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.
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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


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Interview With Quinsin Nachoff, Jazz Composer and Saxophonist

Quinsin Nachoff is a Brooklyn-based saxophonist, clarinetist and composer. He has toured internationally as both a sideman and leader in Europe, Asia, Canada and Australia.  In 2011 he premiered a commission for Peter Knight’s 5+2 brass ensemble at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival, Australia and was artist-in-residence at the Queensland Conservatorium, Brisbane, Australia. As a leader he has recordings featuring John Taylor, Ernst Reijseger, Mark Helias and Jim Black. As a sideman he has worked with, among others, Kenny Werner, Howard Johnson, Dave Binney, Kenny Wheeler and Don Thompson.

He has had recent commissions from: violinist Nathalie Bonin for a Violin Concerto that was demoed in January of 2014; the Greg Runions big band and the Toronto Jazz Orchestra for big band works; and clarinetist Peter Stoll for a piece for clarinet and string quartet. He is the winner of a 2007 Chalmers Fellowship, the 2004 KM Hunter Award and was a semi-finalist in the 2002 Thelonious Monk Jazz Saxophone Competition. He won a Canadian JUNO award as a member of Hilario Duran’s big band in 2008.

Originally from Toronto, Canada, he holds both a Bachelor of Music degree and a Master of Music degree from the University of Toronto where he studied with Mike Murley, Alex Dean, Kirk MacDonald, Sasha Rapoport and Frank Falco. He has also studied privately with Jim McNeely, Mike Holober, Donny McCaslin, Rich Perry and Joe Lovano. He has taught at the University of Toronto, Humber College and coached at the Banff Centre the Arts.


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?

It depends on what projects are on the go at any given time. I’m trying to balance being a performer (on saxophone and clarinet) and a composer, so a different focus is needed at different times throughout any given month. If I have a commission, deadline or set goal then I’ll be composing every day, anywhere from two to six or more hours, and doing maintenance practice, one to two hours, later in the day. If I have a concert, tour or recording then I’ll be focused on my practice routine and spend time later in the day looking at scores or listening to music.

In general I prefer to do creative work early in the day for a solid block of time and for several days in a row to allow things to evolve. I find it really hard to do the initial creative work in small blocks of time, but sometimes that’s what my schedule will dictate. A couple of times I’ve had to finish compositions while on tour and that’s been particularly challenging.

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

I always try to come up with a unifying idea for a piece first. This can be anything from a very specific musical element, form idea, mathematical idea, orchestration/colour idea, feeling or gesture, a musical query (what would it sound like if Carl Stalling wrote music in an improvised jazz setting?), etc.

Once I have this initial binding force I’ll start sketching the overall shape and form of the piece and then start filling in some milestones, orchestration and density ideas. If there’s going to be a soloist I’ll think about which instrument and, if the situation allows, who might be playing it – imagining their language and sound in this landscape I’m creating.

I find once I have this general shape the details and the journey start to fill themselves in, usually with many hours of hard work and editing.

Do you compose at the piano or away from it?

I usually do some composing at the piano, some composing sitting somewhere quietly and some composing right into the computer (usually to help check contrapuntal ideas or thick harmonic ideas that I can’t play quickly on piano.)

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

I use MIDI playback to check voicings and form, but I try to imagine the actual instruments playing the parts for a better sense of colour and balance.

Sometimes I’ll use the computer to generate materials that I might work with in a piece - generating random elements or series that would take a long time to calculate by hand.

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

I’ve used Finale since the ‘90s and am really happy with the improvements. It finally feels like Finale 2014 is reasonably usable. I wish the default spacing of items were cleaner, especially when extracting to parts. It still takes a lot of individual movement and placement to get things to not look like it’s been spaced by a computer.

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 did do a lot of transcribing of jazz solos at a certain point, but not that much any more. I started by lifting Louis Armstrong solos from his Hot Five and Hot Seven and worked my way up, in a loose chronological fashion, to more modern players to understand the jazz lineage. I also focused not just on saxophone players (there were many), but pianists (Tommy Flanagan, Monk, Bud Powell, etc.), trumpet players (Clifford Brown, Kenny Wheeler, etc.) and singers (Frank Sinatra, Billy Holliday, Sarah Vaughn, etc.) By playing along with each of these I learned a lot about phrasing, articulation, sound, time feel and language.

I have spent time studying the scores of: string quartets in particular (Bartok, Mozart, Beethoven, Shostakovich, Ravel, Debussy); some orchestral and chamber works (Korsakov, Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy, Xenakis, Ives, Messiaen, etc.); and recently Violin Concertos (Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bartok, Weill, Ligeti, Berg, etc.) I’ve been checking out some Brian Ferneyhough and Thomas Ades scores lately. I’ve also been going through Bob Brookmeyer, Maria Schneider and Gil Evans scores to try to learn more about the specifics of big band composing.

I find looking at scores is just another way to learn and improve the craft in addition to listening and daily practice. Having analyzed scores and transcribed solos certainly informs the language and approaches that I can draw on to improvise and compose.

How important is musical innovation to you?

The music I find most interesting, irrespective of genre, is unique, personal and creative. Sometimes it happens to be innovative.

What concepts have you explored in your recent work?

One of my big goals this year is to simplify my big band music to something that can be read in a 20-minute reading session. I tend to gravitate towards complex structures and ideas and I’ve been trying to pare things down to something more readable but that is still a language that is interesting and honest for me.

Some of my big band pieces this year explored: three superimposed rhythms; a simple triadic sus4-3 resolution stacked and manipulated, often through common-tone modulation; and a tone row derived from a blues scale and its missing chromatic notes with stylistic hints of Mingus, Monk and Muddy Waters. I demoed a Violin Concerto commission in January and some of the concepts in that work included: a loose tango using the Fibonacci-series to rhythmically expand the clave; long tone rows used less sequentially and more cyclically; and layering of different influences such as a ballad movement overlapping Berg, Strayhorn, Messiaen, Gil Evans and Stravinsky influences.

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

It really depends on the instrumentation and the flow, but I generally find that on a really good day I usually write about 30 seconds of music. I’m a slow, but obstinate, writer. I sometimes compose whole sections that end up on the cutting room floor, or spend hours obsessing over a voicing, progression, process or orchestration. Sometimes these will get repurposed, but sometimes its just part of the process to get to an end result.

