Friday, April 25, 2014

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Do you compose at the piano or away from it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How important is musical innovation to you?

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

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

What concepts have you explored in your recent work?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Define success from your vantage point.

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

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

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

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

What are your career goals?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music has the power to….

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

I compose music because....

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




1 comment:

  1. Awesome..and Glenn Gould thankfully did the same.

    ReplyDelete

Share It