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Artist Snapshot: Professor Evan Chambers finds balance in musical exploration

Marlene Lacasse/Daily
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By Jackson Howard, Daily Arts Writer
Published January 24, 2013

“I never practiced, I was just getting along at the barely competent level, but then something happened and I just had to play,” said Evan Chambers, a professor in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance.

Though his parents were ’50s folk-music revivalists — both sang and played a myriad of instruments — it wasn’t until his junior year in high school that Chambers became obsessed with music, a moment he likens to being struck by lightening.

Years later, his compositional pieces are being performed across the country, including in Carnegie Hall. But for Chambers, now the Chair of Composition in MT&D, one moment from college sticks out more than any prestigious venue.

“I was in an orchestration class in college, and so I did a project and (the orchestra) read it,” he explained. “I was sitting in the back of the hall in Bowling Green, Ohio and it was like having the biggest, fastest car in the world. It was thrilling! And boy, I was hooked at that point.”

Never one to stop exploring, Chambers’s music has become recognized by critics and avid listeners alike for its wide incorporation of musical and artistic disciplines.

“I’m very interested, in my work, in creating translations between different kinds of experiences,” said Chambers, whose pieces have incorporated orchestras, choirs, Irish fiddles and electronic music. “For example, between Albanian music and contemporary classical music. Some of my work is even inspired by Sufi Qawwali music.”

Chambers is also an accomplished Irish fiddler and, as with everything he has done, there’s a good story involved. Around 20 years ago, he said, he was driving to Cleveland to see his future wife when something incredible happened.

“I was driving past Toledo and the snow was falling down and ‘The Thistle and Shamrock,’ that local folk and Celtic-music radio show, came on and I was just floored. It was like a conversion experience,” he explained. “It was something that had been closed-off and opened back up.”

Though he could surely find success as a freelance musician, Chambers, luckily for the University, is more than happy to be a professor.

“I’m so committed to teaching, in fact I love it,” he said. “I’ve had the benefit of so many wonderful, gifted, caring and inspired teachers in my life. … It’s a natural progression to want to try to emulate them in my own way.”

In addition to being a composer, an Irish fiddler and a teacher, Chambers is an ardent and knowledgeable environmentalist. With the help of the Graham Institute, he led the successful movement to eliminate the application of chemicals to the grass surrounding the School of MT&D.

Unsurprisingly, Professor Chambers’s connection to the environment has found its way into his work.

“You’re most alive when you’re in the living world, not the built world,” he said. “There’s an urgency to take that sensibility and kind of experience and translate it into music as well. There’s also an urgency to use your 10 minutes of face time as a composer … to bring (the audience’s) attention to something that’s of desperate urgency — which is the fact that we are destroying the environment we need to live in.”

“There’s a danger for artists to be caught in the trap of wanting to say, ‘Hey, dig me’ all the time,” he added. “I think my role as an artist is much more to say, ‘Hey, look at this world, look outside — look at the things that are larger than us as humans and get into tune with them.’”