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Monday, September 21, 2009
Jim McNeely on Composition (Interview)
Jim McNeely is one of the truly great contemporary American jazz composers. Following on from a comment he made to a post I’d written about integrating solos into extended form compositions, he allowed me to interview him about the act of composition in contemporary jazz. What follows is a transcript of that conversation, and it covers a huge area and many aspects of the art and craft of writing for improvising musicians.
It is a very large post, and I did consider dividing it into two parts, but in the end I left it as one post, because to divide it in two would have interrupted the flow of the conversation. I have added headings relating to the different aspects of composition we were discussing which should help with navigation. I think it makes for fascinating and essential reading for anyone interested in contemporary jazz writing.
RG: The first thing want to I ask you about is: regarding your beginnings as a composer, was there a time where you started as a composer? Was it an evolutionary thing, did you study composition, was it something you were very conscious you wanted to do, or was it something that you kind of found yourself drifting into?
JM: Well somehow I got it in my head one day, I was about 14 or so, that I could write a song — and I did. I had read somewhere that you could make a bass line based on different notes of the chromatic scale, and you could write them out and use that as the basis for a melody — I don’t know where I read this.............
RG: I don’t think it was in the local newspaper somehow!
JM: (Laughs) Yeah, right — in the “Weekly Shopper”! And I can’t even remember how it was, but I had this idea I could do it, and that led me to getting into arranging. I had the old Russ Garcia arranging book, in fact as a high school kid that’s where I learned most of my jazz theory — from that book. It taught basic voicings and keeping the root out of the voicings etc. — all the basic tools. So I started out arranging for the big band — I was lucky that the high school I was in had a very good big band, with a director who was very open to me bringing in music.
So I started arranging, and then I started writing original things for the band too. They were kind of tunes — they had tunes in them but they went to other places. At the time I was, (this was around ‘65 or ‘66), into Coltrane who’d just recorded “Ascension”, I was into Archie Shepp, and some pretty raucous music, and Ornette, as well as Count Basie — I guess I saw a marriage of the two! Then in college I became a composition major. First I auditioned and got in as a Music Ed. Major, but after a while I thought “this isn’t for me”, and I changed to a composition major. Again all I had written was jazz stuff, and it was really just trial and error — which is the basic process that for me has continued to today. I would write something and the stuff that sounded good I would say ‘well I’ll keep that’, and with the stuff that sounded bad I would say “well, I’ve got to find another way of doing what I thought I was doing”
And I learnt that listening with brutal honesty to what you’ve written is the key to the whole thing — not copping an attitude. I sometimes see this with students, where they say “well, that’s what I’m hearing man”, and I realise they’re not hearing anything! (Laughs) It’s like when Ronald Reagan said “I don’t recall”, there is no way to prove what is going on in someone’s head — it’s kind of a copout. Though maybe sometimes it’s not.
But for me it was just trial and error, and when I got into composition I studied more of classical theory and 12 tone techniques, and I also studied counterpoint and fugue, which I thought were really important. And I started writing chamber music that was ‘in the cracks’ between jazz and chamber music.
RG: And this was cool for you to do in college? It wasn’t an explicitly classical programme — or an explicitly jazz one?
JM: Yeah, that was at the University of Illinois in the early 70s. In fact at that time the U of I was a real hotbed of contemporary chamber music — they had a big festival every two years. And I played in a lot of those — I played clarinet and bass clarinet in those days and some piano, and I got to play some music that effectively erased the word “weird” from my vocabulary. In fact when I got to New York years later I’d often be sitting with a friend listening to some music, and he’d say “man this stuff is weird”, and I’d think, “man, I played that kind of stuff 8 years ago!”
So, a lot of what I did was chamber music oriented, in fact if I have any regrets, it’s that I didn’t pursue a little more of the traditional classical orchestration studies, and writing orchestral pieces. When I think of it - you know, they say ‘youth is wasted on the young - and there I had access to all these great piano teachers, and a symphony orchestra, and I never took advantage of it. It was stupid, I was just trying to write big band charts!
But anyway, some of this stuff I was writing was somewhere in the middle between some of the more improvised chamber music that was going on, and jazz. And in a way I’ve tried to keep that alive in certain things I’ve written since then. So, what I did in college was I studied certain aspects of composition and I also learned some things about planning out a piece before you start thinking about notes.
