Tuesday, April 30, 2013

How do drummers work with choreographers? JT Bates and Peter O’Gorman explain

From "Wine Dark Sea"
Photo by Steve Niedorf
When drummers drum, people dance. That has been true since time began. But what happens when choreographers enter the picture? Who leads, who follows? Is the drumming in service to the dance? Do the dancers respond to the drums? What is it like for a musician to work with a choreographer?

This is a piece about process, written for the 30th anniversary of Zenon Dance Company in Minneapolis. Zenon’s 30th anniversary season will span the first two weekends in May with a combination of signature pieces and world premieres. Two will feature music by area drummers/percussionists.

On Weekend 1 (May 3-5), the company will perform the world premiere of “Molten Substance” by Brooklyn-based Uruguayan composer luciana achugar (she prefers her name in lowercase), with music by JT Bates. On Weekend 2 (May 10-12), the company will perform “Wine Dark Sea,” which it premiered last spring, with choreography by Wynn Fricke and music by percussionist Peter O’Gorman.

In both cases, the music will be played live by the composers, who will be on stage with the dancers.

In “Molten Substance,” the dancers’ faces are largely obscured; at the end, they must put on blue jeans without using their hands. (You try it. It’s hard.) “Wine Dark Sea” is dreamy, fluid, and dark. At times, the dancers seem to float.

JT and Peter are different drummers who have followed different paths. JT is mainly a jazz/free jazz drummer who plays mostly in clubs with a lot of bands and artists, but not always jazz bands and artists. To name a few, he’s a member of Fat Kid Wednesdays and the Pines, his bassist brother Chris’s band Red 5, Alpha Consumer, Dead Man Winter, the Wednesday-night band at the Aster with Erik Koskinen and Molly Maher, and Real Bulls, a new duo with drummer Dave King. He curates the Monday-night jazz series at Icehouse, formerly and famously at the Clown Lounge. He recently received a Minnesota Emerging Composer Award from the American Composers Forum

Peter is mainly a new-music composer and percussionist; his works have been performed by musicians including the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Amy Knoles of the California Ear Unit, and New York percussion quartet Ethos. Currently, he performs with Joe Chvala and the Flying Foot Forum, Mary Ellen Childs, and various other artists. He writes pedagogical books and articles on drumming, and he teaches. He’s a McKnight Composer Fellow and a Sage Award winner (for his dance scores). His compositions have been supported by the American Composers Forum, the Mellon Foundation, the Jerome Foundation, the Walker Art Center, and more.

Both are experimenters, improvisers, collaborators, and good listeners who are passionate about music.

JT Bates: A dash of blind faith

JT Bates at Icehouse
Photo by John Whiting
PLE: Have you worked with choreographers and dancers before?

JT Bates: I did some random improvs for dance with Mark Sutton, the original trumpet player for the Motion Poets. A piece for the Eclectic Edge Ensemble with Mike Rossetto, the banjo player and guitarist for the Spaghetti Western String Company. A piece years ago at the Southern Theater with Jim Anton and Dean Magraw for choreographer Megan Flood. A thing last year at the Walker with David Zambrano that was completely improvised. So yeah, a few times over the years.

Every time I do anything with dancers, they say, “I wish we could always have live music.”

Live music makes everything better.

Put that on a bumper sticker.

How did this project with luciano achugar and Zenon happen?

Linda [Andrews] at Zenon contacted Jeremy and Marsha Walker, saying that luciana wanted a percussionist. They recommended me.

What was your process of working with achugar on “Molten Substance”?

We emailed back and forth once or twice. There wasn’t a lot of information coming from her, just that she wanted percussion. She was looking for some rhythm.

That was before she came here and started working with the dancers. During the early rehearsals, she played beat tracks. She sent me the rehearsal video and basically said that the only thing she wanted me to take from the beat tracks was tempo, maybe a bit of attitude and energy. She said we would figure it out when we got together.

She came for two weeks, and I joined [her and the dancers] for the second week. They showed me what they had been working on and we started from there. She asked me a lot of questions about how the timing felt and what I was interested in doing. That was more her process than asking me to do specific things.

