Interview With Darin Atwater
Composing His Thoughts

Many throw around the term “maestro” rather loosely. But the moniker fits like a glove for Darin Atwater.

At first, the Gospel community knew him for his formidable keyboard skills, primarily as fixture with Richard Smallwood’s groups, touring in concert and on recordings such as the Live at Howard University album.

But the depths of musicality are much deeper than what might first meet the ear. Darin AtwaterPlaying piano in church at the age of 4, and finding a God-planted love for directing, composition and keyboards, he went on to study in prestigious schools such as Morgan State and the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University.

In recent years, Maestro Atwater has found his niche in the Gospel symphonic sphere, orchestrating in a brilliant fusion of Gospel and classical not only for Smallwood, but also for Yolanda Adams and Shirley Caesar on recent projects.

The DC native explains how he got to the podium, beginning with how he got his first break.

“When I was a freshman at Morgan State, pursuing a bachelor of arts degree with emphasis on piano, Richard Smallwood came to the university with the Smallwood Singers for a concert there."

“Afterwards, one of my professors introduced him to me, and we forged a relationship. And maybe a year or so later, he was in need of a keyboardist for an upcoming tour. He actually gave me a call at the school —I was taking my finals. He said to come by his house, so I did, and I played for him. Actually, I already knew all his music, because growing up, he was pretty much one of my mentors."

Darin Atwater Conducts
Click for review Click for review Click for review Click for review Darin Atwater conducts on these projects.

Click on the above CD covers for reviews.
"That same night, I got on the bus [with the group] to Akron, Ohio, which was our first stop. So I went on tour with him that same weekend."

It’s an incredible story, surreal even. Things began to develop very quickly for Atwater after that.

“The tour experience, that was awesome man, very, very exciting. That whole element was one that I found myself to be very comfortable in, in terms of his music and the whole environment."

“So, I was on the road with them for three years. I recorded with the group for the Live at Howard album, then I took some time off and got into composition work. I came back with Richard for the Detroit project (Healing...Live in Detroit)."

Atwater also climbed the mountain with Yolanda Adams on her smash Elektra debut, Mountain High...Valley Low, taking the baton for the sweeping power number “That Name” from the project. He also stepped into the studio with Shirley Caesar on her recent Christmas album, and diversified slightly by grafting classical elements into the urban backdrop of The Choir Boy’s independent project. Regardless of the situation, he describes the single element that is crucial in everything.

“You have to be real sensitive to the artist, whether it be with Richard or with Yolanda, and you have to really sensitive to the arrangement. Even though I’m putting my signature or my hand to it, I’m really trying to relate it to the artist as well.”

For Richard Smallwood and Vision’s 2001 project, Persuaded, Live in DC, Atwater again collaborated with the renowned artist. He outlined the way that the co-operation usually takes place.

“Richard and I are so much alike, we’re usually on the same wavelength. For collaborations, I usually write some music and send the tape to him.”

“I might get a tape in the mail —the choir’s rehearsal tape, with Richard on piano and Vision on vocals. He pretty much gives me the freedom to do what I feel with it. We have much the same background, in terms of a classical underpinning, and I’m so familiar with his music that I sort of flow the same way. It’s really not something that I can explain.”

Darin Atwater“I compose using my computer a lot of times, so I can generate midi files. I’ll put a file on tape for him, or maybe play it over the phone. And he’ll say ‘Yeah, that works’, or else he’ll say that maybe he wants something more."

"For example, [on Persuaded], “Procession of the Levites” originally started off with an 8-bar theme on what he had already written. Richard called me and said, “Well I think I want a longer procession, we’re going to have dancers, so I want it to be 3 or 4 minutes”."

So I went back and took a theme or a germ of some other element in the piece and just expanded upon it. That just deals with compositional technique more than anything else, using themes and motifs and things like that. That’s how that song came about."

“Once we’ve got what we want, I’ll go back and sketch it out for orchestration. Maybe I’ll sit at the piano and let Richard hear it, or maybe we’ll go over sketches of it on the computer. And then I’ll sit down and totally transcribe it for orchestra. That’s the way it works, and the process has been real successful for us.”

Successful is an understatement, as the album has garnered much acclaim, and seems destined for award territory. But the Maestro is not content to rest on his laurels. He has his heart set on a ground-breaking project close to his heart.

“I recently formed a group called Soulful Symphony, and we did what I call a ‘recording for archives’ in early 2000. That was the debut of Soulful Symphony, where the whole concept was introduced. That’s my baby right there! It’s a large group compromised of instrumentalists and vocalists, and we’re going to be targeting a tour of concert halls in the coming year, with an amalgamation of spirituals. We intend to record next year [in 2002]."

Persuaded concert video clip Click on the above image to download a clip from the Richard Smallwood video, with Darin Atwater conducting.
“The project will be called Songs In A Strange Land. That’s the first piece that we’re dealing with, but the whole concept is using Gospel music in sacred music and extending the form.”

