A conversation with Davóne Tines, before his 'Recital No. 1: MASS'
Davóne Tines has more than a casual interest in ritual, as a means and a medium. An operatic bass-baritone of spectacular renown in the realm of classical music, Tines has had occasion to consider all of the customs that go into the creation of new work, as well as the art of performance. At times, he’s engaged with the classical canon as an orienting device, a way of placing his personal expression within a useful and provocative frame. Such is the case with his Recital No. 1: MASS, which he will perform with pianist John Bitoy on Tuesday at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater, courtesy of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society.
The piece, which borrows the classical structure of the Latin mass, has been a powerful vehicle for Tines since its premiere a couple of years ago. After experiencing the piece in 2021, critic Alex Ross wrote a New Yorker profile with a boldly declarative headline: “Davóne Tines is Changing What It Means to Be a Classical Singer.” Tines was originally scheduled to perform Recital No. 1: MASS in Philadelphia last November, but had to postpone due to illness.
He did perform the piece in New York around that time, at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall. “Touching on Bach, spirituals and contemporary art music,” wrote Oussama Zahr in a New York Times review, “the concert was a compelling reconceptualization of the recital format from an artist who molded his warm, strong voice like clay in a bracingly vulnerable, honest performance.”
I first met Tines last fall, during rehearsals for the multimedia Tyshawn Sorey piece Monochromatic Light: Afterlife at the Park Avenue Armory. In advance of next week’s concert, we connected over Zoom to talk about the flexibility of liturgical form, the power of creative limitations, his circle of creative collaborators, and the responsibility born by classical institutions to make space for Black expression. Lively and gracious in conversation, Tines covered a lot of ground, and raised his share of questions. Watch the entire interview here, and read a full transcript below.
I wanted to begin by asking you about the piece: I wonder how many times you've presented it, and whether you feel there’s been an evolution, as it’s had this life.
I’m not sure how many times I’ve presented it. Maybe 10 or so different cities. It used to be all amalgamated as one tour, and then the pandemic kind of refracted that. I, along with some of my closest friends and colleagues, really enjoy iterative process — the ability to do something, and then allow yourself the opportunity to reflect, and make changes based on that reflection. I co-guest-lecture a course at Harvard with my best friend and colleague Zack Winokur on interdisciplinary storytelling, which is essentially about externalizing our creative process that we built over a decade, and sharing that with academics, and saying: you can have an ongoing iterative process or circular process for the development of anything, whether that be an academic paper or a conference. You know, it’s actually quite similar to how we consider making good art. A huge part of that process is, one, trying to be as intentional and probing as possible from the beginning, so that the thing that you build does have a certain integrity based on an original purpose. So we hope that we get to something that has a fully formed heft. But then, knowing that that thing will continue to change as it lives.
Ways that this has changed is, one, the repertoire has continued to get more deeply in my body and in my psyche, and as you move through life with any piece of repertoire, it changes based on the context in which you deliver it. So I think a lot about shows and things that I make; they’re kind of like jungle gyms, in a way. Jungle gyms for your mind and your emotions, and sometimes quite physically. But whenever I’m about to do a performance, I have this exciting or sometimes terrifying thought: ‘Oh, this is the shape of this ride, and this is what I’m going to go through.’ And returning to this program over and over again, it’s really fulfilling, and a privilege to be able to have built something for yourself that is a continual process of self-reflection. The piece, Recital No. 1: MASS, is very overtly built as that: a process for anyone to deal with a problem. It’s kind of taking the movements of the Catholic mass and trying to assign some sort of more generalizable meaning that most people can walk into. That came from my time singing at the National Shrine in D.C., and trying to rationalize what it meant for me to be singing mass every week when my home church was just an hour down the road. And how was I going to find my own religious if not personal reality excavated in this context. I found that the ways that I was trying to think about literalizing the experience of the mass was a bit removed from how some of my Catholic brothers and sisters actually engaged their own connection to that liturgy that they continually interacted with. It’s kind of a thing where if you’re a fish in water, you don’t notice the water. And I was, you know, a bird or cockatiel, I don't know.
That’s interesting, because I wondered whether it was about finding a space for yourself in it, or more about connecting parallel-track experiences. What felt like the more relevant metaphor there for you?
