Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Readings: Composer Spotlight – Dawn Norfleet

Jazz flutist, vocalist and composer Dawn Norfleet’s academic and musical journey started as a student in L.A. public schools, and eventually took her through Wellesley College and Columbia University where she earned a PhD in ethnomusicology. As winner of a national competition for new Classical choral works, her composition was performed by a Minnesota-based vocal ensemble. Dawn participated in last year’s Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Summer Intensive, and was selected for the JCOI Readings, Thursday, 7:30pm at Miller Theatre, Columbia University for her piece SEED. She was kind enough to speak with us about the piece and her JCOI experience.

Jazz flutist, vocalist and composer Dawn Norfleet

American Composers Orchestra: Can you talk about the challenges of writing jazz music for orchestra? What do you believe is the biggest payoff? 
Dawn Norfleet: For me, the greatest challenge of writing jazz music for orchestra is creating something organic that feels both authentically jazz and authentically orchestral. Jazz and European concert traditions have different histories, roots, and aesthetics, so it takes sensitivity, respect, and expertise in both arenas. Although both ensembles use primarily European instruments and notation, central to jazz are “feel” and improvisation that come from African American aesthetics (like the blues) and performance approaches that directly engage the listener (as in clapping after solos, or vocal responses). Jazz ensembles highlight horns, and rhythm section; skillful balance is achieved between individual and group expression. Relative to jazz, European Classical orchestras emphasize strings and minimize percussion, individual expression and improvisation. Audience appreciation is usually demonstrated only at the end of the composition and all of its movements. Broadly speaking, the conductor and instrumentalists in Western Classical music aim to interpret the composer’s musical intent; in jazz, while the composer’s intent is considered, the musical expression depends greatly on the individual instrumentalists who are interpreting the music through performance. There are many things to consider while writing in a way that combines these different traditions. The payoff in composing jazz for orchestra, however, is to accomplish that which is truly one’s own expression, while honoring the integrity of both traditions.

ACO: You say that following JCOI mentor James Newton’s advice about bringing our unique voice to the medium, you have incorporated African and other non-Western-derived percussive rhythm and counterpoint into your piece. Can you talk about these rhythms and methods of counterpoint and how they materialize in SEED
DN: Actually, with SEED, I wasn’t aiming to compose “jazz music for orchestra”, with whatever stylistic, instrumental, or improvisational expectations that arise with the label, jazz. What I aimed for here was to write something that authentically and organically represented where I was, musically, at that specific time. James Newton’s advice to the JCOI participants was to write something that no one else could write, something that was authentically our unique voices. That set off a light bulb in my creative spirit. It was as though I had been given “permission” to write from the source of my inspiration, and not be concerned with writing a “jazz” piece for a classical orchestra, unless that was what my creative mind led me to do. When I was studying Western Art Music composition in grad school, I’d felt stifled by a pressure to compose chromatic or serial music, and to avoid rhythmic repetition, meter, and tonality. Although I found the challenge of composing in that vein intriguing, I really wanted the freedom to create as the composition directed me. As a result, I faced the Dreaded Blank Page many times, and not knowing how to remedy the situation, I feel that I didn’t compose as much as I could have, had I been free to just write without restrictions. I realized years later, that these periodic writer’s blocks were also due to a flaw in my compositional process: what I call a “crippling perfectionist” attitude that every note I wrote had to be some kind of masterpiece. I rethought that approach after hearing an interview of noted author on an NPR program several years ago. He said that he would advise his composition students not to try writing masterpieces, but to aim to get words on the page that didn’t mind being around each other, thus releasing them from the pressures of perfectionism. That concept of getting my ideas “on the page” rather than questioning and rejecting ideas before getting them written down for development kept me in motion, when composing SEED. Once ideas are on the page, they can be developed. When I thought I’d worked through one idea to its fullest extent, I’d step away from it and free my mind enough to come up with something else. I learned to follow the advice I’ve given to my own students, to “get the darned thing on the page, then edit! Stop rejecting the darned thing before gets on the page!” With SEED, the ultimate challenge was to trust my musical instincts and choices, inspired with the knowledge that I can still develop the composition further as a result of the ACO Reading.

I’ve been writing music since I was 15. I grew up surrounded by 1970’s R&B and funk bands, then jazz, having absorbed these styles from my musical family. My heroes included Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Steely Dan, and Earth Wind and Fire. From my mother, who was then a high school choir director in Watts, California, I gained an affinity for classical choral and vocal music. In college, I discovered African polyrhythms, early Italian Baroque polyphony, and meters considered unconventional in Western music but common in Indian traditions. SEED likely pulls a bit from all of the various traditions that influenced me, as well as from my background in songwriting. Just as my intent wasn’t to write jazz for orchestra, I also didn’t deliberately set out to compose something that sounded particularly African, Indian, or Black American — but if ideas did sound that way, I was fine with it. Instead, I’d take an idea, and go with it wherever it took me. As a result, I think SEED reflects ideas that intrigue me: “non-traditional rhythms”, funk, bird chatter, and sounds I hear around urban Los Angeles.

Structurally, SEED is comprised of five continuous, contrasting segments, with an overall metric feel of five (5/8). Within that meter, I explore different rhythmic possibilities in each section. The first section opens with the marimba playing a melody with 2+3 rhythmic grouping, while the strings and piano gently suggest percussion. It then shifts to a 3+2 feel with the other instruments taking over. In the second segment, I wanted to insert rhythmic space and stretch out the melody through inversion and other alterations, and experiment a bit with space and location of instruments. The third and longest section developed from an idea I’d sketched out in my notebook taken during a JCOI lecture. Here, I wanted to create a different feel by combining the two groupings 3+2/2+3 in the melodic structure and adding layers, like a theme and variation. The fourth section has a hint of acknowledgement of my Los Angeles hometown, with what I’d described for the trumpets as “quasi-mariachi” duet. The last section combines some of the rhythmic and melodic elements of the previous sections. Throughout the composition, I chose to utilize tonality, which I use all the time in my jazz and songwriting, but avoided as a grad student.

ACO: What has your experience in the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute been like so far? 
DN: I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the JCOI experience. It impacted my life on many levels. After having been away from composing Western Classical music for 25 years, this provided an opportunity to reawaken my interest in this area. Writing for orchestra is like a holy grail for composers and songwriters I know, whether working in jazz, R&B, world music, or pop. Everyone with whom I’ve shared my experience has expressed nearly as much excitement as I’ve felt. Regarding my JCOI colleagues, for the first time I’ve felt as though I was among kindred spirits. These are people like me, with diverse musical backgrounds that include jazz and other improvised music, but are also influenced by a world of other genres. Also like me, many are performing musicians, and even have similar quirks (like constantly flipping pencils, moving a knee up and down, or tapping out rhythms when sitting for a long time). My mentor, Gabriela Lena Frank, has been tremendously generous with her knowledge. This one-to-one mentorship is also a vital part of what makes the JCOI experience so valuable. I’ve had an amazing time, thus far. As the title of my composition suggests, SEED represents the germination of new creative ventures. The orchestra is no longer a Big Scary Thing for me as a composer.

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the readings? 
DN: Having these ideas in my head come to life through the experts of the ACO is something I can almost hardly imagine! Getting feedback from musicians, composers, and mentors is also something I’m excited about. I look forward to doing a lot more in the future with extended technique and improvisation for this kind of ensemble, as a result of what I’ll learn during the sessions and feedback.

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