We had the good fortune of connecting with William Roper and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi William, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
It hardly bears saying that just being here on the planet is taking a risk. Moment to moment we are risk-taking. It’s really a question of how aware you are of it, how high up in your consciousness you want it to be. We can forget, but every action we take is a risk. Or we can pretend that every action we take is not a risk. But life is going to remind you. It is going to slap you in the face. When you were a kid and you tried to stand up and walk, you probably didn’t know that was a risky business. But you found out right away when you fell down. So that’s kind of my approach to it, every action is a risk. It’s a matter of degree.
I have friends who say that my views on the subject are a little dark, but I got hit by a car when I was a kid. Got knocked off my bicycle, flew through the air with the greatest of ease, then came down on the ground hard. An experience like that makes you aware of risk. I try not to pretend. That experience and others have shaped my life. They let me know at an early age, though I probably wasn’t acutely conscious of it, but it let me or forced me to think in this manner: you better do what you want and do it as quickly as you can because you don’t know how much time you have. This doesn’t mean that I walk around thinking that every situation is life or death. It does mean that I think about what I do before I do it, in terms of the big picture. It does allow me to put things in perspective. It allows me, this may seem contradictory, but it allows me to be more free in many situations. It allows me to come to the conclusion that a particular risk is not really that great. Not in comparison to the risk of crossing the street on a new green light, in a crosswalk, after looking not just both ways, but five ways. That’s a big risk. The risk of doing two – 45 minute sets of freely improvised music (and believe me that is risky) actually doesn’t compare. The courage it takes to take on a commission, compose a piece of music and hand it off to an ensemble to perform and put out into the world…that’s a risk, but it’s not much of a risk compared to driving 65 miles an hour on the Santa Monica Freeway. Or better yet, on the 210 Freeway because take it from me, if you’re driving 65 miles an hour on the 210 Freeway, you’re putting your life at risk because you are the slow guy.
What I’m saying is getting hit by that car and other events in my early life put me in a frame of mind where if I want it, I might as well risk whatever it takes to get it. And I might as well have some fun as I’m going after it. There’s no reason to be on stage for example, if I am not having fun. There’s the money aspect, but you can make money doing all kinds of things. So I take risks. And I try to have fun. If I fail? Well, I don’t like to fail (and I won’t take the space here to examine that word), but if I fail, am I any less of who I was before I took the risk? No. I am still me. All me. Given that, what have I lost?
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I am a multi-disciplinary artist performing primarily on tuba and primitive aerophones. My work merges music, stage performance, extemporaneous spoken word and the visual arts. The work draws on and continues African American oral traditions, exploring histories of place, ethnic and cultural groups, and self-history. They map my movement through these landscapes. I view myself as a cartographer. I embrace and explore the attractions that occur when disparate disciplines abut. What sets this work apart from others? When you look at it if it is visual, when you hear it if it’s sonic, I think that amongst all the other impressions you might have of it, the strongest would be that it is a unique expression. I think that you would feel that it was made by an individual. I heard Quentin Crisp on the radio one day when I was young. He said at all costs, “be an individual.” He said it with such fervor and passion that it made a home in my brain. And it has had an effect on my life, on how I run my life, how I create my work. If you see or hear my work, you may not know that is the work of William Roper, but it is more than likely that you will say, “that shit is kind of strange.” I am not going for strangeness, I am struggling to relate my visions. My visions are purely my own, so they are going to be strange to many, many people.
I arrived at this state of being by working very hard to be a professional classical musician. What you learn in that course of study, and that way of being, is that in reality anybody can do it. Anybody who puts in the time can do it. This is true also of a lot of genres of music and many, many jobs and professions. So once that’s clear, a lot of people start asking themselves, “is that all there is?” Don’t misunderstand me, I love playing that music. But think about it, that B flat in Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony is going to get played by how many tuba players, how many times in the course of a year? Sure you are making a contribution, you are making people happy, you are influencing lives, but the real contributor in that situation is Shostakovich. I want to be more like him, even if only 10 people show up to the performance. It is not an easy way to live. But if you want to get to a certain destination you have to pay the price of the ticket. You find ways to finance your passion. You find kindred spirits, you find people who believe in your work and will support it. You get very practical about marketing and audiences. You work as an individual and in collaboration with others – people and institutions. I have learned not to burn bridges. I have learned not to be so quick about interpreting other peoples reactions to me and my work because I have been dead wrong so many times. But because I didn’t burn those bridges, I could later meet some of those people in the middle and we could join hands, walking happily into the sunset.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
First we would rent a very comfortable vehicle for seven days. Then we’d make sure that the credit card balances are at zero and ready to go. We’d start from my place, but we wouldn’t return until the beginning of the eighth day. Basically we will be taking a leisurely seven day tour around the Los Angeles basin, trying the different foods, visiting the different sites and institutions, mingling with the folks of the different neighborhoods. We’d stay at whatever motels, hotels are in the area when evening comes. In other words, it would be a cultural, geographic and culinary improvisation. We’d start in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountain range, taking Angeles Crest Highway up, then coming down on Highway 39 through Azusa, maybe going over to Glendora to get some authentic German sausages. Work our way down and back west through La Puente, Whittier, Pico Rivera, down through there. Hit East Los Angeles, maybe get some birria de chivo. Spend the night in downtown LA, check out the nightlife. Get up in the morning spend some time in Central LA, deal with Echo Park, Silver Lake, Hollywood, that whole central area. Maybe stay overnight someplace around there. Then head south through south-central LA, Watts. There’s good places to eat down there. Then east towards Orange County to deal with all those varieties of Asian food. Next back west along the coast through Long Beach, Wilmington, San Pedro. You get the idea. I don’t need to go on, you can fill it in. A road trip around the basin. It would be playing. Deciding what to do each moment, each day. It would be great. It would take a lot of money.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
That would be a lot of people and organizations. That is one of those questions…whoever I named, I’d be leaving out too many other people to allow me to sleep well. I’m just going to avoid that and not mention anyone. Just know that I could not have done it on my own. Instead I’ll name a book. And of course there are many books, but I’ll name one: “The Art Spirit” by Robert Henri. A single sentence from that book has stayed with me and encouraged me throughout the decades. Even now I have to sometimes recite it to myself. “Everything depends on those who go on anyway.”
Top left: Kaitlyn Pietras, Top right: Giovanni Washington, Middle left: NA, Middle right: Rush Varela, Bottom left: NA, Bottom right: Minoru Kanda