Right. It was definitely both. I think both of those things happened simultaneously. One idea being finding a place in it for myself, that being a more internal situation, and then trying to find how things track more parallel, like very external. And trying to, you know, rationalize the connections between things. I think those things really did happen simultaneously. Internal and external. You know, singing in a choir — singing through a Palestrina mass, that’s broken up and placed in different parts of a service — and me as an outsider, in the midst of thinking: ‘Oh, what is the ritual of this? What is the theater of it?’ You know, a lot of liturgy and dogmatic practices are quite theatrical. Just in terms of like, ‘What is the arc of this thing? What am I being asked to feel?’ Sitting with that first idea of a Kyrie, you know, huge proclamation: “Lord, have mercy, Christ have mercy! Lord, have mercy!” So just thinking, ‘What is the impetus of that?’ You realize that you need mercy, or you need help. So I go to the place of, when have I been in a place in my life where I just was worried about something, or needed help? That’s not necessarily a religious thing. That’s a human thing.
So that’s an impetus I think everyone can connect to. And then thinking about that in the broader sense: where in my own personal religious experience, but from a whole different context, are the same things being said? There’s so many songs within the Black Gospel tradition that are about seeking and asking for help. Even “Swing low, sweet chariot / Coming for to carry me home.” A Negro spiritual that I think can be said to be asking for death, or relief — “Come sweet chariot and carry me home,” meaning “home is not where I currently am.” You know, Kyrie Eleison. So just the internal working of: What does this text mean, in a more personal and human way? And then how does that track against other religious or dogmatic or it just textural experiences that I have.
Yeah. Everything you’re describing, it’s so intuitive — and yet really outside the orthodoxy, in terms of artistic practice within this field. When you were talking earlier about your interest in iterative process: because I come from living in and writing about the jazz tradition, that’s something I’m very familiar with.
But it’s always struck me that in the classical realm, people don’t talk about pieces in the same way. You know: the piece is alive, and it evolves and changes. There’s an ideal of a more fixed reality. So I’d love to hear you talk about running up against that — and the ways in which you’ve found ways around it, or ways to chip away at it, and bring a more humanistic and personal, and specific cultural resonance to that engagement.
Yeah, definitely. That interaction and dichotomy between jazz ideas and classical ideas is really rich, because I think it also can serve as a dialectic for thinking about difference in cultural practice. So jazz — or some people would call it any number of other things, maybe even Black contemporary classical music — comes from a certain cultural lineage, and that comes from a minority group of people. And so you might surmise that the practices of the idiom, coming from a minority population, would have a different thumbprint, a different set of rituals or ideas than that of a cultural artifact that comes from a predominantly white context. So if we're saying then that jazz allows a certain innate, iterative process, meaning the ability to change, the ability to take in information gained by the act of doing, then that might have something to do with how a minority population exists in the world. In a classical situation, if we’re thinking about it in terms of there being a sort of fixed nature of the piece, and the sort of hierarchical structure — and I think the structure of this triangle continues to change, but is it the composer at the top, handing down work as dictum from God? Or is it the music director who has the divine ability to interpret said genius pieces of work? And then is the orchestra or the performing arts organization the fiefdom upon which all of these things are realized? But if anything, they’re very clear structures that evade a sort of possibility of egality that perhaps a jazz combo or other situation does not hold.
I have been interested in living in the truth of my own lineage and existence, which I think comes a little bit more from that open, innate want for some sort of egality or reflective engagement with the material at large. I grew up with that in a church context, in how church music was formed. It is a communal work. Yes, there may be a soloist, yes, there may be a music director. But every single individual — for their strengths, for their wants, for their own need within that context — is considered. And that is very different from what occurs in an orchestra, or in a traditional opera, for instance. So it might seem challenging, or dare I say, revolutionary, in a classical context. But as you also said, it’s just pretty intuitive to how I’ve engaged musical material my entire life. That connected to the larger project of just trying to be as honest as possible in the music that I’m making, which also dictates the way in which I engage it. It’s going to have some sort of friction, or maybe positively caustic interaction with classical music. I also take huge inspiration from Julius Eastman for this very fact. He was always toggling between having certain talents and connection to a classical world, but trying to evoke ideas from other places. I’ve also gotten to know Julius’ brother, Gerry Eastman, and learned a bit more of Julius’ biography that may not be broadly understood. Gerry was a jazz session guitarist; he lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and runs the Williamsburg Music Center and has an improv band, and does work every week. He’s really a proponent of the free jazz world.
