September 25, 2015

Band Rehearsal

The rehearsal process this week has been very exciting for me, because I finally get to hear the piece coming together into its final form. Until now, it was just a bunch of ideas in my head about how it might sound. But now it's becoming real!

Traveling to the Azores and making recordings in the field was of course interesting and fun, but then there was a year spent going through them all, obsessively editing, assembling, mixing, composing, adjusting. All of that is done alone, staring at a computer for many hours, often under headphones. And in fact most of my work is made this way. Technology allows for an amazing amount of control and freedom in making the work (I basically have a recording studio inside my laptop) but it also leads to isolation. I'm a reluctant performer myself, but I love working with musicians, and I often miss the social aspects of music making.

Since 2004 I've played with the Seattle Phonographers Union, a collective that improvises with unprocessed field recordings. That's been enjoyable, but we never work with other musicians. And in my own work I haven't really combined field recordings with live musicians. Likewise, most of my work takes the form of sound installations in galleries or museums; at that point the piece is set in stone and I'm not usually there with the audience. But at nearly an hour long, this piece felt too long to present as an installation and I couldn't think of a suitable venue. Also, several times in the past year I've used field recordings while improvising with other musicians and enjoyed it, and realized how much I missed that interaction. So inviting other musicians into this piece opens it up to a new dimension and other possibilities I can't predict.

Something I learned early on as a composer was that choosing the musicians for a particular piece — not just the instrumentation, but the actual people — is a kind of score in itself. This is especially true when improvisation plays such a major role. Good improvisers have very distinct, individual sensibilities, sounds and techniques, and I absolutely consider that when choosing them. And for me, part of what is exciting is to hear what those unique personalities bring to the project at hand. I feel very fortunate to have such a terrific band helping me out this time: Lesli Dalaba, trumpet; Beth Fleenor, clarinet/bass clarinet; Paul Kikuchi, percussion; Naomi Siegel, trombone; Greg Sinibaldi, tenor sax/bass clarinet.

There are no written out parts or musical notation of any kind, just a timeline for the recorded part so the musicians know when each section starts and ends. Of course, I have some general ideas about what I want them to do in certain sections, but I also want to stay out of their way and let them do what they do best. Each time we run through the piece, they find their way deeper into it and come up with different ways to approach it. I'm acting as a kind of director/editor, letting them know what I think works or doesn't, encouraging them when they do something especially effective and hopefully making helpful suggestions. In this way it's very much a collaboration. The process requires a lot of mutual trust and respect, and an ability to remain open to what arises in the moment without being too stuck on preconceived ideas.

It's been so gratifying to work with this particular group of people, all of whom I greatly admire. Some of them are friends I've known for many years, some I've worked with on other projects, and some are people I've never worked with before. Some of them have played together in other contexts, some haven't. But they are all excellent musicians and composers in their own right, and each of them brings something special to this piece; it would be very different without them.