Tuesday, June 14, 2016

EarShot Alumni: Composer Spotlight - Kristin Kuster

Composer Kristin Kuster is the earliest EarShot participant we are catching up with to commemorate 25 years of new music readings. ACO awarded Kristin the Underwood Commission for which she wrote Myrrha, a work for choral singers and orchestra praised by The New York Times as being written "commandingly for the orchestra."

We caught up with Kristin to talk about her experience at ACO's Readings in 2004 and see what advice she has for this year's participants.

Composer Kristin Kuster

American Composers Orchestra: What impact did your experience at the Whitaker New Music Readings in 2004, and the resulting Underwood commission which you won, have on your career and your voice as a composer?
Kristin Kuster: Both my experience at the Whitaker Readings and the subsequent writing of the Underwood commission had an enormous impact on my compositional voice and my career. The Readings sessions were an intensely fun, and thrilling, learn-about-orchestration boot camp. I knew while preparing to apply to the Readings that--and this is the most valuable thing about the Readings--composers come out of it with recordings of their pieces, to which they can return in the future to improve their orchestration skills. Because of this, the piece I submitted for the Readings had a handful of overall sections that varied significantly in their orchestration. My goal for the piece was to lay out a menu of wildly different orchestral textures, in order to hear what worked well and what sounded like scrambled eggs.

And WOW, some bits of that piece sounded yucky and didn't work at all, which was great because I got to try it out! The most awesome gift from the Readings session was that I learned, from the mentor composers and ACO's musicians, precisely why certain passages didn't work. In addition, it was tremendous fun, interesting, and informative to hear the new pieces written by my peers--all of which were cool in unique ways. Also, a magical and unexpected bi-product of my Whitaker Readings participation was that it was at these sessions that I met and had the initial connection with one of my most cherished composer-friends, (you know who you are).

Now, ten years later, I can see that having Myrrha premiered by the ACO for the Underwood commission was a significant catalyst for my future. However, what I love and find most interesting about this outcome is that the catalyst wasn't solely due to the reception and/or publicity that surrounded the premiere, as that stuff is often fleeting. Primarily, it is the recording of the premiere that has served as a huge, yet not for public use, behind-the-scenes tool for me. I've turned to this recording often in the decade since Myrrha's premiere: to keep learning and to continue to draw upon the orchestration techniques I find most beautiful in the piece, and I am forever grateful to the ACO for the personal mileage this piece has provided since 2006.

ACO: The New York Times described you as writing "commandingly for the orchestra" in its review of Myrrha, the Underwood commission premiered by the ACO in 2006. Trying to summarize what can be a lifetime's work, what do you think it takes to write "commandingly" for an orchestra?
KK: It takes writing buckets of scrambled eggs. The best way to learn how to write "commandingly" for any instrumentation is to DO IT, and to do it a lot. Keep doing it. Do it well, and do it poorly. Write sounds that sound awesome, and write sounds that turn out to be nothing more than merely serviceable or terrible. Produce gorgeous scores, and make glaring errors on those scores. The more we do it and hear where things are not as clear as we want them to be, the better we learn how to improve our writing.

The figuring-out of how to unscramble all the musical eggs is the primary reason services like the ACO Readings are imperative for our field. Composers need to hear, both in real time and in retrospection with a recording, what it is in the nuts and bolts of our music that is of best use in expressing whatever it is we wish to express.

ACO: What do you think is most beneficial about the Readings for up-and-coming composers?
KK: All of it. Literally, every moment of the Readings is beneficial. I wish there were enough space for every composer interested in writing for orchestra to participate. The mentors' feedback is invaluable and useful. The ACO's musicians' and staff's and administration's feedback are invaluable and useful. All of the participating composers' feedback is invaluable and useful. Hearing what one's peers are doing in their music is invaluable and useful. The Readings are a giant buffet of beneficial information, all of which the composers can draw from in every second of their future writing.

ACO: What advice would you give this year's seven participants, both for the readings and beyond?
KK: Congratulations! You are about to hear your terrific piece! Yay!!!

Now, calm down. Relax. Chill your self. Going into an experience such as this, while carrying the notion that it's going to "make or break" your "career" is not only silly, it is untrue. The experience of these Readings will impact and have significance for your artistry and your music in ways you cannot yet identify, so leave your ego on a subway platform or in a cab en route to the gig--it is not useful to you in this experience. There is zero need to be nervous or worry, your music is in fabulous hands with the ACO, and it's going to go great!

The Readings do go by quickly. If you drink coffee, pace yourself, as going over the Coffee Edge is a Real Thing, people. It's a total rush of excitement, and a flurry of creative and sonic input while you hear your piece. At the same time, hearing this amount of new and equally-terrific orchestral music by your peers, in this compact and intense amount of time, is both invigorating and taxing on the musical brain. Having cookies available for snacks = invaluable and useful.

Listen to every single ounce of feedback: read the answer to question #3 above, again. For real, read it again.

Even if some feedback doesn't resonate with you right away, it is still useful information. Listen. Take notes. Then go have another cookie snack.

Most importantly: connect and engage thoughtfully with your peers, and remember to ENJOY YOURSELF.

After the readings, you will in fact come down off your amazing ACO-Readings buzz. The good news is: now you have your recording, to which you can refer and from which you can learn if ever you decide to, or are asked to, cook up some fresh eggs.

