Category: Spotlight

Greg Lewis (a.k.a. Organ Monk): Music is a Weapon

The 30-minute ensemble showcases at the annual Chamber Music America conference typically run the gamut from string quartets to small jazz combos to the occasional outlier—a reed quintet (which replaces the flute and French horn of standard wind quintets with a saxophone and bass clarinet), a klezmer band, or at the most recent conference, a duo of trumpet and kora (the 21-string harp-lute played in Mali, Senegal, and the Gambia).  But one of the most unusual groups ever to be presented at the CMA conference, in 2016, was an organ trio fronted by Greg Lewis (a.k.a. Organ Monk). A virtuoso on a Hammond B-3 electric organ accompanied by electric guitar and drums set has been a popular instrumental combination for soul, jazz, and R&B for more than half a century, but the material performed by Lewis and his sidemen—a standard, a Thelonious Monk classic, and some Lewis originals—took the format to some unexpected places. The music was contrapuntally intricate yet super funky, and often incredibly loud.  Their rendition of “Lulu’s Back in Town” was joyously raucous and their take on Monk was appropriately off-kilter. But the new material was what was the most revelatory.

Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan

Each of Lewis’s pieces was dedicated to an African American who had been killed during confrontations with police officers. Of course music, unless it involves singers and sung words or an interpolated spoken word narration, is more abstract and introspective than a news report can ever be. But merely attaching a verbal title to an instrumental composition anchors it for listeners and has the potential to serve as an outlet for a deep emotional interface with a topic that can transcend an immediate reaction to a fleeting headline. Think, for example, how a work like Penderecki’s searing Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima conveys the horrors of atomic warfare in a way that is far more visceral than reading a history book (even though the title was actually an afterthought). Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and the horrific episodes that led to their deaths have been permanently etched into the general public’s conscience. But Lewis, by affixing their names to his musical compositions, provides a platform for their stories to enter our subconscious and for audiences to pay tribute to who these people were.  This music, though at times dirge-like and appropriately angry, is ultimately resilient and celebratory; it allows us not only to mourn their deaths but to remember their lives.

When we visited with Lewis in his Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment last year, he described several terrifying interactions that he personally had with police officers. As a black man living in an American city, the experiences of Brown, Garner, and Martin hit really close to home. As an aspiring musician, Lewis was drawn to jazz, specifically because it has been such a socially conscious music. He acknowledged as role models John Coltrane as well as Charles Mingus, citing in particular his “Fables of Faubus” which was composed as a protest against Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, who ordered National Guard troops to prevent the integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1957.

“That’s the biggest goal that I would love to get to accomplish, to try to get everybody to see what’s going on,” explained Lewis. “Culture is your weapon. I don’t like to say weapon because you get scared when you say weapon, but the music is sort of a weapon to use to fight the craziness that’s going on in the most non-violent way.”

Lewis started out as a pianist who was heavily into Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, as well other lesser-known greats from the 1950s and ‘60s such as Elmo Hope and Kenny Drew. But at one point while he was still a student at the New School in New York City, Lewis’s teacher, keyboardist Gil Coggins (who recorded with Miles Davis), asked him to sub a gig for him and, unbeknownst to him beforehand, it turned out to be an organ gig for which he was completely unprepared. The different feel of the instrument, which at first was a hindrance, soon became an obsession. He started out on a Korg, but he now owns four different classic Hammond B-3s since, as he claims, “each Hammond organ gives me love different.” He initially devoured recordings by Jimmy Smith, Larry Young, and even Tower of Power, but he strove to find his own voice on the instrument.

At first that voice was heavily shaped by Monk and finding a way to interpret Monk’s extremely idiosyncratic piano figurations on an electric organ. In 2010, he self-released his first album, a trio disc of Monk covers called Organ Monk in which he is joined by two musical luminaries, guitarist Ron Jackson (who has performed with Rufus Reid and Randy Weston) and drummer Cindy Blackman (who has played with Steve Coleman, Ron Carter, and Ravi Coltrane, as well as Vernon Reid, Lenny Kravitz, and Carlos Santana, to whom she is now married). On his second recording, a quintet outing called American Standard which was a JJA Jazz Awards nominee in 2013, he tackles a collection of famous standards including “Tea for Two,” which he totally makes his own, and “Lulu’s Back in Town.”

The covers of Greg Lewis's first two CDs.

Greg Lewis’s first album from 2010 is a reimagining of Thelonious Monk compositions for organ trio called Organ Monk

His follow-up, from 2013, is a collection of famous popular songs interpreted by a mixed quintet called American Standard

But his own compositions had yet to appear on recording until the release finally this month of his third album which includes all five of his pieces created in memory of those killed during altercations with the police, which he collectively calls The Breathe Suite in honor of Eric Garner’s tragic last words. The composition of the full piece was supported by a grant from Chamber Music America. For Lewis, it was not only very important to find a viable way to respond to what had happened but to put it in a tangible form that he hopes he can share with the victims’ families.

“I can’t protest, because if I protest I go to jail. And if I go to jail, I can’t feed my five kids. So what I can do is what I do: I write music. … I want to get this record to each of the people … Even if it brings joy for just a minute to these families, that’s what I can do.”

The cover for the new Greg Lewis CD, The Breathe Suite

The Breathe Suite was released on March 15. In addition to the links to purchase digital files from iTunes and Amazon below, it is also available in physical form from CD Baby.

Jessie Montgomery: Conjuring Memories

Jessie Montgomery standing against a red wall.

Although she grew up in a very culturally diverse New York City neighborhood that has also long been a hotbed for artistic experimentation and rebellion, composer/violinist Jessie Montgomery most strongly identifies with European classical music.

“I write for traditional classical instruments, and I actually feel the most comfortable with them because it’s the closest thing that I have [musically],” Montgomery acknowledges when we visit her East Village apartment, which is actually the same place she lived with her parents as a child. “I feel very connected to European classical music because of the way I have learned how to play the violin. The actual physical resonance of the instrument speaks to that language beautifully, and I think that tradition is so rich.”

Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan

Starting violin lessons when she was only four years old at the Third Street Music School (which, chalk it up to East Village rebellion, is actually on Eleventh Street), Montgomery wrote her first original compositions seven years later, her creative appetite whetted by her violin teacher at the school, Alice Kanack, who got her to improvise. She soon became totally immersed in the complex interplay of string quartets, playing in several ensembles as well as eventually writing for them, and received an undergraduate degree in violin performance from The Juilliard School. After her graduation, she performed for five years with the Providence String Quartet and then with the Catalyst Quartet. Since her late teens, she has been nurtured by The Sphinx Organization, a non-profit developer of young Black and Latino classical musicians, and she has been a two-time laureate in the annual Sphinx Competition. But she realizes that her deep involvement with this music is somewhat unusual.

“For me, it happened to work out because I studied violin in a school on the Lower East Side that had a really good teacher,” she suggests. “Neither of my parents were necessarily into classical music at all, though now they are. But it was by chance that this happened because there was something in place where I could go study and get really good at it. I think that should be the case for any kind of music or opportunity, whether it’s learning a classical instrument or learning to play rock guitar or gymnastics. If we increase the pool of what’s available by creating opportunities for young people of all backgrounds to have access to, let’s say, classical music, then the pool from a fundamental level is more diverse. If people are attracted to classical music, that’s great. But there’s no need to force somebody to like classical music. … There is this feeling that it remains in this elite world and that people need to be drawn to it and that that raises you up into this place of classical music. I think that’s a faulty idea when you’re dealing with people. I’m African-American, so I think about black people and black music. But I wonder if the jazz community is having the same conversation. That’s black music; it’s a traditional art form that has developed into this super sophisticated thing that hasn’t brought their people along with it as much as they would like. I think that has to do, again, with enough people having opportunities to grow in whatever areas they’re interested in.”

A bunch of instrument cases on the floor.

Jessie Montgomery’s violin and some instruments are always nearby.

While classical music has been Montgomery’s primary focus in life and the music with which she has the greatest affinity, she has never completely isolated herself from the many other kinds of musical activities that have been happening all around her.

“I happened to have come through it, playing a classical instrument and learning the repertoire, but I have always seen it as another reference point,” she elaborates. “My connection to that music has now became a part of this multifaceted language I’m drawing from. There’s European classical music, there’s jazz, there’s funk, there’s alternative rock, there’s African music—all these different kinds of music available to us now through recordings, etc., and also through just living in a place where there are a lot of different cultures just banging up against each other. … My dad ran a music studio so I was constantly surrounded by all different kinds of music. I would do drawings and my homework in the lobby while all these things were going on.”

Piles of LPs on the floor.

The floor of Jessie Montgomery’s apartment is filled with piles of jazz and pop as well as classical LPs.

Montgomery sees this polyglot musical environment as a quintessentially American phenomenon and something that has long served as a creative fuel for American composers. “The tradition of classical music coming to America and then what American composers have done with the music is so interesting,” Montgomery says. “There is this tradition in America with classical music to try and find other ways to connect to it. … People are starting to see American music as its own thing, its own unique voice, in relation to classical music.”

But what sets Montgomery’s own music apart from so many of her antecedents as well as peers is how deeply immersed she has been for most of her life in the performance of works by other composers. That insider’s knowledge has given her more than just an ability to write really idiomatic music, especially for strings. It has also helped her to understand the mindset of classical interpreters and to offer them music that allows for greater spontaneity and a little less formality.

“I really like the idea of adding elements of improvisation and chance and making the performers engage a little differently with the piece,” she explains. “Having played so much standard repertoire in String Quartet Land, there’s such a rigidity. There’s this expectation that things should always be executed a certain way. There’s a real beauty in trying to find your sound and your own voice in the way you interpret a piece of music that has all these expectations on it, but then I like to throw this other element in where it’s like screw all that stuff you just worked out and change the performance from one night to another.”

Interpretative freedom is a hallmark of Montgomery’s 2013 string quartet Break Away, a work she created expressly for the PUBLIQuartet, which she had previously been a member of when the quartet first formed, since the group is equally adept at performing standard repertoire, newly commissioned works, and open-form improv. Ironically it was inspired by the group’s performances of the Five Movements for String Quartet by Anton Webern, a composer revered as the spiritual forefather of total serialism, a compositional approach that tends to eschew a great degree of performance variance. In another string quartet, Voodoo Dolls (2008), which is being performed by Fulcrum Point in Chicago on April 29, 2016 as part of a concert entitled Proclamation!: The Black Composer Speaks, the players tap on their instruments before launching into cascades of ostinatos. In Color from 2014, scored for the unlikely combination of tuba and string quartet, was commissioned by jazz tuba giant Bob Stewart with whom the PUBLIQuartet premiered it in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, though Montgomery claims that when “jazz language comes into play” it’s more a result of her “memory of what jazz sounds like” rather than its being overtly informed by a deep immersion in jazz performance practice.

Another defining attribute of Montgomery’s music is that narratives are woven through so many of her compositions, even though—with the exception of a new piece that was just premiered by the Young People’s Chorus of New York City—she has written exclusively for instruments and mainly for strings. This is clearly because her compositions initially grew directly out of her playing, but now they are evolving beyond it. She obtained a master’s in composition and film scoring from New York University and credits that experience with taking her out of her comfort zone of writing only for strings. During the 2011-2012 season, while she was the Van Lier Composer Fellow at the American Composers Orchestra, she composed a quartet for four wind instruments. The Albany Symphony will premiere her second full orchestral work in June, and a piece is also in the works for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Most of these pieces contain some kind of programmatic element.

“The practice of writing for films forced me to use a wider instrumentation,” Montgomery remembers. “But when I applied to NYU, I hadn’t written anything for films. I think I got in basically on the premise that I was writing from this idea of image. And I’ve been continuing to write from that point of view. My mother is a theater artist and storyteller and a lot of her work is based in family history. I think I’m starting to take that on in terms of finding a narrative in each one of my pieces. Words are the easiest way to tell a story, for sure, but sound can conjure lots of memories. There’s this collective memory that can be aroused through sound, and I like trying to get at that somehow.”

A reflection of Jessie Montgomery in a mirror next to a disembodied set of piano hammers on its side.

