The Power in the Absolute: Joseph Jones’ Renaissance in Isolation

Composer/conductor Joseph Jones’ journey into sound has as many twists and turns as the latest Shonda Rhimes melodrama, with truth and beauty standing like twin pillars. Joseph splits his time between New York City and South Florida, and he is the conductor of Orchestra Amadeus, an organization he founded in 2010 to “bring people together through classical music and to raise money and awareness for victims of tragedy, injustice, and oppression.”

Recently, Joseph was one of the composers selected to work with ACF | connect* partner Music of the Unsung America, an organization created by Portia Dunkley to address the need for more diverse representation in Western classical music in South Florida. On Saturday, April 24th at 7pm EDT, Music of the Unsung America will present works by Joseph Jones and Margaret Bonds. This opportunity to premiere his Symphony for String Orchestra, Op. 47a, No. 2 intrigued Joseph, as he was in the middle of his own creative renaissance in the time of Covid.

As a child, Joseph was adopted by a family who lived in Rhode Island. “It’s a beautiful state in a lot of ways; it has great food, and very close-knit communities and wonderful beaches, but it’s really really small–not necessarily the best fit for me, long term,” Joseph explained. “I left to go to conservatory…but up until then, I spent my entire life on a 25-acre farm in Foster, [RI].” Farming was the time-consuming hobby of his father, a professor of music and voice at the Rhode Island College.

Joseph Jones--Photo courtesy of the artist

Joseph Jones–Photo courtesy of the artist

Reflecting on his exposure to music as a child, Joseph says, “From my earliest years, there was always music in the house. You get lessons at home, play music, go to concerts at the college, so music was just always there. From the time I was old enough to know what was going on around me, I was just absolutely crazy about music, in love with it, and always felt like it was innate–it was a part of me.”

Joseph remembers watching Disney’s Fantasia as a young boy and being enthralled with the colors of the orchestra and the silhouetted form of conductor Leopold Stokowski. “I remember quite vividly the sight of the strings, particularly the violins with their bows moving in unison, and thinking that it was the most beautiful sight, and it confirmed to me that I had to be a part of this.”

And indeed, Joseph would make music a focus of his life. He studied many instruments in his childhood from piano to violin to percussion. After many shifts in focus, including studies in composition, he ended up pursuing his first love of conducting at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, MD.

By early 2020, Joseph had been conducting Orchestra Amadeus for nearly 10 years and was already booked for multiple benefit concerts when the pandemic broke out in the US. “I spent the first month of Covid sort of glued to the news and my chair just terrified of just so much and realizing very quickly that this would not be over by June or July and probably not for at least a year. And I realized that I needed some sort of outlet to keep from going crazy,” recounted Joseph. “I also felt it was my artistic responsibility to respond to the crisis.”

Joseph Jones--Photo courtesy of the artist

Joseph Jones–Photo courtesy of the artist

From that point on, he began to compose a dizzying amount of music, all the more remarkable because he hadn’t composed anything in six years. He started by focusing on his friends, writing solo pieces for artists who were stuck at home themselves without much to do. Over the course of 29 days, he composed his Missa pro Defunctus to directly respond to the tragic loss of life in a deep and profound way. Between April and November 2020, he ended up composing 32 pieces: solo instrumental works, art songs, sonatas, and more.

On January 4, 2021, the day before the special election in Georgia, Joseph started composing his Symphony forString Orchestra No. 2, Op. 47, which will premiere as part of the ACF | connect Music of the Unsung America concert this Saturday. “When I started, I had an idea of what I wanted, but it took me two or three days to figure out what direction I was going to take,” he recalls. “The day I moved on to the second movement was the day of the insurrection. So, I was working on this while watching and listening to the news in the background. So much of that couldn’t help but make its way into the piece, not that it is strictly programmatic, by any means…Certainly, the emotions that most of us felt that day, the reaction to it is in there.”

For Joseph, there is power in absolute music because it carries his experiences as a Black man navigating the United States in its melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. That which is in his blood and bones cannot help but be infused in his sonatas, quartets, and nocturnes. In the end, Joseph is driven to use his talent to create beauty and humanity in everything that he does.


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*American Composers Forum’s ACF | connect program is made possible with the outstanding generosity of the following individuals: Jane Anfinson, Thomas Arneson, Suzanne Asher, Carol Barnett, Pearl and Bob Bergad, Margee and Will Bracken, Karen Brooks, Richard Cisek and Kay Fredericks, Dee Ann and Kent Crossley, Julia W. Dayton, C. Lee Essrig, Rosemary & David Good Family Foundation, Katherine Goodale, Jeff and Hyun Mee Graves, Mike and Kay McCarthy, Carol Heen, Steve Heitzeg and Gwen Pappas, Kathleen Henschel and John Dewes, Linda and Jack Hoeschler, Leaetta Hough and Bob Muschewske, Sam Hsu and Sally Cheng, Hella Mears Hueg Estate Gift, Thelma Hunter Estate Gift, John and Ruth Huss, George Frederick Jewett Foundation East, Art and Martha Kaemmer, Jon Lewis and Lisa Merklin, Greg McNeely, Alfred and Ann Moore, Louis and Gloria Nuechterlein, John Nuechterlein and Dan Monson, John and Debbie Orenstein, I.A. O’Shaughnessy Foundation in memory of Thelma Hunter, David and Judy Ranheim, Denice Rippentrop, Vanessa Rose, Bill and Susan Sands, Gale Sharpe, Doug and Kathy Skor, Dan and Ellie Thomas, Stephen and Jayne Usery, Kathleen van Bergen, Janika Vandervelde, Jim Wafler, and Margaret and Angus Wurtele