Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Day 5 - Michael Dessen

Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute - Day 5
by Michael Dessen

This morning George Lewis gave a class on "electronics and the orchestra." It was partly his own theorizing about our relationship to technology in broad terms, and partly a discussion of process-oriented techniques involving interactivity, spectral tools, and other topics far less familiar to JCOI participants than other technologies he didn't cover such as DAWs, synthesizers, and notation software. It was really useful to open up the imagination and get everyone thinking about future possibilities, even if these are techniques that none of us will be able to implement anytime soon given practical constraints. One point he made was that there are fairly few recordings of orchestral pieces involving electronics, something I imagine will change gradually, but still struck me as odd given how long electronic music has been around and how central it is to musical life today. I suppose this just goes to show how successfully the orchestra as an ensemble insulated itself from change in the 20th century, even if composers did develop all kinds of new compositional strategies in writing for it.

After George's talk was a presentation on engraving and copying by one of the librarians from the LA Philharmonic, Stephen Biagini. He gave a helpful rundown of all kinds of practical information about how to prepare scores and parts for orchestra, as well as common errors and examples of what not to do - the funniest example being a flute part in which the instrument name was appended to the title of a song called How Deep Is Your Love. His detailed advice on how to prepare parts properly was very serious, though, given the time pressures that you're under in rehearsals with any professional orchestra. He pointed out that by his rough calculation, the cost of rehearsing with the LA Phil is about $300 per minute.

James Newton gave the final presentation after lunch, and I was moved by the fact that James said he had to completely rework his presentation after talking to everyone during the week, since that gave him a better sense of what needed to be addressed. James is an incredibly dedicated teacher, and it really comes through in his presentation style as well as the content. His presentation included not only some good practical advice about how to get started writing for orchestra, but also reflections on a wide range of artists that have been important, personal touchstones for him in his own search to discover his voice as a composer. These included spirituals and Hendrix as well as Mingus, Ellington, Mahler, Ravel, Lutoslawski, Ornette Coleman and several others. One point he made that intrigued me had to do with Ravel's relationship to jazz. It's well known that Ravel was influenced by early jazz, but like many others, I had always thought that Ravel's exposure to actual jazz music was fairly superficial. James cited the book Ravel Studies which apparently details how Ravel studied early jazz deeply through private instruction with a jazz trombonist. James also made an interesting claim that most performances of Ravel's music - specifically the Piano Concerto in G Major - have not adequately captured the spirit of this connection. As with so many of the faculty presentations this week, this left me with several topics that I'm curious to explore more in the future.

ACO executive director Michael Geller offered an great, impromptu session on commissioning during our lunch break, full of information that will (hopefully!) be useful to us someday. The final session included a run-down of phase two of this JCOI project, in which all of us - and previous JCOI participants - are invited to apply for the opportunity to have a work read next spring/summer in four intensive sessions that they're now organizing. Although it will be competitive to get accepted, everyone I spoke to was very grateful for the potential opportunity to take forward all the experiences we had this week and put them into practice.

The week ended with a superb concert by wild Up featuring works by all the faculty composers as well as several others. The performers did an amazing job of capturing all the different aesthetic worlds that were represented on the very diverse program. They all seemed to really enjoy themselves and projected a great vibe, like a tight band. They also brought out a large and enthusiastic crowd, which is not easy to do in LA for contemporary chamber music. They're in residence right now at the Hammer Museum so if you're in LA, check them out in the coming months there. For anyone new to contemporary classical music, I can't think of a better way in. Many thanks to Chris Rountree and all the wild Up musicians, many of whom also gave us excellent instrument classes during the week.

I also want to express my deep gratitude to the ACO, especially Michael Geller and Greg Evans who were on the ground organizing constantly all week; to the faculty artists, who not only taught great classes but participated in one another's sessions throughout the whole week, creating a great feeling of community; and to all the other participants, almost all of whom had to travel a lot farther than me to get here, and made this such a friendly and exciting event. It's just a start, but a powerful one, and I look forward to seeing what will emerge from all the possibilities that the past week has set into motion. Many thanks!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Day 4 - Samantha Boshnack

Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute - Day 4
by Samantha Boshnack
Another incredible day here at JCOI, our next to last day – I can’t believe it.  Today George Lewis gave a fascinating lecture on “New Approaches to Form”.  It covered a ton of information and we listened to many different composers. When thinking about form we examined modern music that did not think of musical progression in the standard way. In John Zorn’s “File-card compositions”, he would write down a description of what he wanted on file-cards and arrange them to form the piece.  This was an example where each moment of the piece is individual – it doesn’t need to come directly from what is before or lead into what is after. 

