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Fulbright in Norway: Site-Specific Theatre and a Mega Big Band

My daily schedule living in Oslo has been enriching—nearly every night, I attend a concert, while balancing a few commissions, lessons, gigs, reading, and a workout routine. My workload is busy at the beginning of the year—in addition to my main Fulbright composition (see below), I have two new commissions from the Aspen Music Festival, a sound design and incidental music project with a New York theater director, and continuing collaborations with Daniel Landers, a New York songwriter with whom I produce and arrange tracks, and orchestration work with my NYC theater teammates John Albert Harris and Nevada Lozano. Balancing this is tough, and leaves me stuck inside working for days on end, guilty that I’m not exploring the city more and living outside. But it’s always a balance—periods of intense travel are always followed by periods of work hibernation, making up for lost time. Although the days are getting incrementally longer, hibernation is still an appropriate term.

This spring semester, I’m taking a Norwegian folk music course, where we discuss the instruments, traditions, and people behind the folk music of Norway and its connections to dance in different fjords and valleys. This has inspired me to incorporate the lilting, uneven rhythms of the music into a composition (my main Fulbright piece) for the Mastodont Ensemble, an extended big band that will perform new compositions as part of the Serendip Festival in February. In addition to using traditional Norwegian percussion instruments (including the slåttetromme), the composition explores fusing more aleatoric contemporary compositional techniques with folk music and contemporary jazz.

In January, I took a break from jazz and participated in the “art music” department’s scheduled projects and lectures. The first of which was with Frederick Durieux, a composer who teaches at Paris Conservatory. My apprehension about having a lesson with an IRCAM composer was quickly eased when he seemed to understand the medium and differences in process and aesthetic considerations between writing jazz music and art music. My lesson with Durieux reminded me of the “toolboxes” of contemporary music that I hadn’t used in a while—techniques and sounds from 20th century composers. He gave me some music to listen to, including a few pieces by Lachenmann and a piece by André Boucourechliev called Archipels. One aspect of Lachenmann’s compositional idea is “acoustic musique concrete”—a language of sounds and extended techniques for instruments that create a unique timbral and textural palette separate from pitches and rhythms. This technique is incredibly useful in jazz, and has some application in the music of Steve Lehman, Alex Mincek, George Lewis, Tyshawn Sorey, and the La Beouf Brothers, who all use timbral and gestural material in a rhythmical, groovy way, combining European trends with African-American rhythmic music. It reminded me that for the past year or two I had been very invested in musical theater and jazz, which helped my compositional craft in a different way, but I realized that I had distanced myself a little bit from the “art music” world —studying scores and listening to new repertoire, etc. Revisiting this—the detail, the craft, the history—was nice.

Speaking of theater, the second project with the composers was a music theater project, in collaboration with the Norwegian Theater Academy in Frederickstad. Manos Tsangaris was originally supposed to run the project, but he fell ill the week prior, so instead the project was supervised by Henrik Hellstinius and Camilla Camilla Eeg-Tverbakk. When people say “music theater” in the contemporary music world, they’re often not referring to musicals or incidental music, but rather music as theater, in the tradition of Kagel or John Cage, where music and theater become one expressive entity. The focus of this particular project was site-specific, abstract theatrical works—to provide context, Henrik and Camilla gave a few lectures on the history of site-specificity in music and theater, from an aesthetic and conceptual standpoint. The theater students coming from the Norwegian Theater Academy were not traditional theater students in that they did not study historical or even contemporary drama—their audition involved free interpretation of any given text through fragmentation, movement, and sound. In a way, their studies are more rooted in the contemporary art world, with its emphasis on conceptual art and philosophical, post-aesthetic thinking.

The faculty paired us off into groups of three for the first project and gave us a loose theme, which was just the word “approach.” We chose a location in the music school and turned it into an “instrument” of sorts, using found sounds from an office clutter, from the blinds to paper hole puncher to a metal balcony, and gradually approached each other up a spiral staircase. I was working with two actors, who provided insight into the movement-based and dramaturgical/scenographic aspects of our work. For many of the students’ projects, many of which used corridors and spaces in the music school to create dynamic, interesting musical-theatrical compositions, I got the feeling of “I wish I had thought of that!” To me, that’s a good sign, as it means I am surrounded by people whose work inspires me and whose work I want to influence mine. After the presentation of the project, Henrik and Camilla gave us excellent feedback, much of which was similar to feedback I get in the traditional composition world—how do we use materials? How are they developed? What stays the same, and what changes? What is coherence vs. conflict? What is interesting and what is lacking? All these principles applied to the creation of this music/sound theater, which is abstract but had potential for a variety of meanings and institutional critiques.