One of the ways that Montgomery has transcended the trappings of the inherently abstract, non-representational medium of instrumental music is by infusing her pieces with audible ciphers such as references to materials with which most of her listeners would be familiar and which conjure very specific associations. In the string quartet Source Code (2013), she made overt references to the sound world of African-American spirituals. The Isaiah Fund for New Initiatives, the work’s commissioner, requested a piece that addressed what it means to be an American, so Montgomery’s response was to attempt to musically convey her parents’ participation in the Civil Rights movement. For Banner, a string quartet from 2014 which was commissioned to celebrate the 200th anniversary of “The Star Spangled Banner,” Montgomery weaved in references to many songs in addition to our national anthem to convey her own complex feelings.

“I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a die-hard patriot,” she confesses. “We should celebrate, but also take note of struggles that have occurred in order for us all to be in this ‘land of the free’ which is the hard question in that song for me, as well as a lot of people. So that piece is all about songs. There are a lot of Civil Rights songs and also anthems from Puerto Rico and Mexico and a Cuban socialist song as well as ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ Some were exactly quoted and some were just used as motivic devices. … Somebody asks you to write a piece based on whatever idea they would like you to write a piece on, and you sort of have to find a way to that place.”

Break Away, Source Code, and Banner are all included on Strum, the debut CD of Montgomery’s music which was released in October 2015 on Azica Records. In addition to these three string quartets and another from 2006 titled Strum, the disc contains a very energetic piece she composed for string orchestra in 2012 titled Starburst.

There’s also one track scored for violin alone, titled Rhapsody No. 1, which Montgomery plays herself.

“This is probably going to evolve as things go on, but I do consider myself primarily a violinist,” she admits. “That was my first love.”

A text-based painting with the text: "SUCK CESS"

A bit of advice from a text-based painting that is hanging in Jessie Montgomery’s apartment.

Saad Haddad: It’s Not Going to Be Exact

Saad Haddad

Most first rehearsals of a new piece for orchestra begin one of two ways. The conductor either spot checks various potentially tricky places in the score or attempts a full run-through until something goes awry, which makes everyone stop to focus on what made everyone stop. But guest conductor Steven Schick did not do either of these things back in November when he began rehearsing with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra for a performance of Saad Haddad’s Kaman Fantasy (one of five pieces by emerging composers performed during the 2015 Milwaukee Symphony Composer’s Institute). Instead, Schick asked the string section to play a pitch that was halfway between E and Eb. It took a while for them to find the pitch, but once they did, he then asked them to begin to play the piece. Kaman Fantasy was like nothing else on that program; indeed, it was like few things ever performed by orchestras.

Even during this first somewhat tentative reading, a magical and extremely beautiful microtonally tinged tune emerged amid various melodic fragments chock full of swirling embellishments in the strings and winds. Although the sounds were clearly being made by members of a symphony orchestra reading from parts on their stands, what they played sounded uncannily like the orally transmitted large ensemble music of North Africa and the Middle East.

When we spoke to Haddad in New York City in early March, the 23-year-old composer reflected on the Arabic music ensembles that served as a model for Kaman Fantasy. “There are like 10 to 12 violins and they’re all playing the same line in a different way, with different embellishments and slightly different bowings—sometimes completely different bowings,” he explained. “There’s no [sheet] music at all involved; it’s all done by ear. I’ve never heard a string section sound like that in any tradition and, of course, not in the Western tradition … but I was trying to do that kind of thing in an orchestra piece. The problem with working with Western musicians; you want them to be not exact, but to do that you have to show them something exact on the page and then warn them—be careful, it’s not going to be exact, that’s how it should be. But once you get the musicians to be on board with that, then you can create something really unique and really special in an orchestral environment in which it’s usually really difficult to do anything outside the box.”

Born, raised, and compositionally trained in Southern California, Haddad had never previously written anything like that for an orchestra. But his incorporation of Arabic aesthetics into contemporary Western performance practices in this eleven-minute 2015 composition was something he had been pursuing on a smaller scale in his music since 2012. In fact, Kaman Fantasy began as a duo for violin and piano in which the violin simulates the sonorities of the traditional silk-stringed spiked fiddle common throughout the Islamic world (an instrument called kemençe in Turkey and called kamancheh in Iran and throughout the Caucasus). And, encouraged from being able to make such a synthesis work on an orchestral scale, it is something which has continued to inform his subsequent forays into composing for large ensembles: Manarah for two digitally processed antiphonal trumpets and orchestra, which the American Composers Orchestra will premiere at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall on April 1, 2016; and Takht, which the New Julliard Ensemble will premiere at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall on April 21. However, Haddad was quick to point out that he still thinks of himself as a beginner and even somewhat of an outsider when it comes to having a deep knowledge of Arabic musical traditions.

“I’m an American for sure,” he admitted. “I’ve never even gone to the Middle East … so I’m not going to pretend that I know everything there is. I have a lot to learn. The only thing I hope I can contribute is that I can really showcase the beauty of the culture and the beauty of the music. There’s a lot of stuff in it that’s really cool.”

While he is currently pursuing a master’s degree at Juilliard under the tutelage of John Corigliano, Haddad has yet to find a parallel mentor who can offer him a deeper knowledge of the arcana of maqam, the complex Arabic modal system. Most of his knowledge of this music has come from surfing websites and carefully studying YouTube videos of the iconic Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, whose 1975 funeral attracted more than four million mourners. Although his grandparents were huge fans of Kulthum and Farid el-Atrache, a popular singer-songwriter originally from Syria, Haddad never had any direct exposure to this music in his formative years.

“I never thought I was going to use this music until a few years ago,” he acknowledged. “When I was growing up, I was listening to a lot of Bee Gees and ‘80s music because my mom was really into that stuff. And then I listened to Mozart and Beethoven and all the big classical giants.”

