Sunday, June 29, 2014

New Big Band Composition Debuted by the BMI/New York Jazz Orchestra

My latest composition for jazz orchestra, "It Was Whispered", was debuted on June 27th, 2014 by the BMI/New York Jazz Orchestra.  The concert took place at Christ and St. Stephen's Church in New York City.  Here is the video footage:


To a degree, this piece was inspired by Ornette Coleman. I am fond of the short, folksy, poetic melodies he writes, and wanted to capture this aesthetic within the context of a fully-developed large ensemble piece. My challenge/balancing act was evoking the essence of "free jazz" while retaining enough compositional control to avoid the chaos of mass, collective, free improvisation.

The soloists were:  Satoshi Takeishi (drums), Marc Phaneuf (alto sax), JC Sanford (trombone), Dave Smith (trumpet)

The band roster is as follows:
Woodwinds:  Marc Phaneuf, Ben Kono, Dan Willis, Rob Middleton, Alden Banta
Trumpets:  Dan Urness, John Eckert, Steve Smyth, Dave Smith
Trombones: Tim Sessions, Pete McGuinness, JC Sanford, Jennifer Wharton
Rhythm:  Sabatian Noelle (guitar), Deanna Witkowski (piano), Dave Ambrosio (bass), Satoshi Takeishi (drums)

This was a fun, celebratory way to wrap up my yearlong affiliation with the BMI Jazz Composers' Workshop.

Here I am, posing with the workshop's director, one of my strongest musical influences, Jim McNeely:

Earl MacDonald and Jim McNeely.
...ever up and onward!



Monday, June 9, 2014

New Works For Big Band

The BMI Jazz Composers Workshop will present its 26th annual Summer Showcase Concert on Friday, June 27, 7:30 pm at Christ-St. Stephen Church (120 W. 69th St., NYC). The BMI/NY Jazz Orchestra will be playing new music by Erica Seguine, Migiwa Miyajima, Anna Webber, Tom Erickson, Scott Ninmer, Ann Belmont, Scott Reeves, Miho Hazama and yours truly. Free admission!



Here is the program information I submitted for my selected work:

Earl MacDonald
“It Was Whispered”

To a degree, this piece was inspired by Ornette Coleman. I am fond of the short, folksy, poetic melodies he writes, and wanted to capture this aesthetic within the context of a fully-developed large ensemble piece. My challenge/balancing act was evoking the essence of "free jazz" while retaining enough compositional control to avoid the chaos of mass, collective, free improvisation.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Bill Longo - Downbeat Student Music Awards Winner!

Congratulations to UCONN alumnus, Bill Longo, who won two Student Music Awards this year from DownBeat Magazine, for:
  • his arrangement of "You Don't Know What Love Is" and...
  • his studio engineering of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas"
Bill graduated from UCONN in 2002, during my second year on the job.  He was a featured trumpet soloist on the 2002 "UCONN Jazz" CD.

Bill graduates from the Frost School of Music in Miami on May 8th, 2014, with a M.Mus. in Studio Jazz Writing.  In 2007 he earned a M.A. in jazz performance from Queens College, where he studied with my former teacher, Michael Phillip Mossman.

Bill begins his DMA in Jazz Composition ('17) this fall at the University of Miami.

It is exciting and fulfilling to see my former students accomplishing, succeeding and making a dent in the jazz world.








Friday, May 2, 2014

Orchestral Debut

The premier performance of my first orchestral piece, "Dolphy Dance", took place last night at von der Mehden Recital Hall, with the University of Connecticut Symphony Orchestra.  I conducted, which in itself was a thrill.

Here is a video from the concert, followed by my program notes:

Dolphy Dance (2014)
Composed by Earl MacDonald (b. 1970)



Last summer, I ran a Kickstarter campaign to fund the manufacturing of my latest compact disc. Commissioning “a tune” was offered as an incentive. My friend Paul Gruhn ordered a song as a surprise birthday present for his wife Donna, but with the caveat that in couldn’t be “too jazzy”. Apparently she hates jazz. For a jazz composer, this presented quite a problem, but we eventually decided upon something in the salsa style.

