Tag: bassoon

Never Say That’s Not Possible

In 2009, as the newest member of the International Contemporary Ensemble, I was invited to perform my first solo show in New York City. I was excited, yet terrified of the daunting task in front of me: programming a solo bassoon concert. In a raw space. With no piano. AHHHHHHHH!

ICE had commissioned a new bassoon and electronics piece (by rising Mexican star Edgar Guzman) in my honor; but, beyond that, how could a person even begin to find such repertoire? Yes, there was the Luciano Berio Sequenza XII, the seemingly endless 18-minute solo marathon (for both bassoonist and audience) commissioned by the bassoon wizard Pascal Gallois. And yes, there were the Brazilian composer Francisco Mignone’s Waltzes(cute, overplayed solo ditties) and, of course, the intoxicating and sinewy lines of Olga Neuwirth’s Torsion. But beyond these, what new, interesting, exciting solo bassoon pieces existed?!

Very few, I discovered. Instead of stomping my feet in frustration or shrugging my shoulders in weary acceptance, I asked, “What can I do to change this?” Thus began a lifelong quest, in step (both artistically and practically) with my new position at ICE, to forge new relationships with composers in order to develop a new body of repertoire for the instrument, and in so doing, empower other musicians to do the same.

We’ve premiered more than 800 new works.

This spirit of adventure has always been at the heart of ICE’s mission to commission new music. Since our founding in 2001, we’ve premiered more than 800 new works. The beauty of our collective is that all 36 of us have incredibly unique and creative points of view, and each new project becomes imbued with those varied and diverse ideas. Deep collaborations, both among ourselves and with composers, ensure that these stories are told using a shared language we build and evolve together.

In an attempt to codify these methods of collaboration, we began ICELab in 2010. Through an online submission process, we chose six emerging composers each year from wildly diverse backgrounds—geographically, educationally, artistically—and gave them the space, time, and resources to experiment with performers before a piece was fully baked. We were inspired by theater and dance companies run by our peer groups (like The Troupe) and mentors (like The Wooster Group), and their spirit of radical collaboration in all parts of the process, from conception through performance. This kind of project, in ICE-land, had previously been impossible, as there was no method in place to fund this sort of musical experimentation. So, with crucial support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we embarked on this adventure.

The results were overwhelmingly, outrageously exciting! Through the application process, we were introduced to composers outside our network and with whom we began long-term collaborative relationships. To name just a few ICELab “graduates” who have continued their trajectories into major, industry-shaking careers: Tyshawn Sorey, Carla Kihlstedt, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Suzanne Farrin, Zosha Di Castri, Marcos Balter, Du Yun (whose Pulitzer Prize-winning Angel’s Bone had its earliest premiere in the “lab”).

We turned ICElab from a noun into a verb.

In 2014, we turned ICElab from a noun into a verb, sun-setting the initiative as a standalone program and making it the DNA of how ICE works on every new piece. Every new work we make is now “labbed,” supported (through myriad, intentional fundraising efforts) from conception to performance. This allows us to have a period of time for each project in which composers and performers can experiment, play, record, and have the freedom to learn from one another. Because of this deeply collaborative process, pieces aren’t just written for the instruments involved; they’re written for the very specific, creative, and virtuosic members in our ranks.

My own ideas about how to create new work were developing alongside ICE’s commissioning process. By working with composers so closely within ICELab, I was able to see and understand how I was directly responsible for certain impulses and directions in projects—not only within the sonic world of the bassoon, but in the overall shaping of a work. It was thrilling!

The thrill and the risks both felt amplified when working alone. Commissioning solo pieces means lots of intense one-on-one collaboration, and true collaboration, I found, is hard and SCARY; it requires all parties to be extremely vulnerable and open. After the agony of programming my solo show in 2008, I began in earnest to commission the works that would make up my first album, 100 names, released in 2013. On speaking a hundred names (for bassoon and live electronics)—the piece by Nathan Davis after which I named my album—was my first such journey. Nathan works in a fascinating way. He gets his hands on an instrument and starts learning it; he’s deeply interested in the sounds that will come out in the hands of a beginner. On the bassoon, that happens to be multiphonics. ANY multiphonic. Fun fact: on a bassoon, it’s way easier to produce a multiphonic than it is to produce a single beautiful tone. So easy, in fact, that Nathan composed an entire section devoted to a gorgeous, deafening cacophony of many-layered bassoon multiphonics, serving as the climax of the piece that we jokingly refer to as DEVASTATION.