Once he started creating his own music, he initially followed a path typical of many young American composers. He wrote a Michael Jackson-inspired composition scored for a post BoaC All Stars-type ensemble of soprano sax, electric guitar, keyboard, and drum-set, a few short orchestra pieces, and two lovely settings of poems by William Blake for unaccompanied chorus. He even dabbled in film music under the auspices of the John Williams Scoring Stage at USC, which instilled in him a deft command of musical narrative that would later inform other kinds of collaboratively created work, such as his Nekavim, a very effective dance score for two percussionists and live electronics created for choreography by Sean Howe. But an epiphany while he was back at home over the summer only a few years ago is ultimately what led to his current compositional direction. It began with something completely mundane: his mother asking him to transfer his family’s home movies off of aging videocassettes. As he explained:

We had like 200 twenty-year-old home videos and you can’t burn them like CDs; you have to watch the whole thing. So I’m sitting there watching … and see all my older relatives twenty years younger and I started getting really connected to it. So I thought, “Why don’t I write a piece using this material?” I went in with ProTools and tried to take the snippets that I liked. I had no idea what I would do with them; I was just making a catalog of interesting sounds from my childhood. And then I thought, “If I’m going to use my family as an influence, I ought to use their music, too.”

The resultant piece, Mai for string quartet and live electronics (2013), would serve as a blueprint for everything he has composed since then.

The microtones and all the embellishments that are really typical with Arabic music are really easy to get with a string quartet, especially when you’re working with them. So I worked with the Argus Quartet on this and we played it a few times at USC. Then it won a BMI Award the next year, and it was kind of a confirmation for me. So I started to explore this even more.

But Haddad is not at all dogmatic in his transfer of Arabic music theory to pieces that are designed to be interpreted by musicians trained in Western classical music and performed for its usual audiences. For example, while the microtonal gradations that occur in traditional Arabic music are extremely subtle, Haddad is content with limiting himself to quartertones.

Splitting the scale into 24 notes is the easiest way to think about it without going into it so in-depth. If you’re asking a bunch of players to do it, you have to tell them to play this quartertone, because if they’re all playing different shades of it, it doesn’t sound like what you want. It sounds like a cluster or it sounds like it’s wrong. How do you make it sound like it belongs? That kind of approximation, I think, does a big thing for it; you still have the feeling that it belongs to the maqam when you’re using quartertones. … There are certain things you can do that make it easier for an orchestra. Have the microtones in first or second position in each of the strings. Have them a little lower so you can really hear them; if they’re really high up, sometimes it sounds like a wrong note. “How do I make it idiomatic for the orchestra?” is something I’m always thinking.

The way that Saad Haddad has forged a balance between being practical and a desire to take risks is almost as seamless as his balancing of Western classical and Middle Eastern musical traditions. It is particularly surprising considering that he has come to such realizations while still a student. But even here, Haddad balances a duality: a desire to always be a student but never to be held back by thinking like one.

It’s only in name that I feel like I’m a student right now. No matter how old you are, you’re always learning things. You’re always going to be a student. But I’ve never said, “I’m a student, so I need to act like a student.” The more that you think you’re a student, you’re going to be writing “student music.” You need to think outside that kind of shell and say, “What do I want to do?” and don’t worry about anything else.

Daniel Wohl: The Seamless Ideal

Daniel Wohl

Composers often pick up nearly unshakable identifiers in the press that follow them like a tagline. For Daniel Wohl, that call-out has been praise for the remarkably seamless integration of the acoustic and electronic timbres that thread his compositions. It’s a talent that generated significant buzz after the 2013 release of his album Corps Exquis, and it’s a modifier that will likely only cling more tightly in the wake of his full-length follow-up Holographic.

Which is all well and good since it is remarkable. Wohl says that while some artists make use of placing these sounds in opposition, they’re all just sounds to his ear, without distinction. It’s a way of working that comes naturally and simply offers him an enhanced palette that he finds more engaging.

“I feel like a lot of things are born out of being dissatisfied with something,” Wohl acknowledges, further explaining that electronics make acoustic instrumentation more exciting to him, while instrumentalists add vital energy, especially in live performance situations. “And so why not [use all of them]? You can do all of that today, so it doesn’t make sense for me to have arbitrary distinctions between the two.”

In an age of boundary dismantling, this sounds entirely sensible, but the distinctions he makes between live and recorded performance is equally compelling. Taking the album version of Holographic as an example, several of the works were created independently for live performance. These and the other pieces included on the disc were later recorded by a range of (often their commissioning) ensembles—Iktus Percussion, Mivos Quartet, Bang on a Can All-Stars, Olga Bell and Caroline Shaw, and Mantra Percussion. (Lucky Dragons even pops up with a writing credit on the closing track.)

Holographic is an album and live performance co-commissioned by Baryshnikov Arts Center, MASS MoCA, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The album was released by New Amsterdam Records.

“When I’m writing commissioned works, I definitely think about the album as well,” Wohl admits. “I think the album is a great way to bring it all together,” allowing each work to have a longer and more polished life and to be heard by a much larger group of people. “For me that feels like a very comfortable place for what I’m doing because the studio becomes an instrument and you can really fine tune. I don’t always have the luxury of recording, but it’s great when it works and makes sense.”

The recording for Holographic wrapped last September, but the work was not yet finished. Wohl arranged the music to suit a touring ensemble (after stops in New York, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, and Minnesota, one show remains on February 27 in Los Angeles) consisting of percussion trio and string quartet, plus Wohl himself holding down the electronics. During a weeklong residency at MassMOCA in early January, Wohl further refined the performance with the live players and added the final essential element—a visual accompaniment special to the live presentation created by Daniel Schwarz.

While Wohl considers the album complete without the video work, he finds that the live performance is enhanced to the point that “I don’t think I would do it without the video.”

Even for the well initiated, laptops in performance can seem an enigma. Here, Wohl and Schwarz sit together within reach of the other performers on stage, Wohl’s MIDI designed to communicate with Schwarz’s visual software. In terms of content, the setups mirror each other in a sense—some of the material pre-rendered and some of it mixed live, allowing in-the-moment control over movement, shading, dynamics, and other effects.

It leaves Wohl the room to be involved enough in the performance to feel like he’s another performer on stage playing his part. “Definitely not as much as a violin,” he’s quick to point out, “but certainly I feel like I’m having an impact on the way the strings are reacting to the electronics.”

Still, why leave room for mistakes?

“I don’t really have a conceptual problem with someone who presses play, but I like to be entertained while I’m doing it so I leave as much as I can handle to the live process. But someone could probably handle more than I can, and other people just want to sit back and enjoy the performance themselves.”

On reflection, Wohl’s most distinctive skill may be his knack for balance even more than blending, the music swinging across a wide range of timbres that can carry a piece without slipping the noose of his control.