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

Before joining the BMI workshop I had not written a lot of big band music, but had been commissioned by two big bands to write pieces. This inspired me to want to learn how to write more effectively. This year I’ve been challenging myself to write a new piece for each BMI reading, so five over the year.

Over the past few years I’ve been completing a Violin Concerto commission that we just demoed in January (three movements approximately 35 mins of music. I used some of the same players who do the BMI readings.) I have a small group record in the can for alto and tenor sax, keyboard instruments and drumset (with Dave Binney, Matt Mitchell and Kenny Wollesen.) I wrote music for a commission for brass quintet, drums and saxophone that I premiered in Australia and a shorter classical commission for clarinet and string quartet premiered in Canada.

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

Yes, I practice and perform on saxophone and clarinet in equal measure to my composing. Keeping them in balance is a constant struggle, but I wouldn’t be happy giving either up. On the good days the two feed into each other: it feels like I’m playing with the ear of a composer and writing with the insight of a performer. It will feel like the languages and processes intersect. On the not so good days I’ll feel out of synch with the instruments and not in a clear headspace to compose.

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 big band is a standard instrumentation with a rich history of unique artists composing for it. I have played and continue to play in many big bands. I’d like to develop a voice writing for it.

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

I teach part-time, perform and record to try to make it work.

Define success from your vantage point.

Being able to compose and perform music with the most creative and skilled musicians and composers I can.

What are your career goals?

As a composer some projects on the docket involve new music for my group with string quartet, sax, bass and drums; an orchestral work; foray into a vocal work; more concertos (for piano, for French horn); and more big band works.

As a performer I’d like to continue to have the opportunity to work with the exciting composers and performers that make up the NYC scene.

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

Shortly after moving back to NYC I subbed in to several of the BMI readings. I have also subbed into, or now work regularly with, the big bands of many of the composers who have come through the workshop. I really like the atmosphere and the focus on original music. I studied some years ago with Jim and see the workshop as a great opportunity to work with him and Mike. I also see it as a chance to meet, work with and learn from other dedicated composers.

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

I have an undergraduate degree from the University of Toronto in Jazz Performance. I also did my Master’s degree at the University of Toronto while on faculty – where I was able to study Baroque counterpoint as part of the degree along with classical clarinet. My parents were musicians and did electronic music in the ’70s (they had one of the first MOOG synthesizers) so I was exposed to a lot of contemporary classical music as a kid. (You mean everyone else didn’t grow up listening to Stockhausen, Schoenberg, Xenakis, Cage and Bartok?)

I’ve supplemented my training with lessons, studying of books, recordings, scores and the opportunity to perform with some great composer/musicians.

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

I like reading fiction. I’ve recently read Michael Ondaatje (Cat’s Table), Haruki Murakami (IQ84) and Gao Xingjian (Soul Mountain). I’m also a big Salman Rushdie fan, although nothing recently. In non-fiction I like reading or studying philosophy and mathematics. The last couple of years I tried out some of the free online courses being offered: finished a Pre-Calculus course and was working on a Calculus course.

I like cooking. I used to have a roommate who was a professional chef and composer who liked describing certain chords as crunchy broccoli.

Music has the power to….

resonate.

I compose music with the goal of....

…continually learning and expressing.


www.quinsin.com


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Interview With Tom Erickson, Jazz Composer

Tom Erickson, jazz composer
Saxophonist/composer/arranger Tom Erickson attended the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music (BM Saxophone Performance, 2004). While at DU, Tom was winner of the Lamont Composition Contest (2002,’03 and ’04), the Lamont Chamber Competition (2002), and was also a member of Lamont’s Downbeat Award winning collegiate ensembles, the Lamont Jazz Orchestra and Lamont Symphony Orchestra. After DU, Tom received his Masters in Jazz Arranging from William Paterson University (2010), where he was awarded the Music Scholar Graduate Award for outstanding musical and academic achievement. Tom studied with Art Bouton, Eric Gunnison, Dave Hanson, Rich DeRosa and Jim McNeely.

Tom’s compositions and arrangements have been performed by the HGM Jazzorkestar Zagreb, HGM Jazzorkestar Zagreb Faculty All-Star Band (Johannesburg, South Africa), Chuck Owen and the Jazz Surge, Flying Dragon Orchestra, 9th & Lincoln Orchestra, Yellowstone Big Band, William Paterson University Jazz Orchestra featuring Randy Brecker, North Texas Lab Bands, Lamont Jazz Orchestra,Northwest College Big Band, and Lamont School of Music Faculty Saxophone Quartet.

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 write whenever I have time, which varies greatly from day to day. I definitely generate the most music when I am relaxed and don’t have anything to do in the near future. If I only have 2 hours to work, I often sit down and stare into space for 90 minutes before I the process starts to happen. However, if I don’t have anything to do the next day and I can stay up late writing, sometimes I look at the clock and I have been going for 6 or 7 hours straight without realizing it. I’m also really great at procrastinating, which seems to be ok since I get motivated by a rapidly approaching deadline and can usually get the writing done just in time.

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

Most often I establish the form or concept for a piece first. I literally draw a sketch outlining the shape and drama of the music and then after I figure out the big picture I connect the dots.

I used to think more about the smaller pieces of the puzzle. I would find cool voicings, bass lines and grooves and create music out of little fragments. Now I think mostly about controlling the emotion of the piece. I think about the surface sound (is the music loud or soft, tense or resolute, hectic or calm, dense or thin etc). I locate the major points of tension and release within the music and try to, to the best of my ability, portray that drama in an honest way.

I really enjoy this process because I constantly challenge myself to create something I haven’t done before. And I usually always create “negative” rules for the same reason. This means that if the last couple of charts I wrote have any features in common, i.e. ostinato bass lines or parallel voicings etc, I will purposely not use those aspects in my new piece.

Do you compose at the piano or away from it? Do you use MIDI playback on Finale/Sibelius? How else do you utilize technology in the act of composing?

I always compose at the piano and most definitely use Sibelius playback as a resource. As a saxophonist, the MIDI playback helps me hear my music in real time rather than struggling to play it myself with my remedial piano skills. I know some old school guys frown upon this technology, but I don’t see it that way. You should write however it's most comfortable and most efficient.

