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A revival of X, a three-act opera inspired by the life of the Black Muslim minister and social activist Malcolm X, opened at the Detroit Opera House this past weekend (and has additional performances through May 22). While there have been a few performances here and there since its 1986 premiere at New York City Opera, the new Detroit production is the most high profile one and it will continue on to Opera Omaha, Seattle Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House. Plus there will be another production in June by Odyssey Opera/BMOP in Boston which will culminate in a new recording of the opera scheduled to be released in September. It’s a long overdue recognition for the first opera composed by Anthony Davis, who was finally recognized with a Pulitzer Prize last year for his eighth opera, The Central Park Five, another politically charged work based on recent history (which returns to the stage at Long Beach Opera in June and another production of which, presented by Portland Opera, can be streamed from now until May 20).
Back in 1986, a dismissive New York Times review of X by the notoriously contemporary music-loathing critic Donal Henahan, claimed that “words and ideology, not vocalism,” were “the center of attention in this work” and that the opera “falls into the category of message theater, and by definition its message will not appeal to all who hear it.” While the review undoubtedly dissuaded some impresarios back then, this important work, which was staged a year before Nixon in China, arguably spawned a whole subgenre of contemporary operas based on current or relatively recent events which have sometimes been described as “CNN operas,” although Davis considers that term dismissive and “pejorative. … We’re just borrowing; it’s about the headlines.” Especially because for him this story has all the trappings of a classic opera and its protagonist is “a tragic hero.”
When I spoke with Davis over Zoom last month he was in the middle of rehearsals in Detroit, so X was very much at the forefront of his thoughts. But what I didn’t realize is that this new production might have never taken place had Davis not spent a good deal of the pandemic re-engraving performance materials, which is something he worked on just to make good use of the time.
“All stuff was cancelled… So, I thought, what am I gonna do?” Davis explained. “X was a score I’d done by hand before computers. And then Schirmer had done parts and it was done in Score. So I thought, I’d like to make the piece so that it could be done as, you know, excerpts. … I worked like four or five hours on it during COVID. I had to have something to do. I just about finished the excerpts, which is little more than half of the opera, about an hour and a half of music, and then Yuval [Sharon, Artistic Director of the Detroit Opera] called me, and said he wanted to do the whole thing. So I said, great. Well, I’ve done half, I might as well do the whole thing. … And the revised version of the opera emerged from that. It’s like looking at a mirror and seeing, you know, the Dorian Gray thing or something, see your 30-year-old self staring back at you. But I had to protect that 30-year-old self from my 70-year-old instincts to re-write; I couldn’t change everything. I have to be faithful to what I was thinking then, what my musical ideas were at that point.”
Since X was Davis’s first opera, as he pointed out, “There’s always a fire when you do something for the first time.” But before X, Davis had already established a career as a highly successful contemporary jazz composer, pianist, and leader of the progressive ensemble Episteme. He had also made significant in-roads into the world of so-called contemporary classical music, an early pinnacle of which is his idiosyncratic piano concerto Wayang V, a work informed by his fascination with traditional Indonesian gamelan music. It’s a piece that has been recorded twice, both times with Davis as the piano soloist performing with two different orchestras–the Kansas City Symphony led by William McGlaughlin and, more recently, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under the direction of Gil Rose (who is also conducting that new recording of X). Before all of that, Davis was actually an aspiring classical pianist.
“I was playing a lot of Schumann then, so I was playing that Fantasiestücke stuff,” he remembered. “I began to resent the fact that I was playing all white composers. And that really upset me…. I actually did a couple concerts in Italy where I played a half program of classical piano, and then a half program of doing Monk tunes. And then I started doing my own compositions. That’s when I first started writing pieces that I could improvise around.”
The fact that many different musical traditions have shaped Anthony Davis’s aesthetic is something he views not as “eclectism” (another bad word in his estimation), but rather as “a resolution of identity, of discovering who you are as a composer and as a person. And how that is reflected in the music you make. Part of it is your musical education, what you’re exposed to, and to me, all that stuff also recalls emotional states, experiences in terms of what the music implies.”
So, in a way, it’s inevitable that Davis has devoted so much of his compositional energies to opera, and in particular to using the operatic medium to tell stories that either deal with significant historic events or which focus on important social concerns. Aside from X and The Central Park Five, Davis’s eight operas also include: Amistad, about a rebellion on a slave ship in the 19th century; the Patty Hearst-inspired Tania; and Lear on the 2nd Floor, which re-imagines the famous Shakespeare play as the story of a formerly highly-respected woman who is now living in an assisted care facility because she is suffering from dementia.
Curiously, what first triggered Davis’s interest in opera was reading Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy during his student years. “I thought that what Nietzsche was writing about in terms of the Apollonian and Dionysian, and the kind of binary that he created, was more applicable to American music than it was to German. Because we’re African and we’re European. The combination of the musical foundation in these two great cultures, I thought opera could have that. An American opera ideally would be that kind of expression.” But now he sees creating these operas as a mission. “What we face now is so much like the early-‘30s in Germany: the present danger that we could actually lose democracy. We could lose what we have. So it has made it more urgent for me, as an artist, to present things to challenge those forces. I’ve always felt strongly as an artist, but even more now.”
Where I grew up in State College, my brother and I were the only black people in the school. So I began to think about that. And I began to resent the fact that I was playing all white composers. And that really upset me.
We’re African and we’re European. The combination of the musical foundation in these two great cultures, I thought opera could have that. An American opera ideally would be that kind of expression.
I used to imagine playing with Blackwell and Ornette, I was thinking how I could be Charlie Haden in the left hand and Don Cherry in the right.
Opera is so much about memory. You can always go back to things that are in the opera. You’re creating your own kind of world in it, but it also has the extra world of what it refers to in terms of the whole genre of opera, and also what other music you bring into opera.
I had this image of Malcolm listening to John Coltrane’s quartet, or Sonny Rollins. I felt that the link to music was really evident.
One of the advantages of working with black singers is that they have many experiences. They sing in church. Maybe they sang in the black church. They’d sing opera, but some of them of have sung jazz too. It’s not an alien artform. ... So you can find the hybrid musician.
Sometimes they call it eclectism, which I think is a bad word for it. ‘Cause that’s like thinking or picking pebbles on the beach or something, you know. It’s actually a resolution of identify, of discovering who you are as a composer and as a person. And how that is reflected in the music you make. Part of it is your musical education, what you’re exposed to, and to me, all that stuff also recalls emotional states, experiences in terms of what the music implies. I think what that can relate to is subtext in a dramatic sense, what is the subtext of what’s going on. And so the music always provides a subtext.
It was kind of a pejorative the way it was used: CNN Operas. It was kind of dismissed as this trend. We’re just borrowing. It’s about the headlines, etcetera.
Right now, it’s a really dangerous time in America. We can be on the edge of Fascism; that’s something I worry about every day. ... We could actually lose democracy. We could lose what we have. So it made more urgent for me, as an artist, to present things to challenge those forces. I’ve always felt strongly as an artist, but even more now.
Someone asked me, how do you write music for Trump? I said well, first of all, he’s a tenor. Second of all, he repeats things a lot. Third thing is he never finishes a sentence. Why was that appealing to people? I mean, this launched his whole career as a politician. He exploited the racial divide for his own personal benefit as a political figure.
There’s always a fire when you do something for the first time. There’s a flame that goes, it’s like you’re discovering all these things.
The ASCAP Foundation has announced the recipients of the 2022 Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Awards. The recipients, who receive cash awards, are selected through a juried national competition. All in all, 21 composers were awarded and an additional 6 received honorable mention. Through a partnership with the Newport Festivals Foundation, one of this year’s Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Awards recipients will be featured by the Newport Jazz Festival.
Photos of all the 2022 ASCAP Foundation Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award Recipients and Honorable Mentions. Top row pictured from left to right: Evan Abounassar, Ben Beckman, Sonya Belaya, Max Bessesen, Gabriel Chakarji, Jessica Curran, Sebastian de Urquiza; Second row pictured from left to right: Michael R. Dudley Jr., Joseph Durben, Quinn Dymalski, Conner Eisenmenger, Eliana Fishbeyn, Kira Daglio Fine, Brandon Goldberg; Third row pictured from left to right: Vicente Hansen, Ennis Suavengco Harris, Daiki Nakajima, Yu Nishiyama, Robert Perez, Gary (Kaiji) Wang, and Griffin Woodard; Last row pictured from left to right: Claire Dickson, Michael Echaniz, Amanda Ekery, Chase Elodia, Peyton Nelesen, and Malcolm Xiellie.
Below is a complete list of the 2022 Recipients along with information about their award-winning compositions which, where possible, are linked to sites where you can hear them.
Composers receiving Honorable Mention this year are:
Claire Dickson (b. 1997 Medford, MA; now in Brooklyn, NY): Thrill of Still for voice, trumpet, electronic drums, synths, bells and other found percussion [2’47”];
Michael Echaniz (b. 1994 in Oakland, CA; now in Los Angeles, CA): Clockwork(Un Carillon De Musique, Dans La Fumeé Poétique) for tubular bells, 2 violins, 4 female vocal layers (soprano), electric piano, B3 organ, piano, double bass, and drum set [12’25”];
Amanda Ekery (b. 1994 in El Paso, TX; now in NYC): Three Days for voice, viola, alto sax, oud, piano, bass, and percussion [4’13”];
Peyton Nelesen (b. 2007 in Chicago IL; currently based in California): Wouldn’t You Like to Know? for big band with a second piano and a guitar [8’44”];
Malcolm Xiellie (b. 2007 in California and still based there): Tribute to George for solo piano [8’18”].