After two weeks of listening to Eddie Palmieri, Tito Puente and Mario Bauza recordings, I sat down and wrote a relatively simple piece, trying to adhere closely to the style. Paul requested the title “Donnamite”, which was his wife’s nickname as a stock car racer several years ago. The surprise debut took place on the outdoor patio of Willimantic’s Cafémantic, and Donna was ecstatically pleased.

In hindsight, perhaps I should have let the story end there --- “happily ever after”. Instead, I decided to tinker with the piece. After immersing myself in salsa recordings, I started questioning the importance of melody to the genre. Would it still be “danceable” if the clavé rhythmic pattern was retained, but the predictable melodies were replaced with more complex linear material? Similarly, what if the harmonies were altered; could it still pass as authentic Afro-Cuban music?

As I experimented with taking the melody and harmony further left of center, I began imagining what jazz saxophonist Eric Dolphy might have sounded like had he been featured with a salsa band around 1960. Out of this vision, “Dolphy Dance” was born.

I later added a musical prologue, in the spirit of an orchestral ritornello. It uses the same linear and harmonic material, presented in triple meter, while drawing upon the orchestra’s vast color palette.

Graduating senior, Colin Walters will play the role of Eric Dolphy in tonight’s performance. During his time at UCONN, Colin has worked diligently and his musical development has been significant. Featuring him as a soloist with the orchestra is my graduation present to this fine young man.

Lastly, I wish to thank Maestro Harvey Felder. It was Professor Felder who instigated this collaboration, and persisted when I said “no” initially. He gave me complete freedom to write whatever I wanted, to be myself, and to write jazz, so as to expose the orchestral students to the genre’s authentic, stylistic nuances. This and his inviting me to conduct, reveal his selfless pedagogical fervor. What he accomplished in the orchestra’s initial rehearsals of the piece, prior to handing me the reigns, established a solid foundation upon which I could build.

This was my first experience writing for and conducting a full symphony orchestra. I have a sneaking suspicion it won’t be my last. Thank you Professor Felder for this opportunity, as well as your encouragement and guidance throughout the process.
________________________________________

UCONN Today also published an article in advance of the concert.  Here is a link: Jazzman MacDonald Debuts First Orchestral Composition



Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Where Are We? How Did We Get Here? And Where Are We Headed?

Why do most jazz history textbooks (not to mention the infamous Ken Burns jazz documentary) end around 1970 and/or give only fleeting mentions of truly contemporary jazz?  Is thirty or forty years still too recent to comment reflectively? Has nothing of artistic significance happened during this period? Are we waiting for something momentous to happen? Has institutionalized jazz education failed to produce innovators, with new, creative ideas to serve the advancement of jazz’s artistic progression?

I recently reread Eric Nisenson’s highly controversial book, "Blue: The Murder of Jazz", in which the author wrestles with the "current" state of the jazz art form.  It was published fourteen years ago, in January of 2000.  His arguments are worth examination and consideration --- by performers and teachers, but especially by current university music students, who might not be fully aware that the continuum of jazz’s evolution was unnaturally disrupted during the 1980s and 90s.

Nisensen raises some excellent questions which in turn, prompt many addition questions.

Must jazz continue to progress to remain viable?


That jazz was highly progressive from the 1920s to the late 1960s is obvious.  It's evolution is easy to demonstrate through audio recordings, using almost any singular instrument. On trumpet, for instance, one can easily see the following lineage:

(Buddy Bolden) ››› King Oliver ››› Louis Armstrong ››› Roy Eldridge ››› Dizzy Gillespie ››› Miles Davis ››› Lee Morgan ››› Clifford Brown ››› Freddie Hubbard ››› Woody Shaw.

But then we get to the 1980s and 90s and what happens?

We observed the emergence of "The Young Lion Movement" --- a neo-conservative, reaction against the avant-garde and jazz-rock fusion, spearheaded by record labels.  Their primary goal was to market more accessible jazz music in the style of the 1950s and 60s, played predominantly by talented, young, well-dressed African-American men.

Moving from progression and rebellion to recreation represented a radical shift in the jazz world.