For the second project, we grouped off into five, and this time, we had two actors and three composers, including myself, and our general theme was “gap.” This project felt like the first “pure” collaboration I’ve had, in that we literally built up something from nothing, all contributing ideas and building off of each other in a natural way. It’s interesting how directors, composers, stage managers, etc. naturally emerge out of the lack of framework. People break off into what they’re best at and build off of each other. Although the project was ultimately non-hierarchical, one theater student from Israel, Omri, assumed the role as a director but only in the more practical leadership capacity.

The space in the school that inspired us the most was a stairwell with a tree inside—we noted that the tree looked as if it were trying to escape the building, dodging the rigid architecture of the building. Our idea was to upset the order of the music institution—a fundamentally rigid place of traditional music learning, bridging the gap between the outside and the inside. We spent two days planning and designing a prose score for the project—our idea was to bring in materials from outside—leaves, stones, pinecones, snow, water, gravel, and twigs and branches—and involve the audience by instructing them to spread the materials and make sounds using them in the space. An actor would initiate the piece by shaking the tree, and an actor from above the stairwell would continue the illusion by pulling on the tree with a string, continuing the shaking. Our payoff would be opening the doors to the auditorium and revealing a tuba player outside, playing in the snow. We’d then draw attention to the tuba player by bringing the audience up and around the staircase to see him out the window. The idea is to upset the order of the school by bringing nature inside and music outside. Tamed music outside, untamed nature inside. The work was structured in a similar way to my own works, which feature moments of improvisation and moments of rigid structure, and a fluid exchange between those two “modes” of being. I acted as timekeeper in the piece, shaking the tree at certain intervals to let the performers know when they were in relation to the piece. The choreography of the piece involved a gradual addition of materials at the beginning of the composition, starting with leaves, and then a sudden stop when one participant would swing open the auditorium doors, then a return to noise-making and a gradual procession around the staircase, making further sounds when people walked on the leaves. We made a score of the events to keep track (see above).

The performance of the work was not rehearsed, other than a basic Q2Q, so it gave the performance a certain freshness, but there were a fair number of issues that came up with that, with unpredictable factors like construction noise, people walking around, etc.—all of which played into the work. Letting the audience participate in the process of the piece was extremely fun and rewarding—we had people throwing pinecones, scraping twigs on walls, spilling water from an upper balcony, throwing snow on the floor, etc. It all made for a difficult cleanup for us, but a liberating experience for the audience, since they could freely disrupt the order of the music school for a while. In the feedback session, the audience—the class and a few stragglers—commented on the fact that it was great to feel the anarchy of the moment—how they were “allowed” to soil (literally and figuratively) the hallowed halls of the music school without consequence. The project was my first foray into audience-involved site-specific theater. It was more experimental and abstract than I’m typically used to, but I learned a lot from the process about composition, and how the principles involved in composition—contrast, development, etc.—can apply in motion, theater, and intermedia and can be used to tell an abstract story with meaningful connotations. I will incorporate this mode of musical and theatrical thinking into my future works and in a variety of more traditional narrative contexts.

After the theater project, the jazz composers dug right in to their Mastodont big band compositions with the jazz master’s students. We had a few feedback sessions, led by Helge, of each other’s work, where we related techniques and harmonic and melodic strategies while giving each other general feedback and relating obstacles that come with writing and orchestrating this kind of music. Since the ensemble is so huge (maxing out at 38 musicians), it’s harder to manage certain elements, but there’s also a huge opportunity for orchestrational inventiveness and expansion of material. For example, writing dense voicings for low saxophones, or pedal clusters in the trombones, or rhythm section interplay with multiple guitars and bases, etc. You don’t every day get to write for bass clarinet, bass saxophone, baritone sax, tenor, etc.—all in one ensemble. It was engaging to hear different solutions for a variety of musical issues we were dealing with—orchestration, writing for the big band, harmonic issues and continuity, variety, form, counterpoint, etc.—all incredibly fun to discuss and build off each other.

