Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra: Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute - Joel Harrison: Day 2/Wrap up

20 lessons concerning the orchestra from the perspective of a jazz composer

1. Strauss said “what sounds good at a slow tempo will sound good at a fast tempo.”
2. A true pianissimo is hard to achieve.
3. Don’t over use percussion to drive rhythm. This over use of percussion derives from a jazz mentality where the drums are charged (perhaps too often) with driving drama.
4. Anthony Davis: “make the orchestra your band.”
5. Woodwinds are the most difficult section to deal with. They are all different, and can easily be subsumed by other families. Jazz composers don’t deal with them as much as they deal with brass, perc., and strings.
6. Transitions are a challenge. You can be a very good composer and still have faulty transitions.
7. Beware of over-use of unisons
8. Clear away instruments to allow your core idea to shine through.
9. Fast 16th note passages, esp. unisons, should be used very sparingly. They don’t provide nearly the excitement you might expect.
10. Strings are your friend! Use them as the core of the piece as often as possible, including as rhythmic drivers.
11. Subtlety and nuance are achieved through the sophistication of your orchestral choices. What we jazz composers know well is melody, rhythm, and harmony. But innovative orchestration is a high art, learned through experience.
12. Rhythm is our strong point, but you must be judicious in how you designate your rhythms into the orchestra so as to achieve the drive/ funk/ syncopation you desire. Things get muddy, blurry, cumbersome fast. Question previous strategies!
13. All the sections do NOT need to share the same dynamic. Consider foreground/ background, crossfades in sections.
14. Embellish repeating rhythms, consider shape.
15. Color comes from what you don’t do.
16. Energy can come from dissonance, harmony as much as a fortissimo.
17. Avoid too much block sound- use counterpoint.
18. Use space, let things sit, use pauses to prevent the feeling of things bumping into each other. It’s like a truck making a wide turn as opposed to a sports car.
19. Orchestration defines space and shape.
20. Think in 3 dimensions. An orchestra’s hall is not a small jazz club.

What are ways that you, as a composer, neglect orchestration as a primary tool?
Thanks to the great experience that the JCOI afforded me!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Howard Mandel on his Involvement in Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra: Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute

Feedback Session
Spending two days in Buffalo with five jazz composers and their mentors preparing scores for readings by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra has been an education. The fine-grained detailed critiques of written parts offered to Gregg August, Anita Brown, Joel Harrison, Ole Mathisen and Dave Wilson by the symphony players, conductor Matt Kraemer, and senior composers Anthony Davis, Nicole Mitchell and James Newton -- which had to be corrected in the scores overnight --  seem daunting, even for me, used to processing multiple iterations of articles quickly from manuscript to publication in magazines. The depth of listening of everyone is impressive.

Matthew Kraemer and BPO
This afternoon NewMusicBox Frank J. Oteri and I are to address the composers and most likely students from U of Buffalo's music program about career development issues, especially pertaining to press relations and media usage. What can we say? That composers like everyone else in the arts has to now be their own publicist and promotions/marketing director, on top of everything else? Well yes, and that's no longer news. But what else? I'm thinking about it while observing all the interactions. Right now I'm saved from having to answer. The Buffalo Philharmonc Orchestra is just about to perform.

Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra: Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute - Joel Harrison: Day 1

Joel Harrison in the Hotseat
I'm here in Buffalo getting used to the sound of my orchestra writing. I am not surprised to find that there is much I don't know...YET! It is really clear to me where I can make my piece better, and equally clear to me that I do have some good ideas that need time to gestate. Of course, the main issue, as far as lack of rehearsal time, is rhythm. To get an orchestra to groove is a challenge. Part of it is how you write the rhythms (or rather for whom), but part of it is the fact jazz musicians hear groove as a building block of their sound, often incorporating aspects of "world" music in their sound. Very few orchestras have had any exposure to these types of sounds on an ongoing basis.

That being said, this orchestra is really good, and all of us feel extremely lucky to have this opportunity. I am learning an incredible amount and the program is being run very well. Great to connect with James, Anthony, and Nicole as well as the other composers.

So incredible to hear the difference of the music as it sounds in your head, and the actual sound from the stage.
Please visit my composition blog - it's brand new - joelharrison.com/blog-press

Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra: Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute - Dave Wilson: Day 1

Dave Wilson in the Hotseat
I'm sitting here in our meeting room at the Buffalo Philharmonic, waiting for the beginning of the readings in forty-five minutes. In about ten minutes, I'll have my final meeting with the conductor (which will last about five minutes), to go over any last minute notes or changes. Hearing my piece played for the first time yesterday was an incredible learning experience--from the first moment I began to understand even better how to clearly communicate my musical ideas in a way translatable to a symphony orchestra. Yesterday, musicians from each section met with us and gave us some immensely helpful input on how to make our parts even more easy to read. Throughout my music career I've usually worked as a player in situations like this, so hearing players communicate about issues of concern to orchestral musicians was refreshing and helped me connect even more to compositional and notation strategies for more effective communication of my musical ideas. I'm looking forward to the reading, and I'm sure I'll continue to learn even more in the next few days.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Underwood New Music Readings - Joshua Groffman: Before the Readings

Before the Readings - April 3, 2013
Composer Participants, Mentor Composers
& George Manahan
The Underwood New Music Readings promise to be an intense three days, but until they get under way next week, there's not much left for me to do.  The score and parts for my piece, Music for elsewhere, are made, printed, bound, and in the right hands, travel plans are in place, and all seems well.

