I write this blog after hearing of the passing of Boston composer Harold Shapero…the blog isn’t about him, per se, although he was a wonderful composer. It is about a topic that has begun to haunt me more and more…
When I taught music appreciation classes, I would always ask students “who will be remembered; in 200 years, who will be in the history books?”. I found this to be a very powerful question to get them really thinking about music–in the case of most of my students, popular music–and what is actually strong enough to last. Obviously, everyone said The Beatles; but other artists were mentioned who never had another hit and have fallen out of the general consciousness.
A good friend–who also happens to be a composer–and I have discussed this at length, relating it to classical music. Once every era you get a genius: a Mozart, a Beethoven, a Wagner…one who changes the game by transcending it. Interspaced is a surrounding cast of characters, composers who were excellent, but not groundbreaking. Then, we have the composers who are really only remembered for one or two pieces. But they are remembered…
This haunting of my psyche began last this past year when in a discussion I reached for my copy of Introduction to Contemporary Music by Joseph Machlis. This was my textbook and resource for my Music of the 20th Century class at New England Conservatory. In the back is a resource of important or ‘up and coming’ composers with a couple sentences of biography about each; these were the ones who didn’t make it into the actual text. Now, mind you: I had the 2nd edition, which was 1979; the 1st edition was 1961. The list in the back included Leonard Bernstein, for example, whom as we know now deserves volumes considering his production and impact as a composer and conductor. It also included some composers that I have heard only passing references to. Most importantly for this discussion, it included a number of composers of a certain generation that were active in Boston when I was a student at NEC, but who now have fallen completely out of the general consciousness. These composers seemed omnipresent; they were represented on chamber and orchestra concerts, recitals, radio broadcasts…we studied them in my Music Since 1945 class. They were the ‘old guard’…the generation after Copland, still very active in the 1980′s. They taught at places like NEC, Brandeis, Harvard, and Boston University and trained the composers who were to carry the torch of mid-century modernism, and those who would break from it completely. Their music–like everyone’s–ranged in quality but was sublime at its best.
But today, where are Arthur Berger, Lukas Foss, Leon Kirchner, Earl Kim, and yes, the recently deceased Harold Shapero…? Was their music only performed because they were alive to promote it? Will any of it ever make it into the standard repertory? Will there be a ‘Renaissance’ of this music; young ensembles digging through the archives for obscure music and giving these scores new life? I don’t know…
Where will we all be? What will survive, what won’t? Composers whose music seemed to be everywhere when I was a student seems to have been forgotten…makes one contemplate the ephemeral nature of creating sounds…
Maybe I’ll get one piece (yes, God, please, at least one!) into the standard repertory…maybe I’ll write something for solo euphonium that will be used for All-County auditions in high school…maybe even that’s a pipe-dream, too.
I’m sure they had higher expectations and aspirations than what they have received, too…
Something to think about…and, perhaps, accept.
“What is Jazz?”
You know, for years, I would ask this question to my Jazz History classes at the New England Conservatory Prep/CE school. I would then spend the next year getting them to understand that question and what ‘Jazz” as a concept actually meant.
It many ways, it’s an unfair question. Jazz, much more than classical music, has morphed and developed into multiple branches that in many ways have little to do with each other. Each of these has evolved for reasons of economy, geography, social circles, language, and for countless other reasons.
Sadly the ‘market, ‘ i.e., the voices of the conservative authority, consider a very narrow definition of what jazz is and what it should be. Purists are satiated by what appears in the periodicals, in the record store bins (more virtual than physical now, of course), and in the ‘name’ clubs, such as Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Blue Note here in NYC.