He was always trying to say to his brother: “You can come over here. There’s a safe place for you. There’s a place where your ideas would either fit or jibe with the group — or at least people would engage them with intrigue.” And it’s this kind of tension between, ‘OK, but I have this existence and I want to use this toolkit. But I have these ideas that relate to this other space, and what does it mean when those two things commingle?’
‘Tension’ is the word that almost just popped out of my mouth as you were saying it. There’s something that struck me when Alex Ross wrote about you, and wrote specifically about the MASS. You’d seen so many recitals, and kind of wondered why the personality was an afterthought, rather than centered. I’m interested in the idea that there is something in the established tradition that attracts you. And there is something about the form that is extremely helpful, and even inspiring. But within that, you can maneuver more freely than perhaps you’ve been told.
Definitely. That relates a bit to this idea that I’ve held since high school, being excited about creative pragmatism — meaning you can make anything in the world you can imagine, and it’s even more exciting when you know how to get there. And how to get there, or at least start a line of inquiry that might get you somewhere: you’ve got to be really honest about what there is. What is reality, what are the real things available. And that can be extremely inspiring, or give you directive in its own right. One example: at Harvard, there’s the undergrad theater company, and if you get the chance to make a show for the black box theater as a student group, you get $200 as your budget in order to fill an entire space. And at first pass you think: that’s impossible.
[At this point Zoom kicks Tines out of the interview. After a moment he returns.]
That’s funny, the last words that you said were: “That’s impossible.” And then you were gone. [laughs]
[laughing] Yeah, you know, $200 to fill an entire black box theater. You would think that’s impossible — but, then you have to start facing the challenge of limited resources. And with a friend, I came up with one of the best designs for a theater that I could imagine. It was for a show called Songs for a New World, which is a Jason Robert Brown revue of different songs from a specific kind of musical theater idiom. I was sitting with the director outside the Quincy dining hall, and one of us had a hard-boiled egg, with the shell, which is still kind of intact if you peel it. “Well, what if we just make this shape that everything can fall within — and we make parts of an eggshell that kind of like encapsulate this whole space?” And we realized that’s not too expensive to do. All you really need is a lot of 1 by 4s, and make it into squares and then cover them in sheet plastic. So a sort of economy of resources led to an economy of ideas, and I think we came up with something really effective. So in engaging with classical structures, objects, idioms — it’s kind of what there is. I’ve always kind of talked about it from the direction of: I have a classical or a classically-trained voice. It’s where I entered the academic and professional world as a performer and singer. So that’s what I have the closest access or connection to, at least in terms of work. So what can I do with the tools at hand? And there’s some pretty awesome tools, you know: the symphony orchestra, or the recital concert hall, or the theater. And trying to just live my truth within those contexts. I’ve been quite blessed and privileged to explore some realization of my truth with those resources.
One thing most recently that I’m really excited about, and I hope can happen again: I was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to make a piece called Concerto No. 2: ANTHEM. I’ve been making these devised concertos for voice and orchestra, and we did that at the Hollywood Bowl this past August. And being invited to sing at the Hollywood Bowl, I thought, I’m gonna take full advantage of that context, and do something as glitzy and over-the-top as the context calls for. And so I thought I’d do a magic trick of turning the Star Spangled Banner into the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” over the course of three concerto movements. I devised a structure that I invited composers to fill in, including a dear friend, Michael Schachter (we wrote the musical The Black Clown together), and Caroline Shaw and Tyshawn Sorey. Just kind of pulling on their strengths and their particular aesthetics, saying, ‘Oh, Caroline would be great for writing this sort of open, liminal space that questions problematic Americana.’ And Tyshawn would be the most amazing person — I asked him to write a march. You know, a march on the song “Oh, Freedom!” that kind of marched out of Caroline’s liminal space toward “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Knowing that, you know, Tyshawn, I don’t think he’s ever written anything in 4. Or maybe for one measure. I don’t know, I should go look at scores and see, is there a square somewhere?
And triumphalism is not his default move.
No! And so I knew that asking him these questions would make a tension between what he’s into but also create the thing that I needed, which is a march that kind of gets going and stumbles out of nothing. Then I said, “Do anything you want harmonically, but it’s got to end on a dominant, like a V7. That’s it.” And he’s like “Okaaay,” and he wrote this thing for voice and 12-part brass. It ends on the most, I guess you could say triumphal, if not overwhelming V7 chord. Anyway, being honest about the resources at hand, whether that be the orchestra, whether that be the strengths and wants of my colleagues, and just trying to say, “Let’s use all of these resources and honestly engage them for what they are, to walk towards some sort of truth.”
