Chris Childs' outsider orchestra

Veteran percussionist assembles 25 local musicians for the debut of '\'sīlən(t)s\'

Wednesday September 23, 2015 04:00 am EDT
Chris Childs, a veteran of Hello Ocho and Faun and a Pan Flute, talks about the inspirations for his composition “\ˈsīlən(t)s\” and the orchestra behind it

A few nagging particles of dust gave Chris Childs the time to start his most ambitious composition. The 28-year-old percussionist and composer had the day off from work at his construction job after getting some painful microbes caught in his eye, and used the free time to bang out a melody on his piano. That melody turned into a deeply personal three movement composition titled "/ˈsīlən(t)s/," performed by a 25-piece orchestra whose membership embodies Atlanta's musical evolution.

When Childs started to conceptualize his vision for the aptly named Chris Childs Orchestra, his formal training in large-scale composition was nonexistent. "The Orchestra started as a whim," Childs says. "I had a vision but I didn't have the formal training at all other than having played a lot of compositions."

Despite an absence of compositional training, his résumé as a musician weaves through some of Atlanta's most innovative groups. Childs' ability to bring music school discipline to dingy rock venues and avant-garde spaces helped to develop the sounds of Hello Ocho and Faun and a Pan Flute, in addition to collaborations too numerous to count. His history in Atlanta's music scene also allowed him to draw on a wealth of talent in his orchestra, which features members of Faun, Book of Colors, Little Tybee, Dux, Lily and the Tigers, and the Clibber Jones Ensemble, as well as acclaimed jazz saxophonist Eric Fontaine.

Childs started writing "/ˈsīlən(t)s/" in the summer of 2013, right after wrapping up the recording of Faun and a Pan Flute's self-titled debut. Writing music with the nine-piece was helpful training, but composing for an orchestra proved a different experience entirely. "Faun is a very open environment in that if an idea is proposed and doesn't work it's understood that there's no hurt feelings and we move on," he says. "I don't have that in the orchestra because I'm creative director and the only critic is myself."

Though he spent high school going through the gauntlet of marching band and studied for five years in college as a percussion performance major, Childs writes for a host of instruments he has never played. The orchestra's final instrumentation is voice, flute, bass clarinet, violins, violas, cellos, basses, French horns, trombone, and a host of percussion instruments. He taught himself to write for all of those instruments while being careful not to compose anything technically impossible, a process that led him to a unique level of collaboration with his orchestra.

Typically, composers hand down their music as if written in stone, a rigid set of instructions dutifully performed by the orchestra without question. Childs' lack of composition experience has led him to check with the performers to ensure the music makes sense on their instruments. "In rehearsal we shape the music collaboratively," he says. This unusual creative collusion helped to refine and give a precise execution to a deeply personal piece of music.

"/ˈsīlən(t)s/" benefits from communication between writer and performer, but the piece's entire shape hinges on an emotional narrative specific to Childs' life. The three movements don't share any motifs or overarching melodies. Following in the vein of composer and influence Dmitri Shostakovich, the piece explores sharply contrasting ideas, juxtaposing sparse melodies and grand dissonance. Childs' emotional response serves as the backdrop that gives cohesion to the isolated movements.

"The piece's connective tissue is the emotional reaction I get when I hear the music," he says. Due in part to frustration and other responsibilities, Childs would often write in chunks, taking long breaks in between different sections of the music. As a result, "/ˈsīlən(t)s/" is a timeline of experiences, a string of events and feelings synthesized into one piece of music. "It's like a string of photographs that I took over the past two years, and in that way it's very nostalgic even though it's not that old and it's not an overly sentimental piece," he says.

The second movement, for example, was written in a rush after the absence of a loved one, what Childs calls a "desperately sad" time in his life. He emphasizes the piece is straightforward, candid with its emotions like Childs is in his own life. But the strength of "/ˈsīlən(t)s/" doesn't come from a direct retelling of Childs' experiences, but his ability to abstract those emotions in an approach that's subtle enough to resonate in a specific way to everyone in the audience. Ultimately, he says, "everyone's reaction will be different."

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