‘What It Really Means To Be Human’: Composer Brian Raphael Nabors On Music, Moving ‘Onward’

Nov 20, 2019

What a banner year for composer Brian Raphael Nabors. The 28-year-old Birmingham native just finished up his doctorate in Cincinnati, acted as a composing fellow at three organizations across the country and is about to head to Australia on a Fulbright scholarship. Also in 2019, as winner of the national Rapido! Composition Competition, he was commissioned to write a new piece for the Atlanta Symphony to premiere this week, “Onward.” Nabors sat down with GPB’s Sarah Zaslaw to talk about this time of growth.

Interview Highlights 

On his musical work ethic

I've just kept working. I kept applying for things. My teachers, they always gave me more opportunities. And I kind of got high off of the sea of opportunities that were coming in, so I'm like, ooh, I want to stay in this space. It’s a commitment to my music and refining my craft every chance I get. I often say that I want to beat myself every single day. I want to continually get better every time I choose to write a piece of music.

On where he finds ideas

From anywhere. Sometimes they come waking up in the morning. Sometimes I'm sitting at the breakfast table. You could be in the shower and something might come. But usually for me it starts with just raw emotion. And then I think about, well, if I'm feeling that I want to lift someone up who's going through some sort of tumultuous adversity in their life, and it starts from a dark, kind of angry feeling, what would that sound like? What instruments do I need to really pull that off?

On changing career plans as a teen

I was going to be an architect because I didn't see music as a career. I didn't know. I was going to all of these architectural firms on Saturdays. They had one program where we were building light fixtures and taking tours around downtown Birmingham, looking at all the different Gothic cathedrals and all the modern buildings. And then one Saturday, I was like, okay, I just can't do this anymore, because I'm going to music lessons every week, I'm playing more than I am interested in this. By the time I started writing like 10-minute choral pieces and doing that at the same time, not only was it stressful but I felt as if I could be tired, sick, about to fall out and still be able to write music, still be able to produce something that I was proud of, [whereas] I felt like I had to be in a mood to draw or to calculate.

On whether he is often one of the only people of color in a musical setting

A lot of times, yes. I never really think about it too much anymore. I just consider myself a composer. And more and more, I'm seeing people who look like me, people of color from all different backgrounds, trans composers, all different sorts of underrepresented groups coming out of the woodwork to tell their stories. I think it's a beautiful time that we're in. A lot of organizations are waking up and realizing that, you know, dead white men aren't the only people who who write music. We need more women composers, more people of color, everyone to just come out and share their part of the world, because we're literally all here together as human beings. And there are so many different stories to tell and so many different opportunities for people to get healing and for people to get some sort of feeling of belonging in this art form. Music is so communicative and powerful, and it’d be a shame not to tell each of these stories from every end.

On his new piece, “Onward”

“Onward” sounds like moving forward. We're kind of stuck as human beings moving in a constant stream of forward motion, and you can think of it philosophically; you think of it as the journey of our lives. It's kind of a celebration of life and everything that your dreams mean to you as you discover different things about yourself and what it really means to be a human. It always feels like you're being pushed forward. I can almost envision a person's life from the moment of conception and their whole journey into the end, which you have this big, huge string melody come out that kind of sums up that person's life and how they gradually pass on into the next phase of existence. It ends on a very light orchestration where things just kind of drift off into the atmosphere.

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The Atlanta Chamber Players perform “3 Dances” by Brian Raphael Nabors, Rapido! national finals, January 20, 2019