What lead to this?
  1. Dexter Gordon’s homecoming in 1976:  After 15 years of residing and performing in Europe, the expatriate jazzman returned to the US to performed a triumphant stint at the Village Vanguard.  These performances led to subsequent recordings and extensive promotion from Columbia records.  Just imagine the impact of Dexter's swinging, acoustic, hard bop sound, transplanted (seemingly from nowhere) into an era accustomed to hearing cross-over, disco-infused, commercial styles!
  2. Wynton Marsalis’ emergence as a charismatic, eloquent, marketable trumpet player, adept in both classical and jazz. He played with Art Blakey at the time, perpetuating the hard bop style of the 1960s.
Wynton was very outspoken in articulating a very narrow definition of jazz, formulated by his ideological role models, Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray.  They were adamant in their narrow definition of jazz, and the adherence to a rigid set of rules.  For music to qualify as jazz, they asserted that...
  • swing is essential
  • the music must be acoustic (minimally amplified and no electronic instruments)
  • the blues is an intrinsic element of jazz
  • jazz reflects and stems from the culture and life of African Americans
These definitions have not only permeated our subconscious thinking, they have even crept into our current jazz history text books (Mark Gridley’s Jazz Styles, for example), despite the fact that each point could easily be argued (and disproved) using recorded examples.

Nisensen also points out another significant shift: until this time, jazz music always had a direct correlation to the times in which it was created. Blues drenched hard-bop of the late 50s and 1960s, for instance, reflected an era where African-Americans fought for racial equality.  During this time the "Black Power" slogan was adopted, Black pride was prevalent, many musicians adopted African names, the Black Panther movement emerged, etc.

Should jazz be a reflective expression of its times? What if it isn’t? Is it then less artistically valid? If contextually disconnected, are its practitioners thereby musical liars?


In the 80s and 90s, much of the music produced by young lions lacked context.  A clear example is seen in Joey DeFrancesco, an Italian-American teenager from Philadelphia who was playing in the 1950s/60s hard bop style of Jimmy Smith. The music was swinging, bluesy and brilliantly executed, but was void of its original context and intent.  Similarly, Brad Mehdau, an upper class optometrist’s kid from West Hartford, CT was playing in the style of Wynton Kelly. Obviously Brad has developed significantly as an artist since then, and has come into his own.  But at the time, he was just another upcoming, half-done young lion, playing musical vocabulary from a previous era.

Even today, one can see that neo-conservatives uniformly revere and idolize their iconic musical forefathers. They work diligently to play, compose and even dress like Ellington, Monk, Coltrane, Davis, etc. Yet they reject the resolute intents of their forefathers to:

  • play with their own unique sound/material, 
  • express themselves and the times in which they lived, and
  • be committed to their own artistic vision.

Ongoing innovation was an essential part of the history of jazz. Is it necessary for the continued vitality of the art form?

Some people, including writer Tom Piazza, view Marsalis as the savior of jazz.  Wynton brought about a resurgence in the popularity of the music, created a respectable performance venue for the genre at Jazz at Lincoln Center, improved the recorded quality of the string bass, and is an eloquent spokesperson for the music.

Nisensen on the other hand, argues that the dogma of the neoconservatives has:
     a) stifled the creativity of young musicians 
     b) obscured the music of forward-thinking, risk-taking musicians.

We shouldn't forget that during the 80s and 90s there was a considerable amount of progressive music happening, beneath the radar of Downbeat magazine and the record labels who paid for advertising in such publications. We call these musicians “the lost generation”: Don Pullen, Richie Bierach, Dick Oatts, Fred Hersch, Hal Crook, Jim McNeely, Kenny Wheeler, Ed Neumeister, Billy Drewes, George Garzone, Billy Hart, Jerry Bergonzi, etc. Although artists of the highest caliber, who had paid their dues, none appeared on the front cover of magazines or had major label contracts.

The good news is that many of these forward-thinking artists turned to teaching, and have influenced subsequent generations. History has a way of correcting itself.

Why is it important to contextualize the young lion movement?

Today's university students didn't experience the young lion movement firsthand.  They didn't grow up reading and trying to make sense of Wynton Marsalis interviews.  They must be made aware that the continuum of jazz’s evolution was unnaturally disrupted.

We must be mindful of philosophies that have entered our subconscious, through reading and listening to interviews by Marsalis and his disciples.

Building on tradition, rather than dwelling on it may be a healthier approach, if it is concluded that innovation/evolution is an important defining factor for this art form.