Next came an incredible panel discussion with three conductors - wild Up’s Chris Rountree, La Jolla Symphony’s Steven Schick, and Pacific Symphony’s Carl St. Clair.  I thought a great description of the conductor was the “membrane between idea and execution”.  I recently had my first experience of working with a conductor on my music and couldn’t believe how important and transformative this membrane is.  In the orchestra world there is an incredible amount of pressure on conductors.  They are responsible for the time management of a large amount of musicians, dealing with the dwindling finances that orchestras are facing, programming series that will sell tickets, not to mention the composer.  The conductor manages time and fear.  Everyone wants to deliver a great performance; there is always a fear of failure and a short amount of rehearsal time.  The conductor has to create a feeling of confidence amongst the musicians, allowing the time to be used more effectively.

We have been speaking about classical musician’s fear of improvising; which is hard to understand amongst jazz musicians.  The conductors agreed that classical musicians needed to adapt and be more versatile, and that this may help to save the dying orchestra.  There was talk that the curriculum needed to change in the music conservatories to produce musicians with a broader skill set.  I wondered to myself if the change in musical education should begin with even younger students.  Let more kids use music as a tool to find their own individual voice in addition to a regimental and disciplined practice – maybe it would create greater music appreciation across the board, producing bigger audiences and a more creative society.     
Steven Schick told an amazing story of playing a new composition in his orchestra.  Sometimes there is a fear that audiences won’t like newer music that is more atonal and complicated then say Haydn or Vivaldi.  He made the experience personal to the audience by telling them and the orchestra that he liked the piece, rather than holding the composer at an arm’s length.  In the end the piece was a success.  I have often thought that we underestimate audiences.  If you are friendly to them they are more likely to listen closely and find things they like about the music, even if they don’t fully understand what is happening.  “Play difficult music for them as if it’s not difficult”, Rountree said.  

Carl St. Clair painted a friendly and inspired vision of the orchestra as many people pooling together to bring new works to their fullest potential.  “A lot get’s done if there’s no credit.”  Musicians and the conductors “pool together” musical ideas to create better music then what the composer wrote.

I loved when one of the conductors said how musicians learn more about Beethoven and Mozart from creating a new piece of music then by continuing to play those composers.  They learn how to create a new piece – which is exactly what Beethoven and Mozart were doing.   

A common theme today was how important it is for music to be continually adapting and changing from what came before.  Derek Bermel spoke of his many influences and said, “If you limit your intake, the genre becomes stagnant.”  George Lewis quoted, “Your history is going to come into your music if you let it.”  As American composers one is exposed to a multitude of cultures, which can be a great resource and create music that is unlike anywhere else.  All genres have room to move somewhere new.  This may sound jaded, but it seems that all music with integrity is really struggling in today’s corporate-run America, maybe because exercising one’s mind doesn’t help to sell product.  It has been thought provoking to be at this institute with great minds from two genres that are maybe struggling the most – jazz and classical.  Hopefully this “pooling together” between us all, as if we ourselves were an orchestra, will create solutions or at least inspiration for this incredible group of American composers.  

Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Day 4 - Michael Dessen

Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute - Day 4
by Michael Dessen

Today was once again packed with energizing conversations and presentations. 
We had an instrumental session on piano and harp in the morning, including a 
terrific whirlwind demo of many pages of harp technique notations by Anne
LeBaron. She vowed to make us all want to compose for harp by showing the 
wide range of sounds that can be achieved through conventionally-accepted
notations, in addition to demonstrating the fascinating, personal techniques
 she uses in her own music.

