Having landed at the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music, deVon Russell Gray found himself chafing at its unyielding requirements for a composition major.
He couldn't study with a jazz composer or play bassoon in an orchestra, as he'd enjoyed doing at St. Paul's Central High School and Perpich Arts High School in Golden Valley.
What to do? He returned to his slot behind the keyboards with Twin Cities hip-hop band Heiruspecs, and hit the road.
Flash forward almost two decades. Gray, now 41, finally has a blossoming career as a classical composer. In fact, he's midway through his second year as the Schubert Club's composer-in-residence. His work will be featured Friday in a virtual concert that was originally scheduled for last April. The collection of prerecorded performances will be available through April 11 at Schubert.org.
How did he find his way to classical music?
"I started studying piano at age 5," he said via Zoom from his home in St. Paul, the city in which he grew up. "But it was 10 years before a piece of music hit me and made me say, 'OK, you're in this for life.'
"I was in the Minnesota Youth Symphonies Summer Jazz Orchestra as a saxophonist, and one of our field trips was to visit a Minnesota Orchestra rehearsal. As soon as I walked in the hall, I was overwhelmed, it was so beautiful.
"I didn't know what music it was, but it struck me. Come to find out later, it was the opening movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, which is light and romantic and beautiful. … I said, 'I've got to do this.'
"But there's not a lot of room in the orchestra for a saxophonist. … So I went to some of my music teachers and said, 'How can I get into your orchestras tomorrow?' They said, 'We always need cello, trombone and bassoon.' "
That's when he took up bassoon. Before the pandemic, you could find Gray improvising on it with jazz musicians at venues like St. Paul's Khyber Pass Café. But it wasn't happening at the New England Conservatory.
"I left the conservatory early because I was getting tired of the rigor and the strictness," Gray said. "I thought that classical was a little too narrow for me and there was so much more.
"My high school band, Heiruspecs, had continued on without me, and had started to develop a national following and was doing some national touring. … I came back in the spring of 2003, and we toured full time, which was 200-plus shows a year for the next three years."
Gray — aka dVRG — continues to work with the group, which, like the Roots, is one of the rare hip-hop bands with live instrumentalists. "We have a new record that we're very nearly finished with," he said. "It's our 24th year. We're almost as old as Foo Fighters, which is shocking to my senses."
When the Schubert Club named Gray a composer-in-residence, he dreamed of writing an opera.
"The pandemic put a kibosh on the big plans," he said, "because that would have involved a lot of people and moving pieces, and now it's much more difficult. … While the live performance aspect of it wasn't necessary, to have the performers in the same space would be ideal. So everything's been backed down and made simpler. There may be elements of opera, but there is no one large work now.
"Then came the murder of George Floyd and the uprisings, and that also changed a lot of things. … Some of [the piece] obviously spoke to that, because I'm still writing from my perspective of being a Black man in America. … But the story that was developing all of a sudden became something less relevant or less juicy to me."
Does he feel his ideas for classical, jazz and hip-hop come from separate muses?
"I'm still trying to break down the divisions," he said. "For a long time, I'd think, 'Huh, that sounds like an idea for Heiruspecs.' But why couldn't that also be an idea for a string quartet or a solo piano thing? Now I realize that it does come from one place and I just try to accept any new music that comes to me. Which isn't new, it's just borrowed from the ancestors. And try to figure out where it fits."
Asked to reflect on the role of a classical composer today, Gray pointed to the words of Minnesota's leading voice in the field.
"Libby Larsen said, 'Composers write in the emotional language of their time.' That's what we should be doing, writing music that speaks to us, telling stories that speak to us. … Everything should be organic and natural. And, again, if you're Black in America, there are going to be things that come up for you that don't come up for other composers.
"Ultimately, what I care about the most is beauty and connection. And it shouldn't have to deal with nastiness like murder and racism.
"I like pieces that are either/or. I'm either here to make you think or to make you feel, but I don't want to ask all of it from you at the same time."
Rob Hubbard is a freelance classical music critic. • firstname.lastname@example.org
Music of deVon Russell Gray
When: Noon Fri. at Schubert.org; available for free on demand through April 11.