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

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.

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