Darian Thomas Self-Portrait.
I wanted to find out more about Brooklyn-based interdisciplinary artist Darian Thomas after hearing and his track ‘Marble,’ which was released on May 29th part of a stunning compilation ‘String Layers’ from 7K!
After getting to know him a bit better, it turned out that much like his music, Darian is a multi-faceted, exacting and forward-thinking artist that is carving his own exciting creative path.
Darian, we’ve been in lockdown for almost 3 months now, how are you faring?
I’m good…I am trying to stay centred, calm, muted (laughs). Of course, there are some days where the anxiety builds (pauses). I realized that I haven’t processed all of this with sadness yet, you know? I am a violinist for Moses Sumney and we were supposed to be on tour right now… a couple of nights ago I would have been playing at the Sydney Opera house with him and later this month, one of my pieces was going to be played by YOSA (Youth Orchestra of San Antonio) and the pianist Adam Tendler at Carnegie Hall (!) But ultimately my friends and family are safe and healthy and that’s what matters.
In the sea of cancellations and postponements, many artists have used this time to create and connect with their audiences. Have you felt that you have evolved artistically over the past couple of months?
For sure, I have always created with the idea that music is space and that I want to bring people into a space where they can process something together. I like to create a sense of escapism for audiences with music and I have definitely reclaimed some freedom in expression there that I have gotten away from over the past couple of years.
Did you compose ‘In times of panic, I like to stay still’ during this period?
Yes, this was my first response to everything that was happening. It was at the time that there was a lot of frenetic energy around whether to stay or leave the city. I decided to retreat to my room and to create a space for myself that would help me process my situation and help me be clearer headed and that’s what came out.
It’s a great piece. I listened to it on a loop a couple of days ago and it really helped bring a sense of calm over me –
I’m glad –
What was the inspiration for ‘Marble’?
Well, (laughs) in its original state it’s a piece I wrote for a wedding. I went to a Catholic college and there were many weddings…one day the Director of Music Ministry, Lena Gokelman who is also an organist asked me if I could create something that could be played in a loop – it was always impossible to predict the time it took for a bride to reach the altar. So, I composed a piece which had various switches in it to give the player different options. I added electronics to it later so it would feel fuller for the purpose of recording –
That’s really cool… so, when did you first started composing?
Well, my mother tongue is not classical music. The music of my parents is pop & rock – my parents had a small music label in Texas when I was a child, so I always had different artists coming through the house. My dad was known for being one of the first people in our city to have a home studio, which is part of the reason why I veered towards composition – I think I felt like I could do what my dad did! It was never really a question.
And at what point did you start playing the violin?
I started playing in 6th grade and I started taking it seriously in High School. I decided at that point to listen to classical music exclusively because I thought it would make me a better musician (pauses) there was a lot of coded elitism that crept in. I went on to study music and composition at college, and developed a highly dissonant style, which I started to move towards when a professor encouraged me to pursue forms or sounds that had become counter-intuitive to me.
So since leaving school, I decided I wanted to break my ear back into exploring how music works in real and different spaces because I wanted to create music for people to inhabit as opposed to music that could be alienating. I wanted to immerse myself in different sounds and ended up joining 8 bands in Texas and 6 since coming to New York!
When you were composing in an academic world, did it feel different from the way you feel when you are composing more freely?
Definitely, the appeal when you are writing for an academic crowd is that the path and the process feel more linear – you work towards mastering certain structures, techniques – it’s almost like solving a puzzle and you can shape the responses of your professors by incorporating elements that they will appreciate. But when you chose to pursue or create ‘other’ – it’s absolutely terrifying, it’s grey and … fog! (laughs) There is no path, it’s really a case of ‘who knows? Figure it out’ – you have to build a path for yourself.
Was there a moment where you made the decision to pursue ‘other’?
Yes absolutely, and I know the exact piece where this happened –
Was it Fluid? I loved this track!
Yes! (laughs) People respond to it well, which always feels good.
When did you write it?
About a month before I moved to New York, I realised I needed something to share that would express who I was an artist. By chance, a friend of mine who owned a venue asked me to compose a 30-minute piece of music for a party that he was hosting for the San Antonio River Authority. It was for the next week and there was no budget, but I decided to go for it!
