Amina Figarova is a New York-based, Azerbaijan-born pianist and composer who is fast developing a reputation on the international scene. Amina has studied as a classical concert pianist at the Baku Conservatory as well as Jazz Performance at the Rotterdam Conservatory, Netherlands and Berklee College of Music; she has also attended the Thelonious Monk Institute’s summer jazz colony in Aspen. Amina has composed a musical, Diana, as well as several other projects, including Tehora for Israeli singer Shlomit Butbul. Amina’s recorded releases include 13 albums of her original compositions earning her the Downbeat Rising Star Composer in the Critics Poll of 2014 and 2015. Amina participated in the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute (JCOI) Summer Intensive last year and answered these questions for SoundAdvice. Her piece The Journey will be workshopped and read at the Buffalo Philharmonic JCOI Readings, Wednesday, September 21, 2016 at Kleinhans Music Hall.
Pianist and composer Amina Figarova. Photo by Paola Tazzini Cha
American Composers Orchestra: You are an accomplished performer as well as composer, with appearances at Newport Jazz Festival, Chicago festival, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Capetown Jazz festival, North Sea Jazz Festival, and more. Can you talk about your experience when you are solely the composer, off stage and a spectator? What aspects of this role do you enjoy, not enjoy?
Amina Figarova: Indeed, it’s a very different experience, nerve-racking but also very exiting.
My first big experience was when I wrote a piece for cello and piano for one of my favorite teachers Vladimir Anshelevich. Although I played it with him, it was a very first time when I understood a real power of interpretation, the way he played it, he actually led the way, although it was my music. It was a true magical moment.
Later on I wrote often for bands and for vocalists, and it was always fun to hear another people interpret your music, but when I wrote musical Diana – a one woman musical with a small combo – I was simply too scared to hand it over to another pianist, so I remained in the band as long as I could. Passing it over to another pianist who had to lead the band was the not easy. I was at the show and my heart stopped probably tens times, but it was a tremendous learning experience. The beauty of the individual sound and interpretation is so incredible – your music gets a life of its own, and it felt so good.
A whole different experience was arranging a few of the songs from that musical for the Rotterdam Philharmonic in The Netherlands. I will never forget, I was sitting in the ring, just above the orchestra and I was petrified! I love performing, stage is a home to me, and I am not a nervous person, but that day, that moment, with the orchestra in place and the conductor walking on stage, I was a wreck. I felt so helpless – here I am with all the ideas in my head not knowing how it will go.
But today, after having a great experience at the JCOI intensive, I feel confident and I am looking forward very much to hearing The Journey played by the fantastic Buffalo Philharmonic!
ACO: You have trained as both a concert pianist and as a jazz pianist, and writing a jazz work for orchestra prompts a certain intersection of classical and jazz. In your opinion, where does classical and jazz music overlap? Where does it vary?
AF: I don’t see the borders and I don’t like the borders. To me it’s all music. Music can express the feelings words can’t, and whether it’s swing, or not, folk music, improvisation or written out melody – it’s all Music.
When writing The Journey I was not thinking in styles, I was trying to create a vision through the art of Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series, the crowded trains with masses of people traveling in hope for better future.
ACO: You write that your piece The Journey is “full of hope and blues.” Can you talk about the techniques used to create these two contrasting emotions?
AF: Contrasting emotions can be expressed in many different ways, from soft, quiet melodies to extremely busy and strong passages. Different rhythms, tempos, orchestrations have no boundaries, there are so many ways, so many techniques.
In The Journey, I was focusing more on the harmonic and rhythmic expression, using underlying or “hidden” melodies. The most important for me was to capture the “human” aspect, evoking individual people, crowds, and of course the motion of the train.
ACO: Can you talk about your experience at the JCOI Intensive? What aspects of your piece were influenced by techniques you learned or ideas you encountered during the program?
AF: It was a very special week. The incredible faculty was sharing experiences in a such generous way, and the interactions between the faculty and the students was very exiting. The amount of the information we got was overwhelming and I need more time to absorb it all, but the most important message I got out is stay true to yourself. When writing for the symphony it is very tempting to go places: classical, contemporary, or stay in your comfort zone and simply arrange for the orchestra. I was looking for a new place, somewhere that was very “mine,” but very “new mine.” It’s like moving to another country and finding your own spot. It was very exiting to look for this place, I don’t know if I’ve found it yet, but I am surely on the new path, and I would love to explore it in the future.
American Composers Orchestra (ACO) is dedicated to the creation, celebration, performance, and promotion of orchestral music by American composers. With commitment to diversity, disruption and discovery, ACO produces concerts, pre-college and college education programs, and emerging composer professional development to foster a community of creators, audience, performers, collaborators, and funders.
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