Michael Abels ( photo by Andrew Davis ) is someone who defies categorization for several reasons, including his music. Among his accomplishments are the striking piece "Global Warming" and "Aquadia," a co-commissioned work by the Chicago Sinfonietta and the Shedd Aquarium that was performed during the recent show "Sound Waves." ( The Shedd Aquarium is scheduled to run the collaboration in conjunction with a marine-mammal show, "Fantasea," which will open to the public Thursday, July 2. ) Abels, who is out, talked with Windy City Times about growing up in South Dakota, discovering identities and leaving a legacy and conveyed an easy confidence that comes from knowing oneself.
Windy City Times: You were born in Phoenix, and you grew up in South Dakota...
Michael Abels: ...as a very small kid, up until the age of six. Then, when I was almost seven I moved back to Phoenix.
WCT: What was it like being biracial in those cities [ in the '60s ] ?
MA: I tell people that my birth parents were both married, but not to each other. My father is Black or Latin, or just Black--I've never met him. Upon my birth, I was adopted by my mother's parents--the white side of my family. So I went to the farm in South Dakota.
I spent my preschool years there. I also had a lot of allergies. I was hospitalized with pneumonia twice before I was six. Back in those days, they sent people with allergies to the desert, where I was born. My aunt and uncle were living in Phoenix, and so I went there; they raised me until I went off to college [ in Los Angeles ] .
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WCT: So, South Dakota was almost hazardous to your health. [ Abels laughs. ] However, some good things came out of your time there, including the fact that you were introduced to the piano there.
MA: Yes. My grandparents were great, great people. First of all, they were fearless to adopt me in the '60s and take me to South Dakota, knowing I'd be the darkest person around. They told me that I was special and that they loved me very much. The simple wisdom that they used in raising me just struck me.
WCT: And you eventually went to L.A.
MA: Yes; I went to USC [ the University of Southern California ] . I knew at an early age that I wanted to live there. I remember going [ to L.A. ] at the age of nine and thinking, "This is where I should go." [ Laughs ] I went to USC because they had a great music school but I knew I didn't want to go to a music conservatory because I felt, in high school, that I was all about music and that I wasn't a well-rounded person. I wanted to be around people who just weren't musicians.
Then, I just stayed. L.A. has a particular vibe. When other people find out I'm from there, they say, "Sooooo, you like L.A." [ Laughs ] I get it; it's not for everybody. I've lived there all my adult life, so I get the vibe. At the same time, my career actually flourishes elsewhere when it comes to my concert music. I could definitely live elsewhere, and Chicago is on the list of places--not just because of the arts community, but in general.
WCT: I wanted to ask you about the Rev. James Cleveland [ the late minister who Abels arranged gospel music for ] . Tell me what he was like and about meeting him.
MA: Boy, this takes me back. [ Laughs ] I met him through a mutual friend who had sung with him; [ Cleveland ] was starting a new choir, the Los Angeles Gospel Messengers.
I had been raised by the white side of my family; the first time I really encountered the Black community was when I got to L.A., and I had to learn what [ that community ] was. I was comfortable being the darkest person in the room, but I hadn't been in a situation where I was the lightest person in the room. I've never been unclear about my identity but I wanted to understand myself better. I wanted to enculturate myself, so I used music. So with Rev. Cleveland, it was a great opportunity to experience things I wasn't familiar with. I wasn't raised in the Black church, so going to one was a really great way to get to know the community. [ Both laugh. ] So now I can look at something like last year's Rev. [ Jeremiah ] Wright from the inside and the outside, and it totally changes your perspective.
Rev. James Cleveland understood that music in the Black church is [ pretty ] much showtime. In the white church, people want to do high-quality music, but it's really not about it being a show. He was a good showman, and gave me, surprisingly, a lot of free rein to do what I wanted to do. When it came to the choir, he was hands-on; when it came to me arranging music, he was hands-off.
WCT: How would describe the style of music you compose?
MA: Wow, that's a hard one. Mostly, I get commission to write orchestral music; that's really how I define it. I don't define it by another genre because, in the world of music, stereotypes still thrive. If you nothing else about someone except the kind of music [ that person ] listens to, you're already assessing something about that person and we don't think about it as being wrong. And people use music, much like clothing, to make a statement about themselves.
