On composing

I was glad to catch the first set last night of Sundar Viswanathan's Avataar CD release party at Lula Lounge. I wrote a longer post last week in advance of the show, and I think I actually enjoyed of the show exactly what I had expected: creative music, with influences from around the world, played well, with some great soloing.

Last night's show was the second of four Special Projects presentations, and what has stuck out for me about both (Amanda Tosoff's show was a few weeks back) is the quality of the original compositions featured in each. Both performances featured original works by the leaders, and these works have not been what I would call "standards". They have not followed a traditional AABA or 12-bar form; they have instead been more expansive, requiring a bit more attention from the listener. The melodies in Amanda's works were informed by poetic texts, which themselves did not necessarily follow a traditional form; and Sundar's melodies were informed in part by music from countries around the world whose musical forms differ greatly from traditional western music. And so in both cases it makes sense that the melodies created went beyond the standard 32-bar form.

Writing non-traditional melodies is not an achievement on its own. What made the shows successful, in my mind, is that I found the tunes compelling. The reason jazz standards are jazz standards is, in part, their consistent form - their predictability. Whenever a less predictable element is introduced, audiences can be challenged and, at times, turned off. (This becomes relevant to programming a jazz festival, especially when presenting artists whose approaches are far from traditional.) During both concerts, however, I had the opposite reaction: rather than being turned off by the new direction of each tune, I found myself drawn in - intrigued by where I would be taken next as a listener. And that, in my mind, is a testament to the quality of writing and playing on display at each concert.

I had a chance to speak briefly with Sundar and Amanda about their compositional processes. For Amanda, the melodies emerged in part from sitting at the piano and improvising. Sundar did his best to capture melodies, when they popped into his head, on his phone, to be explored later in the practice room. I'm sure every composing musician's process is different. For me, melodies arrive most often when I'm moving from one place to another; if they keep coming back, I know they're worth pursuing. (Actually committing them to paper is a whole other thing, and for me usually requires an impending deadline, much swearing, probably some alcohol and not a lot of sleep.)

There are ten or so octaves - 120 or so notes (not counting microtones) - in our audible range. Given that, as a species, we've been exploring those 120 or so notes since the beginning of time, I'm somewhat amazed that we're still able to create music which sounds unique, special, and compelling. In many ways, I suppose, that's what makes the quest of a musician so exciting - how can I write something that sounds unlike anything I've written before? How can I improvise over this tune differently than last time?

Every time I hear new and compelling music I feel thankful - in part to have experienced it, but in part because it inspires me to continue to explore what new sounds or musical experiences might be out there. As a musician, a composer, an artistic director and a music lover.


P.S. - Not to be outdone, the next two Special Projects promise some fantastic composition too: David Occhipinti on April 24 and Nick Fraser on May 4/5.

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