The ASCAP composer/judges for the 2022 competition were: Fabian Almazan, Chuck Owen and Camille Thurman. Established in 2002, the program recognizes gifted young jazz composers up to the age of 30. It carries the name of composer, trumpeter, arranger, and bandleader Herb Alpert in recognition of The Herb Alpert Foundation’s multi-year financial commitment to the program. Additional funding for the program is provided by The ASCAP Foundation Bart Howard Fund.
NEA Jazz master and three-time Grammy Award-winner Terri Lyne Carrington was practically born into music. Her father was a saxophonist and her mother played piano. Plus her grandfather, who died before she born, was a drummer who played with Fats Waller and Chu Berry among others. In fact, his drum set was the first set Terri Lyne played on at age 7. Being raised in such an environment gave her access to just about everyone in the scene and at the age of 10 she was already performing on stage with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, in the process become the youngest person ever to be issued a union card in Boston!
But that doesn’t mean that Terri Lyne Carrington is a hardcore jazz traditionalist. Growing up, she listened to everything from Earth, Wind & Fire to Michael Jackson, and that music ultimately also seeped into her own vocabulary.
“People can’t just tell you to choose,” Terri Lyne says during our conversation over Zoom on a Sunday afternoon in later October. “It’s all part of my experience.”
Not choosing, or rather choosing everything, makes Terri Lyne’s own musical language extremely expansive. By embracing elements from rock, rhythm and blues, and hip-hop into her own compositions (as well as occasionally interpreting more recent popular songs with the same level of creativity that characterizes the most exciting jazz renditions of classic standards), she is making music that is very much about the present moment and it is extremely vital. However, at its core, she still thinks of her music as an extension of musical practices that go back many generations.
“There’s a historical and cultural context that the music was born from, and that has to be acknowledged as well,” she explains.
Also, either through including singers and lyrics or pre-recorded samples of spoken texts, her music frequently contains pointed social messages. Some of the songs on Waiting Game, the most recent album she recorded with her band Social Science, such as “Trapped in the American Dream,” “Pray The Gay Away,” or “No Justice (for Political Prisoners)” are a powerful soundtrack to our extremely complex and fractured zeitgeist. But none of them offer simple solutions.
“People are going to come to any of these issues differently,” she realizes. “They’re going to come in there wherever they are at the time, and so it leaves a bit more of an open door, an open palette for people to discover maybe what they need at the moment. I don’t know if it’s about changing minds, because most people that are hateful may be a little difficult to change. If you’re just ignorant, then it might be easier to educate, with satire and the hook.”
One of the things that Terri Lyne hopes to change is the gender imbalance among jazz instrumentalists, why is why she founded the Berklee Institute for Jazz and Gender Justice and has now partnered with New Music USA to create the Next Jazz Legacy program.
“There’s always been a bit of a nurturing environment for men to be creative, and women just never had that same support,” she says. “Young women and, of course, also the transgender and non-binary community, people on the margins of what’s been normal in jazz, don’t have as many opportunities; that’s just the way it is. … There’s a world of sound waiting for us that hasn’t necessarily fully been developed, fully tapped into within this genre; it’s coming.”
I believe in themes, but I also believe that the themes don’t have to be narrow.
Terri Lyne Carrington
If it's constructed well, you are able to hear different things every time you listen.
Terri Lyne Carrington
I'm not sure I would call it jazz if I can't hear any history or lineage in what they're doing.
Terri Lyne Carrington
Once labels got out of the way, and people were able to be independent and produce and release the music that they really wanted to, what was really in their hearts, I feel like it opened things up, and it's such a creative and fertile time for jazz.
Terri Lyne Carrington
I'm totally into how the industry has shifted ... It's a new frontier. ... There'll always be the haves and have-nots, and the people more privileged than others, but there's also an opportunity there.
Terri Lyne Carrington
I've done a lot of free things. It's all just putting me in a place that more people can experience, and it all works together in the end.
Terri Lyne Carrington
Most musicians are hearing their own symphonies, but everybody has the barrier between what they're hearing in their head and what they're able to actually produce.
Terri Lyne Carrington
There's always been a bit of a nurturing environment for men to be creative, and women just never had that same support.
Terri Lyne Carrington
If I turn on the radio, If I look at advertisements or flip through music magazines, I don’t see myself represented. If I thought I needed that support, then yes, it's going to make me shy away from wanting to pursue this.
Terri Lyne Carrington
I didn’t need to see myself represented because I had no identity when I started. Like I didn’t think, "Oh, I’m a woman playing drums." I was a kid. So I had no gender identity, basically. When people told me, "You're good for a girl," they made that association, but I didn't because I didn't feel like a real girl. I didn't feel like a little boy, I just didn’t know, you know. I was just playing. And I gravitated to tomboyish things. So I had no problem inserting myself with boys.
Terri Lyne Carrington
There’s a lot of masculinity that's made the sound of the music making music what it is. And I love it. I love what it is. I also possess some of that, though. I have to if I'm going to go out on stage.
The mentors need to be men, only because men need to participate in solving some of these issues. If women just mentor women, we're still siloed and siphoned into a bucket of women jazz musicians.
Terri Lyne Carrington
There's a world of sound waiting for us that hasn't necessarily fully been developed, fully tapped into within this genre; it’s coming.
Kris Bowers is one of the humblest and most introverted composer/performers I have ever encountered. This is astonishing considering his accomplishments—winning the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition at 20, a daytime Emmy four years ago, and now one of the most in-demand composers for film and television, most recently scoring the Netflix sensation Bridgerton. And yet it all makes sense when you begin exploring Bowers’s incredible versatility, his openness to all genres of music, and hear how attuned his music is to whatever project he is working on as well as all the musicians he has worked with.
“As a jazz pianist, one of the things that I fell in love with was accompaniment,” he acknowledged when we spoke with him about his music and career back in October. “I’ve never really wanted to be the center of attention in a performance space.”
I’ve never really wanted to be the center of attention in a performance space.
I’ve always been into different styles of music.
I always like giving myself limitations or rules, or a box, and then going wild within that space.
I have a lot of family members that I don’t agree with… But, at the same time, I have a profound love for them.
Until I started doing scoring sessions, I wasn’t able to have a group of musicians of a large size, play my music since college.
I felt just as much kinship with John Williams as I did Quincy Jones and Terence Blanchard.
I realized I would rather be up until five in the morning at home working on a score than getting on a bus to go to the next city.
I have maybe a week to ten days to turn around the score.
Whenever you hear a musician’s album, you know whose album it is by who’s the loudest on that album. … I didn’t want that.
Scoring films and television series might be the ideal medium for Bowers since it allows him to immerse himself in the characters and plots which should be foregrounded rather than the music. Nevertheless the music he writes is always attention grabbing and works well as a listening experience independently of whatever it was originally written to enhance, whether it’s the score for the 2018 motion picture Green Book, which was based on the life of composer/pianist Don Shirley, or the 2019 EA Sports videogame Madden NFL 20. Whatever project he is working on, Bowers always operates from a zone of empathy.
“That’s the only way that I can really get to something honest,” he explained. “I think that it’s more likely that it will reach other people if it’s something that came from an honest and emotional place for me.”
Considering his need to relate to the characters he creates music for, it’s somewhat surprising that Bowers also composed the score for Mrs. America, a 2020 Hulu series about the conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly. “I actually really loved needing to represent this human side to this character that I didn’t agree with,” he admitted. “It even helped me understand or remind myself that those people that I might disagree with politically, especially in a time like this, that they’re humans at the end of the day. And that’s something to keep in mind and to really remember.”
As a Black composer who works in a medium that is still overwhelmingly dominated by White composers, it is also important for Bowers that his music not be typecast and the fact that he has worked on such a wide range of projects, in which he has explored an extraordinarily broad range of musical styles, is testimony to his music being impossible to typecast at this point.
In viewing the history of jazz piano as it has influenced me, I find various tributaries and streams and ways of being that have contributed to my understanding of the jazz piano language and to finding my way through all of this. I have come to see a subgroup of jazz pianism that has influenced me as something I call the Black Mystery School of Pianists. Like all categories, there is an illusionary aspect of it and phenomena go in and out of each other, but the category does denote something. It’s a way I have viewed the work of certain practitioners of the art of jazz piano and I have followed offshoots of this branch. There are many pianists that might fall in and out of this category that are not mentioned here. The list is an outline that defines aspects of a certain attitude and is not meant as any type of dogmatic statement.
So what do I mean by a Black Mystery School pianist? Well, obviously the word “Black” is in here, so for the purposes of looking at this tree, all of the practitioners I will mention except for one will be Black. That is not to imply a non-black person cannot enter this realm. I am just outlining a code—that there is a definitive tree-like formation that has seemed more often than not to go down a certain path. The word “mystery” is here also which implies a secret code, passed through an underground way of passage, a language outside the mainstream and, yes, outside the mainstream of jazz, even though the father of this school Thelonious Monk’s image has been subsumed into the mainstream of jazz after a long period of incubation.
Mystery School posits an alternative touch—something that does not directly fall within the mainstream’s easily digestible paradigm of being able to play the instrument, even though the practitioners of the Mystery School are obviously highly skilled virtuosos whose touch, language, and articulation are extremely hard to copy. In some ways, in the subconscious of the jazz idiom, the Mystery School is a counter strike to the psychological space of any variant of an Art Tatum approach of playing, filtered down to Oscar Peterson, and then watered down to something like André Previn as a prevailing way of viewing piano playing. And I say that despite Monk’s roots in stride piano. Mystery School pianists have developed profound ways of generating sound out of the instrument grounded in a technique they invented and one that cannot be taught in school. It is a code that somehow gets passed down.