Starting from Scratch RG: OK, this leads on to another question, so I’ll take the opportunity to interrupt you there. I was going to ask you about starting from scratch. Sometimes one is commissioned to write a piece that involves some given piece of information — it might be a programmatic thing for example. But a lot of the time - and especially for someone like you who is very well known for writing for big bands - you're often just asked to write some music for a big band, and you’re faced with the situation where you have the band, and you have to write some music, but you have to start from Ground Zero so to speak. So what do you do in that situation — what are the kinds of things you think about before you think about the notes?
JM: I think about real basic things. I see it the way a painter might define the size of a canvas before they start to paint, or the way an architect knows he’s got a certain space to deal with. So — it sounds kind of stupid when you talk about it — but one of the first things I always think about is how long the piece is going to be. And if it’s for a specific group I think about their capabilities, or I think about their sound, because that’s the instrument I’m going to use to express the piece. There will also be other considerations — besides thinking of them (the players and the band), I also think of me. As in, “what do I want to write now? I’ve done this and this and this, and now it’s time to do something else”, for example. So I’ll perhaps use this opportunity to do something I haven’t done before, do something I haven’t tried, or maybe rework some idea I was working on in a previous piece. That’s what I call the Big Level stuff - the conceptual thing. Sometimes I'll think of just a one-word description of the piece such as “energy”, or “red”, or “spicy”, or “sedate” -- something like that. Sometimes I’ll think of how I want the listener to feel at the end of the piece, or the players to feel at the end of the piece. Whether I want them to feel exhausted or exhilarated
RG: Or maybe both (Laughs)
JM: Yeah, right! But often I find that once you let the cat out of the bag you can’t control the response - sometimes the response is different than you think it’s going to be, sometimes that happens. But I also often think of an overall energy, or of an overall harmonic sound. I think that the fact that harmony, that intervals can be reduced to low ratios — there’s a reason why things like fifths are soothing, while minor ninths are not — so I’ll think about the overall harmonic language or the overall density of the piece. How loud it’s going to get, how big it’s going to get - or do I really keep the reins on and really restrain it so it’s kind of like a Bonsai plant - you keep trimming it and keeping it very small. I have a tendency to have everything sprawling and huge, so sometimes I have to make a real conscious decision that a certain piece is going to be a small one.
RG: Right. And when you are thinking of these considerations, would you jot those down as you think about them? You’re not near a piano, you’re not near anything, so do you write it down — or can you remember all that stuff?
JM: I try to jot it down on paper because once you’ve written it down you’ve got something that you can look at and hold in your hand, and erase and change. I find at the initial stage I do a lot of this kind of stuff - I’ll be sitting here in my office and I’ll sit back in the chair and stare at the ceiling. And then my wife will come in to use the fax machine and she’ll say “I thought you were working!?” (Laughs) And it does look like I’m doing absolutely nothing but I am in fact mulling things over.
But I do like to write down little ideas, even if it’s just the conceptual ideas — just to get them on paper. It’s like a marriage license, it’s more of a commitment that way (laughs). I used to have a student who would come in week after week, and he hardly wrote anything, and he’d say “well I might do this, or I might do that, or I might do this”. And eventually I had to say to him, “look, I don’t want to see what you might do, or what you could do — I want to see what you’re doing”. It’s a more active process that way. And that’s why I write things down — because that’s what I’m doing, it’s not just in the realms of possibility anymore, I’m actually committing to it.
And sometimes I just draw a shape on a piece of paper, a very simple shape that shows how I want the piece to build. I also think about if it's a particular ensemble I’m writing for, or if I know the soloist — to me that’s very important — I think about who might solo on the piece.
Those are all things that are, maybe not relatively easy to decide, but you can think about them without getting into the nuts and bolts of the musical part. So then at some point I’ll start working with the musical part. Sometimes it’s just a small idea, I sit down at the piano and see what comes out of the hands and then start working with it and developing it. And sometimes not even that, sometimes it’s just a couple of intervals — a little cell for example — more often than not it’s some little fragment of melody, with something else underneath it. Or sometimes it’s just an idea for a vamp that comes up — and again I write these things down and start to work with them. For example if it’s a four-bar vamp, I’ll see if I can extended into a 64 bar unit, just using transpositions. Sometimes I’ll take the bass line and retrograde it — extend it a lot of different ways.
RG: So a very common compositional practice for you then is expansion of small amounts of material?