The week of February 12th (my birthday week!) we started rehearsals for the Mastodont Storband concert, which opened up the Serendip Festival, an inter-genre music festival around several venues in the city of Oslo. Helge’s composition was a logistical challenge—a 12-guitar, hocketed and abstracted arrangement of Bach Well-Tempered Clavier. The other eight compositions were equally as challenging, including a 5/8 hip-hop tune by Richard Köster, stop-start madness from Åsmund Perssønn Ødegaard, beautiful, harmony-focused ballads by Philip Birkenes and Hallvard Nicolaison, mixed-meter, aleatoric, polytonal music from Kristoffer Fossheim Håvik, funky music from Arne Martin Nybo, and narrated, theatrical music from Magnus Murphy Joelson. Rehearsals were conducted by the German trumpeter Ekhardt Bauer—we amazingly got through the nine pieces smoothly, packing 38 musicians into one small rehearsal room and knocking out each piece, one by one.

The concert went quite well—it was packed with an enthusiastic audience, and Ekhardt really brought the music alive with passionate conducting. Click here to listen to Edvard, my composition. The concert illuminated some impractical things in my piece—some difficult hocketing for trumpets, and an unidiomatic polyrhythm for saxophones at the beginning of the piece. A revised and re-arranged version of “Edvard” will be featured on my April 25th recital, featuring Hardranger fiddle, accordion, and a found-sample component featuring my field recordings I captured in Bergen back in October. This provides a unique opportunity for me to rewrite and revise after hearing the live music – a model similar to theater workshopping that I think every composer should go through as they revise their own work.

The same day of the concert, in the morning, I also presented on my current research for the Fulbright Seminar, where we got to witness the progress of our fellow grantee’s research. The progression of the morning presentations went from pure “hard science” (polar vortex research, ice sampling, oceanic drift, water quality treatment) to interdisciplinary topics (healthcare policy, socioeconomic influence of global warming on local populations, design thinking, peace and conflict studies) to teaching in the humanities (topics like digital storytelling, Norwegian Noir novels, and teaching Hamilton and race relations in Norwegian classrooms), in a clean gradient in that order. That order worked surprisingly well and softened the transitions between some of the subject matter of the presentations. It was a morning of passionate ideas and discussions, disciplines blending and reflecting, and challenging, forward-thinking proposals. The morning filled me with hope that the future of a variety of disciplines is in good hands, and that international, progressive thinking is influential and powerful. In my presentation, I discussed my compositions and studies, included a lecture on my composition process including photos and samples from my Bergen visit, discussed folk music as it pertains to my composition Edvard, a summary of a few of the concerts I had attended, and listening excerpts from Helge’s music and my own. In context with these big subjects, my own contribution, jazz music and folk music in Norway, might seem more specific, “niche,” and personal, but it contributes to a lively cultural exchange.

After the concert, my then-partner and I took an overnight bus for a day trip to Stockholm, and after we flew up to the arctic Tromsø, to explore and see the Northern Lights. Tromsø, called the “Paris of the North” is perhaps one of the coolest places I’ve been to—it has a hip downtown interspersed with old wooden Norwegian buildings and modern facades, all in a snowy island settings surrounded by mountains. We got to see the Northern Lights flicker green and purple over the fjord from a variety of locations around the nearby islands in the dark.

The remainder of spring 2018 will be packed with travels and premieres. March 14th, I’m visiting Dresden, followed by a trip to Berlin where I’m participating in the Fulbright Conference, playing in the Fulbright jazz band, and exploring Berlin. Right after, I’m touring Spain, seeing Madrid, Toledo, Barcelona, and Salamanca. And immediately after, I’m visiting Hamburg for a reading with the NDR Big Band. After that is my recital, where I’m presenting six of my works I’ve completed in Norway, followed by a few city tours, followed by a visit by my dad and brother in May. Stay tuned for more!

DISCLAIMER: The account and opinions stated below are mine alone and do not reflect the views of the U.S. Department of State or the Norwegian Academy of Music.


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