The Mystery School seems to have a subconscious urge to resist academic codification of any sort. Despite however great artists and jazz musicians they are, and this is not meant as a pejorative, jazz students can go to jazz schools and learn to play like Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, and Herbie Hancock, but there is something completely elusive in the sound world of Randy Weston, Mal Waldron, and the legendary Hasaan Ibn Ali that defies the jazz academy.
The other major aspect of the Mystery School is the iconoclastic nature of it. As in the ultimate example of Monk, the artist carves out a niche for themselves within the world of the jazz universe. That niche is a worldview or a planet. The artist in utmost stubbornness will stick to that vision with a fuck the world attitude—that the world will have to come to this vision of the piano and, if it doesn’t, then so be it. This vision is extreme in its iconoclastic nature, although some mystery school pianists, like Mal Waldron, have done gigs like backing singers (e.g. Billie Holiday, etc.). The phrasing and rhythm employed in the code that these players utilize is of such nature as to not be able to fall under the hands of a jazz student who is studying, say, Brad Mehldau.
Another aspect of the Mystery School is despite Monk being the spiritual father, the descendants tend not to play Monk tunes. They develop their own body of work. And I say this despite some great interpretations of Monk music by Mal Waldron through the years.
Next, let’s look at who is not in the Mystery School according to this very particular way of looking at things. This is important because this is such a specific delineation of a slice of something that it is not a platform to just throw a bunch of great jazz pianists in. It is very specific. So first, Ellington is not in, although he is a big influence on the pianism of Monk, Randy Weston, and Cecil Taylor. Also Ellington’s piano work on the album Money Jungle is on the level of the greatest piano playing ever. It is playing that could never be reached by someone with the mindset of a post-Tatum pianism, and no one who comes out of a bebop or post bebop mindset could ever get to the language there. Hank Jones, Wynton Kelly, or Tommy Flanagan—as great as they all are—could never generate the energy/sound fields that the piano work on Money Jungle does. So that is to say Ellington had a unique homemade style that is as idiosyncratic as any. But Ellington doesn’t fall into this school because there is a posture and an attitude inherent in the code that he does not quite embody and his relationship to the mainstream of his day does not exactly delve into the stance and attitude of the Mystery School.
Bud Powell does not make it in the school because he is too tied to the classic idea of the development of bebop. That might seem a paradox being that Monk is also considered a founding father of bebop—but isn’t that one of the main things that gives juice to Monk’s legacy, that he is a founding father of bebop but at the same time set up a parallel universe of his own music that in some ways seems like it is counter to some of the assumptions of bebop? There is that aspect of the Mystery School that sets itself up as counter to bebop. Of course, Bud Powell is one of the greatest pianists ever to sit at the keys. But that does not put him in this particular school, although Bud is transcendental.
I also do not include Mary Lou Williams. Bud and Monk used to go over her place–she helped them both with touch on the piano. She usually did not go for the oblique, though. But she is a tremendous jazz pianist.
Mystery School posits an alternative touch.
Matthew Shipp, composer and pianist
Ellington is not in, although he is a big influence on the pianism of Monk, Randy Weston, and Cecil Taylor.
Matthew Shipp, composer and pianist
I also do not include Mary Lou Williams... but she is a tremendous jazz pianist.
Matthew Shipp, composer and pianist
Being a Black Mystery School pianist does not necessary equal avant-garde.
Matthew Shipp, composer and pianist
Classificatory schemes are illusionary and don’t always comport to reality.
Matthew Shipp, composer and pianist
If you use the word “mystery,” and the math of the pyramids come to mind, then you could not think of a more profound player than Horace Silver, because his playing is undergirded by a code of this sort. But he does not make the school because he is in a different head-space. I look at him as a super gifted post-Bud Powell player who developed his own unique style and attack within those parameters and then went on to help invent hard bop. But his stance doesn’t have the punk attitude that the Mystery School can have, and I don’t think he would have ever been comfortable with the idea of being an underground language.
Erroll Garner could never be in this school, though strangely enough his playing could be very idiosyncratic at times, and is obviously homemade. But the areas of American culture that he was an actor in does not allow entry into this club. (I have an aunt who thought Erroll was the greatest pianist ever, but she went to her grave saying Monk could not play the piano.)
I have wrestled with whether Elmo Hope belongs in the group. I am not sure. I go back and forth for different reasons. If he is, a lot of it would be because of his influence on Hasaan Ibn Ali, who is another extreme of an ultimate example of this.
Most free jazz pianists do not make the list because the Mystery School is not about free jazz per se. And I say this despite the fact that most free jazz pianists feel a relationship with Monk, despite Monk’s problematic relationship with free jazz. But Cecil Taylor makes the list because he is a contemporary of Randy Weston and Mal Waldron and it is fascinating to see those three artists as branches off the Ellington/Monk piano branch. You could not find three artists as different as these three masters, yet they get their nourishment from some of the same sources.
McCoy Tyner does not make the school, because the Coltrane universe is a cosmology in and of itself and must be dealt with that way apart from everything else. I say that despite the fact that McCoy was influenced by Hasaan Ibn Ali and use to go over to his house in Philadelphia and soak in things.
So who is in the Black Mystery School of Piano?
Mal Waldron / Randy Weston / Cecil Taylor / Andrew Hill
The legendary Hasaan Ibn Ali
Sun Ra / Horace Tapscott
A Spotify playlist of devoted to the 9 pianists cited above.
Some further words about a few of these artists and their praxis…
Herbie Nichols was a contemporary of Monk who also was a writer and one of the first people to write about Monk’s music. Nichols was tremendous, but his music never received the fame that Monk’s did. Nichols is every bit as much of a father of this school as Monk. There have been several revivals of Nichols’s music in recent years. Perhaps, when the history of this school is written, he will take his proper place.
Andrew Hill is as iconoclast as iconoclast can iconoclast. He seems to directly be in the Monk line of the pianist/improviser as composer and, in his way, has as unique and powerful an application of that archetype as Monk. He has some of the stance of Monk in attitude and was obviously liberated by Monk’s use of space, but Hill has his own language and way of doing it on the piano. His universe is his own planet—completely. Hill is in line with Waldron and Weston as far as taking up some aspect of a post-Monk mantle –but what makes Hill so interesting is he is a parallel universe to Cecil Taylor.
Of course being a Black Mystery School pianist does not necessary equal avant-garde. But Hill fits in both in the sense that his posture can be seen as a post-Monk conceptualist/iconoclast – but he also mollifies the Cecil Taylor monopoly on the perception of free-jazz piano in that if a free jazz pianist gets tired of getting compared to Cecil they can get inspiration from Hill and claim him as more of a direct influence. Andrew Hill’s elliptical phrasing seems like a direct extension of his elliptical mind. Hill is someone who managed to slip through all the cracks and defy any category though it is obvious what he comes out of. In some ways his playing is the ultimate fuck you to everything and everyone.
Hasaan Ibn Ali might be the most isolated of any one here. A Philadelphia-based pianist who never could get gigs even in his home town and who recorded only one album, which Max Roach brought him in the studio for. The album is this category in its purist form.
I include two big band leaders in this list: Sun Ra and Horace Tapscott. One is East Coast; the other West Coast. As far as their piano playing, both of their playing contains the geometry and the architecture that goes with this category. That is what puts them here, and that is something that is there or not; it cannot be faked.
As an aside, I also include Ran Blake in this school even though I use the word Black and Ran is a Caucasian. Ran is an offshoot of someone who is influenced by Monk and Ran is a spiritual brother to Mal Waldron. In another way, Dave Burrell can dip in and out of this school. I have heard Burrell approach one of the most organic synthesis of Monk tunes done in a free jazz way, not that that is what the Mystery School is about, because it is not about playing Monk tunes, but Burrell understands all of this.
The late Geri Allen also had a complete understanding of all of this and she was so gifted that she could embody aspects of this. Her relationship to the mainstream jazz audience of her time was a relationship that did not allow her to fully inhabit this space. But she was an offspring of the language and had a beautiful relationship with Mal Waldron. She once took me aside at a festival in France and told me I was one of the only pianists she had ever heard who could channel Mal Waldron. Even though I like to think of myself as a complete original, I took that as the highest compliment.
The pianist Rodney Kendrick had a close and direct relationship with Randy Weston and has spent time with Monk. His sound completely embodies this school. Rodney, who is a friend, completely disagrees with my way of looking at this in this piece. Maybe it takes someone who is contextualized within the avant-garde world like myself to see things this way. Maybe Rodney’s relationship with Barry Harris, who is the antithesis of this approach, taints his view. However Rodney comes out of this and no one like him exists at this time on the planet.
To end this, classificatory schemes are illusionary and don’t always comport to reality. But I have talked about this school before in interviews and people always get something out of it and ask me to go deeper. I am not trying to lay out any dogma, just talking about a way I saw some things that contributed to abstractions I made that enhanced my creative life. Even if you don’t buy into the complete format as presented, you should check out the work of all the artists discussed here.
A Spotify playlist of most of the other pianists cited in this article. Should they be included in the Black Mystery School of Pianists or not? You decide.
[Ed. note: We also invite you to further explore the extraordinary music of Matthew Shipp who turned 60 earlier this month and marked this milestone by remaining extraordinarily prolific despite the difficulties we have all faced in this pandemic year. Shipp’s discography is a treasure trove and this playlist only scratches the surface. We also encourage you to read and watch this 2005 conversation with him on NewMusicBox. – FJO]
A Spotify playlist highlighting some of the gems in Matthew Shipp’s extensive discography.