She has ideas for things she wants to see and hear [from people she’s working with], but she wants it to be their own thing, too, so they’re attached to it and feel more involved. I do all kinds of work, but being able to have input and [contribute] ideas is a big part of how happy I am.

Did she seem to have a clear idea of what she wanted from you?

It was more a dash of blind faith, that when we started working, we’d find that clear idea [together]. We were looking for a feeling. It was not very defined. I’m really comfortable working like this, with things not very defined.

From "Molten Substance"
Photo by William Cameron
Can you describe what you came up with and how you put it together?

We ended up using a couple of different tempos, and picking a couple of rhythms I felt fit really well. Then we added similar versions of the rhythms at different tempos. There are parts where it’s all improvised – no time, all texture. And parts where I use single sounds, or as many sounds as I can make at once.

I’m watching for certain actions, little movements from the dancers, times when I need to start changing and moving on to the next thing. Sometimes the dancers change first and I go later; sometimes I’m ahead of the dancers. It unfolds in a very natural way.

I’m moving through blocks of information. When they’re doing this, I’m in this tempo with these sounds. Then there’s a transition. In the next section, I’m in a slightly different tempo with different sounds.

When I go into an improvisation, I have a texture in mind. It’s not just, “What do I feel like doing today?” The dancers are expecting to hear certain things. That’s something we talked about during rehearsals.

Did you create a score, or take notes to work from during the performances?

There’s nothing written down. I have a map in my head.

How do you see your role in this piece? Were you supporting the choreographer, or collaborating with the choreographer? How much give-and-take was there?

I felt like I was collaborating with luciana and supporting the dancers. Playing drums is a supportive role, whether it’s for dance or Paul Metzger or Benson Ramsey singing a song in the Pines. I grew up doing that with my dad’s band. I always try to bring a little of that – being supportive.

What was the most challenging part of this experience for you?

Working in chunks. For the first couple of days of rehearsals, the dancers were still working out their sections and transitions. I was worried that I would never see and hear [the whole piece] in a linear fashion and be able to memorize it. Other than that, I enjoyed it. It was different. I wasn’t in a bar, I wasn’t in a band. I thought – this is awesome.

Will you be visible during the performance?

Yes. That’s a decision we made together. For the first few days of rehearsal, I was set up in a spot away from the dancers, watching them from the front. I started taking my cues from that perspective. But that won’t work in performance; I’d have to be sitting in the audience. Since it’s just me – not three or four people, no amps or horns – I suggested we try center rear, deep in the stage but in the middle. So that’s what we’re doing.

You’ll be able to see me some of the time. luciana didn’t really want me to not be seen. I feel like a part of the whole thing. [The dancers] are with me, I’m with them, and we’re all in this together. If I had any more than my standard little drum set, that wouldn’t work. I would take up too much space.

What is your instrumentation?

The standard bebop-size drum set. Bass drum, rack tom, floor tom, snare, two cymbals, hi-hat. I’m also bringing a bow and a small pile of random ringy things. Kind of my favorite thing to do is play the most standard drum set in the world with brushes and mallets and see how far I can go. Playing the instrument without the tomfoolery. There’s a lot of sound in that thing.

Do you ever get loud?

It definitely gets intense. One of the things that happened during rehearsal was – I’m following the dancers, they’re getting slower and more still, I’m getting quieter and making prettier sounds, and [luciana says] “No! The other way!” She was interested in having a lot of sound when there wasn’t a lot of movement.

It turned out to be a cool juxtaposition, a way to have constant tension and release. It’s fun but also challenging. Four people on stage, barely moving, and me making a lot of sound on the drums. I understand that energy, but it takes a bit to find it. I have to find someplace to draw from to make that happen.

If you put me on a stage in front of a thousand people, I’m going to try to play the quietest, longest note I can. Sometimes the aggressive stuff is the most challenging for me. I have a slight hang-up with getting all crazy on the drum set and playing all the notes, all the time. I’m not drawn to playing like Metallica. I like Paul Motian a lot.