Well, I was going to ask you about collaboration, because it strikes me that this is a really rich time for collaborative practice in the new-music space.
You mentioned Michael and Caroline and Tyshawn, and these are all people you’ve worked with very successfully before. And there’s this kind of community you are a part of, and to an extent you’ve constructed around your work. Does that feel like a new development in this field? In one way it feels generational to me. But in another way it feels like the stars aligned: these are incredible people that we’re talking about, and you’ve all been feeding each other.
I wish I knew more about the working practice of previous generations, in modern times. But I think it’s just the rearticulation of the want of lots of collectives of artists over time. I mean, there’s Julius Eastman at The Kitchen, and also all the way back to the Florentine Camerata, where our conception of opera was built by a playwright talking to a musician talking to a dancer, and saying “Let’s make a work. Let’s make an opera.” So I think that’s not exactly a new thing in the world of art, but it is something that continues to get reborn, and hopefully continues to push the ball in different directions. I’m really excited that in my time, that is a mode that is more and more prevalent, and seems to be something, you know, that ball is pushing towards. Hopefully it doesn’t roll away too soon, within the next 30 or 40 years. But further to this idea of how do you interact with the classical structures that be, or engage with those: working in this collaborative way also is undoing these structures, in a sense. I really love making new work, and working with composers, and being in a collaborative situation in classical music that I don't think would normally be the case.
But yeah, I count it all joy that I can have the opportunity to talk with the administrator of an orchestra, and say, “Here’s an idea that I have. How can we make this a realizable thing?” And also speak with composers in a way that’s like, you know, “Yes, maybe you dictated something from God — but let’s talk about that while it’s born, and please please birth it within a certain context that’s going to lead to a greater whole beyond what your conception is, or even mine.” And that’s the fun of it, too. I have no idea, for instance, what Tyshawn’s going to write. I know it’s going to be awesome, and I know that if I poke at certain things, other things might pop up. But even asserting myself in a context with a music director, and saying, you know, structures that I was introduced to in conservatory, of “You will bow down to Maestro.” I don’t know if, as a Black man, I want to bow to anybody called a master. But I do want to have a conversation about what we’re there to do. And it’s like, “Yeah, you’re there to do the crazy job of leading this orchestra; what an insane, task that is. And I’m here to bare my soul as consistently and honestly and technically sound as possible, and we both need each other so we can talk to each other on the same plane.”
I’m at WRTI, which is a classical and jazz station, and it’s been interesting to pay close attention to the conversations happening at the institutional level — places like Opera Philadelphia, The Philadelphia Orchestra. On the one hand, these organizations are doing a really admirable job of foregrounding the work of Margaret Bonds and Florence Price and William Grant Still, and really making that a core part of their presentation. And at the same time, it’s not a very hopeful situation when you look at the stage looking for diversity.
I know you are paying close attention to all of these concerns at the institutional level, and have had lots of conversations, both high level and at street level. So what are your thoughts about this process — about where the field is at right now, and how encouraged we can feel at this moment?
Yeah. This is always the part where I sigh. Where are we going? Something that I’m continually curious about, and I’ve been thinking about this since the fall of 2020, and now more intentionally thinking about ways to explore this idea… I do have an awesome opportunity: in two days I’m leading a roundtable discussion with various institutional arts leaders here in Orange County. I’ll put it this way: in the midst of everything post-Breonna Taylor, post-George Floyd — I just kind of want there to always be a caveat, because I don’t assume everybody engages these ideas this way. You know, those deaths, among the thousands, tens of thousands of deaths of minority people at the hands of police — it’s about attention, right? We were all stuck at home. And so people that perhaps were not Black, or even people that normally wouldn’t be connected, you know, Black, brown or otherwise, just had to pay more attention. We were all watching the news for everything, and that happened to be a big part of the news, so we cared more, and it seemed to have had a reverberation through many, many different contexts, arts and otherwise. I was asked to be on various panel discussions, or in conversation, or even approached by various institutions to engage in DEI work. And I said no to all of it, because one, I wanted to think about, well, what does that mean? And what do I want to be doing personally? I realized that the work that I’ve engaged with for 10 years now is all in that direction, anyway, and I just needed to stay the course with the work that I was up to — of course, being respective of the current context, but that’s always the case. Now that we’ve moved into a different context, these conversations still persist, importantly, necessarily. I’m interested now in this kind of second wave, post all of this initial awakening, to continue to assert this question that I initially had, which is: Why can’t we talk about how we got here?