[Updated December 14, 2020] On December 6 and 12, two concerts from the National Jazz Museum in Harlem presented over Zoom, both at 7:00 EST, offered listeners their first opportunity to hear six world premieres that are the result of a new initiative called Mutual Mentorship for Musicians, M³ for short. The two concerts were hosted by M³ “Editor in Chief” Jordannah Elizabeth, who also guided post premiere Q&As with the audience. M³ is a revolutionary new model for mentorship which was created by co-founders Jen Shyu and Sara Serpa in March and launched in June 2020 at the height of the pandemic. The founders describe M³ as “a think tank for new ways to connect, collaborate, support, create, and empower womxn musicians worldwide including BIPOC, LGBTQIA2S+, and musicians of all abilities across generations.” To celebrate these first two concerts of this new initiative, we asked the twelve initial participating musicians about why they decided to participate in this opportunity and how mutual mentorship and creative collaboration have affected their artistic process. New Music USA is funding the next round of M³ collaborations. – FJO
On New Year’s Eve 2019, I remember being excited for 2020 and making all the 2020 puns I could; it was the year of 20/20 vision. In my opinion 2019 had been a pretty rough year and I was excited to start afresh, so to speak. By mid-March of this year all the optimism had completely dissipated. From the moment I landed back in the UK to quarantine, it just seemed to go from bad to worse. And in the middle of this, I was being forced to learn some hard truths myself, personally and artistically. How do I interact with my friends and peers? How can I offer support when I felt like this is a time that I’ve probably needed the most support? How do I create without being surrounded by immensely creative beings? How do I collaborate? Is music even important anymore?
It was in the midst of this doubt and fear that Jen contacted me about M³ and it felt like this little beam of excitement and happiness. Yet, I could never have envisioned what M³ would really do for me. I remember tentatively turning up for the first meeting via Zoom and instantly I experienced complete warmth and honesty from everybody and felt inspired. I wanted to play again. I wanted to write again. Music became important again. Although we have had to conduct the whole process via Zoom, with a 5-hour time difference and the lag or cameras not working properly and being entirely at the mercy of technology, music and this community that has been created prevailed over all of these obstacles.
Some are born into tribes, but the creative process of re-defining ourselves places us in new ones. This year has presented some pretty severe obstacles—the pandemic, the persisting face of race, gender, and class biases, the political climate, the encroaching climate crisis. All seem to divide us into factions while at the same time allowing us to connect with individuals who are ready and willing to fight for the cause.
The initiative dreamed up by Jen and Sara has gifted me safe spaces with which to unpack all of these obstacles and more. The group space gives perspective, while the smaller meetings have opened intimate ways of interpreting and designing poetry, melody, and video production, through sending messages, phone calls, and meetings on Zoom. With each passing meeting, my mind sees how each of us would handle situations differently, leaving me confident to approach my creative and professional endeavors with more vigor. The creations haven’t felt prescribed or scheduled in any sense; rather, they are journeys that we are all on in this tribe, which, in the end will emerge most naturally.
Why say yes to M³? There is the easy answer of how could I possibly refuse any opportunity to work with the brilliant Jen Shyu and Sara Serpa? But also, I think I responded instinctively from a yearning for a holistic musical community, one that certainly predated the pandemic, and was only intensified through it.
Particularly, there seem to be so few models for intergenerational artistic communion; I’ve spoken with many friends who are also aspiring artists, and who have shared such deep desires for something akin to mentorship or apprenticeship. There is so much about the artistic landscape and industry that is utterly nebulous, especially for those (like myself) who do not come from artistic families or see themselves, their background, represented meaningfully. In the midst of cacophony and silencing discrimination, how does one find their voice? How does one survive, when attempting to employ their voice for artistic meaning and financial security? How, through our artistic practice, might we carry forward the legacy of those who fought, died, for a more just and equitable world? There is no handbook, no well-worn path, only the stories and experiences of those before us to gather any idea. So, this was one way in which M³ really struck me: as an avenue for such needed dialogue between youth and elders. To be honored with the presence and insights of such powerful and resilient women—and to also have my own perspectives celebrated and valued as something of worth—is indescribably enriching.
How is this program affecting my practice? I think, if anything, to have this vibrant community in my life right now has invigorated so much of my spirit. Given the bleakness of this time, frankly it has felt life-saving. I can perceive the growth, shifts of relationships with others and also with myself, due to the space we are creating now. What is evolving due to this program is a collective awareness and compassion and confidence that invariably influences my work by way of influencing my deeper self. And I believe that the interpersonal and internal changes occurring now will affect my practice for years to follow.
As a collaborator/artist, working with “Women” has always been a major goal of mine.
This creative collaboration/ mentorship has been such a blessing during these intense and uncertain times. It’s a great source of inspiration and support, and it connects me to women that I’ve always wanted to collaborate with.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how deep, structural change actually comes about. In moments like this one it’s easy to see change as something that is sparked spontaneously from the heat of a charged moment. But looking further, we find that social change comes about from a lineage of resistance—from decades of folks fighting not just for survival but for the right to live beautiful lives.
I’ve been reflecting on several linked movements—the fight against white supremacy, especially by radical Black feminists, the queer liberation movement, the development of creative improvised music—and how these movements all required groups of people who trusted each other to come together and create their own momentum outside of the systems that oppressed them. For me, Mutual Mentorship for Musicians feels like a continuation of this tradition. We are this little underground intergenerational family giving each other love and support to bolster ourselves against a society that leaves very little space for the voices of non-cis-male, queer and BIPOC artists. Our group completely reconstructs the foundations of our musical ecosystem; it imagines a community free from patriarchal, capitalistic, and white supremacist ideals and presents one based upon vulnerability, communal support, and compassion. And M3 does this while also meeting the current moment; over Zoom we have tuned in from Portugal, the UK, and all over the US.
The current limitations have challenged us to create new forms of community-building and art-making that take advantage of the digital format, from using the Zoom chat function to hype each other up to combining exquisite-corpse style audio recording with film editing for our joint projects. I’m so excited to continue this model of artistic collaboration and mentorship and I truly believe structures like these will create profound systemic change in our musical community and beyond.
The aspect of this initiative that I was not expecting, but feel so grateful for, is the intergenerational energy generated from our talks and sharing of perspectives. It is fertile ground for synergist transformations. It also has been a great experience to have the opportunity to collaborate with other artists that one might not have had the chance to do so otherwise, and to become more familiar with a whole new generation of amazing musicians and composers who have a strong and unique voice to contribute to the music.
Thank you Jen and Sara for spearheading the development of this creative community. I envision it expanding and growing stronger through the years. We need new spaces, new visions, new methods to communicate with and to support each other. If there was ever a time for transformation of the arts, the business, the culture, it is now. The breaking down of the normal, that this pandemic has created, let it become a crack that a new reality can be born through.
Black American Music, and the creative music it has informed, is inherently political. In a time where white supremacy, corporatization, and militant fascism seem to undermine the core values of our existence, it’s crucial we ask ourselves: how can the music, the process of collaboration, and the spaces we work within, actually reflect the times we’re living in?
History has shown us the capacity for change when we create spaces that reflect the diversity of our creative ecosystem. Groups like the AACM, the Black Artists’ Group, and the Pan-African Peoples Arkestra have focused on building community and social consciousness, and have done so outside of existing corporate structures. To me, M3 is an extension of this work, bringing together BIPOC womxn to foster support, love, and growth through adventurous music-making.
M3 has allowed me the space to be truthful and vulnerable in an otherwise white, male-dominated, cis-heteronormative space. I’m grateful to Jen and Sara and all my fellow M3-ers for nurturing this space, and for allowing the fullest expression of ourselves.
I’m reminded of this quote by Joshua Briond: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but rather individuals and classes repeat history.” Mary Lou Williams, Abbey Lincoln, Nicole Mitchell, Susie Ibarra, Amina Claudine Myers, Terri Lyne Carrington, Fay Victor, Matana Roberts… and all those who’ve illuminated the way, thank you…The fight for liberation continues!
When I was asked to be a part of this group, I was initially on the fence. While I was concerned about my gigs disappearing for what I realized at that point would be the rest of the year and into 2021, I also felt that there was a kind of pressure to still do, to be active…so many wonderful organizations were shifting quickly to create much needed lifelines for the artist community but honestly all I wanted to do was just be and process all that was and had been happening so quickly!
Over the years, I think I have felt a kind of exhaustion of always having to adapt to some new (mostly digital) change or update and I felt like, while the moment was indeed financially challenging, this might be the moment and rare opportunity that forces all of us to just slow down, reflect, reevaluate. To just simply stop. Is it okay to just not do for a while? Thus, I was weary to commit to something, especially something that I knew would be conducted expressly online and that would require an online performance as well. I was still very much resisting that reality, lol!
But Jen and Sara curated a wonderful cast of intergenerational womxn artists and I have really enjoyed sharing and getting to know them all, some of whom I have met prior to COVID life and others whom it will be exciting to meet in person someday! It’s been a great space to hear how others are managing in this current climate. Everyone is extremely supportive of where everyone is at this current moment. It’s been a welcome positive space to be a part of in this moment that has felt so fragile, confusing and disillusioning. I am grateful that this space has been created for us to just be.
It has always interested me how we, as artists, can create alternative structures that connect us as opposed to alienate/divide us, where the artist is free and does not have to conform or compete in order to be successful. This mutual and intergenerational mentorship initiative proposes the idea that we all learn from each other, instead of the original top-down mentorship structure. The absence of the traditional hierarchical system is liberating, and has allowed me for a personal transformation that initially was subtle. Now, as time goes by, this seed is growing and expanding to all relationships I nurture. The meetings have opened my mind to different ways of interacting with my peers: supportive instead of competitive, honest instead of performative, transforming instead of conforming.
