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.