Learn more about Kristin at www.kristinkuster.com

EarShot Alumni: Composer Spotlight - Saad Haddad

Composer Saad Haddad participated in the 2013 Underwood New Music Readings with his piece Maelstrom, as well as the 2015 Columbus Symphony Readings with his piece Kaman Fantasy. During the 2015 SONiC Festival, ACO premiered Saad's Manarah, about which New York Classical Review wrote, "Haddad’s intriguing textures made the night’s most arresting listening."

Saad spoke to SoundAdvice about his EarShot experience, with some words of advice.

Composer Saad Haddad

American Composers Orchestra: What impact did your experience at the Underwood New Music Readings have on your career and voice as a composer?
Saad Haddad: My year of Underwood Readings seems like such a long time ago, although they took place just three years ago. Those readings were my first taste of what life might be like as a 'professional' composer. At the time, I was just elated to be in the room with established composers like Joan Tower and Christopher Theofanidis, while experiencing the week with composer colleagues that were all older and more experienced than I was. I was the baby in the room at 20 years old workshopping Maelstrom, a 7-minute raunch of an opener that I wrote at 19 while studying at USC. More than anything else, that workshop gave me the confidence to keep going on my path of orchestral writing, that I do belong in the room and that continued hard work will keep me there.

ACO: Just this spring, your ACO commission, Manarah, was premiered by George Manahan and Orchestra Underground at Carnegie Hall. What knowledge from the Underwood Readings were you able to take with you to rehearsals for the premiere?
SH: I knew from the Underwood Readings that the musicians themselves picked up the music quickly, as long as it was notated in an absolutely clear way. There were some things I could have done better at the readings that I think I executed with much more care during the process of preparing Manarah for rehearsal. First off, the parts were meticulously edited, sometimes reprinted up to ten times, especially the strings. There's nothing that I loathe more than musicians asking me what I meant in their parts -- to me, that just simply means I didn't work hard enough to take the necessary steps to ensure that those questions don't arise. The less confusion there is, the smoother the rehearsals will go. Of course, everything is a learning experience, so I make sure immediately after a performance of a work, including Manarah, that the necessary edits are made while the piece is still fresh in my mind.

ACO: Kaman Fantasy was workshopped and premiered at the Columbus Symphony Readings in 2015 and recently won the Palmer Dixon Award for best composition written at the Juilliard School. Congratulations! Do you think the workshops helped bring the piece to the level needed to win the award?
SH: It was just a thrill to hear Kaman Fantasy under the leadership of a conductor like Rossen Milanov, who I can tell understood my music and delved into it like it was a work that he has always known. EarShot, along with the Columbus Symphony, were able to fashion me a recording of the work, which was part of the requirement of entering this piece into the Palmer Dixon contest at Juilliard. They definitely brought it to a level that I never dreamed possible. ACO's ambitious EarShot program makes it a reality for orchestras around the country to feel how music by living composers can be integrated into their communities and invigorate the art form in their own halls, forming a lasting impact on how orchestras fit this new repertoire into future seasons.

ACO: What do you think is most beneficial about the Readings for up-and-coming composers?
SH: The chance to hear your music played by an orchestra of this caliber is always a special occasion, no matter where a composer might be in his or her career. For these readings in particular, the chance to hear your music performed alongside colleagues (that quickly become friends!) from all around the country is what sets this program apart. In a sense, you learn more from the other participating composers than just about anyone else simply because you'll be spending the most time with these new friends who are all just as driven to learn the ropes as you are.

ACO: What advice would you give this year's seven participants, both for the readings and beyond?
SH: Take all the advice you hear at these readings, make lots of notes on your scores, and remember that if you want to make revisions, do not wait. This is your chance to hear your music played live by a professional orchestra. Not many composers have an opportunity like this so take advantage of it while you are there. There's nothing more disheartening than feeling like you could have done more the week after it's all over! Be bold, be yourself, and never stop learning.

Learn more about Saad at www.saadnhaddad.com

EarShot Alumni: Composer Spotlight - Michael-Thomas Foumai

Native Hawaiian violinist, violist, conductor and composer Michael-Thomas Foumai participated in the 2012 Underwood New Music Readings with his Concerto for Orchestra. ACO premiered Michael-Thomas' The Spider Thread at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall as part of the 2015 SONiC Festival, which I Care If You Listen called "a quick and calculated piece filled with measured cacophony that never seemed to stay somewhere for too long."

To help celebrate 25 years of New Music Readings organized by the ACO, Michael-Thomas answered these questions about his Underwood experience and what advice he gives currently participating composers.

Violinist, violist, conductor and composer Michael-Thomas Foumai

American Composers Orchestra: What impact did your experience at the Underwood New Music Readings have on your career and voice as a composer?
Michael-Thomas Foumai: Having the orchestra read through my piece was just the tip of a larger learning experience. It was the first time I had a performance in New York City and it was remarkable to have a platform for introduction to the great music makers of our time. How everyone seemed to know everyone with the eagerness to meet other fellow musicians was extraordinary. Music survived and existed in these bonds of friendship and it very much oriented my perspective of music as a profession.

The experience was also a proverbial turning point in thinking about and defining what I wanted to say and how I wanted say it. Three movements of my Concerto for Orchestra were read and it was piece that shared some semblance of language to Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. In the discussions on aesthetics after the reading, mentor composer Steven Stucky preferred the middle movement because the outer movements were too close to Bartók. They were akin to a “space ship” flying very near a large sun, likely to be burned or be sucked into by its gravity and be burned. Suffice it to say, I took that to heart and have continued to strive for a careful pruning of the influences that comprise my voice.