JM: Yeah, taking an idea that comes and - not to judge it – one of the worst things we can do is to find a musical idea and judge it as good or bad – it’s neither, it’s just there. And it’s there for you to work with, so I’ll try working with it and expand it and try to both manipulate the idea itself into different forms and then using developed strains – different variants of the idea as units in the strain. And sometimes I’ll say “OK, enough of that, let me find something that’s really different from that”, and I’ll just try and develop a contrasting idea.
So before I really get to writing the piece, I’m working on developing the small stuff, and I find that a lot of what I develop I end up throwing away. You don’t throw everything into the piece, but there’s a process involved of developing a lot of material, and then finding, in that material, what really speaks to you and what you really want to use. So I find the process of throwing stuff away is really important too. You create a lot just so you can end up with a little.
Intros, Interludes and Endings RG: Let me ask about a couple of things that I notice are very strong in your music, or are things you very clearly think about – intros, interludes and endings - how you think about those. As a preparation for this interview I was listening to ‘Up From the Skies’, ‘Lickety Split’, and ‘Group Therapy’, and one of the things that struck me was how specific those three elements are in your music. They never sound generic, they always sound to me like you’re very conscious of them. Are they things you pay particular attention to?
JM: Yeah I do. One of the things I think about is the silence between the tracks of a CD – I think about “what’s the first sound we’re going to hear to break the silence, and what’s the last sound we’ll hear before the silence returns?”. John Cage said there’s no such thing as true silence – and he’s probably right – but at least as far as the blank stuff on the CD goes, the silence is the default stage. And one way to look at it is that my music is a disturbance of the silence, so what’s the first thing I’m going to use to break the silence and what’s the last thing I’m going to use before the silence comes back?
To me those are really important considerations, and I think about intros, interludes and endings as being the framework of the piece. Especially if there’s a song in the middle of it - those things are the elements that frame the song.
One recording I was involved in years ago, that really had an influence on me, was the second album that Bob Brookmeyer wrote for Mel Lewis’ band – it was called ‘Make Me Smile”. To me it’s a great example of Big Band writing in which there is a tune, but the tune is just one element of the whole piece. The piece was much bigger than the tune to the extent that you couldn’t call the piece an arrangement of the tune, even though there’s a tune there. He would takes elements of the tune and develop them into other solo forms, or interlude sections etc. And so, the tune becomes a source for the materials of the piece, and ultimately the piece is the piece – it’s not so much about the tune, the tune is there but the piece is larger than that. So, I think that had a big influence on me, in terms of how things like interludes and endings are drawn from the tune most of the time.
But you can never say never, and sometimes those elements are drawn completely out of the blue. One way that I think about that is, as a composer, sometimes two musical ideas work together because I say they do. Sometimes there’s a connection - as is the way with some of Monk's tunes where the first phrase of the bridge is the same as the last phrase of the A section - but there are also times when I’ll just write something completely contrasting and I’ll say they belong together just because I say so. It’s my little God complex! You’re creating this little universe and if you want it to be a Bb, you make it a Bb - no one can say anything about it. So, yes, intros, interludes, and endings are very important to me.
Orchestration RG: What about orchestration? Well, there’s a question — what about orchestration?........ how much time do you have!? (laughs)
JM: Orchestration, it’s a great thing, I’m all for it! (Laughs), you can put me down in the “Yes” column!
RG: I guess my question is, if you’re dealing with a big band, unlike a classical composer, who, in writing several pieces of music for an orchestra, can say “I want three clarinets and two French Horns in the first piece, but only one clarinet and a harp in the second piece” - whereas when you’re writing for a big band, instrumentally you’re presented with what you’re presented with so to speak. Everyone in the band has to get to play. So when you’re writing a suite of music, or a collection of pieces for a particular band, do you think about the orchestration in terms of saying to yourself “I’ve used particularly dense orchestration in that piece, and now I’m going to thin it out in the next one”, or does it just depend on the piece itself?
JM: Kind of a combination of those. You’re right - the few times I’ve written for a symphony orchestra they’ll ask me ‘how many brass do you want, how many woodwind you want?’ etc. with a big band, we’ve got four trumpets, and that’s it, and we’ve got a particular kind of doubling in the woodwinds. And as an aside there, one of my concerns is always how good are the doublers? So for example in the Vanguard band there are two guys are really good flute players and there’s another guy that isn’t such a good flute player, so you can only use the doubling to a limited extent.