 Following that was George Lewis' seminar on new approaches to form, a dense 
overview of this topic with examples from western music spanning the 20th 
century. On One level, George was introducing general trends he sees in
 20th-century composers' explorations in new forms, including "depiction,"
 "indeterminacy/open forms," "repetition" and "noise." But as with any of
 George's talks (my post yesterday included a disclaimer that I studied with 
him closely for years), there were layers within layers of provocative 
questions. One of these was his constant weaving together of examples from
 European and African American music in order to reveal resonances among 
formal innovations in these traditions. In addition, he framed the 
presentation by arguing that the dominant discourses of form in common
practice western art music - especially notions like "coherence," "logic,"
and "continuity" - should not be accepted at face value, but are instead 
"fraught" in profound ways and can often serve as "ideologies and moral
precepts." If you're familiar with George's scholarship, you know that such 
comments are the tip of an iceberg of cultural critique and historiographic 
intervention, but he also spoke to us more directly as composers when he
 brought up the fact that each piece we create involves a choice as to whether or not to use "received forms." He emphasized that rejecting
 received forms forces you to confront the amorphous and difficult question
 of how to deal with form, and to examine the relationship between your forms
 and materials.

Even though everyone here at JCOI is super polite and respectful, this is a 
topic bound to strike some nerves, since it's hard not to sense at least a 
whiff of value judgment in this formulation. One of my favorite moments so
 far in the symposium was in the discussion session after George's talk, when one of the younger participants asked if George thought that it is still possible to find room for innovation within traditional ("received") formal
 approaches. I started thinking that this question can only be approached by 
doubling back on the question itself and asking what we mean by "innovation"
 to begin with, in a potentially endless loop of deconstruction, but at the
 same time I was also thinking about my empty stomach like everyone else in
the room, as we were already very late for lunch and this was the last
 question before the break. George improvised a quick solution, if not a
 resolution: "For now, I'll just say this: Yes and no."

Later in the day, Anthony Davis discussed his recent opera Wakonda's Dream,
which I don't have time to cover here, but was another wide-ranging view
 into Anthony's long relationship with operatic writing, building on his 
presentation of Amistad that I discussed in yesterday's post. Derek Bermel 
then gave a presentation on his  music and background that was very 
inspiring and helpful for me, and tackled some of the same questions George 
raised about form but through a different lens. Among other works, Derek 
played an excerpt from a concerto for clarinet that he wrote for himself to
 perform with the ACO years ago, one of his first major commissions. He
 explained that when he wrote it, he had been deeply immersed in listening to
 "What Love" performed by Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy on a live recording
 at Antibes (1960), and that he was fascinated with the musical conversation 
between the two, the sense of characters personified through sound. He
 recalled that he tried to capture something of the spirit of that music in
 the concerto, but was worried at the first rehearsal that the orchestra 
wouldn't be able to play his piece, since the parts involved new kinds of 
performance techniques. The conductor urged him to simply start out by 
playing his own part, rather than try to explain the techniques first, and 
Derek said that once the orchestra heard how he begin to play, they simply
 got it and everything worked. This story struck me in connection to the 
questions about new performance practices and orchestral culture that I mentioned in yesterday's post. At least in the context of that specific 
piece, it seems like Derek found a solution that allowed him to bring
 something powerful to the orchestra that was formed through his own
 relationship with improvisatory music.

He also spoke at length being immersed in hip hop and other forms of black
 music as a white kid growing up in a predominantly black neighborhood in New
 Rochelle during the 1970s and 80s. He mentioned being especially influenced
by Eric B. and Rakim's albums when they were first coming out in the late
 1980s, and I loved hearing that in this context because I share a deep 
respect for Eric B. and Rakim's albums from that time, even though I'm not
 very knowledgeable about hip hop. As Derek talked about what this music
 meant to him, I was impressed by how well he navigated this tricky subject.
 He didn't over simplify the questions around race that it brought up, but he
 didn't exploit them in a shallow way either. He discussed formal aspects of
 the music and his explorations into analyzing it, rather than just making
 vague references to hip hop in order to color his profile as a composer.
 He's written about these and other topics in online essays found here, and this talk intrigued me to check out his writing more in the

