The Dan Cavanagh Dallas Trio has been selected by the jury to perform in the finals and gala concert at the 2013 Bucharest International Jazz Competition. Dan is joined in his trio by Brian Mulholland, bass, and Jaime Reyes, drums. The concert will take place at the Odeon Theater, Bucharest, on Saturday, May 25, 2013 at 7pm, and will be broadcast live on Romanian National Television.
My Dallas trio, with bassist Brian Mulholland and drummer Jaime Reyes, was accepted into the semi-final round at the Bucharest International Jazz Competition.We’ll be headed to Bucharest, Romania to perform several times between May 18 and 25! More info about the competition here.
The ‘Iolani Stage Band, directed by trombonist Curtis Abe, will be premiering my composition The Owl King for jazz band in Kröv and Ibbenbüren, Germany this week. The piece is inspired by an old Hawaiian legend, which I wrote about in another post, The Legend of Kapo’i. You can read more about their performances in a post from the ‘Iolani School’s website. Their trip is related to the International Jazz ‘n Youth Exchange, a wonderful exchange program of which I am part of the faculty.
[You can view Katharine Rauk's poem "Dowsing" here.]
From Poem to Movement
I’m finally beginning to be in the actual writing stage of the concerto (rather than sketches and diagrams). I am working on the first movement, which is based on Katharine Rauk’s poem, “Dowsing.” Rauk’s first chapbook of poetry, Basil, has been lauded by critics. For example, American poet Amy Gerstler writes of the book:
Katharine Rauk’s poems are full of magical smells, ambitious insects and weeping toads. She takes us on dizzying trips inside the body’s dark cavern. These grave and bright poems introduce us to an animistic universe of giddy possibility—hallucinatory, mysterious and beautiful.
That’s the case with “Dowsing.” Rauk’s exploration of a young boy’s grappling with death and fragility in nature takes us from an innocent question about a legless crab, to barrel staves in the dark holds of ships, to mannequins in shop windows. Hers is a leaping poetry; with her wonderful juxtaposed imagery, we go from small to expansive, and back again, sometimes in one line or even one image. We get to experience many of our senses through her writing, something she sneaks into the imagery that take us on a journey as we read.
When she first sent the poem to me, she told me that she had been very interested in the small gathered-item sculptures of the American artist Joseph Cornell, and especially his series of soap bubble boxes. This particular poem draws influence from his “Soap Bubble Set, 1949-50.” Since this project is about seeing what happens when artists of different disciplines draw inspiration from one another, it is very fitting, although perhaps unintentional, that she based her poem on something by another artist. A smallish picture of the box, as well as excerpts of an illuminating essay on Cornell by Linda Roscoe Hartigan from Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay…Eterniday can be found on the Smithsonian’s website on a post about Joseph Cornell [opens new window]. However, I recommend seeing a larger image of the box in the actual book itself to get the full effect.
The amazing thing about Cornell’s found object constructions is that he is able to say so much in such a small space. His mundane objects, like the clay soap bubble pipes and coral positioned in glassware juxtapose against a cosmic map of the moon. The soap bubbles themselves, whose existence is only implied by the soap bubble pipes, are perfect examples of expansiveness in a small space. Hartigan writes in Shadowplay…Eterniday that
[t]he soap bubble appealed to Cornell as a symbol of this relationship [of science and imagination]. Not only does this shimmering transparent globe represent one of nature’s basic geometric forms, the sphere, it also demonstrates scientific principles associated with how liquids and air operate.
A soap bubble has an almost perfect spherical boundary that separates the inside from the outside, but it can burst at any moment and violently combine the previously-exclusive areas. In Dowsing, Rauk’s description of the soap bubble bursting over the grass before anyone heard the young boy’s words is a profound metaphor for the strength and fragility of the human psyche – yet another juxtaposition built into our existence. Even the act of “dowsing” is a strange combination of [pseudo-]science and intuition.
Cornell’s objects display a sudden and huge leap just like we see with Rauk’s poetry. The connection of leaping images in poetry and found artifacts is a really interesting one, and has inspired the direction that this first movement is headed. A piano concerto is a perfect place to explore such ideas; juxtaposition is built into the concept of pitting a piano against an orchestra. It’s a wonderful place to start a large work – co-presenting the grand and the small, the expansive with the compact. It’s also a bit daunting – almost as if Rauk, through her commissioned poem, dared me to deal with such a weighty topic through music. Off to compose – more to come soon.
I look forward to hearing what you have to say about it.
©2011 Katharine Rauk. Used with permission. All rights reserved. | You can get your hands on Katharine Rauk’s poetry here!