I didn’t have this kind of support when I was growing and studying to be a musician, and just the fact that is right happening now, when we are all forced out of work and the world seems to be falling apart, has helped me going through the uncertainty of the moment. Zoom has limitations. Nothing can replace the act of being/ playing/ listening together in a room. However, each meeting is invigorating and inspiring and shows me that we are all more connected than I initially thought.
I feel incredibly fortunate for being able to communicate and interact with this group of womxn on a regular basis. I don’t want it to end in December! Each time we meet is different – the honesty, creativity and vulnerability each one of us brings into our projects or meetings stays with me during the periods we don’t meet, inspiring me to use different approaches to challenges that seem to always exist no matter the generation we belong to. The fact that each artist has such a unique and original way of expression makes me dream about the possibilities of expanding these kinds of dialogues to as many artists as possible. I am beyond grateful for this work and to be doing it with Jen—a work in progress of imagining, restructuring, discussing and hopefully transforming our artistic landscape, in which kindness, generosity and respect prevail.
The night after our eighth M³ meeting, I dreamt that one of my students taught me a very specific way to move my hands and legs that would enable me to fly up the stairs without ever having to step down. The infinitely linked staircases in the dream hung in the air like in an M.C. Escher drawing. The room was hardly a room, but rather a greenhouse full of sunlight with no walls. Perhaps it was so big that I didn’t feel the walls around me.
I woke up. The dream still fresh in my half-sleeping body, I tried out the hand and leg movements in my kitchen, which will surely become new movements in a new dance. This process is a metaphor for what these M³ meetings have meant to me, whether in our full cohort of 12 or in our smaller groupings. We’ve been exercising our vision-building and integrating that envisioning into our everyday lives. Personally, I’ve infused those dream states into my reality not only as an artist, but as a human being and a citizen of the world. I’ve learned from each cohort member how I can better do this, from how each artist speaks, lives their art, articulates their ideas so clearly, and creates such profound work. The issues and situations that we have talked about, all happening in real time, have continually moved me and shaped my psyche. These are issues I rarely discussed openly on such a deep level with other womxn artists when I was in my 20s or 30s. Those conversations usually happened one-on-one and rather secretly, in the context of male leadership or in relationship to men, as I usually found myself as the only woman or one of two women in any given musical setting.
My concept of “mentor” has also changed. I have many mentors, most who influenced me in life-changing ways, but also some who placed their limitations on me, telling me I couldn’t be a “jack-of-all-trades,” for example. Obviously, I rebelled. Another interaction which challenged my idea of “mentor” was just after a breakfast with Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell at the Ojai Festival in 2017, where I had performed solo the day before. Little did I know it would be the last time I would see Muhal before his passing four months later. As we were walking to the elevator, I told Muhal, “I just want to thank you for being such a generous mentor to all of us all these years.” He stopped me and said, “Now wait. I don’t like this word ‘mentor.’ Because it implies someone is higher than the other, like there’s a hierarchy. I prefer the word ‘exchange.’ Like I want to know about those Taiwanese folk songs you’re into.” I was stunned and humbled. This short conversation initiated the idea of “mutual mentorship” in my head, and when Sara and I began developing the manifestation of this idea, it was one of the concepts that inspired M³, which has been absolutely shaped by our inaugural cohort members every step of the way.
We always try to take a screenshot at the end of our meetings, capturing our time together which began on the Summer Solstice of this tumultuous year of 2020. These are magical snapshots of our lives colliding at different points in our careers, painting a picture of the work that needs to be done and how we’ll continue to grow this energy exponentially outward for the rest of our lives.
Anjna Swaminathan (photo by Molly Gazay of Diabla Productions)
Truthfully, I was initially reluctant to join M3. This of course has nothing to do with the brilliance and camaraderie that Jen Shyu and Sara Serpa offer or the beauty of the kind of mentorship they sought to cultivate. However, in the early stages of the pandemic, I was trying to feel secure in my ongoing projects and commissions and felt “too busy” for this. The feeling of community and catharsis that this group would offer was terrifying to me because it would push me to confront the fragility of our existing musical ecosystem.
As my colleagues lost gig after gig, I clenched harder to my lingering commitments, trying to convince myself that the pandemic couldn’t destabilize me. It was likely a triggered response. In March 2019 almost exactly a year before we became aware of the virus’s toll on New York City, I started experiencing severe chronic pain symptoms, which forced me to part with my instrument (the violin). I went through many of the same motions that our entire community of artists is going through now. I stopped performing. I stopped improvising with my community. I stopped traveling due to the toll it took on my back and the radiating neurological pain I was experiencing. And to make everything worse, I had also developed a psychosomatic response in my immune system that manifested as frequent respiratory illnesses, that kept me constantly washing my hands and fearful of touching my face. Fortunately, I found home in composing and felt safe to heal while still creating music.
I suppose, when the pandemic started, I wanted to be privileged enough to stay grounded. I got attached to not experiencing an existential crisis — even going so far as to create an alliance for patrons to connect to starving composers and performers from my oh-so-charitable high horse. I needed to hold on to this, and when I saw Jen’s email, my internal response was, “I’m totally fine! This should go to someone who actually needs community.” Of course, though fearful, I said yes to Jen, because I knew that every encounter I’ve had with Jen has taught me to confront my fears. I heard her voice saying something like, “go towards the things that frighten you and figure out why.”
Since we began our meetings, I’ve been so deeply grateful. For one, in these meetings, we speak at length about how these illusions of security were wound up in capitalistic, white supremacist, and heteropatriarchal structures. Many of us spoke of scarcity in our initial meetings. Feeling that there weren’t enough spaces where we could truly be ourselves, artistically, politically, and spiritually. We spoke about tactics to navigate existing power structures and to find our voices within them. And as these conversations have progressed, I’ve witnessed and experienced cosmic intergenerational healing. There are days when mentors in their 60s nurture and comfort mentors in their 20s. On other days younger mentors radicalize their experienced mentors. And on most days it is like a wild game of volleyball, each of us bouncing this radical and dynamic energy off of one another, working together to elevate in abundance rather than falling into scarcity. In the course of the past few months, the security of commissions and projects has dwindled. Yet, I feel renewed with a different kind of security. I feel connected to this ageless, timeless creative energy within me. With the love and encouragement of this community, I am exploring the widest and wildest extremes of artistic play. This group, in replacing power and hierarchy with love and radical vulnerability, has kindled a security in me that feels everlasting. I think back to this feeling of fragility in our musical ecosystem. Of course, it is fragile. It wasn’t working for musicians. This group is planting seeds of abundance, of communication, and of vulnerability that I know will transform music-making and fortify intergenerational mentorship for years to come.
I know it’s cliché to reference the Lotus Blossom that grows out of the mud. But that is precisely what M3 is, something beautiful, and exquisite that has arisen out of these chaotic, dark and troubled times…2020, whew, and it’s not over yet!
Saying yes to Jen and Sara who had the initial vision for M3 was easy, especially considering the dynamic group of invited persons to take part. I loved their idea and vision to collaborate, with a choice group of artists that represent the broadest spectrum of sexual identity, genre, and generations among women, to produce new music together as composers and players. We meet bi-monthly via Zoom, to support each other with our diverse creative processes. The duos and quartets were formed randomly and provide an even more intimate window to share and build. M3 has provided a means of support, caring and creativity that I am so grateful to be a part of, especially now! There is a way in which we have bonded and we are learning so much from each other. There is chemistry and momentum moving forward with love and mutual respect at its core. We are doing all this through the rather limited technology on Zoom of all things and this has surprised me!
I’m a child of the 60’s and 70’s. I was raised by radical left wing bi-racial parents during a very tumultuous time in this country. My parents lived through World War II, the Great Depression, the McCarthy era. My mother, who was Japanese American was imprisoned in Internment camps during World War II because of her race. My father who was African American, was a union man, a Marxist, a factory worker. My parents’ philosophies were woven into the fabric of their children’s lives. I cooked breakfast for the Black Panther breakfast program in Mantua Philadelphia when I was 12 years old! My family marched against the Vietnam War, when the country was unified, sick, and tired, but not too tired to protest.
The current struggles of our times is something not new to many of us, it’s an old fight. I am disheartened, angry and depressed at the level of anti-blackness in our culture, the systemic racism in our institutions and prison system and the fact that Black mothers, still fear for their son’s lives, but I am relieved to see the current revolution for racial injustice and people of all races engaged so actively across the globe uniting in solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement, the Me Too movement, the Climate crisis, and more.
Nina Simone, whom I greatly admire, said that artists must address their times. We can look to artists like her to learn exemplary ways in which artists can respond to injustice. Nina was black, beautiful and bold and knew it. Her musical expression contained her fury, love, and soulfulness, fighting for freedom and equality. We can look to artists like John Coltrane whose humanity and protean musical expression and legacy is a constant reminder of what it means to be free as an artist and a great human being.
The fight goes on, as it must until we reach a level of humanity, understanding, and acceptance, a more spiritual ground of love for one another. It might be that we have to keep going round and round until we get it right. The human realm is complex and flawed and ugly and beautiful.
The ASCAP Foundation has announced the 20 recipients and 3 honorable mentions of the 2020 ASCAP Foundation Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Awards. The recipients, who receive cash awards, range in age from 17 to 28 and hail from five continents. They were selected through a juried national competition; the ASCAP member composer/judges for the 2020 competition were Keyon Harrold, Hilary Kole, and Oscar Perez.
“Jazz is one of our most vital art forms and the recipients of the Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Awards carry its innovative spirit into the future,” said ASCAP Foundation President, Paul Williams. “We are grateful to the Herb Alpert Foundation for helping us to recognize and encourage these young music creators and congratulate them on their success.”