Questions with which all jazz musicians, teachers and students should grapple include:

  • How strong a sense of tradition must we have?
  • What aspects of the neo-classicist definition do you accept? What aspects do you reject?
  • What is jazz and which of today’s musicians best exemplify it?
  • What might your next album sound like? Do we need another quintet album in the style of 1957 hard bop? 

Let me know your thoughts... and pick up a copy of Nisenson's book at your nearest library.





Friday, April 25, 2014

The Selfie: Earl MacDonald answers his own questionnaire about jazz composition

At the risk of appearing completely narcissistic, I will answer my own questionaire, which was posed to the members of the BMI Jazz Composers' Workshop.  I had not originally intended to complete my own survey, but am doing so at the prompting of some of my fellow composers in the workshop. Before proceeding, I would like to say thank you to Tom Erickson, Alan Chan, Quinsin Nachoff, Anna Webber, Miho Hazama, Erica Sequine and Scott Ninmer for taking the time to thoughtfully respond.  I appreciate your assistance in creating a resource for likeminded or upcoming composers who will no doubt benefit from your experiences.


Earl MacDonald --- looking bright-eyed and bushy tailed
Do you write music daily?  What is your routine?  Do you write in the morning, afternoon or at night?  When are your most productive hours of composing?  Can you write in small units of time or do you need to set aside larger blocks of multiple hours?  How many hours per week do you devote to composing and arranging music?

As a composer, I am almost 100% deadline driven.  In life, I "wear many hats" (husband, dad, teacher, administrator, composer, pianist...), but what's unique to composing is my preference and need for big blocks of uninterrupted time.  I have to plan ahead and map out when it I will be feasible to write.  Once started, I use every moment available to me to complete the piece.  When a piece is done, I often need a week to physically recover, and to catch up on things I have neglected to create time for composition.  Scott Ninmer's response to this question seems much healthier, and is something I might try adopting.  I'm not sure if it will work for me.

Describe your compositional process.  From where do your initial ideas come?
What happens next?  What’s “step two?” (and three...)

Here's some candor for you: I most often I start with ideas I have stolen from other people's music.  When listening to a recording, some small "nugget" might catch my attention; it could be a sonority, a rhythmic idea... whatever.  I will then take that nugget, play with it, and see where it takes me.  As I manipulate it, it becomes my own.

As I develop little ideas into a larger work, I think more about non-musical, big picture concepts --- developing a story, depicting emotions, shapes, contrasts, pacing etc.

Do you compose at the piano or away from it?

In the rooms where I typically write music (my home studio and university office) there are keyboards within an arm's reach of my desk.  I use them often.  That said, I work through musical problems throughout the day, regardless of where I am.  I scribble thoughts in little notebooks and use the voice memos recording function on my iPhone to capture melodies or rhythms.  I plan pieces away from the piano - sometimes in a library carrel.

Do you use MIDI playback on Finale/Sibelius?  How else do you utilize technology in the act of composing?

I do find MIDI playback to be helpful.  Otherwise, I am relatively "low tech".  My electronic keyboard has a record feature, which is helpful when trying to find linear material to layer over top of another part.

What do you wish Finale/Sibelius would improve about their music notation programs?

From what I have seen, very few people create scores and parts that look as good as mine. I use Finale.  It has improved over the years, but I still must spend ridiculous amounts of time moving things around to get my desired look and feel.  This is a real drag. I wish I could click some options at the onset, and then voila!.... when the score is done, the parts are DONE.

Is transcription/analysis and score study something you do regularly?   If so, can you site examples?  Do you find nuggets of ideas this way?

I definitely don't transcribe entire big band pieces, but I certainly figure out, write down and collect ideas that catch my attention. In my youth, I transcribed solos relentlessly.

As the director of a university jazz ensemble, I study scores in preparation for rehearsals, and in doing so, absorb the gist of what's going on formally, harmonically, orchestrally, etc. 

There are some instances where I have gone out of my way to obtain scores to analyze.  These include Kenny's Wheeler's "Music for Large Ensembles", Jim McNeely's Paul Klee project, Maria's "Evanescence", some Gil Evans and a few Fred Sturm's educational charts.

How important is musical innovation to you?

I believe it was Jim McNeely who said "we should be well-schooled in the past, and write in the present, while keeping an eye on the future".  

