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Classical Urban Ambassador

Music Preview: Daniel Bernard Roumain


Published September 20, 2006 at 3:18 p.m.

Harlem-based violinist, composer and educator Daniel Bernard Roumain hardly looks the part of a classical music aesthete. With his flowing braids and multiple piercings, Roumain, a.k.a. DBR, seems more suited to a high-test funk band than a string ensemble. Actually, he's at home in either one.

His stirring and highly inventive music uses decidedly non-classical styles, including hip-hop, soul and avant-rock. Roumain's main band, DBR & the Mission, includes a DJ and drum kits, rare elements in most performance halls. Enamored by the compositional methods afforded by technology, Roumain scores on a laptop, claiming he hasn't picked up a pencil in years.

He's also worked with a wide range of forward-looking musicians, including Ryuichi Sakamoto, DJ Spooky and the granddaddy of minimalism, Philip Glass. DBR accompanies the Vermont Youth Orchestra in two area performances this week, and will showcase his own ensemble the following week.

Roumain, 33, is the son of first-generation Haitian immigrants. He grew up in Florida, where he was exposed to a wide variety of music at home, in school and in the streets. "It was a very diverse community," he says. "Lots of music in the neighborhood. There were real garage bands, and I played with a lot of them."

Much has been made of the fact that Roumain plays classical violin yet loves hip-hop. Such eclecticism evolved naturally, he says. "It comes from my environment. I'm an amalgam of many of the cultural situations I found myself born and placed into."

Roumain began playing violin at age 5, without outside suggestion. "Sometimes instruments choose you," he says. "I just became fascinated with the sound of it, and I had been listening to a lot of classical stuff already. There was no separation back then, not like it is as an adult. If anything, I'm doing the same things I was doing since kindergarten."

Youth orchestras gave Roumain an early taste of symphonic music's power. "There's something about the sound of 25 or 30 elementary school kids playing in their own little ensemble," he relates. "I was really drawn to it." Luckily, his parents supported his nascent obsession. "At first they saw it as a form of discipline, which is pretty common," Roumain explains. "But I had some talent, and I certainly had the dedication. Even in elementary school, I played for hours every day, seven days a week."

Later, Roumain attended the University of Michigan, focusing his studies on performance and composition. In 1998, he headed to the Big Apple, drawn to the artistic cross-pollination the city engenders.

Dance ensembles offered Roumain his first paying gigs. "I had always played for my sister's dance classes in middle school," he relates. "When I moved to New York, for the first three years, it was one of my principal jobs. The dance community really launched me."

Still, getting noticed took some major hustle. "It was a lot of work, playing upwards of 10 hours a day, composing at night, doing workshops and auditions on the weekends," he says. "It was difficult." Eventually Roumain became the musical director for Bill T. Jones' dance company, which in turn brought him to the attention of other legendary figures, including Glass. Not long after, he was appointed the head of a program for young composers at the Harlem School of the Arts.

Kids take a shine to Roumain, and not just because of his funky style. He intuitively grasps the common links between many types of music, making classical seem less, well, stuffy. "I'm really happy working with youth orchestras, and I'm excited about the VYO," he says. "It's because we're sharing the same culture, listening to some of the same music. It's the best of both worlds; you get the sound of the orchestra, but the attitude of youth."

It helps that Roumain doesn't force his musical opinions on his students. "I don't like to use the word teacher," he says. "When I'm in the classroom, I want it to be a conversation. I expect to learn something. I'm not about to ask them to listen to Bartók until I have heard what they're into. That's how we start."

A lot of what he hears is hip-hop. Roumain believes the genre deserves more credit for its musical depth. "There's a whole school of hip-hop producers that have an avant-garde predilection," he says. "There's never been a better time for me to be doing what I'm doing." And urban music has made its mark on him, he adds. "I'm as influenced by Prince as I am Paganini."

The iPod has made genre hopping easier than ever for music fans. But concert halls are slow to catch up to audiences' broadening tastes. "There's a diversity in people's listening that isn't readily appreciated in the performing arts world," Roumain suggests. "I like Beethoven, Bjork and The Beatles, and I think a lot of people do. But in the orchestral world, you're kind of forced to listen to the same style of music. Nobody has a problem with Beethoven. They just don't want to listen to him for three hours."

Technology informs a great deal of Roumain's work, from performance to composition. And, let's face it, anybody who can go toe-to-toe with DJ Spooky is no doubt comfortable tweaking sound. But Roumain is equally effective scoring solo violin. How does he reconcile classical customs with modern production methods? "Conventions become traditions, and practice becomes theory," he says. "Philip Glass composes with just a pencil, paper and a piano. I use a laptop, because I grew up with technology. Relevancy is personality."

It helps to remember that many of the sonic innovations of the last century came from the classical, rather than pop, music world. Composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Shaffer were at the vanguard of technology and sound. "Some of the most exciting music and technology in the '50s and '60s were from classical music," Roumain says. "It's part of the history and tradition, and I'm just following that."

Yet his music doesn't sound overly theoretical or cold. Actually, it's incredibly vibrant, full of soul and motion. The piece Roumain will perform with the VYO, "Voodoo Violin Concerto No. 1," for example, is bluesy and bold. "When I started plugging in and using pedals, I was principally drawn to Jimi Hendrix's style of playing," he says of his inspiration. "He can be a little dissonant; there's a lot of exotic scales with notes that aren't necessarily in the key signature."

Roumain doesn't need effects to produce interesting tones. He's perfected a bowing style that emulates the low-to-high frequency sweeps commonly found in techno music. "It's a very simple technique that I developed that involves gradually moving the bow closer and further away from the bridge," he explains. "I use it in a piece called 'Filter.' I personally haven't seen it in any published scores. It's one of the little things that I do."

Most classical composers don't employ breakbeats, either. Has Roumain ever encountered any static for his broad palette? "They're really just musical devices," he explains. "If you don't have a proximity to that sound, that culture or those records, it can be hard to follow. But you have to understand my stance. I see hip-hop as a very sophisticated style of music that can be notated and has its own rules, which I engage in."

He's definitely looking forward to engaging with his fellow musicians in the VYO. "Look, I'm coming to Vermont not to perform my piece," he says, "but rather to collaborate with them on a piece I happened to write." Considering Roumain's talent and energy, they should be psyched.