But this is only part of the story…
There are a couple of reasons why I am bringing this up:
The first is that in less than a month, I will be teaching jazz studies in Tajikistan as the main focus of my Fulbright Specialist grant. I have traveled in the former Soviet Union extensively and have experienced what can be called a vibrant jazz community. The only thing is that very little of it falls into the definition which we as Westerners (especially as Americans because Europeans are far more well versed on our art form than we are) have been forced fed by the media. There are numerous ‘branches’ of music that fall under the name jazz (джаз) which anyone from the pillars of marketing would have difficulty categorizing, and would certainly not make an appearance at the hallowed halls of conservative jazz here in the US or on the cover of Downbeat…this music is a unique blend of traditional music–be it Turkic, Persian or Sub-Continental–pop music forms, story telling, and driving rhythms influenced by American music…who is to say it’s *not* jazz?
The second reason is more personal. Having attended New England Conservatory in the 80′s with the ever present shadow of Gunther Schuller looming the halls, the definition of jazz was much more inclusive of other art forms–especially including classical composition, which is important in my music–that have cross-pollinated with jazz to create hybrid forms. This is how I look at jazz. It wasn’t until later that I learned that jazz, by most American institutions of higher learning’s definition, is that of a very narrow style of music from very specific roots that displays a very specific harmonic language. What I do is not considered jazz by most because it doesn’t stem from a Post-Bop universe. Many of the great musicians who have influenced me, including Mr. Schuller, along with Anthony Braxton, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Eric Dolphy and countless other Avant-garde artists, are not considered purists by the establishment, regardless of their many awards and recognitions, therefore not part of the true jazz firmament. Even later recordings by the great John Coltrane, albums that for me show the greatest sense of pure spiritual expression and the essence of what jazz is about (Interstellar Space being one of my absolute favorites) are looked at by those in jazz education as having ‘lost the path’ and are ‘no longer *real* jazz’ and ‘complete bull shit’ (all of these phrases have been spoken to me by well known jazz educators, mind you…). Sadly, this sentiment is more prevalent than you may think…
So…here begins my exploration into what jazz is, or isn’t, or can be, or should be. As I conduct my seminars in Tajikistan, I will be exposed to very liberal definitions of the art form. I must be honest here and say that on my first trip to Tajikistan in 2010 as Artist-in-Residence at the Dushanbe International Jazz Festival (now renamed the Ethno-Jazz Festival, for good reason…see above) I was a little shocked to see what was considered jazz at this festival. Of course, having played at many US festivals where pop and rock acts were the headliners, I shouldn’t have been. In retrospect, I get it. Jazz in the Soviet Union was considered a deviant art form, anti-establishment. That same energy still runs through the veins of these countries; even in the Trad Jazz bands in St. Petersburg, Russia this sentiment still exists.
So…here begins a dialogue. I invite any of you to post comments here. I will also explore the definition of jazz over the next couple of months to see where all of this music falls. The topic may be roots, rhythm, improvisation styles, or something I haven’t as of yet thought about. That’s the fun of exploration, not knowing what you’ll find.
As the weather begins to turn hopefully for the better, my performances and projects also become more interesting and more intense, most especially in the next couple of weeks. This is an exciting time! I’m writing to share these events and hope that some of you can join me and my amazing cast of collaborators for some of these.
On Wednesday, April 17 I will be working in John Kilgore’s amazing studio with my fellow OCTET horn section buddies Alan Ferber and Mike Gurfield to record the final tracks for OCTET’s new CD, featuring the work of California composer William Susman. This will be the dynamic ensemble’s first studio CD and I believe it will be released and available later this year on Belarca and distributed by Naxos.
The next two days, April 18 and 19, bring unique collaborations with other saxophonists and traditional Indian musicians in Saxophones & Swaras. The brainchild of new York City composer David Claman, these events bring together saxophonists Christopher Creviston and Noa Evan and traditional Indian musicians Sankari Krishnam, V.V.S. Murai, and Ranja Swaminathan with yours truly. The April 18 event is a concert and workshop at CUNY Lehman College, while the Friday April 19 event is a concert at the beautiful Tenri Cultural Institute; a concert not to be missed! Along with playing traditional South Indian music and the new music of David Claman, I will also perform my ‘ode to the aging hipster’ composition Soho Sophisticate.