But I think of orchestration in terms of the overall palette that I have to work with. Yes I think of varying densities - the two extremes I think of are something very bold with saxophones and trumpets, versus something pastel which is more mutes and woodwinds, and the morphing of one version of the band into the other is sometimes part of the shape of the piece, the plotline of the piece. Sometimes when writing I’ll have a very specific idea about the orchestration, and hearing particular instruments playing something — other times I don’t, I just write it as a piano sketch — I feel that I have the experience to be able to find a way to orchestrate that for the forces that are available to me.
Sometimes when I have spare time, (which isn’t that often), for example when I’m in Europe working with a radio band I might have a weekend off, so I’ll just go into the studio and just write for four or five hours - just write something and have fun with it. I enjoy doing that because I’m not up against a deadline and I don’t have a specific group in mind, so I can just write in the abstract. And so usually I’ll find a way to use that stuff I write somewhere further down the line, but after adapting it for the orchestration or forces that I have to work with in that particular band.
Writing in the Abstract RG: So, apropos of the question of writing in the abstract - as you’re so renowned as a writer for jazz orchestra, and I could be wrong in this, but I would imagine that you spend the vast bulk of your time writing for jazz orchestras of various kinds.........
RG: Well is there a part of you that says to yourself “I wouldn’t mind trying something different for a while - I would like to write in the abstract, I would like to write simply because I want to write, not because I have to write”. Of course (laughs) there are loads of composers all over the world who would love to have this problem — having to write because they’ve been commissioned to write! But at the same time do you feel that you would like to take time out just to write, for your own purposes?
JM: Yes, every once in awhile I do get the chance to do just that, and I would like to do that more. I tend to get tied up with deadlines and writing gigs, and I have to say that’s a mixed blessing. It’s great to get paid for what you do, but at the same time you’re writing for existing ensembles, and in just about every group I write for their might be one or two players where I've said to myself, well if this was my band I’d have someone else in those chairs, you know. But in my situation you’re always having to write for the personnel that’s chosen for you by the leader or the producer or whomever. So though I’m usually writing music for a specific project or band, the few times I’ve written music without having to think about any of that kind of stuff, I’ve really enjoyed it. So it’s probably time, after all this time writing for specific groups, to explore that more.
Getting Stuck.......... RG: A kind of related question — I had a situation myself about two years ago where I was writing a huge amount of music in a relatively short space of time - I had a whole lot of stuff that I had to write. And I found that it reached a point where I was absolutely plagiarising myself — or I would think “oh that’s good”, but then I’d say “oh shit no, I just did that in the last piece!” Since you’re such a busy composer and write so much music, and a lot of the time you’re writing for similar kinds of ensembles, do you A) have a similar problem to mine where you simply come up against a wall with it, and B) if so, how do you resolve the situation?
JM: Well, full disclosure here, I do plagiarise myself from time to time. And sometimes I give it this rather noble spin as in “well there was this concept I was working on last year in a piece, and it was okay but I’d like to rework it and really get it right this time, so I’ll use this piece as an opportunity to do that”. There are other times where I'm just flat out and up against the wall and I’ll just say “well I’ll recycle that thing I did in that other piece”. So there are times when the intention is more noble than others! (laughs).
You know, I’ve realised that for me some of the more interesting music that I’ve written for bands with which I’ve have long-term relationships have come really early in the process when I don’t know them very well. And I you’ll sit here in my room and I think “well, I don’t know if these guys can handle this, but screw it I’m just going to write this music and see what comes out”. And then as I get to know them better and get to know their limitations and their strengths, I write more carefully for the particular players and in one way though I think the music is much more integrated with them, there’s a kind of rough edge in some of the early music I’ve written for some of these groups that I kind of lose the sense of later on.
For example that arrangement I did of “Sing Sing Sing”, for Dave Liebman and The Carnegie Hall band came about mainly because I was way behind the deadline. The copyist called me and said “I have to have the score tomorrow”, and the FedEx guy was standing in the room waiting to take it, so I quickly said, ”Okay, so Liebman plays and the band answers, and then copy these last 12 bars” and then I wrote a final chord and sent it off. I originally had a whole written scheme planned for that section, but I had to abandon it and yet it came out pretty successfully. The players in the Carnegie Band tended to be players older than me, guys like Frank Wess and Slide Hampton, and I didn’t even know whether this would go over with them. But it ended up being great — because I didn’t know any better!(laughs). And the same kind of thing happened with the Danish radio band, and the same with the Vanguard Orchestra. I feel that some of the earlier stuff I wrote for them, while the craft may not be as strong, there’s something different about the spirit because it kind of forced them into a zone that was surprising to them, or was a little out of their box — because I didn’t know what their box was.
