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For composer Derrick Spiva, music is all about movement

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Composer Derrick Spiva practices in his studio. His new piece, 'Prisms, Cycles, Leaps,' will have its premiere with the LA Chamber Orchestra this weekend.
Courtesy of Hannah Arista.
Composer Derrick Spiva practices in his studio. His new piece, "Prisms, Cycles, Leaps," will have its premiere with the L.A. Chamber Orchestra on Sept. 19-20.

Whether he's writing for synchronized swimmers or dancers performing to African- and Indian-influenced sounds, Spiva keeps rhythm top of mind.

Derrick Spiva is a composer who works on both land and in the water. Well, not literally — but he has composed music for synchronized swimming teams. It’s all part of his interest in the relationship between music and movement.

Spiva’s latest percussion-heavy work, “Prisms, Cycles, Leaps,” will have its premiere Sept. 19-20 with the L.A. Chamber Orchestra. When Spiva joined us at The Frame studio, we talked about his varying influences, his interest in West African percussion and composition, and how "Apollo 13" changed his life — and still didn't scare him out of wanting to be an astronaut.

Interview Highlights:

Tell us about the instrumentation in the piece, "Dance in 3, Move in 2."

This particular piece is four guitars, two violins, hand percussion and electronic percussion, as well as a small chamber string ensemble and vocals. It's kind of a hodgepodge of instrumentation.

How did that track come about? Do you hear the instrumentation, the vocal chorus? What's your first inspiration?

For that track, I was actually inspired by some North African music that I was listening to — it had a blues taste to it. And then also I'm really fascinated with rhythms — North Indian tala and stuff like that.

One of the things that I like to do is take little chunks of rhythm that you don't think would go on top of each other, and I try to find a way to actually make it seem natural so you don't even notice what's happening.

What is it about African percussion that intrigues you so much?

To me, the most unique aspect of the West African music that I studied is the fact that it really seems like an orchestra — with the percussion instruments, the dancing and the singing.

When one of those pieces that's inspired much of my recent music is executed, each person is playing a different part on a different instrument, the dancers are dancing a specific dance, their feet create rhythms and sometimes they'll also have bells on their ankles that will create rhythms, and there will be singing and clapping.

All of those things together create an orchestra of percussion and song, and there's a lot of complexity there because it's all rote learning — they don't have sheet music. [laughs]

But it's also very communal. It's not like the orchestra is playing for a dancer, or a dancer is dancing to orchestral music. It's all incorporated.

Yeah, if you're there, you've gotta get involved.

I understand that the movie "Apollo 13" played a key role in your becoming a musician. What's that story?

I wanted to be an astronaut, and I saw the film "Apollo 13," and contrary to what most people would think — you see that movie and you're like, I don't want to go into space, we'll get stuck out there — I was drawn to all the adventure, like, Oh my gosh, that just seems so awesome. But I had a lot of allergies when I was a kid, and I was like, Man, you have to be really healthy to be able to do that, you can't have all this extra stuff.

So I started thinking about why I was so drawn to being an astronaut. Was it just the movie? I really liked the soundtrack by James Horner, and I listened to it so many times that I was like, Man, the music really inspired me to want to do this. So I wanted to be involved in having an effect on people and seeing what my music can bring to the human experience.

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