Recently, Ole Miss student Eleanor Anthony had the opportunity to talk with Mr. Bruce Levingston, world-renowned pianist and native Mississippian who has contributed a great deal to the University of Mississippi with both his time and talent. He was kind enough to answer a few questions with regards to his life and work, his new role at the Honors College and School of Music, as well as his upcoming performance and presentation at the Spring Honors Convocation on Feb. 10, and an Honors Conversations Course he is teaching in Spring 2015.
Can you tell me a bit about your start as a musician and what ultimately brought you to Ole Miss?
I grew up in a nearby town called Cleveland, located in the Mississippi Delta. I started playing when I was four, and then my mother gave me my first piano lessons. Eventually I went on to study with some fantastic teachers around the world; my career now is as a concert pianist, and I have lived most of my adult life in New York City. A few years ago, the Chancellor and other friends connected to Ole Miss reached out and asked me if I would come here to see the campus. I had not been to Oxford since I was a boy, and I was quite surprised by how much development had occurred and how much the university had grown. After a few visits and performances, the Chancellor asked me to come here as his adviser of the arts, and that led to my meeting Dean Douglass Sullivan-González; after we came to know one another, DSG asked me if I would become a fellow in the Honors College, and so I did that for a year, and enjoyed working with him very much , and that led to my being offered a Chair in the Honors College in the humanities that was recently established thanks to a generous gift by Ruff Fant, whose father taught here many years. I am officially titled the Chancellor’s SMB Honors College Artist in Residence and am also the Artist in Residence at the School of Music. So this gives me the opportunity to work with some of the great musicians here on campus as well as some of the great students at the Honors College. And sometimes they are one and the same! So, that’s a lot of fun.
It’s been announced that you are going to be the speaker for the Honors Spring Convocation, and I’m curious, what message do you want to send to students with your presentation?
I am honored to be the keynote speaker for the Spring Convocation, and one of the things that I hope to bring to the event is a sense of what the process of creativity is about. We all use creativity in our lives, in one way or another, whether we are performing artists, or writers, bankers, lawyers, or doctors. Everybody has to improvise and think of ways to handle problems that inevitably come up in life and work, and we have to find creative solutions. So what I am going to try to show the students and members of the Honors College that will attend the Convocation is the process that I and others have used when we have collaborated on film and music. Everybody knows that film scores are an important part of any movie, but to show how this actually occurs is something that I think would be really interesting to people. As a performer, I have both recorded and performed live with various presentations of films and at one point I began to study the history of film and music. I will perform a section of the first film score that was ever made for the cinema scored frame by frame. That was for a film by Rene Clair, and the music is by Erik Satie; it’s really beautiful and haunting and also very funny. I will play that live, with the film being projected and discuss what it is that the composer was trying to do. And then I am going to perform Philip Glass’s Dracula Suite, which is the score that the famous composer Philip Glass wrote for the Universal film Dracula starring Bela Lugosi. It is a 1931 production that didn’t really have a film score, and so Glass composed something that is just electrifying; I will play that live for the audience. I have also invited a friend from New York City who is a director of the amazing Rooftop Films; some of the Honors students had the opportunity to meet him on a recent visit—Dan Nuxoll—who has been involved with this great film festival since its inception, and he will also talk about the film scoring process. I, too, was involved in the festival from the beginning, and one of the most important films we were early supporters of was Beasts of the Southern Wild directed by Benh Zeitlin. Beasts went on to receive one of the most important awards given at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival as well as four Academy Award nominations. We are thrilled that Benh will also be coming to the Convocation and will participate in a discussion of his film following a showing of excerpts with its amazing score. Dan and Benh will discuss with me some works that we have collaborated on with composers and directors and show how film scores are used in more recent times. We will show a few films that we think the audience will really love!
“But I also think of the arts not divided into writing or music or painting but as just one thing. We really are a part of the same family.”
Can you elaborate a bit on what you see as the relationship between film and music? Is it explanatory or primarily aesthetic?
There is a question sometimes—does music explain the film? Or does the film explain the music, and what is the relationship between the two? It varies from film to film and score to score. Some scores simply paint an atmosphere of sound and set a kind of aural framework for the mood. Other scores are very, very incisive and sometimes depict the action; so in a score like the music in Hitchcock’s Psycho, you get this kind of jabbing sound which sounds very much like the knife action that goes in the famously frightening shower scene, or in an action film like Mission Impossible when, in the penultimate scene, the helicopter goes into the tunnel and the heart-pounding theme begins to play, the dramatic impact of the music is tremendous. Only in that scene did they use the famous theme from the original Mission Impossible TV show which made that moment even more exciting and electrifying. It wasn’t that it necessarily depicted what was going on, but the theme itself is so compelling, it primes the viewer for action.
I know you are very active in terms of collaborating with other artists—could you tell me about some of the recent collaborations on which you’ve worked?
