Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Day 1 - Samantha Boshnack

Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute - Day 1
by Samantha Boshnack

My name is Samantha Boshnack, I am a trumpeter/composer living in Seattle, WA.  I just had the most incredible day.  Today was day 1 of a five day intensive for jazz composers living all over the country to learn about writing for a symphony orchestra.  That may have been the starting point, but we learned about much more than that.

A little background on myself, I play all kinds of music on the trumpet.  For the last 8 years or so, I have been writing for Reptet the instrumentation is four horns, bass, and drums.  This past year and a half, I added to that B’shnorkestra a 13-16 piece orchestral project (with rhythm section) and Sam Boshnack Quintet (trumpet, clarinets, piano, bass and drums).  I guess I fall into the jazz realm as a composer but I draw from a lot of things.  
I really had no idea what to expect going into this intensive.  I knew that it was probably going to feel crazy to be surrounded by so many other composers.  And it was - crazy in a really inspiring way.  To be around so many who are trying to create something new and putting their whole lives into their vision; in a world that can sometimes feel like it doesn’t care much about innovation or sophistication in music.  As I looked around and interacted with the peers and faculty throughout the day, I could see the hunger in everyone’s eyes to soak up as much as they could from this experience.  I could sense that it was refreshing to all of us to be surrounded by others working in such a tough field, a kind of comfort in numbers.  Even though we were from different parts of the country (and some had or do live abroad) we all had so much shared experience and so much to talk about. 
As I write this I have to apologize for any mistakes I may make and/or ideas that I can’t quite convey right now.  It’s midnight and I have been on a rollercoaster ride of ideas all day and heard so much that inspires me.  So I’m going to sketch some stuff out tonight, and hopefully can continue to develop on themes throughout these days.  I can tell already that certain ideas will probably resurface over and over.   

We started at 9 a.m. with a welcome from George Lewis and Michael Geller.  Then we jumped into orchestral evolution with Derek Bermel. Derek is a composer that I started listening to when I got the list of faculty for this intensive and his music totally blew me away.  I hadn’t been that excited by a new orchestral piece in a long time.  He had a 90-minute presentation planned out for us that took us through many orchestral pieces spread over hundreds of years.  We heard Gluck, Haydn, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Stravinsky, Ligety and more.  It truly was a whirlwind and it was great to spend time listening and studying scores.  We also learned a lot about history, instrumentation, and the personalities of the composers. We learned that the orchestra as an ensemble has gotten more specific in its instrumentation.  In the beginning, orchestral composers would be less specific, or write for what they had, or what could fit in the space - more than a standardized instrumentation.  That has changed over time into what we think of as the orchestra. 

It was interesting to think about how the course and history of the outside world affects what movements of music are picked up and which are forgotten.  Also how the development of the instruments themselves affects how music is written.  Over the course of the day we learned both how the composer pushed the instrument into new territory, and how sometimes it's the other way around.  

As someone coming into this who is pretty self-taught when it comes to orchestration, it was so great to hear things that I had come to myself, but never known if they were true. 
Some notes I took during Derek’s speech were:

-Each instrument is like speaking a different language, each section is too. 
-In an orchestra the strings are the driving rhythmic force and the percussion is ornamental. 
-Great composers are great orchestrators. 

Paul Chihara gave us an incredible presentation filled with his music, the music of others, and lots of life stories.  He said a few things that stuck with me such as, “We don’t make choices”.  His story as a composer seemed like a wild road filled with lots of amazing opportunities.  

He called himself a film composer.  He spoke about technology and how much that has changed music.  Composition was created around the idea that musicians perform it live.  Because of technology, now that is no longer always the case.  

James Newton played an incredible piece of his for us called “Looking Above, The Faith of Joseph” written for solo piano.  He explained to us about a method he created called “The Transformed Entrance” where he instructs the performer to “channel” famous performers like Cecil Taylor or Elvin Jones.    

I was excited by his quest to bring the improvising tradition into the new chamber and orchestral music world.  Also, I loved hearing him stress that we should look at our time on the stage, and how it affects you as a composer.  The excitement of live improvisation – how can we bring that into notation?  This is what “jazz” composers bring new to the table and it felt important that we were all trying to figure out how to best tackle it.    

Members of the ensemble “wild Up” did presentations on the violin and the oboe, clarinet & bassoon.  Wow, these performers were incredible.  To be honest they did things on there instruments I didn’t know were possible and taught us all so much, giving us ideas on how to write for them.  It made me really excited for their performance on Saturday.  

After all of this, we continued on until 11 pm (with some breaks) listening and sharing scores.  About half of us presented.  There was seriously some amazing music played from prodigies to established composers and many in-between.  Everyone was very supportive of each other it was a lot of fun.  

Like I said, I think tonight’s writings will be truly tip of the iceberg.  In my current state of exhaustion, there is no way I could accurately convey the amount of ideas I will be mulling over for years to come or the excitement that was in the room.        

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