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

I rarely study scores. Not that I don’t enjoy it, I just don’t do it often. I guess I would rather experience music without any distractions. I listen to everything I can get my hands on. Nothing is off limits and I listen very intently and deeply. Although I’m not always consciously trying to analyze or decipher what I am hearing while I’m listening, I listen with purpose and consider it a serious part of my study (in addition to listening purely for enjoyment of course). I’m generally listening for how the music makes me feel, the emotion, or the vibe, not necessarily what voicing was used leading into the bridge. The little details are obviously very important, but I am more interested in the overall flow.

How important is musical innovation to you?

As Charlie Parker said of innovation-there’s nothing new under the sun. Most likely, anything I come up with has already been done before so I don’t worry too much about being innovative just for the sake of being original. I do however constantly push myself to expand my boundaries. Even though something has been done before, when I discover it for the first time there is a certain energy and excitement to breaking new ground and I think that makes it’s way into the music. This is one reason that music can sound fresh and relevant, even if it’s not anything new for others.

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

I usually try to finish a piece within a couple weeks of starting it. This isn’t always possible but it seems to be an optimal way for me to work. I’m constantly jotting down ideas and concepts while I’m riding on the train or watching a movie etc. There is an entire folder of sketches/concepts for pieces in my computer that I haven’t found the time to finish writing. Whenever I need an idea for a new piece I have a look at all the sketches and usually one will grab my attention and I will get to work.



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

I mostly write for big band --- primarily for my own band to perform and commissions for other ensembles. I usually finish between 5-10 charts per year. This year one of my goals is to get involved in more projects outside of jazz such as film, TV, dance etc.

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

At this point I’m much more of a composer than a player. I love both, but feel that writing is my strong suit. If I have to choose between writing and practicing, writing usually wins.

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 write for my band because I absolutely love it. It’s my creative outlet. Especially in New York, working with such talented, highly creative musicians is really inspiring to me and I can’t imagine not doing it, however crazy and illogical it may be.

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

I work at Manning Custom Woodwinds to pay the bills and support my habit.

Define success from your vantage point.

Success is doing what you love and not being afraid to fail.

What are your career goals?

To write and perform in as many different situations as I possibly can. Hopefully all over the world and with many different musicians.

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

I had studied with Jim McNeely previously. He and several of my peers had mentioned the workshop and recommending that I apply.

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

B.M. in saxophone performance from the University of Denver.
M.M. in Jazz Arranging from William Paterson University.

To supplement that education, I go see live music all the time and ask lots of questions to those who are doing similar things as me. I am constantly surrounded by musicians and composers talking about music. Perhaps too much sometimes, but this is what I love to do.

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

I’m an avid soccer fan. Go Liverpool! I am also a (casual) foodie and have been learning more about mixology recently.

Music has the power to...
...physically change people. I am always amazed what a huge impact it can have.

I compose music with the goal of...
...creating sounds that are enjoyable for the musicians who perform them as well as the audience. I hope my music can put a smile on someones face and give them a positive experience, as it has so often for me. 



Interview With Anna Webber, Jazz Composer

Anna Webber is an integral part of a new wave of the Brooklyn avant-garde jazz scene. A saxophonist and flutist who avoids the expected, she has furthermore established herself as a forward-thinking composer with her album Percussive Mechanics, which has been featured in the New York Times and on NPR. Her recently recorded trio album with John Hollenbeck and Matt Mitchell will be released in August 2014 on Skirl Records. Webber has toured throughout the USA, Canada, and Europe. She was nominated for the BMI’s Charlie Parker Award/Manny Alban Commission in 2013 and is the winner of the 2010 Prix François-Marcaurelle at the Montreal OFF Jazz Festival. She holds Masters degrees from Manhattan School of Music and the Jazz Institute Berlin, and a Bachelor’s degree from McGill University. Her teachers have included John Hollenbeck, Mark Turner, Jason Moran, and George Garzone. Webber is originally from Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada.

Anna Webber, saxophonist


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 don’t write music daily. I find it pretty difficult to find balance between practicing and composing – when I am practicing I don’t want to compose and when I am composing I don’t want to practice. As I swing between those 2 things on a monthly or weekly basis, I can’t really say how many hours per week I devote to composition as it is really not consistent. These days, I seem to write only when I have a deadline, and luckily I’ve had a lot of those! I’ve also recently done a couple of composition residencies; those have been very productive. When I am composing, I generally do it all day, and then think about it obsessively all night... If I don’t have all day, I usually need at least 1 or 2 hours to get in the creative headspace.

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

I keep a notebook of ‘cells’ – these can be melodic, rhythmic or harmonic, or something a little more abstract like a form I would like to try, or an atmosphere or space I would like to create. Or they can be ideas of how to develop pitch material – for instance a theoretical idea. My cells can also be non-musical. When I’m starting to write, I look through my notebook to see if anything piques my interest. If nothing does, I will write a choral, improvise on one of my instruments, improvise on manuscript paper, or transcribe some music I’ve been listening to until I find something to start with.

Step 2 is coming up with as much material from whatever cell I have decided to use. I try to compose every piece of music from the development of this initial cell, without adding any unrelated material. I have a whole list of ‘go-to’ things that I do for development, but I also try to be creative and try things that I haven’t tried before. The hope is that as I’m developing the material, certain ideas will emerge that need to be in the piece. I try to keep the piece as fluid as possible for as long as I can. I let the music tell me what it needs to be. Even if I originally conceived of something as a bassline or melody, I don’t hold myself to that. I let it be whatever it wants to be.

Do you compose at the piano or away from it?

I am a terrible piano player. The piano does not help me create; if I relied on the piano I think I would write the same 2 or 3 ideas over and over again. If there is a piano around, I am very happy to use it to be able to stumble through some ideas, but generally I compose away from it – or try to see it as just one of the tools that is at my disposal. Other tools are my instruments, my voice, technology, etc. Using different tools all the time helps keep my process fresh.

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

Yeah, absolutely. I use Finale. And I use the worst sounds I can, so that I am always pleasantly surprised when a real band plays my music.

I try not to use Finale for as long as I can within my compositional process, and I am usually pretty good about stepping away from the computer when things are becoming too boxy and digital. As far as technology goes, I also occasionally use sequencers (for my purposes usually Garage Band is enough) or my iPhone recorder. Overall though, I’m not very hi-tech.

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

I think everything is essentially possible on Finale, but it is also very hard to figure out how to do everything, and sometimes a problem that should have a simple solution has an extremely complicated one. I am a total Finale dork and could talk about Finale for hours. I’ll spare you here.