In the world of classical/concert music, there's been a limiting stereotype that's developed. Those of us who are my age and younger who are involved in that kind of music are not isolated from the rest of the world; we listen to and enjoy every other kind of music. As a journalist, you probably don't read news all the time. [ Interviewer nods. ] If people really got that, they'd realize that concert music really isn't outside their realm of thinking. It's just another style of music, like country.
If I looked at myself as a classical musician, I'd write classical music. But when I write for orchestras, I look at myself as writing orchestral music. The orchestra, to me, is a band, a band that plays really well, and can play anything you write down. So I write the music that I feel. I let other people worry about what style it is.
I love world music. My best-known piece is "Global Warming," which I wrote in 1990. It's not about the climate phenomenon but how music of different cultures has things in common—it's about a warming of international relations that was happening at the time. The Berlin Wall had just come down, and everyone was getting along.
I see similarities between Black and Irish music, for example. My Web site has a prism on it, and that's because how I view myself. We are all unique prisms, and my job is to refract the light in the way that's unique to my prism. If there's a point of view that I can express, I use whatever style of music is necessary to illustrate my point.
WCT: Can you tell me about the "Sound Waves" performance?
MA: My interpretation of the program was that everything had some sort of wave theme to it—in my case, that being music that's aquatically, oceanically ... watery. [ Laughs ] So the Chicago Sinfonietta and the Shedd Aquarium agreed a couple of years ago to collaborate; Shedd was just embarking on a big remodeling of the facility, and they were looking for other things to bring people into their site—and they thought one thing would be to have chamber-music concerts.
At some point, they figured they'd have a show in the new Oceanarium. The sinfonietta had played works of mine over the years, and they [ recommended ] me. It turned out to be a really great collaboration.
In July, they're opening the show. We've been recording the music. The Oceanarium will open with this show when it's [ completed ] .
WCT: Let's talk about sexuality. When did you know [ your orientation ] ?
MA: Early,very early. You only discover what [ being different ] means as you mature. I didn't come out until very late, though. I came out when I was 28.
WCT: And how did your family react?
MA: With my friends, I came out gradually [ in my late 20s ] . Then, one day, I decided it was time to tell my family. I did it all in one day; I was on the phone for eight hours. [ Laughs ]
I debated telling my grandparents, but I wanted them to know who I was. But I first called my other aunt, who my grandmother was close to; this aunt was basically the caretaker of the family. I said to her, "Well, as you know, I'm gay. She said, "We thought that might be the case." And I said, "I wanted to let you know I'm going to call my grandparents and tell them." My aunt, who is the most loving person in the world,asked, "Do you really think that's necessary?" [ Laughs loudly ] I explained to her that I really wanted them to know who I am because, otherwise, I can't talk about my life with them, and that just seems unfair.
After I got her on board, I called them. People surprised me: The ones who I thought would have a problem with it were OK with it, and [ vice versa ] .
WCT: My last question actually goes back to music: What type of musical legacy would you like to leave?
MA: Wow, what a great question. [ What you want to leave ] changes at different stages of your life. When you're younger, it starts with what you imagine it will be, what you want to happen. Now I'm in mid-life so some of my answers are based on what I've noticed about my music and looking back.
What I've noticed is that my music has a sense of joy, overall, although in 2011 I may embark on the darkest piece I've ever written. I just know that, at the end of it, we'll be uplifted. I want to be a joyful person. Also, a lot of concert music doesn't communicate fun that strongly; a sense of joy is really key for me.
Besides being hired to do so, another reason I write orchestral music is for all those people playing together. When you think about how hard each person has practiced, and the rich lives they lead, I get all choked up, and that's why I write orchestral music. It's worth it. People think a team of people write the music; I actually write the music by myself.
I teach at a private high school in Santa Monica [ Calif. ] called New Roads. It feels like the less I resisted teaching, the more it came to me—and I finally got the message that I have a contribution to make through teaching. If you feel that you're called to do something, you have to embrace it. So I want to give as much as I can through my teaching until I'm told that I'm done.
See www.MichaelAbels.com . "Global Warming" is available on iTunes.com .
For more about "Fantasea," see www.sheddaquarium.org .