Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Beautiful lacunae

Sometimes, when you are making a piece of art (or whatever), there are gaps. And sometimes half the fun of the art-making process is allowing those gaps to be filled in by other people (after figuring out 1. which gaps to offer up for that purpose, and 2. which gaps you had better fill in your own damn self).

Some artists will have none of that. Surrounded by an army of "assistants" whose job is to help them complete a given piece, they nevertheless leave very little to the talents of these collaborators:

Hidden details whenever possible. References to my children (from youngest to oldest as follows): Evie, Winsor, Chandler and Merritt. References to my anniversary date, the number 52, the number 82, and the number 5282 (for fun, notice how many times this appears in my major published works). Hidden N's throughout -- preferably thirty N's, commemorating one N for each year since the events happened.

Never have I seen the word "fun" used in such an odd, incongruous way. What this overdetermined art practice really is? Bloody hell boring.

But maybe I'm speaking with the bias of a big band leader (h/t to DJA for the interview from which this excerpt comes):

FJO: So what does it mean to be writing for people who are themselves already decision makers on that level?

MS: It means that a lot of times they come up with really great ideas that I end up adopting. In the case of Frank, it means that a lot of times, instead of writing an introduction to a piece, I let him just come up with it. He's improvising it and it sets up the music differently every time. Sometimes I say, "I don't know what to write here." Frank will figure it out, and he'll make it great every time.

When I first brought Concert in the Garden to the band, it was just horrible. It was called Quasi Catu, because it was based on this maracatu Brazilian rhythm. I'm telling you, it was a piece of dreck, and I was so panicked. We were rehearsing at Hunter College and there was this little organ, and I was playing this melody on the organ and the guys were taking a break. Ingrid was sitting there diddling on her horn, and I said, "Ingrid, why does this sound so good here and it just sounds like crap in the band?" And she said, "You know, that sounds like accordion; you should get Gary Versace to play that. We should call him and have him play on this." I was like, "That's a great idea." So she's thinking like a composer, but outside of my box. I was thinking, "I have this big band. I have to write for this big band." But we called up Gary, and he could do the concert. Suddenly it gave me a whole new way to write because he's got the high tessitura. He can play high and soft forever. A flute can't do that. A trumpet can't do that. Nobody in the band could. A piano can play high, but it decays immediately. So here the accordion can go eeeee super high and just go forever, and it gets this whole kind of ethnic sound going. I fell in love with it. So now I always write for that, but it wasn't my idea.

FJO: And Gary Versace is now a regular member of the band.

MS: Yeah. So, you know, they all come up with ideas. When we had that gig at Visiones—we played there for five years—I would bring pieces in, not knowing exactly what I wanted. But playing them every week, [the musicians] started developing a way of phrasing—especially Keith O'Quinn on lead trombone, Tony Kadleck on lead trumpet, and George Flynn on bass trombone. These are not guys I'm always giving solos to. They're good soloists, but they're incredible lead players. And they would do these things with articulating notes—releasing, crescendoing—and the whole section would then start following them. When I started hearing how they phrase, then when I would come home and write my next piece, I would write to that. You know, I'd say, "Oh wow, yeah, I'm gonna do that and write sforzando-piano-crescendo here." It was because of this collection of people, playing it their own way, collectively influencing each other, finding a collective way of phrasing without talking about it. There are so many layers of my music that I would have never found if I'd always been writing for a different group. Just by doing it, they made me write a certain way. And I would imagine that my writing and their playing it over the years has helped them find things in their own music, too. So we've changed each other. It's the reason I don't think I can ever end the band; it's an organism now. It's not a collection of people. It's an old shoe that your foot fits perfectly in. You don't ever want to throw it away. But it's also almost like a living thing on its own. I can't put [another] collection of musicians together and get the same breadth out of the music as what they do. They're just exquisite.

I call this sort of thing the Ellington dynamic, and it's one of the main reasons I identify as a jazz composer.

(Photo credit: "Lacuna" by franz84j.)

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