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….


I compose music with the goal of....

…continually learning and expressing.

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