Here are some edited-together excerpts of Springs of a Desperate Heart performed by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Thanks again to the ACO and the BPO for this great opportunity!
A few months back I had the honor of having my piece Springs of a Desperate Heart read by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO) as part of the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute EarShot Readings, put on by the American Composers Orchestra and sponsored by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Herb Alpert Foundation. Alongside three prestigious mentor composers (Nicole Mitchell, James Newton, and Anthony Davis) I and four other composers had the opportunity to have our new orchestral works read and workshopped by the wonderful musicians of BPO under the baton of Associate Conductor Matthew Kramer.
The wisdom and experience of the mentor composers, along with Maestro Kramer's outstanding musicianship and the excellent performance and feedback from the musicians of the orchestra, made it easy to navigate the many challenges of writing for a symphony orchestra (for all of us, it was our first composition for a full orchestra). I learned so much about issues of notation, balance, rhythm, and meter (among many other musical aspects) and about how to communicate jazz and Balkan folk music sensibilities effectively on the page to musicians who may or may not be familiar with the nuances of those musical languages.
One highlight for me was getting to work with BPO English Hornist Anna Mattix, who taught me the basics of playing the oboe when I was an undergraduate at Indiana University! It was such a pleasure hearing her play once again and offer constructive feedback on my work as well.
We were also joined by two journalists in residence, who offered some timely advice on how to continue pursuing the composition of new music and how to engage with communities of musicians and audiences interested in jazz and new classical music. Howard Mandel (president of the Jazz Journalists Association and a highly esteemed jazz journalist) offers his reflections on the week here, and Frank J. Oteri of NewMusicBox deals with the challenges of writing for an orchestra here. Their insights for us about the intersection of the musical and the extra-musical in composition were among the many highlights of the week.
This was an experience I will not soon forget and will definitely use what I've learned to not only refine Springs of a Desperate Heart for future performances, but also more effectively express my musical ideas in all of my compositions.
(Excerpted recordings of the reading coming soon!)
I'm playing clarinet and alto flute with my old friend Anna Su this Thursday, January 24 at Hotel Cafe in Hollywood. It's been a long time since we've played and the band includes the incredible Will Gramling, Michael Lindsay, Brian Song, and Nikko Menchini (all the way from Italy). Starts at 8pm, $10 cover.
Click here to check out Anna's great music.
Review: Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra: Five Musical Years in Ghana by Steven Feld. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012. 328 pages, $23.95.
[This post originally appeared in Ethnomusicology Review, Volume 17. Click here for the original article.]
“That’s music’s strength, I think, the way everything can come together politically and spiritually, without reading books” (118). These are the words of Nii Noi Nortey, one of the cosmopolitan Ghanaian jazz musicians with whom Steven Feld collaborates in his latest book, Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra: Five Musical Years in Ghana. The book tells the story of several projects in which Feld engaged between 2005 and 2010 as a documentary filmmaker, jazz performer, music producer, and anthropologist. In his introduction he states that he never intended to write about his experiences (perhaps following Nii Noi’s thinking), choosing rather to tell the stories of Ghanaian jazz musicians through the media of film and recorded music. Fortunately for us, an invitation to give a series of lectures at the University of California, Berkeley inspired him to synthesize his observations in written form. The result is an artful combination of memoir, ethnography, biography, and history, with important contributions to both theoretical ideas of cosmopolitanism and methodological practices in the field and in ethnographic writing about music and musicians.
As his original projects focused on collaborative methodologies that emphasized the voices of the musicians with whom he was working, Feld builds his narrative around their stories and perspectives. He structures the book like a jazz tune, each section bearing labels such as “Four-bar Intro,” “Vamp in, Head,” and “First Chorus, with Transposition.” He allows his own voice to emerge alongside the voices of Ghanaian musicians, just as it does in their musical recordings and documentary films. Rather than wrestling with the positionality of the ethnographer, he immerses himself in creative cooperation with the musicians, knowing that a special kind of intervocality would emerge and that an intimate process of dialogic editing would be possible. Feld articulates these processes throughout the book as he poetically tells the story of how his life intersected with the lives of these musicians for five very meaningful years. In the process, he not only unravels the complexity of that unique intersection but also interweaves (and sometimes challenges) what he terms “genealogies of power”: that jazz is always about the place of race in musical history, that African music is always about spirituality and politics, and that cosmopolitanism is complicated and ripe for analysis and not “just some heady abstraction floating in the banalizing academic ink pool alongside ‘globalization’ or ‘identity’” (7). Feld engages with the discourse on cosmopolitanism on his own terms, mostly allowing his collaborators to speak for themselves about their views of the world and the ways in which they position their music philosophically, aesthetically, and ethically.