Never say “that’s not possible” or even “no” without really trying (and failing) myriad times.

When working with a composer, it’s so easy to claim authority on your instrument and dictate the limitations and technical boundaries that the composer has to work within. Nathan asked me to try some things that I was convinced I could not do, those that I said were IMPOSSIBLE on the bassoon. It’s easy to respond this way—immediately saying NO—out of the fear of looking stupid or untalented, because everyone else has told you it’s impossible, or because you’ve never been able to do it. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s to never say “that’s not possible” or even “no,” without really, really being open to trying (and failing) myriad times. Because of Nathan, his patient insistence, and our trust in one another as collaborators, I often wail out in performance on an “impossible” high A-flat; teeth on the reed, hips thrust out, goddess above treble clef.

The exhilarating feeling of performing new works, created collaboratively, is magnified a thousand-fold when a piece develops a life of its own. I’m especially thrilled to welcome into the world Metafagote (the title track of my second album), an epic, 18-minute work (eat your heart out, Mr. Berio!) by Felipe Lara for solo bassoon and six pre-recorded bassoons and contrabassoons, or for a live choir of seven bassoons.

Not only have I performed both versions of the piece, but several other players have already taken it on. One particularly ambitious and talented young bassoonist, Clifton Guidry at Peabody, is performing it on his senior recital next weekend, and allowing me the immense pleasure of playing in his back-up band. This is SO brave! It is a risk to interpret someone else’s work, and I applaud Clifton and his willingness to be so open and so vulnerable and jump off this musical cliff with me and Felipe and his other collaborators.

Exploration and collaboration are inherently risky…

Exploration and collaboration are inherently risky, but the rewards are so clear. Not only can a deeply personal piece turn into a powerful universal experience, one that can be interpreted by any willing explorer, the process itself becomes a mighty teacher. I’ve become a much better musician thanks to my musical deep dives, within the ICE collective and beyond.

My great hope is that we continue to inspire one another, performing and commissioning new works together, so the next generation’s young artists, faced with programming their first big show, will be overwhelmed by a beautiful, varied, unique, and multi-faceted new repertoire, overflowing with the diverse voices of a movement fed up with waiting for someone else to do it for them.

Jumping Off a Musical Cliff

An excited hush settled over the gallery. Anticipation and delight fueled the tense few seconds before the first note was played. And then… pure magic!

Although the audience was small, the commitment, focus, and sense of community was breathtaking; the barriers between performer, composer, and listener disappeared. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded on all sides by musicians and advocates who were fully committed, generous, brave, and outrageously virtuosic. I felt like we were jumping off a musical cliff together and it was thrilling. By the end of the concert I knew: THIS is what I wanted to do with my life.

This was 2007: my first concert with the International Contemporary Ensemble, in the beautiful Tenri Institute in Manhattan’s West Village. Before this concert, I could not have imagined this incredible moment, or how it would change the direction of my life and career forever.

I gravitated towards the things no one else in my family wanted.

The question I’m most often asked is “why the bassoon?” Growing up in a very small town in New York’s culturally and economically depressed Adirondack Park, I was an outspoken youngest child, aware of being outshone by my older brothers. I gravitated towards the things no one else in my family wanted: I taught myself to LOVE black cherry ice cream, simply because it was the flavor everyone else abhorred. More ice cream for me! The bassoon became the black cherry of musical instruments; in my words, “something that nobody wanted to play.” But, at age nine, I decided I did.

This shocked and charmed my band teacher, who pulled a behemoth plastic instrument out from a very dusty old case. Delighted by the new object, my mother and I headed home with this beast and spent the rest of the day trying to figure out how to put it together. This was the late ’80s: no YouTube instrument demonstrations, no method books, and—with no private teacher—I was left to forge ahead with encouragement from my mom (a very good amateur flutist) and an old, yellowed fingering chart my band teacher found from his college course on double reeds. By the end of the day, I had figured out how to play the world’s loudest and most-abrasive version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” much to the dismay of my smirking brothers.

