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Composer deVon Russell Gray: ‘My work is a mirror’

Gray, aka dVRG, is a classically trained composer, multi-instrumentalist and new-music performer who finds himself in a surprisingly good place, like the eye of a storm.

deVon Russell Gray shown in the Icehouse courtyard in August.
deVon Russell Gray shown in the Icehouse courtyard in August.
MinnPost photo by John Whiting

COVID-19 has turned countless lives upside-down. According to Americans for the Arts, artists and creative workers are among the most severely affected segment of the nation’s workforce. Ninety-five percent report loss of income. Sixty-three percent have become fully unemployed.

deVon Russell Gray isn’t among them. In fact, he finds himself in a surprisingly good place, like the eye of a storm. Gray, aka dVRG, is a classically trained composer, multi-instrumentalist and new-music performer. He doesn’t play a lot of gigs, nor does he want to.

A longtime member of St. Paul’s famed rap/hip-hop band Heiruspecs, Gray recently joined them for the 2020 virtual version of Central Honors Philando, an annual community event that celebrates Philando Castile, killed by police in 2016, and supports a scholarship in his name. At this moment, in Gray’s words, “I am happy to have no other live performances of any configuration or type on the agenda.” He’s free to focus on composing, splitting his time between an apartment and what he calls his “creation laboratory,” both in St. Paul.

A graduate of Perpich Center for Arts Education, Gray went from there to the New England Conservatory. He returned to the cities in 2003 to tour full time with Heiruspecs. He performed with Brother Ali in 2013 at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, performed and recorded with Chastity Brown and played around town with his friends.

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In 2015, Gray received a Cedar Commission from the Cedar Cultural Center and later premiered his string quartet, “Fractious Child,” informed by classical music and the writings of James Baldwin. In 2017, he was chosen as a McKnight Composer Fellow.

In 2019, he was awarded one of the inaugural Jerome Hill Artist Fellowships, a two-year grant for early-career artists. Soon after, he was named composer-in-residence for the Schubert Club for a two-year term beginning Sept. 1, 2019. COVID has messed with that. Gray was able to premiere a new work, “Make the revolution irresistible,” with the acclaimed string ensemble Accordo in February 2020, but a Courtroom Concert originally planned for April was canceled.

As a perk of his residency, the Schubert Club has loaned him a 1920 Steinway grand piano from its museum that once belonged to Swiss composer Ernest Bloch. “It lived in the museum for years,” Gray said. “I had played it. I thought, I wonder if they could loan me an instrument? I sent a note asking and they said yes, without hesitation.”

As always, this conversation has been edited and condensed.

MinnPost: What did your 2020 look like before the pandemic moved in?

deVon Russell Gray: January 1 came, and I knew what the entirety of the year was going to look like. And I was really excited, because it was the first year in my career and life where all or many of the pieces had fallen into place.

I was going to be financially secure. I was going to be secure in my housing situation. I had tremendous amounts of support in my work and in my life. And I had travels planned, had invitations that were beautiful, had commissions. It was going to be a full year of amazing things.

A longtime member of St. Paul’s famed rap/hip-hop band Heiruspecs, deVon Russell Gray, left, recently joined them for the 2020 virtual version of Central Honors Philando.
Screen shot
A longtime member of St. Paul’s famed rap/hip-hop band Heiruspecs, deVon Russell Gray, left, recently joined them for the 2020 virtual version of Central Honors Philando.
I started the year as music director for the production at the Children’s Theatre, “Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds.” That was the dose of vitamin D that I needed in January and February in Minnesota. That show ended on March 1. I think I had one gig after that, playing duo with [drummer] Davu [Seru] at Khyber Pass on March 12. And then we were in it.

The end, right before the end, was so good for me. After that, some things were postponed, some things were moved, some things were shifted. But I was also very fortunate that none of my gigs went away permanently. Any money that was on the table was still offered to me. All the gigs I had pre-pandemic are still in process. I think I’m the only person I know in that situation.

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[NOTE: Here’s a video of Gray and Seru playing an improvisation together.]

