News & Features » Miscellany

Part Two

The Composer Next Door


"I am not in an ivory tower," Kelley says, days before Walter makes her comment. "I have always maintained that music is useless without people. If I don't have people who appreciate me and that I'm connected to, what's the point? The partners who brought me here quickly figured out that I'm more into the people involved with the arts than with the arts on a pedestal." Kelley, 35, speaks in a low, mellifluous, almost lazy voice, a voice like sweet, slow molasses. His shaved head and wire-rimmed spectacles give him the look of a serious scholar, and while he is serious about music, he's anything but stuffy. When asked to name his current musical favorites he names pop-group TLC and R&B crooner Brian McKnight in the same breath as modern composers John Adams and Michael Torke.

Growing up in Henderson, N.C., Kelley remembers his first meaningful encounter with music — hearing his two older brothers playing the funky sounds of George Clinton and Parliament and Funkadelic.

His second musical epiphany occurred when he was about 10 years old and he and a friend discovered the music section at the Henderson Public Library. "We broke out a Copland record and also a record of African-American composers," he recalls. "It's strange to know a musical style is out there that you haven't heard before." The two soon plowed through the library's entire collection.

Kelley played trombone, tuba and piano through middle school in Henderson and in high school at Choate Rosemary Hall, a prestigious boarding school in Wallingford, Conn.

A high-school guidance counselor encouraged Kelley to apply to Choate after Kelley's father, a sixth-grade teacher, died the summer before he was to enter ninth grade. "I think she had extra sympathy for my potential when she saw my father had died," he says, acknowledging that Choate was hardly a natural choice for a middle-class African-American kid from Henderson. Kelley's outstanding academic performance won him a full scholarship to the school, which today charges $26,415 for tuition, room and board.

"We're coming out of the '70s, I'm coming from a working class, small town in the South, going North to be with upper-class kids from the North," he says, shaking his head at the memory. "I was one of 25 blacks out of 900 and some students ... there were a lot of cultural adjustments." But Kelley, with his soft-spoken, gentle manner and infectious enthusiasm, managed to find his niche in the rarefied Choate environment.

Kelley returned to North Carolina for college, attending Duke University, where he decided to major in music after spending a sophomore semester in Vienna with the Duke University Band.

It was in Vienna, while surrounded by the legacies of composers such as Haydn and Mahler, that Kelley composed his first piece of music, a solo piece for tuba that he today compares to "goofy 'Gilligan's Island' music." He also wrote a piece dedicated to a woman he had met in Vienna. "It was the first piece that really meant a lot to me," he recalls, then laughs. "Most of my first pieces were about women."

When he returned to Duke he signed up for his first music composition class with Pulitzer-prize winning composer Robert Ward, and continued studying with him throughout his undergraduate career.

During their last session together, Ward offered Kelley a bit of advice: "If you want to pursue this composing thing, even though the world celebrates the Beethovens and Haydns ... don't forget there are people out there like Edward Greig. Don't ever have shame about what you do ... just go with your heart."

Kelley was surprised. "Up until that time, composing was just something I did — it wasn't something I saw myself doing for a living," he says. "It didn't dawn on me to be a composer until then, when he was telling me I could be a composer. He led me into making that my intent."

[image-1](Scott Elmquist / Style Weekly)Ivy Newman, 17, decided to apply to Oberlin College, known for its prestigious music conservatory, after she started studying with Kelley. Not only did she get into Oberlin, but she received a significant scholarship. "Before I met Mr. Kelley, I was going to major in psychology at U.Va," Newman says.Kelley stayed on at Duke to study composition as a graduate student. His master's thesis, a 15-minute orchestral piece called "Crosscurrents" written in 1990, has since been played by at least nine orchestras, including the Detroit Symphony, Atlanta Symphony, North Carolina Symphony and most recently the San Antonio Symphony.

Described by a critic as "a seamless blending of European neoclassical and African-American folk idioms," "Crosscurrents" combines jazz and blues influences with traditional European classical orchestral elements. This blending of cultural references has come to characterize all of Kelley's subsequent works. "The Breaks," a piece commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra in New York for a Carnegie Hall premiere, contains musical "breaks" like those found in jazz pieces. Each break is a portal to a new musical style, Kelley explains, "it breaks into a weird percussion world, a Michael Jackson tune, a Latin bass line." Even the title is a play on "The Breaks," a popular '70s rap song by Curtis Blow.

"There is a whole lot of blending of cultures in my work," he says. "What else could I write?"

Kelley's work draws on a wide variety of influences, from his favorite composer Franz Lizst to his musical hero, jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal. "Sometimes you're accused of turning your back on your own community if you enjoy European-derived artistic products," he admits, "but at the same time I enjoy African-American-derived cultural products. I am in daily engagement with that issue."

With pieces such as "Africamerica," the piano concerto he composed during his residency, and which is also serving as his doctoral dissertation for a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley, Kelley addresses this issue outright. "'Africamerica' straddles worlds," he says. "I wanted that to be a conscious feature. But that's what all my music is about."

His blending of pop and classical idioms results in a musical style that is accessible, sometimes surprisingly so for those who think modern American orchestral music has to be minimalist, dissonant or atonal.

"When any of us in the arts faces the charge of the arts being elitist, no one refutes that charge more successfully with every ounce of their being than Anthony," says Miller of Theatre IV. "You never think of him as an award-winning composer. ... He's the composer next door."

While Miller has offered Kelley a position at Theatre IV for next year, he wishes Kelley well in his new endeavors at Duke and understands his need to move on.

"There will definitely be a void [without Anthony]," the Symphony's Walter says. "He has really unearthed a tremendous number of youth who are involved in composing. These kids have not had an advocate, and all of a sudden the symphony is playing their music. I'm hopeful that the influence he's had on the symphony's outreach will live on, I think as a composer we have a friend for life."

Even Kelley, though he has landed a nearly ideal job, has mixed feelings about leaving town. "I got more involved than I thought the circumstances would permit," he admits. "But I can't imagine losing touch with the people who have meant so much to me over the past four years. I call it 'growing my back yard.' I'll always have ties to Richmond."

Jump to Part 1, 2,