Is transcription/analysis and score study something you do regularly? If so, can you cite examples? Do you find nuggets of ideas this way?
I’ve done a lot of solo transcription, but not so much score transcription. I used to do a lot of analysis, and still do it occasionally. I like looking at classical scores – recently Ligeti’s 2nd String Quartet gave me some nice ideas, and I transcribed Messiaen’s Louange a L’Eternité de Jésus. I just got a score for some of Cage’s percussion works – I’m looking forward to checking that out more in depth. I also definitely also steal from as many people as I can – composers as well as improvisors, painters, poets, novelists...everything I can get my hands on goes into my notebook.

How important is musical innovation to you?

I don’t know about innovation, but I get bored very easily when I hear music that sounds lazy or derivative. I try to constantly challenge myself and push myself to do things I haven’t yet done. This is not innovation in a broad sense, because I don’t know how much it is pushing music as a whole forward, but it is innovation on a personal level, and I think that is the best I can do.



What concepts have you explored in your recent work?

My most recent work was an album of music for my septet, Percussive Mechanics. In that I dealt with palindromes and inversions and long tone rows. For instance, I wrote 3 pieces on the album using the same 34-tone row. I also was looking into Milton Babbitt’s time-point system, and exploring some complex rhythmic patterns related to the manipulation of different ways of subdividing 15/16. I like linking up the rhythmic content and pitch content of each composition; I think it sounds more coherent, especially as I am not necessarily writing melodies.

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

An embarrassing amount of time. I am a constant editor/revisor/wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-with-a-better-idea-person. I generally keep editing after the piece is performed or recorded.

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

I see myself as a composer, but not as a big band composer specifically. I’d only written 2 pieces for big band before I started doing the BMI workshop. Since I started BMI, I’ve written about 3 pieces a year. Aside from that, in the past twelve months I’ve written an album for septet and an album for trio.

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

I am a very active saxophonist and flutist; my main thing is performing. Regarding balance, I’m not really sure how to do that. I hate being out of shape on my instruments, so even when I’m in composition mode, I make myself practice every day.

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

I teach, do copy work, and play gigs. I live cheaply and save all excess money for my ‘career’. Luckily there is no Anna Webber Large Ensemble yet, so I only have to worry about paying smaller bands!

What are your career goals?

To play and write music better than I did yesterday.

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

Because I wanted to be a better composer for big band, as writing big band music goes straight to my weaknesses as a composer. That being said, I seem to spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to make the brass section sound less like a brass section.

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

I sort of have a degree in composition. I have two master’s degrees – one from Manhattan School of Music, which was a performance degree, and one from the Jazz Institute Berlin, where, though it was technically a performance degree, essentially all I did was take lessons with John Hollenbeck and write music. So my compositional training consists of lessons with John and reading a lot of books.

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

I read a lot – mostly novels and leftist political writing - and go to art galleries when I can. I run every day and am a bicycle commuter.

I compose music with the goal of....

confronting my weaknesses as both a musician and a human and therefore making myself a better person. Composition shapes my musical identity and I’m pretty sure I would be very unhappy if I didn’t do it.




Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Interview With Miho Hazama, Jazz Composer

Miho Hazama is a New York-based jazz composer, originally from Tokyo, Japan.  She began playing piano and electronic organ at age 5 and started studying classical composition at age 13. In 2009, Ms. Hazama graduated from Kunitachi College of Music with a bachelor's degree in Classical Composition. With private instruction in jazz composition from Jim McNeely and piano from Phil Markowitz, Ms. Hazama completed her master's degree at the Manhattan School of Music in Jazz Composition in 2012.  A winner of the 2011 ASCAP Foundation Young Jazz Composer Award, Ms. Hazama participated in the Metropole Orkest Arranger’s Workshop in the Netherlands where her arrangements were conducted by Vince Mendoza and performed by the Metropole Orkest.

Since 2007, Ms. Hazama has worked with Yosuke Yamashita, Vince Mendoza, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Shiro Sagisu as well as TV-Asahi "Untitled Concert," the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, New Japan Philharmonic, Siena Wind Orchestra, Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra, Yamaha Symphonic Band and the Metropole Orkest. Her arrangements have been performed not only in the US but also in Japan, Poland, England, France and the Netherlands.  Miho Hazama was selected one of three winners of the 24th annual Idemitsu Music Awards. This award is given to promising young talents mainly in the field of classical music.

Miho is the third composer presented in this blogging series featuring current participants within the BMI Jazz Composers' Workshop.

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 think I write music mostly daily. It’s impossible to make a routine when I compose because composing depends on my inspiration, but my most productive time usually starts after 3pm. I am a night owl and I never deal with my music-brain in the morning…

I can work on arrangements in a large block of time, but I’d say I take a lot of short breaks when I compose so that I can refresh my eyes and ears to re-judge forms and elements of the composition.

Since I don’t have a routine, I don’t know how many hours I devote for writing…But definitely a lot!

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


I usually start getting small ideas in my mind first, then play piano to expand the ideas. I might also record them on my phone. Also, I sometimes set more logical concepts before I start composing. Once I organize these ideas/concepts, then I can see which ones might be applicable for certain pieces I’m working on. After that, I mostly stay in front of Sibelius and MIDI keyboard.

Do you compose at the piano or away from it?

I really need an acoustic piano before I start writing on Sibelius—otherwise I can’t really do anything.

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

I do use MIDI playback a lot, it’s especially helpful to consider form of the music.

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

I am happy with Sibelius 6! I wish the chord symbol function would get a little bit better though.

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 used to study classical music scores a lot because of electric-organ competitions that I had participated since I was 8 (to 18). And I think that is the most part of my knowledge as an orchestrator. My favorite pieces are Respighi’s Pines of Rome, Bernstein’s Symphony No.1 and Ravel’s The Gracioso's Aubade.

I love transcribing and I think that’s how I got most of my jazz language as well! I used to transcribe a lot of Michael Brecker and Herbie Hancock stuff, but I don’t really do that anymore since it sometimes affects my compositions. I check out scores only when I have orchestration questions now days. I’d say I don’t get ideas by studying scores but listening to music.

How important is musical innovation to you?

It doesn’t really matter to me. I’ve been trying to find my identity as a composer, and in a way, I might be innovative. But that’s not my focus as a composer…I just want to create that I like, and I am hoping that people would like my compositions as well!

