Friday, February 22, 2013

A few things...


The grant for the dance piece was approved, so we're pressing on with that. Thank you Québec Government, I appreciate the investment. My American friends can only dream about the kinds of opportunities we have here in Canada for government Arts funding. That being said, I write this amidst the hilarity of #pastagate. I also have to thank the Québec Government for the laughs, and encourage those taking it seriously to settle down, this is definitely one of those times where laughing is the only appropriate response.

Vanessa in rehearsal

I'm modifying the first movement of “Hope” slightly for the “Keio Light Music Society” in Japan. My friend Jun Umeki is championing my big band music over there, which I'm always thrilled about. Here's a link to their performance of “The Facebook Generation” at the Yamano Big Band Jazz Contest from this past summer, along with Jim McNeely's “A Single Sky”.

Ironically, I think the only way to see it is to have a Facebook account.... My plan all along. 


I haven't been in the mindset of big band writing for over a year now; 2012 yielded one chart entitled “9 Lives” written in honour of Tom, my glorious cat of 15 years after he passed away this summer. Here's a bootleg of it from the band's show at Resonance Cafe in Montréal last November. The gain is sort of low, so turn it up...

The recorder is too close to the saxophones, it's under-rehearsed, and the piece is about 50% good in my opinion (my self-conscious disclaimer). This piece is different than my other writing for this ensemble. I wanted to represent three things in it:

  1. The intensity of watching my cat's kidneys fail him in real time (I solely witnessed the beginning of his body deciding to shut down)
  2. The grandiosity of his character. Anyone that had ever met him understood this badassery.
  3. The transition into death as my family sat huddled around him which was both sad and beautiful in its own way. I think this musical moment is pretty clear: I used the same notes as the famous repeated chord in “Les augures printaniers – danses des adolescentes” from the “Rite of Spring”. The last chord from THAT piece is the ultimate death chord. I saw an interview with Michael Tilson Thomas where he mentions that if you look at the last bar in the contrabasses, their divisi is D-E-A-D. I can't imagine Stravinsky made a deliberate choice in English (at that time), but I love to pretend like he did...

In a way, I think this chart is a spectacular failure. I like it, but it's not very good. The more I write music, the more I realize it's HARD to write anything of substance. It also just takes a really long time. I'll save my thoughts about whether or not it should matter what the music means to the composer from a listener's perspective for another post. (This is my problem with a lot of songwriters and most music criticism/writing). That being said, I think I MIGHT be qualified to comment on big band writing in general, but probably not (2.5 years is barely called “experience” in any field). I only point this out because I've seen and listened to quite a bit of large ensemble music, and I think I've just begun to realize where MY large ensemble could continue to have a fresh direction.

In short, the truth of the matter is that big bands stopped being cool arguably 60 years ago. Most people attribute this to the fact that dance music moved away from swing towards rock and roll. This isn't to say that there weren't amazing and innovative composers in big band writing after the 40's; my bigger influences for this instrumentation only really start around then until nowadays. I think a lot of composers failed to appropriate the sounds of their generation into their big band writing – for example, let's hypothetically invent an ensemble trying to play punk-big-band-music: they probably aren't living/breathing punk, so all that comes out of trying is a really bad imitation of the elements of punk rock music. On top of that, their gigs are probably at jazz clubs, with crowds that are sitting down, some of them informed jazz listeners, others just pissed off punk enthusiasts wanting their money back. There probably isn't a singer, so the “melodies” are played by saxophones (perhaps alternating between sections if the writer wants to be clever), and (assuming our writer is arranging punk hits of the day) the lyric component is totally gone. How punk rock is that? I think we're now living in a time that would embrace and be excited by a really inventive use of this group of instruments, but very few people are actually cool in their big band writing, further perpetuating the hybrids that don't really speak; “big-band-influenced-by-hip-hop-but-also-Carla-Bley's-music” with open sections that are improvised over with quasi-bop language. (Actually maybe that sounds cool, but for reasons other than what I'm trying to point out). I'm guilty of this too, but increasingly becoming aware that if we could re-contextualize the use of the big band, it would be welcomed by many curious listeners. Darcy James Argue succeeded with “Brooklyn Babylon” last year at BAM, hopefully they'll find a way to put on the entire show (not just the music, which is great on its own) in many cities.

I frequently get asked what's going on with my “Large Band”. It's on hiatus for an indeterminate period of time. Maybe I'll come back to it soon, maybe not, unless the right opportunity comes up.

In other big band news: here's a cool interview I did with the Hits and Gigs podcast last week. Dan Rougeau is a good friend of mine from my Vanier College days. I was asked about the writing and planning of "Hope", along with other great questions from Dan, Savic Panylyk, and Noah Sherman. Check it out!

. . .

Dom, Sami, and I had 2 sessions reading through some of the material for our theatre piece. We had a proposed rough draft for a first act, and now it's back to the drawing board for what seems to be a 30% complete first act, and a solid scene near the end of the piece. This is also another one of those times where the only appropriate response is to laugh (and keep on writing).

Lined up for March and April is some music with Charlotte Cornfield; she is AWESOME!

My friend Brian suggested I check out Andy Shauf. EVERYONE check him out.

My friend Jay suggested I check out Blake Mills. EVERYONE check him out.


Jeremy Denk linked this article to Twitter yesterday. Absolutely worth reading if anyone has a bit of time to spare.

I'm living in a world between folk songs (for lack of any proper term) and contemporary classical music. When nobody's looking, I'm nerding out to jazz records.

I saw Thomas Adès' “Powder Her Face” at BAM last Friday. I know age isn't supposed to matter, but he wrote that when he was around my age... Jeez. It's hard writing music when you know a genius like that is out there totally crushing it. WWTAD? (What Would Thomas Adès Do?)

I love when friends and strangers write to me about the thoughts and opinions expressed on here, please continue doing so!

-FR