On April 24 I will be giving the premiere of Christopher Kaufman’s epic Music From Earth for saxophone and electronics as part of the Tribeca Film Festival’s Manhattan Producer’s Alliance presentation. I premiered the first version of this work during my 2007-08 Eurasian solo tour (with the first performance of the work in Tashkent, Uzbekistan). Chris and I decided to create a stronger, leaner version of the work and this is what will be presented for the first time on April 24 at Zirzamin at 5:00.
As the spring continues, there will be more events–and more news–to share. In fact, I will be announcing some very special performances very shortly…stay tuned!
A couple of weeks ago, I was interviewed by Jazz Inside magazine, which focuses on promoting jazz in the greater New York City area. Here is their mission statement:
Jazz Inside is dedicated to support the growth and perpetuation of America’s Original Classic Art Form – Jazz. The organization is committed to document and codify the music and promote improvisation as a vital approach to creating music. Jazz Inside seeks to document both (1) the ever-growing jazz repertoire of published and unpublished compositions; and (2) the improvised recorded solos of jazz practitioners who are currently and have contributed performances and recordings to support, expand and promote the growth of the art form.
This interview focused primarily on my approach to teaching composition and directing and arranging for big bands. I am very happy to have had this opportunity.
The March issue can be downloaded for free here: http://jazzinsidemagazine.com/publications/guide/march-2013
I have also posted both the front cover and the interview here:
I hope you enjoy your copy of the magazine!
Thank you again for your continued support.
It is with great happiness that I share this wonderful news. I have been given a Fulbright Specialist grant to travel to Dushanbe, Tajikistan this summer to work with students and professionals as part of my ongoing project of promoting cultural diplomacy through jazz education.
Since my last trip to Tajikistan to be the Artist-in-Residence of the 2nd Dushanbe International Jazz Festival in 2010, the Bactria Cultural Centre, the US Embassy in Dushanbe, and I have had great interest in creating an expanded project that would have me presenting lectures and seminars on jazz studies, composition, and music business topics, as well as a number of concerts collaborating with local musicians. This current project in the result of over 2 years of discussion.
Focused on enhancing cultural diversity and music industry in Tajikistan, Bactria Cultural Centre strives to provide trainings and conducting workshops on relevant issues, such as creation of music content and music industry development. In this regard, I will be leading the activities listed below:
- Lectures on composition to involve young students at the Tajik National Conservatory and Dushanbe Arts Institute learning composition within their academic curricula, and will be open to all interested applicants from various institutions.
-Classes on improvisation: Involving the students from the Tajik National Conservatory, Dushanbe Arts Institute, and interested applicants among professional and amateur musicians from Tajikistan.
-Consultations on jazz development in Tajikistan and organization of jazz festivals: Development of strategy for the Dushanbe Ethno-Jazz Festival and the consultations on methodology of development of curricula for jazz development in Tajik National Conservatory and Dushanbe Arts Institute.
-Master-classes for young Tajik saxophone players: A group of 3-4 young Tajik saxophone players from several Tajik music groups of various genres.
-Workshop on music business: For music management fellows, representatives of music business and professional musicians in order to get them acquainted with existing income-generating activities crucial for musicians and composers, based on the experience of a self-managed artist from U.S.
-Evening jam sessions: One focused on traditional Tajik musical heritage as a bases for improvisation in jazz, and the other one based on American music, jazz in particular. A partner institution, Gurminj Museum of Music Instruments, committed to host such events.
-Joint concert(s): As a result of improvisation classes and instrumental master classes, one or more joint Tajik-American concert(s) will be conducted in one of the partner institutions (Gurminj Museum of Music Instruments, Tajik National Conservatory or Dushanbe Institute of Arts).