ACO: Since your Concerto for Orchestra was performed as part of Underwood in 2012, you have had more than a dozen other orchestral works performed across the country. What skills have become second nature as far as the process of getting a piece performed by an orchestra or symphony?
MTF: The careful preparation of score and parts for orchestral performance has become second nature that I apportion a descent amount of time for part engraving, extraction, proofing and printing.

After the readings and session with Bill Holab on music engraving, I completely overhauled my formatting layouts so that the music would be clearer, legible, printed on quality paper, properly bound and proof read, re-proofed and many times again. Most orchestras do not have time to rehearse new pieces with the time they deserve, so the parts should aid the musicians with cues and other notations that eliminate the possibility of questions. It is tedious work that I admit is near drudgery, but I prefer to do my own parts since I can see what the musicians see.

It might have been Bill who equated good part preparation to defensive driving or auto-insurance. Orchestras are an expensive enterprise so time really is money; errors in the parts eat up rehearsal time and lead to poor performance.

ACO: What do you think is most beneficial about the Readings for up-and-coming composers?
MTF: The working experience of being a composer with a professional orchestra; there is no substitute for being in the “hot seat.” I implicitly remember being in an initial state of shock and awe at hearing the music for the first time and how difficult it was to focus on iterating any meaningful comments to the conductor. Many unthought-of questions and concerns arise from being present in a real-time situation, such as understanding how to evaluate the reading, prioritizing your feedback and navigating orchestral etiquette. The reading provides this experience and with the help of the mentor composers, one is enabled to take away answers and/or to formulate a way to work with an orchestra.

ACO: What advice would you give this year's seven participants, both for the readings and beyond?
MTF: Keep an open mind. The musicians and mentor composers come with a combined experience of centuries of music making. Welcome their suggestions, criticism and praise, but especially their suggestions and criticism. I eventually find myself in total agreement down the road and reciprocating them to my students.

Learn more about Michael-Thomas at www.michaelfoumai.com

EarShot Alumni: Composer Spotlight - Wang Jie

To commemorate the 25th Annual EarShot Underwood New Music Readings, taking place on Tuesday, July 14, 7:30pm at Miller Theatre, Columbia University, SoundAdvice is catching up with a few of our many notable EarShot alumni. Wang Jie participated in the 18th Underwood Readings and won the $15,000 commission to write a piece for the ACO. Her commission, From the Other Sky, was premiered at Carnegie Hall in December 2010 and was described by The New York Times as "clear, lucid and evocative music." The piece, a 15-minute concert opera, has since been expanded into a full-length production, which will premiere at Festival Opera in Fall 2017 in collaboration with American Opera Projects!

Composer and Underwood alumna Wang Jie

American Composers Orchestra What impact did your experience at the Underwood New Music Readings have on your career and voice as a composer?
Wang Jie: Being chosen for the Underwood Reading was like the Greek Gods nodding from behind the big table saying: “yeah kid, you are onto something.” I didn't know what that "something" was and in the end, it wasn't as important as what the Underwood experience taught me. 

I’ll never forget the magical hour during the debriefing when I was seated inches away from the very Greek Gods who had done me some previous nodding. As a conversation unfolded over the open scores of my music, I immediately recognized myself in them. They are no Gods. These were clearly real people who cared. They heard something in my music that I did not hear myself. Perhaps they recognized themselves in my music. It was humbling. I remember thinking to myself: “Gee, I want to grow up and be just like them!” I walked away knowing it was somehow all possible, and I’ll eventually get there.

ACO: You describe yourself as "part cartoon character, part virtuoso, musical whiz kid" and humor is undoubtedly a prominent element in many of your works. The classical world is perhaps known for taking itself quite seriously – when did you realize your music and performances wouldn't be conformed by this? Did the Underwood Readings allow you to further flex or develop these comedic muscles?
WJ: According to legend, the last words of tragic acting star Edmund Kean were: "Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” I share his feeling that comedy is a difficult matter and frequently the best way to make a serious point. The Underwood Reading not only led me to a commission by ACO, it also enabled me to tackle the difficult comedy form. At all times during the process, ACO was hospitable to my eccentric perspectives and took great risks in terms of characterization, scenic design and performance. Since the ACO premiere of my crazy work, it has gained traction from the opera world. The 15-minute concert opera has been expanded into a full evening, slated for a new production by Festival Opera in Fall 2017. The piece may be comedic, but the world of Classical music and opera is taking it as seriously as it does ACO and the Underwood Readings. 

ACO: What do you think is most beneficial about the Readings for up-and-coming composers?
WJ: Composition as a profession is a true testament of one’s resilience. While the rest of the music world locks its embarrassing mistakes behind practice rooms doors, young composers risk public humiliation each time they desire a hearing of their creations. Fighter pilots get to safely crash in the flight simulator numerous times before they operate a real aircraft. The Underwood Readings are flight simulators for up and coming composers, complete with the musical equivalent of a real-deal, top-caliber jet. The bad news is….there isn’t any. Even if you discover composing for a large orchestra doesn’t speak to your instinct, finding it out in a labetory environment is in itself good news. 

ACO: What advice would you give this year's seven participants, both for the readings and beyond?
WJ: Know where you have said it clearly. Know where you could have said it more clearly. Start a new piece.

