Thursday, May 26, 2016

Naples Philharmonic Jazz Readings: Composer Spotlight - Sonia Jacobsen

Sonia Jacobsen is an award-winning composer who strives for a synthesis between the classical and jazz worlds. Sonia has studied musicology and jazz saxophone at Grenoble University, Chambéry Conservatory and The New School University in NY. She is founder and director of the New York Symphonic Jazz Orchestra, and she was co-founder and co-director of Mosaic Orchestra, which had a biweekly jazz club gig in NY in the late 90’s. Carried By The Winds is her selected piece for the EarShot Naples Philharmonic Jazz Composers Readings, May 25-26, 2016 at Artis–Naples’ Hayes Hall.

Sonia kindly answered these questions for SoundAdvice, giving insight into her piece and sharing her JCOI experience.

Composer Sonia Jacobsen
American Composers Orchestra: You describe richly varied styles that lend elements to Carried By The Winds, from tango, funk, jazz, Venezuelan joropo, Anatolian and Eastern European folklore. If someone were to point to a place on the score, would you be able to cite the style or combination of styles used?
Sonia Jacobsen: Some of the elements I borrow from these styles are techniques, concepts and aesthetics, and might at times be obscure, at other times be obvious.

I can point out in my score which elements were derived from those styles. However, I am very conscious of trying NOT to turn the piece into a collage, throwing a little bit of this in here, a little that in there, but use my knowledge of those styles as inspiration.

It could be a scale, at rhythm or rhythmic concept, an instrumental technique... I could start going into detail about technical things, for example, how I borrow from Afro-Venezuelan polymetric ways of shifting the perception of where 'one' is, superimposing different time signatures; some string techniques derived from tango; the emphasis on brassy hits and busy syncopated bass lines common in funk; the usage of bouncy odd groupings of two and three eighth notes common in Eastern European folk music; a 9/8 rhythm common in Anatolian music (one-two-one-two-one-two-one-two-three)... A large part of my piece is based on a scale that has four sets of half-steps and two augmented seconds, this scale has many names, depending on where you are from, and it even lends a rather Klezmer'ish flavor at times. And then there is also a jazz approach to articulation and harmony, and an attempt to lend a freshness to melodic lines as if they were improvised.

ACO: Where does the name Carried By The Winds come from?
SJ: I was looking for a name related to the diverse geographic associations some of these ethnic and folkloric traditions represent. I was contemplating naming different sections after named winds like the Sirocco, les Alisėes, Pamparo, Maltim, and others, but I thought that would be too geographically specific. So I thought I'd leave it at just a general reference to trade winds, migration of people on tall ships (forced and voluntary migration), and how seeds of influence can be transported across oceans and germinate on other continents. Music cultures in locations that are historically at a crossroads of different cultures are fascinating to me.  Well, there is also a slight double entendre referring to the wind instruments. My piece is at times a bit brass-heavy inspired by some 70's funk, jazz orchestras, and salsa bands. And the woodwinds often contribute 'whirlwind textures'.

ACO: What has your experience as founder and director of the New York Symphonic Jazz Orchestra, and co-founder and co-director of Mosaic Orchestra taught you about writing jazz music for orchestra?
SJ: As a jazz composer, there are traditionally not many outlets other than big bands and smaller ensembles. I always found big bands a bit limited for my compositional voice - a bit hard to break from the traditional big band sound. I was fascinated by strings in a jazz context already in the early 90's and I was lucky to work with some of the best improvising string players on the scene in NYC at that time. Jazz musicians who understood my vocabulary, who happened to play string instruments. When I founded New York Symphonic Jazz Orchestra, there were so many string players who were eager to play the kind of music in our repertoire, that every one of them could have taken on a soloistic improvisational role. Nevertheless, the more people playing together, the more important precise notation is required, and by being the conductor myself, I learned how important every detail is in communication to not waste precious rehearsal time. Researching crossover jazz/classical music has been a preoccupation of mine for decades, and when I was weeding through a large pile of submissions to a call-for-scores we did, I found that the most successful works had additional influences than only jazz and classical - often there was some world music or contemporary element in addition. Sometimes it is hard to try to straddle two chairs, you are likely to fall between them and alienate the audience in both camps. Whereas, approaching  the music as a melting pot of influences honest to one's taste works better, in my opinion.