After this three week series of lectures and events, I will then work with the US Embassy in Dushanbe to present outreach lectures and concerts to villages in other areas of Tajikistan. These projects, where I interact with young students and local artists in less accessible areas, I find to be among the most satisfying experiences I have ever had. Being able to turn young people onto the beauties of American music and culture is a great endeavor; we want the world to see what we are really about, beyond what they may know through other media sources. The richness of American culture goes beyond Hollywood and reality TV…they are always delighted to learn.
I have decided to repost this video from the 2010 Dushanbe Jazz Festival; this is my collaboration with the traditional band Mizrob. We are performing my composition Open Letter to Dushanbe, which is loosely based on Mingus’ Open Letter to Duke and combine jazz with traditional Tajik/Persian scales. I dedicated this to the people of Dushanbe for their kindness.
Thank you all again for your continued support!
Hello again, yes, so soon.
I decided to expand upon what I told you about my Children’s Songs over the weekend.
Yes, I did finish revising these, but I pretty much left them the way they were when I originally wrote them in 1994. Here’s why:
I was living in Arizona at the time and studying with Chinary Ung. Chinary really was one of the few things that were keeping me grounded at that period of my life, where I was reevaluating what and who I was, and deciding what to do with the next phase. One of the others was my friend Charles Wells.
Charles was a brilliant pianist and composer, also studying with Chinary at the time. He was a close and dear friend, and along with my good friend Sean Heim part of our circle of composers. Charles was very important to me because he helped me learn about holistic living and spirituality (he was a Christian in the most pure and absolute sense) after my devastating and near fatal illness in the early 90′s (diagnosed first as spinal meningitis, later as encephalitis, they still don’t know what happened…). Charles introduced me to yoga and its advanced concepts, a practice which has been part of my daily life for well over 20 years, and which I completely believe is the reason that I can walk (and can still play music) post-illness and that I am healthy and strong now. He was the most humble and giving man I have ever known, and I can only strive to be like him. Charles was a true friend, a brother, a teacher, a member of my spiritual family…the Children’s Songs were written for him to premiere on piano, which he did beautifully in April of 1994.
My life decisions were made at that point; I was to return to Boston, back to New England Conservatory to continue my education. I left a month after that performance, pleased with what I had learned as a composer and artist; more blessed with what I had experienced as a spirit. As a man, I felt transformed and ready for the next stage.
Charles was killed over Thanksgiving, 2009 in a car accident. He was driving through the desert night, more than likely to help someone in need. Sean called to tell me as I was walking into a gig…I was able to play, not because of any sort of strength or will on my part, but because I believe I was so stunned as to not be able to do–or think–anything else other than play.
So the Children’s Songs, then, represent not only a very powerful period of change and decision, but also one of silent and gentle reflection on a kind soul who helped me beyond words.
They will stay as I wrote them.
It’s actually amazing, but to give you a little compositional insight to my then 25 year old mind–just a little–I used a magic square technique with the pitches which physically/conceptually could also be seen as a prayer mandala…I didn’t remember this until I was revising the pieces. Kind of George Crumb meets Tibetan Buddhism. By the way, the seventh song is based on the melody of the Thanksgiving Hymn We Gather Together…one of my all time favorite melodies…in my song, however, it is quite abstracted. You can also hear it in my guitar piece A Child Sings at Thanksgiving , which is based on the seventh song.
But…this does not mean that the pieces will only be in this original form. After I finished the revision, the pieces would not let me be. The kept haunting my waking hours and were on my mind as I was trying to sleep…so, today I made a decision.
I decided to keep the piano version, but also to expand them by rewriting them for Pierrot ensemble (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano), making them fuller and longer. I started this project today and am pleased so far with the results. This way, I can update them without loosing the spirit of the original. Next, I plan to take the new version to the next level by rewriting them for chamber orchestra. I believe that the pieces will work in all of these settings.
And it will be fun…granted, it may be reliving my past, it may even be updating it, but I’ve come to a point in my life where I can embrace who I was when and what decisions I had made to bring me (one way or another) to where I am now. And by exploring this music again, I can give honor and respect to those who helped me in my need…and perhaps thank them.
