some of us are just anxious for the pay cuts, please show me a way
I pray, ‘cause the, world we know today can make or break us
It can shape us, and change us, that’s why I been writing my pain
In these pages for ages, releasing anger that rages
Tired of not going places, ‘cause of minimum wages
I’m so tired of waking up and realizing, I’m late on my payments
Then my sweat hits the pavement
Wake up, the only way to believe, there’s an American Dream is to remain asleep
Wake up, we need to wake up from the American Dream
Wake up, we need to wake up from America’s Scheme

Infamous (left) and Twin (right) in the studio, photo by Mariana Mora

But Infamous didn’t leave Little Rock alone. Colton came too. They have that special bond unique to twins—so special that it’s a blessing and a curse. Their bond interferes with their outside relationships, and, as often happens, the first born twin takes on a dominant, almost parental role. Colton Capps sees in his brother the same possibility inherent in Cole’s character in the video game. He feels that, like Cole, Infamous will follow a similar path from the mundane to the miraculous.

He’s right that Infamous has serious chops. Back in high school in Little Rock, he flexed his writing and performance muscles with his friend, Zac Overton. In their spare time, they would take turns throwing out verses memorized by their favorite artists, and challenge each other to guess whose material it was. Then, they took it a step further. They began to try to trip each other up by throwing in original material to see if they could fool the other into guessing a big name artist. Infamous still collaborates occasionally with Overton, who goes by the name OV.

Infamous lists several artists as inspirations: Eminem, Bob Dylan, Dr. Dre, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Yela Wolf, Rittz, and Kendrick Lamar, but it’s the influence of Eminem that jumps out at me. What Infamous has assimilated from Eminem is twofold: musically, what Eminem does spectacularly well is a choreographed dance between syllabic accent and metrical accent. Most of the time, hip-hop or rap is in what’s called “common time,” with four main pulses per bar that can each be subdivided, with the first pulse receiving extra emphasis relative to the others. That emphasis is called the “downbeat.” Like a parking meter ticking off time, that emphasized downbeat pulse is a regularly repeating, predictable event. Early hip-hop tied the speech rhythm of the lyrics to that downbeat so that the syllabic accent of keywords always landed on the downbeat. But that approach eventually freed up as artists became more rhythmically sophisticated and realized that the interplay of those elements is more interesting and dynamic than their rigid coordination. Eminem floats syllabic accent so that it skips around to different parts of the bar, doubling, tripling or even quadrupling rhymes or assonances. The downbeat acts like a center of gravity, and the speech rhythms now play with their changeable proximity to that center. Infamous does this too, and also raps with more than one persona, like Eminem. Infamous often delivers his choruses like a lazy stoner who somehow manages to stay in time and in tune, while his verses have an aggressive, spontaneous, and rhythmic vitality.

Infamous has been honing his skills for twelve years and, at the age of 27, he has a catalogue of over 200 songs. Despite his prolific tenaciousness, he suffers from regular bouts of anxiety, mitigated by marijuana use (the stoner persona didn’t come from nowhere), intense writing sessions, and his brother’s vigilant and unwavering support. Colton currently raps with his brother under the name Twin, but they are already looking to refine their work as a duo now, beginning to explore the theme of Jekyll and Hyde as personas for each of them, which certainly sounds like fertile ground for twins. Capps will graduate from Full Sail University in February 2017, and if his brother has the influence and sway that he hopes to have, Infamous will be emulated by some high school kid somewhere someday, looking to make sense of his surroundings and yearning for something more.

Infamous made a Soundcloud playlist to accompany this article at:

You can see more at:

First Contact: Infamous & Twin – Originally published in Artborne Magazine Read More »

First Contact: Opera Orlando’s Vincent Connor – Originally published in Artborne Magazine

Vincent Connor, the new General Director of Opera Orlando, appeared on my WPRK radio show, Zero Crossings, to talk about Opera Orlando, their One Voice Orlando concert on September 11, and Opera Orlando’s upcoming season. What follows is an excerpt from a two-hour conversation.