MP: What, if anything, changed for you?

dVRG: In March and April, I tried to be as vigilant as possible. That meant locking down. I wasn’t even coming into my studio, even though it’s a secure space and I could reasonably be the only person using it. My friends who are more cautious than me and had been in other parts of the world during pandemics taught me to take [COVID] seriously. So I did. I stayed home.

But I’m a composer, and I can do a lot of the work wherever I am. I just know that working from home is problematic. Home can be a little too comfy sometimes. I focused on my friends and family and knew that the work was still going to be there.

I saw lots of debate with friends about “Are you creating during the pandemic? Or are you just not doing shit, because that’s also a valid choice?”

MP: What choice did you make?

dVRG: A little column A, a little column B. Sometimes I work, sometimes I don’t. But that was true pre-pandemic. Self-preservation is a big part of my work ethic. I don’t want to ever work too hard. I’ve heard anecdotes about some friends who burn the candle at both ends and make themselves sick. I don’t want to be one of those.

MP: There’s an interview with you from October 2019 where you talk about using your Schubert Club residency to write your first opera. You describe it as “monodramas … one actor or vocalist, small chamber ensemble, just one scene … separate little works that could work independently or be strung together for an evening-length something.” That was pre-pandemic, but it sounds like the perfect pandemic opera. 

dVRG: It is! My opera was always going to be sort of stream-friendly, or digest-at-your-own-rate-in-your-own-space-friendly. I haven’t had to shift my thinking much, other than that I’m probably not going to be in the same space with any of my friends at any given point. So that’s sad. But everybody has a space or somewhere in their town where they can record, and we’ll just collaborate the best way we can.

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MP: Given COVID, will your Schubert Club residency be extended?

dVRG: We talk about that pretty regularly. I’m still participating in artistic committee activities for the Schubert Club’s board of directors. And I’ve been planning an all-African Diaspora Black composer recital that’s still in the works. I’ve been planning that with Garrett McQueen and my friend Jacob Dodd, who’s the music director at Pilgrim Baptist Church. That’s been moved from a live concert to a streamed event, probably in the spring.

MP: Garrett McQueen has more free time now that he’s been fired by MPR.

dVRG: Sadly, he does.

[NOTE: You can hear McQueen’s statement and that of his co-host, Scott Blankenship, on Opus 66 of their podcast “Trilloquy,” which aired Thursday, Sept. 17.]

MP: Are you finding this a good time or a bad time to work?

dVRG: We knew back in 2016 that this was going to be a good time to make art, because there was going to be horrible shit happening. I’m still on that same train. … Wartime artmaking.

MP: Where do you go for inspiration and motivation?

dVRG: To the beautiful humans I come across. … I’ve had some beautiful people in my life who have exposed me to things I may have found on my own at some point, but they’ve accelerated my growth. I’m in a very present, activated moment. My work is always a mirror. It’s always a time capsule of whatever’s going on in my life and around me and my friends’ and family’s lives right now. Everything seems absolutely macro and micro at the same time.

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MP: Where were you when you learned about George Floyd’s death, and how did that affect you?

dVRG: I was at home alone, in isolation. And I was in shock, and the shock lasted for at least two weeks. The fires had raged and subsided before I really understood what had happened, and had a moment to own it and to break down about it and to get mad about it in the right way.

MP: What, for you, is the right way?

dVRG: To understand that the activism and energy of the youth is beautiful and justified, but also to understand the truth of the systems and how our society works and how we want it to work, recognizing what it’s always meant to be Black in America. It’s a lot.

MP: Do you feel as if things have gotten to a point this time where they can’t go back? How much of that is the pandemic?

dVRG: It’s because of the pandemic. The perfect storm. Because it could have been Tamir Rice, it could have been Sandra Bland, it could have been fill in the blank. The anger is always there in Black America, but we don’t always have the energy built up at any given moment. We’re always just so tired, and tired of being tired.

If these were normal times, we would have gotten back to normal business faster. I’m hopeful and excited to see what kind of organizations pop up now, led by folks half my age. And I’m hoping to see some institutions that have been around forever die and not come back.