Learn more about Wang Jie at www.wangjiemusic.com

Monday, June 13, 2016

Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Readings: Composer Spotlight - Guy Mintus

At 24 years old, Israeli-born New York-based jazz pianist and composer Guy Mintus has performance credits that include the Kennedy Center, Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Apollo Theater, Symphony Space, Red Sea Jazz Festival, and the Israel Festival. With a focus on music as a gateway to cross-cultural understanding, Guy has collaborated with master musicians from Turkey, Greece, Iran, Morocco, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India and Mali and has participated in multi-disciplinary works with artists in the visual, dance, spoken word, and theater worlds. Guy has been recognized by ASCAP, Downbeat Magazine, BMI and the America-Israel Cultural Foundation, among many others.

Portrait of a Moroccan Cantor singing about Love or Memories from a Place I’ve Never Been is Guy's piece, a "personal journey to be perceived it as an open love letter to Morocco and to my late Grandfather," which will be workshopped and read at the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Readings on Thursday, June 16, 7:30pm at Miller Theatre, Columbia University.

Jazz pianist and composer Guy Mintus

American Composers Orchestra: Can you talk about the challenges of writing jazz music for orchestra? What do you believe is the biggest payoff?
Guy Mintus: For me, one of the main challenges has been to fully adjust my mindset to the orchestral mode. First of all, writing for “classically trained” musicians is very different from writing for players who are used to playing Jazz. There are really no discounts. You must make as little assumptions as possible.

More than that, among the various “classical” settings, I find the orchestral one as particularly challenging. It’s a big palette of sounds to control and even just the way orchestras operate, rehearse, the different psychological relationships between conductor-player-composer when we’re all in that room. I learned that these are all very important to understand and can certainly make an impact on one’s choices down to the smallest details.

I believe that the payoff in inviting jazz musicians or musicians of any background into the orchestral world is huge. On the one hand, orchestras are benefited with new musical languages, forms of expression, fresh perspectives and eventually also new audiences. At the same time, for us, being required to be that specific and detailed might be challenging but is also very healthy. When you need to weigh each decision to such extent it truly brings you closer to yourself and to your own musical identity. For example, while often in Jazz situations the composer will just tell the drummer which groove he’d like for a certain piece, while writing for orchestra, you suddenly need to break that groove down and distribute it to three percussionists showing the tiniest nuances in which you’d like that groove played.

ACO: You describe your piece as "an open love letter to Morocco and to my late Grandfather." Can you talk about what Moroccan musical elements the audience will hear? 
GM: Well, the first main element that will occur is the vocal element. Specifically of the great cantorial tradition of Morocco (tradition of cantors singing liturgical or quasi-liturgical Jewish texts over various ). The trigger that started the whole piece has been an old cassette I found in which a Moroccan cantor singing lines from Song of the Songs of the bible. The way he phrased the words, the ornaments he used, the scales he was singing on have all become key elements in the piece.

Aside from that, there are some rhythmical, rethorical and orchestrational elements that are very much influenced by Sha’abi, Gnawa and the tradition of the great Andalusian orchestras. Morocco’s music is as vast and diverse (if not more) than the entire tradition of Jazz. While this is part of the heritage of my late grandfather I’ve gotten to explore it quite a bit and even during the writing period of the piece I’ve had the great fortune to got collaborate separately with two masters of Moroccan music; Ma’alem Hassan Bin jaafer who plays in the Gnawa tradition of the north African Sufis and Oudist Michel Suisa who plays in the Sha’abi and Andalusian traditions. These experiences helped greatly and of course made an impact on the piece.

ACO: What has your experience in the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute been like so far?
GM: The experience has been truly amazing. The week we all spent in UCLA that kicked of this whole adventure has been truly eye opening and uber-inspiring. At the time, I almost didn’t go because the seminar fell on a busy touring period of concerts taking place very far from Los Angeles. Luckily, I finally decided to go even though it meant taking a very long flight from Israel right after a concert and arriving to the seminar a day late. This turned out as an incredible decision.

In the seminar, being around and sharing knowledge with the singular congregation of faculty and students that were there has been beyond anything I could expect. Many of the relationships formed has continued till today and I’m just grateful to be part of this community.

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the readings?
GM: Of course, the thing we all look forward to the most is basically to hear everything coming to life with real instruments and real people. I’m also very much looking forward to spending time and interacting with the mentoring composers, my fellow JCOI composers and the players of the American Composers Orchestra. Every time something you wrote is being played, there are moments that work less than you expected, there are moments that work exactly as you expected and there are moments you didn’t expect much from but will surprise you for the better. I look forward to enjoy and learn from all of those moments.

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Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Readings: Composer Spotlight - Brian Friedland

Composer and pianist Brian Friedland’s recordings include compositions for chamber orchestra, big band, strings, brass, saxophone quartet, prepared piano, and many small jazz groups. While rooted in jazz piano traditions, he exhibits a wide range of influences in his music, from Balkan Folk to classical minimalism. Brian has released three albums, performed at venues across the US and internationally, and frequently performs and collaborates in his hometown of Boston. Grammy-nominated composer and musical collaborator Kim Richmond describes Brian's music as “not only professional quality material, but inspirationally crafted, an excellent and interesting mix of art works. He shows his dedication towards creating and performing new music.”

Brian participated in last year's Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Summer Intensive and was selected for the JCOI Readings on Thursday, June 16, 7:30pm at Miller Theatre, Columbia University for his piece Dreamscapes.

