Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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DAVIS, Anthony

(b 20 February 1951, Paterson NJ) Pianist, composer. He studied classical piano and was turned on to improvisation by listening to Thelonious Monk. He obtained a degree in music at Yale '75; though remaining on the East Coast he was influenced by Chicago's AACM (which see), working with George Lewis, then Leo Smith, including recording as a sideman on Smith's Kabell label; he also recorded with Oliver Lake, Leroy Jenkins, Barry Altschul, Marion Brown, Chico Freeman, George Lewis, David Murray, and others. He liked the AACM's 'open-ended view of improvisation' but found that he wanted to write structured pieces that could incorporate improvisation, and found himself inventing an opera form using many influences: German composition, African- American improvisation, creating forms from world rhythms, e.g. the Carnatic music of South India; and above all American dramatic material. His father (Charles T. Davis) had founded the African-American studies programme at Penn State after the murders of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King; brother Christopher suggested the story, and his first opera X: The Life And Times Of Malcolm X (libretto by his cousin Thulani Davis) was performed in Philadelphia '85 and at the New York City Opera '86. A recording of it on Gramavision was nominated for a Grammy '92.

His own first album was the solo piano Past Lives '78 on Red/VPA, deeply influenced by Monk and including 'Of Blues And Dreams', reprised by a combo on Of Blues And Dreams the same year on Sackville. One of his influences was the Indonesian wayang form; another solo album Lady Of The Mirrors '80 on India Navigation included 'Wayang IV', aka 'Under The Double Moon', which became the title track of a duo album '80 on MPS with vibraphonist Jay Hoggard. Octet Epistome '81 on Gramavision included two wayangs. Other albums were Hidden Voices '79 and Variations In Dream-time '82 on India Navigation and Hemispheres '83 on Gramavision. The title composition on Middle Passage, again on Gramavision, was commissioned by pianist Ursula Oppens, and later developed into the opera Amistad '97 (again with libretto by Thulani), inspired by Robert Hayden's poem 'Middle Passage', about a rebellion on a slave ship in 1839. (An a cappella choral work, 'Voyage Through Death To Life Upon These Shores', was also inspired by the poem.) He is also interested in fantasy; 'Maps' has three movements including 'The Ghost Factory', suggested by a painting by nine-year-old Timothy Davis about what happens after death: the factory removes bones from bodies and turns out ghosts. An album called Undine on Gramavision was followed by another called Ghost Factory.

Davis was interested in rap, but was troubled by 'the sampling and the idea that there is no sense of ownership ... in my generation it was much more appropriate to voice original ideas' (quotes from interview with Jerry D'Sousa in Coda). String Trio Of New York With Anthony Davis '96 on Music and Arts was a set of Monk, Mingus and Ellington tunes played with John Lindberg, bass; James Emery, guitar; and Regina Carter, violin. In 2012 he once again contributed as a sideman, working with his old friend Wadada Leo Smith on Smith's ambitious and widely acclaimed Ten Freedom Summers.

Davis has become best known as an important composer of American operas. Under The Double Moon became his second opera '89 (libretto by Deborah Atherton). Tania '92 was based on the Patti Hearst kidnapping, with surreal elements of black comedy about switches of identity; the libretto was by Michael John La Chiusa, and a recording was released on Koch in 2001. Then came Amistad, of which a recording was released in 2008 on New World. Wakonda's Dream, first performed in 2007, had a libretto by Yusef Komunyakaa. Lilith (2009), about Adam's first wife, was based on the acclaimed play by Allan Havis, who wrote the libretto. Lear on the 2nd Floor was premiered in 2013.

He has written numerous orchestral and chamber pieces commissioned by half a dozen different orchestras and ensembles. His Notes From The Underground (1988) is an effective rhythmic drama with complex polyrhythms and variations, accompanied by a trap drummer throughout. He wrote the music for Tony Kushner's Angels In America: Millenium Approaches, Part One and Part Two, Perestroika, both '93. His Restless Mourning was an oratorio for mixed chorus, chamber ensemble and live electronics, setting the poetry of Quincy Troupe and Allan Havis as well as the 102nd Psalm, powerfully commenting on 9/11.

In 2015 Davis was collaborating with director Robert Wilson and Cuban composer and percussionist Dafnis Prieto on Dream of the Spider, about the Cuban revolution, and also had two musical shows in development: Shimmer, about the McCarthy Era, and Tupelo, about Elvis Presley.