Insistent Music – Full Text

What follows is a written counterpoint, somewhat more fully fleshed-out, to my TEDxUTA Talk, “Insistent Music.” You can view the video of the talk on my website here.

Insistent Music

I’m a jazz musician. I play and compose music that 99% of the world doesn’t really get, like, or care to understand. Society is often flummoxed by people like me. I do get to have a life where I do what I love ALL THE TIME! I teach music, perform music, compose music, and generally live and breathe music. I also sometimes play crazy solos that might make people leave a concert, write music that might sound like a thousand bees buzzing at once, underwater, and in general challenge my audience.

I’m going to talk about why people like me continue to create “insistent music”. By “Insistent Music” I mean music that is difficult to appreciate, to listen to, or even perform. Musicians like me do this even though creating in that way may not produce popular or financial rewards. I’m here today to convince you that listening to, appreciating, and evangelizing Insistent Music is so vitally important to our culture as human beings.

Where I’m Coming From

I got my start down the road of performing, composing, and generally appreciating “challenging music” when I was very little. My mom, and much of her family, took piano lessons as a child. She continues to play casually now. My dad is an engineer who taught himself guitar in his younger years. When I was 5, I started piano lessons with our neighborhood piano teacher. I studied piano much like any other American child – going through method books with my teachers, learning songs like “Lazy Lion,” “Pat, My Cat,” and others, moving up in the world to such classic pieces as “Für Elise”, “Georgia Porcupine,” and so on and so forth. I had a great teacher in grade school. But then, at the end of 6th grade, we moved to the suburbs, and I had to find a new teacher. Long story short, I ended up with a jazz piano teacher, and I quickly fell down the dark hole of playing a style of music that 99% of the world doesn’t particularly appreciate. For various reasons, I also tend to write challenging music that isn’t always easy to appreciate. I am the artistic director for a big band that specifically seeks to present music by living American jazz composers. As you might well imagine, much of my life is spent dealing with what most people think of as “insistent music.”

I think that many people who don’t produce art or music in a professional capacity wonder why people such as myself insist on doing what they do. The pay grade is nearly always lower, the hours often longer and stranger, and job security is a foreign concept for all but the top sliver of artists or musicians with salaried positions and benefits.

The Grand Insistence

To me, insisting on presenting insistent music (and challenging art in general) is a necessary activity built into the fabric of our identity as human beings. Artists create challenging art because they absolutely have to do it! Musicians perform challenging music because they absolutely have to perform it! I call this fascinating phenomenon the grand insistence. We insist upon putting this art or music out there, regardless of whether or not people will get it, will approve of it, will put money toward supporting it, etc. This insistence seems to be uniquely human, and as such I think it deserves some serious attention.

True musicians are driven by a fundamental need to communicate with their fellow human beings.

Pablo Picasso’s portrait of Igor Stravinsky, Dec. 1920

Music, especially challenging music, serves as an idea catalyst. Music becomes a vehicle for sentiments that may be too powerful or painful to express in words, and can pave the way for actual conversations later. Musicians are often the first class of people to publicly challenge a historical, societal, or political norm by insisting their music be heard. A famous example was once again made apparent in the opening ceremonies of the recent Olympic Winter Games, held in Sochi, Russia. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was played as an example of a famous Russian composer contributing to world culture. Remember, however, when it premiered in Paris in 1913, was so striking in its novelty that a fight broke out in the audience.

Of course, the ideas music communicates are not always political. They often suggest a new way of viewing the world, and our place within it. Often by challenging our perceptions of how music should go, composers and performers invite comparisons to other processes outside music. For example, the great Ornette Coleman, who happens to be a Fort Worth native by the way, was fundamental in challenging the typical structure of how jazz is composed and performed. He realized, and indeed insisted upon, improvising without the typical limitations of things like chord changes and basic formal structures of compositions. There’s a famous story about a concert in Los Angeles in which a young Ornette Coleman was playing with a group of elder jazz all-stars. The other musicians walked off the stage. Mr. Coleman went on to change the face of jazz as we know it.

He began working on his revolutionary approach to music in the mid-1950s. What would have happened if he would have listened to the naysayers and tried to sound like the elder jazz musicians? We would have missed out on a very crucial expansion of our concept of how art fits into human culture. No one would listen right away. So he kept insisting. Insisting that what he had to say deserved thoughtful consideration. His artistic philosophy, and grand insistence that he had something very important to get across, of course came to fruition in a long career in improvised music that continues to this day.  More than 50 years after he began composing and improvising HIS way, he was awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in music for his recording-length work “Sound Museum.”

So What?

So what if musicians create insistent music? I think it’s incumbent upon us as human beings to make a serious effort to appreciate music, and all art, that challenges us. Art doesn’t have to be entertaining, although entertainment may be a component of art. The insistence great musicians make should remind us that they have something very important to say. Typically artists arrive at that insistence only after an incredible amount of pondering, experimentation, and failure. We can often discover a great deal from the amount of time they’ve already spent crafting their concepts into sophisticated idea vehicles that are works of art.