After a skillful introduction of his musical and theoretical framework in “Four-bar Intro,” Feld outlines the content of the book in his introduction, “Vamp in, Head: Acoustemology in Accra: On Jazz Cosmopolitanism.” In that section, he not only introduces the web of relationships that connect the musicians he works with in Accra, but he also tells the stories of how his life became intertwined with theirs. He emphasizes the richness of each of his intimate musical encounters, but stresses that their overlapping nature and common threads provide for an analysis of jazz cosmopolitanism, describing that cosmopolitanism as “the agency of desire for enlarged spatial participation . . . [which] plays out in performances and imaginaries of connectedness, detoured and leaped-over pathways storied and traveled from X to Y by way of Z” (49).
Feld continues into four ethnographic chapters, the first three of which deal with individual musicians, the last with a community. In “First Chorus, with Transposition,” he tells the story of Guy Warren/Ghanaba, a Ghanaian drummer who worked as a musician in America in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, returning to Ghana thereafter with conflicting feelings towards American jazz and its idea of Africa. Though Feld’s most concrete collaboration with Ghanaba was the production of a documentary on Halleluja!, Ghanaba’s performance of Handel’s Messiah using talking drums and ideologies from many world religions (described in Feld’s introduction), this chapter focuses on Ghanaba’s (and Feld’s?) challenge to the place of Africa in the jazz history narrative and the embedded issues of race and class.
“Second Chorus, Blow Free” deals with Feld’s primary collaborator, Nii Noy Nortey, a saxophonist who also performs on instruments of his invention, “Afrifones.” Nii Noy was instrumental in connecting Feld to each of his other musical collaborators, and through their serendipitously formed group Accra Trane Station (with Nii Otoo Annan of the next chapter), he participates with Feld in the clearest example of what Feld terms “musical intimacy.” This chapter not only tells the story of their intimate creative cooperation, but also highlights Nii Noy’s perspectives on discourses of Africa in the music of John Coltrane as well as discourses of Beethoven’s African ancestry. Feld, through interweaving his voice with Nii Noy’s, challenges his reader not to dismiss a perspective that seems to universalize and Africanize both Coltrane and Beethoven in one breath, but to consider framing Nii Noy’s conceptualization with regard to philosophers like Habermas and Appiah, for whom cosmopolitanism is an ethical and transformative response to contemporary injustice. Nii Noy and Ghanaba connect here as moving in unison, positioning African and African-American jazz sensibilities in relationship to Europe (see p. 114 for this insightful discussion). This series of intellectual moves by Feld is just one example of how he solidifies his intervocality with his collaborators, clearly articulating the sophistication of their cosmopolitan conceptualizations of their music.
In “Third Chorus, Back Inside,” Feld describes his collaborative endeavors with Nii Otoo Annan, the percussionist with Accra Trane Station. As many of their projects outside of Accra Trane Station involve interactions with soundscapes, readers of Feld will find themselves in familiar theoretical territory. Feld summarizes his own body of work on sound, place, and space, giving a satisfying bird’s-eye view on ideas of soundscape that have driven his work for decades. In this conversation he includes explorations of spirituality and class, both important aspects of Nii Otoo’s life and music making. He also unapologetically deals with his own position in relation to the financial operations of Accra Trane Station and the seemingly inescapable consequences of class difference, providing useful insights for any musical ethnographer.
The last ethnographic chapter, “Fourth Chorus, Shout to the Groove,” depicts a community of lorry and minibus drivers (Accra’s La Drivers Union) who have developed a tradition of performing with their honk horns at the funerals of members (highly reminiscent of New Orleans jazz funeral musical practices but with no evident connection). The rich ethnographic detail of this chapter leaves the reader with a deep sense of familiarity and intimacy with the stories, sounds, symbols, nicknaming practices, and ritual practices of the community. He extracts some extraordinary stories, including how drivers helped the daughter of US Ambassador Shirley Temple Black acquire some “proper ganja . . . she was a real smoker” (192; see pp. 207-210 for more on the intriguing place of Temple Black in Ghanaian lore, including a shrine built to her that Feld was forbidden to describe). Through this narrative, Feld shows us how the drivers’ cosmopolitanism echoes in the memory embedded in the sounds of their music and in their physical representations of the past on their lorries, which carry them into the future.