Charlie Griffin: You’re the General Director of Opera Orlando, and it’s a bit of a phoenix story. Tell me about the genesis of the newest incarnation of opera in Orlando.

Vincent Connor: Yes. Yes! We rose from the ashes! Opera is very dear to my heart. I grew up here, in Winter Park, and came back here after twelve years. I grew up with Orlando Opera, which was the prominent opera company at the time, and saw magnificent productions there. They did more traditional opera. I can arguably say that the reason I went into opera was because of Orlando Opera. They closed in 2009 during the recession. In its place grew up the Florida Opera Theater, which had been growing by about 20% every year. Some of the board members reached out to me, because they had been following my career and knew that I was from here. I had been directing and singing opera and they contacted me about this opportunity.

So they actively recruited you. That must feel good.

Yeah! It’s always great to be able to go back where home is. So many directors and singers and professors of opera never get the chance to work where they grew up. To come home was like dream come true, after I’d been performing all over the world.

Where had you gone during those twelve years?

I went to Florida State University in Tallahassee for my undergrad and got my master’s degree at the University of Arizona. I loved the desert landscape, I loved the heat, I loved everything about Arizona. I was there for three years. I started focusing on directing as well as singing. Knowing that the life of a singer was a tough one, I wanted to get educated in two realms.

Is there not a benefit to be a male singer, though? There’s a lot less competition.

Yes, there is. It doesn’t take away how hard the lifestyle is, though. The formula is scary—there are about ten women auditioning for every one male at Opera Orlando. It’s a tough business.

Going on, where were you when the board members from Florida Opera Theater recruited you?

After Arizona, I went to the University of Missouri at Kansas City for my doctorate. After I finished my coursework, I moved to Philadelphia to teach voice and opera at the University of Delaware. It was while I was in Philly that I got the phone call.

Vincent Connor interviews with Charlie Griffin’s Zero Crossings on WPRK, September 12, 2016. photo by Mariana Mora

Why do you think that Orlando Opera didn’t survive the recession?

From a business perspective, there were some poor administrative and fiscal decisions made, regarding their endowment. From an artistic standpoint, Orlando Opera had taken a more traditional approach, and it can be argued that they weren’t willing to change with the times. Opera America (a national service organization that supports opera and the musical arts internationally with education and awareness programs) is so wonderful. I just got back from a two-week seminar in New York. And Opera America is all about really learning your audience; what makes them tick. If you don’t do that research to see what excites them, invigorates them, then the organization will falter.

There has to be a certain amount of experimentation. You’re trying to strike a balance between multiple factors: educating versus pandering to versus alienating your audience. How do you find that pocket, and how was the seminar in New York trying to address dwindling audiences?

What I just went to in New York was called the Opera America Leadership Intensive Program. They identify young, aspiring administrators who want to make a difference. There were people from Sweden, London, Vancouver, Houston, San Francisco. It was such an honor to be chosen to participate because Opera Orlando is such a small company compared to the rest. But what I learned is that it’s about balance. We can’t just aim at one demographic or one type of opera production. It’s hard to find, because so much of this relies on subjective taste. In the main, though, the seminar was about governance, fiscal responsibility, board management, storytelling, and public speaking.

Gabriel Preisser, Opera Orlando’s Artistic Director, is also a singer. How common is it for the main administrators at an opera company to also be singers?

It’s actually not very common. We’re trying to lay a foundation for the future, and so we are both taking active roles in performance and direction. But it won’t go on indefinitely.

Going back to my initial question about its rebirth, why is Opera Orlando popping up now? You stated earlier that the recession was a factor for Orlando Opera’s demise. Is it because the recession is over? If so, how vulnerable is the organization to a fresh economic downturn?