So luciana is pushing the dancers and you to where you’re not comfortable?

That’s true.

Peter O’Gorman: Breaking down barriers 

Peter O'Gorman
performing his composition, "Serif"
Photo by V. Paul Virtucio
PLE: You’ve worked with choreographer Wynn Fricke before. How many times?

Peter O’Gorman: We have created two pieces together, “The Shape of Wind” in 2008 and “Wine Dark Sea” in 2012. “The Shape of Wind” was commissioned by Wynn, and “Wine Dark Sea” was commissioned by Zenon Dance Company.

How did your relationship begin?

Wynn approached me after seeing me perform with Joe Chvala and the Flying Foot Forum and said “We must work together!” I was familiar with her work, which is amazing, so I said YES! and the seed was planted.

A few months later, I had the opportunity to apply for a Jerome Fund for New Music grant through the American Composers Forum. I was lucky enough to receive this grant, which covered the funding for the composition. Zenon then commissioned Wynn to create the choreography.

What is your process of working together?

For “The Shape of Wind,” I was interested in creating a piece just for cymbals. Wynn liked the idea, so I recorded around 20 improvisations and gave her the recordings. After Wynn listened to the improvisations, we met, bounced ideas off each other, and decided which recordings to focus on. I then started to mold some of the improvisations into a more set format while she worked on the choreography.

Through the rehearsal process, the music and dance were molded together. The music for some of the sections was completely set, and other sections maintained improvisational elements.

We used a similar development process when creating “Wine Dark Sea.”

In working with Wynn, do you see your role as supportive or collaborative? How much give-and-take is there?

There’s quite a bit of give-and-take. I would describe our working process as a true collaboration. In my work with movement, I’m interested in breaking down barriers between composer and choreographer, musician and dancer, sound and movement. In “Wine Dark Sea,” the dancers take on the dual role of dancing and making sounds that complete the score. They do this through the use of their breath and by playing crotales, which are small tuned cymbals.

What do you see as the most challenging part of working with a choreographer?

In some cases, choreographic changes require musical changes, which means reworking the score. I find that this process often results in a stronger piece both choreographically and musically. Working with an artist as insightful, intuitive, and open-minded as Wynn has been a pure joy.

O'Gorman's instrumentation
for "Wine Dark Sea"
What is your instrumentation?

I tend to create new multi-percussion set-ups for each piece I compose. The content of these set-ups is dictated by the needs of the piece.

For “Wine Dark Sea,” I created an augmented drumset that includes several unusual instruments. Some of the most interesting are made by the Hammerax company, including two Boomywangs that hang from cymbal stands, look like giant guitar picks, and sound like gongs with a vibrato. Also from Hammerax is a slap ride (“perhaps the world’s darkest ride cymbal”) and a coil chime, which spins while emitting a sonorous metallic sound. Directly underneath the boomywangs are two metal percussion instruments with springs on them that were designed and built by Pete Engelhart, a “reco reco” and “The Snail,” both of which have self-contained acoustic reverb chambers.

The row of chromatic conical bells is a new instrument called an Aluphone. This was only the second Aluphone ever built; the first one went to Evelyn Glennie. The sound of this instrument is a cross between Japanese temple bells, church bells, vibes, and tubular bells.

The instrument that I received the most comments and questions about is a Waterphone. When bowing this instrument, it creates otherworldly sounds, as well as sonorities reminiscent of the sea.

Has anything changed since the last time you performed “Wine Dark Sea” in 2012?

The music for “Wine Dark Sea” includes a structured improvisation that is a little different each performance. Other than that and a few small tweaks, the piece is basically unchanged.

What else would you like us to know about this music?

Before starting work on “Wine Dark Sea,” I had created a number of really quiet pieces, including the score for “The Shape of Wind.” The subtle characteristics of these pieces worked really well, but I was ready to make a little noise, so I proposed using drums for our new piece. Being a drummer, this seemed like a natural thing to do. Oddly, I hadn’t created a drumming piece since college, which was a long time ago. Two of the four sections in “Wine Dark Sea” use drums. Another notable item about the music is that much of it is really slow. In fact, it’s the slowest pulsed music that I’ve ever composed or played.