Born and raised in Paris (his father hailed from Los Angeles, if you’re wondering where his accent is hiding), then educated at Bard College, University of Michigan, and Yale, Wohl recently made the jump from New York to LA, for “no real good reason except that I wanted a little bit more space and better weather,” he jokes. But on a more serious note, he underlines that commonality of being moved around by the economics of being an artist—the seemingly straightforward yet complex equation involved in securing the time and space to create new work.

“People ask your reasons why you’re making things, and sometimes you have some and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes it’s really simply, ‘I’m making something,’ and your intuitive, creative approach is all it’s about.”

It’s something that makes him self-conscious at times, but he suggests that perhaps artists are simply searching for some sort of ideal. “Sometimes we get close to it and sometimes we fall short, but we’re all looking for this idealized version of what this music could be.”

Part of that ideal for Wohl is in that mix of acoustic and electronic sounds, which he feels reflects a broader cultural conversation. “We’re looking for something that’s interfacing with technology but just stays human—doesn’t lose the flaws and what makes us interesting.

“That’s an ideal we’re looking for in our computers, but also in the music we’re making.”

Kate Soper: Real Communication

Armed with a serious supply of Post-it notes, Kate Soper is working her way through Aristotle’s Metaphysics—not for the first time—with the aim of turning selections drawn from the classic into chamber music. It’s an exercise familiar to this composer/performer, who has made the setting of challenging or ambiguous text, spanning ancient philosophy to contemporary poetry, something of a calling card.

The space to study new ideas outside her area of expertise is one of the things she loves most about being a musician working in this way. “It gives you an excuse to deeply investigate anything,” Soper explains. “I’m always just trying to read and keep my mind and eyes open for something that I really want to explore further, and then I get to do that because I’m a composer.”

That commitment to open-minded study has led to the creation of illuminating works such as Voices from the Killing Jar, a song cycle inspired by fictional characters that resonated with Soper, and the theatrical work Here Be Sirens, which mixes original text penned by the composer and a range of other sources to explore the very human story of these mythological creatures.

Most recently, Soper has begun collating works that were originally created independently along with new settings under the heading of Ipsa Dixit (“she, herself, said it…”). The six-movement piece, of which Metaphysics will eventually be a part, plays explicitly with ideas about language. While the use of words in a piece of music adds a layer of meaning, that may not necessarily translate into clarity of communication and Soper is fascinated by that ambiguity—”the complexities of language and meaning and vocalizing and speech and how we can connect those, the interesting ways we can play with those intersections.”

Extended techniques in her vocal and instrumental writing, as well as integrated choreography and other dramatic elements, further work to memorably illuminate these ideas. But they can also push a musician beyond her comfort zone, which Soper sees as just par for the course as a performing artist. She recalls coming face to face with this reality in her late 20s. “I was feeling the need to follow this instinct to communicate and realizing that the risk was essentially that I was going to embarrass myself. I had to let go of that fear and take that risk or it wasn’t worth continuing to do what I was doing, which is writing music.”

Even with her anxieties set aside, she acknowledges that the conversation she can have with an audience is quite different from one-on-one communication. Still, she strives to foster meaningful shared human activity between herself and the people in the hall through her work, a connection that can feel quite direct due to her position as a vocalist using words and not standing behind an external instrument.

There’s also a compelling logistical advantage to writing work she can perform herself. Though she’s excited to have other artists present her pieces, she finds great benefit to writing for her own instrument and being able to monitor how things are going as the piece develops in rehearsal and performance firsthand.

Plus, as a composer, it’s a good way to push the performer into new territory with confidence. “I will do anything as a performer that I as a composer ask me to do.”

James Moore: The Hunt for Sonic Solutions

“I’ll warn you, I’m a little bit of a perfectionist,” guitarist James Moore confesses to sound engineer James Dellatacoma as they set up to record a complete performance of John Zorn’s The Book of Heads, a challenging collection of 35 etudes. “I’ll probably be like, ‘Well, it said that’s supposed to be a high whoop not a low whoop; I better do it again’.”

This scene—captured as part of an absorbing CD/DVD recording of the work that he released last month on the Tzadik label—is overlaid with Moore’s self-effacing laughter, but his performance of the music itself sees him navigating reams of such non-traditional tasks with remarkable focus. While the etudes are billed as being composed for solo guitar, their presentation actually requires an additional arsenal of sound-making tools which Moore also manages, here including “fifteen balloons, two violin bows, three mbira keys, a slide bar, nail file, spring, metal rod, ratchet, pipe cleaner, talking toy, finger cymbals, thirty grains of rice, some Styrofoam, and an extra string.” With a supply list like that, it perhaps goes without saying that some serious interpretive powers on the part of the player serve an essential role in the presentation of the music as well.

It also neatly frames Moore’s talent and enthusiasm for solving musical problems in order to bring engaging sounds to life. This applies whether he’s working as a solo artist playing a banjo, a mandolin, or a guitar (which could be acoustic, steel-string resonator, electric, or classical) or working in one of the wide variety of ensemble situations he’s a part of, such as the Dither electric guitar quartet or his mixed band The Hands Free.

“I guess that idea of problem solving is something that’s always intrigued me. Now I’m older and jaded and a little stuck in my ways in some ways, but I hope I still have that desire to solve things and to seek out new sounds.”

It’s an instinct that he can actually trace back to his early studies.

“I was sort of always drawn to the more unconventional side of things,” Moore says, recalling an anecdote from his grade-school days. “I went to my piano teacher and said that at the school Christmas concert I wanted to do a medley of carols, but I wanted to put all sorts of things inside the piano to make noises and stuff. And my piano teacher said, ‘You know that’s been done before?’ and handed me John Cage’s Silence. So I was already finding some of these weirder corners of the musical world.”

Just before the release of his Book of Heads recording, Moore also put out Gertrudes, an album of duos with violinist Andie Springer that were written by a range of composers including Larry Polansky, Paula Matthusen, Ken Thomson, Lainie Fefferman, Robert Ashley, and Moore himself. Moore and Springer began collaborating while touring with a theatrical production and developed their project during their down time, eventually reaching out to friends and colleagues and booking shows as they passed through town.

