Off the Charts: Big Band Circa 2006

Charles Waters in conversation with Randy Nordschow
October 16, 2006—2:30 p.m.

Like many composers of his generation, North Carolina native Charles Waters doesn’t ascribe to any of the confines surrounding labels and genre distinctions. He talks big and thinks even bigger, working in tandem with a diverse community of creative artists hailing from Brooklyn and beyond with unbridled spirit. As far as history is concerned, he’s a borderline revisionist. For Waters, Bach and jazz emerged from the same musical core, and his own work reflects this position by embracing techniques from both the avant-garde traditions of modern composition and experimental jazz. Over the past six years, he has worked to complete his own “reconstructions” of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, six pieces with wildly different instrumental forces that resemble what might happen if you puréed a big band and a rock group together in blender.

– RN

Charles Waters
Charles Waters
Photo by Peter Gannushkin, downtownmusic.net

Randy Nordschow: How does somebody your age wind up composing for big band?

Charles Waters: I was absolutely blessed coming from an excellent junior high school and high school music program. I studied for six years with clarinetist and conductor Michael Soltys, who had a fantastic band, created numerous professional musicians that came from that era that I worked in. It was the most invaluable training I ever had. It was very demanding. I learned to play a number of instruments—alto, soprano, and bass clarinet, saxophone, and contra-alto clarinet—just because he was very demanding, had very high standards for his ensemble, and worked in marching and concert bands for years. So my first experience in bands was playing in big bands, pep bands, brass bands—I played it all early.

But my first professional experience after college when I moved to Atlanta and started putting groups together before I formed Gold Sparkle as a smaller ensemble, quartet/quintet, we did a big band recording, a double record that never got released. It was on my 25th birthday, and I paid for the session. It was one hundred and forty dollars. We did two hours’ worth of complete takes, and one of my pieces was a piece called Sugnim. That’s Mingus spelled backwards. So we used a rhythmic signature of Mingus’s name paired with a harmonic context and created sort of a new Mingus homage.

The big band that I worked with the most in New York City as a sideman was in William Parker’s orchestra. In that orchestra I learned to read alpha notation, which is what he learned from Cecil Taylor, which is writing music in alphabetical lettering using semi-graphic notation to create sort of a density of texture within the same melodic/harmonic framework. It’s been a real broad education. Not to say that William doesn’t traditionally notate seventeen parts for the orchestra just like a big band, but the alpha notation is really an area of freedom I think that’s happened in big band composing. Plus in New York, nobody has time to rehearse.

RN: You’ve written a lot of large ensemble pieces in what most people would consider a jazz idiom, do you technically think of these pieces as big band?

CW: Some of them I view as brass band. Maybe I start from more extreme places on both sides: big brass bands—my background—fused with larger-size new music ensembles that I see together today. In the end, maybe it looks symbiotic to a big band—you might see some saxophone players—but the actual performance blends all of these more radical approaches. Loud and boisterous, playing hymns on one side from the brass band, and on the other side using very 21st-century techniques like graphic notation. I’m talking about alpha notations—the way we write and read—because, in order to do these complex arrangements very quickly, we have to have a shorthand, which is the way I think Bach probably wrote, too.

RN: You’ve spent years re-imagining the Brandenburg Concertos. Tell me about that project.

CW: Bach and jazz started as one thing, for me. I loved the ideas that the MJQ [Modern Jazz Quartet]—John Lewis—and some of the third-stream guys were using, but in terms of pedagogical uses, Bach was always a study instrument. I think it is for every instrumentalist. But as I kept exploring I was really interested in the way Bach used larger ensembles and soloists to create the Brandenburgs, which I think were way more spontaneous than what they’ve become. It was also a synthesis of all of his ideas—working in ensembles with soloists—but I also thought it was really provincial. He used what was right around him. It wasn’t anything like trying to standardize an orchestra. He used what he had; I used what I had. So each one of my Brandenburg explorations, as the Williamsburg Concerto explorations, uses what’s available. Sometimes it’s a wind ensemble, sometimes it’s sort of a rock band, sometimes it’s sort of a brass band, sometimes it’s a mixed winds and percussion ensemble à la Messiaen.

RN: Tell me about the last one in the cycle, which premiered last week.

CW: It’s the one where I use the most material from Bach. I literally rewrote vast sections of the Brandenburg [No.] 4, especially the slow second movement. I used harmonic sequences and melodies sort of re-orchestrated, and it’s real rock. It’s also my naïve attempt at minimalism, where I use repetition of materials, but not in a process-oriented fashion. It’s much more like melodic repetition and things like that.