You know? I’m not so interested in… I don’t know, DEI consulting became a field. And all of the institutional waves of inviting or ingraining that. And that’s wonderful, and I’m so interested to know where all of that goes. But the thing I continually found missing was the overt conversation of why any of this is critical in the first place. Just calling out two people’s names is not enough. That’s kind of like going to the doctor and saying “My mole itches.” And oh, here’s some itch cream. You don’t want to think a little deeper about why that mole is there? Maybe there’s a cancer. Maybe there’s something else we should sort of figure out and diagnose before we run into coming up with a bunch of stopgap solutions. So in terms of where we’re going, I’m still waiting for that, and I’m still hoping to be some sort of agent for that conversation happening, because I just curiously, personally, want to know. I think that’s the scary part, because it means for people and populations in power, there’s the fear of accountability, the distaste of atonement. Nobody likes to admit that they’ve done something wrong. Nobody even in a personal one-on-one argument wants to say, “You know what, I really messed up. It was all me.” Even though that’s the most healthy thing, to be reflective and thus accountable. Think about that, scaled to millions of people over generations. That is huge.
That’s a paradigmatic shift in existing. And until we can begin to say that to each other, and say, ‘Let’s actually just think about why we’re here.’ Now, there’s more than one way to get at something, and it’s not like once we get here we can go there. Another aspect of that is, kind of reflected in the work that I or my work, as I, I think, has been growing with myself is: Where am I going? What is next? And at this point I’m thinking in terms outside of the traditional concert hall. Or outside of the orchestral context. I’ve been working on my Recital No. 2 project for some time now. It’s been a thought for the past two years, but we started workshopping it last fall. And if Recital No. 1 was a kind of step away from tradition… and I named it that, Recital No. 1: MASS, so that it’s like an object. It’s not like “Davóne Tines’ recital.” Nope: Here's a thing, on a slab. You can poke at it, you can cut it apart, it’s a thing. So that was one divergence. Then Recital No. 2 is a couple more steps away, in that instead of a pianist, I formed a band. So I have an awesome electric bass player who does a lot of electronic processing of things. And then an amazing pianist who also plays keyboard, and also is well versed in jazz and Bach, and is becoming an integral part of the current Chicago jazz scene, but also plays Rachmaninoff like a dream. So it’s just a different unit of music making. And the music that I’m trying to explore is speaking to some things that I just haven’t had the space or access or time to.
Driving into the workshop, I just had this idea of wanting to do a version of Nina Simone’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” And Nina Simone exists at her own nexus between classical and otherwise. So exploring that, but also exploring a Brahms song, but changing all the words to English and thinking about my vocalization as some nexus between my classical training and other R&B inflections or heritage. So I think I want to do that project, and do it inside of classical context, to continue to break apart those contexts. But go somewhere else. And in terms of the audience for things, that might hopefully change, too. And maybe this sounds a little fatalistic, but I was on the phone with someone. I forgot why I was having this conversation, but there’s this image of the standard classical music model going down like the Titanic — just taking on water faster than it can survive. And I was just like, “Well, maybe that’s not the end of the world.” You know? Maybe people can find a life raft somewhere else, or all of that energy will just transform into something else. What are we actually trying to preserve? Are we trying to preserve a building that is purpose-built for a certain kind of art? Are we trying to preserve a certain kind of art from the canon? Are we trying to support the evolution or the change of that, based on the exact modern context? All of those things might go away — and maybe that’s fine. It doesn’t mean that things are lost. It just means that things are translated into whatever else they need to be.
Davóne Tines performs at the Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center on Tuesday night. Tickets and more information at the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society.
Recital #1: MASS
Bach: Wie jammern mich doch die verkehrten Herzen from Cantata, BWV 170
Shaw: Agnus Dei
Sorey: "Were You There?" from Songs for Death
Bonds: "To a Brown Girl Dead"
Sorey: "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" from Songs of Death
Bach: Mache dich, mein Herze, rein from St. Matthew Passion
"Give Me Jesus" trad., arr. Hogan
Eastman: Prelude to The Holy Presence of Joan d'Arc