Reprinted from Utah Business, March, 1997
Phillip Kent Bimstein has composed his life the way he learned to write a song: by putting things together any way he wants.
By J. Aaron Sanders
Both an acclaimed “alternative-classical” composer and the mayor of Springdale (the gateway to Zion National Park), Bimstein says that his stint in office has taught him that politics and art aren’t necessarily at odds. In fact, he has found that the two work together rather nicely. Looking at him, dressed in blue jeans, a white button-up and black Converse Chuck Taylor high tops, you wouldn’t think he knew a sixteenth note from a bank note. That is his charm. He defies definition. He is as free and fluid as a jazz impromptu–always changing, constantly slipping into something different. When asked what type of music he likes, he says, with a slightly renegade grin, “Have you heard the new album by The Chemical Brothers?” Bimstein’s choice of music is as multi-dimensional as he is the man. “I just bought the new U2 album…it’s mediocre. I love Ani di Franco, Nirvana, Cracker–all those groups. But I love Bach and Beethoven just as well, and I listen to a lot of Steve Reich and John Adams. I have to say, however, that my favorite is Igor Stravinsky.
“Being mayor is like composing a piece of music,” he says. “There are a lot of different-sounding instruments a composer may use, and they all contribute to the piece–an oboe and a trumpet are quite different, yet you can put them in the same composition. They speak to each other; they blend with each other and sometimes, they even conflict with each other, which, in my mind, is not necessarily a bad thing.”
“Bimstein’s stint in office has taught him that politics and art aren’t necessarily at odds. In fact, he has found that the two work together rather nicely.”
In the pre-Bimstein years, people remember Springdale as a polarized community. Bimstein made it his goal to build a community where the residents listened to one another, treated one another with dignity and respect and trusted that things would be handled properly. Bimstein is happy with the town’s progress. “I’ve seen the [townspeople] really get along with each other… a lot of people who used to be quick to judge and complain now take time to work things out and think it through.”
Today, the people of Springdale rely on Bimstein (whom they affectionately call “Flip”). They trust him both as an individual member of their community, and as their mayor. They respect his artistic vision, as well as his vision for their township. He’s been able to achieve this level of rapport, he says, by applying the wisdom he’s gained from the writings of his artistic and political role model Vaclav Havel, the playwright who became president of Czechoslovakia in 1989. “These aren’t books about power,” he says, “they’re books about how to be aware of what the needs of the people are and how you as a person can be helpful in that.”
In return, Bimstein draws on the community, using local culture and élan for inspiration when composing. He wrote his critically acclaimed piece, “Garland Hirschi’s Cows” (Hirschi is his neighbor), by dubbing in Hirschi’s voice as he talked about his cows. The result is a narrative woven through music that tells the story of a southern Utah farmer in his own backyard. Besides winning numerous awards, the piece has made Garland Hirschi a household name among listeners whom Bimstein likes to call “alternative-classical” buffs.
Bimstein coined the term because he feels that his music doesn’t fit into the label of contemporary classical–which he says is more classical than alternative. Bimstein’s music, on the other hand, is definitely more alternative than classical, exploring the relationships between sound and culture, sometimes originating from sources as inspirationally modest as his studio door. (As in the case of his piece, “The Door.”)
Bimstein is quick to admit that a lot of people will find his “alternative-classical” music weird, if not inaccessible. But those same people are surprised to learn of his versatility in other, more proven and traditional genres. “I just finished a brass parade piece for the Days of ’47 parade based on ‘Come, Come Ye Saints’ that will commemorate the arrival of the pioneers 150 years ago,” he says. Some of Bimstein’s most interesting work draws its color from the various and very different audiences for whom he writes. “They teach me to be aware of the different registers in which we all live. A piece written for a Utah audience is going to be much different than a piece written for a New York audience.” Bimstein’s ability to arrange different aspects of culture into very different kinds of music makes his work unique. “I’m a musical painter, slapping different sounds from my palette onto a blank canvas,” he says.
What is his secret? By what broad brushstrokes is this artist able to blend his roles as musician and mayor together so seamlessly? “They just have to be orchestrated to work together,” he says. “Done right, you have an emerging piece, a constantly evolving composition.” Equal parts city hall and concert hall, Bimstein’s greatest work is apparently still in progress.