Do I even need to say what's been going on in 2020?
We all know. We've been living the nightmare, enduring it, surviving it, each in our own way. We are 6+ months into this global pandemic and crisis, with the arts continuing to be devastated and no foreseeable plan to address the long-term negative impacts of this chaos. There are short-term plans in place - some of us have been able to meet in-person and in smaller numbers, while others have gone fully virtual.
Teachers, educators, artists, composers, and more need our collective support, now more than ever. We all need to support each other equally - not some artists and groups and composers more than others. ALL OF US. EQUALLY.
So how has all of this impacted me? Well --
Like so many of us, this brutal pandemic gradually shocked me into an artistically catatonic depression for a while. At first, I created a series of Isolation Improvisations just so that I COULD write, but looking back on it, the whole experience essentially forced myself into a creative state of mind during difficult times. It ended up being unhealthy for me - something that actually drained me more than I think I would have felt had I NOT created those improvisations.
So, as we have all each accomplished in our own way, I moved through every moment of quarantine one day at a time.
This year, I've tried to find new outlets for productivity and focused my energies on finding personal, and dare I even say spiritual, balance. I've been cooking and baking much more often now (so many cookies baked this year - so. many.). I started meditating earlier this year, which has actually created a more positive, overall impact on my mental health that I would have ever thought possible. I've been reading more books and articles, learning some new technological skills, and I hope to start learning a new language by the beginning of next year.
Again, taking everything one day at a time.
Before this pandemic occurred, however, I had been developing something else - something that's absolutely now a long-term project (several years, at least).
There are actually two projects that I began this year. The more immediate turnaround project has been intended to address the needs of music educators/directors and their students/ensembles for this academic year. This was inspired by the work started by the Creative Repertoire Initiative earlier this summer, spearheaded by Robert Ambrose and a number of composers including Jennifer Jolley, Steven Bryant, Julie Giroux, John Mackey, Omar Thomas, and Frank Ticheli among others.
This month, I started publishing a new series of music for adaptable ensembles called M.O.T.I.F.s FOR ALL, intended to be as open and flexible in its instrumentation as possible so that the music can be played by practically anyone. Phase 1 of this series consists of 3 arrangements - "The Great River Rapid Chase," "The Golden Pier", and "The Straits of Mackinac" - and 3 new works - "Flex That Bass!", "Hymn to Nature", and "Raindrops in an endless sea of stars."
The three arrangements and "Raindrops" are published and available to purchase and perform. The other two pieces will be started soon. Of these three new compositions, I'm particularly excited about "Raindrops" and "Hymn to Nature" - these will be much more aleatoric and experimental, with the intention that they can be played virtually without restrictions of tempo or audio latency among other things.
Please support this new series and share it with anyone you think would be interested in it. There's something to be discovered in all of these works that will create a fun and engaging musical environment for you and your students, no matter what your performance situation may be.
The long-term project, however, has been in development since the beginning of this year. It feels strange to be talking about this right now, or that it is even happening at all, especially given that all of us have been struggling to adapt to circumstances changing on a daily, or even hourly, situation. The project's concepts, themes, and messages, however, were far too important not to talk about (something my collaborators and I firmly agreed upon) - social, economic, and political issues continuing to incite chaos and violence around the world.
So, all of us collectively agreed that we needed to move forward with developing the project, one day at a time.
The first spark of inspiration for this long-term project actually started with just the thought of combining two different genres and ensembles - a jazz group, and a wind ensemble/orchestra. It's an instrumentation that’s been used before (Duke Ellington's Harlem Suite comes to mind). What fascinated me with this concept, from a compositional perspective, was the inherent dichotomy between both of these genres (specifically, post-bop jazz and contemporary classical music) - two styles that, generally speaking, are in many ways different from each other. This dichotomy inherently created musical conflict in that respect; two disparate styles at odds and constantly competing with each other, bringing to the forefront their own unique ideas, backgrounds, and perspectives, but doing so without ever actually listening to each other. Something that wouldn't necessarily create a concerto-like setting, but rather a more integrated and involved work for all of its performers.
This early concept had its flaws. Who on earth wants to listen to 20-30 minutes of chaos, of musicians just fighting each other all of the time? For me as a listener, at least, this would wear off in 2 MINUTES. These conflicts needed to have a resolve, but for the longest time, I couldn't determine how on earth that could possibly be accomplished.
Then the pandemic hit. And everything changed, one day at a time.