I was ambitious and talented, but never solely focused on music. I never imagined a career as a bassoonist was possible, or even desirable. To feed my myriad interests outside music, as well as my bassooning, I chose to study in the Oberlin College and Conservatory’s rigorous double degree program. And under the direction of Tim Weiss and the amazing Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble, found an incredible introduction to new music.

There very little repertoire that included bassoon.

Although I was at Oberlin when the seeds of ICE began to sprout, I wasn’t involved at the beginning. This was not out of disinterest; it was out of fear. Not only was there very little repertoire that included bassoon, it seemed outside of the realm of possibility to me to pursue such a dream. In my mind, an orchestra path loomed larger than life, the inevitable (if joyless) way to make a decent living playing this ridiculous instrument.

After Oberlin, I went to graduate school at UT Austin, still unsure of what was next for me. From Texas, I moved to Chicago to join the Civic Orchestra, immediately afterwards winning a coveted spot in the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, where I stayed for three years performing, practicing, and auditioning for countless orchestras around the world.

As glamorous and high-profile as it was, something about my New World Symphony experience never felt quite right. I kept auditioning for jobs I didn’t really want, never understanding (or questioning) why. Finally, in 2007, I got a phone call from the already legendary Claire Chase, founder of ICE. She invited me to play a concert in New York in a month’s time. I was excited and terrified — the music looked SO hard!

But then I was onstage with ICE at Tenri, diving headfirst into Christopher Trebue Moore’s brand new opus tentacles and knot formations, performing technical feats on my instrument that, if you’d asked me only months before, I would have promised you were impossible. It felt creative, boundless, and exhilarating; it was nothing like playing Tchaikovsky 5 (wonderful as it is) yet again. After that magical concert, I felt so happy and so free, but also so heavy. What would I do with this new pursuit, and the knowledge that something so deeply satisfying existed for me outside the safe orchestral path

Gripped by this new obsession (MUST PLAY WITH ICE) and the equally strong fear of being broke in New York (MUST SURVIVE), I wrestled with my next move. On the one hand, I had an offer to play principal bassoon in the Jacksonville Symphony, with all the recognition, stability, and financial security that came along with it. On the other, I had an offer from ICE to move to NYC and join the group as their bassoonist. The ICE offer felt like all my hopes and dreams materializing! But it also couldn’t offer more than a few gigs that first year, and with very few friends or contacts in New York City, I was terrified of not being able to make ends meet.

I took the Jacksonville job, and with it its modest salary which was more money than I had ever made in my life. And every day I carried home the weight of a job that didn’t bring me joy. Although I worked with some wonderful musicians and made some truly great friends, I discovered very quickly that this world (as I had feared) wasn’t for me. I languished within the rigid structure, longing for agency over what I played, who I played with, and what shape my life would take. After two months, I decided that no amount of fear—especially about something as superfluous as money—would ever keep me from my dreams again. I left the orchestra the next spring and moved to NYC, broke but endlessly optimistic.

Gigs waiting tables are hard to come by.

To survive, I hustled, which meant taking every odd job I could until I landed a coveted gig waiting tables. (They’re hard to come by if you don’t know someone!) I relied on tip money to offset my gigs with ICE and other NYC groups for more than four years. Even on the worst days, slammed with tables full of well-meaning foreign tourists who thought a 10% tip meant I did a “really good job,” I was never sorry I left the stability of the wrong job for the right life.

As my musical career grew, my days of waiting tables faded, but the hustle remained. I hustle every day to do what I do, but the great beauty of my chosen path is I don’t ever have to hustle alone again. I hustle with my colleagues at ICE to expand the way new music is created, experienced, and shared. I hustle with my collaborators—composers, fellow performers, and advocates—to ensure underrepresented voices in our field are brought to the fore. I hustle with the incredible community of performers across all disciplines to shatter assumptions about what we can or cannot do or be as artists. I am most grateful to hustle with and for the younger artists in our community; I strive to help them tear down their own barriers to joy and fulfillment, to empower them to remain fearless in the face of uncertainty, and to convey what I’ve learned along the way: that the safest thing you can ever do is take the risks that matter most.

