Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Spotlight – Composer Dan Marschak

Composer Dan Marschak
American Composers Orchestra’s Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute La Jolla Symphony New Music Readings are only days away! JCOI participant and composer Dan Marschak‘s composition Two Rivers will be one of the pieces workshopped and read during JCOI, culminating in an open rehearsal on Thursday, September 19 at 7PM and the run-through of the work on Friday, September 20 at 7:30PM. Dan was kind enough to take the time to answer some questions from us at ACO, sharing with us the inspiration for Two Rivers and how he has been preparing for the reading of his piece at JCOI!  

American Composers Orchestra: How did you find out about JCOI and what made you want to apply to the Institute?  
Dan Marschak: I found out about JCOI through Professors Paul Chihara and James Newton, two of my teachers at UCLA who were also mentor composers for JCOI. The more research I did about JCOI, the more it seemed as though it was created specifically for a musician like me: A composer who has feet planted in both the jazz and concert music worlds and is looking to embrace and explore that double-identity. At the time, I was just finishing my master’s thesis at UCLA – a large orchestral piece called Sprawl – which incorporates many aspects of the jazz language, and even calls for an additional electric bass and tenor saxophone, so JCOI seemed like the perfect stepping stone for further insight when it comes to blending traditions. 

ACO: What inspired you to compose the piece that you submitted to JCOI? 
DM: Every summer since I was 3, my family has spent a couple of weeks at a wonderfully funky cabin resort nestled next to Silver Lake in the Sierras called Kit Carson Lodge. It’s a peaceful and reflective time of year, and that’s where I decided I wanted to write a piece that was deeply personal, and that rejected the precise planning of my last major work Sprawl. So I settled on using my own family as a source of inspiration.

My late grandfather Jacob is a towering figure in my family, whose life has always fascinated and intrigued me. I had read memoirs about his early life a couple of months earlier, and the narrative was really like something out of an epic old movie. Essentially, his is a story of a very challenging upbringing with turbulent circumstances that were completely out of his control. Born as a Jew in Kiev, he kept moving west throughout his life: To Germany, then to England just in the nick of time, and finally to the U.S. (New York, Chicago and lastly L.A.).

One line struck a chord with me and gave me both a title and a structure for the piece. Jacob describes his hometown of Kiev as a city of two rivers: “The river Dnieper overflows the lowlands every spring, and the Slobodka, on the opposite side, is completely flooded”. Something about the image of these two rivers coexisting in the same city, each with its own path and character, reminded me of the trajectory of his life, and also seemed like an elegant structure for a piece.I decided that what I wanted to do as I wrote the music was to attempt to connect with him even though I never had the fortune to meet him. Surprisingly, this proved possible if I worked while in a kind of meditative and open state.  

ACO: After you found out that you were accepted to JCOI, how have you prepared yourself and your piece for the music readings that will take place? 
DM: It’s an extremely intense and wonderful occasion when a professional orchestra plays your music and I’m still kind of shocked that this is happening. So I’m just trying to go with the flow and be as professional and respectful as I can. All I can do until I get to La Jolla is make sure that my parts and score look professional and contain as few errors as possible. I’ve spent countless hours triple-checking them. If you show musicians that you put time into your parts, you’re likely to get better performances from them. Other than that, I’m just trying not to get too nervous about it, or at least channel that nervous energy into productivity. 

ACO: What do you hope to work on during JCOI? 
DM: During JCOI, I’m hoping to work on my ability to communicate with musicians who don’t share my background. If there are moments in the piece that don’t seem to flow, I want to work on constructive ways to make it work. I also want to try being open to new ways of hearing and interpreting my own music. In the past, my concert music has often left me feeling like I didn’t get the best performances. But I think a large part of that is becoming too attached to my own sense of right and wrong. This time I plan on trying a more Zen approach, because ultimately the La Jolla Symphony and Steven Schick have considerably more experience with the orchestra and concert music in general than I do. Of course the piece is my baby, but I would like to function as a team with the orchestra in bringing it out into the world. 

ACO: Do you foresee any challenges during the workshopping and reading of your piece?   
DM: For me, composition is a pursuit of trial and error. In this piece there are moments where I really feel like I’m gambling. I tried some unusual orchestrations, difficult rhythmic ideas, and odd harmonies, and I’m not 100% sure if they will work once these musicians get their hands on them. So we’ll see. Either I strike gold or I don’t. But either way I’ll learn some extremely valuable information for future compositions.

ACO: What do you hope to get out of this experience at JCOI and working with the La Jolla Symphony? Have you worked with a symphony orchestra before? If not, how do you feel about having this opportunity to work with a symphony orchestra through JCOI?  
DM: I have had small pieces read by the UCLA Philharmonia on several occasions as a UCLA student, but they were much shorter than Two Rivers and the musicians were sight-reading. They were wonderful experiences for me, because I could experiment in a safe environment, and I learned some very practical skills in the process. But the larger orchestra piece I wrote for my master’s thesis at UCLA has never been performed. I probably spent hundreds of hours writing this music, and I may never know if it works as a piece. So I know I’m extremely lucky to have this piece played by a professional orchestra led by a great conductor. Yes it’s nerve-wracking, but it’s also a dream come true.

ACO: What does this experience mean to you as a jazz composer? What would you like to say to other jazz composers who may be interested in applying to JCOI? 
DM: The term “jazz composer” doesn’t really describe what I do on a regular basis anymore. It used to when I was much younger. I got my musical start as a jazz pianist and composer in high school in the Bay Area. And I still occasionally perform my original music with various ensembles. I love jazz and I love the freedom you get as an improviser. But these days it’s only a part of what I do. I’m working on film music with my good friend Miles Senzaki and our company Well Versed Productions, and I’m teaching a lot. However, my jazz roots are still pretty evident in all my music. Whether it’s film or concert music, people can tell that I’m employing a jazz sensibility to some degree. To me, jazz is mainly about a free and improvisatory approach to music rather than any specific notes, chords, or rhythms.

So what I would say to jazz composers out there is this: If you are interested at all in working with musicians who come from the concert world and you aren’t afraid of doing some seriously hard work, definitely apply to JCOI. It’s a rich and rewarding experience that will leave an indelible mark on you as a composer. You’ll gain insight into the ins and outs of the orchestra, learn new approaches to composition and orchestration, and perhaps most importantly, you’ll meet a ton of really cool and extremely talented people who are doing a wide array of interesting things in the music world. The group who attended JCOI were some of the smartest and most interesting musicians I’ve ever met, and they continue to inspire me. 

ACO: What do you hope the audience attending the new music readings will get out of hearing your piece? 
DM: The audience is going to hear 5 wide-ranging pieces that are very different from music they’d hear at a “traditional” orchestra concert. As composers coming from a jazz mentality, we’re improvisers at heart, so I for one am very excited to hear what my colleagues have come up with. The orchestra is such a limitless vehicle for expression, that I can almost guarantee no two pieces on the concert will sound the same. As far as my own piece goes, I can’t say what others will get out of it. Hopefully they’ll hear some new textures, harmonies, and orchestrational gambles that they wouldn’t normally hear come out of the ensemble. It could be a total disaster or it could end up being really hip.  It’s really going to be the unknown for most us, so I think that excitement will creep into the performance. 

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