Composer and pianist Brian Friedland

American Composers Orchestra: Can you talk about the challenges of writing jazz music and other non-traditional forms for orchestra? What do you believe is the biggest payoff?
Brian Friedland: One of the biggest challenges is translating the ideas I'm exploring in my head or on the piano, to a full realization for orchestra.  There's a much greater range of sounds available then in any other situation I can think of, and to imagine ideas that are not necessarily idiomatic of orchestra makes me feel like I'm often leaping into the unknown.  Translating the rhythmic drive and compositional underpinning I'm used to hearing from a rhythm section is a particular challenge of moving from a jazz ensemble to an orchestra.

I think they biggest pay off is that my composing and improvising will be enriched from the process of writing for orchestra.  I think I will hear a wider range of textural possibilities and that the studying of orchestral music has put different kinds of melodic, harmonic, rhythmic ideas in my head.  On a different level, my composing for non jazz instruments and utilizing full wind and brass sections is much better understood.  I couldn't have correctly answered the correct ranges and tone colors for oboe and english horn before undertaking the piece.

ACO: Can you talk about your process of composing by transcribing your own improvisations? Do you set up a harmonic structure or "skeleton" to improvise off of?
BF: I record often when I am improvising, it helps me go back and identify my strongest ideas as well as material to throw away.  I never use the improvisation in its original form, there is a lot of tinkering as I come up with melodic and rhythmic variations and different harmonizations.  Usually I have the idea 90 percent formed before I attempt to write anything down.  When I go to write things down and commit it many small details can change, but the basic direction has been formed through a lot of trial and error.  Sometimes will have several pieces fully formed and will improvise many different transitions between them in order to figure out the best overall flow.

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the readings?
BF: I can't wait to hear what this piece I have spent hundreds of hours with actually sounds like!  Of course, it will be incredibly inspiring to hear my colleagues' approaches to writing for orchestra.

ACO: What has your experience in the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute been like so far?
BF: Incredible!  The workshop was as inspiring a musical situation as one can ever hope to find themselves.  Conversing with so many brilliant and diverse teachers and highly knowledgeable and accomplished participants left me feeling more committed to composing large ensemble music and fueled me with ambition for new projects.

Learn more about Brian at www.brianfriedland.com

Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Readings: Composer Spotlight - Dawn Norfleet

Jazz flutist, vocalist and composer Dawn Norfleet's academic and musical journey started as a student in L.A. public schools, and eventually took her through Wellesley College and Columbia University where she earned a PhD in ethnomusicology. As winner of a national competition for new Classical choral works, her composition was performed by a Minnesota-based vocal ensemble. Dawn participated in last year's Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Summer Intensive, and was selected for the JCOI Readings, Thursday, 7:30pm at Miller Theatre, Columbia University for her piece SEED. She was kind enough to speak with us about the piece and her JCOI experience.

Jazz flutist, vocalist and composer Dawn Norfleet

American Composers Orchestra: Can you talk about the challenges of writing jazz music for orchestra? What do you believe is the biggest payoff? 
Dawn Norfleet: For me, the greatest challenge of writing jazz music for orchestra is creating something organic that feels both authentically jazz and authentically orchestral. Jazz and European concert traditions have different histories, roots, and aesthetics, so it takes sensitivity, respect, and expertise in both arenas. Although both ensembles use primarily European instruments and notation, central to jazz are "feel" and improvisation that come from African American aesthetics (like the blues) and performance approaches that directly engage the listener (as in clapping after solos, or vocal responses). Jazz ensembles highlight horns, and rhythm section; skillful balance is achieved between individual and group expression. Relative to jazz, European Classical orchestras emphasize strings and minimize percussion, individual expression and improvisation. Audience appreciation is usually demonstrated only at the end of the composition and all of its movements. Broadly speaking, the conductor and instrumentalists in Western Classical music aim to interpret the composer's musical intent; in jazz, while the composer's intent is considered, the musical expression depends greatly on the individual instrumentalists who are interpreting the music through performance. There are many things to consider while writing in a way that combines these different traditions. The payoff in composing jazz for orchestra, however, is to accomplish that which is truly one's own expression, while honoring the integrity of both traditions.

ACO: You say that following JCOI mentor James Newton’s advice about bringing our unique voice to the medium, you have incorporated African and other non-Western-derived percussive rhythm and counterpoint into your piece. Can you talk about these rhythms and methods of counterpoint and how they materialize in SEED
DN: Actually, with SEED, I wasn't aiming to compose "jazz music for orchestra", with whatever stylistic, instrumental, or improvisational expectations that arise with the label, jazz. What I aimed for here was to write something that authentically and organically represented where I was, musically, at that specific time. James Newton's advice to the JCOI participants was to write something that no one else could write, something that was authentically our unique voices. That set off a light bulb in my creative spirit. It was as though I had been given "permission" to write from the source of my inspiration, and not be concerned with writing a “jazz” piece for a classical orchestra, unless that was what my creative mind led me to do. When I was studying Western Art Music composition in grad school, I'd felt stifled by a pressure to compose chromatic or serial music, and to avoid rhythmic repetition, meter, and tonality. Although I found the challenge of composing in that vein intriguing, I really wanted the freedom to create as the composition directed me. As a result, I faced the Dreaded Blank Page many times, and not knowing how to remedy the situation, I feel that I didn't compose as much as I could have, had I been free to just write without restrictions. I realized years later, that these periodic writer's blocks were also due to a flaw in my compositional process: what I call a "crippling perfectionist" attitude that every note I wrote had to be some kind of masterpiece. I rethought that approach after hearing an interview of noted author on an NPR program several years ago. He said that he would advise his composition students not to try writing masterpieces, but to aim to get words on the page that didn't mind being around each other, thus releasing them from the pressures of perfectionism. That concept of getting my ideas "on the page" rather than questioning and rejecting ideas before getting them written down for development kept me in motion, when composing SEED. Once ideas are on the page, they can be developed. When I thought I'd worked through one idea to its fullest extent, I'd step away from it and free my mind enough to come up with something else. I learned to follow the advice I've given to my own students, to "get the darned thing on the page, then edit! Stop rejecting the darned thing before gets on the page!" With SEED, the ultimate challenge was to trust my musical instincts and choices, inspired with the knowledge that I can still develop the composition further as a result of the ACO Reading.