Sounds Heard: Rebekah Heller—100 names

It’s refreshing to hear the bassoon edging its way towards the sonic foreground in contemporary music. Anyone with doubts about how cool the instrument can be has perhaps not yet heard bassoonist and core member of ICE Rebekah Heller perform; in her hands, the oft-underappreciated woodwind is transformed into a fierce creature that cannot be ignored onstage. Whether the music being performed is a cadenza from a Mozart piece or a new work by an ICELab participant, she will make you wonder how you never noticed the instrument before.

Her first solo CD, 100 names, features six work for solo bassoon, both alone and paired with electronics. All of the composers represented make use of Heller’s virtuosic playing abilities, loading up their compositions with the most extended of extended techniques. The potential “gimmicky” feel is absent though, because the pieces were obviously created in collaboration with Heller, who is clearly comfortable handling such musical material. The first piece by Edgar Guzman, ∞¿?, opens the disc with a bang; a thick, low electronic tone with rough edges cuts in and out, is quickly joined by the bassoon in its lowest range, and from there the two engage in an undulating dance of rollicking multiphonics, beating tones, and multi-tongued, staccato interruptions. The texture thickens and becomes increasingly complex as it reaches a climactic, abrupt ending.

Marcelo Toledo’s Qualia II employs a totally different sound world, beginning with high-pitched squeaks, dramatic, close-miked breath (and breathless) sounds, and amplified key clicks. Low range melodic cells are underscored by Heller’s “helicopter” technique (in which the bassoon actually does sound like a helicopter hovering at a distance), interrupted by a dramatic set of her vocalized yelps and groans. The mood then calms to slower, more extended wind and noise drones. The piece is like solo instrument musique concrète.

Dai Fujikura’s Calling is an artful construction of multiphonics wrapped around a beautifully mournful melodic line that slinks through the sound field, gradually incorporating the multiphonics into itself. On speaking a hundred names for bassoon and processing also shows off a lyrical side; fellow ICE member Nathan Davis deftly combines multiple layers of bassoon that expand and contract within the stereo space, shifting in mood from happily frenetic to angry to tranquil. Ultimately the story ends with the bassoon being swallowed in its own electronic processes, flying away into high frequencies, like a helium balloon let loose into the sky.

…and also a fountain falls the farthest from the sound worlds presented on 100 names, brought to you by Marcos Balter. It features more of Heller’s voice—this time reciting passages from Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein—heavily reverbed, and punctuated with small percussion instruments in addition to fragile bassoon textures. It shows a sparse, stripped down side of the instrument, and also reveals Heller’s willingness to try anything.

The bonus track (a sip of espresso to end the program?), Du Yun’s 10pm, ixtab is a dramatic pile-up of bassoon tracks and recorded found sound. It’s a speedy, intense roller coaster ride that slams to a halt as abruptly as it began.

For a thorough tour of the capacities (and extremes) of the bassoon, 100 names is the recording to check out. Hopefully other bassoonists will also start to perform these works (not to mention commission new works and make albums of their own!) and continue to expand the available repertoire for the instrument. Bassoon is not just for inner orchestra voices anymore.

Commissioning Rushes

As musicians, we frequently talk about the process of composing music. Most often we discuss the various methods a composer goes through to realize his or her work. Yet there is another facet of such an undertaking that often isn’t discussed—the performer’s side of commissioning a large-scale work. On September 15th, six colleagues and I gave the world premiere of Rushes, a new 60-minute composition for seven bassoons by Michael Gordon. As a specialist in contemporary music performance, I am familiar with the exhilaration that comes with presenting a world premiere. This particular concert, however, topped the scale. For me, this was not only the culmination of a week-long recording residency for a new album release on Cantaloupe Records, but also the culmination of three years of my life that were devoted to making this project happen. I would like to share my experiences and the incredible journey that led to this evening-length composition.