Busy with the piano concerto. And big band charts. And playing some too! Plus the American Jazz Composers Orchestra is off and running! It’s fun to see what it’s like to be a musician without the teaching aspect. I am finding, though, that I miss teaching a bit. But it can wait until January…
The concerto is taking shape, especially large-structure wise. At first, I was going for three movements. That might have worked musically, but it just wasn’t feeling complete extra-musically. As I briefly outlined in the first post about the concerto, I commissioned three fantastic poets to write poems knowing that I was going to use them for inspiration for the concerto. They came back with three fantastic poems, each completely different. Each movement is going to be based on one of the poems. However, to tie this all together I really need a fourth movement in the concerto. So I’m now looking at 4 movements total. The fourth movement will be inspired by “the muse,” which really ties us all together as artists regardless of the specific discipline in which we work.
It’s really something to live with a poem for months at a time, reading it every day. Much different than reading unfamiliar poetry on a regular basis. I have actually had the three poems from Katharine Rauk, Timothy Young, and Thomas Smith for more than a year, and the layers of meaning that begin to appear after that amount of time is staggering with these poets. I’ve arranged the poems in order to correspond with the movements and musical material I’ve come up with based on the poetry: Katharine Rauk’s Dowsing, Thomas Smith’s Reverence, and Timothy Young’s The Wind and Woods on the Far Eighty. It’s really amazing – the musical material that came to me based on studying the poetry corresponds with a very nice progression of character and style often associated with a multi-movement work. An interesting question to ponder is if a poet would group the poems in the same order as I would as a musician. Perhaps my grouping order is rooted in the fact that my concept of organization has been so influenced by music that it was more of a self-fulfilling prophecy to group them that way.
In the next post I’ll post my dealings with Rauk’s poem and how her ideas are making their way into my work.
I just finished up a big band commission for the ‘Iolani School in Honolulu, Hawaii [The Owl King - the chart will be available for purchase soon]. I came across something I’m much more comfortable doing now than I have been in the past – starting over! I had written a tune that I really liked, based on a really cool legend in Hawaii about Kapo’i. In short, Kapo’i was a farmer who found some owl eggs to eat. He took them home, but was approached by the mother owl who asked for them back. Kapo’i had mercy, and the owl ended up protecting him from the king’s fury later. Great story with a moral. [You can read the full version here.]
At any rate, this piece was NOT working out for big band – lots of long tones in the melody. So I actually started over. It took a bit longer, but the piece that came next turned out to be really good. And I turned the first piece into a solo piano piece. Now I have two good pieces that came from one process. I ended up putting a recording of the piano piece with some public domain footage by the national park service, and it kind of works! Check it out on YouTube:
I find that when I’m in the space where creativity comes from, the creativity can manifest itself in different ways. That’s where the editing filter comes in – lots of great ideas can come out, but it takes patience and acceptance to figure out what the right form of that energy should take. In this case, it wasn’t in a melody with lots of long tones and bubbling accompaniment – it was in a piece with an internal pedal point, and a fairly active melody. Hope you like the piano piece!
I have officially started my faculty development leave (used to be known as a sabbatical). That means all of my creative energies can be put toward the piano concerto. Well, actually I have six big band charts to finish before then. Haha. I remember one time a favorite mentor of mine told me my greatest weakness was that I had a hard time saying ‘no’ to anything. Guess I haven’t fixed that yet
As I mentioned on the first concerto post, I will be posting here as I progress on the concerto project. Here’s an update:
Notice the image in this post – yep. Blank staff paper – it can be both the most exciting and most daunting thing about composing. Luckily I already have some ideas down on paper, although they’re just fragments now. This part is often the most fun for me – coming up with the overall musical material, the big structures, the little nuggets of material that will be spun out over the length of the piece. I find that as I get busier as a composer, this part of the process is the one that keeps me coming back, agreeing to do new projects, taking new commissions, and otherwise living the on-again-off-again, hectic deadline-driven life of a composer.
I also find that when I’m juggling several projects at once, I tend to procrastinate on the hard work part and revel in the beginning creative process of each piece. Right now I have to write 3 big band charts for a Nnenna Freelon/John Brown big band Christmas record, a new Radiohead big band chart commissioned by some great high school programs around here, a commission for the ‘Iolani School in Hawaii, a commission for Province 32 of the Phi Mu Alpha Fraternity, and a piece for the Kandinsky Trio to help celebrate their 25th anniversary. Phew! I could spend all summer just working on the fun parts – unfortunately to get anything done on time, it’s better for me to start a piece, get nitty-gritty with the writing and editing, and finish before I start messing around too much with the next piece.