I have here an excerpt of a piece I composed for big band that will likely sound like “challenging music” to many of you. Try to listen with open ears and mind.

[Excerpted from “Black Rattle,” recorded by Dan Cavanagh’s Jazz Emporium Big Band on Pulse, OA2 Records 22048]

This excerpt is interesting to me in several ways. It uses a “follow the leader” approach, where one musician is appointed leader, and the rest follow along after he or she starts. There’s a freedom in allowing musicians to lead and follow in a non-traditional way. After composing this work, and several other works like it, I certainly began to look at leadership in a much more sophisticated way. As so many of you in this room know so well, leadership encompasses not only giving direction and instruction, but the work of pulling people in your direction, setting great examples, and letting others shine. A small, challenging excerpt can quickly explode into themes of leadership, democracy, and even an exploration of current, fluid practice versus past rigidity.

The Long Wait

It often takes history a relatively long time to recognize that musicians who perform challenging music really have important things to say through their art. It’s ironic that often our culture waits until a particular artist is dead to proclaim him or her relevant to the time in which he or she lived! I think it is so rewarding to find the ideas in challenging art. Oftentimes, the art is challenging to appreciate precisely because the ideas behind them are sophisticated, subtle, and big.

We can find many wonderful examples of the grand insistence throughout history. Mozart insisted he could create his unbelievable art without aristocratic support, something that drove him to poverty and an early death. Arnold Schoenberg insisted that we could free ourselves from the harmonic system that had been developed over the previous 500 years, and reminded us that music didn’t have to be beautiful in the Romantic sense. John Cage showed us that chance, rather than determination, can be an important element in creating music. Duke Ellington, as well as many other early jazz musicians, insisted that popular or dance music could also communicate lofty ideas about equality. These musicians didn’t do what they did for fame, although often fame came for them. They did it because the ideas were so important to get across.

All of these ideas are very human, very big, non-musical ideas that exist outside the scope of their art. The great musicians of our world, and indeed all insistent artists, are not presenting challenging material so that they will be remembered by history, like Ancient Greek heroes going on epic journeys for the reason that they will hopefully remembered forever. Rather, these artists are creating from a strong belief that the ideas behind their work, and the act of considering those ideas, are a fundamental human practice, and a cultural need.

So I challenge you to actively seek out insistent music, and art in general. Find those people who seem to be insisting that what they are presenting to you is of extreme importance. Apply those concepts to your lives, whether or not you create artworks. And insist that others do the same.

ECHO Composers

I am happy to announce that much of my published music for big band is now available through the ECHO Composers publishing initiative. Here’s a blurb from the site:

ECHO Composers seeks to change the way composers and ensembles interact. Comprised of award-winning composers from across America, ECHO focuses on sustainable and ongoing relationships. We work to create direct connections between educators, composers, directors, conductors, performers, students, arts and performance organizations, audience members, and others involved in the creative process.

The publishing initiative is cool – online purchasing, instant password-protected PDF download and delivery, etc. If your big band players lose their parts, like mine do, you will be able to print their parts again without trying to track one down. ECHO also has some cool initiatives related to consortium-commissioning, composer interaction, and more. Head on over and check it out!

Strange Times in American Culture

[After posting this on Facebook today, I decided I’d bring it over to a more permanent home here on my site.]

Experience Art Poster
This great image from a cool blog by Tom Eichacker called Dyslexic Drawings. Click the image to visit his site.

It’s a strange time in American culture right now. Osmo Vanska just resigned from the Minnesota Orchestra, prompting Aaron Jay Kernis to resign. The storied New York City Opera is moving to declare bankruptcy, the federal government is shut down, affecting lots more than just federal workers (read: children’s nutrition, veterans, NEA, etc.), the Teamsters are striking at Carnegie Hall, and more. I’m afraid our civilization is losing sight of the forest for the trees. I hope we can all find common ground and remember what has made human beings what they are to this day – an immense striving for greatness, cooperation, commonality, reflection, and hard work. Now is one of those times where art is the most crucial. I urge everyone to take an active role in experiencing art in any form – go to a museum, a concert, a sculpture garden, a poetry reading, a play, anything. For reasons no one’s ever been able to completely explain, humanity’s greatest analysts have not been economists, politicians, physicists, psychologists, or sociologists, but painters, poets, musicians, dancers, playwrights, actors, sculptors, etc. It’s time we get back to being human beings again. I’ll be expanding on these thoughts today and throughout the next few weeks here on my website. Because humanity is all about real connections, I look forward to creating this conversation with all of you.

Bucharest Intl Jazz Competition: Finals and Gala Concert

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.

Dan Cavanagh Dallas Trio at Bucharest International Jazz Competition

Bucharest Comp - 4.1My 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.

‘Iolani Stage Band to premiere “The Owl King”

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.

Dowsing -Working with Katharine Rauk’s Poem

[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.

Concerto, concerto, concerto – Piano concerto!

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.

Hawaiian Legends – The Legend of Kapo’i

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!

Faculty Development Leave Starts…NOW

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!