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!

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