MP: As a Black man raised in the Twin Cities, where the orchestras have traditionally been white, how did you get into classical music?

dVRG: It was the first time I walked into Orchestra Hall. It was a closed rehearsal for Sommerfest. I was 14, so I didn’t know who any of these people were. I didn’t know what the music was.

I was there on a field trip with Minnesota Youth Symphony’s Summer Jazz Orchestra. I played saxophone at the time, and flute a little bit, but nothing orchestral. So I walked into the hall and they were playing this really beautiful music that just instantly captivated me. Later on, I learned it was the opening movement of Beethoven’s Seventh. And on the podium was a young upstart, Eiji Oue. That might have been his first or second appearance here.

As soon as I heard that, I shifted my life. After that one experience, I became a classical musician. That’s why I picked up the bassoon. That’s why I ended up at New England Conservatory.

I loved Classical MPR and listened to it daily. That’s because students need to hear the repertoire. You need to be immersed in it. And I used to go to Minnesota Orchestra concerts all the time. I’d get comp tickets from one of the players or someone in the administration would allow me to use their discount. I was studying bassoon with Carole Mason Smith of the SPCO and went to SPCO concerts often. Loved it. Ate it up. I felt that was going to be my path. I was going to be a conductor. I wanted to make that music myself.

But that was like a third of the repertoire I should have been hearing, because I wasn’t hearing things by women and I wasn’t hearing stuff by Black composers. I had to figure that out when I got to NEC. And I’m still learning things today that I missed and wish someone had pointed out earlier in my life. But we find things we need when we need them.

Also, I loved the Minnesota Orchestra back then because Bill Eddins was on staff. I got to see a Black guy doing that gig. And that was meaningful.

[NOTE: Eddins was the orchestra’s associate conductor from 1992-97.]

Composer and musician deVon Russell Gray, aka dVRG, is a questing, seeking, curious, intense artist on our local scene.
Courtesy of the artist
deVon Russell Gray: "We knew back in 2016 that this was going to be a good time to make art, because there was going to be horrible shit happening. I’m still on that same train. … Wartime artmaking."
MP: Do you think the events of this year will shape the music you compose in the future?

dVRG: I was already on that trajectory. My music has always been about my experiences of being Black, human, and American in the now, making this music in these spaces. I feel like I was already heading in this direction. I was already thinking these things. And then that cop did that heinous thing. And I guess my resolve is just strengthened. I was already there.

One of the artists I was hipped to this year is Dread Scott. And again, it’s someone I would have come across at some point, but because of interactions in my life I was pushed toward him earlier. Some of his work has been more influential on me this year than music, and music is usually the thing that moves me the most.

MP: What keeps you up at night?

dVRG: Money woes. I’m secure at the moment because I’m mid-fellowship, mid-residency, and had good gigs at the top of things. But because the structure has changed so much, I feel like the playing field has been leveled for a lot of us, even folks who are levels beyond me or levels below me.

We don’t know how we’re going to make our money. Where’s money gonna come from? How are things going to restructure? What makes sense? Should we be looking forward to some future where we’re back to pre-COVID concert attending levels? When is that ever gonna feel comfortable again?

MP: Is there a bright spot anywhere in this for you?

dVRG: I think people have had to take stock of what really matters to them. Now more than ever, people understand how important the art in their life is. So I hope they are understanding how important the artists in their life are. I’m seeing good and wonderful kindness from arts organizations.

MP: What’s the first thing you’ll do when you can do whatever you want?

dVRG: I miss Paris. And now I’m doubly drawn to Africa. I played the Cape Town Jazz Festival with Brother Ali and that was gorgeous. I have yet to travel there to hear the good music or be with my people, whoever my people are.

***

We asked Gray what he’s been listening to lately. He responded with “what’s been on my playlist of late and sticking. Meaning many listens.”

  1. Funkadelic: “Maggot Brain” (1971)
  2. Brandy: “b7” (2020)
  3. Du Yun & Jack Quartet: “A Cockroach’s Tarantella” (2020)
  4. Dua Saleh
  5. Doudou N’Diaye Rose (“on repeat”)