The 20 winners of the 2020 ASCAP Foundation Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Awards (pictured left to right): (Row 1) David Bernot, Eri Chichibu, Eddie Codrington, Grace Corsi, Angelo Di Loreto; (Row 2) Eliana Fishbeyn, Shimon Gambourg, Giveton Gelin, Bryce Hayashi; (Row 3) Jisu Jung, Takumi Kakimoto, Dave Meder, Zachary Rich, Rin Seo, Jueun Seok; (Row 4) Matthew Thomson, Elliott Turner, Gary (Kaiji) Wang, Matthew Whitaker, and Drew Zaremba. (All photos courtesy of the ASCAP Foundation.)
The 2020 Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award recipients are listed with their age and the titles of their award winning compositions. Audio recordings of performances of the composers are linked from the titles.)
2020 ASCAP Foundation Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Awards Honorable Mentions (pictured left to right): Michael Echaniz, Chase Kuesel, and Martina Liviero. (Photos courtesy ASCAP Foundation)
The Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Awards program was established in 2002 to encourage young gifted jazz composers up to the age of 30. It carries the name of the great trumpeter and ASCAP member Herb Alpert in recognition of The Herb Alpert Foundation’s multi-year financial commitment to support this program. Additional funding for this program is provided by The ASCAP Foundation Bart Howard Fund. Through a partnership with the Newport Festival Foundation, one of this year’s Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Awards recipients will be featured on stage at the 2020 Newport Jazz Festival, slated for August 7-9 in Newport, Rhode Island.
For the past 11 years, I have been working on incorporating bird songs into my music. When I say “my music”, I am talking about my improvisations, because all of the music I compose starts with improvisation, which I then sculpt into compositions. To me, this is a more “natural“ way to go, but then again, that’s been my approach my entire life. When the composition is set, I leave space for improvisations based on the bird songs, as well as motifs created from the surrounding soundscape. Six of my bird song compositions that are currently in my repertoire were originally created back in 2008 during a 5-week residency at The MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire.
I was completely seduced by the bird songs around my studio and decided to play around with them for just one afternoon.
The proposal I submitted for that residency had been to create a series of compositions for an improvisational duo with bassist Mark Dresser, for a recording session scheduled for late July. I also planned to work on a side project, which was a large work for my big band based on Pythagoras’s and Johannes Kepler’s “Music of the Spheres” concept. I brought two suitcases full of books for research to the colony. But when I opened one of my suitcases, a book I had recently bought, David Rothenberg’s Why Birds Sing, fell out of the suitcase. I didn’t remember packing that book! I also brought a book of Amy Beach’s piano music. That I did remember packing because she was an integral part of the success of the MacDowell Colony. I also had a small manuscript book in that suitcase, and for another unknown reason, out fell the letter I had received 11 years earlier, from Adrienne Fried Block, who at that time was writing Amy Beach, Passionate Victorian: The Life and Work of an American Composer, 1867-1944. You would think I would have paid attention to all of these signs from the universe, but no, I initially decided to stay the course with the Spheres side project. That only lasted a day. I was completely seduced by the bird songs around my studio and decided to play around with them for just one afternoon, then get back to work. One afternoon turned into the entire residency; I just had to play with those birds! When would I ever get another chance like this, to have a piano in the middle of the woods, and to play freely? Instead of reading about Kepler, I read David Rothenberg’s book every day, and went to the local bookstore to find Donald Kroodsma’s book with recorded bird songs, The Backyard Birdsong Guide and an illustrated copy of The Music of Wild Birds adapted from The Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music by F. Schuyler Matthews, who wrote that book in 1904, in Campton, New Hampshire, less than 2 hours from the MacDowell Colony.
My designated studio was Delta Omicron, and inside was a beautiful Mason and Hamlin grand piano. I had a digital recorder and was able to put the microphone in a small window, covering it with a curtain to have a little separation from the piano, which enabled me to hear the birds clearly through my headphones. In this way I was able to adjust the volume I played on the piano so that the birds and I were balanced. I never saw them, so I was never sure who was singing what.
I improvised with songbirds … My goal was to become a member of their band, so to speak.
Every day for five weeks, I improvised with songbirds and any other creatures that made their voices heard, and recorded each session. My goal was to become a member of their band, so to speak. I listened deeply to their singing, and carefully infiltrated their ensemble. They, in turn, sang to me and with me and seemed to be okay that I was not only privy to their conversations, but would take part in them as well. We had a standing jam session time at around 10 a.m. each morning until lunch. Then they would retreat, and I would do some reading and listen to our recordings. They would come back out to sing with me around 4 p.m. until I left them for a swim in the local pond. There was also the after-dinner bird ensemble, and we would make music together, but not for long, as they had other business to attend to. In the evenings, I would listen to our recordings of the day, and make notes on the improvisations that would become compositions that I could play again and also perform with other musicians. As I listened, I made marks in the editing track and would decide on what to keep, sometimes switching sections around, but for the most part only editing what I considered “meandering” type improvisations as opposed to fully formed compositions through improvisation.
The view from the window.
The first bird I began improvising with was the American Robin. In fact, the most well known song, Cheerily, Cheerily, seemed to creep into all of my improvisations. I slowed down the song just a bit, and lengthened the motif, and played around with it in garage band.
A page from The Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music by F. Schuyler Mathews featuring Mathews transcription of the robin’s song set to music.
Over time, my improvisations on this theme became a singular line composition, much like the style of early Ornette Coleman, that I freely improvised. I gave it the title “If You Call Me, Then I’ll Call You” and dedicated it to Mark Dresser. The title rhythmically matches the first two measures, and it also represents what the robins use their songs for, calling each other, and what Mark and I have been doing for over forty years, calling each other.
Mark Dresser (bass) and Diane Moser (piano) at Klavierhaus (Photo by Dennis Connors).
Just before sunrise, the first bird I heard singing was the Hermit Thrush. The landscapers at MacDowell referred to the hermit thrush as a deep woods singer, and told me it was the first one singing at the break of day, and first one back into the woods just before sunset. Commonly known as the Nightingale of the Americas, this bird has an amazing set of songs and calls. It’s no wonder that Amy Beach composed two piano pieces based on these songs, one for the morning and one for the evening. She also had perfect pitch and could sit in the woods for hours transcribing bird songs. I have been playing her composition A Hermit Thrush at Eve for years, adding improvisation over her harmonic progression and using hermit thrush songs as a point of departure for improvisation. I have added my version below. Before you listen to the recording, check out the songs of the hermit thrush, and you’ll understand the brilliance of Amy Beach.
After hearing the hermit thrush and the american robin, the next two birds I would hear in the morning were the Black-Capped Chickadee, and the Chipping Sparrow. The Black-Capped Chickadee has a two note song and several calls, but it was the two note song that I was responding to, and the bird responded back with the same two notes. The chipping sparrow has two songs and several calls. The songs are long dry trills, one being faster than the other. I was hearing the faster one and he alternated his song with the black-capped chickadee. I began imitating both of them, improvising in between their songs and my imitations.
Here’s a recording of one of our sessions, right at the very beginning.
As I continued improvising, I integrated both of their songs into a bass line, and then began developing a melody with the two note song from the black-capped chickadee.
All of these improvisations went on for many hours, and other birds would join us for a moment or two.
Originally I had titled the improvisations “Me and the Chickadees”, but I changed it to “Hello” after reading about how bird songs have been set to mnemonics, using a syllabic rhythmic phrase. I decided that the two note song of the black-capped chickadee, a bird song I heard every morning, should quite obviously be called “Hello”.
The bird I had the most fun with was the chipping sparrow.
The bird I had the most fun with was the chipping sparrow. His dry trill and constant singing at regular intervals of time provided tempo and an ostinato for my improvisations. I used the age old technique of a repetitive note as an imitation of the chipping sparrows dry trill, and that became a “thread” for the composition, tying it together. Everything else evolved through improvisation. Think Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude, or any number of compositions. “One Note Samba” by Antonio Carlos Jobim is another good example. As you listen to the recording below, you’ll hear the chipping sparrow, and a dark-eyed junco in the background who wanted to join in with us.
After editing the recordings, I began the tedious process of transcribing. For some pieces I transcribed note for note exactly what I had played. For others, I kept melodies, harmonies, bass lines, and motifs, using them as a jumping-off point for improvisation. I was able to transcribe two of my bird song compositions “Hello” and “If You’ll Call Me, Then I’ll Call You” before I left the MacDowell Colony. We recorded them on my return to New Jersey, during that aforementioned recording session with bassist Mark Dresser and a few days later we performed them live in New York City at The Stone. (Our recording, Duetto, was released in 2012.)
I was staying true to what the birds and I had created.
One of the benefits of being a performer-composer are the ensembles that I lead, and other people’s ensembles that I perform with, where I can arrange the music I compose for any combination of instruments. Throughout these performances, I constantly referred back to my original recordings, making sure I was staying true to what the birds and I had created, and especially to the surrounding soundscape which was the palette for the compositions. I also created more space in the notated score for improvisation, but with the caveat that the improvisations needed to reflect the bird songs and the motifs. Thankfully, the musicians I performed with had a wide range of musical experiences and could untether themselves from the standard go-to licks, as we say in the jazz world.
I took a different approach for my next bird song composition, Birdsongs for Eric, a 20-minute suite for septet, based on the flute improvisations of the iconic jazz musician and composer, Eric Dolphy, commissioned for the “Eric Dolphy: Freedom of Sound Celebration Series”.
I discovered that in virtually every solo Dolphy took there were bird songs.
