There's More Than Music on His Mind


Often the term "composer-in-residence" means "composer-in-ivory-tower," with the artist safely ensconced in a mainstream cultural palace or academic institution. But composer Michael Abels has taken up working residence in an altogether different sort of tower--the soaring concrete-and-tile whimsies of Simon Rodia in Watts.

Abels has been selected to participate in the New Residencies program of Meet the Composer, a national, musical evangelism organization headquartered in New York. Sponsored by the Watts Towers Art Center, Cornerstone Theater Company, the USC School of Music and the Housing Authority of Los Angeles, the three-year residency is intended to give a composer a chance to make music and to give music a chance to make a difference in people's lives.

For Abels, talk about the power of art is more than pious rhetoric.

"People want their lives to matter," Abels, 35, says, "and one of the easiest ways to understand that is to play music with other people--in an ensemble your voice matters, yet you contribute to something greater. When you play a drum with others and you are in the beat, that's how a community is built--with like-minded people pooling individual contributions. You get a sense of your own power to contribute and you can take that into every aspect of life."

"Composing seems a solitary activity, but we have the idea that composers should be an integral part of the community," says Laura Kaminsky, vice president of programs for Meet the Composer. "The process is more important than the product. I believe this is a strong model of how artists can grow and help stimulate social change."

The residency calls for Abels to compose a piece for the USC Percussion Ensemble (to be premiered Sept. 27 at the annual Day of the Drum festival at Watts Towers), incidental music for a Cornerstone production next spring and a piece for the USC Symphony to perform in Watts. Abels also will teach a recording and music appreciation class at the Watts Towers Art Center and in the sponsoring housing projects, deconstructing popular music and recording student re-creations of particular rhythms, melodies and the like. He also plans to establish a mentoring program, with USC students as role models and coaches for local high school students.

The residency carries an annual stipend of $40,000 and some project expenses, paid for by Meet the Composer and the local consortium.

"I'm very optimistic and also a little nervous," says Mark Greenfield, the Watts Towers Art Center executive director. "This will require raising some extra money, which may be hard for some of the consortium. It will be interesting to see if we can live up to our own hype in L.A. about the place of the arts in our city."


Born in Phoenix and raised on a farm in Britton, S.D., Abels has been fascinated by Los Angeles since he first visited the city when he was 8.

"My whole background makes me very natural for this project," he says. "I'm mulatto. My father was African American, my mother was German Irish, and I was adopted by my mother's parents. The idea of this project is to build relationships between divergent communities--I'm a product by birth of divergent communities and my music is the product of divergent communities."

Abels began piano lessons at age 4 and performed the first piece he ever really finished, for piano and orchestra, at a summer music camp when he was in junior high school. His L.A. fascination brought him to USC to study composition, and he stayed on after graduating in 1984, living in West Hollywood and supporting himself by scoring radio and television commercials, which allowed him to work in many different styles, but soon left him unsatisfied.

"In 1988, I had a personal epiphany," Abels recalls. "I finally realized that if you don't love the music you are writing, it doesn't mean anything to say that you are a working composer."

So Abels left music-as-business and began composing "just as an avocation." A tall, rangy bicyclist and former triathlete, he eventually found satisfying work for the company that produces the California AIDS Ride and similar events around the country.

Ironically, his concert career took off once he switched from full-time composing. One of his first "avocation" pieces was "Global Warming," a five-minute orchestral work suggesting an international mixture of ethnic musics. "A juxtaposition of elements unleashed in an irresistible display of orchestral color," wrote a critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "Global Warming" has now been played more than 70 times by orchestras around the world.

"The music I write is usually about something else, there's a point that I'm trying to make, and I use whatever style I need," Abels says. "It's important that music move me emotionally."


About this time Abels discovered a new kind of music that moved him, when he began attending a gospel church. Contacts made there led to some arranging for acclaimed gospel master the Rev. James Cleveland, and from there to making arrangements for gospel choir and symphony orchestra that have been performed by various groups, including the Atlanta Symphony on its PBS program "A Gospel Christmas."

"Gospel choir and symphony orchestra represent incredibly different musical styles--both valid--and to put them together, preserve the essence of both and still make it work in the end is very exciting," Abels says. "The impact on the community can be huge. It introduces the gospel people to the symphony orchestra and it introduces the concert people to the urge to stand up and dance."

Now in its sixth year, the New Residencies program receives applications from local partnerships such as the Los Angeles consortium. As Abels' concert reputation burgeoned, he found himself nominated in proposals from groups in other cities, and in fact won one. He was loathe to leave Los Angeles, however, and declined. When the L.A. applicants needed a composer to pull their project together, Meet the Composer put them in touch with Abels and a match was made.

"My goal for this residency includes writing some things--which I hope resonate with as many people as possible--and to get people to appreciate the value of music in their own lives," Abels says. "Ultimately, I want to be an irrelevant or replaceable part of a process that will continue here long after the residency, as long as people are passionate about music."

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