You know, in the arts you really have to take calculated risks. And I felt like, with the rebranding of Florida Opera Theater into Opera Orlando, it was time, because all the variables were in place. It had been ten years since Orlando Opera had closed; Florida Opera Theater was doing really well and there was growth there. And, I was at a place in my career where I could really afford to take a chance, and I felt this calling, like I really needed to do this.

Inaugural event of Opera Orlando, photo by Kenn Stamp

Speaking of a calling, talk about One Voice Orlando and the performance on September 11.

I actually moved back here the week of the Pulse shootings. It wasn’t quite the homecoming I expected. Opera Orlando’s email inbox was just exploding. Singers from everywhere, directors, and conductors were all asking what they could do to help. And we did immediately respond—we were part of Beautiful Together, and we organized a benefit with singers at a church and raised $4000 for the OneOrlando Fund. We wanted to do more, and identified six charities that we really wanted to help, who have done amazing things since the Pulse tragedy. Those are Orlando Health’s Level One Trauma Center; the first responders, doctors and nurses. They did so much and their resources are just depleted. The Zebra Coalition, a wonderful organization that is geared toward helping underprivileged gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens. The Orlando LGBTQ Community Center has been huge since the tragedy and they’ve done so much. Interfaith Council of Central Florida and the Holocaust Center’s UpStanders: Stand Up to Bullying Initiative both really spoke to us. And one of the organizations I’m really proud of is Proyecto Somos Orlando, which is a hispanic organization that has done amazing things in the community. A high percentage of those who were killed wasn’t only LGBTQ but also Hispanic. They were on the forefront of the tragedy and they realized that Spanish wasn’t being spoken, and some survivors and victims’ families needed translators. They also offered counseling and legal services—whatever was needed. We were inspired by them.

Let’s continue with the idea of experimentation and risk-taking. Mr. Preisser has participated in a lot of contemporary opera, works by Kevin Puts, Tobias Picker, Ricky Ian Gordon, Daron Hagen, Mark Adamo, and Dominick Argento. Is there a possibility of new work being done here?

Both Gabe and I are really passionate about new work and we both believe that to make opera relevant, we have to focus on what’s happening here and now. So many opera companies are geared towards producing new work, and that is absolutely on our docket. But it’s also often expensive and we need to have the finances in place to make that happen.

What we’ve decided to do for our first season is Donizetti’s Don Pasquale on November 18th and 20th, a comedic tale, directed by me, about an old bachelor who refuses to get married; Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors on December 11th through the 20th, which is sort of our Christmas tale, directed by Eric Pinder; and Mozart’s Don Giovanni on March 24th-26th. We’re going traditional with Don Pasquale, family oriented with Amahl, and “high concept” with Don Giovanni.

Have you mapped out multiple years of activity?

Yes, but I can’t talk about it yet. I can tell you that we want to be really active in things like the Fringe Festival. We’re interested in adaptation, like Peter Brook’s adaptation of Bizet’s Carmen, which cuts the opera down to 90 minutes but retains its compositional integrity. We’re also interested in playing site-specific works in unconventional spaces, like doing Le Nozze di Figaro in a mansion because that’s where the opera is set. I love “high concept” treatments of opera—our current season’s Don Giovanni is the story of Don Juan, the old Spanish tale, and we’re going to have it take place on a college campus. So, we’re going hit a few hard issues: we’re going to talk about date rape and womanizing. We’re trying to take social stereotypes and tell the story in a completely different way.

