Jazz Composers Orchestra Spotlight – Composer Michael Dessen – Part One

Composer Michael Dessen Photo: Bill Douthart
Composer Michael Dessen’s Slippages will be read at American Composers Orchestra’s Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute La Jolla Symphony New Music Readings, which will take place this week in San Diego, California. The following is Part One of Michael’s Q&A with ACO. We will bring you Part Two of this Q&A tomorrow with Michael’s wonderful response to what this experience means to him as a jazz composer and his advice for other composers interested in applying to JCOI!   
ACO: How did you find out about JCOI and what made you want to apply to the Institute?
Michael Dessen: I know composers who were involved with the first JCOI program, some as participants and others as faculty. I applied because it seemed like an excellent way to gain some experience with orchestra writing through working with wonderful, creative people that I really trust, and also because of the ACO’s reputation for supporting new and diverse approaches to the orchestra. To be honest, at first I didn’t know precisely what I would do with the opportunity if I were accepted, but it seemed like too great a chance to pass up.
ACO: What inspired you to compose the piece that you submitted to JCOI?
MD: My composition, Slippages, was inspired in part by watching people slowly fade out (as in dementia) or even fade back in (as in coma recovery). I’ve watched family members go through both of those experiences, but the piece isn’t really about trying to depict that process literally. It’s more of a sonic meditation on the grayer areas of our experience of consciousness, and on the dialectic tension that always exists between integration and disintegration.
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?
MD: To apply for the JCOI readings, you don’t have to submit the full piece, just a section. So the main work I faced once it was accepted was actually finishing the rest of the piece. I had finished 3 minutes for the application, but after that, I was very busy with other deadlines for about 6 months, so when returned to it there had been a long gap. This isn’t the way I usually work on a composition, but it turned out to be fascinating because of course I heard things differently later. Then, as with any orchestra piece, after the composing is done, there is a lot of editing to make sure all the parts are formatted and printed according to the orchestra’s standards, which are a lot stricter than what I’m used to dealing with when composing for improvisers – to put it mildly.
ACO: What do you hope to work on during JCOI?
MD: I’m of course very curious to find out which parts sound like I imagined they would, and which don’t, since that kind of trial and error is crucial for improving one’s orchestration skills. It will also be interesting to see how the conductor and musicians relate to the music, since this is a composition, not just an orchestration exercise. I’m eager to get constructive feedback from the fantastic JCOI mentor composers as well as the musicians themselves.
ACO: Do you foresee any challenges during the workshopping and reading of your piece?
MD: Most of the things I’m worried about have to do with instrumental balance, that is, whether an idea comes across as intended or whether certain instruments or sections cover up other instruments that you’re supposed to hear more clearly. When you’re dealing with an ensemble the size of the orchestra, it’s easy to miscalculate and lose a particular effect you intended.
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?
MD: I play trombone, and much of my early formal training as a performer was in the orchestra world. I even went to a conservatory and did a classical performance degree, so I spent tons of time in orchestras growing up. But I have never composed for an orchestra, and for the past 25 years or so, I haven’t focused much on classical performance at all. During that time, my work as a composer and performer has been almost entirely with small and medium sized ensembles in more jazz and improvised music contexts. So for me, JCOI has been sort of like going back to a place I grew up in but haven’t visited often since, and bringing a very different perspective gained from all these other experiences I’ve had. I’m also looking forward to working with conductor Steve Schick, a tremendous musician and all around great person who I first met in graduate school and who I’ve enjoyed performing with several times in improvisatory contexts.

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