I've been writing music since I was 15. I grew up surrounded by 1970's R&B and funk bands, then jazz, having absorbed these styles from my musical family. My heroes included Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Steely Dan, and Earth Wind and Fire. From my mother, who was then a high school choir director in Watts, California, I gained an affinity for classical choral and vocal music. In college, I discovered African polyrhythms, early Italian Baroque polyphony, and meters considered unconventional in Western music but common in Indian traditions. SEED likely pulls a bit from all of the various traditions that influenced me, as well as from my background in songwriting. Just as my intent wasn't to write jazz for orchestra, I also didn't deliberately set out to compose something that sounded particularly African, Indian, or Black American -- but if ideas did sound that way, I was fine with it. Instead, I'd take an idea, and go with it wherever it took me. As a result, I think SEED reflects ideas that intrigue me: "non-traditional rhythms", funk, bird chatter, and sounds I hear around urban Los Angeles.

Structurally, SEED is comprised of five continuous, contrasting segments, with an overall metric feel of five (5/8). Within that meter, I explore different rhythmic possibilities in each section. The first section opens with the marimba playing a melody with 2+3 rhythmic grouping, while the strings and piano gently suggest percussion. It then shifts to a 3+2 feel with the other instruments taking over. In the second segment, I wanted to insert rhythmic space and stretch out the melody through inversion and other alterations, and experiment a bit with space and location of instruments. The third and longest section developed from an idea I'd sketched out in my notebook taken during a JCOI lecture. Here, I wanted to create a different feel by combining the two groupings 3+2/2+3 in the melodic structure and adding layers, like a theme and variation. The fourth section has a hint of acknowledgement of my Los Angeles hometown, with what I'd described for the trumpets as "quasi-mariachi" duet. The last section combines some of the rhythmic and melodic elements of the previous sections. Throughout the composition, I chose to utilize tonality, which I use all the time in my jazz and songwriting, but avoided as a grad student.

ACO: What has your experience in the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute been like so far? 
DN: I've thoroughly enjoyed the JCOI experience. It impacted my life on many levels. After having been away from composing Western Classical music for 25 years, this provided an opportunity to reawaken my interest in this area. Writing for orchestra is like a holy grail for composers and songwriters I know, whether working in jazz, R&B, world music, or pop. Everyone with whom I've shared my experience has expressed nearly as much excitement as I've felt. Regarding my JCOI colleagues, for the first time I've felt as though I was among kindred spirits. These are people like me, with diverse musical backgrounds that include jazz and other improvised music, but are also influenced by a world of other genres. Also like me, many are performing musicians, and even have similar quirks (like constantly flipping pencils, moving a knee up and down, or tapping out rhythms when sitting for a long time). My mentor, Gabriela Lena Frank, has been tremendously generous with her knowledge. This one-to-one mentorship is also a vital part of what makes the JCOI experience so valuable. I've had an amazing time, thus far. As the title of my composition suggests, SEED represents the germination of new creative ventures. The orchestra is no longer a Big Scary Thing for me as a composer.

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the readings? 
DN: Having these ideas in my head come to life through the experts of the ACO is something I can almost hardly imagine! Getting feedback from musicians, composers, and mentors is also something I'm excited about. I look forward to doing a lot more in the future with extended technique and improvisation for this kind of ensemble, as a result of what I'll learn during the sessions and feedback.

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Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Readings: Composer Spotlight - Ben Morris

Composer Ben Morris explores the intersections between jazz and concert music. Ben is currently pursuing his masters’ at Rice University as a Brown Fellow and interns with film composer Michael Bacon. His music has been performed by LUNAR Ensemble, Cadillac Moon, Living Earth Show, Resound Duo, Fredericksburg Brass, American Modern Ensemble, the Cleveland Orchestra, Imani Winds, the Frost Symphony and Concert Jazz Band. Ben received an ASCAP Morton Gould Award, a NJMEA Composers Award, the 2015 Frost Concerto Competition Prize, and two Klezmer Company Orchestra Composers’ Prizes, and three Festival Miami Composers’ Awards.

Ben's piece, titled Old Seven Mile, will be workshopped and read at the JCOI Readings on Thursday, June 16, 7:30pm at Miller Theatre, Columbia University. The work is named after the longest continuous bridge over open water, located in the Florida Keys, and is meant to convey the idea of the "bridge-in-progress." Ben was kind enough to expand on his program notes for our blog.