In 2008, I was beginning a new stage in my life. I was 25 years old, had just moved to Amsterdam on a Fulbright Fellowship, and was preparing for the Gaudeamus Young Interpreter’s Competition. I’m not a particularly competitive person, but I saw this as an opportunity to put together a new program of contemporary solo bassoon music. This was also a chance to find new compositions and to work up pieces that I had never performed before. Perhaps this will come as a glaringly obvious statement to most readers, but the bassoon is not known as a particularly strong force in new music. While we have a few notable works like Berio’s Sequenza XII and Gubaidulina’s Duo Sonata, the amount of contemporary bassoon repertoire doesn’t even come close to what exists for our percussion, piano, string, or even other wind instrument-playing colleagues. When I was creating this program back in 2008, I was struck by the lack of variety available to choose from and found myself wishing there were more notable works for bassoon, especially by American composers.

I have always been a fan of minimalist music. Most of my favorite composers fall into this category, among them Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Terry Riley, John Luther Adams, David Lang, and of course Michael Gordon. Unfortunately the only possibility as a bassoonist to perform music by these composers, other than a larger orchestral work, is to make an arrangement. So in 2008, I began working on Michael Gordon’s Low Quartet, a composition scored for any four low-sounding instruments. This piece was dedicated to Evan Ziporyn and can either be played in a version for four instrumentalists or for soloist with three pre-recorded parts. I wanted to create a solo program, so I opted for the second version. I spent several months arranging the score for bassoon, learning all four parts and finally recording the music. I recorded a fixed audio track to use in live performance and also made a complete recording of the piece.

I think it is very important for performers to let composers know what they are up to. This is one of the responsibilities that come with being a performer of new music. I felt timid about contacting Michael Gordon but thought that he should know about the bassoon arrangement and upcoming performances of the Low Quartet. After sending Michael an introductory email with this information, I wasn’t expecting to hear a response; mine would surely be another piece of fan mail in his busy life. To my surprise and delight, I received an email from Michael in which he thanked me for reaching out to him and responded enthusiastically to the new arrangement of the Low Quartet.

Before moving to Holland, I had some teachers and colleagues question my decision not to take the traditional orchestral route. Many of them didn’t understand my passion to perform contemporary, improvised, and electroacoustic music. Why should they? Most new music ensembles don’t have a bassoon and very few bassoonists can actually say that they make a living performing new music. Additionally, many bassoonists believe that the artistic role of the instrument lies solely within the orchestra. It’s no surprise that some of my teachers and colleagues encouraged me to focus more on orchestral excerpts and less on extended techniques. Somehow getting this email response from Michael inspired me to continue on this path of playing music that I was passionate about and reinforced my belief that this style of music does work on the bassoon.

Before I jumped straight into making the bassoon arrangement of New York Counterpoint or some other work, I kept having the same thought: I was tired of making arrangements and performing music originally written for another instrument. A large-scale work for the bassoon by a well-known composer would not only be a giant step for the bassoon community, but it would also create a greater awareness of our instrument in the new music community. I sent Michael Gordon another email asking if he had ever considered writing for the bassoon and if he was interested in a consortium commission to support a new work.

First rehearsal with Michael Gordon

The First Rehearsal with Michael Gordon. From left to right: Lynn Hileman, Michael Harley, Dana Jessen, Saxton Rose, Jeffrey Lyman, Maya Stone, Rachael Elliott and Michael Gordon.

Organizing a consortium is one way of commissioning new music in the United States. With very little government support and a diminishing number of grants available to composers, consortiums are a great way to ensure that a commissioning fee is met. A group of individuals, often performers, contribute a specific monetary amount that collectively pays a composer’s commissioning fee. The amount of money that individuals contribute varies depending on the composer and the size of the consortium. Many consortiums give performance rights to the participants over a specified period of time. For example, an ensemble could have the rights to premiere a new work within one year of receiving the music. One of the benefits of consortiums is that anyone can be part of the same concurrent premiere. Additionally, the composer could potentially have simultaneous premieres of the same piece throughout different parts of the world. The idea of multiple premiere performances came into the spotlight in 1995 when John Harbison’s San Antonio sonata for alto saxophone received 43 premiere performances on the same day through the World-Wide Concurrent Premieres and Commissioning Fund. When I wrote to Michael Gordon, I suggested the idea of a consortium commission because I knew that I wouldn’t be able to support a commission alone and didn’t want to depend on a grant. I also wanted as many people involved as possible to give more exposure to this potential piece.

