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Daniel Bernard Roumain, postmodernist

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • March 15, 2008

                                                                                     Leslie Lyons
Dreadlocks flailing,  bow clenched between his teeth, nose ring glinting as he storms though a violin solo that that careens from Paganini to Prince -- Daniel Bernard Roumain defies easy pigeonholing.  The young Haitian-American composer-slash-performer is aggressively post-modernist, filtering jazz, hip hop, electronica and a dozen other genres through his own classical mind-set -- and writing music that explores equally post-modern questions of identity.
Roumain – or “DBR” as he’s professionally known – is a rising star of the new music scene, writing for major orchestras and performing regularly with his own nine-piece band, “DBR and the Mission.”  But he showed off a more intimate side in two concerts here this week, performing works for electric violin and electronics at The Mansion at Strathmore on Monday, and an 80-minute multimedia work titled “One Loss Plus” on Thursday night at the Clarice Smith Center.
Of the two, Monday night’s concert was the most personal, and perhaps the most revealing.  The Shapiro music room at The Mansion is a tight space, and its dark wood paneling, gilded chandeliers and enormous marble fireplace seem better suited for string quartets than the turntables, Powerbooks and six-string electric violin that Roumain uses.  But he was clearly in his element, talking at length to the overflow crowd and performing a range of very personal works, from the intriguing “Sonata for Violin and Turntables,” to music from his most recent disc, “etudes4violin&electronix.”
And despite all the cutting-edge trappings, the music was involving, tonal and eminently accessible, steeped in the wash-rinse-repeat cycle of minimalism but sexed up considerably with hip hop rhythms, jazz riffs and imaginative collaboration from laptopist and turntablist Elan Vytal (aka DJ Scientific).
Much of it had a deeply contemplative feel, and though that’s usually just a polite term for thumb-twiddling, Roumain proved how adept he is at building lyrical, slowly-changing structures that evolve with deep organic unity, building to wailing peaks any rock guitarist would be proud of.
roumain2.jpgThat said, the music could often be frustrating, too. Roumain confines himself to a fairly narrow harmonic and rhythmic palette, and though he writes engaging melodic motifs, he doesn’t develop them very far or take them into daring territory; it’s music designed to please, rather than challenge. And while he borrowed extensively on Monday from the edgy world of hip hop, much of the music seemed just that -- borrowed, with its teeth filed down and its attitude tamed.
The sprawling, of-the-moment multimedia piece “One Loss Plus” that Roumain performed three days later was a much more complex affair, adding video, prepared piano (played by Wynne Bennett) and the singer Emeline Michel to the composer’s electric violin.  It’s about “what is gained when something is lost, and mourning, and how we mourn,” Roumain said in an interview before the concert.  “And I think of it as a piece for violin and piano exploded – it’s grappling with multiple traditions from multiple points of view.”
It’s an ambitious idea with rich potential, and for the most part Roumain brought it off well. Stalking the stage while videos of people discussing loss (culled largely from YouTube) played on two huge screens, he created a sweeping, emotionally charged score that ranged from dreamlike to furious to darkly elegiac.
But there was little narrative tension to the overall work, and the performance, after quickly making its point, seemed unsure where to go.  People appeared on screen reciting the alphabet, the performers played from a numeric score projected overhead, and eventually you felt as if you’d been swept underwater, floating in a pleasant if aimless sea of sound. But as the piece closed, Emeline Michel joined Roumain on stage for a prayerful coda, sung in Creole; the effect was magical, and redeemed the evening.

Posted on Sunday, March 16, 2008 at 04:02PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | Comments2 Comments

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Reader Comments (2)

Those are pretty much my complaints about all DBR's works that I have heard. I wrote about his Library of Congress concert last year:


I really want to enjoy his stuff more than I do. I wish his music would either develop or get better at not developing. But what are you going to do.
March 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLindemann
Hi Andrew -- just read your terrific piece on DBR, and you limned both the awesome and the annoying in his music much more precisely than I was able to. But he's got a fantastic base to build on, if he decides to move into more interesting and original musical territory -- definitely someone worth keeping an eye on.

March 24, 2008 | Registered CommenterStephen Brookes

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