I forget how I got off onto that tangent!
RG: We were talking about getting stuck.
JM: Right, in that situation sometimes I’ll just put on some music that is not jazz, or I’ll read about Bela Bartok or Stravinsky, about what those guys were doing, what they were thinking about, how they organised their material. Or I’ll just put on some African music of something, and then I’ll say ”well to hell with it, I’m just going to try this in the piece and we’ll see if it works out”.
If I feel like I’m stuck, first of all, in one way, being stuck is a good thing, because that motivates you to explore things that you maybe haven’t done before or that you haven’t been thinking about. It’s funny, when I’m not stuck in a piece then I have a tendency to get stuck later on, because I’m coasting. When you do get stuck, it’s like being stuck in a car, your first instinct is to say ‘what do I do to get out of this mud here’, so the same thing happens musically. So I’ll try maybe putting on some recordings I haven’t heard in a long time, trying to look at music especially not from the jazz perspective, but from some other kind of perspective.
Classical Writing RG: So you mentioned Bartok and Stravinsky there, can I ask you - have you written for classical ensembles?
JM: Yes I have — I’ve written a string quartet and have written a saxophone quartet. And I wrote a piece two years ago for the Frankfurt Radio Symphony with their big band. Again it’s kind of a mash up, some of it sounds like jazz, some of it really doesn’t. It was a five movement piece, quite a big piece, but because the big band was there I’d say that music also had that aspect to it as well as the orchestral writing. But as I said earlier, years ago I was writing for a kind of hybrid chamber orchestra as well.
RG: So the string quartet and the saxophone quartet, were they recent works or written years ago?
JM: It was about 15 years ago, in fact this is kind of a demonstration of what you’re talking about. It was in my early days with the BMI workshop, and we had a string quartet come in to demonstrate some stuff, and I thought “you know, it’s time I wrote a string quartet”. So I did, and finally I had most of it written, and Manny (Albam) had written some string music as well, so we said let’s have a reading session and we hired a string quartet to come in just to play our stuff. Ultimately the piece was performed a couple of times, never recorded, but was performed. The saxophone quartet was commissioned by a commissioning body for the American Saxophone Quartet, who are all guys associated with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. They’ve performed it and it was also performed by the New York saxophone Quartet. But I haven’t done a lot of that kind of writing because it always seems like I’ve a got a full plate with all the big band music.
RG: So is that something that you would like to do more of, or would like to explore further?
JM: Oh yes definitely, it’s a matter of finding the time to write it and then finding people to play it. One of the hard parts about it is that when I write big band music it’s very easy for me to get it played because I’ve got so many relationships with so many bands. I think the thing that would be a little more daunting about writing chamber music for example would be getting people to play it. But I’d certainly be interested in doing that because ultimately jazz is limited — well anything is limited — and with my jazz writing as I said before, I’ll try and bring in other influences, but still essentially be writing for a jazz group.
Next year, for the Frankfurt radio band, I’m going to be writing a project for Rabih Abou Khalil
RG: Oh yeah, the Lebanese Oud player?
JM: Right, I’ve been talking with him, and to mix his music with a big band is going to be kind of a challenge. I was talking to the band’s producer about different projects and I said I would like at least one of them to be something really outside my comfort zone, and damn if he didn’t find something!
RG: Right (laughs) - how’s your knowledge of the Maqam system!?
JM: Right! (laughs) All those wonderful greasy intervals this guy plays on the Oud, to get the big band to do that (though maybe the trombonists could fudge it), is going to be a challenge, And I’m looking forward to that, because it’ll look like a big band but probably won’t sound like one. Actually in college I took a seminar in Persian classical music.
RG: that’s a whole different thing isn’t it, the Dastgah and all of that?
JM: Yes, the Dastgah
RG: That’s great stuff too – but really dark - I find it so severe it makes Arabic classical music sound like calypso! (laughs).
What do you listen for? OK, a completely different question - when you’re listening to another composer’s music in the jazz idiom — could be big band or small group or whatever - let’s say outside the situation where the tune is just a vehicle for blowing, what is it that you’re listening for?