The readings are particularly exciting because with a piece for orchestra, it's almost impossible to really know what it will sound like until you hear it played live.  I have a general idea, of course; a big part of a composer's training, after all, is honing the ability to "hear" pieces in our heads.  But I have to confess that a lot of this piece will be as much a revelation to me in performance as to the audience.  I deliberately took some risks with Music from elsewhere, trying out ideas for forms and textures that I'd never used before.  Too, the sound of the orchestra is such a multifaceted, infinitely-variable thing that I find composing for it a little like crossing the ocean by dead reckoning - I start knowing approximately which way to go but without any certainty that I'll be able to find my way there.  
Joshua Groffman
So despite the fact that I lived with the piece, all day, every day for six months, Monday will be the start of really getting to "know" it.  Maybe it will sound exactly as I've imagined it or maybe my inner ear will have taken me wildly off-course; most likely, it will be somewhere in between.  In any case, it's a thrilling prospect.  After all, the places we find without a compass are usually more rewarding than the intended destination was ever going to be. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

coLABoratory: Lab 5 - Du Yun: Before the Lab

My piece, Slow Portraits, is very different now from the initial proposal I made to ACO’s coLABoratory: Playing It UNsafe program. 

Portraits in Dramatic Time
In summer 2011, I made a sound design for visual artist David Michalek’s Portraits in Dramatic Time. It is a video installation that used ultra-high-speed, high-definition cameras to record several well-known theater and film performers in a scene. In other words, the visual sequences were not digitally altered. The project slows the frames to display each emotion in larger-than-life detail as it is projected onto a screen that’s 85 feet wide and 45 feet high. The work was presented as part of Lincoln Center Festival, utilizing the facade of the David H. Koch Theater as a media canvas. In the beginning I wanted to use three different shorts out of 45 shorts from Michalek’s Portraits in Dramatic Time.

But after the first workshop, I aborted the idea. After talking to David, we decided to use two different sets of the shorts. It was also because this is not "scoring for films." I did not want to create music scene by scene, jumping from each flashcards. 

Portraits in Dramatic Time was shot using ultra-high speed, high-definition cameras. The performers were given roughly 10x10 feet of space to work within. The cameras were fixed, and the live action was recorded for duration of 10-15 seconds depending on the scene. Within these constraints, dramatic narratives were condensed down to an essence.

Each scene-sequence of drama was crafted to provide a physical metaphor for an emotional condition. This was created through various means—determinants (the problem, plot, theme, or context of the characters and their circumstances), consequences (deliberate manifestations of feeling as gestures and expressions), moods (induced in the character and filling the scene), and involuntary emotions (internal emotional states).

First is the Chinese Kunqu opera performer, Qian Yi; the other is the quintessential New York theater artist, Ruth Malaczech (of Mabou Mines.) These two performers cannot be more different in terms of cultural background and performing practices. And yet upon close look, one might find the gestures each depicted are remarkably familiar, the trajectory of each of their executions are outlandishly echoing each other.

Their beginning gestures:

Their throwing gestures:

Their respective expanding gestures:

As the piece goes along, my interest takes another shift. I become further interested in detailing the movement within a similar gestures and each of them embodies an underlying burst. It’s as if finding and locating a miniature painting. Looking at the forms and lines, and to see how the gestures each form and align and take a shift and turn.

Without these workshops and working closely with the musicians, I could not have another chance of redoing and reshaping my ideas and outlooks. It is almost subversive in today’s culture to write with a media that is created in analogue and with no digital alteration. Even though the outcome looks very nuanced and otherworldly and at once with an inherent ultimate poeticism.

This is perhaps what it investigates: when we slow down, we see a lot of nuances that’s never seen before our eyes. And when we hear many lines composed together and moving tantalizingly in their own many similar and yet slightly different mellismas, the listening involvement becomes more of a temptation. The creator the performers the narrative and the scenery have become seductress, to lure the audience into another world.

In the end, I do think that the process is less important --- whether or not it was digital-altered or analogue representation. But the ending result of what we are willing to see and what we are willing to hear to listen is what I am interested in exploring. And I do believe this is an artist’s responsibility --- to unveil another layer of a reality through the world around us.

coLABoratory: Lab 5 - Dan Visconti: Before the Lab

Feathers by Simon Tarr
It's taken a lot of composing/thinking/video editing/soldering/rewiring, but Simon and I are just about ready for Zankel this week! It’s such a treat to work on such a wild piece, one that we never would have been able to bring to life under the constraints of a typical orchestra schedule—but at the same time, all those possibilities create *lots* of things that can go wrong, and plenty of brilliant ideas crash and burn for want of an adapter plug. So we’re checking our I’s and crossing our t’s so that we can hopefully spend all of the time in rehearsal experimenting with cool sounds rather than trying to get X device to power on!

These ciruit-bent instruments are a real kick in part because of their utter unpredictability, but that same quality flies in the face of orchestra standards. For the next workshop, we need to be conscious of the inevitable challenges this will create as well as bringing out the happy accidents that will make the piece sound very different than a traditional, rigidly-controlled composition.

Dan Visconti
Our first priority of this last workshop is to verify that our setup works, after which time Simon will continue to focus on the video and make sure that it is getting enough audio input to make for enough motion (his video is reacting to audio input). The musical side of Glitchscape is not difficult, but as a large amount of the piece involves reacting and improvisatory elements it will require a slow “working through” every couple bars. It is important to work through the piece slowly as much of the interest will come from how we work out different events, so a slow trip through the entire piece is a must. After this has been worked out, we can focus on running the piece continuously.