The jazz I love (throughout it's history) is more or less synonymous with innovation and rebellion.  As a perpetual student of this music, I have acquired the skills to write in the style of my predecessors, but usually choose not to, despite loving their music and finding inspiration in it.  Whether my music is innovative, probably isn't for me to decide or worry about, but aesthetically, I would embrace innovation over replication any day.

What concepts have you explored in your recent work?

"Dolphy Dance" was just completed in both big band and orchestra formats.  It started as an attempt to be ultra-hip within the salsa tradition.  In the spirit of development, I wrote a variation which functions like a ritornello, at the beginning.  The verdict is still out whether it is effective or overwritten.


The piece I am currently writing explores the balance between capturing a "free jazz" aesthetic while still retaining compositional control.  I'm experimenting with constant, parallel structures, chords of ambivalence etc.

On average, how long does it take you to write a piece?

This usually depends on how pressing the deadline is.  On average, I like to give myself a month to write a fully developed big band piece.  My last project dragged on much longer, because I gave myself the luxury of returning to revise.

Typically, how many big band charts do you write per year?  How does this compare with music you write for other instrumentations?

I average about two or three big band charts per year.  I was relieved when I asked this question to Neil Slater, the former UNT One O'Clock Lab Band director, and he gave the same response.

I often adapt my big band charts to fit my 10-piece band as well.  My composing is all project-driven, so the instrumentation for which I write depends upon the specific circumstances.  I just finished an orchestra piece, have another big band chart on-the-go, and plan to write a few sextet charts to premier at a summer festival.  There's always a reason to write.

Do you still practice and perform on an instrument professionally?  How do you balance writing and playing?

jazz pianist
Earl MacDonald at the piano.
I do still perform on the piano.  My gigging and practicing has decreased in recent years.  Three nights per week of gigging was typical for quite a while.  For about a decade I practiced at least eight hours a day.  Now, I may perform twice per month.  I prepare for those performances by learning and reviewing repertoire, and occasionally doing some technical maintenance.  I certainly prepare before recording sessions, practicing not only the tunes but doing plenty of technique for at least a month prior.

Every once in a while I "get the bug" to get back in the studio and "hit the piano" hard.  During the summer months I often set up a practice project for myself, which might be repertoire, transcription or concept based.  There are some Billy Strayhorn tunes that I plan to add to my repertoire this summer.

At some point I would like to record solo piano and trio CDs.  But the unresolved questions are:  What repertoire will I tackle, and how will I approach the music so that it comes across as being unique, and not just another "stock" solo or trio disc of standards?  I don't want to come across as a clumsy, subpar replica of Cedar Walton.

When you think about it, writing big band music makes no sense.  It takes hours to write and prepare the music.  It’s exorbitantly expensive to assemble a band for performances, let alone recording.  The audience for it is miniscule.  Very few performance venues have the space or money for a big band.  Big band CDs sell poorly.   So….   Why are you interested in writing big band music?  Why do you do it?

I have chosen not to lead a professional, performing big band for the reasons above.  For my "Re:Visions" CD, I hired top-flight musicians to record my music, but we never performed as a unit.

In some ways, I regard the university jazz ensemble I direct as "my big band".  With my students, I can try, hear and prepare my new musical creations, whenever I want.

I write for big band because it is the default large ensemble within jazz education.  I work as a professor and clinician (among other roles) in this field, and can market not only my music, but my services as a guest conductor and soloist. 

Do you have a job outside of being a composer?  How do you support your composing and band leading “habit”?

Following my time on the road with Maynard Ferguson, I was hired as a full-time music professor.  It's hard to believe that was almost 15 years ago.

Grant writing funds most of my artist pursuits, and helps prevent me from dipping into personal/family finances to support my projects.  I try to keep the two separate whenever possible.

Define success from your vantage point.

If I was a touring member of Joe Lovano's quartet, the composer-in-residence for the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, had a mantle full of Grammy awards, routinely won critics polls, and was annually featured on the front cover of Downbeat magazine.... YET, had a failed marriage and didn't play an active role in raising my kids, would I still be a success?  (This is sounding strangely similar to the beginning of 1 Corinthians 13.)

Similarly, if I headed the top university jazz program in the country, but was universally regarded as an asshole, would I have accomplished anything of worth?

