William Brittelle's Journey // Spiritual America
from the desk of Zach Manzi
Composer William Brittelle first worked with Nu Deco back in October 2016, in the group’s second season. We’re having Brittelle back to perform selections from his work, Spiritual America, on our April 18 show at the Arsht Center. Spiritual America is described as an “album of eight electro-acoustic orchestral art songs by William Brittelle exploring issues of secular spirituality in American culture.” Brittelle says that the project is “a vessel through which I attempt to reconcile my youth in a conservative Christian North Carolina household with my adult life as an ‘agnostic Buddhist’ living in Brooklyn.”
Spiritual America was premiered last year at Symphony Space in New York, and was recently featured at the Hollywood Bowl in an opening slot for Bon Iver and TU Dance. Brittelle had several collaborators in this project, including Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack (who make up the indie rock duo Wye Oak), Metropolis Ensemble, and Brooklyn Youth Chorus, with mixing by Zach Hanson at April Base, a famous recording studio just outside of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Jenn Wasner actually wrote one of the three pieces that we will be performing, and Brittelle composed a re-imagining of it. Several other organizations including the Alabama Symphony, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and Baltimore Symphony, and Palm Springs Art Museum were a key part of making the project happen.
In addition to his work as a composer, Brittelle is the co-founder of New Amsterdam Records, a non-profit record label “established on principles of community, artistic diversity, and stylistic freedom.” NewAm was created to help composers and performers hoping engage the public in new musical projects that are not bound by traditional genre distinctions.
Last week, Bill and I talked about bringing Spiritual America to Nu Deco.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
ZM: So William, I’m intrigued by the title of your piece, and after living in New York, appreciated your nod to “secular Buddhism.” How did this come about for you, feeling this dichotomy between your Christian upbringing and your spirituality now?
WB: My family left the church sort of against my will when I was 14 or 15, and so I think for a while I felt unmoored because I didn’t really make a choice about it. I have friends when I grew up religious and they gradually came to their own realization about it. But that wasn’t the case for me. I’ve realized that I don’t necessarily feel a dichotomy; I feel a fluidity of having really personal beliefs, some of which are culturally Christian and some are Buddhist. None of them are what I would describe as religious. Part of it was separating dogma from personal belief, but it’s not that I necessarily feel this opposition between the positive parts of the environment that I grew up in and what I’m attracted to now.
ZM: So it’s kind of like these things have been fused?
WB: Well, I think it’s a process of realizing that when engaging with any belief system, what’s really important for me is to figure out the way I want to engage with it. It’s just as unhealthy to engage in something blindly as it is to discount something completely, and I found that I was fluctuating between finding new things to believe in that I would fall into head-over-heels, meanwhile completely discounting the belief system that I grew up with even though there were some personal and family crises that I went through when I was still reliant upon that belief system. I would kind of fall back on that; it was engrained to the point where I realized I needed to reckon with that, as opposed to intellectually trying to think my way out of it.
ZM: Was this what took you naturally into writing the piece?
WB: So when my son, who is now eight, was born, he ended up in the NICU for a while. It was pretty serious–although he’s totally fine now. When that was happening, I found myself praying to Jesus, which I hadn’t done in twenty years. I made a mental note to myself that I would need to go back and look at this. It was something I needed to work through, and it made sense to work through it artistically. As I was working on some gnarly, experimental stuff, there was this other language coming out of my writing that I didn’t know what to do with. It was simpler and more direct, and I slowly started to realize that this language and this journey of reconciling my youth and adulthood were interrelated. So there wasn’t one epiphany or one grand application, it gradually emerged.
ZM: What was it like to see the whole thing come to life at the premiere last year?
WB: You know, what I’ve lived with more is the record. In between the premiere and the Hollywood Bowl performance, I spent something like 260 hours mixing it. So I have lived with the music that way more, and I also make very detailed mock ups of the work. It wasn’t surprising, just a different kind of challenge. It’s also the case that each piece on the album, except for a couple, had been commissioned and premiered individually along the way by other symphonies. So it was piece-by-piece, that’s why it took so long to make.
ZM: Yeah, I noticed the list of collaborating organizations is pretty long. Did they approach you and express interest in working together?
WB: Exactly. I would get approached to do something and I would say, well this is what I’m working on and what I want to do. There were a couple instances where I did a couple things I thought would be part of the project and then weren’t. I tried to gear all of my focus over that period to the project because it kind of became an obsession. Baltimore Symphony was a big one because Wye Oak is from Baltimore, and it was really cool to have the opportunity to work with them on that scale.
ZM: Did you know from the beginning each of these pieces were going to be part of something larger?
WB: I think it felt like a story that was best told on a certain scale. There was a very personal narrative through-line, but I really wanted to try to do something that felt more universal and relatable. Scale was one of the ways I wanted to do that.
ZM: We are looking forward to playing a part in bringing that story to life on April 18. Thanks for your time, William!
WB: Awesome, thank so much. See you soon.
See Nu Deco perform Spiritual America, as well as the music of Copland, Ben Folds, and New Zealand multi-disciplinary artist Kimbra at Adrienne Arsht Center on April 18 at 8 PM. Buy your tickets now!