Joseph and Roumain

ASU's Daniel Bernard Roumain: The sheer fear of creating new and innovative work

By

Lynne MacDonald

Daniel Bernard Roumain’s work as a composer and performer focuses on fostering awareness of and conversations about complex social issues. An Institute Professor in Arizona State University's Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, Roumain pays attention to conversations, controversies and resulting confrontations within our culture with the aim of bringing about change.

In January 2019, Roumain became the first Haitian-American composer to receive the American Academy of Arts and Letters Goddard Lieberson Fellowship Award, recognizing him as “a mid-career composer of exceptional gifts.” In 2018, he was awarded the Arthur L. Johnson Memorial Prize from the Sphinx Organization as an educator who transforms lives through his commitment to excellence and youth advancement.

Roumain’s latest collaborative work with Marc Bamuthi Joseph, “The Just and the Blind,” premiered in March at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall. The creatively visual multimedia work uses music, dance and spoken word to explore fatherhood, racial injustice and juvenile incarceration.

In the words of Anthony Tommasini’s favorable review in The New York Times, “… it was the raw, cry from the soul new work, ‘The Just and the Blind,’ that has stayed with me from my marathon ... a 60-minute piece by the spoken-word poet Marc Bamuthi Joseph, with music by Daniel Bernard Roumain. … Is this classical music? Perhaps not by traditional definitions. But it speaks to where Carnegie has come that it fit in at the hall just as well as the Vienna Philharmonic.”  

The new work was part of Carnegie Hall's 125th anniversary commission project in which Joseph and Roumain were invited to write a piece for Create Justice, a national initiative founded by Carnegie Hall and the Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network, which leverages the power of the arts for youth justice and reform. Create Justice, in collaboration and conversation with Carnegie Hall, commissioned the work with the support of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, The Kresge Foundation and a few other sponsors.

Roumain said the “very, very innovative” 75-minute piece features spoken-word artist Joseph, Roumain on violin and piano and ballet/flex dancer Drew Dollaz “doing this kind of combination of hip-hop and Martha Graham ballet dance on pointe.” Singer and Sony artist Somi, who was born in Illinois to parents from Rwanda and Uganda, also appears in the work, singing two songs Roumain wrote for her.

A parallel project to the work called "About Face"— a six-minute narrated online video that includes aspects of the live performance and a soundtrack created by Roumain —was also produced, in collaboration with YAKfilms.

“When Marc and I were creating this work, it was terrifying, because you don't know what the response is going to be,” Roumain said. “You don't know what the review is going to be, and you don't know how the audience is going to respond. You don't even know if you're going to have an audience. We had a sold-out performance, but you never know. All of these things are the sheer fear of creating new and innovative work.”

The creative process for the work began at ASU, Roumain said, when he and Joseph spent two days talking about the piece and coming up with ideas. Roumain started playing some ideas and Joseph started videotaping the ideas on his phone — ideas that not only ended up in the piece but became the first sounds the audience hears.

Roumain said he was excited that students from the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts Curb Creative Enterprise and Cultural Leadership class he co-teaches were able to attend the Carnegie Hall premiere, along with Johanna Taylor, assistant professor in The Design School. The students visited the Apollo Theater, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and several New York City arts organizations, and also attended a dinner with an array of New York City artists including ballerina Misty Copeland, who talked at length with the students.

Students from Roumain’s DBR Lab, a Project Based Learning course open to all undergraduate and graduate Herberger Institute students, also traveled to New York and had the opportunity to see Roumain’s Carnegie Hall performance.

Related: ‘Artists first’: DBR Lab at ASU

Roumain and the DBR Lab students recently returned from another trip to New York, where the group performed an evening concert at the internationally recognized arts space National Sawdust.  

As part of the DBR Lab course, students begin or complete a project that is published and/or performed by the end of the next semester. The students develop the project concept and design with Roumain offering guidance, supervision, mentorship, networking and other opportunities for growth.

“I hope I am managing to lead the conversation by example,” Roumain said. “I think it's important that student contributors, faculty and staff can literally see a colleague creating work that is relevant, sometimes controversial, high quality and part of an international dialogue. I think it's important that faculty, staff and students know that the innovations and the conversations that happen here all the time every day can end up somewhere that can make a difference.”