Every tradition, no matter how old, was once new, says musician and composer Derrick Skye, instrumental ensembles director at Mount Saint Mary’s. To start a new tradition and to reclaim his past while asserting who he is today, Skye recently announced that he was changing his name from Derrick Spiva, Jr, to Derrick Senam Eugene Skye.
“Naming is power,” says Skye, who made the announcement the week of Juneteenth, the holiday that celebrates the end of slavery in the U.S. “What greater power can you have over your own life than to be able to name your own name?”
The name “Spiva” traces back to Skye’s enslaved ancestors. While he’s proud of how his family reclaimed that name for themselves, he wanted a name that reflects the complexity of his Ghanaian, Nigerian, British, Irish and Native American background while looking toward what’s new.
Skye kept “Derrick” because it’s also his father’s name. “Senam” means “God’s gifts” in the Ghanaian Eve language; it honors a family of musicians and dancers from Ghana with whom he has worked since 2003. “They’ve had such a huge impact on my life and resonated so deeply, I was looking forward to having one of my names be from that culture,” he says.
“Eugene” is the name of Skye’s grandfather, and Skye gives a nod to his deep interest in astrophysics and astronomy. His first ambition was to be an astronaut. “When I was a kid, I used to drive my dad nuts asking him about the stars,” he says. He added the “e” at the end of his last name to give it “a little bit of flair.”
Just as he braided different aspects of his heritage and interests into his name, Skye braids influences from different cultures into his compositions, drawing on Western classical, West African, Persian, Balkan and Hindustani music. “I’ve always found it a challenge to understand another culture’s completely different musical system, and then to be in my musical system. I find where the commonalities are and how you can entangle the two,” he says.
Anna Korody ’23, who studies with Skye as a member of the Mount Bridge Orchestra and also studies composition with him, says she enjoys learning about different musical traditions. “He’s taught us various instruments of Ghana,” she says. “We’ve been drumming, and we’ve been learning the songs orally.”
Korody’s main instrument is piano. In the spring 2021 semester, she and some of her orchestra classmates arranged and performed “Sunrise in Montreal,” by Lebanese composer Rabih Abou-Khalil. Members of the Bridge to Everywhere chamber ensemble, which Skye directs, also joined in the performance.
Beyond his work with Bridge to Everywhere, Skye is co-founder of the Code Switch Composers Collective, artistic advisor for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and music director and conductor for Novae Sinfonia. His music has been performed by numerous ensembles, including the Los Angeles Master Chorale, which premiered his composition, “Ready, Bright,” on Juneteenth this year.
Skye’s compositions usually start with the many instruments he keeps at home, plus digital equivalents of instruments he doesn’t have. “I’m constantly playing and recording stuff, and then after a whole piece of music is completed, I go back and engrave the piece in a notation for people to read,” he says. “I want to make sure it sounds different and feels good.”
One of his latest projects is an electro-acoustic piece he’s writing for Orchestra Santa Monica. “I’m a huge fan of electronics, and I’m a huge fan of classical music,” Skye says. “It’s been a real joy to put the two together.”
* The Los Angeles Times: “Newsletter: Essential Arts: One composer’s personal reflection on Juneteenth,” from June 19, 2001.
* Skye’s Facebook page
* Skye’s website