Throughout his ethnographic writing, Feld describes his own interaction and influence on the musical practices of the interconnected, yet disparate jazz community of Accra. And yet, when describing his conversations about their music, he is always asking questions and allowing the musicians’ answers to speak for themselves. I, perhaps like many young ethnographers, am continually weighing my own interaction with and influence on the musicians with whom I work. I struggle with how much of my own experience or creative ideas to insert into a conversation in the process of learning from musicians about their own practice. In Feld’s writing about his five-year stint in Accra, I find great encouragement for my own collaborative efforts with musicians in Macedonia with musicians and DJs from the interconnected jazz, hip hop, and house music scenes. In both its content and form, this work has provided great inspiration and challenge for me as I consider how to position myself in my field of research and how to frame it as a writer. Feld’s idea of musical intimacy (following Svetlana Boym’s “disasporic intimacy”) is not just a theoretical construct, but also a reality in which he himself participates, as do, in their own unique ways, musical ethnographers the world over. His storytelling mode allows him to foreground not only his own experience, but also the voices of his collaborators. And by moving most of his discussion of existing academic discourses to the endnotes (“Horn Backgrounds, Riffs Underneath,” a must-read for a full understanding of the work’s contribution), Feld allows his narrative to poetically speak for itself as it asserts his and his collaborators’ musical, theoretical, and ideological innovations concerning jazz, Africa, and cosmopolitanism.
In addition to his effective usage of the storytelling mode, Feld provides an exemplary illustration of the seamless integration of multiple roles as a documentary filmmaker, musician, anthropologist, historian, and tour promoter that many ethnomusicologists and other scholars of music find themselves juggling. He deftly handles the complicated demands of these roles and faces their inherent challenges while developing meaningful relationships with his fellow artists. Feld realizes that not all Ghanaians would view these musicians as cosmopolitans, but that fact seems to actually reinforce his discussion of the discourse on cosmopolitanism and its relationship to race, class, and other structures of power. Indeed, he opens many doors for his readers and tells us stories of why these types of music making are important beyond Ghana. He leads us to a more refined understanding of cosmopolitanism, not to provide a series of answers, but to provoke in each of us more thoughtful questions about our music, our research, and ourselves.
[This post was originally published in Ethnomusicology Review. See this link for the original article.]
In planning my fieldwork trip this summer, I decided to focus my research on the “ethno-band” scene in Macedonia, and hoped to spend a lot of time with musicians who are continuing folk music traditions in contemporary contexts. Upon my arrival in June, I began contacting the musicians I know in that scene as well as friends who are active jazz musicians in Skopje, Macedonia’s capital city. With my tenor saxophone in tow, I quickly began meeting with jazz musicians and playing with them (mostly at local jazz hot spot Menada) while the “ethno-band” musicians seemed to be busy traveling to different festivals and working on various projects. Within the first few weeks of the trip, I began to wonder whether Macedonia had plans for me beyond what I had imagined.
One of my frequent jazz collaborators and dearest friends, guitarist Georgi Sareski, had been telling me about his endeavors in electronic music with various DJs and hip hop artists through his network of friends at Club Sektor 909 and Izlet Café (both owned or part-owned by a close friend, Ogi). Georgi called me one day and asked if I’d be interested in playing saxophone with him and a house DJ friend of his, Maci, at Sektor. I had met Maci (pronounced MAH-tsee, short for Marjan) on another gig I had played with Georgi, and found him affable, fun-loving, and genuinely caring for those around him. I hoped that his choice in music would reflect the same.
We ran through of some songs at Georgi’s apartment—Maci had his laptop and played a few songs from his current playlist and Georgi and I noodled around to find our place in the music. I liked Maci’s aesthetic sensibilities and felt out his sense of musical space that lent itself to an additional instrumental voice. I assumed that, like most Macedonian DJs, Maci would show up to the club with some CDs, a USB drive, or his laptop and play his songs through the club sound system. To my pleasant surprise, he arrived with two turntables and his laptop running industry standard DJ software. Alternating between spinning vinyl and using the turntables to manipulate his digital tracks, Maci put together a dynamic three-hour set of house music, continually engaging the crowd at Sektor as Georgi and I alternately and simultaneously played along to accentuate the flow of momentum Maci was creating in the club.
