New Music Festival Premiere
Just got back from a weekend in Minneapolis where I participated in the new music “Festival Dancing in Your Head”. When I was first approached by my old classical music friend Phil Ford from Indiana U. (now a budding professor and musicologist at the U. of Minnesota) about doing the commission, I regarded it as a special challenge, to try and write something in the more specifically notated, classical idiom; we spoke of trying to add a jazzy/notated/classical piece to the new music canon, something which people even without jazz background could conceivably play. After I expressed interest, Anthony Gatto, the president of Headwater’s Music and the organizer of this year’s festival Phil co-founded with him, formally commissioned me to write a 15 minute work by late this past winter, and in my typical “I don’t need time! I need a deadline!” Duke Ellington-esque way, I put off thinking about the piece until a host of other more immediately pressing projects were out of the way. As it turned out, my latest CD, “Sigame” was completed by the end of July (it’s due out Oct. 9th), and so by the beginning of August I finally got around to really zeroing in on the piece.
I decided almost impulsively to focus on the variation form – namely to do 10 variations on a simple, Satie-inspired melody that I had had lingering in my head for some time. What I didn’t anticipate was how much of a mental block I would experience. Some of the stigmas against jazz composers – namely, the notion that they historically have lacked an ability to deal with coherent, larger scale form - started haunting me as I contemplated writing a piece which, by it’s very theme and variations structure, didn’t lend itself at all to over-arching form or large-scale development. In short, I was experiencing some serious Indiana University (where I received my B.Music in Classical Piano Performance in a suffocatingly close-minded atmosphere about jazz) flashbacks as I pondered what sort of piece I could legitimately present at not a jazz but a New Music Festival.
My way out of this dispair occurred quite quickly after I called the commissioner, Anthony Gatto, and found a much more open-minded attitude towards musical style than I had anticipated. Much had changed, it seems, since Indiana, and apparently today a New Music festival literally seemed to mean any new music which could on some level qualify as having legitimate artistic value, and to Anthony this seemed to mean stylistically almost anything under the sun. This meant that at the festival (on the same day as my 15 minute piece which was to be part of a huge music marathon running non-stop for 10 hours) the audience would be treated to artists as diverse as Tibetan Monks to various wacky pseudo-musical performance artists, to Steve Reich to “Hmong mouth organs” to the Bang on a Can All-Stars to electric trombone. There was even an actual jazz trio, a local band named “Happy Apple” that I very much enjoyed, that were being commissioned also.
Freed from my self-imposed constraints, I proceded to write a piece which instead of being merely 10 variations in the classical piece, I renamed 10 “Inspirations”, since they were, after, not only strictly notated, but in some cases also very much improvised depending upon my inspiration of the moment. The result, though rough around the edges, was well received (to hear the full MP3 of the performance, go here and click on “10 Inspirations on a Simple Theme”.)
Most importantly for me, I got an update about how at least some people are handling the concept of “new music” today. The festival as a whole was ultimately extremely successful and well-received. At times it unfolded much like a good jazz concert, with flights of seeming brilliance (and, to be fair, the occasional moments of dullness). But on the whole it was truly re-invigorating to see a group of people so hard at work presenting music not joined by specific, narrowly defined genres, but by simply being new and fresh. And this open-minded, category-defying view of music-making has shot my mind into all sorts of new creative directions. So, flawed piece and all, I am happy to have had the opportunity of participating in my first true “New Music” event….