Another intense panel today included three conductors, Carl St. Clair, Steve 
Shick and Christopher Rountree. In addition to some useful information about
 the mechanics of dealing with orchestras (how much advance time do they need
 to get bowing markings into the parts? how should you interact with a 
conductor during rehearsals? how big should the score be?), the panel also
 moved eventually into some rich questions around improvisation and the
 potential for transforming the orchestra and moving away from the assumption 
that every orchestra has to be modeled on the great institutions of the
 past. Carl St. Clair described his vision for leading the Pacific Symphony to
 be "the new orchestra of the 21st century," and he and Steve Shick, as 
orchestral conductors, passionately encouraged us to be part of that larger
 process of change, echoing the comments Derek Bermel made about orchestral 
evolution in the opening session that I reported in my first post. Steve 
made a great point that the best mind set for us to bring to our interactions 
with an orchestra is to think of them like a big group of fellow musicians.
 It seems simple when I put it this way, but Steve captured this idea
 brilliantly in the conversation. But it was also refreshing to hear Carl St.
 Clair's brutal honesty on the pressures and challenges facing even a
 conductor such as himself who is already committed to championing new music.
 His jaw nearly hit the floor when Christopher Rountree reported that for 
tomorrow night's closing concert of chamber music, they had 25 hours of 
rehearsal, exponentially more than the PSO ever has for any single concert.
 And Carl also gave some powerful insight into how the current paradigm of
 orchestral programming is shaped at a fundamental level by marketing. For
 example, he explained that his programming decisions have to take into
 account the "data" he's given on the ticket sales that will be generated by
 a choice to program Beethoven's 5th compared with the 4th, and he commented
 that he can't program as much new music during the weeks when they are
 marketing season ticket renewals. For all this darkness, though, there was
 still plenty of enthusiasm and a feeling among everyone in the discussion 
that such circumstances make it all the more urgent that we work together
 now to envision new directions for the orchestra of the future. Citing the 
statistic that the average age of the season ticket holder is 65, Carl 
eloquently connected JCOI's aims to the economic crisis facing the orchestra
 today, stating that the orchestra "must find new relevance, and that new 
relevance is going to be a new identity."

Friday, August 10, 2012

Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Day 2 & 3 - Samantha Boshnack

Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute - Day 2 & 3
by Samantha Boshnack

Back again, Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute continues on at full speed.  Again, there are so many ideas circulating, so much exposure to music, theory, and information that is all very new to me.  I’m going to give a run down of some things I thought particularly interesting.  Again, my words are gross over-simplifications of the topics and I am unable to cover everything without writing all night.    
Day 2 started off with a lecture from Anne LeBaron on the 20th Century orchestra.  It was a fascinating look at how composers came from what was before while codifying their own ideas - something I think we are all striving trying to do.  We analyzed scores from Stravinsky, Varese, Messaien, and Takemitsu, examining who influenced them and what they developed that was new.
Nicole Mitchell presented on her work and experience.  She is an incredible flautist and composer.  She has a deep improvising background (she is the co-president of AACM in Chicago) and has begun to tackle the world of contemporary classical music composition with great success.  Nicole spoke about how she puts her own flute techniques onto the paper.  There is such a rich oral tradition in jazz; it is a challenge to try to notate all of the crazy techniques and rhythms that an improviser will play naturally.  She spoke on directions in African American Art; outlining that artists can be present focused, past focused, and future focused.  By being visionary and future focused African American musicians have created new worlds and new opportunities for themselves.  I thought to myself (as someone who thinks about gender roles in the music world a lot) that the same is true for women.  I am excited that there are many other female jazz composers at this institute and have enjoyed learning their experiences and stories.
Alvin Singleton gave us a fascinating look at his solo works.  He began writing solo pieces when he learned that it is easier to “write for your friends” (so true).  As one can imagine solo writing is very hard to pull off - Singleton had us all enthralled by these pieces.  I loved the refreshing emphasis he put on following one’s intuition in composing.  This may be because I rely on it so heavily, but I also think music is so spiritual and on another plane, that it’s nice to think not every composer needs to know a ton of technique and theory to write something important. 
Anthony Davis presented his opera “Amistad” to us.  It was amazing.  I’ve always been a fan of opera.  He showed us how composing an opera let’s you create a whole world unto itself.  When asked if he knows as he’s writing where the opera is leading to musically, he said, “I’d rather discover it.”  Apparently, Wagner always wrote the climax first and then wrote the rest.  An interesting image he created was of Ellington writing opera for instruments – each member of his band was a character in the story.  It may be a new way I try to look at the members of my bands - except hopefully with less drama then an opera. 
Today, George Lewis presented some of his beautiful compositions employing new music techniques (quarter tones, etc.), improvisation and electronics.  I loved when he said that music comes from communities.  If you want to do something weird and new the first thing you have to do is go and find people to do it with you.  I feel so fortunate to be at this institute and feel I have so much I will bring back to my community in Seattle.     

Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Days 2 & 3 - Michael Dessen

Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute - Days 2 & 3
by Michael Dessen

Reading Samantha's wonderfully detailed account of day one, I realized that I didn't introduce myself at all in my first blog entry. I'm a trombonist and composer, and you can find out more about me here. But I should offer a full disclosure here that I came here already knowing a number of the JCOI faculty artists, especially George Lewis and Anthony Davis, who have been important mentors for me since graduate school. Nicole Mitchell is also my colleague at the University of California, Irvine, where we're both core faculty in an MFA program in Integrated Composition, Improvisation and Technology, and I know several
other members of the JCOI faculty, so I may not be the most impartial observer.

Last night we had a second marathon session in which the participants each shared a short recording or performance to introduce themselves. As with a similar session the previous night, I was impressed with how many people stayed late for this, including many of the faculty. Given how balkanized music worlds can often be, it was also encouraging to see everyone listening intently and respectfully for three hours to such a wide aesthetic range of

While building on the positive energy of day one, the plot has definitely thickened over days two and three as more complicated questions emerged. There is always plenty of practical information to deal with, such as in the instrumental classes offered by members of wild Up, but on a deeper level, it's now clear that JCOI is about much more than learning orchestration techniques. Over the past two days, we've heard presentations by many of the
composition faculty - Alvin Singleton, Nicole Mitchell, Anthony Davis, James Newton, Paul Chihara, Anne LeBaron and George Lewis - and this has enlivened the conversations happening both inside and outside the classroom. The threads are still coming into focus for me, but I'll try to sort out a few below.

Anthony Davis gave a presentation yesterday on his opera Amistad, and it seemed that many participants who weren't familiar with his music were knocked out by it, especially his command of the orchestral medium. Anthony described how he now hears the orchestra naturally when he writes at the piano, telling us "I don't even hear the piano anymore." He related this to Duke Ellington, pointing out that Ellington honed his orchestra over the years like a very personal kind of instrument, and he pushed us to each consider what it would mean to do the same, to use the orchestra to realize our individual music, rather than to simply take a "generic," safe approach.

But both in that session and in later conversations, several people shared a feeling that this challenge is more daunting than it might seem. We all know that orchestras are hardly hotbeds of innovation in performance practice; pieces get very limited rehearsal time, and most professional orchestra players are far less open to working on new approaches to performance than musicians in new music chamber ensembles. Anthony's insistence that we should be cultivating individuality and using our writing to "set new standards" that future orchestral players will have to meet was inspiring, but I'm pretty sure he'd also be quick to admit how difficult it is to get the culture of orchestra or opera worlds to open up to new ideas or methods (the innovative projects of the ACO notwithstanding). Just get Anthony
started on this topic and I promise you'll be in for a lot of stories! So as one participant put it to me later, if barriers in that sense still exist for someone of Anthony's stature, imagine how an orchestra would react to less established composers like us arriving with parts that involve cultivating new performance practices or sensibilities. This isn't to dismiss Anthony's message, but to clarify that JCOI represents a more complex, long-term, and fundamentally cultural project than it might seem on the surface.

The instrumental demo sessions we've had with wild Up members reflect this same creative tension in a different way. On the one hand, it's exciting to engage with these performers; they're part of a generation of virtuosic musicians who are dedicated to collaborating closely with composers on new methods. Naturally our discussions in these sessions often go into questions of extended techniques, since they're as eager to talk about those topics as we are. But then, suddenly, someone will shift gears and remind us that in the case of orchestras, we need to be a lot more careful about what we try. In one session, wild Up's director Christopher Rountree even pointed out that some orchestral musicians have contracts specifying that they will not be required to perform certain extended techniques like multiphonics.

I don't mean to be overly negative, since I think the possibilities we're all pointing towards are genuinely thrilling, if still embryonic. But it's still a very loaded set of questions for me and many others here. Today, for example, a fellow participant expressed to me a deep concern that in moving into a more conventional model of notated composition, we risk stripping something essential from the musical value system that is bound up with collective, improvisatory performance traditions.  How we can bring to orchestral composition something genuine and powerful from our experiences as improvisers, and what are the different challenges - logistical, economic, technical, aesthetic, cultural - that come with this process?

