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?


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. 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…

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