The following questions are taken from an interview with the Harris Theater about my residency with acclaimed actor Anna Deavere Smith where we will present our joint project, "On Grace". Many thanks to the University of Chicago, U. of Chicago Presents, Joan Harris and the Harris Theater, and all of the other organizations and individuals who have made this residency possible. 1. You’ve been called a “classical rock star” by the press. Is that a moniker you embrace? I’ve gone through various phases in my relationship with this particular title. It’s one that I think each reader has a different reaction to, and perception of its meaning. At its best, it connotes a certain intensity and fearlessness that I certainly aspire to, and in that sense I could only hope to live up to the name.
2. You’re an award-winning cellist and a TED Fellow. You’ve used your skills as an artist and your interest in technology to bring classical music to the fore in new ways. What is it about incorporating aspects of technology and classical music together that excites you? I am interested in a kind of leveling of the playing field that the internet and certain technologies can bring to many areas of life, and music is definitely undergoing seismic shifts as this process occurs. There are so many opportunities to unite people, groups, communities that are spread over great physical distances. There are also opportunities for artists and explorers to be influenced by and learn from the work of others in a much less time consuming or expensive way. I don’t think this can or should ever be a replacement for face to face interaction, but it is a powerful component of our constantly evolving experience and that excites me greatly.
3. Tell us about the creative process and your collaboration with Anna Deavere Smith. What’s been special about this partnership? For me, the chance to work with Anna, with the integrity and commitment – and obviously skill and experience – that she brings to the table, has been extremely inspiring. From our very first meeting our collaboration developed as a true partnership, and I haven’t felt any holding back on either side. Anna has a very strong sense of what she wants, but isn’t afraid to zoom in straight to the crux of an issue or question and be open to whatever that confirms or changes in the process. To be looking so closely at an aspect of humanity brings a lot of personal feelings and philosophical thoughts out at the same time. I’ve cherished the open connection we’ve developed through our work together.
4. How did you react when she approached you about collaborating? The introduction to Anna came from a musician I respect tremendously. That set the tone, and as I explored more of her non-television work – Let Me Down Easy (click to see full performance) and other stage pieces became excited about the potential. That being said, you never know what’s going to happen when you end up in the room with someone! In the end, our first rehearsal was where I really felt the dynamic quality of the project and her personality and felt truly engaged.
5. Have there been any unexpected surprises? The biggest surprise was that I ended up writing most of the music for the production myself. In the beginning, my intention was to use the music of J.S. Bach, and Anna and I were painstakingly matching moods, sounds of voices, ideas, etc., with movements from the famous Six Suites for Unaccompanied Violoncello. At a certain point though, I started to feel the need for a few more modern sounds in certain characters, and more to the point, was worried about making any cuts or additions to the Bach in order to fit things together neatly. That’s when I started improvising just to get the exact expressive qualities I wanted, and the improvising in turn has led to the majority of the music being original compositions for this piece.
6. You bring a live music dimension to On Grace, unlike anything ADS has done before. How has that aspect shaped the evolution of the piece? Anna would probably be able to more accurately share on the difference between this piece’s evolution and her others’. I can say, though, that the music plays a big part in this one. Rather than relegating it to a background role, it is an integral element both in the time it occupies and the way Anna and I – and the music – interact. We wanted to create plenty of space for the music to breathe with the words, and give the audience a chance to absorb as much as possible. Being a physical presence on stage also changes things, and allows for a transformation to happen with our interaction as well.
7. On Grace has been developed in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. What kind of impact do you think a city like Chicago will have as you continue to develop the piece? Grace Cathedral in SF was an incredibly spiritual place to start this piece, and adding the political element of DC at Georgetown was a great contrast. Looking forward to Chicago, I hope some of the grassroots ideals, and the gritty, no-nonsense, reality driven sensibilities I associate with the city with end up working their way in. You never know though, a lot of it has to do with the micro culture we are in, in this case the University of Chicago.
8. What are your own thoughts on the meaning of the word “grace”? That's a big question! And the answer is evolving the more I am encouraged by our work to view the concept of grace from new angles. In music, I tend to think of it as an occurrence where something difficult – physically, emotionally, aurally, spiritually, or in combination – is performed in such a way as to transcend the challenges and focus all attention on the sublime or beautiful. The main part of this idea that I think carries over into any meaning of grace is the "overcoming" aspect. Whether through divine intervention, sheer effort, a sort of letting go, or whatever else, something has to be overcome for there to be grace.
9. How would you describe On Grace to someone who’s about to see it for the first time? On Grace is a unique experience in that musical and theatrical elements have a nontraditional relationship. It’s a powerful combination of Anna’s signature style of acting out portions her interviews with real people, and a special continuity through musical themes and development that creates a sense of reflection and, at the same time, engagement. Hopefully when you see it, we take you on a powerful journey that opens your mind to the possibilities for exploring grace within ourselves, and what that can mean for those around us.