Saturday, April 27, 2013

Jace Clayton's 'Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner': Concert review

Jace Clayton by Rocio Rodriguez Salceda
Four pianos, played hard and fast, rise to thunder. Eight hands suddenly lift from the keys – but the sound continues. A roar, a rush of sonic wind, a storm of harmonics pulses and fades.

I almost fall out of my chair.

Until Friday I knew next to nothing about Julius Eastman. Today I’m a white lady in love with music by a gay black composer/pianist of minimalist works with titles like “Evil N-----,” “Crazy N-----,” “Gay Guerilla,” and “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?”

On Friday night at the SPCO Center, interdisciplinary artist Clayton, aka DJ/rupture, performed selections from his new CD, “The Julius Eastman Memorial Depot,” in a concert called “Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner.” The event was part of the Liquid Music series presented by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Educated at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, Eastman (1940-1990) was a member of New York’s music scene in the 1960s and ’70s, alongside such now-famous names as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Patti Smith, yet hardly anyone knows about him. He died alone and unremarked in 1990 at age 49, after years of homelessness and addiction.

Clayton came to Eastman’s music through a friend, writer Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts. She was part of Friday’s performance, with pianists Emily Manzo, David Friend, Devon Gray (dVRG), and Bryan Nichols, and Sufi singer AroojAftab. Manzo, Friend, and Aftab are on the “Memorial Depot” CD and were out on tour with Eastman; Gray and Nichols live and work in the Twin Cities.

At the SPCO Center, the rehearsal space for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the four pianists are lined up in a row, facing the wall before them, their backs to us. (The pianos are a Boesendorfer and a Steinway grand and two uprights. All are miked.) Between the second and third pianos is a space for Clayton, seated at a table with laptop, facing out.

Everything the pianists play is composed. The only improviser on stage is Clayton, who runs the sounds of the miked pianos through his laptop and its “boxes” of digital effects, deciding on the fly how to process and alter them. The result is multiple layers of sound: four pianos and a new layer created in real time by Clayton. Plus all of the harmonics and overtones created by four pianos in an acoustically live space. 

We hear “Evil N-----“ and “Gay Guerilla,” separated by a spoken interlude in which Rhodes-Pitts conducts an imaginary phone interview with Clayton about a position with the fictional “American Society of Eastman Supporters.” A wry twist, it imagines a world where Eastman is celebrated, not almost forgotten. It also serves as a break for the pianists during the physically demanding live performance.

The music is dense and repetitive, like much minimalism, and some of it is played very quickly. “Evil N-----“ is filled with tension. A single note, played over and over, gives way to an anxious, questioning phrase on the higher notes, also reiterated. Darkly, on the lower notes, is a phrase that seems borrowed from “Pachelbel’s Canon,” but warped. Then everything comes together, with variations. It’s hypnotic, melancholic, and majestic.

While the pianists are busy with Eastman's music, Clayton is at his laptop, manipulating, transforming, and re-creating. Notes bend and shift, echo and interleave. They are sharpened and dampened, softened and stretched, hardened to brittleness, passed back and forth between the speakers. There are touches of static, buzzes and booms. Some parts seem all acoustic, some are pure electronic ambience. At times, the sound is tremendous, a physical force. If notes became visible, the air would be thick with them.

Throughout, Clayton’s laptop treatments are subtle, deft, and painterly. Sometimes assertive, never intrusive. He never takes the music away from the pianists, or from Eastman, the original composer. Instead of thinking, “Oh, this must be one of those electronic detours,” you realize you’ve simply gone somewhere else and returned.

In “Gay Guerilla,” serenity overlays anxiety. It’s quieter on the surface, ominous below. The volume builds and subsides. Chords crash and diminish. There’s a questing, seeking tone to this piece, a feeling of being lost and abandoned. The Canon-like phrase returns, and suddenly a Colossus, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” A total surprise, it fits right in.

