5 Questions to Brian Raphael Nabors (composer)

Brian Raphael Nabors is a composer of enormous gifts and accomplishment. A 2020 Fulbright Scholarship recipient, Brian’s CV includes being a New Music USA Amplifying Voices consortium composer, Composer Fellow for the American Composers Orchestra’s Earshot program with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Rapido Competition Grand Prize winner, and Composer-in-Residence for Castle of Our Skins.

He is the recipient of commissions and performances by leading American orchestras and chamber music ensembles. With important new commissions for 2022 and 2023, Brian’s innovative compositional voice augurs a future of unlimited possibilities.

Toru Takemitsu spoke of music as a form of prayer. Shinto religion ascribes to nature a power and presence that is beyond understanding but sensible in our encounters with it. Nature’s aura permeates Until Dawn, Onward, and your Cello and Oboe Sonatas. Do your compositions occupy a similar space with Takemitsu’s works of reverence to nature?

They most certainly do! As with Takemitsu and many others, composition is an incredibly spiritual practice for me. I am a devout Christian, and I would say I conceive every piece in a state of prayer. Being in touch with the natural world is also how I grew up. I often fish with my father and hike, amongst other pastoral activities. I believe all of us are in constant dialogue with the universe. I am amazed at the fact that we’re all here, on this sphere, whirling through one star system, amongst billions, in one galaxy, amongst billions, placed in divine order, operating in this realm called reality; and with the gift of consciousness, create beauty and meaning. Having this awareness, I persistently dwell in this mental space, often trying to refrain from trivial and pessimistic ways of thinking. I adore the way love feels and live to have this universal element permeate every fiber of my work.

Brian Raphael Nabors--Photo by Forest McMullin

Brian Raphael Nabors–Photo by Forest McMullin

Silences engage the soul in a reflective journey, and composers paint pictures on silence. Jean Sibelius once said, “Music is the language of the spirit and begins where the possibilities of language end.” Similarly, I am drawn to Echo and Pulse as evocative musical paintings on silence. What are your thoughts on these themes and your process in music composition?

Yes, indeed. I believe that silences are beautiful in that they afford the listener the opportunity to internalize the emotional weight of what had previously been heard. It’s just as powerful of a way to communicate as the production of sound itself. Silences are the bridges to deeper emotional underpinnings between composer and listener. The composer stands in the middle of the bridge saying, “Did you get that?” Most of us hope the listener goes, “Yes, absolutely!” In my compositional practice, I try and let my emotional intuition lead me on where to place the silences. Perhaps a preceding phase carried a certain amount of emotional gravitas, or a certain harmonic change deserves a bit of contemplation before moving forward. It is then that the silence becomes a powerful compositional tool.

Iubio and Pulse are orchestral gems bejeweled by brilliant uses of harmonic color. For me, deft uses of harmonic colors in music have through lines to the Impressionist worlds of Debussy, Szymanowski, and Takemitsu. But Iubio and Pulse are also cinematic with parallels to Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Richard Robbins. How do you see your music in this regard?

I’m inspired by it all! I would say I constantly gain inspiration from everywhere. I absolutely love the Impressionist sound and fell in love with it while performing many works as a pianist. I’ve also been enthralled with film music from any early age and never shied away from that type of orchestration as it is so heavily tied to the natural world for me. Of course, there’s also a bit of gospel and jazz stirred in there. I love creating a vat of harmonic primordial soup and pulling different sounds out as they correspond to different emotions I’m feeling.

I would also say I’m inadvertently influenced by my synesthesia. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had color associations with certain keys, days of the week, and months of the year. Many times I feel as though all of these elements are linked together. For example, while writing a piece of music, I’ll feel melancholic and see a dark-bloody red in my mind’s eye, which will subconsciously and emotionally anchor me to a C minor key area. It’s so cool when my listeners come and tell me how they experience these color changes. There are so many wonderful, varying results!

Your new chamber works — Ohio Sketches for Mindful Music Project, The Kwanzaa Suite for Apollo Chamber Players, Caged for the fellows of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and Iris Orchestra, and Piano Trio — are exciting in their intimacy as “a conversation” between the players. For me, these works evoke contemporary through lines to Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht, Berg’s Lyrische Suite, and Martinu’s Piano Trios. What are some of the embedded conversational stories in your chamber works?

Emotion, narrative, and collaboration. Music is so communal. With every work, I seek to have my players feel that there is always a bigger goal they’re contributing to; that their part matters. One of the biggest reasons why I’ll be a composer for the rest of my life is for the moments that a work goes into the hands of the player(s). When you’ve done your job, it’s as if they “become you!” They embody the narrative, emotion, and dialogue in the same way you felt it when you were bursting to get it onto the page. To see them become the story is one of the most affirming and fulfilling experiences one can have as a creator.

Upon Daybreak, Letters From Birmingham, and Of Earth and Sky evoke the symbolism of Langston Hughes’ “I Dream A World.” You have spoken of being a vessel for cross cultural dialogue and understanding. Do your roots as the son of a Southern Baptist minister inform the path forward that brings the beloved community to a higher ground through music?

Indeed it has, very directly. That foundation gave me the ability to love unconditionally. We are citizens of the world; brothers and sisters just seeking life, love, and comfort. I’m very grateful for my upbringing because it gave me empathy. It’s such a gift to be able to see past a person’s lashing out, extend a hand when you see depression or sadness, and shine a light in the face of adversity.

Of course, no one is perfect. I have many days where I turn my light off and don’t want to do much of anything. Nevertheless, my faith, the gift of composition, and the ability to share it anchor me to my purpose: to inspire positive change. Even when completely burned out, the very thought of sharing a new work makes me giddy like a child on Christmas. That’s how I know to keep going. I want all artists to know that they matter and that their work means something. We are the bringers of inspiration. We are as important as the care physicians. We are nurturers of the human spirit.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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