In 1962, Eric Dolphy told Downbeat magazine interviewer Don DeMichael, “At home [in California] I used to play, and the birds always used to whistle with me. I would stop what I was working on and play with the birds.” I can totally relate to that quote! Happens to me all of the time. The quote and Dolphy’s music inspired me to try a different type of process. With the help of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird site and their online Macaulay Library, I was able to study the birds in the area of Los Angeles where Dolphy grew up. I compared those bird songs with as many recordings of Dolphy that I could find and discovered that in virtually every solo he took, not to mention melodies he wrote, there were bird songs or motifs that clearly represented bird songs. I improvised with those bird songs for a bit, then chose the songs I wanted to incorporate into the composition and gave instructions to the musicians to base their improvisations on those motifs.
After all of this experimenting, I formed what I now call the Birdsong Trio, piano, bass and flute. We worked on the music for several years, performing here and there, and in 2016 I decided it was time to do a recording. I commissioned a graduate student that I was mentoring at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Kyle Pederson, a very talented composer, to compose a piece for this new recording. Kyle, who is from Minnesota, chose the song and calls of his state bird, the common loon, and titled his piece “The (Un)Common Loon”.
The recording session for the Diane Moser Birdsong Trio (Anton Denner, Ken Filiano, and Diane Moser) at Union Congregational Church in Montclair, New Jersey (Photo by Dennis Connors)
The result of these efforts was the release of Diane Moser: Birdsongs (Planet Arts Records), and little did I know the resounding effect this would have on critics, music fans, and students. We have had truly wonderful reviews from jazz, contemporary fusion, classical and rock music publications, and even a heavy metal blog! Evidence of the universality of not only music, but of bird song.
At the end of our concerts audience members tell me about their bird hikes, show me photos…
What has intrigued me about the reviews, is that not only are the reviewers understanding the music, but they are also talking about their own memories of listening to birds, the joyfulness of the music, and how it makes them feel relaxed. When we play our concerts, I begin with a short Deep Listening session with the audience, settling in, closing their eyes, thinking about their favorite birds, thinking about their favorite bird songs, and then I invite them to vocalize their favorite bird songs. I also tell them that they can continue the vocalization for as long as they want. As the audience is vocalizing, our trio improvises with them, and at some point we segue into Birdsongs for Eric. At the end of our concerts audience members have told me they felt transformed, that they were listening differently, that they heard the music in a way they never heard before, and that they felt completely at peace. They often tell me about their bird hikes, show me photos, discuss articles they have recently read and so forth. To this day, I receive emails, postcards, photos, text messages, Facebook posts, and messages from my audience base about their experiences with birds and walking in the woods.
Cape May Point State Park in Cape May,NJ
Recently I received a Faculty Research Grant from The New School for my new project called “Waterbirds: Environmental Dialogues Through Music”, which will include the creation of a 50-minute music composition for my Birdsong Trio, incorporating field recordings that focus on coastal and wetlands birds and their disappearing habitats in and around New Jersey and New York. This is a different approach for me towards creating music, but I am thoroughly enjoying it! Thus far, this project has me traveling the coast of New Jersey, making field recordings and going on bird hikes with the Bergen County Audubon Society, the Cape May Bird Observatory, and New Jersey Audubon. I was granted a research permit from the United States Department of the Interior to work with the National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area in Highlands, N.J., where I spend lots of time. I’m amazed by the work that the Audubon groups, NPS, and US Fish and Wildlife Service are achieving on environmental clean-up, bird and bat habitats, education, land management, and so much more. I love the field-recording process and have already worked on one soundscape composition with my Birdsong Trio, which also includes a film. In part two of this series, I’ll share the film and other journeys I have made with bird songs.
Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.
From the time I began playing music, there was a clear line defined by almost every institution, private teacher, scholarship, competition, music festival, mouthpiece option, etude book, sound concept, etc. that let me know there was such a thing as jazz music and such a thing as classical music. And while they might rub elbows at moments in history, with outliers aplenty, they were always treated as two distinctly different art forms meant for two different audiences, two different history books, two different schools of music, two different grant applications, and two different concert venues. The rules were set, the groundwork laid. Pick a side and begin. It only occurred to me much later that in order to grow artistically, one needed to shed the dogma that brainwashed not only me, but many on both sides of the field.
As a musician, composer, and listener, I have been increasingly interested in music that has blurred these lines. Jazz composers have been fearless in their willingness to draw from outside sources. Whether it’s West African music, 20th-century classical music, Indian music, or American pop music, jazz music has always had an inclination to thwart traditions in favor of moving the music forward. This element excites me, in that it consistently connects to music of our time. I still marvel at the many phases of Miles and Coltrane, who in many ways set the high watermark for jazz artists to constantly search inward and discover what is new in music within themselves. They not only pushed the genre forward but set examples for jazz musicians after them to continue to change and evolve the music that reflects the world around them. Building upon this idea, jazz musicians and composers (two titles that interestingly enough are always linked) have steadily moved this music to what it is today. I am thinking of artists such as Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, Maria Schneider, Ornette Colman, Jimmy Guiffre, Carla Bley, and many others. With that said, listening to many modern classical composers today is as exhilarating as anything in the jazz realm. Upon hearing certain strains of modern classical composers, I often find myself with the same feeling of excitement as when listening to a modern jazz luminary, in part because I feel the creators are relating to the modern world in the way that it actually is rather than the way that it theoretically exists. They are often drawing from many other sources of music in the world that reflect who they are. This, to me, feels much in line with how jazz has forged ahead for the past 100 years.
Recently I had the great pleasure to speak with three leading voices in modern classical and jazz composition: Judd Greenstein, Amir ElSaffar, and John Hollenbeck. They had many fascinating ideas, but one thing that struck me right away was their willingness to speak about their music in broad terms—cognizant that the language that we use to speak about music often fails us but is necessary for us to move forward. No one, including myself, likes their music to be summed up in a quick two-word label, and I was hyper-aware of this when speaking with them. I would like to say that, before going forward, when I use broad terms like “modern classical” and “modern jazz” to describe music, it is only because they are the words I have, and hopefully you can be forgiving of the shortcomings these words offer.
To me, it appears that the landscape of modern classical and modern jazz music in many ways is the result of decades of drilling from opposite sides of a mountain and now, more than ever, we are meeting in an aesthetic middle. Within the past five or ten years, modern classical and modern jazz seem to not just be sharing a communion of styles, but also bridging this gap socially as well.
As Greenstein mentioned to me:
Going to a contemporary jazz concert or a contemporary classical music concert, you will see lots of people who you wouldn’t necessarily consider part of that “scene,” but everyone is listening to everyone now. The idea that you only go to the Village Vanguard if you are a “jazz” person doesn’t really apply anymore, because the kind of music that you hear there is extremely open and part of a bigger conversation about music that we are all having as a broader community of music.
You see that there is very little distinction between the way that jazz musicians operate now and the way that contemporary “classical” musicians and composers operate now. It’s not as simple today to say that there are the “jazz” fans and there are the “contemporary classical” fans. It’s much more messy today, and, I think much more interesting.
Considering this, the question I ask myself is: How are they connecting? What specifically about the actual music is being shared? In talking with Greenstein, he used the word “groove” to discuss his music. It’s a word that I wouldn’t normally associate with a classical composer, but then again, Judd is composing from a place of the here-and-now, and his music is a reflection of this. Before I go on, I want to mention that not everything Judd writes has the element of groove. He composes a vast amount of music that is quite varied and uses many techniques to convey emotion. I am only going to focus in on this one element for a minute because it speaks directly to my point. However, I was actually relieved to hear him use the word “groove,” because when I listen to pieces such as Greenstein’s Folk Music or Clearing, Dawn, Dance, what strikes me is that the way in which groove happens in the music is similar to what I hear in many modern jazz compositions. The composer notes:
[What] I am interested in is finding a groove that could almost go on forever, where the rhythm keeps revealing something new about itself and there is a sense of surprise when it starts over. And it is not just rhythmic, but usually a rhythmic element combined with a harmonic oscillation.
He went on to add:
Rhythm is one of the more memorable elements of music. It is viscerally felt in the body and that makes it something that we remember. And when you combine that with melodic and harmonic gesture, you have a building block to the piece. These pieces can imply a lot of other directions and give you a solid footing on which to come back to, which is very important for me.
Here is an example that demonstrates how Greenstein makes use of a repeating ostinato figure that gives the piece a sense of “groove.”
Clearing, Dawn, Dance, Judd Greenstein
Clearing, Dawn, Dance, page 1
Clearing, Dawn, Dance, page 11
From the beginning of the piece, a repeating ostinato figure creates the groove over a mixed meter, inciting rhythmic interest and allowing for melodious elements to float over the top. Notice at the 1:43 mark how the initial ostinato drops out but the groove continues in the flute’s new pattern and is later expanded upon in several ways. When the original ostinato figure does return at about 7:03, there is a sense that the original groove has returned with greater significance. I could make a correlation to the “hero’s journey” here, but I’ll save that for another time. A second noteworthy element is the slower-moving harmonic motion compared to the complex rhythmic ideas which will be discussed later in this article.
Many jazz composers use a combination of mixed meter and repeating ostinato figures to toy with groove in a way that adds playfulness, a sometimes unsettled feel, and often gives momentum to the music’s expression. Two examples of this are seen in works by Amir ElSaffar and John Hollenbeck that, while they are different in material ways, use a rhythmic language that, to my ears, shares a similarity in creating groove.
Hijaz 21-8, Amir ElSaffar
Hijaz, page 1
Hijaz, page 2
This piece, like Clearing, Dawn, Dance, has many layers of repeating ostinato figures playing with and against each other, as well as shifting meter ideas that allow for greater rhythmic expression. Listen for the way in which the dotted quarter notes in the bass plays against the quarter notes in the melody to briefly give an unsettled feeling, only to ground us a few beats later when the bass and the melodies line up.