The final vocal interlude is a call to Clayton from the American Society of Eastman Supporters. He didn’t get the job. There were so many applicants. Her voice soothing and cool, Aftab sings, “The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner is an equal-opportunity employer. All candidates will be considered regardless of age, regardless of race, regardless of color, regardless of creed and disability, sexual orientation, political affiliation…” As if these things had nothing to do with Eastman's life and personal struggles. Manzo plucks the strings of her Steinway. Soft notes and chords float through the room. The performance ends abruptly with the word “Regardless.”

“Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner” is a workout for the pianists (normally there are two; we were lucky to have four) and a revelation for the audience. It’s beautiful, powerful, and smart. The more I reflect on it, the more moved I am, and grateful to have heard it.

Random thought on the way home: Philip Glass, call Jace Clayton.


• “Jace Clayton: The Julius Eastman Memory Depot” (New Amsterdam, 2013).
• “Julius Eastman: Unjust Malaise (New World Records, 2005). A compilation of performances of Eastman’s music from the 1970s and 1980s.

Both “Memory Depot” and “Unjust Malaise” can be found on Spotify.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

News about E.S.T.

An update from  B.H. Hopper Management in London. Before Esbjorn Svensson's tragic death in June 2008, the great Swedish trio — Svensson on piano, Magnus Öström on drums, Dan Berglund on cello — often played the Dakota in Minneapolis. Will we see Öström when he tours the US and Canada in 2014?

©Photo Per Kristiansen, pkfoto.com

APRIL 10, 2013 • Today MAGNUS ÖSTRÖM´s new album "Searching for Jupiter" (ACT) is released in Sweden and Magnus Öström starts a tour of Sweden with his quartet featuring Andreas Hourdakis (g), Daniel Karlsson (p) and Thobias Gabrielsson (b) with the following dates:

10.04.2013 - S, Stockholm - Fasching
11.04.2013 - S, Visby - Restaurang Munkkällaren
12.04.2013 - S, Gothenburg - Jazzföreningen Nefertiti
13.04.2013 - S, Lund - Plektrum/Mejeriet
16.04.2013 - S, Malmö - Palladium

The album will get released in Europe and in Northern America in August and Magnus will tour in Autumn 2013 and Winter 2014 in Europe and in June 2014 in the US and Canada. Tour dates will get published soon on www.magnusostrom.com

We are also very much looking forward to some very special events across Europe for a program called E.S.T. SYMPHONY. We will announce further details and dates soon, but for the time being we will have a world premier of this program on June 12, 2013 at the Konserthuset in Stockholm. Reknowned Swedish arranger Hans Ek has orchestrated and arranged compositions by the Esbjörn Svensson Trio to be performed by symphony orchestra with guest soloists.

‘Orchestral music of the Esbjörn Svensson Trio’
Hans Ek (conductor)
Dan Berglund (bass)
Magnus Öström (drums)
Joakim Milder (sax)
Mathias Eick (trumpet)
Johan Lindström (pedal steel)
& Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

More Info & Tickets:

The miracle of Jeremy Walker’s “7 Psalms”: Concert review

When you see a lot of live music, you experience a lot of world premieres. With jazz and improvised music, every performance is a world premiere. You learn to expect the singular and evanescent. You develop a taste for the new.

Even though I had talked with composer and pianist Jeremy Walker about his latest work, heard some of the music, and glanced through parts of the score, I wasn’t prepared for the power, scope, and enormity of “7 Psalms,” which had its world premiere at Bethel University last night before a crowd estimated at 600 people.

With Brandon Wozniak on tenor saxophone, Jeff Brueske on bass, and Tim Zhorne on drums, vocal soloist Jason Harms, and a choir led by Brian Link, Walker poured out his heart and soul, intelligence and commitment in a piece that lasted almost 90 minutes. It was sad and uplifting, stormy and hushed. It marched and it swung. It was requiem and hosanna, blues and hymn.