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the readings?
SJ: To hear a piece come to life with real musicians is such a thrill, no matter the size of a group, but with a full symphony orchestra, it will be a dream come true. I have been attending the ACO readings for many many years and have long wanted to participate, but always found it a bit intimidating since I never studied composition formally in an academic classical context.

I'm looking forward to the learning experience, to find out if I have been successful in communicating my musical intent through notation in a clear enough manner. And to see whether I have notated some stylistic particularities so that a classically trained musician without knowledge of these styles can play them convincingly with the right feel.

ACO: What has your experience in the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute been like so far?
SJ: Being a jazz composer writing for classical musicians means you belong to a very small obscure group, it can seem at times. The community aspect of meeting with others with similar aesthetics and artistic direction validates my efforts. The willingness of the orchestra and everyone else involved to accept that the first time a piece is played, it might not be perfect, is extremely valuable for us composers.

Follow Sonia on Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube
Follow ACO on FacebookTwitterInstagramSoundcloudYouTube

Naples Philharmonic Jazz Readings: Composer Spotlight - Robin Holcomb

Robin Holcomb is a pianist, composer, librettist, singer and songwriter with four critically acclaimed albums on the Nonesuch label, a co-founder of Studio Henry and the New York Composers Orchestra with her husband Wayne Horvitz, and an internationally performed composer of orchestral, big-band, dance, theatre, and film music. Her piece All The While was selected for the EarShot Naples Philharmonic Jazz Composers Readings, May 25-26, 2016 at Artis–Naples’ Hayes Hall.

Robin answered these questions about her piece and experience at JCOI.

Photo by Peter Gannushkin
American Composers Orchestra: You have an exceptionally vast range of experiences as a pianist, composer, librettist, singer and songwriter. Do you think any or all of these experiences and skill sets are present when you approach writing for orchestra?
Robin Holcomb: My music, whatever the project, is often described as an amalgamation of styles resulting in something that is recognizably mine. I draw from different wells in all of my projects, yet it is all music and my work is to fashion it into something that is pleasing to my ear. So yes, all experiences and skills gained over time are present and operational and this project is no exception.

ACO: A layman's definition of "jazz" would probably include the word "improvisation," however, your piece for the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute does not include any improvisation. What aspects of your piece do you think fit the broader, more accurate definition of "jazz"?
RH: There are a few moments in All the While that sound a bit like jazz… I was going for the sonic exuberance and cascade of emotions that can arise from free improvisation while speaking in other musical languages. I challenged myself to get some of this feeling across in a completely notated piece. Certainly I, as the composer, improvised extensively in the creation of the work.

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the readings?
RH: I’m really excited to hear my piece played by real instruments after many months of intimacy with a computer! I look forward to seeing what was communicated accurately in my notation and how effectively the sounds are balanced. I have written for youth orchestras in the past and I am really looking forward to having some time to interact with the Naples Philharmonic of whom I have heard great things from colleagues here in Seattle! I am excited to hear the new music from my JCOI composer/colleagues and look forward to seeing the mentor composers again as well.

ACO: What has your experience in the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute been like so far?
RH: I’ve been learning a lot and have met a lot of great people!

Follow Robin on Facebook
Follow ACO on FacebookTwitterInstagramSoundcloudYouTube

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Naples Philharmonic Jazz Readings: Composer Spotlight - Yvette Janine Jackson

Yvette Janine Jackson is a composer, sound designer, and installation artist with a focus on through-composed and improvisatory forms that draw from history and contemporary social themes. She recently was guest composer-in-residence at Stockholm’s Elektronmusikstudion (EMS) and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Music-Integrative Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Yvette participated in the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Summer Intensive last year and was selected for the EarShot Naples Philharmonic Jazz Composers Readings, May 25-26, 2016 at Artis–Naples’ Hayes Hall, for her piece Atlantic Crossing, the first movement of a programmatic suite themed around the Middle Passage.