You can see more at:

First Contact: Opera Orlando’s Vincent Connor – Originally published in Artborne Magazine Read More »

First Contact: Death, Love, and the Creative Impulse – Originally published in Artborne Magazine

Stanley Almodovar III, 23 / Amanda Alvear, 25 / Oscar A Aracena-Montero, 26 / Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33 / Antonio Davon Brown, 29 / Darryl Roman Burt II, 29 / Angel L. Candelario-Padro, 28 / Juan Chevez-Martinez, 25 / Luis Daniel Conde, 39 / Cory James Connell, 21 / Tevin Eugene Crosby, 25 / Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32 / Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez, 31 / Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25 / Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26 / Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22 / Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22 / Paul Terrell Henry, 41 / Frank Hernandez, 27 / Miguel Angel Honorato, 30 / Javier Jorge-Reyes, 40 / Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19 / Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, 30 / Anthony Luis Laureanodisla, 25 / Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32 / Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21 / Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, 49 / Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez, 25 / Kimberly Morris, 37 / Akyra Monet Murray, 18 / Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, 20 / Geraldo A. Ortiz-Jimenez, 25 / Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36 / Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32 / Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35 / Enrique L. Rios, Jr., 25 / Jean C.Nives Rodriguez, 27 / Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, 35 / Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, 24 / Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan, 24 / Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34 / Shane Evan Tomlinson, 33 / Martin Benitez Torres, 33 / Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, 24 / Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37 / Luis S. Vielma, 22 / Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez, 50 / Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37 / Jerald Arthur Wright, 31

Rehearsal at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, July 25, 2016. photo by Jason Fronczek

Part of being human means that the aftermath of death and tragedy is almost always accompanied by bursts of sexual or creative activity. These affirmations of life, love, connection, and community are a show of strength to ourselves, reminding us that while death will inevitably come for us too, we are undeniably and powerfully still here. When the scope of death and tragedy is broader and more profound, so too is the creative impulse in response to it.

On June 12, 2016, at approximately 2AM, a young, troubled, questioning man from an Afghan immigrant family opened fire in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub with legally purchased weaponry, killing 49 people and injuring 53 more in the deadliest act of violence against the LGBTQ+ community in U.S. history, the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman in U.S. history, and the deadliest attack to occur on U.S. soil since September 11, 2001. The American poet Theodore Roethke, in his poem “The Far Field”, asserted that “All finite things reveal infinitude… A ripple widening from a single stone / Winding around the waters of the world.” And what a stone the shooter, Omar Mateen, turned out to be. But he’s not the only stone in this metaphor. The dead, the wounded, the survivors, the witnesses, and the first responders all played a role that night, creating wave after wave of effect that started in the Orlando community but quickly went worldwide.

There have been several big, beautiful, creative responses to the shooting. In addition to at least 24 vigils in and around Orlando and fundraisers both great and small in scale, art exhibitions and benefit concerts have multiplied. Venues such as Parliament House, The CFE Arena at UCF, Hard Rock Live, and the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts (DPAC), have hosted concert events in the months immediately following the shooting. Perhaps the the largest event, the monumental Beautiful Together, combined the efforts and talents of more than 60 local arts organizations at DPAC.

Let me introduce the first-tier set of stones in this metaphor: I have the good fortune, through my participation in The Landmark Forum, of knowing singer Andrea Canny (Music Production Supervisor at, a locally-based website that sells audition materials for actors and singers), who, along with Joyce Arbucias of The Imagination House (a local heavy-hitting production company, and parent company of Performer Stuff), Chris Yakubchik of Forster, Boughman, and Lefkowitz, and Tony Award winner Kenny Howard (of the Florida Theatrical Association), formed an LLC called Imagine Orlando, for the initial purpose of putting together an enormous benefit concert, From Broadway with Love: A Benefit Concert for Orlando, in response to the Pulse shooting. Imagine Orlando partnered with Seth Rudetsky, James Wesley, and Michael Moritz Jr., who, themselves, partnered with Van Dean of Broadway Records to produce From Broadway With Love: A Benefit Concert for Sandy Hook.

I mentioned The Landmark Forum because her experience in their course encouraged Canny to dream big about what the event could become. She believes deeply in the power of music to provoke both thought and feeling, reinforce community, and to heal. She enlisted and enrolled her team, and got the ball rolling. Once these two parties got together, the next step was to get the talent on board, namely the Broadway performers, and a who’s who of Broadway answered the call, including six Tony Award winners and lead performers in current shows. Once the solo talent was secured, the team set about getting the infrastructure in place, all of it pretty much donated or underwritten: flights, hotel rooms, a commitment from DPAC, materials and incentives for an auction, back line equipment, printing, sound, video, and stage technicians, and many other countless gestures of support from coffee and water to security personnel, ushers, transportation coordinators and Pulse Survivors at the auction table.

