Buffalo Philharmonic JCOI: Composer Spotlight – Gene Knific

Pianist, composer and arranger Gene Knific has performed worldwide at major festivals in the United States, Russia, Denmark, Italy, and Mozambique, appearing with Joe Lovano, the Western Jazz Quartet, Kevin Mahogany, Roseanne Vitro, Kate Reid, Bobby Shew, and The Tom Knific Quartet. Gene also leads The Gene Knific Trio in original works and unique explorations of classical and modern genres. An active composer in both jazz and chamber music settings, Gene has written for the Stamps Foundation Distinguished Ensembles featuring guitarist/singer Steve Miller among other works. He received a grant from the Knight Foundation for the production of a self-produced feature film and is also the recipient of 7 Down Beat Music Awards for his performances and compositions in jazz and contemporary categories. Gene studied with Shelly Berg, Martin Bejerano, Lansing McLoskey, and Terence Blanchard at University of Miami Frost School of Music where he earned degrees in jazz performance and composition.

Gene participated in the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute (JCOI) Summer Intensive last year and answered these questions for SoundAdvice. His piece Relapse will be workshopped and read at the Buffalo Philharmonic JCOI Readings, Wednesday, September 21, 2016 at Kleinhans Music Hall.

Composer and pianist Gene Knific

American Composers Orchestra: You are an accomplished performer as well as composer and arranger, with your own trio and appearances with some of the world’s top jazz musicians. 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?
Gene Knific: I really do enjoy hearing my music from off stage. It can feel very relieving to have finished a work and to not have to worry about presenting it on top of all of the work that went into writing it. This is especially the case when I write to others’ performing strengths that are not my own. However, I do feel like I am presenting my music most honestly when I am on the stage. I am continuously striving to blend both my performing and composing careers. 
ACO: You are an active composer in both jazz and chamber music settings. In your opinion, where does classical and jazz music overlap? Where does it vary?
GK: It’s very hard to talk about music in terms of “classical” and “jazz” in the 21st century. Since the early 20th century and first sightings of jazz we’ve seen composers with classical training directly emulate aspects of jazz, and jazz musicians trained in classical repertoire. If working with ACO taught me anything, the walls have been coming down for a long, long time. In addition, when we say the term “jazz” we are referring to an extremely large range of styles of playing and repertoire, many with contradicting aesthetics – the same goes for “classical” music. 
I think it’s much more accurate to speak of these musics in terms of the people involved. Duke Ellington, a master composer who drew from both “jazz” and “classical” creative wells, wrote the names of the musicians in his orchestra directly on his scores, instead of “trumpet I, trumpet II, etc.” Different facets of music overlap when talented, open-minded musicians take on music that they may not be initially comfortable with. Musicians with more exclusively a chamber background can explore improvisation in new works of music. Musicians with more of a jazz background can explore “classical” playing styles and articulations. This is happening with more and more frequency. A growing number of musicians are training themselves in both “jazz” and “classical” historical practices equally. I find this very exciting, and a lot of amazing music is being written and performed with deep historical context and a genuinely open mind.
If you are speaking of Beethoven vs. Ellington, of course you can nit pick the musical elements that overlap and vary. However, in present times, the music varies when we ourselves decide to put up barriers.
ACO: Your write that your piece Relapse “reflects struggles with addiction, the various psychological effects of using, and the public association of drugs with jazz with reference to various interviews, biographies, and articles on the subject.” Can you talk about any specific musical elements that convey these aspects? How do you reference these interviews, biographies, and articles through music?
GK: First, I’d like to elaborate a little bit on the concept. Being a white kid born in 1992 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, it can be easy to feel pretty distant from the genius musicians and composers of the 1940’s bebop scene of New York, both musically and culturally. Many of the musicians who collaborated during that period have passed away. Even my own teachers in jazz (incredible as they are) have been at least few generations removed. For me, it is striking when I have the chance to hear an older master musician say the phrase “when I played with Charlie Parker…” because for me, that period of time is drenched in a sort of nostalgia similarly reserved for the likes of turn-of-the-20th Century Paris. One heavily romanticized aspect of jazz from the mid-20th Century I consistently come across is drug use. 
I find it interesting that, after their music, the second thing I learned about jazz icons such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Bill Evans, is their drug use. I’m sure it is similar for many who learn about these musicians in a historical context. It should be noted that there have always been attempts to disparage Black art music in America, and that I would be surprised if the inflation of this image of jazz musicians and drug use wasn’t related. Conversely, in many situations I have heard very young jazz musicians comment on how heroin abuse may have helped the legends play better. A notable heroin resurgence occurred in New York in the 90’s within jazz circles – some quoting this romanticized aspect as a cause. 
Alright, now to address your question. I thought Berlioz’ iconic 19th century orchestral work, Symphonie Fantastique, a programatic piece about an artist overdosing on opiates, would be a great bridge conceptually bringing in my inspiration for the piece to the orchestra. The piece takes on the concept “the visions of an artist on opiates” but rather from the perspective of a jazz musician at a gig vaguely in the late 40’s-60’s. First we hear a solo piano intro quasi-a la Oscar Peterson that quotes Berlioz’ main theme. The orchestra begins to layer in and we eventually have begun the “tune” – which is a variation of a blues form. Various aspects of a typical jazz performance are heard – “solos” emerge, although not improvised, different small group and big band textures are emulated, and a “rhythm section” is established in the orchestra. We then begin to feel the effects of the jazz musician’s drug use – from nodding off into a blissfully serene daze to the feeling of reality being stripped away. I employ textures derived from composers such as Béla Bartók and György Ligeti to achieve some of these effects.
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?
GK: The JCOI Intensive was incredible enlightening. I had always had a deep interest in the histories of jazz and classical music and how they have interacted. The lectures at the intensive taught me that these histories have been intermingling for longer and more intimately that I could ever had imagined. It really helped me feel validated in my intuitions as a young composer, but also I found that I had a lot more to learn. Perhaps the best part for me was meeting so many great other composers with similar intuitions, but incredibly distinct and exciting voices. I have never become a fan of so many new artists all at once! 
Less than techniques, the JCOI Intensive made me want to dig deeper into the histories of the music. It also made me want to take more risks and chances in my writing, while feeling comfortable in my own shoes, so to speak. 
ACO: What are you looking forward to about the Buffalo Philharmonic JCOI Readings?
GK: Everything. First of all, it is such an amazing honor to be able to interact with such a high level orchestra. I still kind of can’t believe it’s happening. I’m also looking forward to valuable constructive feedback I will receive, both positive and negative. As a composer if I’m doing something wrong, it’s incredible hard to know if I’m doing something wrong – especially in the context of an orchestra, since writing/reading opportunities like these are so rare. Similarly, I will find out if I’m doing something right when I get to hear the piece!
Learn more about Gene at www.geneknific.com
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