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Composer Robert Kapilow adjusts the knobs of his synthesizer below a banner that reads “Performing Arts for Everyone.” He’s here on the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage this Saturday afternoon to perform snippets from D.C. Citypiece: Monuments at the Millennium, his symphony-in-progress about Washington, and to get reactions and suggestions from this audience of about 75.
As part of his commission for a partnership of locally based arts organizations, including the Kreeger Museum, the Kennedy Center, and NPR, Kapilow has spent the past nine months traveling to District schools and community centers asking folks for ideas on what he should include in his symphony. During these dialogues, D.C. residents have been educating Kapilow—a Yale grad living in New Jersey who’s performed with orchestras from Atlanta to Los Angeles—about the local music scene. Sixteen-year-old student Donell Washington turned him on to the Junkyard Band, and the composer sprinkled some go-go beats into Citypiece and even invited Washington to rap.
But right now, Kapilow’s concentrating on Citypiece’s overture, which the composer envisions as a musical shout-out to Native Americans, the earliest inhabitants of the District diamond. Kapilow gesticulates broadly while explaining the compositional process into his headset mike; at his side sits percussionist Tom Teasley, holding four tiny rattles. Kapilow asks the audience members to indicate when Teasley makes a sound that interests them. “Pretend you’re composing and raise your hand whenever you hear something you like,” Kapilow instructs, tapping a beat with his foot and pointing to the percussionist, who starts up with the rattles.
Hands go up, down, and up again as Teasley varies beats and tones. Kapilow points into the audience at folks who like certain bits, saying “Ah,” “Oh!” and “Yes!” “Now watch this,” Kapilow says, as Teasley picks up what looks like an oversized tambourine. The percussionist rubs his fingers across the drum’s skin, which makes a melancholy, pleading sound. “Isn’t that great?” Kapilow asks. “I thought that sounded like a whale in anguish. It’s a great metaphor for extinction.” The composer plans to use that effect near the end of the symphony’s first section.
Although the overture remains unwritten, a good chunk of the rest is finished. With the composition’s premiere performance by the National Symphony Orchestra not scheduled ’til next June, Kapilow even appears to be ahead of schedule. “Actually, I’m simultaneously writing a Citypiece for Kansas City,” Kapilow explains. Both completed works are due in his publisher’s office on Jan. 1. Although he insists that the District sounds very different from Kansas City, the composer concedes, “It is a little confusing.” —Jessica Dawson