Posts Tagged “improvisation”

The Imani Winds: Jeff Scott, Toyin Spellman-Diaz, Valerie Coleman, Monica Ellis, and Mariam Adam.

Imani Winds: Jeff Scott, Toyin Spellman-Diaz, Valerie Coleman, Monica Ellis, and Mariam Adam. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

(Houston, TX) Since the group’s inception in 1997, the Imani Winds have continued to expand the relatively small-sized repertoire for wind quintet by commissioning several works by such forward-thinking composers as Alvin Singleton, Roberto Sierra, Stefon Harris, Daniel Perez, Mohammed Fairouz, and Houston’s own Jason Moran. Moran’s four-movement work Cane, Moran’s first composition for wind quintet, appears on the Imani Winds’ 2010 album Terra Incognita, along with pieces by two other jazz masters, Paquito D’Rivera and Wayne Shorter. (The Imani Winds appear on Shorter’s critically acclaimed 2013 live quartet album Without A Net in a scorching performance of his 23-minute through-composed work Pegasus.) Imani Winds members Valerie Coleman (flute) and Jeff Scott (horn) also compose and arrange for the quintet. In concert, the Imani Winds present traditional classical fare alongside new works that explore African, Latin American, and the Middle Eastern musical idioms and performance techniques.

On Tuesday, October 15, 2013, the Imani Winds make their Houston Friends Of Chamber Music debut at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, performing arrangements of classic works by Ravel and Mendelssohn, Jonathan Russell’s powerful wind quintet arrangement of Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring, and Scott’s arrangement of Palestinian-American oud and violin virtuoso Simon Shaheen’s composition Dance Mediterranea, a piece that requires the quintet to play and improvise with Arabic scales or maqamat.

I spoke with Jeff Scott about the challenges of arranging Shaheen’s piece for the quintet as well as what it means to be a chamber wind ensemble in the 21st century.

Chris Becker: What are some challenges you faced in arranging Simon Shaheen’s music for the Imani Winds?

Jeff Scott: I listened to Shaheen’s piece over and over and over again so I could learn what I could do in the different section to offset it. We are an ensemble with five completely different sounding instruments that can create many different colors. So I listened to each section and thought, “Who could play the bass here? Who would sound great playing the solo line here? Who could really do something percussive on their instrument there to make it sound like an authentic version of the song?”

CB: There’s improvisation in your arrangement? Is that correct?

JS: Absolutely.

CB: Can you talk a little bit about the improvisation in the piece? Are you and your fellow winds improvising with scales? Are you improvising over some kind of harmony? Or is it even freer than that?

JS: It’s definitely structured. In that part of the world, the scale is called a maqam. This piece deals with three different maqamat. So for the solo sections, I only wrote out a rhythmic figure for whoever is playing the bass and the scale itself for whoever is playing the solo. The stuff in the middle is fleshed out completely and gives the top and bottom players guidelines they can follow.

In preparation for this piece, we had workshop rehearsals for learning the different maqamat and how to play inflect on our respective instruments the quarter tones and semitones that exist in those scales, so we wouldn’t just be playing a diatonic scale with two half steps and then calling that a maqam. That’s not it at all. The challenge was getting that g half flat just so! (laughs)

What separates people who play with those different scales and people who play Western music and diatonic scales, is that our ears are adjusted. We know when someone is playing a flat seventh, you know? But to be able to play it as part of a scale and know whether or not you’re just flat enough? (laughs) That’s a different thing! We played these scales in workshops for Shaheen almost like we were auditioning for him. We’d play, and he would say, “No, no, no…” and then play the scale with us and show us exactly where they fit. It’s a thing you just constantly have to work on because it’s not a part of our pedagogue. It’s not part of our training.

Before playing this piece, we’ll have our set of rehearsals the week before, and we’ll go through the shed of practicing those scales and testing one another.

CB: Is improvisation a part of your background? Or is it something new that you and the other members of the Imani Winds have explored since coming together as an ensemble?

JS: I’d say for the most part it’s new. Improvising wasn’t a part of our formal training. We all went to either the Manhattan School of Music or Juilliard. And it just wasn’t asked of you, it just wasn’t. Now, post-school? Yeah. You realize that in the 21st century commercial world, if you’re going to survive, regardless of what your training is, you have to be flexible enough to improvise. It was definitely harder for us coming into it, but more schools are requiring it these days. I think that’s really wonderful. The language of music from other countries is now filtering its way into the Western chronicles and as a musician, you have to be able to speak the different dialects. We have embraced it and really went out there and grabbed every possible challenge we could.

CB: What you say about conservatories in the U.S., that more programs are including improvisation and music from around the globe, is something I’m hearing about more and more in my interviews with younger musicians.

JS: It used to be shunned. When I was at the Manhattan School of Music, back in the 80s, I wrote this piece for horn and percussion that I wanted to play on one of my recitals. I remember playing the piece for my teacher and him not wanting me to do it because most of my part wasn’t written down and he couldn’t work with me on it. It wasn’t because the it sounded “bad” or “good,” he just didn’t know how to work with me on it as an improvised piece of music. And that said a whole lot about the institution and my training in general! (laughs) It speaks volumes!