As my collaborators and I continued developing this project, it became clear that all of us really had something to say - artistically and personally - about everything going on in the world. The pandemic; the political and global disarray; the continuing fight against racism, racial injustice, and discrimination; and, the exponentially rising fight for systemic change, justice, equality, peace, and better, sustainable standards of living for all people. With that in mind, each of the members of the project's jazz combo came forward with an issue they've been affected by - issues, on the whole, that are still ongoing in the world, that have been exacerbated by this terrifying pandemic, and that each of them needed to continue to speak out on.
At this point, you're probably thinking, "But Josh, you're a straight, cisgender, white male with a position of privilege. You can't speak for other people about things you've never experienced!" And if you were thinking the very thing I just wrote before you read it, you’re absolutely right, because to do such things would be blatant white saviorism. I've never experienced racism, or gender discrimination, or other inequalities, hardships, and struggles based on my race, background, and identity. I will never, ever know what it is like to experience these things - what my friends and colleagues have experienced, and continue to go through, every single day. As an ally, I have so much to learn and a long way to go.
The combo members NEEDED to create this space - their platform - to make their voices heard and speak out on the very issues each of them chose that they’ve been affected by. The slightest possibility of me being remotely present - in any capacity, at any of those moments - could not exist in any shape or form, AT ALL. Essentially, the combo members really needed to create their own music, their own art, and their own statement - to improvise on the spot and in that exact moment of time.
So my role in creating this would focus entirely on creating the musical conflicts - that battle between jazz combo and large ensemble - and, therefore, moving out of the way entirely in moments where the combo would speak out on their chosen issues.
And so the project continued to develop with that in mind, one day at a time.
It still wasn't enough.
At this stage of the project’s development, there still wasn't a thread to tie all of this together and find the resolve the idea so desperately needed. Then, one day, another spark of inspiration came to mind: What about another soloist?
Given the scope of the project at this point, the idea seemed daunting at first - possibly even overbearing on the other concepts to be realized. But, the more I thought about it, the more the idea seemed to make sense. This separate soloist role could be a character apart from the jazz combo, apart from the large ensemble, with their own journey and purpose. Someone apart from all of this chaos, yet bearing witness to the unfolding drama, who could actually bring balance to the major conflicts in the piece. Someone that could demonstrate an idea of how these two opposing sides could potentially settle their disputes and start listening to each other more. Both the jazz combo and large ensemble each shared a common instrument - the flute - so it made sense from a musical perspective that this soloist role could be fulfilled by a flutist. Having that commonality would help to tie everything together, in that respect.
The narrative arc of the proposed work would therefore move linearly from one point to another - in filmic terms, essentially following a plot/story - but as an additional layer to the musical framework, not as a means to diminish the importance and value of any of the other core concepts. In some ways, the piece would be similar to a film score, in that there would be ideas/motives/themes connecting everything together, but with the musicians and guest artists on stage effectively playing out the drama in the plot.
The solo flutist would therefore be acting as the main character in all of this - we would see the story play out through their eyes - and the one who really guides the narrative arc and spiritual journey of the entire piece.
Several fruitful discussions followed with the jazz combo and soloist, including a wonderful group meeting. And, from all of this --
A symphony was born.
Jeff and the Three Rivers Wind Symphony are going to premiere this with the seven fantastic artists I'm collaborating with to bring this project to life:
Dr. Emily Dierickx - flute
Dr. Jordan VanHemert - tenor saxophone
Lillie Christie - trumpet/flugelhorn
Kevin Day - piano
Amanda Ruzza - bass guitar
Kevin Keith - drums
The piece creates that conflict I've discussed between jazz combo and large ensemble, with the solo flutist seeking to end the chaos and bring back balance (essentially, peace but with purpose). During these conflicts, each of the jazz combo members are going to speak out on the issues they've chosen to address in the project (again, this is where I'm moving out of the way entirely - I can't speak for them or about these issues as explained above). This include the following:
-Rising unemployment rates and job scarcity
-Increased racial discrimination and profiling against Asians and Asian-Americans
-Gender discrimination and inequality
-Increased racial discrimination and profiling against Africans and African-Americans
-Technology harming humanity and the planet
-Chauvinism pertaining to increasing violent/political dissent
Meanwhile, the solo flutist's spiritual journey throughout this symphony will help them to find that key to accomplishing their goals and stop these conflicts. That leads to the other major element of this symphony.
So how will all of these concepts actually come together - specifically, how does this part for solo flute actually fit in with all of this chaos and tie everything together? Well, Amy and I have some ideas about that (to be clear, though, this is really her idea and I think it’s utterly brilliant). See, Amy’s not only a wonderful flutist - she’s also a certified music therapist and sound healing practitioner.
