Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Readings: Composer Spotlight – Ben Morris

Composer Ben Morris explores the intersections between jazz and concert music. Ben is currently pursuing his masters’ at Rice University as a Brown Fellow and interns with film composer Michael Bacon. His music has been performed by LUNAR Ensemble, Cadillac Moon, Living Earth Show, Resound Duo, Fredericksburg Brass, American Modern Ensemble, the Cleveland Orchestra, Imani Winds, the Frost Symphony and Concert Jazz Band. Ben received an ASCAP Morton Gould Award, a NJMEA Composers Award, the 2015 Frost Concerto Competition Prize, and two Klezmer Company Orchestra Composers’ Prizes, and three Festival Miami Composers’ Awards.

Ben’s piece, titled Old Seven Mile, will be workshopped and read at the JCOI Readings on Thursday, June 16, 7:30pm at Miller Theatre, Columbia University. The work is named after the longest continuous bridge over open water, located in the Florida Keys, and is meant to convey the idea of the “bridge-in-progress.” Ben was kind enough to expand on his program notes for our blog.

Composer Ben Morris

American Composers Orchestra: Can you talk about the challenges of writing jazz music for orchestra? What do you believe is the biggest payoff?
Ben Morris: While composing music for a chamber jazz group can be like setting some loose house rules for a close family, composing music for orchestra is like writing a law book for a big foreign city. During the composition and rehearsal process for a new orchestral piece, we composers don’t personally interact with musicians in the orchestra as often. Usually, the conductor will talk to the composer before rehearsals, and composers are limited to a few comments during the small rehearsal time. This approach is different from a jazz group’s, where rehearsals are more frequent and the performers are familiar with each other as artists. A lot goes unspoken – the composer knows for whom they are writing. 
The challenge of composing jazz-influenced music for orchestra is reconciling my tendencies to “let the performers go” with a more rigorously structured narrative form and nuanced orchestrational details. Orchestral music, due to the number of musicians (most of whom the composer won’t know personally) and the limited rehearsal time, requires controlled expression and unity of intent built into the music, which is communicated by the conductor. Concision and playability are important factors for writing orchestra music. Of course, the EarShot readings do a lot to ameliorate these challenges by breaking down some of the barriers between the orchestra and the composer by encouraging more discussion and feedback for the composers.
Ultimately, the biggest payoff for me is that I can create an enormous 3D world of sound – a totally immersive experience that an audience wouldn’t get as often from a small jazz combo or classical chamber group.  Nothing quite beats it. 
ACO: In what ways does your piece Old Seven Mile combine jazz and concert music?
BM: Big band music is in my DNA, and elements from classic and modern big band arrangements come out strongly in Old Seven Mile, which captures some of the energy of the music of South Florida.  The piece features a drum set “driving the bus” in lockstep with the basses and tuba, something that is idiomatic to jazz and funk music. Quick wind flourishes act like improvised interjections, while stretches of solo trombone and trumpet predominate the slower middle section. Another section of the piece features parallel rhythmic motion in the winds and muted brass like a big band sax soli a la Thad Jones or a Gil Evans Sketches of Spain harmonization. Rhythmically, the piece relies on shifting vamps and repeated grooves. A lot of big band sounds transfer quite well to orchestra, and that is something I take advantage of in the piece. 
The piece’s form, a big ABA with an energetic fast and end section and a slower middle portion, is typically classical. Textures in the piece, from percussion and piano flourishes, pizzicato strings, glissandi, and chorales, are very much grounded in contemporary classical music and the works of Joseph Schwantner, Henri Duttileux, Olivier Messaien, and Witold Lutoslawski. The two worlds can work surprisingly well together. 
ACO: What has your experience in the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute been like so far?
BM: As a composer in academia, my experience at JCOI is different from a lot of the other composers and mentors in the program, who are freelance jazz composers and performing musicians. A lot of these musicians really give a realistic picture of the possibility of crossing genres in a lucrative way outside of academia. It inspires me and gives me a clearer vision of where I am going as an artist, since they have all been there before and can advise me what and what not to do in the music industry. 
Each of the faculty and participants addressed the practical and aesthetic issues of the meeting of jazz and the orchestra in an open forum for discussion, allowing like-minded individuals to share their experiences. Each of us feels more prepared to tackle challenging issues of programming and getting our music out there – we have a toolset of approaches and responses to promote and deliver our own personal voices to a complex musical environment. It was also wonderful after the daily classes and workshops to share beers with such different souls and talk about the music we liked – everything from indie rock to metal to EDM to jazz to experimental classical. It was eye opening. 
ACO: What are you looking forward to about the readings?
BM: I am looking forward to hearing the range of creativity other participant’s works  – the readings will be fertile ground for the exchange of new ideas. Also, I’m actually looking forward to being put through the ringer and to learn some valuable lessons the hard way – in person and on the fly. It helps us all learn and move forward as artists. 

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