An orchestra was put together, primarily comprised of musicians from the Orlando Philharmonic—a sort of blind date between them and a rhythm section that flew down from New York. A 100+ voice choir, Orlando Voices United Choir, was formed for the event, comprised of singers from Disney, the Orlando Gay Chorus, and elsewhere. New orchestrations were created for the event, which also required the services of a copyist/librarian to assist with getting individual parts to all the musicians. The list of phone calls and emails exchanged to make this all happen must be impressive.

Rehearsal at The Plaza, July 24, 2016. photo by Jason Fronczek

I got to witness the rehearsals for the two sessions before the July 25th performance, first at the Plaza Live, and then at DPAC. The atmosphere at the Plaza was a mixture of enthusiasm, freneticism, stoicism, or professionalism depending on where I focused my attention. Rehearsals can be a festival of groans and eye-rolls when things are not going well, and the Plaza rehearsal was stalling repeatedly. The guitarist was the only member of the rhythm section present. The Orchestrator, Kim Scharnberg, was giving notes and comments to Music Director Michael Moritz who was doing heroic double duty as pianist and conductor. “I’m in a bad dream with no rhythm section,” Moritz said. The copyist/librarian Don Oliver, muttering and cursing under his breath, with his shaggy dog nearby, struggled as valiantly as the legendary Little Dutch Boy trying to plug each new leak in a Haarlem dike with his finger, as musicians seemingly at random declared that their individual notated parts were nowhere to be found, all while trying to prepare and tape together parts for the songs yet to be rehearsed. The always professional, get-it-done-with-grace concert mistress for the Orlando Philharmonic, Rimma Bergeron-Langlois, quietly discussed bowings, phrasings, tempo changes, and changes made on the fly with the other violinists. Composer, pianist, and musical force at Imagination House, Mike Avila, who was working behind the scenes along with Andrea Canny and Imagine Orlando, stepped in to play the bass parts on a synthesizer, and suddenly everything started gelling in a way it hadn’t before.

Ultimately, everyone was doing what they could to help solve the myriad kinds of problems that inevitably come up when trying to accomplish something big. But not just something big–something big with an emotional and personal stake, and everybody involved has a stake in this. Locals feel the Pulse shooting deeply because Orlando is our home. These were our people, our friends, our children, our family. The people coming down from New York are no strangers to tragedy. They know what September 11 feels like. And they know how the LGBTQ+ community feels, too. Broadway has been on the absolute front lines in the cultural conversation on sexual orientation and gender identity for many decades.

By the time the Broadway soloists, choir, full musical ensemble, and all the necessary technicians were in place for the rehearsal at DPAC the next day, everything seemed to be running like clockwork and there was a buzzing excitement backstage. The show itself was a heartfelt, hopeful, soaring, melancholy, raunchy mixtape chosen by the soloists to both play to their strengths and thematically tie the lyrics to some aspect of the tragedy. But this isn’t about the concert itself. This is about the powerful choice to create in response to death. And it’s about loving each other the way that the people we lost would want to love us if they could. What the world needs now…

The beneficiaries of From Broadway with Love are the GLBT Community Center of Central Florida, a gathering place for more than 20 support groups that also offers free HIV and Hepatitis C testing, among other services; the Hope and Help Center of Central Florida, which services and supports those dealing with AIDS; and Zebra Coalition, a network of organizations which provide services to LGBTQ+ youth, ages 13 to 24.

To pre-order an audio or video recording of the event, please visit

First Contact: Death, Love, and the Creative Impulse – Originally published in Artborne Magazine Read More »