RN: Last time I had you on the phone you were spewing something about Beethoven being the inventor of minimalism. How do you figure that?

CW: Well, the more I listen to Philip Glass’s music, which I like parts of for sure, I think he went to the heart of asking some big questions, the big questions in composing. And I think Beethoven certainly asked big questions, and that maybe composers today are afraid of asking big questions because we’re limited by these things like money and time. These are not limitations I think Beethoven dealt with. So when I hear things like some of the piano sonatas, certain small little tissues in Beethoven’s music that I hear that Glass went into and sort of exploded in a certain way. So I think Glass was able to ask some big questions, too. He went right to Beethoven and said, “I’m going to take that, but I’m going to do it for 15 minutes.”

RN: What kind of questions do you see yourself asking?

CW: I think there are a lot of big questions today. I think there’s a message that there is a fracture in music because, Western classical music at least, it exists on a higher cultural plane than other art forms exist. But now with the dissemination of in so many ways through technology and other means, a lot of these art forms are blending together. You see it in ensembles that are blended together from so-called higher-up and so-called lower-down musics or different varieties of music blending together, and I think the big question really is how people are going to deal with the world around us and what our music means in terms of audience, but also in terms of our response as human beings to the world. Do we have a mission as composers, as performers, as artists to respond to the things in this world that are vitally important?

I think Beethoven, for instance, definitely addressed the questions of his era. I think we have some vital questions to answer. I would say in particular there is a lot of interest in music that combines different cultural groups today because we see the thread of music intertwined in so many of the same groups of people who have been fighting forever and ever, and maybe through music we find a way to answer peace to these things. So I think that’s an undercurrent. I don’t know many musicians, especially creative musicians, whether they are jazz or new music, especially in New York City, so many people work together and know each other that art is striving for some level of peace in the world. I think that’s what music can bring.

RN: Certainly jazz itself went through some of those transformations that you’re talking about, from low to high. Back in the heyday of the big band era, music was used for dancing.

CW: Right. It was the popular music.

RN: Now with that context removed, jazz is being institutionalized and thought of in a very highbrow fashion.

CW: Well, you know jazz is this great obituary sport. We’re always chasing the masters. It’s so much easier to focus on a master once they’ve passed. Charlie Parker died very young. It’s very easy to quantify a certain methodology around someone who’s no longer here to answer for themselves. Because of the nature of jazz, it moves fast, it moves quick, and people die young. It’s part of the nature of the music. So many masters have come and gone, and yet the music still seems so young compared to the tradition of, say, ten thousand years of Chinese music, or five thousand years of traditional Japanese music. Western music seems very young comparatively to that. Jazz, I think, is just at the very beginning of its own inception. The institutionalization of jazz through the process at Lincoln Center will help educate a variety of people. It will certainly be the public service announcement of jazz, but I certainly don’t think it’s the root of where jazz really exists because it’s music from the streets. It always will be. People are always interested in something new. And so much new is still created because jazz is a forum that’s infinitely malleable. It’s like an open pot.

RN: And a lot of people think jazz is an anachronism. As a composer myself, I work inside an anachronistic ecosystem, and I seem to like it that way. What is the draw for you to have, albeit as you say, a rather young tradition, but a tradition nevertheless, behind you? How do you interact with it?

CW: Even the tradition within the so-called the avant-garde that I feel like I was trained in, which comes down from Cecil Taylor, through William Parker, through Sirone, through mentors of mine that I’ve worked with and seen these subsets of traditions or genre of traditions maybe. I think the one thing that continues to attract me is the freedom of expression that still exists within the form of jazz itself.

RN: You put together a CD of jazz tributes honoring Morton Feldman, and you have a piece titled for Earle Brown. What’s your fascination with the New York School?

CW: Well, part of it is just mythology. The myth is so beautiful. It seems like a golden era. I imagine lots of composers today wish they had a loft overlooking the East River with enough time and money to think about the things that Feldman and Cage thought about. That’s what made them so brilliant, because of their interaction. But see now, they made another interaction with the artistic community, which happened to be at a real hot boil at the time. That really influenced them. I think it’s very interesting, the way they extrapolated their musical context within the artistic world, the milieu of which they were involved in the arts, which is very inspirational. I think that the city itself is a source of inspiration that may not have come from them, but I’ve certainly become more interested in Feldman’s music, and Cage, and Earle Brown’s when I lived in New York, if that makes any sense—the expanse, but also the contraction.