You might be wondering, "Sound healing? What on earth is that?" Amy explains this in greater detail with what she wrote for this project - here's her quote from the website:
"With people all over the world sheltering at home during COVID-19 restrictions, many are struggling to cope without life's everyday distractions. It is critical during these uncertain times to take care of both our bodies and our minds. Sound healing is a safe and effective form of holistic healing that uses resonant vibrations to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals. Sound can be used in a therapeutic relationship to restore harmony and balance to the body, mind, and spirit, reducing physical tension and stress while boosting our immune system. It can also help to clear any energetic blockages while stimulating positive spiritual growth and transformation."
Using sound - therapeutically - for meditative and healing purposes. Yeah. Pretty amazing, right?
From a compositional perspective, that right there just offers an infinite amount of possibilities to me. It's something that I had NEVER even heard of before this project - an incredible, and effective, healing practice. And so this symphony will incorporate sound healing as a key element to the narrative arc.
With this project, the sandbox being created here is not just focused on the clashing of disparate genres and mediums of music - sound healing is also involved as that key element to help bring together all of it. I think that this will take the concept to new horizons, in that regard. And, as I previously mentioned, I think the possibilities of incorporating this practice into the symphony are infinite. Almost like raindrops in an endless sea of stars…
The symphony is overall being written for and in collaboration with Emily, Jordan, Lillie, Kevin Day, Amanda, Kevin Keith, and Amy. The symphony is also being written for its wind ensemble commissioners - Jeff Herwig and the Three Rivers Wind Symphony - and conductor Thiago Tiberio for the orchestral version in active development.
For the jazz combo, the piece is being written for them, but it will also be their own art and their creation too. The little music I am writing for them (for narrative purposes) will be playing to each of their strengths, but the focus for this group will be centered more on the improvisation and when each of them creates their platform and speaks out on their chosen issue. As it rightfully should be.
I can say something similar regarding Amy’s role in all of this too. This solo part for her is going to highlight all three of these fields that she’s pursued - flute performance, music therapy, and sound healing. Several points in the symphony, there will undoubtedly be these moments of sound healing created where she'll have full reins to take over and lead it herself - additional moments where I’m moving out of the way entirely. Thus, moments where she’s making her voice heard and making this art her own too.
So much has changed for all of us, and it's continuing to do that, this year. With this long-term project, I am so, so thrilled to be collaborating with some of the best people in the world. I can't wait to see where this symphony goes. I can't wait to see what all of them will continue to do with it. And, I can't wait to see how each of them will bring this to life in their own way.
It's going to be incredible. All of it.
Support this project. Make your voice heard and keep talking about the issues that matter today. Join the consortium: www.motifsymphonyone.com
@motifsymphony1 (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SoundCloud)
So.... that's my life right now in the middle of this wild, chaotic, and crazy year. So much more to plan for and prepare for the next few years. So much to focus on and complete now. It feels strange that I am busier than I ever have been at this point (I think this year in particular, I've probably written more minutes of music than I've ever written in my life), but I am enjoying and embracing every second of it as best as I can. I'm enjoying all of these wonderful collaborations I'm sharing at the moment with some pretty incredible people. That being said, I am also embracing every moment I can get to just relax, meditate, take a deep breath, and focus on something else, whether that's just a good book or nature walk, or even just trying to get good sleep (something impossible to do this year, honestly).
If you've made it to the end of this blog post - then I can't stress this enough: support every teacher, educator, artist, composer, and more equally. Especially young composers. Especially underrepresented composers. Some of us are struggling a lot more than others right now.
Don’t just support and program the music of well-established composers, and/or don’t just program the same Mozart or Beethoven piece performed over and over and over again. Don’t just rely on your go-to publishing companies. Find a composer you’ve never heard of before, or two, or three. I guarantee you that you’ll discover a treasure trove of really good music written by some fantastic composers - whether it's a hymn to inspire hope and peace through difficult times, or a fun and epic fanfare for solar flares.
We know that budgets are tighter this year because of the pandemic. Talk to us - let us know how we can help. We want to support you, your students, and your program; we want to work with you. If you can’t buy/program/perform a piece, share the music with at least 5 other people you know - friends, colleagues, associates, etc. Doing this alone will exponentially increase the support of that composer and their work.
The work doesn’t end because the genre of performed music changes, or the circumstances change. Keep being active about this. Support young composers. Support underrepresented composers.
Keep doing the work.
Composer, cats, and food - in no particular order.