“It’s very eclectic, but I think it works,” Moore acknowledges, highlighting the social strengths of the project and the fun of building its foundation out of just what they had at hand while traveling. As his myriad instrumental interests underline, “I’m most happy being a musician and trying anything that’s given to me.”

While Moore continues to fine-tune his professional focus as he gathers experience, he also keeps an ear open to what may find him when he’s not actively looking.

“It’s not necessarily that you pick it. You maybe find yourself having a tendency towards different types of music or certain genres, but sometimes these things pick you.”

Linda Oh: Lean In and Listen

Towards the end of our conversation, composer and bassist Linda Oh shares a formative lesson from a recording session for her first album Entry.

I had written everything and wanted things a certain way. Then when I got together with the other musicians, they were strong players and I realized that whatever preconceptions I had, things weren’t necessarily going to be exactly how I wanted them. That was a great thing for me because it challenged me to think, “Okay, how am I going to let go of my initial vision and just go play?”

She is speaking about herself, of course, but it’s also striking how applicable it is to anyone—musician or listener—who finds themselves mentally tangled up in preconceptions before the music starts.

Oh’s interest in a malleable and personally expressive approach to music making is actually something that began pulling at her aesthetically much earlier. While growing up in Perth, Australia, she and her sisters studied classical music from a young age, an education her family took very seriously. And while she remains appreciative of the technical skill she derived, she stresses the importance of freedom and sincerity in the music she performs now.

“In the music that I play, I’m really allowed to do what I feel and be who I am,” she explains. Still she doesn’t feel she has abandoned her early training so much as continued developing her musical voice—appreciating the push and pull between discipline and freedom. “There was never one particular point where I thought I’m going to switch from classical into jazz or improvised music. I’m going to do one thing and not the other. It’s all music and it’s all tied in together in some way.”

And her instrument—whether an electric strapped across her body or an upright acoustic with which she moves almost as a dance partner—has become an integral piece of that self-expression. “That is who I am now. It is so much a part of my identity that I can’t imagine playing another instrument this seriously.”

While the idea of the bass player leading the band remains enough of a novelty to attract comment, Oh seems to find it simply an option among many offering unique strengths and influences on the music. She does acknowledge that her personal style may be a bit more democratic than some bandleaders and that her interests are often focused on “creating space or a palette for other people to work with.” But that isn’t to imply that she shies away from taking the reins—or the melody.

Group dynamics are an area that Oh is sensitive to since the acoustic bass often needs the support of amplification to cut through the band. Still, she sees the technical limitations of her own or any particular instrument as fuel for creating new spaces for sound.

“With the tradition of [the bass], especially within a jazz context,” she points out, “there has been emphasis placed on having a huge acoustic sound, which I definitely value and it’s something that I teach my students. But in addition to having a big string sound, a lot can be done by dialing things back. It’s like if you talk to a large crowd of people, you can talk really loudly over them, but if you try and talk softer it’s interesting to see how many people will actually lean in and listen more.”

Once again, the conversation swings around to just that: listening. And whether Oh is improvising in the company of familiar players or new colleagues, that’s a fundamental focus no matter where the music might unexpectedly take them.

“It’s risk, but you’re still playing with people and you’re still respecting people. The worst thing I think for humanity is when people aren’t listening to each other. And that’s not just a musical thing, it’s a life thing.”

Andy Milne: Putting the Theory Into Practice


video presentation by Molly Sheridan

For pianist/composer/bandleader Andy Milne, making music that navigates seamlessly between musical genres is not just the by-product of a personal theory of what the music of today could and should be. Being an astute listener to the world around him and playing in a wide array of styles throughout his career has enabled him to operate fluently in all of them. When we met up with him in a practice room in the jazz department of New York University, which is located far away from the central campus in a freshman dormitory, Milne spoke in great detail about how he has come to his polyglot musical vocabulary, opining that being open to a variety of influences and finding your own identity within them are ongoing processes.

“To the best of my abilities I try to operate in a post-genre mind set,” says Milne. “But I can’t escape certain tendencies I think I have based on the various experiences that have contributed to how I think and how I play and how I can understand and process music. Of course I’m always hoping that can continue to evolve and expand and grow and enrich me. You get to a certain point where it’s really up to your own tenacity and discipline to ensure that that exists with any kind of weight.”

According to Milne, collaborations between hip-hop and R&B artists he was hearing in the late ‘90s are what initially inspired him to form his group Dapp Theory in which he has incorporated elements of that blending into a jazz context. A decade and a half later, it is territory he continues to mine. The group’s performance at the Chamber Music America conference back in January was the first time a rapper appeared on one of CMA’s showcases, although the person doing the rapping, John Moon, was billed as a “percussive poet.” It was an extremely effective presentation, which also went further than most in challenging definitions and comfort zones.

“I think [hip-hop] is maybe a different world in the sense that there isn’t as formalized a pedagogy that has existed for a longer period of time within jazz and classical music,” Milne acknowledges. “That separates musical traditions and musical cultural communities by virtue of the fact that they don’t have these same types of institutions. I think there’s still learning, but it gets conducted in a different way. So there’s a blind spot there, but maybe it will get filled in at some point in time—everything changes. It’s taken a long time, I think, even within the scope of various emerging opportunities that continue to exist where jazz and classical music speak together.”

Yet for all of Milne’s embrace of everything from hip-hop and R&B to reggae and folk rock (he has recorded fabulous solo piano version of Bob Marley’s “I Shot The Sherriff” and Stephen Stills’s “Love The One Your With”), he is perfectly fine calling the music he makes jazz. Not only does he not find jazz aesthetically limiting, he is extremely suspicious of musicians who reject the term:

I identify with jazz because it’s the music that I feel the most affinity with in terms of where I came from as a young person listening to music. I wouldn’t want to present myself as someone who listened with the same level of depth to hip-hop even; I didn’t grow up listening to hip-hop. So I would never feel comfortable saying “I come out of the hip-hop experience” in terms of my music.

[…]

In recent history there’ve been a few attempts to debunk the significance of jazz. Some people have agendas frankly to just further their careers by trying to call attention to themselves by being very dogmatic about some sort of political position on jazz. If you think about jazz in a very general sense, it’s incorporating improvisation—you don’t even have to get into whether you say it’s got to swing or not. It embraces music from all over the world and it always has, and a big part of it is improvisation.

