Daniel Gilliam and I have been friends for years. One of the things I like most about Gilliam is his knack for surprising me.
Gilliam is a quiet, affable man, a good listener, and modest about his talents. But he also has a great sense of humor that can sneak up on a person like a ninja.
The program director and afternoon host of WUOL, Classical 90.5, Louisville’s Fine Arts Station, Gilliam is a trained musician and composer. When I received a Facebook message from him inviting me to a rehearsal, I wasn’t sure if it was a joke or an error. Despite the fact that I play piano, Gilliam had tagged me by mistake, but it was too late — now he had to tell me everything about his new projects, which include a free concert with his ensemble A/Tonal on Saturday, March 1, at IU Southeast.
Gilliam has been working with A/Tonal for the past year. When Gilliam arrived back in Louisville with his family after a short stint as program director for Classical Minnesota Public Radio, his friend and fellow composer Erich Stem, associate music professor at Indiana University Southeast, approached him with an idea: a chamber ensemble performing new music and old music in a new context.
A/Tonal has grown out of this idea, with Gilliam and Stem writing for the group and guiding the ensemble’s aesthetic direction. A/Tonal consists of a core group of musicians: Amy Ensel on flute, Jessica Dorman on piano, and Stem’s fiancé Carrie Ravenscraft on clarinet.
Their first concert will focus on living composers, including Pulitzer and Grawemeyer winner Karel Husa and Pulitzer and Grammy winner Jennifer Higdon.
During this concert, Gilliam will also premiere his new work, a piece he describes as quiet and pensive, “The Aggregate of Our Joy and Suffering.” The title refers to a quote from Carl Sagan upon seeing the Earth as “a pale blue dot” from Voyager I:
From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering…
That image of the Earth and Sagan’s words moved Gilliam. “That one line stood out to me.”
The piece has no direct correlation to the image or to Sagan’s quote, Gilliam tells me, “I see it more as an expression of how the words moved me.”
During the performance of Gilliam’s piece, a short video will accompany the music. “A lot of groups are doing this these days. It gives a visual element or dance to the music.”
Ryan Daly, who has directed videos for Wax Fang and Rachel Grimes, created the video.
A/Tonal is not the only iron Gilliam has in the fire. In October, he premiered “Jesse Stuart Songs,” a song cycle for voice and piano for which Gilliam set to music five poems by former Kentucky Poet Laureate Jesse Stuart. A complete recording of “Jesse Stuart Songs” is available on Soundcloud and Gilliam’s webpage danielgilliam.com.
Over the coming year, Gilliam hopes to release a collection of his work. The Governor’s School for the Arts, of which Gilliam is an alum, has provided him with a stipend toward this project. At the time of our interview, he did not have a release date.
A formally trained singer and musician, Gilliam plays guitar and piano.
Gilliam began composing music in high school when he transferred to the Youth Performing Arts School. Later, he graduated from Samford College in Birmingham, Ala., with a B.A. in music and continued to study music composition at the University of Kansas where he earned his master’s degree.
Many of his peers were pursuing academic careers, but Gilliam did not want to go that route. “I want to make it on my own without the academic background. If I teach, I want to be hired for my experience, not for the doctorate.”
Other projects on the horizon for Gilliam include a piece commissioned by the Kentucky Center Chamber Players, a quartet of local performers, former Louisville Orchestra members, and retired University of Louisville faculty. The scheduled performance date will be in January 2015.
Gilliam also has been commissioned by the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony Orchestra in Iowa to write a piece on the theme of rivers, something he feels particularly drawn to having always lived in river towns.
Never one to rest on his laurels, Gilliam is always searching for new opportunities and creative collaborations. The contemplative work he has performed or been commissioned to compose suggests that Gilliam is most comfortable writing for chamber ensembles.
So, I am surprised when he reveals his latest collaborations: two opera projects, both with fellow Louisville Public Media cohorts — arts and humanities reporter Erin Keane and WFPK host and Moth Story Slam producer Tara Anderson. These librettos, Gilliam tells me, are very much in the infancy stages and will require funding for orchestration and production.
“They may be more DIY productions.”
Juggling so many projects in addition to a full-time job and a family with school-aged children may sound exhausting, but Gilliam is genuinely happy to be involved in so many creative endeavors. He feels lucky to have an understanding spouse and an employer that supports him as a composer.
Be on the look-out for Gilliam’s many premieres this coming year. A/Tonal will perform this Saturday, March 1, 8 p.m. at the Paul W. Ogle Cultural and Community Center at IU Southeast.
This is a free event that you can learn more about on the ensemble’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/atonalensemble.