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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Dave Burrell

It's hard to believe, but we've been getting to enjoy Dave Burrell's wonderful Rosenbach-inspired compositions for over five years now. We first started collaborating with him back in 2006, to accompany our exhibition Look Again: African American History is American History. That first year sticks out in my mind because I had my second child during the run of the exhibition and while I was in the hospital a doctor came in, looked at the chart at the foot of the bed and noted my insurance and employer. The Rosenbach, he said, isn't that the place with the Dave Burrell concerts?

So thank you Dave, for five years of bringing your fans to our collections and bringing our collections to life through your music.

For anyone who hasn't had the pleasure of seeing him work, or hearing him talk about his process, Dave takes his role at the Rosenbach incredibly seriously. We call him a musician-in-residence, and while that term can mean many different things, for Dave it really means residence, as in spending lots of time here at the museum. In between his busy concert schedule, which has him flying to Europe, Africa, and beyond (and having me wish I could hide in his luggage), Dave keeps a standing appointment in the reading room for months on end, coming in twice a week to look at primary sources, read reference materials, and bounce ideas off the staff. We haven't even had our 2012 concert yet and Dave has already asked me about my availability to start looking at materials for next year!

The annual process usually starts with the identification of a theme. We know that for 2011-2015 the concerts will be focusing on the Civil War, so the question was what to look at within that broad area. This is a collaborative process between Dave and the staff. Last year's concert was "Portraits of Civil War Heroes" and had a decidedly military focus. It seemed likely that 2013 might also have significant military content because of the Gettysburg 150th, so we all thought that having a chance to focus on civilians this year might be a welcome opportunity. Plus, the themes evoked by the civilian experience, such as patriotism, worry, and loss, seemed like they had great musical potential.

After there is an agreed-upon theme, we in the collections department work with Dave to identify relevant collections materials and secondary sources. From his research he then comes up with topics, and preliminary titles, for particular songs. The titles (which often morph over the course of the composition process) seem to be very helpful to Dave in organizing his thoughts. One of the first one he came up with this year was "Code Name: Cheap Shot," which describes a composition about spies in the war, inspired by our Belle Boyd scrapbook, Rose O'Neal Greenhow letter, and ciphered telegrams. The idea of a musical piece incorporating the rhythm of a telegraph relaying messages really captured Dave's attention and you'll have to come next week to hear how he ended up working it out! "Three Way Tie," about the Commissions (Christian and Sanitary Commission) was another fairly early concept, coming out of materials relating to the Philadelphia Sanitary Fair of 1864.

This year, after identifying his topics and looking at our materials, Dave asked about seeing related materials at other area institutions, so I had the great pleasure of getting to introduce him to our colleagues at the Union League and the Library Company. Many thanks to them for their generous help!

Enough yapping from me. Just come next week to hear Dave's performances (next Wednesday at 6 and Saturday the 21st at 2 & 7) All the details are on our Programs Page. There should also be time for some Q & A after the performances, so you can hear from Dave himself about how he turns 19th-century texts into into 21st-century music.

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