Yvette spoke to SoundAdvice about her JCOI experience and her piece Atlantic Crossing.

Composer Yvette Janine Jackson
American Composers Orchestra: You have a strong focus on radio opera and narrative soundscape composition in your music and studies. Atlantic Crossing is part of a larger work about the Middle Passage, the stage of the slave trade in which millions of Africans were sent to the Americas. Why did you choose this as the subject for your work?
Yvette Janine Jackson: I’ve used the terms radio opera and narrative soundscape composition to label many of my works from the past few years: radio opera refers to my compositions which invoke the theatre of the mind and narrative soundscape composition is both a type of electroacoustic music and the method I use to bridge my music and research.

Atlantic Crossing is the fourth work I have composed that centers around the Middle Passage.  I prefer to explore historic and socially relevant topics in my compositions, because I find these subjects far more (un)imaginable than fiction.  I have only scratched the surface in terms of accessing shipping records, logbooks, diagrams, journals, and other documents that help paint an accurate picture and inform my music, but I keep returning to this topic because it’s an important part of American history that is often dismissed or misunderstood.  During a rehearsal for Vernaculus II, a composition for improvisation ensemble, I described the conditions of human cargo being packed below decks and one of the musicians remarked that I was being twisted for imagining such a thing. I hadn’t imagined anything, but only based my description on historical documents instructing shippers how to maximize space in their cargo holds. This incident drove me to focus on actual events and to bring to the forefront parts of history that get marginalized.  I still have a lot to learn about this period and it is through composition that I wish to explore it.

ACO: Can you talk about what musical elements in Atlantic Crossing evoke the narrative?
YJJ: Atlantic Crossing, like the majority of my compositions, is programmatic; however the narrative is meant to guide me as a composer rather than influence the audience’s experience of the music. When I have an idea for a composition, I imagine the scenes that are necessary to tell the story which sets the emotional character of the music.  Then I create storyboards in order to help determine the order and amount of detail I will express.  I decide what roles specific instruments or families of instruments will serve.  Musical phrases develop throughout all stages of this process.  I don’t expect the audience to hear or be aware of any of this.  My main objective with Atlantic Crossing was to capture the atmosphere and mood, rather than convey a literal story.  As I expand this work into a suite, I will focus on different aspects of the Middle Passage.

ACO: You were recently composer-in-residence at Stockholm’s Elektronmusikstudion. Has your experience with electronic sounds affected the way you write for the acoustic instruments in an orchestra?
YJJ: My relationship with electronic sounds has definitely impacted the way I write for acoustic instruments and vice versa.  The residency at Stockholm’s Elektronmusikstudion began two days after the first phase of the JCOI intensive and I began sketching Atlantic Crossing while I was still in Sweden.  I was cognizant of the fact that there was so much information packed into the JCOI workshops and demonstrations, that I would not begin to digest much of it until the following weeks when I was sitting in front of the Buchla and Serge synthesizers.  My initial impulse was to approach Atlantic Crossing timbrally, but it’s not spectral music and, except for the strings, there are no extended techniques.

If anything, my experience as a student at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, before it was transformed into the Computer Music Center, had the greatest influence on my orchestral writing. It was during this time that I was exposed to composing tape music, and I like to think of my musical motifs as pieces of tape that can be spliced, cut up, slowed down, etc.  Whether I am composing for acoustic or synthesized instruments, it is the narrative that drives my aesthetics.

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the readings?
YJJ: I’m excited to see how the entire process of creating an orchestral work unfolds.  No matter what I do, it’s important that I learn something.  Rehearsals are my favorite part of the creative process, so I am looking forward to the first reading session.  This will be the first chance I get to hear my score realized by a real orchestra and the first opportunity to critique my decisions regarding dynamics, articulation, color, etc.  I’m excited to hear the suggestions made during the feedback session, because I think that will be one of the most valuable moments of the reading process.  Of course, I am looking forward to the final reading and getting a recording of my orchestral music.  I have dreamt of working with an orchestra since I was 12, so I want to learn as much as possible from this opportunity so I can be ready for the next.  I am also eager to hear what wonderful works my peers have created since we last met in August 2015.

