Friday, April 18, 2008

Sitting at the drawing board

Joe Phillips of Pulse has posted a new series of questions in his Composer's Salon. This comes after a discussion with a friend and colleague who's now looking to study composition more seriously, feeling that the emphasis of jazz education is more on style and less on the basic building blocks of form, development, etc.

But to me, style is the key variable. It determines the kind of melody (or lack thereof) that one will write, the ways in which a composer will develop material and hence determines the form of the piece. A lot of the music I've been writing lately - for big band, for trio + strings, even for the trio - has moved away from head-solo-head structures. I've been inspired by the way Maria Schneider and Joel Miller just let their melodies unfold, without necessarily constricting them with pre-determined forms. I hear the same thing in the music of Milton Nascimento.

I remember Don Byron's and Dave Douglas' composition seminars from Banff. Each piece has its own character and it's important to determine that character before you start writing. (Michael Philip Mossman talks about this in his arrangement process, too.) But the character is stylistic. I think the only piece I've written lately that's had any sort of pre-determined form is "Bella," a text setting of a Pablo Neruda poem. There's nine stanzas, so I knew there would be nine sections. But other than that, I worked from the flow of the poem and the melody. If I wind up with odd numbers of bars in my phrases, so be it. But I don't intentionally set out to have 13 bar phrases.

I. Composer Daniel Lentz says, "style is really just learning how to repeat yourself, sometimes endlessly. If you keep changing your language and what you do, which is a very noble thing to do, nobody will know who you are?" Do you agree with this statement or not? Do you strive for a €œcoherence or singularity€ in your musical language? What characteristics would define your own personal style?

I don't entirely agree with this. I definitely have my preferences and my bag of tricks, but I think expanding and changing your compositional palette is necessary on many levels. Depending on the ensemble, the purpose of the piece, the intended audience, etc. my compositional language may evolve and change. It also depends if you're working with external references - painting, film, text - and how the relationship between the music and those other components functions.

II. If this is true, what characteristics make each individual work a Picasso? What makes your own compositions consistent (or 'you') from piece to piece? Or do you seek 'unity in diversity'? Does it matter to you?

I try to write the best piece I can possibly write, and I never worry about how much "me" is in there. I set up certain criteria for the piece and my artistic measure of success is 1) whether I've fulfilled those criteria and 2) whether it emotes and communicates anything. There's a moment in one of the new string pieces, "Heraclito," that's the emotional centre of the entire piece. With those two bars alone, I've done what I set out to do. Of course, I have certain harmonic predilections - chromatic bass motion and shifting chord qualities - that occur in many pieces. Basslines or other ostinati seem to feature prominently too.

III. One salient feature of today's composers is an incredible access to diverse music from all throughout history and all throughout the world. ... How do you feel about this statement? What other ways/techniques are composers (including you) grappling with such diversity and access (and excess?) of influence?

I embrace it. It allows me to be able to set up criteria for pieces that vastly differ from one another. They're like synopses of books that I scrawl in the margins of my music pads - the goal for "Blue Hole" (my BMI piece) read: "Reggae melodies without the rhythm section ever playing reggae." The initial idea of "Bella" was that I heard the voice of Caetano Veloso singing the poem in my head. This goes back to my attitude towards "new standards": if I adore a melody and feel that it can serve as an appropriate and inspiring canvas for the trio to express ourselves, then I don't really care where it comes from. Nor am I always necessarily concerned with folkloric or genre-specific authenticity: often my pieces, as Kyle Gann wrote, are "about" these other diverse influences and not in the exact genre itself.

IV. With practically anything now permissible in music and art, is the notion of a 'style' still relevant? Do terms such as jazz, classical, ˜alternative, world music really mean anything in our hybrid, hyphenated culture of today? Are those terms representing a living language or are they the Sankrits and Latins of music (i.e. once common languages that are only used today in specialized ways)? If those terms are not relevant, how can we discuss the music of today?

They're relevant to a point. I have no problem calling myself a "jazz musician." The core of my training is in jazz and I hear and process music through that lens. When performing, though, I do try to approach each different genre I play in on its own terms. I'm not going to drown an R&B tune in jazzy extensions if they're not called for, but the way I approach interacting in a rhythm section definitely comes from jazz. I hear classical harmony moving in certain ways that are common to jazz. The labels serve a purpose for the industry. As I immerse myself in music journalism, I prefer to think of the big umbrella labels - jazz, rock, "world," electronic, etc. And sometimes one umbrella fits under another - I play a lot of electronica-influenced world music on World Skip the Beat, but I rarely air ethno-hybridized jazz on Jazz Euphorium.

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