And it was a miracle — in part because of the personal challenges with which Walker has been dealing the past 15 years (he was recently diagnosed with Lyme disease; you can read more about that here and here), in part because of what he chose to do in creating this piece.

Familiar with the Book of Psalms, Walker picked seven that had special meaning for him: 3, 6, 13, 22, 126, 130, and 131. (In “7 Psalms,” they’re performed in this order: 6, 3, 13, 22, 130, 126, 131.) These are not the most popular or most familiar psalms, or the most poetic. You won’t find “The Lord is my shepherd” or “I lift my eyes to the hills” or “Be still and know that I am God.”

Jeremy Walker
Psalm 6 is a prayer of faith in a time of distress; Psalm 3 a wail from David in flight from his son, Absalom, who had raised an army against him. Psalm 13 is another cry from David. Psalm 22 begins, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” (the words Christ would say on the cross) and continues through prayer and praise. Psalm 130 is about hope, patience, and prayer, Psalm 126 a song of former captives joyously returning home. And Psalm 131 is a simple declaration of trust. (These are my attempts at interpretation; they may not be how Walker understands them.)

The language is demanding, full of troubled bones, groaning, and wasting away, “workers of iniquity,” oddly specific violence (“You have struck all my enemies on the cheekbone; You have broken the teeth of the ungodly”), and tough stuff: “I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised by the people” … “Many bulls have surrounded me; strong bulls of Bashan have encircled me” … “My strength is dried up like a potsherd” … “For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted.”

These are not singable words and phrases. (“Iniquity”? "Potsherd”? "Affliction of the afflicted"?) There’s no rhyme, rhythm, form, or meter. No verses or choruses; nothing that repeats except the phrase “O Lord.” Some stanzas have four lines, some six, some five, some eight. There are none of the usual elements that make a song. As a composer, where do you start with this?

It must have been tempting to trim, to revise, to skip a verse here and there, but that’s not what Walker did. He saw composing for these words as an artistic challenge. Could he leave the language intact and fit the music to the words? And make the music work? When he read the psalms, he heard music in his head. Could he get it out, turn it into something a soloist could manage, split it into SATB for a choir?

He could and he did. It must have been a bit like making the Constitution singable. Walker's thinking about turning to Whitman next, or Lord Byron. Either might be a walk in the park after "7 Psalms."

Overall, last night was a success. Parts of the music are still running through my head.

Soloist Jason Harms had a workout but delivered that tricky, taxing language with strength and conviction. (Former head of Jason and the G-Men, a Christian swing/jazz band, currently leading the Jason Harms Quartet, Harms is known in the Christian music world and had sung more than a few “O Lords” before last night.)

Psalm 22 had a lengthy improvised section that could have been shorter; the psalm itself is wordy and the language is dense, so less might be more.

The 13-voice choir had a lot to do, which doesn’t always happen when jazz musicians write for choirs. They sang in every psalm, and Psalm 13 was all theirs. The original plan called for a 20-voice choir; as performance night approached, some people dropped out due to illness, too late to find and rehearse replacements. More voices would be better. Last night's choir sounded a bit thin.

The ensemble
Walker’s piano playing was confident and strong. Jeff Brueske and Tim Zhorne, the two members of his core trio, were with him all the way. Brandon Wozniak did what he always does, playing beautifully as part of the ensemble and soaring on his solos (he received the only spontaneous applause of the night).

I was seated across from a mother and her three young boys, neatly turned out in jeans and pressed white shirts. At several points during the concert, they bounced their sneakered feet in time to the music. On the way out, I heard people call the performance “stunning.”

Last night was the birth of a work for which Walker has big plans: going into the studio to record a CD (for which people are already asking) and taking “7 Psalms” out into the world, connecting the soloist and instrumentalists with other choirs in communities, colleges, universities, and churches. Those who wish to contribute have until midnight Monday, April 15.

Jason Harms
Tim Zhorne
Jeff Brueske, Brandon Wozniak
Concert's over. Off with the bow tie.

Photos by John Whiting.