These last couple of weeks have been pretty packed with ‘stuff’–events, concerts, guest lectures, composing–you know, ‘stuff’…I’ve always liked the word ‘stuff’…always seems appropriate and less erudite (or obnoxiously arrogant) as something like ‘impedimenta’ or some such…’stuff’ is folksy, I like it.
Firstly, a warm thank you to the faculty and staff of the Music Department of Allegheny College for having me out for a short residency last week. It’s always wonderful to be taken out of one’s routine periodically, and most especially when that involves education. One has the opportunity to reevaluate one’s methods and concepts and to help a new crop of students, or at least to give them a new perspective of how to approach music making or writing. I always have encouraged my students to get as many opinions on things as possible, and I truly believe that the variety of points of view can be greatly beneficial for students in their development.
During the residency, I conducted the saxophone section of the big band, guest lectured at a music appreciation class, conducted a composition seminar, taught a performance master class, and rehearsed and performed a 2-1/2 hour concert featuring both my music and pieces by some of my favorite composers (and friends!), like Alex Shapiro, Alexandra Gardner, Molly Thompson, Jill Miller-Thorn, Joan Tower, and Denise Broadhurst. As you may know, I try to play Denise’s (who died in 2008) music whenever appropriate. It’s always difficult to play her work Not Waving, But Drowning (saxophone and video) because her voice is narrating on the video. It took me a couple of days of practicing the piece until I could get through–barely–without tearing up…
This residency was made possible by the incredible work and gentle consideration of a dear friend, Wendy (Cavett) Plyler, who is the staff accompanist at Allegheny. In 21st century fashion, we reconnected on Facebook after many years (we were classmates at New England Conservatory) and almost immediately began talking about the possibility of me coming there (I don’t actually remember who’s idea it initially was, but she knew–or I told her–that I did residencies somewhat regularly). She made it all happen. The *best* part was that I had the honor and opportunity to play with her on my concert, and we gave the US premiere of my clarinet and piano piece Gymnopaedia (I gave the world premiere with Susanne Kessel at Beethoven-Haus in Bonn, Germany in 2008); the piece has had many performances in different incarnations, but not the original. Wendy was absolutely fabulous to work with! I am truly grateful to her for making this residency happen, and for such an amazing educational experience (for the students AND me).
Tomorrow will be the March installment of Serial Underground at the Cornelia Street Cafe here in NYC. This concert will feature the wonderful music of my great friend, California-based composer William Susman. Bill will be performing selections of Book I and Book II of his Quiet Rhythms for solo piano, with video projections by artist David Irving Weiner. I will also join Bill on stage for a live performance of Native New Yorker, his award winning film as composer and producer; we will perform the film score live to the film. Some of you may know that I have performed this film score live many times on tour across Europe and Asia. This will be great fun to do it here again in NYC tomorrow. Doors open at 5:45, $20 at the door. C’mon down…if I haven’t mentioned this before (and I have, actually…) the food and wine at the Cafe is pretty much to die for…
So…I began my exploration of my ‘larval stage’ as a composer (pre-2004) by rewriting and editing my Children’s Songs for solo piano. Most of you know by now that I have engaged in a new project to ‘update’ all of my earlier works–finished and un–and bring them into my oeuvre. This delicate, short, seven movement piece from 1994 seemed the best place to start since it was a piece where my soundscape was already very evident and for the fact that it was the last piece I wrote under the tutelage of Chinary Ung, my most important composition teacher (we worked together for three years).
Many of my colleagues at that time (and mind you, I am guilty of this, as well) we’re writing very complex, atonal music. I wanted to counterbalance this some, so I decided to create a piece that was very simple and melodic, a set of miniatures, but that still used modern composing techniques and concepts. I was also listening to Chick Corea’s album of the same name. My goal was to write a piece about children: capricious, gentle, and somewhat unfinished. A sorbet course to the heavily savory music of my colleagues.