JM: Well you know, I guess on one level I just listen for the storyline. When I write myself, I have this whole parallel existence going on where I think of myself as a playwright, and I think about developing characters and explore whether there is tension between them etc. — stuff happens to the characters. And when I listen to music that’s not mine, I still like to listen to it that way.
Tom Macintosh, the composer arranger and trombonist - he was part of the early Thad and Mel band - some years ago I was judging a composition competition with him and he said to me, “when I listen to music the only question I should be asking is - what’s going to happen next? And If I’m not asking that the only other question I ask is - when is it going to stop?”. And I find that the music that I like to listen to has that quality of pulling me along and getting me to say “what’s going to happen next to this piece, or to this character?”. You know there’s a principle from creative writing that says that people have to want to care about what happens to the characters - whether Bob and Mary are going to stay in there for the whole play or for the whole novel. And obviously although in music it’s a more abstract thing, I still feel that way when I’m listening to music - I want to care about what’s happening to this melody here, I want to care about what this soloist is about to do to the structure that’s been set up. Or at the end I want to hear - if the character comes back - I want to hear him transformed by everything that happened in the ensuing 10 minutes or so.
That’s why so much of today’s pop music has so little interest for me, because it’s so predictable. Whereas — and this is where I get to sound like the cranky old guy - back in the 60s you would hear things on Top 40 radio that would tend to be a little more interesting - at least once in a while. When I was getting ready to record “Up From The Skies” I downloaded all these Hendrix tracks — I had lost all my old LPs — and I was amazed at the variety of this guy’s work. And this was a guy you’d hear on the radio — he wasn’t as popular as the Monkees, but still, he was very popular and yet you had the sense of real musical artist at work. So when I hear something at the beginning of the piece that surprises me and engages me and pulls me along and makes me wonder what’s going to happen next, well that’s the stuff I listen for.
The soloist conundrum
RG: So the point you made about wondering what was going to happen with the soloist and what they were going to do with the piece etc — this brings me back to that stuff we’ve talked about on my blog — that I was writing about and that you responded to — which is this issue, if there is an issue, with more extended form composition and the place of the soloist, with the typical contemporary proclivity for extended solos, within the context of those more extended or more complex compositional structures.
JM: When I read your initial post on your blog it resonated with me because I had just written a project for Richie (Beirach) and Dave (Liebman) – I was writing for two very strong soloists with very strong musical personalities, and shaping the piece for them. And when I’m writing for soloists whom I know well, I feel like I’m really tailoring the piece to them and it probably wouldn’t sound as good in somebody else’s hands. I’ve had a few experiences where I’ve written things for particular soloists and I’ve heard other bands play it with other people, and okay, it’s fine, and I like to think that the music holds up well - but just something about having a different person in the solo chair - his interpretation of the character being a little different to what I had in mind when I first wrote the piece. But sometimes that’s not the case, sometimes the new soloist is spot-on with their interpretation of the piece.
But I think this is a problem that goes back a long way — I mentioned in my response to you the Mozart clarinet Concerto which was written for Anton Stadler, and since then a lot of us have tried to play that piece but it’s just a fact of life that that some people really do it in the right way, and others don’t. Some people bring their own interpretation, and I have to say that there’s been a couple of times with my own pieces that I heard a soloist play something quite different to what the original soloist played, and I thought “you know, I like that, that works!”. If they’re bringing their own thing to the piece and it works, I like that. But of course if they’re bringing their own thing and it misses the point then that’s not so good..................
RG: Yes, it’s funny how that can happen - even in classical music. I remember several years ago writing a violin concerto and in rehearsal the soloist never played the cadenza which linked the first and second movements - at that point he would always say “and then I’ll play the cadenza”, and he’d carry on into the next section he had to rehearse with the orchestra. So the first time I heard the cadenza was in the concert and I have to admit, that what he did with that cadenza made it sound much better than what I had written! (laughs). He just slowed certain things down, added in extra dynamics etc -- really interpreted the piece. And to me this was a classic example of how sometimes you can place your music in the hands of a really great and creative player and they somehow make the music even better than what you wrote in a way.
JM: Yeah, I agree -- well in jazz there are people like Sonny Rollins who took tunes like “I’m An Old Cowhand” and played the hell out of them. But that’s a whole other story, an incredible improviser like him who can take something very simple and can use it as a source or a springboard for something great.
