Tuesday, September 4th, 2018
by Michael J. Cyrs
Will Healy has been playing piano for most of his life. The evidence is all over his technique, work ethic, and any set of keys he puts his hands on. It’s a tale you hear frequently, but his is a little different. What turns some people away from this lifestyle of musicianship is countless hours spent alone in the practice room. It’s no secret that the world of classical piano playing is competitive and grueling, so how can you reconcile that with the desire to have fun?
Healy spent the first decade or so of his playing in this paradigm, but ended up finding a way to incorporate all he’d learned while still enjoying himself. In college, he picked up the trumpet and began playing in an afrobeat band called Yes Noise, exchanging solitude for the visceral affirmation the genre offers.
Being a classical composer was always my goal, but playing in that band was the most gratifying musical thing I’d ever been a part of. When I went back to classical, I felt like something was missing. Why did I think of it as the “real music?” Why can’t I make music that has some of those physical elements as well as the intellectual and structural elements of classical?
Just like that, a whole history of learning an instrument is upended. Naturally, there’s nothing wrong or right about the classical or afrobeat traditions. But finding reconciliation between the two is not necessarily the simplest thing. The attempt at juxtaposing two seemingly incongruent genres often comes off as gaudy, blunt, or incoherent. “Sure, you can mix salad with ice cream, but that’s not really all that innovative. You still have a responsibility to make something that tastes good. You still have a responsibility to make good music,” observes Healy.
Exit college and enter ShoutHouse, Healy’s amorphic brainchild of 14+ musicians with a wide array of talents behind them. He explains how he’s persisted through a lot of tough times while helming the project: “There have been numerous times where I’ve felt uncomfortable. But the results have certainly paid off. I’ve never met a sound guy who liked us, but I’ve never had an audience member who hated us,” jokes Healy about the elaborate stage setup the group requires. They perform frequently as well. “We played last week at Cooper Hewitt museum and Juilliard presented the concert. We had a dancer, two rappers, a Balkan sax, and others. Then a few people came and saw us at the Shrine in Harlem a few days later.”
In order to make ShoutHouse work, it’s important to realize that it takes patience and care in order to get different genres to work together. For instance, if the flutes look bored during the section where emcees are trading verses, something might need to be tweaked. If the vocalists yawn over multiple time signature changes, the band might need to adjust to them. There’s an endless realm of possibilities in which the combinations can go wrong or right. With so many people present at rehearsal, it’s easy to forget that someone will eventually be watching.
Such is the most concrete piece about making the disparate elements of ShoutHouse work together: whether or not the audience can enjoy themselves viscerally. “The audience has become sort of a dirty word. Like if you’re thinking about the audience you shouldn’t be composing? That’s not enough for me.” In his time playing afrobeat, Healy learned how to compose music that’s fun for the listener. The evidence is all over tracks like “On Lucid Dreams,” where an orchestra blends seamlessly into an extended rap verse. Before you know it, a pop vocal emerges without sacrificing the talents of any other band member. Rarely does a classically-trained ensemble include moments where the audience can get up and dance.
It’s a well-discussed element of Mozart’s compositions that he appreciated it when his audiences clapped. Healy likes to tap into this playful idea. “When Mozart wrote, he wrote in moments where he thought the audience might cheer, and it worked. Having the audience not have preconceived ideas of how they’re going to act is really important to me.” This means that when ShoutHouse’s audiences dance, clap, or cheer, it’s from a natural place instead of the usual “the song has ended, so now we clap.”
Healy is operating in a paradigm that doesn’t guarantee a return. “I think we’d be more successful now if we took this amazingly talented band and decided to cover The Weeknd. But, I think the end result for me has been much more gratifying.” Sure, he could have covered massive pop artists. He could have stuck with classical. He could even have pursued experimental jazz where a dedicated audience is ready and waiting. Instead, he’s bringing together elements from each of those traditions, and JFund is helping him continue the experiment.
“I checked the opportunities page on the Composers Forum website frequently. I think I had applied for JFund four times or so. I’ve received grants on my seventh application in the past!” Similar to this practice of persistence, Healy’s musical ideas didn’t work right off the bat. He’d composed the first original music for ShoutHouse back in 2013. Eventually, he gained the ability to hone in on what it takes to compose for such a diverse set of musicians.
There have been pieces I thought would be an etude that turned into a ShoutHouse piece. It’s a different mindset. ‘What are the strengths and weaknesses of the players? How can I highlight the talents of these musicians? How do you balance the skills?’ The cool thing has been that there’s not usually a contemporary classical audience in the show, so now I’m a little less self-conscious.
Now that the steam is picking up, JFund is offering a way which he can continue to fan the flames. The schedule of upcoming releases for ShoutHouse is proof. The first full-length release, CityScapes, is slated for release later this year. In early 2019, the band will perform nuclear fission by putting out one record that’s geared toward the classical tradition and one geared toward pop music. Within the course of just a few months, ShoutHouse will have three full releases. In an era where constant mobility is essential for artists, Healy is using JFund to keep the groups energy going.
“I like music where people aren’t conscious of the fact that they’re mixing things up,” Healy further explains about his ideals in bending audience expectation. There aren’t many young people that are content with sticking to one genre, so it’s natural that the relatively young Healy is able to stay grounded in a handful of traditions. If you let him get you on his wavelength, ShoutHouse becomes one of New York’s finest interdisciplinary acts.