Michael first responded that he had never considered writing for the bassoon and that he had only written for the instrument in orchestral settings. That aside, he was thrilled with the idea of a bassoon consortium. We traded several emails back and forth discussing logistics and ideas. I can clearly recall one of these first emails in which Michael said, “We haven’t discussed a length yet. I’m really into hour-long pieces lately. Would that be all right?” I practically shouted an enthusiastic “Yes!” through my computer. Finally, after about a week of back-and-forth emails, Michael was on board to write an hour-long piece for the bassoon.

Once the exhilaration settled, it really began to sink in just how much work had to go into this. Michael’s fee was reasonable considering the length of the piece. It was clear, however, that I would have to put together a sizable consortium. I got in touch with colleagues who had organized consortiums in the past and asked for their advice. The most notable recommendations were to write individual emails to potential bassoonists, keep the participant fee low and team up with a fiscal sponsor. I researched fiscal sponsorship organizations that could act as an umbrella non-profit so that I wouldn’t have to process the monetary transactions from my personal bank account. A fiscal sponsor provides tax write offs to donors and opens the door for more grant opportunities that wouldn’t be possible without non-profit status. I created a name for the consortium, the New Music Bassoon Fund, and applied for fiscal sponsorship through a fantastic organization called Fractured Atlas. Once I was approved, I created a website and a contract for the potential participants. Then, I started sending the emails…

From October 2009 to December 2010, I sent out numerous emails a week trying to get people to join the consortium or contribute to the project. I wrote emails to bassoonists, emails to companies that supported the arts, emails to grant organizations, emails to anyone I could think of who would be interested in this commission. Sending out emails felt like a new part-time job. In these emails, I introduced the project with a bio of Michael Gordon, stressed the importance of supporting new music, and emphasized key elements that made this new piece different than other works for bassoon. I wrote personalized emails to hundreds of bassoonists, and then sent follow up emails. The bassoon community came back with a variety of responses. There were a fair number of enthusiasts who were just as thrilled as myself at the prospect of a new work by Michael Gordon. They joined the consortium right away. There were several people who didn’t want to spend money on a consortium and thanked me but passed on being part of this one. Some people didn’t respond at all. Other times it felt like pulling teeth trying to convince people that this commission was a good idea. Even after some of the negative responses, I kept sending out emails and contacting people. Several months after agreeing to write the piece, Michael decided to score the new work for seven bassoons. The unusual instrumentation surprised many people and unfortunately didn’t qualify us for many grants. At one point, Michael even told me that upon mentioning the commission to some of his friends, they thought he was crazy. Like every instrument, the bassoon has some negative stereotypes. I believe the only way to eliminate these stereotypes is to make music that doesn’t support them, and I honestly thought that this project could prove that. I believed that this new piece could show a different side of the bassoon that people weren’t used to hearing. The consortium was slowly growing in size, and I was happy to connect with other bassoonists who were excited about the commission. All of the participants contributed the same amount of money and maintain the rights to premiere the piece within one full year of receiving the music. The bassoonists consist of college professors, students, professional performers, and contemporary music enthusiasts. After a full year of regularly sending emails, follow-ups, and other efforts to gather participants, I had thirty bassoon players from the United States, Europe, and Canada participating in the consortium.

Rushes Ensemble at EMPAC

Rushes Ensemble at EMPAC. Photo by Kevin (Yiming) Chen.

I met Michael Gordon for the first time in January 2010. He had invited me to his home to try out some ideas, ask questions about bassoon techniques, and record some sounds. Meeting and collaborating with composers is one of my favorite aspects of commissioning new music; it creates a unique relationship that makes the music even more meaningful as a performer. For our first meeting, Michael asked me to bring scores of 20th-century bassoon music. We spent a day going over these scores, listening to pieces, and trying out an assortment of techniques. He was especially intrigued with fast-articulated sixteenth notes, a technique that is constant throughout Rushes. It was a great meeting, complete with a bassoon and puppy duet with Michael’s very vocal dog. After that meeting, Michael and I got together a handful of times between New York City and Amsterdam. One notable meeting was in January 2011. Michael wanted to hear several bassoons together, so I gathered five bassoonists to meet and play in his home. At one point, Michael wanted to see how mobile we could be with our bassoons, so there was a fantastic moment when all five of us were walking around his living room, bending down and stretching upwards while sustaining our lowest note.