I remember the process very well – I had my midi controller next to me, logic on my main desktop and Sibelius open on my laptop and my violin in my hands. I felt like for the first time, I had figured out a workflow and was in a place where I could look at all parts of myself – the part from parents, the part from academia. It felt so good to work in all these places at once – and I was able to create something in my voice.
How was it received?
Very well but I think it was a lot to do with the inspiration and the context of the piece – it’s inspired by the Yanaguana river in my hometown.
I found it very beautiful and it has this cool, refreshing effect –
Thank you! I didn’t know how it would translate to people in New York without context. But I had a really amazing moment soon after arriving in the city when I met one of my idols Sarah Kirkland Snider in a class and she responded well to it – it was a huge moment for me and one that helped me stay steadfast to stay true to myself in what I was creating.
Are there other specific artists that have influenced you?
My father definitely, but Tchaikovsky was the artist that made me want to pursue music seriously. I was inspired by the fact he was so concerned with capturing the ‘Russian sound’ of the time and was also what pushed me back into listening to pop music again. I realized I should be paying more attention to what was happening around me.
Do you have a piece that particularly inspired you?
When I was playing Serenade for Strings with my orchestra at school, I I found his Violin Concerto and I thought ‘I play the violin but I don’t know what a concerto is, ‘let’s listen to that!” After hearing the 1st movement, I was inspired to play as well as the musicians, after the second movement I had cried to classical music for the first time and wanted to write in a way that would move others in the same way and after the third movement, I want to learn to conduct so that I could bring people together in experiences that are that joyful and exalting.
Later, I found the minimalists who helped me understand that I could participate in music with my own aesthetic. The other artists that are important to me are Sarah Kirkland Snider as I have mentioned but also Kelly Moran and Angélica Negrón. Moran’s “Through the lens of unvarying focus,” Negrón’s “Drawings for Meyoko” and Sarah Kirkland Snider’s album “Penelope” all made me feel like I could say what I wanted to say and write using percussion, strings, synths together and that it could sound unified and like ‘me.’
Darian Thomas self-portrait.
They are all remarkable artists…. I am also a great admirer of Moses Sumney – how did your collaboration come about with him?
I actually met Moses when I was on tour with Kazu Makino, which came about through one of my favourite musicians – Ian Chang. We were playing a show in LA and I met Moses there. A month later, he gave me a call asking me to come on tour –
I love his music because I find it fiercely honest but delicate at the same time –
Exactly – he is a completely self-aware and confident artist and is one of my favourite models of masculinity. He is able express what’s inside so masterfully and is vulnerable and secure in such an authentic way. I believe this confidence borne of self-awareness is a healthy and powerful role model for masculinity –
I know you were supposed to be on tour with him right now – but do you think we will find an alternative for live performances if we can’t come together in the short-term?
Yes, I do. I read something which said that our goal is not to come back from this doing the same thing that we were doing before, our goal is to come out knowing what to do that is new. I think we will need to reinterpret and reassess how create performance experiences beyond live streaming and there are already artists making fascinating online content –check out Porter Robinson’s website at the moment and also what the 1975 have done. These are great examples of recognizing internet as a space – and a space where you can visit.
I agree with you that there is a great opportunity for music to be presented in a fundamentally different way moving forward –
Yes… I recently worked with an amazing New York based video collage artist called Sam Cannon who hosts a TV series every week. For the show, I sent her a video and she responded to it visually in real time. I think she has a really cool concept of what space can be – I feel space in her work too.
That’s what’s great about New York – it seems to attract people that are pushing harder for something…
You’re right, you don’t come to New York to be comfortable. People come to pursue what’s new and to make new things – that’s kind of the mindset. It’s partially why everyone’s stressed all the time, which seems antagonistic for a lot of people but there is something beautiful about it too. Everyone wants to move forward– that’s been very important to me as a growing artist to be around that energy and that mindset.
Do you think that attitude with change with what’s been happening in the world?
No, I still think it’s happening and even more so because of the crisis. Now more than ever, if there was ever a place to figure these things out it’s here, particularly because we have been very badly impacted and confronted by the failure of many systems around us. You come to New York to plug into that energy – we are a place of creating change