[…]

Would you say that rock music is jazz? I don’t know if there’s the same degree of improvisation. But then again it gets so subjective, because then you can get into what do you consider improvisation. If something is sort of going to be the exact same way every night then it’s not necessarily improvised. There are certain things I want to be the same every night but there are huge sections where I want to have that give and take and that flow that I know the musicians I’ve brought to this can deliver.

Milne, however, concedes that not everything he has done fits comfortably within jazz. One of his most fascinating musical projects thus far has been Strings & Serpents, a collaboration with another jazz pianist Benoît Delbecq, animator Saki Murotani, and two Japanese koto players, Ai Kajigano and Tsugumi Yamamoto. While he and Delbecq improvise throughout, the koto players adhere much more closely to the score Milne composed for them.

Over the past few years, Milne has also begun composing film soundtracks as a result of his friendship with actor Avery Brooks, who is also an accomplished jazz singer and pianist though he is probably most widely known for his seven-year television stint as Captain Benjamin Sisko on the Star Trek sequel Deep Space Nine. When the actor who played Star Trek’s original captain, William Shatner, decided to make a documentary about all the actors who had served as captains in the various Trek incarnations, he queried the musical Brooks about who should do the soundtrack. Brooks immediately recommended Milne. In addition to being hired to score that film (The Captains), this has led to another whole side career for Milne performing at Star Trek conventions.

But Milne’s most recent project, The Seasons of Being, which premieres later this month in Lancaster (Pennsylvania), Baltimore, and New York City, is once again very firmly rooted in his polystylistic jazz sensibilities, albeit with an unusual twist. An hour-long work scored for a greatly expanded Dapp Theory (a total of ten players), it is a by-product of his deep interest in homeopathy:

We all have some form of dis-ease in our existence; often we treat it and often we don’t, but most of us can cope. You can say the word disease, but I think there’s another way of thinking about it by having the accent on it be dis-ease; there’s an uneasiness about something we maybe don’t ever get to or maybe don’t want to get to.

[…]

The precursor to even thinking about the idea was my own experience of going to see a homeopath and often he would make these analogies using music. He and I would have these conversations after our sessions and I wondered how I could incorporate that musically.

[…]

I began to actively start researching and developing models, figuring out how I would understand a musician from an emotional place and extract information from various people to come up with a model that would help me identify a pathology, as they refer to it in homeopathics. Primarily I’m trying to gear it toward the featured soloist during any given movement. A specific piece might be for the drummer to solo in, so I look at the results of having an assessment of all the intake information I have on the drummer and proceed to think, “What is the musical remedy?”

Data-Driven DJ Brian Foo: Statistics That Sing

In January 2015, multimedia artist and web developer Brian Foo posted the first track in his year-long Data-Driven DJ project, an endeavor billed as a series of “experiments” rather than compositions that combine “data, algorithms, and borrowed sounds.” His working method allows him to mix areas he is at home in—namely computer science and data analysis—with a skill he hopes to learn: how to make music.

For his initial outing, Foo used census data to chart the rise and fall of median income levels along a subway line in New York City. He also selected samples from the work of resident musicians. He then wrote a computer program that combined those two elements to produce his final (after many iterations—more on that in a bit) sonic representation of the information. It sounds like this:

If you know the work of Steve Reich, it is impossible not to draw an immediate sonic connection here—and that is in some sense very much part of the point. Foo used a carefully selected palette of raw materials to conjure a fuller mental image of what, on the page, is rather a drier set of facts and figures. And he approached this challenge by using elements that he felt authentically connected to the given subject matter. Reich’s New York Counterpoint and the technique of phase shifting also spoke to Foo’s interest in exploring his own understanding of musical concepts while developing the listener’s emotional investment in the matter at hand.

“You’re never really told how to feel when you look at a chart, even though it may have to do with something that is very human like income inequality or climate change,” Foo explains. “It ends up being just information that you don’t really internalize or contemplate. So I wanted to figure out how to take something like a chart but curate an experience in which you’d feel a certain way while listening to the song.”

He also wants to take advantage of another aspect of music: its ability to grab your ears and not let go. “You don’t really think about a chart all day after you see it, but with music, it kind of repeats. So if I could embed information into the music, then those topics and issues would circulate in somebody’s head.”

So far he has applied his data-driven approach to music making to an engagingly diverse selection of topics: seizures, smog, romantic attraction. For one track, he developed a complex methodology to analyze the relationship between painters Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock through samples of their work. The next month, he was tracing the movement of refugees over the course of four decades. Despite his desire to curate an experience for his listeners, his subject matter has also forced him to confront some interesting questions about the relationships between sound and emotional manipulation: Should the music sound “better” when passing through rich neighborhoods in his presentation of income? Should the sounds be uncomfortable during the active period of seizure? Where is the line between representation and judgment?

Foo says he’s had the most aesthetic luck with data that follows a curve, thereby supporting a climax and resolution within the track. His process also involves a certain element of ongoing surprise as he combines sounds and iterates the track over and over (and over) again until its parameters have been tweaked to the point that it meets his sonic desires. But he won’t artificially manipulate the results to improve only a certain section, requiring instead that the full track must remain true to the data from start to finish. Yet tweaking at the level of the algorithm changes the entire song, so it can be a frustrating process of trial and error to land on the final result. “I’m like a mad scientist just trying to mix different things together until something happens,” Foo admits. “So it’s almost a brute force process where I just iterate hundreds, if not thousands of times, until it sounds good.”

If you’re curious at this point precisely how these data sets end up being represented by sound, well, the details are only a click away. Core to Foo’s project is complete transparency when it comes to process. His tools and methods are meticulously logged on the project website for each individual piece, and if visitors find a way to expand, modify, or improve on his process he hopes to hear from them. This fits comfortably with Foo’s larger philosophical tenets concerning making art more accessible and inter-personal. He even offers fans the option to pre-order the eventual album by trading sounds with him or promoting the project in lieu of cash payment.

Foo suspects that he invests one to four hours every day into making each month’s track, and, contrary to expectation, his working process is actually lengthening—likely attributable to the increasing complexity of each sonic experiment as he acquires new skills and experience.