What concepts have you explored in your recent work?

Rhythm modulation, Twelve-tones and circle of chord progression, etc.

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

If I have to include a sketch term, it would be much longer and it really depends on a composition. But after the sketch, I usually write a composition in 15-20 hours in total.

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

Actually this is my first year to work on many pieces for big band! Writing for horn ensemble is a mystery to me and this is why I applied for BMI jazz composers workshop.

Let’s say last year I wrote 2 pieces for my band (13-piece chamber orchestra), and 5 commissioned compositions for various instrumentations, 7 arrangements for wind symphony orchestras, over 30 arrangements for symphony orchestras and a few arrangements for other instrumentations.

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

It’s shame but I don’t practice piano daily anymore. I found a difficulty to practice repetitive stuff especially when I’m in a composition process, although I love playing piano so I would love to go back playing at some point.

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?

(My band is not a big band but a 13-piece band, which is very similar. So I consider this question as a large ensemble leader.)

………Because this is how I can show my music aesthetic as an artist!!

I don’t regard my compositions as a business. (Of course it would be great if it could be a business as well in the future though!)



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

Yes, I arrange/orchestrate/copy music. I am very happy as long as I work for any music-writing!

Define success from your vantage point.

Keep composing something cool and interesting.

What are your career goals?

I have a couple of things that I would love to achieve as a composer/arranger, although I’d prefer not declare them. As I said, I’m happy as long as I’m involved in any music-writing!

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

Since I’m from classical music background, writing for big band (or any horn ensemble) is very challenging to me. I wanted to study with two of my favorite composers, and wanted to have orchestration experiments in the reading sessions.

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

I have a Bachelor’s degree in classical composition from Kunitachi College of Music (Tokyo), and a Master’s degree in jazz composition from Manhattan School of Music (NYC).

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

In my regular life, chatting with friends helps me to get out of being music-aholic since the composition process is quiet and lonely…I try to go out at least once a day to refresh myself.

For my imagination, I love traveling! I’d say my hobby is skiing, shopping and traveling.

Music has the power to….

move people.

I compose music with the goal of....

creating something cool/interesting and hopefully speaking something to people.



Saturday, March 22, 2014

Interview With Erica Seguine, Jazz Composer

Erica Seguine is the subject of this second interview in a series featuring current members of the BMI Jazz Composer's Workshop.

Originally from Albany, NY, Erica Seguine is a composer, arranger, pianist, and teacher currently living and working in the NYC area. There she co-leads a big band, the Erica Seguine/Shannon Baker Jazz Orchestra, which has performed in many venues and festivals in NYC and North New Jersey. The orchestra performs original music that crosses many genres and conveys many different moods, utilizing a wide range of colors. She was the winner of the 2013 BMI Charlie Parker Competition for Jazz Composition/Manny Albam Commission, the 2013 ArtEZ Jazz Composition Contest, the 2009 Zurich Jazz Orchestra Composition Competition, and a recipient of a 2014 and 2011 ASCAP Young Jazz Composers Award. In 2012 She was selected as one of 8 arrangers internationally for the Metropole Orchestra Arrangers Workshop led by Vince Mendoza, where she had the opportunity to arrange Joe Zawinul’s/ Kurt Elling’s “Time to Say Goodbye” for Kurt Elling and the Metropole Orchestra. More information can be found at www.ericaseguine.com

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?

For the most part I write music daily. The time of day depends of course on my schedule that day. I’ve had productive hours at any point of day, but I’d have to say that some of my best hours have been at night (10pm or later). Maybe it’s the later hours that calm those inner voices a little bit, freeing my mind to write without critiquing too hard. Whether it’s in smaller chunks or larger chunks of time really depends on both my schedule and where I am in a piece (when I’m in flow I can write for 10 hours at a time, with a few short breaks, whereas other times even trying to write an hour can be laborious). I’d say normally I’m spending about 20-30 hours a week on average composing and arranging music.

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

This really depends! Sometimes it’s a harmonic idea that initiates everything. Other times it’s melodic. Sometimes it’s trying to write in a certain style (an Irish Reel, Chopin Nocturne, or a Tango). Sometimes it’s an image (whether it’s the water flowing gently from a ravine, or a tire swing endlessly spinning). Sometimes the instrumentation guidelines can influence me to write a piece.

What I do next is dependent on the initial idea. When I wrote “The Ravine,” I wrote down some words describing what I wanted to convey (such as water gently bubbling), and drew a form diagram before I wrote a single note or harmony. When I wrote “Reel No. 1”, I made sure that not only was the melody written down before anything, but I tweaked the interpretation over and over again, so that the melody really sounded like an authentic reel at a session before I got “adventurous” with it. When I wrote “...And the Tire Swing Keeps Spinning...” I both wrote many words/images describing that particular state and, since I was using a 12-tone row, wrote down all the possibilities (inversion, retrograde, different harmonies that were derived from pitch class sets) that could be found in my row just so I had some options that I could take or leave. I could go all day with other pieces, but that’s just to give some ideas.

My main goal is to really try to capture whatever that initial idea sparked. Because my initial ideas vary in how they came about, each one needs to be approached differently from the start.

Do you compose at the piano or away from it?

All your questions so far make me say “It depends” and I feel so wishy- washy! Working at the piano is great for coming up with harmonic ideas, voice leading, counterpoint, etc. And it’s great for improvising to potentially come up with new pieces. However, I like to work just as much away from it so I can try to get a better sense of “flow.” When I’m at the piano, I’m so honed in with minute details (which voicing will best resolve into this voicing) that it makes it difficult to see the overall picture.

Sometimes I just like to go out somewhere, whether it’s out by water, in a park, or in a coffee shop, (or even in places I don’t want to be but have to, like doctors offices, car service places, NJ Transit) and just bring a small manuscript notebook with me and jot down ideas, both in musical notation and otherwise. I like to draw form diagrams to see the potential shape of a piece. I like to write words down that can pinpoint what I’m trying to convey, and then write down musical descriptions (both in words and in music notation) to those words. Sometimes even pictures help.

I like to sing (very badly) lines away from the piano to help get a good melody, counterline, or voice-leading. Occasionally I’ve even pulled out my “old faithful” clarinet from the high school days to help create melodic lines.