So one of the most important and thrilling things I’ve been able to do since I’ve been on campus is to work with some of the great artists that are here in different areas. I’ve already had a chance to work with some of the superb musicians in the music department, and we are going to collaborate further on a performance that I will be giving on March 27th at the Ford Center where the amazing singer Nancy Maria Balach will come on to the program with one of her superb students and perform with me as well as Jos Milton, the wonderful tenor, and Robert Riggs, chair of the music department and a terrific violinist. I had a chance also to work with the great percussionist Ricky Burkhead on Thacker Mountain Music which was a marvelous collaboration. But I also think of the arts not divided into writing or music or painting but as just one thing. We really are a part of the same family. So when I first came, I had the opportunity to meet Beth Ann Fennelly, the acclaimed poet, and her husband, Tom Franklin, a brilliant novelist. We immediately set out to collaborate on some works about words and music. I even wrote a piece that was based on their novel called Tilted World. And we gave a performance in New York City together; they will also come on the program with me in March and read, and I will play some things inspired by their words. I have also had the chance to work with the Southern Foodway Association and to collaborate with great artists like Kevin Young, the Pen Faulkner Award-winner, and Justin Hopkins, a superb opera singer from Philadelphia, on a wonderful project based on the words of Booker Wright, an important figure from the Civil Rights era from Greenwood Mississippi. We recently performed that, and I think it was a very special collaboration. We will perform it next year in New York City at Carnegie Hall. To be able to engage with other artists really makes life fulfilling because it helps one feel a part of the whole artistic community.
“I think that the arts are just another expression of our humanity. They reflect who we are as a society and people. And sometimes artists are able to express who we are in a more distilled and clearer way than we can see in other forms…. Art can tell the truth.”
Could you discuss creativity in the context of student’s lives who are not artists—what can creative expression mean to those of us who are not artistically creative ourselves?
There are so many opportunities to explore the arts here whether through good productions in the university theater department, or performances from musicians, including the incredible choir here, that I feel it is important as part of your experience at the university to somehow expose yourself to this aspect of life and take part in these wonderful opportunities and experience the creative process in the arts that one so readily has access to here. It’s just essential in a real education to encounter those things live and in person. There are great shows all the time not only in the art gallery of the art department, but also in the beautiful museum here. So sometimes just walk over and seeing what’s up–even without knowing what’s up–can surprise you and enlighten you.
What do you think is the importance of the arts more broadly, beyond just their importance to a student’s education?
I think that the arts are just another expression of our humanity. They reflect who we are as a society and people. And sometimes artists are able to express who we are in a more distilled and clearer way than we can see in other forms. It’s one thing to be told who you are in an editorial or to see somebody talking in a television news show about what’s going on. But when you see something portrayed in an opera by Verdi or a play by Shakespeare, or in a work by Philip Glass, you have a sense of who we are as a society in a way that’s even more genuine and direct; that is something art can do in a unique way. Art can tell the truth.
You are also teaching a class this semester, entitled, “The Art of Conversation.” Can you explain the premise of the course and its title?
When Dean Douglass Sullivan-González asked me to teach this course, it had a generic title—Conversations Course—I asked him if I might not focus on how we as individuals, and also as a society, talk to one another….how we have conversations…how we listen to one another…how we try to persuade one another, or not, of different points of view. It seems to me that today, people are often not having conversations. They sometimes talk at each other, but not with each other. To be able to talk with somebody and actually hear what they have to say and have a sense of the nuance of what they’re trying to tell you is very important, and hopefully one will also have the ability to reach them. But to do this takes a set of skills. And I hope as we have discussions in that class, we all can learn together how to have better dialogue with one another about all kinds of subjects.
The class filled up remarkably quickly, in just the first few hours of course registration opening. What does that signal to you about student interest?
It tells me that students are really interested in learning about how to talk to one another. They’re interested in learning how to listen and how to really reach one another. The speed with which they responded to the class means that there’s a hunger for that kind of knowledge. I am very excited and inspired by that!
Bruce Levingston has been described by The New York Times as “one of today’s most adventurous musicians”, praising his performances as “graceful”, “dreamy, and “hauntingly serene.” The New Yorker has described him as “elegant and engaging… a poetic pianist who has a gift for glamorous programming,” while The Washington Post has lauded his “wonderfully even touch” and “timeless reverie, which Levingston projected beautifully.” Levingston’s latest CD, Heavy Sleep, was released in January, breaking the list of top 30 most popular Classical albums on iTunes within the first two days of its release. The SMBHC will welcome Levingston at the Spring Convocation Tuesday, Feb. 10 at 7 p.m. at the Gertrude C. Ford Center. Tickets for the event may be purchased at the UM box office in advance.
Eleanor Anthony is an editor of Populi magazine, a bi-weekly. student-run publication for the Ole Miss campus sponsored by the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Populi on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.