Arabic, John Hollenbeck
arabic, page 1
arabic, page 2
This example by John Hollenbeck uses repeating ostinato figures layered on top of one other. Take note of how the overlapping meters add complexity and interest yet also are not overly crowded; we feel at the same time a sense of security and grounding. Lastly take note of the harmonic movement as only one modality is used throughout.
The Moire Effect is a visual phenomenon that produces a sensation of movement by overlapping patterns. This phenomenon was used by minimalist composer Steve Reich in many of his pieces such as Clapping Music (1972) and It’s Gonna Rain (1965). The phasing effect was adapted in sound by taking unison rhythms, overlapping them, and then slightly shifting one or more rhythmic elements to produce a sensation of movement or change to the listener. Much more could be said about this effect, but the point that I want to make is that one can see the similarities in the ideas of the rhythmic concept behind all three of the above pieces that are rooted in 20th-century minimalist composition techniques.
It should not come as a surprise that modern jazz music has commonality with modern classical music. As Hollenbeck states:
From the very beginning, jazz was a mixture of African music and European music, so the influence on one another was happening at the beginning. Jazz musicians were open – and are still open – to everything, and one of those things was contemporary music.
Jazz composers have always been knowledgeable about European music and have really checked it out. It makes sense that this influence would affect the music they are creating.
Not all jazz musicians would agree with this, but one could say that a major component in jazz would be innovation, or this idea of looking forward trying to get at this thing that one can’t touch.
As previously alluded to, a closer look at many modern jazz and classical compositions will illuminate similarities in the way composers use harmony. This is an observation about a subset of music, and I know I am painting with a big brush here, however I would like to point to three more examples in which the rhythmic motion of the piece is complex but the harmonic movement is intentionally slow, which allows for the rhythmic statement to be more direct and prominent. I have included an arrangement of Hollenbeck’s rather than an original, primarily because of how much I love this arrangement and its direct relationship to my points. Hollenbeck’s arrangement is so much his own that I don’t see how you could listen to it and not hear his compositional fingerprints all over it.
The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress, Jimmy Webb (arr. John Hollenbeck)
Listen to how the slow movement of the chords in the beginning of the piece acts as a grounding element while a growing complexity of rhythm begins to occur—first in the flutes, guitar, mallets, drums, and bass, and evolves into the full ensemble. The slow and consistent harmonic movement keeps the listener tied to the earth while the rhythmic action is continuously surprising. It is only later in the piece when the rhythmic action is withdrawn that harmony evolves, becoming increasingly dense, creating a symphonic texture.
Folk Music, Judd Greenstein
One can hear many of the same techniques in regard to use of rhythmic complexity and harmonic efficiency in this wonderful piece by Judd Greenstein that we found in The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress. Again, there is a complexity in the rhythm that sustains us throughout the piece against a comforting, slower movement of the harmony.
As Greenstein puts it:
When one is trying to be clear about rhythm, it can be hard if too many things are happening at once.
The reason I am drawn to simpler harmonic structures at times is because I am trying to not let the complication ruin the complexity of the piece. Doing so makes it so that one cannot draw connections and creates barriers to hearing different aspects of the pitch or rhythmic relationships that could be there if you chose a simpler harmonic structure. It’s kind of a funny thing that happens, that if you limit your pitch options, your rhythmic relations become more apparent.
I want to take a moment and single out Amir ElSaffar’s music and how unique and yet relevant it is to what I am talking about. ElSaffar has been exploring the traditions of Iraqi classical music and jazz for more than a decade. His approach to harmony has been informed by his years of study of not only jazz music, but also Arabic music and the maqam, which is a system of modes that has twenty-four notes per octave instead of the twelve notes in Western music. ElSaffar states:
There is this whole wide-open world that the maqam allows for that hasn’t really been explored. In traditional Arabic music, there is no harmonic movement that happens, which on one hand is kind of freeing because the melody takes on so much weight where you might be implying a certain tonic for a beat and half and then moving on to imply a different tonic just by the phrasing of the principle notes of the melody. So in that sense it does have the feeling that there is harmonic movement, and in one way it is, but it is due to the movement of the melody not the maqam.
What I have been interested in is how to extract chords from this phenomenon. What happens, for instance, when you are in the mode of D minor with a half flat second and the melody rests on the note F for a while? For a brief moment, this F feels tonicized. What happens if I build a chord around it? These harmonies that I have been experimenting with are actually reminiscent of modal harmonies in jazz, which is actually similar to the way maqams are built.
I am also trying to honor the integrity of the melody – creating the right texture that moves around it and is supportive, and not somehow taking away from it.
Jourjina over Three, Amir ElSaffar
I hope after listening that you can hear what I would call a conversation among styles regarding groove and harmonic movement between these pieces and these composers.
Lastly, another aspect I find interesting is that modern classical music has moved to an ensemble model that resembles many contemporary jazz ensembles. They are small groups of musicians, often unusual in instrumentation, independently funded, performing pieces that are composed by primarily living composers, many of whom are either part of the ensemble or somehow connected to the group, performing at venues that are eclectic in nature, often outside of the typical “jazz club” or “classical concert hall” to include art spaces and listening rooms.
I have a theory (that I can only back up with anecdotal evidence) that the model for a working classical musician has been slowly deteriorating for years. The odds of winning a tenured position in an orchestra are small, with many major and regional orchestras struggling to stay solvent. Fewer living wage job opportunities are available for classical musicians and yet the pool of highly skilled musicians is ever-growing as music schools around the county crank out more performers every year. It would only seem logical that musicians would form their own groups and begin writing and promoting their own music. It just so happens that jazz musicians have been doing this for many years. At some point when jazz music became more of an art music rather than functional music for dancing, musicians starting writing and performing for music’s sake, which is where I think many classical groups and musicians are finding themselves. More and more, they are making music that is independent, personal, and without regard for assimilating to a style or genre. It will be very exciting to see how these two styles of music continue to blur the lines and possibly eliminate any and all boundaries of style currently known. I asked Greenstein if he ever thought of using improvisation as an element in his music.
I haven’t found the space for it my own practice yet, but that doesn’t mean that I am averse to it. I became a composer because in this way I am a control freak and I have ideas about how things should be structured, which usually doesn’t leave a lot of room. What I think might happen is sometime within the next ten years, I will find a different way of practicing that involves more openness in this regard.
With so many composers blurring the lines of genre, a question arises regarding the implications of not only how we perceive but also teach music. Is the logic we have used to set up our music education system still viable and flexible enough to support where the evolution of music is taking us? I suspect the musicians, the composers, and the music they create will lead the way to providing answers.
For the past three years, composer/trumpeter/raconteur/poet/community activist/force of nature Hannibal Lokumbe has served as a composer-in-residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the auspices of Music Alive, a program which New Music USA administers in partnership with the League of American Orchestras. The culmination of this residency is Hannibal’s massive oratorio Healing Tones, which at the end of March received its world premiere performances featuring the Philadelphia Orchestra joined by two choruses and three additional vocal soloists.
Hannibal has had a long history with New Music USA and, before that, with Meet The Composer (which later merged with the American Music Center to become New Music USA). MTC supported the 1990 commission of African Portraits, Hannibal’s first large-scale work involving a symphony orchestra. African Portraits, a sprawling sonic adventure requiring blues and gospel vocal soloists, three choruses, a West African kora player, and a jazz quartet in addition to a large orchestra, has now received over 200 performances all over the country, a rare accomplishment for any contemporary American work let alone one that costs $4000 a minute to rehearse. So we have long wanted to have an opportunity to record a conversation with him about his musical career, his compositional process, and his sources of inspiration.
Our recent talk with Hannibal in Philadelphia was a 45-minute roller coaster ride that was part testimonial, part reminiscence, part philosophical manifesto, and part performance art, but all pure emotion. Many questions were left unanswered and others just led to other questions for us, some of which we probably will never be able to answer.
If I feel the need to testify, that’s what I’m gonna do! And I always encourage the people to do the same.
I always go with the feeling.
A Yoruban priest gave me the name Hannibal in Brooklyn at the Blue Coronet.
I don’t follow people. Humans did not give me the music.
I had ‘Trane in my head since I was 13.
The spiritual land mass of humanity is music.
What our world and what our nation are going through now is giving birth.
The paradigm of what is called classical music is something that’s in flux now, too. As it should be.
To heal, you must become what you’re singing.
We’re all in a prison, brother.
There was a lot to process in a very short amount of time. There were his extraordinary thoughts about Pangaea—“the spiritual land mass of humanity is music”—as well as his optimistic outlook on the future: “What our world and what our nation’s going through now is giving birth. Birth requires some bleeding and some suffering. But in the base of our brain is a certain knowledge, and that knowledge says that from this pain will come this treasure.” There were also tantalizing fragments of anecdotes from his storied life in music, such as taking Jimi Hendrix’s place after Hendrix died for a recording session with Gil Evans (“Gil … always saw things in a person that they might not see in themselves”) or giving advice to a young Whitney Houston (“Sister, whatever you do, follow the music. Don’t follow the people. People will confuse you.”) Perhaps what was most poignant to me was a comment he made about why he creates such personal and idiosyncratic music:
“It would be a disgrace to my ancestors to try to tell someone else’s story, which I could not do. I could emulate it. I could emulate Bach. I could emulate Brahms. I have the technical skill to do that, but it would be dishonest.”
Hannibal Lokumbe in conversation with Frank J. Oteri at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia
March 13, 2019—12:30 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.
Apr 1, 2019
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