I also like to conceive orchestration AS I’m coming up with material (as opposed to writing down a lead sheet or a basic sketch and then orchestrating it.) In fact, I’ve realized that so many of my pieces are tough to scale down to a more conventional instrumentation (especially if you try to take out even some of the woodwind doubles). It would be impossible to perform a lot of my music without the particular orchestration I use; it’s integral to the piece. Working at a piano can hinder how something will sound like played by many colors.

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

I use Sibelius (I have Finale too but never came to like it.) I prefer to write by hand as long as I can until I have to use the computer. Not to sound cliche, but I feel a better connection to what I’m writing when using pencil and paper, and it’s easier to draw correlations between my verbal/visual descriptions and my musical descriptions. It’s not the same to draw squiggly lines, write out 12-tone row possibilities, or write words like “Ice, darkness, barren, empty trees”, or “Runaway train, spirals, dizzyness” (I type this as I flip through my moleskin manuscript book) on a computer!

Oddly enough I don’t like using large paper (a la 11x17) even though I’ve tried to like it, though I know it works for so many others. When working on huge paper I feel overwhelmed that I have to fill up the paper and then feel compelled to force many ideas that I don’t believe in on paper, and then I feel bad about it. I prefer a small notebook (I can always turn the page for more ideas, which I do often) or 8x11 paper.

However, that deadline always looms one way or another. Sometimes I have enough time to write out whole works (orchestrated, articulations, dynamics, and all) by hand, and then simply input it into the computer. But for the most part, usually mid-way in the formation of a piece, I have to go to the computer because it’s faster. If I’m given a project with a tight deadline, I sometimes even have to completely forego pencil and paper.

I mainly use playback to A) Check any errors (I’m notorious for accidental mistakes) and B) Hear the overall flow/timing, though this is still hard to hear because everything is drastically different when performed by live instruments. I cringe every time I need to send out a MIDI file to our big band when we do a new piece so they can hear how everything fits in.

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

Well, when I started with Sibelius in 2005, the thing that annoyed me most was that you couldn’t copy and paste dynamics and other things directly onto triplets. Sibelius 7 enters and they STILL can’t do that?! I’ve heard Sibelius 7.5 fixes this. Is that correct or just a rumor?

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 studying scores very helpful. There have been times in life when I’ve score studied more than others, I admit. I don’t just study jazz scores, though I love looking and analyzing Maria Schneider, Gil Evans, or Jim McNeely scores, amongst others. I’m in love with studying Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe,” or Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 or his Fourth Symphony (I know the 5th is the famous one but there is something so intriguing, dark, and depressing about his 4th!), or Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony, or playing through some Debussy Preludes, Chopin Nocturnes, Bach Fugues, or Satie piano works.

Just as important as score studying, I think, is listening and trying to find gems that way. More often than score studying, I will hear something I love in a recording, whether it’s an orchestrational idea, a voicing, or harmony, and I will try to figure out what it is.

I don’t try to force using these techniques I find when writing music. I store them in my mind, and if I’m coming across something, I may hear a snippet of something I’ve studied/heard and realize that it’s perfect for what I’m trying to convey.

How important is musical innovation to you?

I think musical innovation shouldn’t be forced. I’m definitely striving to be 100% original and authentic, but once you actually TRY to be innovative, you’re stifling your creativity, at least in my opinion. When I compose I aim to be 100% in the present, whether I actually succeed or not. While I greatly admire all the music of the past, respect the tradition, and study a lot of composers’ techniques and styles, I don’t try to emulate the past. I also don’t try to be the “future” either. It’s easiest and most authentic for me to try to keep both feet in the present at all times, as whatever musical problem I’m working on expects, even demands my mind to be purely focused on it. The initial image or concept I’m trying to convey in a composition is the most important to me, not “trying to be innovative” or “trying to sound like (insert-composer-here)”.

What concepts have you explored in your recent work?

Well, not long ago I wrote my first 12-tone piece! I will admit though it is not pure 12-tone or atonal by any means. I created a row, and did do all the math to find out all the possibilities that were open to me. But that’s what they were, possibilities that I partially used and partially deviated from.

I also more recently got into Irish music. I’ve tried (miserably) to learn and play some session tunes on dulcimer and tin whistle. So there have been a couple of originals/arrangements inspired by that.

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

OK, this is definitely one of those “it depends” answers. I’ve written original pieces that have taken only a couple of weeks for me to write. However, I’ve also written pieces that kept getting scrapped and revised over and over again, where I’ve needed to take breaks from it and come back. “The Ravine,” in all, took 5 months to reach it’s final form (there were multiple times where I’ve written entire sections and then slashed them later). I started “Snow”, and finished 3 other compositions before I was able to finish it (taking a total of 4 months to finish). I also recently revived a piece I wrote two years ago, and then scrapped. How long a piece takes has been largely dependent on how much material I’ve scrapped.

If I’m given a tight deadline, or an arrangement to do that’s less creative, I can write pretty quickly and get it out in a few days. Maybe it’s because I don’t have that personal connection that I feel when writing original music for our own band or for some other group that’s open to creativity. When I write original music, or even a very creative arrangement, I’m generally discarding at least 2/3rds of my material when you count everything (this is inclusive of tinkering away at the piano at the early stages, false starts to really finding the “essence” of a piece, as well as countless orchestrated measures shot off into the abyss.) There have been many times where I’ve completed around 60-70 measures, scored out, articulations, dynamics, etc., and I’ve discarded them all.

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

Some years have been really great composition years. In 2013 I finished 6 big band charts (originals or arrangements), wrote some arrangements for the Metropole Orchestra, and wrote a piece for elementary band, amongst other things. Others have been less productive. In the past I used to write a lot more for varied instrumentations (studio orchestra, vocal ensembles, string quartets, chamber groups, smaller jazz groups, film scores), but since I now co-lead a big band regularly, my writing has focused a lot more on that medium.

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

I do still play piano... let’s say I definitely consider myself more a composer. Between teaching, writing, and running a big band I don’t get a chance to do much playing.

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?

Tell me about the time and money and lack of audience! I have the big band because I have a real need to have an outlet for my work. If I don’t I go insane! I like the big band format because of all the colors you can use (especially when you get into doubles and can add voice), but it can also give you power you need in certain key moments. That being said, I really do love writing for strings and wished I had more opportunities to do so. However, ironically enough I’ve found it harder to get a string quartet together at one time than an entire big band!