So athough I’m busy finishing up the big band pieces, I have been steadily working to keep informing myself of the great examples of past piano concertos. The Brahms concertos are unbelievable, and I think I’ll be going back to those quite a bit as I go through this process. They’re a bit long for my taste, but are proportioned very well, and the orchestration is great. Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto is also a fantastic example of how to treat the piano and orchestra together, and of course the way he uses form and structure is so completely brilliant. There are quite a number of 20th century concertos I’ve listened to in the past month that are simply too dissonant for me – those by John McCabe, Ronald Stevenson, Andrzej Panufnik, and the early Rautavaara come immediately to mind. I appreciate the artistry in them, and the recordings I’ve heard have been typically fantastic, but I just feel that so many of those pieces leave people turned off by art music. Many of those pieces are also so extremely virtuosic that they have virtually no chance of being performed more than once every 25 years (and less often if there’s a good recording).
A great reference book that’s been helping me discover unfamiliar works in this genre is Music for Piano and Orchestra: An Annotated Guide, by Maurice Hinson. Hinson references more works for piano and orchestra than you could possibly imagine.
I’m also making my way through Rimsky-Korsakov’s Principles of Orchestration. The most interesting things so far are his detailed and editorial quips about the various sonic characters of the combinations of instruments. He gets very detailed, such as what happens when you pair vlns I and II in octaves, but they’re divisi and a woodwind is added to the top voice. Great stuff!
That’s it for now – more will come as I keep making my way through this project. Keep posted!
I recently learned that I was awarded a Faculty Development Leave (used to be called a “sabbatical”) for fall 2012. At my university (UT Arlington) we are not automatically granted one every 8 years or so – we have to apply with a specific project in mind and hope it gets chosen. Luckily my proposal was one of the projects chosen this year. My project is to write a 30-minute piano concerto with orchestra, containing a piano part that involves some improvisation. It will NOT be a “jazz” piano concerto, rather a straight-up piano concerto in which the piano part involves some improvisation. I have never been a fan of jazz superimposed into the classical idiom – it always seems contrived.
I’m going to attempt to journal here each day I’m working on the project. Since I’ve never written anything even close to this long or involved, it will be a completely new experience each day. I invite your comments and interaction, too!
My overall idea for the project is to build upon a concept that I’ve been thinking about for a very long time, whether I was aware of it or not. I have always been interested in the interactions between various art forms: painting and poetry, music and dance, etc. My constant inspiration outside music has been poetry; my big band album, Pulse, contains a 15-minute suite, Mississippi Ecstasy, with narration and poetry by Timothy Young. I also have a group that performs once and a while, The Jazz Ecstatic, with poet, saxophone, piano, bass, and drums. My latest album, The Heart of the Geyser, takes its title from a line in a poem by Romanian poet Marin Sorescu.
Recently I came across a book in my university’s library (stack browsing is fun!) called Musical Ekphrasis: Composers Responding to Poetry and Painting (find on Amazon here) by Siglind Bruhn. I am still making my way through the book – it’s a pretty dense philosophy book but full of great insights and analysis of past works. I am trying to directly create that “ekphrasis” in this project. I’ve commissioned three poets to write poems knowing that I am going to use those poems as inspiration for this new composition. Afterwards, each poet will write a new poem based on hearing the music. Kind of like circular artsy telephone! The poets are absolutely amazing: Timothy Young, Thomas Smith, and Katharine Rauk; I invite you to get your hands on all of their works that you can.
My first task is to survey as much of the history of piano concertos as I can through score study and listening. I don’t know if it’s because as I march on in life I become more critical of my own composing, or what, but I feel that if I’m going to write a piano concerto I need to have a deep understanding of the historical and recent span of that huge genre. I have stacks of piano concerto scores in my office, and I’m pretty sure the university’s interlibrary loan staff grumbles my name every time I submit 10 requests to get scores and recordings from other libraries.
One of my primary goals with this informal, monumental survey is to get as much of a grasp as I can of orchestration and pacing in a concerto setting. How much does the piano play alone? How much does the orchestra act as an equal to the piano? When do the piano/orchestra battles happen? These are some of the questions I’m trying to wrap my head around. As I make my way through the literature, I’m finding that the Naxos Music Library Online helps immensely. Hopefully you live near a library that subscribes to their streaming resource, as you can listen to something like over 325,000 albums! So far my favorite discovery is the three piano concertos by the great Finnish composer Rautavaara!
As I continue my work, I’m going to keep posting here. Hope you’ll join me on this journey!