But to return to the other point in your blog, about this being the age of the extended solo - certain people can pull that off and certain people can’t - it depends on the players. I’ve been in situations where everyone wants to open a piece up and play longer solos, because a longer solo is supposed to mean that it’s going to be a better solo -- maybe because they feel better when they’re doing it, they’re not constrained etc. and sometimes I’ll make jokes about it and I’ll tell the soloist “just keep playing until you hear all those horns come in, then you know you’re done” - the big band syndrome!
But solos don’t necessarily have to be long. I’ve written a couple of things for Joe Lovano where he’s the only soloist, one of them was over 40 minutes long for the WDR band some years ago. He was amazing on it, he was always engaging and playing something interesting. But there are a lot of other people who come to mind for whom I just wouldn’t write that kind of thing, because they wouldn’t be able to pull it off.
RG: This is a slightly different thing too isn’t it? In that what you’re talking about there, what you wrote for Joe, is almost like a concerto.
RG: Whereas the problems I was thinking about when I was writing the blog, is a situation where if you’ve got X number of pieces and X number of soloists, you look at the line-up and you say to yourself “I have to give everyone a solo” - if I’m doing the math correctly that means I can have two soloists in this tune but I’m going to need three in that tune etc. and then I decide who goes in there, and who goes in there -- you have to do it, almost as a way of keeping the peace! (Laughs)
JM: (Laughs) Right! In the two albums I’ve written for the Vanguard Orchestra I wanted to make sure that the principal players all got at least a healthy shot, and that does end up as part of the planning for the music. But yes, the long solo thing is slightly different -- for example thinking about say Bartok’s ‘Concerto For Orchestra’, supposing you were to open it up and the clarinet player takes 64 bars of meaningless stuff - you’d never consider doing that. And there are certain things I’ve written that I like to think feel like there is an architecture to the whole form, and it’s just not right to open up the solo. There are other pieces where it’s fine, there are many examples in jazz were it’s fine to do that. But that doesn’t mean that it always has to be that way, and it doesn’t mean that a long solo is, by itself, better than a short solo.
RG: Yes, it seems to me to be something that could use being rethought a little bit, because as it stands now it is definitely in the default position of the longer solo. And I made this point in the response to the comment that you made on the blog, that we tend to think that the reason earlier players played short solos was because of the shorter available recording time that they had due to the limitations of the technology. But now that they’ve discovered some live air shots from that period -- even the bebop period -- you can hear that people just didn’t play 10 minutes solos in those days - Charlie Parker didn’t play 10 minutes solos. So I think it’s a different aesthetic it’s not just about the mechanical limitations of recording technology. And I think maybe something has been lost by always going to the default position of the longer solo.
JM: Yes, I agree.
The Most Important Question.......
RG: A final question Jim - What do you think is the most important question a composer can ask him or herself when they’re writing music?
JM: My first response is that the composer’s job is to ask -- “what if?”. That’s essentially how I’ve always perceived it. Sometimes “what if?” is a very specific musical question, sometimes it’s more of a social question. What if a band got together and played as if they hated each other?
RG: (Laughs) Sometimes that’s not “what if?” at all!
JM: Right - I’ve been in some of those bands! (laughs). Or sometimes it can be something simple like what if it’s a C7 chord and in the melody you hang on a B natural for a long time? One of the things I’ve used several times is - what if a band was playing and all fell down a flight of stairs together -- what would that sound like? Or what if John Riley the drummer had to play a bunch of different things during the course of his day? So to me that is the question that I’m always fundamentally asking myself -- what if this would happen/ what if that would happen? And when working with my students I've always emphasised that the question not to ask is “may I?”, or “is it in the tradition if.........?”, or “is it okay if I do this or that?” As I said before, one way to look at it is as a God complex, but also, if you see yourself as a playwright you’re just constructing a situation, and stuff happens in that situation and you’re in control of that stuff that happens. And in the end maybe the characters are dead, or transformed, or new characters have come along to replace them - what if all that happens? That’s pretty much how I operate.
Though I guess there may be other questions to ask - supposedly Stravinsky said that whenever he was asked to write a piece, he said -- “the two questions I ask are - how long, and how much?”
RG: (Laughs) Those are pretty good questions !
JM: Yes, those are good questions too!
RG: Jim, thanks very much for your time, it’s been really great to talk to you.
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