Working with Composers and Improvisation
A Fourth Approach to Performing Music: Excerpt #06
FRANK J. OTERI: Some of the other composers who you’ve been working with recently – there’s that incredible Lou Harrison CD on New Albion…
JOAN JEANRENAUD: It was wonderful for me to have the opportunity to work with him again after working on his String Quartet Set back in the 1980s. He is such a vibrant presence and consummate musician that it was a pleasure to play his music again and receive his feedback.
FRANK J. OTERI: I know you also did a Paul Dresher piece recently. He’s a composer I find really, really interesting.
JOAN JEANRENAUD: Well actually, I’m just working with Paul just now. There’s going to be a new piece by Paul and Anthony Davis, both for cello and the Paul Dresher Ensemble. So that’s really exciting because it’s a fairly small electro-acoustic ensemble; there are six people in the group. And I’m really excited about the piece. I was just over there a couple of days ago and actually the music on the stand here is from Paul, and so he’s worked on one movement.
FRANK J. OTERI: Anthony Davis is another really interesting figure because he straddles the boundaries – on one hand he writes operas and chamber pieces, on the other he’s a great jazz pianist, he’s done a number of recordings with his ensemble Episteme and it’s often hard to tell at any given moment if it’s a worked-out notated composition or if it’s a very sophisticated work of improvisation and I think he loves blurring those lines. That’s what his music is all about. Now the piece he’s working on of yours, is there going to be a lot of improvisation?
JOAN JEANRENAUD: Well, I’m really not sure at this point, but that’s one of the reasons why I was excited about working with him, and I’ve never worked with him before. Again, we’ve met, and we’ve talked, and we’ve agreed to play but this will be the first time we’ve worked together. But I’m very excited about that possibility of that blur between written out music and improvisation because that is something I’m more interested in now.
JOAN JEANRENAUD: Definitely, I’ve always been a huge jazz fan, and after taking lessons from David Baker I also took some lessons from Joe Henderson when I first moved here, then this last year I took lessons from Hal Stein who’s a saxophone player over in Oakland. He had me do a lot of transcriptions of Oscar Pettiford. He really helped me start to think about listening and then playing instead of reading all the time which is what I do, or had done so much of in the past. You know I related to music in a much different way, so him getting me to transcribe stuff is now something that I do more and more, and it’s really good training for me.
FRANK J. OTERI: I studied ethnomusicology in graduate school and would do transcriptions and it helped me as a composer, and also helped me as a listener, and it shows you the limits of what you can get on the page in terms of the notation. It was really interesting talking to Pauline Oliveros because that has certainly been her issue for 50 years. How do you get performers to be themselves, to create their own music, and to listen to each other?
JOAN JEANRENAUD: You listen to each other in a different way when you don’t have a piece of paper there.
FRANK J. OTERI: Reading a score is a very different activity than listening and playing back something to replicate it. It’s not necessarily about recreating something perfectly as it was on paper, but responding to it emotionally, and ideally the best performances of Western classical music are a combination of an emotional response to something written down having an accurate version of what that piece is.
JOAN JEANRENAUD: Ideally you’re right. But it doesn’t always come together that way.