- An Interview with Joseph Britain
In January of 2014, I attended an event at the governor’s mansion in Jackson where Governor Phil Bryant proclaimed 2014 as the “Year of the Creative Economy—A Mississippi Homecoming.” I began thinking about how The University of Southern Mississippi and other organizations with which I work could participate in this statewide project in meaningful, lasting ways. My thoughts ranged from commissioning concerts to operatic performances and other projects that would have special significance for our state. The idea of a “Mississippi Homecoming” led me to think about the creative artists and performers who were born or raised in Mississippi, but who no longer resided here.
While planning these projects, I came across an article about Natasha Trethewey, a native Mississippian who is our state’s poet laureate, and who received two consecutive appointments as the poet laureate of the United States from 2012 to 2014. I began reading more about Trethewey’s life and reading her poems in her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Native Guard, and decided to invite her to come to Mississippi as part of the “Year of the Creative Economy.” After discussing possible dates for her participation, she agreed to come and serve as narrator for a new musical piece based on Native Guard, poems which I found to be very powerful and musical. Combining her poetry with music would offer an opportunity to present this important literary text in a new setting and to a new audience, some of whom would be hearing Trethewey’s poetry for the first time.
I commissioned Joseph Britain to compose the orchestral score on the Native Guard, the most extensive classical piece he has written for our orchestra. Originally from Mobile, Alabama, Britain is a graduate of The University of Southern Mississippi and now lives in St. Charles, Missouri. While Britain spends most of his life working on church music, he is an extraordinarily [End Page 137] talented musician who is comfortable in writing and performing all genres. In the past, I have worked with Britain on many projects, but most of those centered on popular music. But, more recently, I commissioned him to compose works in a more classical tradition, and so Britain’s music worked beautifully with Trethewey’s poetry. I found his music to be elegant, haunting, and evocative of the tone and themes of Native Guard. His orchestral piece Native Guard lasted approximately twenty minutes and opened with the sound of a lone trumpet playing an elegiac melody that runs throughout in many different forms. The world premiere of the musical version of Native Guard took place on Thursday evening, November 6, 2014, in Bennett Auditorium on the campus of The University of Southern Mississippi. Surprisingly, though, the only time that the author, the composer, and I ever had the opportunity to work together was on the day of the performance.
This project gave me a unique opportunity to combine a portion of this magnificent literary work with orchestral music. I hope our performance will be the first of many so that audiences across the country can hear the power of Trethewey’s words coupled with Britain’s beautiful music. To have had the author serve as the narrator made the occasion an even more powerful experience for me and the audience.
The following interview with Britain helps to document this historic occasion for him, Trethewey, and me as the conductor. It is based on several telephone conversations with Britain in September and October of 2014. I am grateful to Marshall Corzette for transcribing the interview.
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You are the composer of a new musical composition based on Mississippi and United States Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey’s Pulitzer-winning book, Native Guard. How did you respond to the invitation to write the score for Trethewey’s Native Guard?
I was asked to write a musical background for Native Guard that Natasha Trethewey was going...