Behind the Sphinx

By dedicating itself to breaking down age-old barriers in the world of classical music, Sphinx has taken on a hard but important row to hoe.

The inspiration for this competition with a mission, as we might expect, came from 32-year-old founder Aaron Dworkin’s own past, an up-and-down childhood of musical training haunted by otherness and dislocation:

“I grew up in Manhattan, then spent my early high school years in Hershey, Pa. I was adopted (my parents and my brother are white) and there was one black family in town and me — that was it. It’s actually a great town, but for me it was kind of tough. For my junior and senior year, I went to the Interlochen Arts Academy, which literally saved my life, because in Hershey I’d been on a downward spiral: I was a young kid with a huge Afro; I was black, yet I had an older brother who’s white; and in the school system, I played the violin. It was [laughs] too strange for most people.

“One of the things that motivated me in wanting to start Sphinx is that I had never even heard of, for example, [African-American composer] William Grant Still. When I finally discovered him, I thought, ‘Fantastic — I never even knew he existed, never knew his music.’ At a lot of those early difficult points in my life, if I had been aware of that music and heard it, it would have engaged me in a way that I wasn’t being engaged by the music I was playing. I was bored by a lot of the histories and bios — like of Brahms and such. Then I also discovered jazz violinists Jean-Luc Ponty and Stéphane Grappelli and got excited by electric violin.

“At the University of Michigan, for my undergrad recital, I transcribed Boyz II Men and En Vogue for string quartet and we performed it, and luckily they let me. Then for my master’s recital, having discovered Still, one of the things we performed with the quartet were his “Panamanian Dances.” I got ahold of some of the dancers in the dance department and a choreographer, and we choreographed the piece so that the string quartet was spread out on the stage and almost involved in the dance. It’s those kinds of things that I love to do with music and, in the end, that I hope a lot of our kids will do. Although for the process of the competition, we want to prepare them to succeed in the classical music world. To do that, they need those formal basics.

“For the kids to be motivated to play classical music in the first place, there has to be some connection. They have to have heard it somewhere and that’s why the talent pool is smaller, why there isn’t as much appreciation of classical music in the minority communities. Some of it is basic politics — you look at how much money is spent on marketing popular music and just packaging it as product. If more dollars were spent on marketing classical music, I think you’d see a difference in the audiences. But a lot of it, unfortunately, is the people who produce classical music’s fault, and the way it’s presented in a stiff, sterile atmosphere. I’m definitely not one of the purists.”

Purist or not, Dworkin has managed to create a unique project based here in Detroit and an annual competition that’s rapidly growing in national stature and renown. The Sphinx staff of devoted professionals wields its collective expertise with one goal in mind: the betterment of the young musicians. And the truly dazzling lineup of corporate and foundation support that they’ve managed to generate is a sign that where there’s a compassionate will, there seems to be a way, even these days when profit is the first and last thought on most organizations’ minds. But Sphinx is a $1 million a year operation.

When Texaco’s annual contribution of $100,000 to the competition dried up this year, other sponsors — including 2003’s first-time participation by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra — lined up to replace it. And so it goes. Sphinx nurtures and endures, and because of it, Detroit can claim another milestone in music history as its own.

Says Dworkin, “We ask our kids to go back to their communities and be ambassadors for the music — to play in church concerts, play in local community concerts, play for friends, etc. Because the same thing that sparked them to start is what’s going to happen when they play.”

Check out the cover story on the Sphinx.

What is the Sphinx?

George Tysh is the Metro Times arts editor. E-mail [email protected]
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