As a musician, some collaborations seem to just work, while others can seem forced. Sometimes it has to do with musical taste, sometimes it has to do with technical ability, and sometimes it has to do with personality. Regardless of the cause (I suspect that my collaboration with Maci involved a successful combination all of those elements), Maci and I were hooked on working together after that first night. For the rest of the summer, we played together as a duo almost once a week at one of Maci’s regular nights at Sektor, Izlet, or Kala (a high-end exclusive café catering to Skopje’s elite). I got to know Maci’s current repertoire and began to discern my most effective roles in various musical moments. I learned how to recognize passages that built crowd energy through repetitive phrases, and I began to identify climactic moments suited for energetic improvisation when the often simmering tension of house music would reach a cathartic release. He would gently coach me on how he wanted me to participate in his music-making: reminding me “It’s still early” if I was playing too much at the beginning of a set, gesturing to the computer screen if a moment was coming where I’d need to let loose a little bit, or telling me “I’m going to play a 9-minute song right now where we can both take a break” when he wanted to chat or enjoy a drink.
In the course of playing together, I asked Maci many questions about his career, his choice in music, and his strategies as a DJ for tailoring his music to an occasion while still expressing his own voice as an artist. Emergent in these discussions were many compelling stories and questions that I’m still thinking about. When we talked about where he finds music, Maci touched on the history of house music, referencing its birth in Chicago and how he still turns to the Chicago scene for most of his house music. He told me about the arrival of house and techno in Macedonia in the 90s and the development of an underground scene at two clubs, one in Menada’s basement and one at “MKC,” the Youth Cultural Center.
He gave his perspective on vinyl versus digital music, focusing on the economic challenges common to middle class Macedonians as well as on the challenges of customs and imports in a country with no vinyl production of its own. The pathways of house and techno into Macedonia have been haphazard and dynamic, and of course are now lightning fast if you know how to create those pathways online. Maci has refined the skill of channeling these pathways, and freely performs his musical choices in Macedonia and in surrounding countries.
Similar to many musicians and DJs, Maci expresses frustration (and I along with him at times), at the ways in which he has to compromise his musical selections for his audience. One night we performed at the home of a very wealthy Macedonian for a private party, and as the night wore on and the alcohol flowed, individuals began to come to us demanding songs from ex-Yugoslav 80s rock bands and American pop songs from the last year or two. Maci would smile and play the songs, but he and I both knew that we did not come with the desire to push play and simply wait for each song to pass. Ever since that specific performance with Maci, I have been asking myself many questions about the vast class disparity in Macedonia, about life in Macedonia as a professional musician in service to upper-class elites, and about dynamics of power, influence, and taste in Macedonian society. Maci, on the other hand, seems to effortlessly navigate these complicated issues with a smile on his face and continues to spin great music that creates an environment of comfort, relaxation, and enjoyment for people, regardless of the setting.
When I left Macedonia a few days ago, I hung out with Maci one last time at Izlet on a Monday afternoon. Ogi came over and bought each of us a beer. We all talked about future collaborations for when I come back to Macedonia for other projects, or potentially in America where they have begun to make some connections and recently visited to spin in Detroit. In true hospitable Macedonian style, Maci drove me home (even though my apartment was only a 4-minute walk from Izlet) and gave me a jar of “slatko,” a sweet, syrupy jam, homemade by his mom from wild figs. That sugary taste will always remind me of him and the warm smiles and embraces we shared every time we met, but especially those we shared as we parted, both of us hoping for even more opportunities to collaborate in the future. I already miss him and our unexpected musical partnership, but I know the things I’ve learned from him will keep challenging both the ways I think about music and the ways I play music with others.
I went to New Orleans for a gig two weeks ago, had a great time, and heard this incredible band!
We walked into the Spotted Cat on Frenchman Street--paid no cover--and this New Orleans brass band was actually playing Balkan music. That's clearly right up my alley, so we stayed for a set and were treated to the deep grooves of this band in so many different genres. Check out Panorama Jazz Band, you won't regret it!