The above listed accomplishments may (or may not) transpire, but how I spend my life outside of music --- as a husband, dad, neighbor, friend, colleague, etc. --- is to me, even more important than what I do professionally.

Rather than finding success in the stuff I've done and accumulated, I want to focus more on relationships.  Ever since the Newtown massacre, and specifically Ana Marquez-Greene's funeral, I have adopted and embraced the phrase "love God; love God's people" as my personal motto.  I've got a long ways to go, but my eyes were opened on that day.

What are your career goals?

At times in my life, I have had unhealthy obsessions with my career goals.  With varying degrees of success, I'm trying to achieve a better work/life balance these days.  But when I am working, I try to do so in a focused manner. with specific pursuits in mind.

My goals have definitely shifted over the years, and continue to change.  I'm fairly good about setting goals, and accomplishing them ahead of schedule.  When I was twelve, I dreamed of one day playing the organ at Winnipeg Jets hockey games.  I did this full-time by age fifteen.  At twenty, I decided I'd like to be a music professor or a touring jazz musician.  I've done both.

Conducting and writing for the leading European jazz orchestras is something I'd like to pursue.  I imagine it would be fun to work with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band (hr-BigBand) and WDR big band, as well as the Brussels, Stockholm and Swiss jazz orchestras, to name a few.

I'm considering writing a series of educational big band charts for high school bands.  If I commit to this, it might be in conjunction with a goal of conducting all 50 All-State high school jazz bands within the next decade.  We'll see.

When I read the bios of other musicians, I take note of the the grants, fellowships and awards they have won.  I compile lists, and then dig around on the internet to see if I'm eligible to apply.  If so, I add the deadlines to my calendar and strategize accordingly. 

Why did you enroll in the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop?

I felt like I needed a tune-up.  I saw some repeated occurrences in the music I was writing, and wanted to get out of some ruts, by benefitting from the critical eyes and ears of Jim McNeely and Mike Holober.  I liked the idea of putting myself in a group with young composers (straight out of grad school and eager to make their mark on NYC) to see if I could "make the hang" and keep up.

Do you have a degree in composition?  What training have you had in composition?  What have you done to supplement your training?

My degrees are in jazz performance.  I took one jazz composition class at McGill with Jan Jarczyk.  I studied arranging with Christopher Smith at McGill and Michael Mossman at Rutgers.  In 2001 I attended Dave Douglas' composition workshop in Banff.  I participated in the BMI Workshop in 2003, 2007 and again this year.  Books by Gil Goldstein, Ted Pease and Charles Wuorinen have been helpful.  I took some private lessons along the way with Jim McNeely, Mike Abene, Maria Schneider, Mike Mossman and David McBride.  I subscribed to Bob Brookmeyer's online ArtistShare composition project, which was insightful.

What do you enjoy doing outside of music?  What non-musical things/topics capture your interest/imagination?

  • Much of my time outside of work and music is devoted to my family.  This weekend's agenda includes teaching my daughter to ride her bike without training wheels, and going to soccer practice.  I skateboard and BMX with my son, read books to/with them, take them to lessons, etc. Every day we all hike in the woods behind our house.
  • I run.  I did two half-marathons last year, and plan to do a full marathon this year.
  • I blog.
  • My wife and I started a christian service organization called "Acts of Mansfield", where we engage in regular acts of community service.   We're also meeting regularly with a group of christian friends, dreaming, and prayerfully considering planting a new church in our town.

Music has the power to….

  • [from the listener's perspective:] counteract tedium, inspire, cause riots, evoke reflection, soothe the disturbed, conjure memories, soften hardened hearts...
  • [from the composer's perspective, we can:] express joy/elation, sorrow, anger, frustration, pay tribute to someone/something, bring attention to a cause or situation, shape/reinforce/manipulate emotions etc.
Art Blakey's quote, "Jazz washes away the dust of every day life", is a favorite of mine.

I compose music because....

  • I can.  Only a very select, few people have the ability to write music (even among musicians).  I want to develop this gift to the best of my abilities.  
  • I find it challenging and mentally stimulating.
  • there are few greater feelings than hearing your own envisioned work, successfully brought to life.
  • it might accomplish one of the attributes listed in the previous question.




Thursday, April 10, 2014

Interview With Composer, Alan Chan

I first met Alan Chan in June 2011, when we were both international finalists at the ArtEZ Jazz Composition Competition in the Netherlands.  He won.  I lost.  And that is all I have to say about that.