Some of you may remember my composition A Child Sings at Thanksgiving that I wrote for the Boston-based guitarist Aaron Larget-Caplan. The seventh of the Children’s Songs, entitled A Children’s Choir at Thanksgiving (the only one of the songs with a title) became the basis of the new piece for Aaron.
Here is–and forgive me for this–a midi piano realization of the Children’s Songs; below that is a live performance of Aaron performing A Child Sings at Thanksgiving for solo guitar. These songs are exactly as I wrote them in 1994 (with a few small changes). I am considering rewriting them for various instrumental combinations, including potentially a jazz combo…we’ll see.
The Children’s Songs:
And here’s Aaron playing A Child Sings at Thanksgiving:
What is he talking about now? Old School? Come on, Spaneas; you just had a blog on your influences and soundscape. What are you doing now, going back to playing the American Songbook or Bach cello suites or something???
Well yes…no…um, kinda…
In December, I led my big bands in concert at Five Towns College. Because of the 2 weeks of classes we lost due to Hurricane Sandy, I had to present a slightly truncated program, purely because we didn’t have time to prepare enough pieces to my satisfaction. So, what I did was conscript my student rhythm section (all are professionals in their own right) to play a couple of…wait for it…STANDARDS.
Gasp!!! Was that the musical firmament rumbling and shaking in anger and disbelief??? No, probably not…although, I am not known for presenting this rep, needless to say.
Also, needless to say, I had to play a bit more, oh, ‘conservatively’ considering both the audience and the tunes. Although I did stretch the tonality quite a bit (about as far as tastefully possible for these tunes) it was really an ‘Old School’ performance for me. I don’t feel so much that I was channeling Sonny Rollins as much as adding my soundscape as a condiment to his concept.
It was fun. It took me a bit out of my realm. I know that purists might (and have!) comment that I took the harmonic relationships too far in my solos, but, hey, that’s how I hear it, so sue me.
So, unabashedly, I present you with 2 videos from that performance. Here are Sonny Rollins’ St. Thomas and Oleo.
The other ‘Old School’ experience I want to share with you has to do with my composing as of late.
I had been tired, mentally, really. The last couple of years has really been a massive outpouring of new music, many of these large works. Because I am a performer and conductor, and because I have amazing and supportive and even better, ‘eager’ colleagues all around the world, all of this music has been performed, some pieces many times. The last half of 2012 was very grueling, especially with the composing and premieres in rapid succession of my saxophone concerto Three Dialogues for Saxophone and Orchestra and my chamber opera Lilith: Mother of Dreams.
By December I was pooped.
I had a couple of projects (no real deadlines or commissions for these, just ideas) that I wanted to pursue, but they weren’t interesting me enough to put that much energy into. I do work really well with a deadline, mind you.
But, due to some rumblings of interest in one of my hand-written works, a piece for choir, piano, and string quartet, As If, I decided to rewrite the piece in music notation software. You see, I consider As If to be my first ‘mature’ work as a composer (I don’t list any compositions before this piece here on my website). I wrote the music (and the text) when I was 35. This was quite the experience to revisit this work and get my mind and psyche back in the place where I was when I wrote it. A flood of emotions and images, needless to say.
This has inspired me to revisit many of my older works from my, oh, for lack of a better term, ‘larval’ stage as a composer. I have been looking at scores from as far back as my teens. It’s really amazing. My ‘soundscape’ developed pretty quickly, and really was happening by my early 20′s. Some of these pieces are amazingly raw, powerful. The technique, the craft, hadn’t developed yet, so really couldn’t express then what I can now, however maybe that makes these works that much more pure and powerful…
There are a wide range of pieces. from solo organ (Dance of the Specter, that’s a fun one!) and solo piano, to a wind trio, to art songs, to orchestra, to even a work for saxophone quartet entitled The Hunchback in the Park–my ONLY work ever for saxophone quartet–that we (the award winning yet sadly defunct Jupiter Saxophone Quartet) premiered live on WGBH radio when I was 20.