And that is his preferred way of learning, he concedes. “I try to not learn correctly. I basically try to avoid learning the right way for the longest period of time as I can because I think there’s this unique point in time when you’re learning that you don’t really know what the limitations are. When you don’t know the right way of doing things yet, you don’t really know where the ceiling is, and I wanted to see how far I could get just with the things that I already knew.”

Hafez Modirzadeh: Crossing The Bridge


Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
The approach to improvisation that the recently deceased Ornette Coleman pioneered in the late 1950s and early 1960s was one of music’s seismic shifts. Though Coleman was certainly not the only person to break away from the underpinning of chord progressions, the title of Coleman’s 1960 Atlantic double quartet album, Free Jazz, and his musical philosophy of “harmolodics,” gave the new music a name as well as a raison d’etre. There’s a transformation of similar significance happening in improvised music right now involving the embrace of a greater intervallic palette. Bay Area-based composer, saxophonist, and musical theorist Hafez Modirzadeh, a great admirer of Coleman, has been one of the key architects of this intervallic expansion.

A hand drawn chart of musical intervals in the chromodal system.

Hafez Modirzadeh’s Chromodal Spiral

Of course, jazz soloists have played pitches outside of conventional 12-tone equal temperament from the very beginning. And later on, many of the non-keyboard playing advocates of free jazz purposefully eschewed the piano—Coleman in particular—not only to avoid being influenced by possible chordal underpinnings but also to avoid a fixed tuning. By the 1960s, some iconoclastic musicians—such as Don Ellis, Emil Richards, and Joe Maneri—began taking a more systemic approach to improvising microtonally. In the early 1990s, even one of the most prominent free jazz pianists, Marilyn Crispell, found a way around her instrument’s de facto pitch limitations, recording a series of sprawling duets on retuned pianos with Georg Graewe. But whereas each of those instances was somewhat anomalous, a more inclusive attitude about pitch seems to be one of the defining qualities of a great deal of recent improvisationally oriented music, whether it’s the Middle Eastern-infused suites of Amir ElSaffar, the untempered multicultural tapestries of Bill Cole, the spectral octet of Steve Lehman, or the sonic explorations of Modirzadeh. Modirzadeh has even coined a harmolodic-sounding word for his approach, chromodal, though he is leery of terminology getting in the way of possibility.

A hand drawn diagram showing a lattice of chormodal intervallic relationships.

Hafez Modirzadeh’s Chromodal Star Map

“It’s better sometimes when there are no names because then you can’t own it,” he explained when we met with him at the aptly named Pioneer Works, a performance space in a converted warehouse near the Brooklyn waterfront. “When an idea becomes an ideology it gets dangerous. … You get in a position where you have to call it something; you put a flag in there because you’re doing something that sounds different nor unusual—that horrible word new. … But as Ornette said, ‘It’s just an invention; we’re a creation.’”

For Modirzadeh, who for a time was a key sideman in the revolutionary big band led by the late Fred Ho, being open to a wider range of pitches, and exploring them on his saxophone, is also an important political statement.

All the [saxophone’s] materials come up from the Congo, from the lifeblood of the African peoples. The zinc and copper that goes into the brass, the rubber, the cork, the reed—so much were taken from what they called the Belgian Congo. … Chromodality is a way of looking at the spectrum of relationships in the universe… It helps me understand where I’m going to place tones when I practice, not to counter things so much as to complement them. Working [with] these twelve—what they call—half-steps, or semitones, is very problematic because it dominates and in the rest of the world not everyone is working in this system. The particular system of chromaticism really took hold during the peak of the age of colonialism. That same mindset that calls something a semitone happened to also call someone a semi-human being. So when someone says to me, ‘Oh, you play quarter steps.’ If I try to explain it in quantitative terms, like three-quarter tones, I think. ‘We’re tones. Are you a three-quarter human being?’ We’re all different heights, but we’re all whole human.

But unlike most of the other improvisatory pitch pioneers, Modirzadeh does not avoid using a piano. Instead, he carries around a tuning wrench which he wields like a weapon in the quest to effect intervallic change.

“The piano is this sacred cow that has to be sacrificed,” he declares. “When the piano comes into it, everything gets quantified. In a way it’s beautiful geometry and infinite symmetry, but if you tweak a few tones, then you’ve punctured that circle. With every puncturing there’s some blood, but you’re into the human experience of being incomplete.”

The cover of the CD Post-Chromodal Out! which is an abstract painting.

Post-Chromodal Out!
(PI Recordings #44, 2012)

As you might imagine, showing up at venues and sticking a wrench inside their pianos does not always ingratiate Modirzadeh with the management, but he is undeterred and has managed to convince many of today’s most forward-thinking musicians to accompany him on his quest. For his groundbreaking 2012 album Post-Chromodal Out!, he was joined by ElSaffar, bassist Ken Filiano, and percussionist royal hartigan, as well as Vijay Iyer on the retuned piano, which elicited from him some of his most inspired solos. On Modirzadeh’s latest release, In Convergence Liberation (2014), he worked with a group of traditional Iranian musicians as well as Argentine-Mexican vocalist Mili Bermejo and the string quartet ETHEL. Still, no matter how many high-profile collaborators Modirzadeh has been able to bring on board, he knows that what he is doing is far removed from the commercial mainstream and he has no problem with that.

The cover of the CD In Convergence Liberation which is a diagram of converging angles and spirals.

In Convergence Liberation
(PI Recordings #55, 2014)

“You can tell when it’s about the money and you can tell when it is the money,” he opined. “It helps when it’s not about the money; working with the sound itself and the friendships—that’s the money. The musicians that lend themselves to these ideas I’m trying to work out have ideas of their own, so it becomes like a collective. Ultimately I’m not comfortable with side men—side people—being part of projects; it’s a common mission. It’s not a question of ownership—that would be about the money; it’s about a larger picture. It’s joyful. It keeps you alive and connected. … For all of us who begin on this path, these things become a bridge to get somewhere. You don’t live on or under the bridge; you just cross it.”

Aakash Mittal and Hafez Modirzadeh facing each other playing alto saxophones.

Hafez Modirzadeh (right) playing with Aakash Mittal