CB: Tell me about the Imani Winds’ collaboration with saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter.

JS: We were asked to come and perform with him at the Hollywood Bowl on his 80th birthday along with Esperanza Spaulding, Herbie Hancock, Dave Douglas and all of these incredible musicians. We performed a piece that Shorter composed and arranged called Pegasus. It’s a symphony! The piece is written for his and wind quintet. It’s a symphony! It’s a mammoth, epic journey with improvisation from everyone involved, a through-composed piece with many different moods.

The whole thing started when the La Jolla Music Society in California commissioned Shorter to compose a piece for us, which he titled Terra Incognita. It was just for wind quintet, and it was the first piece he’d composed that didn’t involve him as a performer. He’d never written something for someone else that he didn’t intend to perform.

So he wrote this wind quintet and it was way out (laughs) with just as much room to improvise as you could possibly want. We didn’t know what the heck to do with it. So we learned everything note by note, and then played it for him. And he smiled and said, “That’s great. But promise me you’ll never play it like that again. I want you play it different every time. I want you to start from the end. I want you to leave out some parts. You can start in the middle. Just use the piece as a point of departure.”

CB: That’s so great.

JS: It says a whole lot about him. But it also says a whole lot about where I think classical music in general is going when it comes to chamber music and accepting improvisation, jazz and all of the world’s music, and having musicians who are flexible enough and open enough to at least experiment. It’s the only way we’re going to get the patrons of chamber music societies to have that openness and expectation when it comes to who they decide to put on their series. I mean, if we don’t start doing it, they’re going to continually only want the Haydn cycles. (laughs)

So we have to not only accept it, we have to become nimble at it. You have to be able to deliver a good product so the patrons say, “You know what? I want more of that!”

And besides, as a wind quintet, we don’t have the Haydn cycles! (laughs) They just don’t exist. We occasionally play the old stalwarts of the wind quintet, but that stuff runs out in about two weeks. You’ve got to play new stuff and push the envelope a bit, and improvisation is just a normal step along the way for expanding the repertoire for the wind quintet.

Houston Friends of Chamber Music present the Imani Winds, Tuesday, October 15, 7:30 p.m. at Stude Concert Hall, Shepherd School of Music, Rice University, performing works by Valerie Coleman, Mendelssohn, Ravel, Simon Shaheen, and Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring arranged by Jonathan Russell.

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Shh! We’re improvising! The Lepers of Melancholy, Houston TX (photo by Jonathan Jindra)

While reading Conversing With Cage at a bus stop today, I stumbled across this funny yet in the end profound exchange (circa 1980) between John Cage and John Robert with Silvey Panet Raymond:

How do you consider new popular music – punk, New Wave?

What is the New Wave? I don’t really know what it is. If you could point it out to me, I might have some reaction.

It’s very simple, three – , four-chord stuff, aggressive, fast.

There’s a good deal of dancing on the part of the performers?

Usually jumping up and down

I’ve seen something like that. It was entertaining to see but not very engaging.

But they use very dissonant sounds; I wonder how you felt about that?

I have no objection to dissonance.

I know you have no objections, but I wanted to know whether you felt any pleasure that things were coming round to your way of thinking.

But this isn’t it, is it? Isn’t it a regular beat?

Not all the time.

I think it’s part of show business.

Aren’t you?

No.

In a marginal way?

No. I’m much more a part of music as a means of changing the mind. Perhaps if you want to say that, I wouldn’t myself.

Opening up the mind.

A means of converting the mind, turning it around, so that it moves away from itself out to the rest of the world, or as Ramakrishna said, “as a means of rapid transportation.”

So your music in itself is not that important.

The use of it is what is important.

The use rather than the result.

That’s what Wittgenstein said about anything. He said the meaning of something was in its use.

As exasperated as I get by quotes attributed to John Cage regarding jazz improvisation, so-called popular music, and well, composing in general, I have been and will continue to be educated, provoked and inspired by his writings and music. My most recent work-in-progress for five electric guitars and electric bass is in part a homage to Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (1939) that utilizes notation borrowed from Leo Brouwer’s wonderful guitar quartet Cuban Landscape With Rain (1984) to realize various aleatoric events. How my new piece (or for that matter Brouwer’s) would sit with Cage and his desire that music realized via chance operations covert the mind of its performers and listeners is – since he’s no longer with us – open to debate.

Maybe including “…for John Cage…” in the title of my piece isn’t appropriate?

Cage also readily admitted he was “close minded…” about many things.

Does Cage present to you a similar grab bag of ideas – some valuable, some exasperating? Has your attitude and appreciation of Cage changed over time?

P.S. Have a safe and relaxing holiday!