Composer Ben Morris

American Composers Orchestra: Can you talk about the challenges of writing jazz music for orchestra? What do you believe is the biggest payoff?
Ben Morris: While composing music for a chamber jazz group can be like setting some loose house rules for a close family, composing music for orchestra is like writing a law book for a big foreign city. During the composition and rehearsal process for a new orchestral piece, we composers don’t personally interact with musicians in the orchestra as often. Usually, the conductor will talk to the composer before rehearsals, and composers are limited to a few comments during the small rehearsal time. This approach is different from a jazz group’s, where rehearsals are more frequent and the performers are familiar with each other as artists. A lot goes unspoken – the composer knows for whom they are writing. 

The challenge of composing jazz-influenced music for orchestra is reconciling my tendencies to “let the performers go” with a more rigorously structured narrative form and nuanced orchestrational details. Orchestral music, due to the number of musicians (most of whom the composer won’t know personally) and the limited rehearsal time, requires controlled expression and unity of intent built into the music, which is communicated by the conductor. Concision and playability are important factors for writing orchestra music. Of course, the EarShot readings do a lot to ameliorate these challenges by breaking down some of the barriers between the orchestra and the composer by encouraging more discussion and feedback for the composers.

Ultimately, the biggest payoff for me is that I can create an enormous 3D world of sound – a totally immersive experience that an audience wouldn’t get as often from a small jazz combo or classical chamber group.  Nothing quite beats it. 

ACO: In what ways does your piece Old Seven Mile combine jazz and concert music?
BM: Big band music is in my DNA, and elements from classic and modern big band arrangements come out strongly in Old Seven Mile, which captures some of the energy of the music of South Florida.  The piece features a drum set “driving the bus” in lockstep with the basses and tuba, something that is idiomatic to jazz and funk music. Quick wind flourishes act like improvised interjections, while stretches of solo trombone and trumpet predominate the slower middle section. Another section of the piece features parallel rhythmic motion in the winds and muted brass like a big band sax soli a la Thad Jones or a Gil Evans Sketches of Spain harmonization. Rhythmically, the piece relies on shifting vamps and repeated grooves. A lot of big band sounds transfer quite well to orchestra, and that is something I take advantage of in the piece. 

The piece’s form, a big ABA with an energetic fast and end section and a slower middle portion, is typically classical. Textures in the piece, from percussion and piano flourishes, pizzicato strings, glissandi, and chorales, are very much grounded in contemporary classical music and the works of Joseph Schwantner, Henri Duttileux, Olivier Messaien, and Witold Lutoslawski. The two worlds can work surprisingly well together. 

ACO: What has your experience in the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute been like so far?
BM: As a composer in academia, my experience at JCOI is different from a lot of the other composers and mentors in the program, who are freelance jazz composers and performing musicians. A lot of these musicians really give a realistic picture of the possibility of crossing genres in a lucrative way outside of academia. It inspires me and gives me a clearer vision of where I am going as an artist, since they have all been there before and can advise me what and what not to do in the music industry. 

Each of the faculty and participants addressed the practical and aesthetic issues of the meeting of jazz and the orchestra in an open forum for discussion, allowing like-minded individuals to share their experiences. Each of us feels more prepared to tackle challenging issues of programming and getting our music out there - we have a toolset of approaches and responses to promote and deliver our own personal voices to a complex musical environment. It was also wonderful after the daily classes and workshops to share beers with such different souls and talk about the music we liked – everything from indie rock to metal to EDM to jazz to experimental classical. It was eye opening. 

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the readings?
BM: I am looking forward to hearing the range of creativity other participant’s works  - the readings will be fertile ground for the exchange of new ideas. Also, I’m actually looking forward to being put through the ringer and to learn some valuable lessons the hard way – in person and on the fly. It helps us all learn and move forward as artists. 

Friday, June 10, 2016

Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Readings: Composer Spotlight - John La Barbera

Renowned composer/arranger John La Barbera has worked in the jazz world for over four decades, with performances and recordings of his music by Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Mel Torme’, Chaka Khan, Harry James, Bill Watrous, and Phil Woods just to name a few. His selected piece is inspired by a visit to the infamous Morro da Babilônia Favela in in Rio de Janeiro, where John witnessed severe poverty contrasted with intense human spirit and outreach. Morro da Babilônia will be performed by George Manahan and the ACO at the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Readings on Thursday, June 16, 7:30pm at Miller Theatre, Columbia University.

Composer/arranger John La Barbera

American Composers Orchestra: Can you talk about the challenges of writing jazz music for orchestra? What do you believe is the biggest payoff?
John La Barbera: To me, improvisation is the fundamental component of the jazz art form and I think the biggest challenge is to incorporate it in a symphony orchestra setting whose virtuosic players traditionally haven't been exposed to or have explored it.  I think this is changing with younger symphony players whose listening is more diverse and whose training has embraced jazz as well as music from other cultures.  Also, trying to incorporate "swing" syncopation has always been an interpretation problem but with jazz now being more inclusive of other cultures and styles, it clears the way for newer rhythms that are more easily performed by orchestras. I think the payoff is broadening the appreciation for jazz, reaching younger audiences, and filling seats with new patrons.

ACO: Can you talk about what jazz elements the audience will hear in your piece?
JB: One of the components of my piece Morro da Babilônia is a representation of the Brazilian choro and, as I explain in the description, the genesis of choro music and American jazz are chronologically aligned and both have improvisation as a principal component. They also share similarities in their solo instrumentation. I prominently feature the clarinet with written and improvised solo space and though brief, a melding of choro and ragtime elements.  In addition, I use "call and response" to bridge certain phrases and sections.  The audience will also hear "voicing" techniques associated with Duke Ellington that I've expanded and incorporated in the work.