So, I have decided to try and ‘update’ many of these pieces. The trick will be to balance the raw emotion from their creation with my updated skills as a composer.
This will be fun. And I’m also a little nervous, to be honest.
Of course, I’ll fill you in on the process.
Until soon, yours in Old Schoolness,
I am delighted to share some news with you!
I met my friend and brilliant composer Neil Rolnick when we found ourselves both booked on a 2009 concert tour in China. One night in Beijing, on a moment’s notice, we got up and improvised with flutist Bruce Gremo for an hour to keep from cancelling a show. Since that fateful meeting, we decided to collaborate on a new saxophone and computer project. The idea was to create a piece that although structured had tremendous space to allow for our interactive improvisations. I am pleased to announce that this commission has been funded by an Individual Artist/Composer Commission grant from the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA).
The new composition, with the working title of Silicon Breath, will be substantially written out, but which will have elements of improvisation. The electronic parts will combine prerecorded sax lines which are modified and processed in various ways, and live processing of the sax as it is played. In its initial form, we will perform it together, but eventually there may be other versions depending upon the logistics of each performance situation. But most importantly, the sax and computer will work together to enhance the instrument’s wide range of colors, moods and expressive possibilities.
We are expecting to present this new work in concerts and at festivals throughout North America, Europe, and Asia beginning in 2014.
As a prelude to this project, Neil (with me as guest) will be featured at 6PM on February 3rd on the CCi Serial Underground series which I curate at the Cornelia Street Cafe in the West Village. We’ll be performing Horny, a new (and saxy…sorry, had to say it…) version of Neil’s 1988 piece Vocal Chords, as well as some old and new solo laptop work and duo improvisations. This will be a fun show, so I hope those of you in the NYC area can join us. Details here: http://corneliastreetcafe.com/Performances.asp?sdate=2/3/2013&from_cal=0
Here’s a little taste of Neil’s music; hip, ain’t it?:
Thank you all again for your continued support!
I need to engage in some self-indulgent musings…
I am allowed, you know. It was my birthday this past Monday, which gives me every right to blog about my place in life and my mature artistic statements…
…of course, I wouldn’t do that to you…
But, what I *will* do is maybe describe my ‘soundscape’: my sound world as a performer and composer…this is something that I have been thinking about a lot as of late, not in any attempt to ‘define’ myself (have given up on that immature prospect, thankfully for all involved) but more in fascination in seeing why I do certain things, think certain things, write certain things, and play certain things.
And just to share what I like.
Let the indulging commence!
My earliest music experiences were with the Greek Orthodox Church. Growing up in a close-knit Greek community in Lowell, MA, everything revolved around the church. The Byzantine music that I sang in the church choir through high school had probably influenced my compositional ‘sound’ more than anything…these melodies, modes, colors…always there, just below the surface of everything I write…it is deeply a part of everything I do…to this day, I can’t listen to this music without tearing up…
My experience with pop music in my early years was interesting. I got into…and I admit to this…the Monkees and other cheesy pop music in the 60′s and 70′s and would always sing along to their records. Amazingly, it was my mother when I was just into double digits who went and bought me the Beatles Rubber Soul album (she hated modern popular music, but had a respect for the Beatles, somehow). I was completely hooked…I had to do that…play music…whatever it took…
You may ask what do the Beatles have to do with what I write and play, but they actually have *everything* to do with why I do it.
