Naples Philharmonic Jazz Readings: Composer Spotlight – Sonia Jacobsen

Sonia Jacobsen is an award-winning composer who strives for a synthesis between the classical and jazz worlds. Sonia has studied musicology and jazz saxophone at Grenoble University, Chambéry Conservatory and The New School University in NY. She is founder and director of the New York Symphonic Jazz Orchestra, and she was co-founder and co-director of Mosaic Orchestra, which had a biweekly jazz club gig in NY in the late 90’s. Carried By The Winds is her selected piece for the EarShot Naples Philharmonic Jazz Composers Readings, May 25-26, 2016 at Artis–Naples’ Hayes Hall.

Sonia kindly answered these questions for SoundAdvice, giving insight into her piece and sharing her JCOI experience.

Composer Sonia Jacobsen

American Composers Orchestra: You describe richly varied styles that lend elements to Carried By The Winds, from tango, funk, jazz, Venezuelan joropo, Anatolian and Eastern European folklore. If someone were to point to a place on the score, would you be able to cite the style or combination of styles used?
Sonia Jacobsen: Some of the elements I borrow from these styles are techniques, concepts and aesthetics, and might at times be obscure, at other times be obvious.

I can point out in my score which elements were derived from those styles. However, I am very conscious of trying NOT to turn the piece into a collage, throwing a little bit of this in here, a little that in there, but use my knowledge of those styles as inspiration.

It could be a scale, at rhythm or rhythmic concept, an instrumental technique… I could start going into detail about technical things, for example, how I borrow from Afro-Venezuelan polymetric ways of shifting the perception of where ‘one’ is, superimposing different time signatures; some string techniques derived from tango; the emphasis on brassy hits and busy syncopated bass lines common in funk; the usage of bouncy odd groupings of two and three eighth notes common in Eastern European folk music; a 9/8 rhythm common in Anatolian music (one-two-one-two-one-two-one-two-three)… A large part of my piece is based on a scale that has four sets of half-steps and two augmented seconds, this scale has many names, depending on where you are from, and it even lends a rather Klezmer’ish flavor at times. And then there is also a jazz approach to articulation and harmony, and an attempt to lend a freshness to melodic lines as if they were improvised.

ACO: Where does the name Carried By The Winds come from?
SJ: I was looking for a name related to the diverse geographic associations some of these ethnic and folkloric traditions represent. I was contemplating naming different sections after named winds like the Sirocco, les Alisėes, Pamparo, Maltim, and others, but I thought that would be too geographically specific. So I thought I’d leave it at just a general reference to trade winds, migration of people on tall ships (forced and voluntary migration), and how seeds of influence can be transported across oceans and germinate on other continents. Music cultures in locations that are historically at a crossroads of different cultures are fascinating to me.  Well, there is also a slight double entendre referring to the wind instruments. My piece is at times a bit brass-heavy inspired by some 70’s funk, jazz orchestras, and salsa bands. And the woodwinds often contribute ‘whirlwind textures’.

ACO: What has your experience as founder and director of the New York Symphonic Jazz Orchestra, and co-founder and co-director of Mosaic Orchestra taught you about writing jazz music for orchestra?
SJ: As a jazz composer, there are traditionally not many outlets other than big bands and smaller ensembles. I always found big bands a bit limited for my compositional voice – a bit hard to break from the traditional big band sound. I was fascinated by strings in a jazz context already in the early 90’s and I was lucky to work with some of the best improvising string players on the scene in NYC at that time. Jazz musicians who understood my vocabulary, who happened to play string instruments. When I founded New York Symphonic Jazz Orchestra, there were so many string players who were eager to play the kind of music in our repertoire, that every one of them could have taken on a soloistic improvisational role. Nevertheless, the more people playing together, the more important precise notation is required, and by being the conductor myself, I learned how important every detail is in communication to not waste precious rehearsal time. Researching crossover jazz/classical music has been a preoccupation of mine for decades, and when I was weeding through a large pile of submissions to a call-for-scores we did, I found that the most successful works had additional influences than only jazz and classical – often there was some world music or contemporary element in addition. Sometimes it is hard to try to straddle two chairs, you are likely to fall between them and alienate the audience in both camps. Whereas, approaching  the music as a melting pot of influences honest to one’s taste works better, in my opinion.

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the readings?
SJ: To hear a piece come to life with real musicians is such a thrill, no matter the size of a group, but with a full symphony orchestra, it will be a dream come true. I have been attending the ACO readings for many many years and have long wanted to participate, but always found it a bit intimidating since I never studied composition formally in an academic classical context.

I’m looking forward to the learning experience, to find out if I have been successful in communicating my musical intent through notation in a clear enough manner. And to see whether I have notated some stylistic particularities so that a classically trained musician without knowledge of these styles can play them convincingly with the right feel.

ACO: What has your experience in the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute been like so far?
SJ: Being a jazz composer writing for classical musicians means you belong to a very small obscure group, it can seem at times. The community aspect of meeting with others with similar aesthetics and artistic direction validates my efforts. The willingness of the orchestra and everyone else involved to accept that the first time a piece is played, it might not be perfect, is extremely valuable for us composers.

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