It has been fun to reconnect with him this year in the BMI Jazz Composers' Workshop in New York City.  I appreciate that Alan and the other workshop participants were willing to complete my survey of questions about their compositional practices.  Their responses have been insightful and I hope this blogging series will serve as a resource and source of inspiration for many students of (jazz) composition.
________________________________________________________________________

Alan Chan’s music often takes inspiration from his life experiences as a resident in America, East Asia and Europe. His "genre-shaking" works can be heard in an array of venues serving Classical (Taiwan National Concert Hall), experimental (the Stone, NYC) and jazz (Vitello’s in Los Angeles). His works have been performed by Brussels Jazz Orchestra, Taipei Percussion, Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra and La Jolla Symphony, among others. Alan Chan Jazz Orchestra’s EP “Rancho Calaveras” is currently available from Amazon, CD Baby and iTunes.


Do you write music daily? What is your routine? Do you write in the morning, afternoon or at night? When are your most productive hours of composing? Can you write in small units of time or do you need to set aside larger blocks of multiple hours? How many hours per week do you devote to composing and arranging music?

I am a seasonal writer – due to my occupation as a freelancing musician, I find myself composing mostly when I am working on composing projects for my band, the BMI Workshop or when I receive a commission. When a project comes, I would normally write in the course of from 10 days to three weeks, with a more robust daily routine. Afternoons, night times and late night hours works best for me. I usually don’t stay up until dawn as I usually feel guilty for not going to bed!

Describe your compositional process. From where do your initial ideas come?  What happens next? What’s “step two?” (and three...)

There are always ideas that pop up in my head constantly. What matters the most is if the idea stays in my head and how to choose an idea or ideas to write about. A lot of times I like to draw connections.

Do you compose at the piano or away from it?

Both.

Do you use MIDI playback on Finale/Sibelius? How else do you utilize technology in the act of composing?

Not so much. I use Finale solely for notation.

What do you wish Finale/Sibelius would improve about their music notation programs?

I am pretty happy with that, as long as it doesn’t crash!

Is transcription/analysis and score study something you do regularly? If so, can you site examples? Do you find nuggets of ideas this way?

I find doing transcriptions myself is the best way to understand the music, rather than reading from a borrowed score.


What concepts have you explored in your recent work?

I have explored different stylistic and emotion expressions of the big band. And recently, I am looking into writing new pieces for big band and solo instruments.

On average, how long does it take you to write a piece?

It varies ---- especially when considering the amount of time to conceive a piece. The writing usually takes shorter, however. I’d say from 10 days to 3 weeks.

Typically, how many big band charts do you write per year?  How does this compare with music you write for other instrumentations?

It varies, because I also spend a lot of time revising my music.

Do you still practice and perform on an instrument professionally? How do you balance writing and playing?

I play the piano professionally, although usually for gigs of a more classical nature.

When you think about it, writing big band music makes no sense. It takes hours to write and prepare the music. It’s exorbitantly expensive to assemble a band for performances, let alone recording. The audience for it is miniscule. Very few performance venues have the space or money for a big band. Big band CDs sell poorly. So…. Why are you interested in writing big band music? Why do you do it?

The musical potential of big band music is great – it is the kind of music where you can explore color, harmony, texture and orchestration that is only comparable to orchestral and wind ensemble music.

Do you have a job outside of being a composer? How do you support your composing and band leading “habit”?

I work as an administrator for several music organizations, copy music for other composers, and do piano gigs and other music-related odd jobs that are not appropriate to discuss here :-p

Define success from your vantage point.

...to have a happy and healthy life.

Why did you enroll in the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop?

It's a place to create and experiment, to meet and exchange with other like-minded people.

Do you have a degree in composition? What training have you had in composition? What have you done to supplement your training?

Classical composition degrees from UMiami, UMKC and USC (Southern California)

What do you enjoy doing outside of music? What non-musical things/topics capture your interest/imagination?

In alphabetical order: Cooking, drinking, food, film, friends, hiking, swimming, traveling, wondering and ZZZ… (sleeping)

Music has the power to….

capture memories.

I compose music with the goal of....

creating a better world…

http://www.alanchanmusic.com


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