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Billy Childs: The Perfect Picture

Esther Berlanga-Ryan By

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AAJ: Your 2011 Grammy for "The Path Among The Trees," from Autumn: In Moving Pictures.

BC: Well, I won the Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition—"The Path Among The Trees." It's my third Grammy Award, and my 10th nomination, and my second for Best Instrumental Composition. This year, in 2011, I was nominated in two categories: Best Instrumental Composition and Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album—Mingus Big Band won that one. After I won, I got to hang with Herbie Hancock and Vince Mendoza, and we all went to the press room.

My nominations were two of six nominations for Artistshare artists this year; I was the only winner. Hopefully, Volume 3—whenever it comes out—will be acknowledged in the same way that Volumes 1 and 2 have been. It's been a great ride so far.

AAJ: What's the best thing you think you've ever done?

BC: Oh man! That was going to be my next statement. Have I told you that? It's weird that you would ask me that. It was right on my mind. The best thing that I have ever done, musically, ever, was a piece that I wrote, and it's called "The Voices of Angels," and I wrote it for the LA Master Chorale. It's funny you should ask that. I was just about to answer that question before you even asked me. There is this collection of poetry called "I Never Saw Another Butterfly," and basically it's poetry written by children in this concentration camp called Terezin, in the Czech Republic. It's basically a fortress that was built by this guy in Prussia before it became the Czech Republic, but the Nazis used it as a concentration camp for Jews, so it's kind of a town that's built around this fortress, but the fortress itself was the actual concentration camp, and the town was also occupied by the Nazis.

It was a place where the Nazis would let the Jewish culture thrive because the Nazis wanted to look good in the eyes of the world community, and still were hiding the fact that they were exterminating Jews. So they wanted to give the impression that they were just occupying these ghettos and letting Jews keep their culture. So basically, they would let cultural things happen, and one of the things that they did was to let the children start a newspaper. And in this newspaper there were articles, poetry, drawn pictures. And a lot of this poetry was saved after the war ended, and most of the children did not survive—they died of typhus. I took six of these poems—and they are really heart breaking poems—and I set them to music score for a whole chorus, like 120 voices, a full orchestra, which is like 70 people, and two vocal soloists. And basically what I did was, I took the poetry and I arranged it so that it started from a place of darkness and despair, sadness and anger, and kind of morphed in tone so that the tone will change gradually, so by the end of the piece it was this ecstatic vision of life- affirming poetry.

You know, that is why I compose music—so that my music can be looked at as a gift to humanity. I think that all musicians ultimately want to contribute to humanity, in the sense that our music is something that has a healing effect on our troubled state of affairs. The poems were so powerful that I felt compelled to honor them as closely as I possibly could. I looked at every sentence, at every word in that sentence, and asked myself, "How does it make you feel?" Then I tried to musically describe that feeling, using everything I knew about harmony, melody, rhythm, orchestration, et cetera.

Emotionally, I envisioned my own boys with their hair matted and filthy, with rags on their bodies, their ribs showing, with tears in their eyes, and having seen murders, death, desperation. My boys were twelve and eight at the time when I composed it, so they were at the same age as many of these children. Needless to say, these constant daily visions, while musically motivating, were the source of great stress, depression, and angst. Still, I wouldn't exchange that experience for anything.

I did approach the words as though they were a soundtrack to the lives within the confined walls of Terezin—a soundtrack where a butterfly, with its gently fluttering yellow wings, represents a freedom these doomed children will never know—and has the same emotional weight as ..."30,000 souls who will see their own blood spilled." A soundtrack where ..."the dandelions call to me" and "death wields an icy scythe." The arc of the piece had to be a journey from darkness to light, from despair to hope. That tells the story of the resilience of these beautiful children. I wanted to emphasize that, in spite of all the unnatural shit that they have seen, they remain—as children most often do—optimistic, which requires such superhuman strength! There is a section on one of the poems, "Birdsong," where it says, "Hey, try to open up your heart to beauty; go to the woods someday and weave a wreath of memory there. Then if the tears obscure your way, you'll know how wonderful it is to be alive." It is so simple, powerful, and beautiful, that the music just made itself evident to me immediately. That passage to me is the central idea of the entire piece; it literally brought tears to my eyes as I was composing it.

I spent a year composing this piece. And when we performed it, we had, like, ten minutes' standing ovation, four curtain calls. ... I had people coming to me crying. ... It was, like, two hours before the last person left after the concert was over. It was the most amazing experience I have ever had.


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