Also, I think there’s a lot of interaction between them. Earle Brown did A&R for Time Records, which was involved in third-stream music, which involved people like Don Butterfield and Eric Dolphy, who played with Mingus. So I think the lines were blurred from the very beginning. I don’t believe in any of the distinctions. I don’t believe in the third-stream rhetoric, but I also don’t believe in the sort of conservative avant-garde new music history, either. Some of it I believe in, but not all of it. I want to write my own history.

RN: Yeah, you strike me as one of those types.

CW: Well my grandmother was a historian for forty years. So you grow up with historians, you know, and also being a Southerner, everybody’s got their own little personal take on history. My friend Thomas Beller was telling me, he’s traveling in southern Virginia right now, and he was interested to encounter people who had written books called The Civil War: A Personal History. I think it’s a very common Southern attribute to sort of see things as history involving us. We are history. We’re living history.

RN: You use all these techniques from what most people consider the classical music world’s avant-garde. What does it mean, for you, to use them in a jazz idiom?

CW: My first three years in music school as a composition student, I did all of my juries on piano. I played no woodwinds when I got into college. I focused on piano music. I remember a very distinct time before playing saxophone or clarinet that I understood improvisation. It happened at the piano. I think it was because graphically I could see [the keyboard]. It was sort of a break. I was studying Milton Babbitt’s and Elliott Carter’s piano music at the time and trying to perform that music. Then I realized I didn’t have the technical facility to play Elliott Carter’s music on piano, even though I had the mind to understand some of Carter’s music. So I disregarded all of it and felt like I could improvise Elliott Carter, and therein I started to blend my styles. So I had to reject Carter and Babbitt for a long time, you know, Freudian: You hate your father for a long time. Then I was able to come back, and now it’s like these guys are geniuses now at the end of it. But I still think that there are ways that you can improvise without doing that. I don’t want to say in any particular way, but there’s a funny new term we talk about; people say the new complexity movement in composition. Well I think I’ve formed sort of the non-complexity movement in composition. But I’m still interested because I think I can improvise in as much ways as other people would write complex music. I know I can improvise in a more complex fashion. So if I move to that plane as an improviser, then I can take it to another plane as a composer, which has made me become non-complex. Does that make any sense? I’ve explored the complexity [laughs].

RN: Love it. Earlier you hinted at the cost of putting something like a big band together, how do you do it, or why?

CW: I think the why is easier than the money. The why is an inevitability. I think that, for me, I can’t not be a composer. I’m not concerned with commissions and fees. The work is the most important to me. So I continue to work. I continue to build my own book and explore at whatever level I can explore. If I’m given the option or commission to do something bigger, I can do it because I have practice behind me. If not, I work at a smaller level and find things that interest me there: solo piano works or chamber trios or small works. It’s also the thing that originally, I think I come from a line of composer-player/performer/musician composers—whatever that is. The reason I think I began to play at the very beginning was that I was a composer before I was a performer, certainly. And so the only way to hear my music was actually to play it myself. And then I realized you had to become good enough a player to convince other people that what you were doing was worthwhile. So either you had to be louder, faster, or stronger, or write better music. So it was kind of like an olympiad of composing. It still is for me. It’s kind of a run.

RN: Anything else you want to say to the masses?

CW: While we’re still rolling, I’ll pose one little small thing citywide to composers: So there’s been a lot of talk on your website about these distinctions—just asking questions about Uptown, Midtown, Downtown—distinctions of music. Does geography play an important part in what we might conceive or is it a containment process? I think in the end what certain people are saying—what we sort of know intuitively, certain people—is that Downtown music has actually contributed quite a bit to the history of music itself, or what will be known as the history.

I think that the important thing about noticing that is not paying lip service to any one of the musics in the city, but actually making some kind of demand on all the composers across the entire city to examine each other’s work in a more defined fashion. Where we come together and actually work together. I think there’s enough room for everybody. There’s enough work for everybody. We live in such a dynamic culture in this city of composers right now. It seems unprecedented. Or maybe this is our time. When I come to rehearsals and there are three alto flutists, I think we live in a blessed place. I think people are very interested.

So in terms of costs, to come back around to that question, is I think people are always ready to play the right music at the right time. That’s what Roy Harris said about his Symphony No. 3: It was the right piece of music at the right time. And I think we all need to be striving for the right piece of music at the right time.

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