Both James Newton and Nicole Mitchell gave inspiring, positive talks yesterday on this topic, and each spoke about seeking ways to compose fully-notated or orchestral music while drawing on what we value from our experiences as improvisers. James' stance hit me hard when he spoke of the decades of collaborative and individual practice that improvisers go through in order to access a very special kind of musical, even spiritual experience "on the bandstand." He seemed to be saying that having cultivated this feeling through years of hard work now enables him to step back study it analytically, and to explore techniques for translating it into new forms via notated composition. Nicole also spoke eloquently about this exploration in terms of "expansion" rather than giving anything up, pointing out that you don't have to stop being an improviser as you move into studying new forms of composing. Both Nicole and James brought out the importance of envisioning alternate future realities in our work as composers, and played moving examples of their own recent compositions while humbly pointing out that this is a long, ongoing project for them that in some sense is just beginning.

The other composers' presentations were equally inspiring for me, though each in a distinct way. Alvin Singleton played several of his pieces and talked about not only the music, but also his personal pathway to becoming a successful independent composer, from growing up in Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn and sneaking out of his parents' house in high school to go hear Ornette Coleman's first band in NYC, through various schools and many years establishing himself in Europe to finally make his return back to the states. One of the younger participants commented that she appreciated his story as a reminder that finding one's way as a composer is not necessarily a straight line from point A to B, as formal schooling systems would have us believe. This resonated with me because I teach grad students who often express a similar feeling of being overwhelmed by pressures - both real and self-created - to codify their artistic identity and broadcast it at every online corner before they hit their mid-twenties. Hearing someone as experienced as Alvin talk about composing in the broader context of his life is always a very memorable part of these encounters. This was also true for Paul Chihara's energetic presentation this morning, which was hysterically
funny - he could easily work as a standup comic. But underneath the humor, Paul's talk was also filled with provocative ideas and reflections on his long career in film music, including fascinating asides on Los Angeles music history, Hollywood, Takemitsu and many other subjects that seemed to burst out unexpectedly in every moment.

To close out today, we had intense sessions with Anne LeBaron and George Lewis, each sharing some of their recent works. While totally different from one another, Anne and George both presented music and ideas that I think pushed some new envelopes we haven't encountered yet this week. Their session was powerful for me personally, and set a perfect stage for tomorrow, but I'm out of time so I'll have to return to that in a future post. I look forward to more dialogues with everyone!

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.        

Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Day 1 - Michael Dessen

Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute - Day 1
by Michael Dessen
I've been to many festivals, conferences and workshops, but already on day one of JCOI, I can honestly say I've never experienced anything inspiring in quite the same way as this. For one, there is the diversity of the 38 participants. They represent a wide range not only in their backgrounds and aesthetics, but also in age. There are veteran artists with decades of important contributions behind them, younger musicians in their 20s just starting to find their voice, and others at every stage in between. Everyone is here to explore new ideas and learn from one another as well as from the faculty, and it's so refreshing to see this spirit, especially given how many different socio-musical networks are represented here.

This feeling of mutual support and curiosity was just as palpable among the faculty artists. George Lewis has described the vision for JCOI as a "community-based, sociodidactic" model, and it seems clear that the faculty and organizers have consciously worked to infuse the event with this emphasis on non-hierarchical exchange. Most important was that instead of just showing up for their own classes, the faculty composers all attended and participated in all the day's events. They intervened with some fascinating comments and questions - such as Alvin Singleton's mention of a Berio score that mentions Elvin Jones' name in order to contextualize a performance technique - and they even stayed late into the night to hear the presentations by participants of their own music.

In his preface to a morning class on "orchestral evolution," Derek Bermel set the tone for the day beautifully by describing how the "tree" of the orchestra needs ongoing care from multiple fronts, an idea that exploded in many directions in the following composition seminar by Paul Chihara and James Newton. As Paul played excerpts from his music, each opened up a different thread of his history, forming a riveting, passionate talk that covered everything from his debt to Duke Ellington's music to how growing up in a Japanese American relocation camp during WWII shaped his sense of what it means to be a composer. James gave a powerful presentation that challenged us all to find ways to transform the unique experiences and sensibilities that we've cultivated as improvisers into notated music, showing some outstanding examples from his own recent, fully-notated works.

There were also two instrumental sessions (violin and woodwinds) which included excellent demonstrations of extended techniques, very well organized and presented by the members of wild Up, and an evening session in which I enjoyed listening to the music of other participants. Looking forward to tomorrow!