ACO: What has your experience in the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute been like so far?
YJJ: My experience with JCOI has been and continues to be amazing.  I’ve kept in touch with and worked on projects with participants I met last summer.  One of the most remarkable things about the JCOI intensive was the diversity of participants -34 amazingly talented musicians from all over the country in various stages of their careers.  This created a fertile environment for learning and sharing ideas. It truly was an “intensive”  -six consecutive days, mornings to nights, packed with workshops, demonstrations, conversations, and performances.   My mentor, James Newton, has been extremely supportive in providing suggestions for the score and working with the conductor and orchestra.  I can’t imagine how Phase II at Naples will shape me as a composer, but I just hope to learn and grow as much as possible from this experience.

For more information on Yvette, visit
Follow ACO on FacebookTwitterInstagramSoundcloudYouTube

Monday, May 23, 2016

Naples Philharmonic Jazz Readings: Composer Spotlight - Nathan Parker Smith

A native of Northern California, Nathan Parker Smith is an active performer and composer currently residing in Brooklyn, New York. In 2009, he formed the Nathan Parker Smith Large Ensemble, an eighteen-member ensemble regularly performing original music throughout New York. Last year, Nathan participated in the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Summer Intensive. He was selected for the EarShot Naples Philharmonic Jazz Composers Readings, May 25-26, 2016 at Artis–Naples’ Hayes Hall, for his piece The Wyoming Matter, which takes its name from a widely unknown crisis in New York City.

We spoke to Nathan about his piece and his JCOI experience for SoundAdvice.

Composer Nathan Parker Smith
American Composers Orchestra: The Wyoming Matter refers to the 1944 crisis in which a freighter ship, the Wyoming, almost spread plague-infected rats to the local population in New York City, stopped only by a last-ditch secret emergency program of rat-trapping and rodent autopsies. Why did you choose this title and subject for the piece?
Nathan Parker Smith: I happened to read Raphael Orlove’s article about the Wyoming as I started work on the composition and I was enthralled with the story. The event is actually quite grotesque, but the story had the sort of intensity and drama I like to capture in my writing.

ACO: Is there any kind of narrative arc in your piece that reflects The Wyoming Matter story?
NPS: The arc of the piece does not directly follow the story of the Wyoming, however, there are sections that display intensity, and sections that are fragile and gentle, parallel to New York’s state in the 1940’s.

ACO: Your group, the Nathan Parker Smith Large Ensemble has performed at popular clubs and venues across New York City. Can you compare the challenges of engaging the audiences at intimate, sometimes noisy venues in NYC vs. audiences at a symphonic concert hall?
NPS: Engaging (or rather competing) with audience in a club in New York can be challenging. Luckily, the music I write for the band is loud and fairly aggressive, so we can usually drown out most of the hecklers. In all seriousness, in an intimate setting, I find the band and the audience react and fuel each other during a performance, but many of the nuances can be lost in the excitement. In contrast, it is wonderful to know that the audience in the concert hall has come solely to listen to the music and that they will be able to hear the smallest details throughout the performance.

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the readings?
NPS: After months of composing at the piano, I’m especially looking forward to hearing my piece, as well as hearing the other three composers’ works, performed by a great ensemble.  Personally, it is a rare opportunity for me to be able to listen to an ensemble perform my work without having to conduct or play in the group.  One of the things I’m most looking forward to is that my parents are coming to check out the readings and I’m excited to share work with them.

ACO: What has your experience in the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute been like so far?
NPS: The workshop in Los Angeles this last summer was rigorous and eye-opening. The relationships formed with the other composers, mentors and guest artist were invaluable. Learning to navigate the subtle but important differences between the jazz and classical world has been an interesting process as well. The mission of JCOI in providing this opportunity for large ensemble and mixed genre writing has encouraged me to push the boundaries of my own composition style and rethink my approach to writing.

Follow Nathan Parker Smith on Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, YouTube
Follow ACO on FacebookTwitterInstagramSoundcloudYouTube