“I think we [in Gospel] have been dealing with vocal forms only in terms of three- to five-minute radio-play songs. We’ve gotten away from listening to the music, having the music being connected. Here we have a whole movement, maybe 30 minutes in length. That’s what I’m really trying to do, to extend what we’ve been dealing with."

“I hope to take people on a musical journey. We’ve been so vocal-driven that instrumentals have taken a back seat. Just like it takes many senses to experience things, there’s so many colors in music, and we ignore so many of them. There’s a plethora of ideas we can take to the instrumental side, and to the vocal side too of course.”

Atwater terms the entire body of his work, Spirituals for a New Generation.

“Yeah, spirituals developed from an acappella tradition. It was my goal to bring these spirituals to a new generation, to this new millennium, with integrity. What I’ve done is bring new arrangements to a lot of spirituals, added a lot of rhythm to them, and reintroduced the drums, the symphonic aspect of them."

Atwater went on to explain that when these spirituals were originally sung, they were usually sung acappella because slaves were not allowed to use drums, due to the potential for insurrection and uprisings.

While vocalists are an important element of the group, Atwater describes the musical element as a full symphony orchestra, but with a twist, in terms of the composition of members and instruments.

“Soulful Symphony has a 34-member full string ensemble. And then we have a rhythm section and a brass section, which sort of gives it a big band type of vibe. And a lot of the guys who play brass double on woodwind, clarinet or flute. So it’s kind of a different setup than a standard orchestra. And then we have 22 vocalists."

Darin Atwater“If you were want to describe it in orchestral terms, it’s rather like a chamber group. Less strings, less woodwind, more rhythm and more brass.”

To pull all the members together, Atwater relied on his considerable networking opportunities over the years.

“I made my debut as pianist/composer with the National Symphony Orchestra in 1995. I met a lot of African-Americans who were union musicians, but who may not have been able to get full time jobs with the orchestra. Most of them were trying to make ends meet as junior players, but God put it on my heart to pull them together as one unit. Some of they guys in the brass section, they had been playing Gospel at church, or maybe jazz. And the vocalists, a lot of them I’ve been in touch with over the years. It took about five years in total put together the overall vision."

Right about now you may begin to wonder, ‘so what makes this symphony soulful?’. It’s a good question, because after all, the instruments themselves are the same as you would find in any regular orchestra. The answer to that is where thing really become interesting, as Atwater explains:

“These musicians bring their classical training and technique to the Soulful Symphony. But they also bring their ability to improvise, and THAT is a big part of what this is all about. It’s a combination of improvisation and composition."

“That’s also what I bring to the group, from my technical side of things, as well as being able to improvise in the Gospel style."

The concept of an orchestra prone to improvisation at first sounds more chaotic than soulful, more dischord and noise than harmony. How do you get twenty people to improvise in the same way? But with a quick laugh, Atwater is quick to explain exactly how that works.

“I may write out a piece, and say, I want the string players to improvise on a chord. And so maybe two of the string players will come up with a line, like we may do a simple two-bar measure, and I’ll say, ‘Everybody try to grab that 2-bar line’. It’s improv, but it’s still composed. This way gives them the input and gives them a chance to capture their ideas."

“In fact, you could call it capturing the improvisation and putting it on paper. I try to take what they brought to the piece and recompose it into the framework of the composition. Of course, it has to be logical within the framework of that, if the improv comes out of left field, then that just wouldn’t work. So the new line needs to go along with what we’ve been dealing with in the piece. Everybody has an input in certain parts of a song, and generally string and woodwind players show that flexibility.”

Darin AtwaterIf you take even a cursory listen to what’s hot in Gospel today, you will of course recognize that the Gospel sound is flexible enough to be overlaid on many musical styles —jazz, hip hop, R&B. And classical.

“I’m taking elements of Gospel music, elements of classical music, and although Richard Smallwood has done those kind of things, I don’t think he’s done it on this scale, in terms of using the orchestra as a canvas to create sound. Whereas he may use the piano and vocals or rhythm section, I may have the whole orchestra play with the rhythm section playing [simultaneously] —totally orchestrated for a total sound."

“My influences have come with all of my experiences, from church, from study of the classical composers. But I don’t think there’s only one person at this point that I could say I lean on, with respect to a major influence. I’m kinda defining my own sound.”

Another project that Atwater is working on has taken him to Texas.

“I’m working on a project with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and T.D. Jakes’ Potter’s House Choir. It’s a Maschill for piano and orchestra. That’s a term I got from the Psalms. A lot of times when David talking about playing skillfully before the Lord, he terms that whole song a 'maschill'. So I’ll be playing that as a pianist. Then I’ll be conducting the Potter’s House for a symphonic work I’ve composed. We’re going to record it in the future, and I’m talking to a couple of record companies."

And so it appears that we're far from hearing the final chord from Darin Atwater.

— interview by Stan North
(October 2001)

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