ACO: You are extensively accomplished in the jazz world: your big band CD On The Wild Side was nominated for a Grammy, you are Professor Emeritus at the University of Louisville School of Music and an active clinician and lecturer. And yet, as a participant in JCOI, what do you feel like you still need to learn?
JB: Lots!  I'm always listening and learning and as I've gotten older, I find myself more and more interested in theory and how to manipulate it for maximum satisfaction and surprise for me and the listener. I also need to be better skilled in the natural dynamics of the orchestra and the subtlety obtainable by the individual and combined choirs.  In addition, I'd like to experiment with certain non-adjacent instrument combinations to achieve colors that might work somewhat like artificial harmonics in the overall sound of the orchestra.

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the readings?
JB: I'm really interested in hearing how the other composers incorporate the jazz component in their works. Also, networking with the other composers and mentors and exchanging ideas first hand will be a bonus.  By nature of our art, we composers are an insular lot and don't have many opportunities to interact like, say, instrumentalist do.  And of course, hearing a professional orchestra play my work will be a thrill.

Learn more about John La Barbera at www.johnlabarbera.com

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Readings: Composer Spotlight - Ethan Helm

New York-based saxophonist and composer Ethan Helm makes music that blurs the boundaries between jazz and concert music, creating points of sound where diverse traditions become inseparable. Ethan has composed and arranged for jazz ensembles, indie rock groups, and dance; he has performed at the Umbria Jazz Festival, the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, and throughout the United States and Canada. Ethan grew up in a musical family in Southern California, and holds degrees Eastman School of Music and New York University. Ethan participated in last summer's Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Summer Intensive and was selected for the JCOI Readings, Thursday, 7:30pm at Miller Theatre, Columbia University with his piece The Glorious Train Ascending.

Saxophonist and composer Ethan Helm

American Composers Orchestra: Can you talk about the challenges of writing jazz music and other non-traditional forms for orchestra? What do you believe is the biggest payoff?
Ethan Helm: The biggest challenge for me has been the translation of language.  Orchestral and jazz music have their own separate goals, but use the same building blocks of music, as well as similar instruments and notation, to achieve their goals.  A trumpet part that is a page of eighth notes without dynamics or articulation will sound very different in the context of a jazz group than the context of an orchestra.  For example, I wanted some sections of my piece to have the dodging, diving motion of bebop, which I would typically notate in eighth notes.  To translate this to an orchestra, I decided to use more complex combinations of rhythms to exaggerate the effect, reasoning that a much bigger ensemble than a jazz quintet, playing in a hall much bigger than a jazz club, will “smooth out” eighth notes and dull the accents in the musical line.

The obvious payoff of these readings is that I get to hear my and my fellow participants’ pieces played by an incredible orchestra.  But also, working on this piece has planted some creative seeds in my brain, and it will be exciting to hear how these concepts are interpreted by other musicians, so I can continue to explore them in the future.

ACO: You write that your piece showcases the rich and masterful rhythmic jazz traditions that have found their way into symphonic music. Can you talk about any specific rhythms the audience will hear and why they are, as you put it, so transcendently beautiful?
EH: The piece is based on foundational rhythmic patterns of jazz, and from these the audience will hear very familiar forms: a syncopated big band shout chorus, a drum set playing a traditional swing beat, or a walking bass, for example. The element of swing is relatively easy to identify as a listener, but much more difficult to actually define in words or on paper.  Sometimes we notate it as triplets, sometimes as dotted-eighths and sixteenths, oftentimes as eighth notes and just specify in writing, “swing.”  And none of these solutions actually notate the rhythm perfectly, because there is no answer.  At least, not if we define swing as just one perfect repetition of a pattern.  I say jazz rhythm is “transcendent” because in order to understand its nature, we must resist our very human desire to quantify, to capture on paper and not worry about it changing.  When I listen and play this music, it feels like I am being called to think and feel on a higher level, to embrace a religious type of Mystery, and understand that the essence of this thing we call “swing” is never revealed all at once, but only in its many fluctuations through time.  I wanted to evoke this feeling of mystery in motion using the resources of an orchestra.  The audience will hear stalwart forms of jazz composition, but they will be stretched and modified throughout the piece, until they are unrecognizable, and their functions will be constantly shifting, as well.  The orchestra will reveal the ever-changing nature of jazz rhythm in dimensions I could never reach as a saxophonist in a jazz quartet.  I realize this is a lot of meaning to impose on a rhythm, but I spend a lot of time thinking about this!

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the readings?
EH: Well, I will take any opportunity to be in the room with the faculty of JCOI again, as they are all musical heroes of mine.  I also look forward to reconnecting with my fellow participants, who are now friends whose own work inspires and challenges me.  It will also be a rare pleasure to listen to my work performed without me also up there playing.  I will get to listen to my writing very closely without any other distractions, for better or for worse.  Although it’s also a little unnerving, because if the piece is a disaster I won’t be able to just focus on my saxophone part, I’ll have to listen to the whole thing.

ACO: What has your experience in the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute been like so far?
EH: JCOI has felt like one of those perfect communities that blends the right amounts of encouragement and challenge for optimal artistic growth.  Most of what we do involves solitary work at a desk, or performing in a depressingly empty bar on a Tuesday evening.  So to be surrounded by my musical heroes, and to meet so many other people with similar musical ideas and interests, has been a unique and important experience for me.

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