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

My main money-making gig is teaching privately. I have my own studio of piano students and I also teach at another studio. In total I teach about 35 students a week. A few are theory or composition students, and I also try to work in theory and composition into the piano lessons. I also do some transcribing and light arranging work for some groups, and accompany for community theatre camps in the summer. I also sometimes get (paid) arranging work as well. Between those jobs I have just enough to get by and run a big band.

What are your career goals?

Well... I’d really like our big band to do a recording! But that’s a lot of money (hint to anyone out there...) I’d like to get more places for the band to play and really expand our audience. I enjoy teaching, but I hope that eventually I’m doing much more work composing or teaching composition. I would love to write more arrangements for other musicians (particularly ones I can be creative in) or write scores to films. I would also love to get more opportunities to write for different instrumentations other than big band.

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

I applied and got into the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop just after I finished graduate school. To me it felt like the perfect transition between school and trying to set off on my own as a composer. In a lot of senses it has been a great transition; some of the players in the BMI-NY Jazz Orchestra now play in our big band, as well as fellow BMI composer Scott Reeves. I’ve met contacts for other opportunities to have my work heard. I’ve made new friends. And Jim and Mike really got me thinking about certain aspects of my compositional process (mainly how to not keep a certain section or piece stagnant and too repetitive, but many other issues as well.)

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

I’ve received my BM in Jazz Studies and Contemporary Media - Writing Concentration (a lot of words to essentially mean “Jazz Composition”) at Eastman, where I primarily studied composition with Bill Dobbins for four years. Then I received my MM in Jazz Arranging at William Paterson University, where I studied with both Jim McNeely and Rich DeRosa. It’s interesting, with Bill the main focus was on the small details (voice- leading, not using a certain note in a voicing because it may give something away in the next voicing, rhythmically moving this note over an 8th note because it would sound clearer.) With Rich and Jim, the focus was more on the bigger picture, telling a story, conveying a mood, how to not let a section go on too long or too short. Both sides (the micro and the macro) were important in my studies, and I’m really glad I learned about the smaller details first and then “opened up” to the larger picture.

I’d say one of my biggest learning experiences has been running our big band. The musicians in our band have told/demonstrated to me what works and what doesn’t. My conducting (I think and I hope) has gotten better by doing regular gigs with the band. Having many gigs has encouraged me to keep writing new material, and the more you write the better you get. By having a regular set of players, the musicians in our band have influenced me to write differently than say a random college jazz ensemble.

In addition, the Metropole Orchestra Arrangers Workshop was a very enlightening experience. And the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop is invaluable as far as honing in your voice as a composer.

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

I really like to read all sorts of books. I also like to see nature when I can. Mountains, forests, bodies of water. For those who know my music, it’s pretty obvious that I love water. I could go by some water source (whether it’s an ocean, stream, or lake) and watch/listen to the waves or trickling water all day if I could.

Music has the power to....

move me, even completely change whatever mood I was in.  Listening to Gorecki’s Third Symphony never fails to make me cry, while listening to some Dixieland or Irish session music can put me into a cheerful mood.

I write music because....

I can’t not write music. Seriously. I’ve just went through a major episode that made me realize this. Growing up, music was my therapy and maybe my closest friend. It was my way of getting my emotions in physical form, much like writing a diary would have been, and regardless how miserable I would be with growing up, I could always go into my own room where the keyboard was, and create a new song or part of a piece.

Mentally I’ve been through some hard times, but music has been the source of comfort and what has kept me going all these years. I notice that when I innocently decide to take a mini “break” from composing, things start to fall apart.

There was a long time, not even too long ago, that I would HATE that I would need to compose and I thought that music was CAUSING my pain. I would think “Oh God! Here’s another chart written... joy! Now I can watch as it doesn’t matter that I wrote another piece because there won’t be an audience for it!” However, my “pain” was related to the external (validation, having an audience, etc.) and not to music itself.




Thursday, March 20, 2014

Interview With Scott Ninmer, Jazz Composer

This is the first in a series of interviews with current members of the BMI Jazz Composer's Workshop. With thoughtful consideration, they have answered questions about their compositional process, motivations and aspirations. I hope it will be insightful for musicians, students and fans of progressive big band music.

Our first featured composer is Scott Ninmer.  A native of Taylorville, IL, Ninmer has won many prestigious awards for his work, including the “2 Agosto” International Composing Competition, the Detroit Jazz Festival Arranging Competition, the Jazz Education Network Student Composition Showcase, the Downbeat Magazine Student Music Awards, the New York Youth Symphony First Music Composition Competition, the United States Air Force Sammy Nestico Award, and the ASCAP Foundation Young Jazz Composer Awards.  Additional honors include being selected as a participant in the 2013 Metropole Orkest Arrangers Workshop in Hilversum, The Netherlands, and serving as the lead trombonist in the 2010 Disney All-American College Band in Anaheim, CA.
A graduate of the University of Illinois in jazz performance studying trombone with Jim Pugh, Ninmer recently completed a Master’s degree in jazz composition at the Manhattan School of Music under the tutelage of Jim McNeely.  Ninmer's music can be heard on the University of Illinois Concert Jazz Band's album "Free Play" and the Cal State Long Beach Concert Jazz Orchestra’s album “High and Mighty”.   He also has several compositions and arrangements published through UNC Jazz Press.  For more information, please visit www.scottninmer.com.

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 write daily.  I prefer to wake up early and get writing right away.  My brain is most alert in the morning/early afternoon, and since I work four part-time jobs in addition to teaching and other gigs, etc., I want to relax when I get home.  I usually try to write for an hour or two before I start my day. 

My ideal day of composing is when I have a large block of time where I can write for an hour, take a 20-30 min. break, and then continue alternating in this fashion throughout the day.  As my weekends are mostly kept free of commitments, I get a lot of writing done on these days, despite taking a lot of breaks.

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

Initial ideas usually come from improvising at the piano.  Once I’ve found something interesting, I usually come up with a melody and some harmonic ideas.  I usually write all of the material that I will use for the piece at the piano, but I really don’t use very much material in each piece.  Once this is done, I usually play through it a dozen or more times to get it into my head.  This might be at the piano or I might orchestrate it on Sibelius and play it.  I usually hit a brick wall at this point so I take a break, maybe for half an hour, maybe for a week.  I find that when I take a break, my subconscious does a lot of work in processing what I’ve written and finding new avenues.  I will keep coming back to the piece and if nothing happens within a few minutes I stop and do something else without getting frustrated.  Eventually I get an idea and the brick wall comes down.  Then I just write until I hit the next wall and the same process continues.