Over the following year, Michael sent different versions of the piece to look over. One of my first impressions of the score was that it looked like a percussion piece! There weren’t any obvious melodic or lyrical lines that are common in wind music. Instead, the bassoonists play continuous patterns and rhythms that lengthen and shorten over approximately one hour. The patterns are made collectively by the bassoonists with subtle changes and shifts in dynamics from one player to the next. For such a large-scale work, it is always helpful to have a second set of eyes looking through the score. I asked two bassoon colleagues to help out and give their own feedback on the writing. After several months of regular dialogue with Michael and feedback on the music, we received the final score to Rushes last spring. I put together a fantastic group of bassoonists—Jeffrey Lyman, Saxton Rose, Rachael Elliott, Lynn Hileman, Michael Harley, Maya Stone, and myself—to rehearse with Michael prior to releasing the score to the consortium in case he needed to make any changes. This group, now called the Rushes Ensemble, met and rehearsed for the first time this past June. After the initial run through of the piece, we were all incredibly moved. Score study and individual practice did not prepare me for the overwhelmingly beautiful sonorities that emerged collectively from the ensemble. The continuous shifting patterns and dynamics give the impression that the sound is traveling in space, which in fact, it is. I was struck by this cascading effect that sometimes felt like a pendulum swinging from one side of the ensemble to the other side.

In September, the Rushes Ensemble spent a week at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) in Troy, New York, rehearsing, recording, and ultimately premiering this amazing new work. After three years of organizing, planning, and preparing, it was well worth the effort. Rushes is a mesmerizing composition. We now have a new piece in our repertoire unlike anything else written for the bassoon. This November, the Rushes Ensemble will be touring the piece throughout parts of Europe and we are in the planning stages for a U.S. tour in 2013-14. There will also be other ensembles throughout the country organized by members of the consortium who will jointly premiere this new work.

Michael Gordon and Dana Jessen

Michael Gordon and Dana Jessen after the world premiere.

This commission has helped me learn so many things, many of which can be applied to other aspects of life. First, if you are unhappy about something, change it. I was unhappy with the selection of contemporary bassoon repertoire, so I did something to change it. Secondly, don’t be afraid to ask. I didn’t know Michael Gordon before this project began. Rushes all started because of a blind email to one of my favorite composers. I had no idea how he would respond, but I went for it anyway. Lastly, keep going. No matter how many negative responses I received, I continued organizing, planning, applying for grants and sending emails. Not only was I passionate about playing Michael’s music, I also wanted to create awareness that the bassoon can be a strong force in contemporary music. Rushes is truly a turning point for the bassoon and I am so grateful for it.

Rushes was commissioned by the New Music Bassoon Commissioning Fund with generous support from the following bassoonists:

Alban Wesly
Annie Lyle
Benjamin Kamins
Benjamin Coelho
Bram van Sambeek
Carolyn Beck
Christin Schillinger
Dana Jessen
David Wells
Evan Kuhlmann
Hannah Ross
Jamie Leigh Sampson
Javier Rodriguez
Jeffrey Lyman
Julie Feves
Kristin Wolfe Jensen
Lynn Hileman
Matthias Kronsteiner
Maya Stone
Michael Kroth
Michael Harley
Nadina Mackie Jackson
Nathaniel Zeisler
Peter Kolkay
Peter Van Zandt Lane
Rachael Elliott
Rebekah Heller
Richard Ramey
Robert Glassburner
Saxton Rose

Dana Jessen

Dana Jessen is a San Francisco-based bassoon soloist, chamber musician, improviser and composer. She lived in Amsterdam for three years as the recipient of a 2009-2011 HSP Huygens Fellowship and 2008-2009 J. William Fulbright Fellowship where she researched contemporary and improvised music. This fall she is touring with the Rushes Ensemble throughout the Netherlands and Belgium in addition to performing with the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players under the direction of Steven Schick.