Intro from Jay Allison: In public media, we’ve been talking a lot about voice — about how to incorporate a wider range, so that many colors, variations, and styles (read: America) are afforded credibility, trust, and authority on the air. Plus, an eclectic sound like that will be more interesting, and even harmonious. Which brings us to Transom's World Premiere of “Colliding Stories: Musical Bridges” from hip hop artist Billy Dean and classical guitarist (and old friend) Ben Verdery. This work brings together the venerable with the new, black with white, youth with age. It’s beautiful and moving, and it’s a metaphor for the very collision, collaboration, and possibility in our broadcast future. Keep the conversation going.
Ben Verdery: My daughter Mitsuko asked me during the holidays if I’d heard her friend Billy Dean’s new music. I hadn’t, but immediately started listening and was captivated by the tone of Billy’s voice and the varied textures she was using in her music. I loved it!
I’ve known Billy since she was eight. I remember her improvising on our little upright piano; I remember eavesdropping, thinking: This girl is a musician. Like me, she has to create music. It is not an option.
Billy Dean: Since I was eight years old I have been living by the quote “There are no mistakes in art.” I began playing piano at Ben’s house. I was constantly exploring beyond my artistic boundaries. He would yell, “Keep practicing girlfriend! It’s sounding good in there!” encouraging my passion and creative exploration. Ben’s house became my creative safe haven. He’d never heard any of my songs until, behind my back, Mitsuko played one for him.
Immediately after, I received an email from Ben stating that he appreciated the musicianship of my cadences, content and instrumentation. He said, “I am attaching ‘Allegro’ by Bach and I was thinking it might be perfect for you to rap to.”
Ben: Why did I think Billy and I should rap over this Bach work? Because musicians from all cultures can relate in some manner to Bach’s music; it is truly music without borders. Given the rhythmic nature of the Allegro as well as the harmonic and melodic structure it seemed a natural for Billy.
Billy: I was super excited to mesh hip-hop with classical, two genres I love. I was also thrilled that Ben, a professional musician, thought that I was worthy of an innovative partnership. I must have listened to the song ten times on my own and thought it wasn’t possible. However, I remember thinking: If I can write verses for a Bach arrangement with no drums or bass I can write to absolutely anything. I had to structure my brain around what I needed. A pulse. A beat. I decided to beatbox over the tune to give myself guidelines for arranging the lyrics to work with the movements. I began to memorize the melodic ups and downs, the retards, the refrains, everything. All I needed was some great content.
Ben: When she asked me what she should rap about, I suggested her love of music. She did this and more. Her lyrics are moving and honest.
Billy: I thought: Allegro means happy, so I should write about what makes me happy. Of course the one thing that keeps me in a healthy state of mind and spirit is my music. I wanted this piece to be a tribute to music. It was also an opportunity for me to showcase my knowledge of different musical styles and genres; many people assume that hip-hop artists only listen to hip-hop.
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Ben: What brings Billy and me together is music itself, just like she says so movingly at the end of “Black Bach.” What makes it work is our mutual respect and the fact that we trust each other. We are not judging what the other is doing musically. I like to think this is one of the reasons the music sounds sincere and breathes.
“Start Now” was originally a solo guitar piece, part of a set of 11 Etudes I wrote in the late 90’s. It is rhythmically dominated by two different rhythms. Because of the groove and general upbeat feel of the piece it seemed a natural for Billy to rap to. Here I played it on my baritone guitar, which I love and feel really fits this new version. Concerning the lyrics, all I suggested to Billy was that she use the title somewhere in the piece, which she did splendidly. This morning I found myself singing her lyrics to “Start Now!” The title is a direct tribute to the American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron’s book, Start Where You Are.