Do you compose at the piano or away from it?

I mostly compose away from the piano.  When I first start a piece, I improvise at the piano until I come up with something, ranging anywhere from a few seconds to a minute or two of music.  From there it’s completely away from the piano.  I usually write a lot in my head throughout the day, and then just input it directly into Sibelius.

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

I utilize MIDI playback extensively.  Though I don’t rely on the MIDI playback to tell me anything about what will work in an actual performance orchestrationally, it is very helpful in getting an idea of what contrapuntal passages will sound like that are too complex to realize on piano.   I think it’s also helpful to feel the pacing of the piece, even if I have to imagine drums in my head.  Sometimes I use Sibelius as a quick way to try several different orchestrational approaches and see which one I like best, keeping in mind that again, MIDI doesn’t reflect an actual performance.

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

I’m happy with Sibelius!  Nothing comes to mind at present.

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

Transcription has always been a huge part of my development as a jazz composer.  I would guess that 95% of my musical knowledge has come from transcription and analysis.  In high school I transcribed a bunch of “Singers Unlimited” and “Take 6” scores, and in college transcribed many Bob Brookmeyer, Maria Schneider, and Jim McNeely scores either in my head or to piano reduction and studied them extensively.  In my first big band pieces, I would find the central theme of a work and write my own composition based on it.  Though those compositions are fairly derivative, they were immensely helpful in learning the craft.  Though I no longer do this consciously, I’m sure that ideas from various pieces come forth in my music from the hours of listening I have put in.

How important is musical innovation to you?

I can’t really say that I’ve thought that consciously about it.  When I write, I’m trying to write something that I will enjoy listening to, that an audience of both musicians and laymen will enjoy, and that the band will enjoy playing.  I’m also trying to work on things that I may not have worked on before or don’t feel completely comfortable with.  If the piece is really easy to write with no speed bumps along the way, that’s a problem for me as it means I didn’t challenge myself.  In this way, I’m being innovative within my own sphere of compositional output.  But I’m definitely not on a mission to change jazz as we know it every time I write a piece.  However, there are always times when I’m frustrated with an element of sameness that permeates my pieces on some level, and I would like to be more adventuresome in my future writing.  Unfortunately, I have yet to commit to this goal wholeheartedly.

What concepts have you explored in your recent work?

It seems that the majority of my most recent work is largely tonal, utilizing more pop- or classical-oriented harmony instead of jazz harmony.  I don’t really think of harmony in terms of chord symbols, and I think this helps me to write more contrapuntally and freely than I would otherwise.  My most recent piece exhaustively uses the aforementioned harmony in movements of major 3rds, which is a new practice for me.  I’ve gone as far with tonality as I want to for now, so I look forward to returning to my exploration of modal harmony in future pieces.

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

8-12 hours, though this is usually over the course of a week or two when I have some free time.  I rarely second-guess myself, so I think this helps me to write efficiently.

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

In looking at the past year, I've written eighteen big band charts (nine arrangements, nine compositions).  I've also written twelve arrangements for orchestra, a concert band piece, a multi-movement brass quintet piece, and several chamber ensemble pieces.  I also orchestrated a musical that’s hoping to get on Broadway.  I’m lucky in that I have the BMI workshop, a rehearsal band, orchestration lessons, and a handful of commissions to keep me busy writing all the time.

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

I’m ashamed to say that my trombone rarely sees the light of day, as I don’t have much motivation to practice other than pure enjoyment or in preparation for the occasional gig.  I’ve channeled most of my free time into writing.

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’ve never really thought about it.  I grew up listening to the music, and my dad had written some pieces when he was in college, so I guess I was just following in his footsteps.  Writing in my undergrad made me stand out and I loved the thrill of hearing a piece played for the first time by a great band and knowing all of the hard work I spent in learning my craft and writing the piece was worth it.  I think what I love about the big band the most is that unlike small group music, I can have complete control over what is played while, unlike writing for orchestra, I can still leave a large amount of improvisation imbued in the piece.  Balancing the elements of composition and improvisation is very exciting.  Also just hearing the sheer power of seventeen people playing their hearts out!

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

My main source of income is as a copyist/transcriptionist for a few well-known jazz figures.  I also work as the Jazz Manager for the New York Youth Symphony and as the Administrative Assistant for the Manhattan School of Music Residence Life Office, as well as teach a few lessons on the side.

Define success from your vantage point.

Working towards one’s goals with earnest and steadfast devotion.  I don’t think the end result is nearly as important as the process of getting there.

What are your career goals?

Eventually, I would like to be able to make a living solely from writing in any capacity and through teaching if need be.  I am keeping my options open and am always working on improving my abilities in writing in all styles for all instrumentations.  I also love teaching, so I am always welcoming new students to further my abilities in preparation for someday teaching at the collegiate level.

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

I wanted the opportunity to hear other people’s music while getting insight from Jim and Mike on my own pieces.  I’m normally fairly confident in my work, but it’s really nice to have a second and third opinion to help me to see the music in a different way.  It also is nice to have deadlines and it forces me to write more than I probably would be doing otherwise.

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

I have a Masters degree in jazz composition.  Before this, I was completely self-trained.  I have many books on composition, arranging, orchestration, harmony, etc. and dozens of study scores and hundreds of transcriptions.  I think listening intently to big band music has done the most to supplement my training.  I basically learned how to write for big band from listening to Bob Brookmeyer’s “Get Well Soon” album twice a day every day for months during my commute to my summer job.

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

I read a lot.  I take online courses in things I’ve either always wanted to know or just want to brush up on.  I really enjoy good film and TV!

Music has the power to….

make people laugh, cry, smile, frown, or feel any other kind of emotion.  We are ruled by our emotions and moods to some extent, and thus music has the power to affect the choices we make and how we relate to others.  For me, music is an uplifting experience, and I try to showcase that in my own work.

I compose music with the goal of....

creating a feeling that will permeate both the musicians and the audience.  Ideally, I would like the audience to leave a concert in a different mood/state of mind than when they came in and give them something to think about in a purely emotional way and also in an intellectual way.




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