Tuesday, April 29, 2014

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

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

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

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

Must jazz continue to progress to remain viable?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is it important to contextualize the young lion movement?

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

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

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

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

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

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





Friday, April 25, 2014

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Do you compose at the piano or away from it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How important is musical innovation to you?

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

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

What concepts have you explored in your recent work?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Define success from your vantage point.

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

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

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

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

What are your career goals?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music has the power to….

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

I compose music because....

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




Thursday, April 10, 2014

Interview With Composer, Alan Chan

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Do you compose at the piano or away from it?

Both.

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

Not so much. I use Finale solely for notation.

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

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

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

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


What concepts have you explored in your recent work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Define success from your vantage point.

...to have a happy and healthy life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music has the power to….

capture memories.

I compose music with the goal of....

creating a better world…

http://www.alanchanmusic.com


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.



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