Having the American release (which was very different from the British release in so far as songs), the first Beatles tune that I heard–I mean not on the radio but *really* heard and could play over and over again–was this:
I should also mention at this point that I started off playing the guitar–badly–so the idea of rock/pop music was really all I knew. I attempted guitar a number of times, finally later switching to bass guitar, which I was somewhat better at (thankfully for the ease of 80′s pop music) and that I gigged on into my 20′s. I started playing the tenor saxophone at 12, which I instantly–and still do–began a love affair with. I started searching out bands with horns, and at that time there still were many, although it was to be a fading genre…I found Chicago, and made it my career goal to play in their horn section…I didn’t, but playing in other great rock horn sections over the years has been one of the most satisfying–and fun–parts of my career:
As I got into high school, I started playing more baritone saxophone…why, I don’t know, it seemed really cool, and to be honest playing it on gigs did help me establish my self much quicker. At this time, I started really learning about Duke Ellington (and his greatly influential baritone sax player Harry Carney). Ellington’s composing–and his band–have been a constant source of inspiration to me in my own writing, including my more classical orchestral scores. He was one of the greatest American composers of all time.
Although I would eventually get to know Stan Getz personally, because I was focusing on baritone sax in high school and undergrad, Gerry Mulligan had a greater influence on me and my playing style. From the time I was 16, I started buying every Mulligan album I could find. Even after Bird and Coltrane and all the others, Gerry will always have a special place in my heart…I even dedicated my graduate school recital to him, because he had recently passed (and I performed Joan Tower’s Wings for him, on baritone).
Freshman year at New England Conservatory…coming from a jazz/rock background, I was a bit overwhelmed that I auditioned successfully and was now in one of the top classical music schools in the world with a limited amount of knowledge of classical music. My first semester music history class, which was an overview, gave me an amazing foundation of styles and time-periods, though. I found out why some great composers were great, and couldn’t understand why others were considered so. I feasted on this new knowledge…
…I was in the library doing a listening assignment; I had to listen to the second movement of Charles Ives’ Three Places in New England, entitled Putnam’s Camp, Redding, CT. When the record started I through off the headphones in surprise…”What the Hell is this?” I said…I looked at the tape jacket and thought that this must be a mistake…was told it wasn’t, and listened again…and again…and again…I spent the entire afternoon listening to this…I thought I have discovered the Philosopher’s Stone…and maybe for me I had…as powerful as the Beatles were on my deciding that I could only do music and nothing else, listening to this made me understand that I could only do contemporary art music and nothing else, and whether that was strict contemporary classical, or jazz, or some eclectic combination, I had to do it…
Coltrane…I didn’t like him at first…I didn’t get him…he was melodic, I didn’t understand his means of expression and spirit…but Coltrane is all about spirit…after making myself listen more and more I started to understand him, love him…in a way, the Transcendental spirit that was so powerful in Ives also had a prophet in Coltrane…I heard, I understood, and I forever became his disciple…to this day, when I don’t know, I listen to Coltrane, and I get it…and I get the fact that it will take many more years, if not lifetimes, of soul searching to eventually lead me to his mastery…
And then came John…my senior year at NEC was one of both excitement and turmoil…where to go, what do do…I was at a point where my concepts were being established, my sound on the horn and my sound as a composer…I knew what I wanted (or at least I thought…fodder for another blog) but I needed artistic finishing school, something to take me completely out of my world…
…and then came John, and my life was never the same…
He walked in to the Conservatory…we were doing a festival of his music…John Cage was the l’enfant terrible of music…the man who destroyed melody and harmony and more importantly, ego in creation…many called him a con artist, those voices still exist, but are becoming fewer finally…I didn’t know what to expect, but I was 22 and was about to have my life turned upside down…his kindness, his gratitude, his humor, his Beatific soul won me over instantly…and changed me forever…
So…there are others, of course…but these are the ones who created my soundscape, my world…to be honest, listening to all of these recordings I have posted here have made me smile, and cry, and they have reminded me why I do this, which is hard sometimes in the midst of economic struggle, and marketing, and publicity, and all of the other mundane things that degrade what our souls cry to do…
I think that this would be an important thing for all artists to do…reflect on your ‘scape’ in your medium…remind yourselves why you are who you are and why you still do it…it’s important…it brings some clarity to an otherwise chaotic life…
Thank you for indulging me…until soon,