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Skull courtesy of Casa Ramirez (photo by Chris Becker)

Skeletons! Witches! Vampires! No, I’m not talking about candidates in Houston’s midterm elections. I’m talking about Halloween and the two days that follow known as Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead. Like many other places in the Southern U.S., Houston culture is a healthy mix of the supernatural and the spiritual. In the Mexican tradition of Dia de los Meurtos, food, beverages, and sweets are placed on homemade alters as gifts for the spiritual manifestations of those who have passed who will, over the course of the 48 hours that is All Saints Day and All Soul’s Day, visit the people they knew before the afterlife. Gift giving and the ephemeral nature of playing music – particularly improvised music – have all been on my mind lately.

In his recent book Tradition and Transgression about composer John Zorn, author John Brackett includes a chapter describing Zorn’s music from the perspective of “the gift and gift giving.” The composer receives a “gift” from an artist – maybe an artist from an earlier time – in the form of creative inspiration and techniques that can be applied to their respective medium and then passes the “gift” along in various forms of musical homage. There are so many examples of this practice in music. Many compositions by Charles Mingus are named for musicians he knew and loved and directly referenced in melody, harmony, and/or rhythm (A few examples are Reincarnation of a Lovebird, So Long Eric and Goodbye Porkpie Hat for Charlie Parker, Eric Dolphy and Lester Young respectively). Certainly there are parallels between creating art and celebrating our ancestors. Maybe there’s actually no difference between the two actions?

Who are some of the composers, friends, and/or family members you yourself have paid homage to in musical form?

Alexandra Adshead and Chris Becker at Avant Garden (photo by Jonathan Jindra)

For the month of November, the tireless Dave Dove and his organization Nameless Sound continue their They Who Sound “First Time Duo” series at Houston’s Avant Garden, every Monday from 7pm to 9pm. Each week, two to four improvisers who have never played together share the stage to perform a set of entirely improvised music. This is a great concept, and I wonder if it could expand beyond its current network of free improvisers to include pairings with members of Houston’s classical, jazz, and rock communities. Maybe some students from Houston’s School for the Performing Arts could share the stage with people with a history in Houston’s free improv and/or so-called noise scenes and try to find some common ground?

Also at Avant Garden on the last Wednesday of every month, keyboardist Robert Pearson presents a program of experimental music (Robert was kind enough to invite me and Alex to play last Wednesday, and we had a ball). These Wednesday shows are also an opportunity to hear Robert who doesn’t play like anyone I’ve ever heard before. Imagine Matthew Shipp, former Birdsongs of the Mesozoic Roger Miller, and Erik Satie all at 200 bpm and you sort of get an aural impression of what Robert sounds like on the keys. The resulting music is almost Zen-like in spite (or maybe because of) the tempi. Go hear him for yourself!

On November 2, 2010, 7pm at Talento Bilingue de Houston, Cuban tenor Alejandro Salvia Cobas and belly dancer provocateur Ms. Y.E.T. perform at show of artist and longtime A.I.D.S. activist Lourdes Lopez Moreno’s show of hand built clay skeletons. Moreno’s work will be on display through November 7th. A short, spooky video featuring Cobas’ voice is up on YouTube.

On November 7, 7:30pm at Zilkha Hall, Houston’s composer led contemporary music organization Musiqa celebrates the work of Benjamin Patterson, a groundbreaking artist who was a founding member of the avant-garde group, Fluxus, and whose work explores the experimental and improvisational possibilities in music. The concert Born in a State of Flux(us) is free, and Patterson will be there for what should be a crazy evening.

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Pyramid and Michelle Yom at Labotanica (Houston, TX)

This Friday, October 1st at 7pm, Michelle Yom will present her sound performance installation Back To Imagined Spaces at Houston’s alternative arts and music venue Labotanica located at 2316 Elgin Street. This is a part of Labotanica’s ongoing Hear/Her/Ear series spotlighting women in experimental music.

I got a chance to hear Michelle last month in a solo vocal set at Avant-Garden where she recorded and looped her singing in real time to additively build a series of haunting chorales. Michelle is perhaps best known as a flautist with a strong classical technique and the skills and imagination of a great improviser. Her flute and drums duo Doggebi features Michelle with drummer Spike The Percussionist – a musician I name checked in my Houston Mixtape #3: The Epicenter Of Noise – freely and (almost) breathlessly improvising music that is somehow stark yet filled with a minutiae of details.

Back To Imagined Spaces imagines the human body as a collection of cells that sing and are heard in a “self-imposed timeless space” contained within the pyramid Michelle has constructed inside Labotanica. Regarding the music she will perform, Michelle writes: “The first set is a series of staccato vocalizations with syllables from the mantra, Asato Ma Sad Gamaya, processed through seven delays. The second set will be a live performance of tonal pieces titled Heart, Ears, Kidney, and Stomach, also using vocal sounds. The pieces are intended to capture a version of imaginary but prudent sounds, much like taking a microscope and focusing the lens into singing, living cells.”

Also on Friday’s program are performances by artist, vocalist and electronic composer Melanie Jamison and Labotanica’s tireless curator, visual and sound artist Ayanna Jolivet McCloud.

There is a $5 cover charge for the show. All proceeds go to the musicians. Michelle Yom’s installation will be up October 1st through October 9th, 2010.

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