Ghost Stories

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Photo by creepyhalloweenimages. CC-A.

To be an artist is to live in a house full of ghosts.

You build your art on the shoulders of ghosts. Your study begins with ghosts, tracing the lineage and contributions of the deceased before you pay attention to the living. In every discipline, you’re made to consult the ghosts for answers about your art – often you’re made to consult the ghosts before you even make anything. You are yourself compared at every turn to the Pantheon of ghosts – I recall fondly the three separate composition lessons in which three different teachers told me I would never, in my lifetime, be as good a composer as Beethoven. All of this results in a reverent, awed fear of the ghosts: a complex of intimidation that lasts a lifetime.

It turns out this inferiority to the past is an age-old concept that’s been pored over by artists of every field and medium. No matter the size or scope of what you’re writing, there’s a ghost at your shoulder who has done it better than you and constantly whispers in your ear to remind you of your own mortality. You might give your sweat, blood, and soul over to your work in the hopes of achieving a spot on the Walk of Fame once you kick it, but really… who are we kidding?

In the midst of my current project, a piece for the University of Michigan Jazz Ensemble, the ghosts over my shoulder have taken on a different guise. Writing for the big band doesn’t scare me the way writing for most classical ensembles does.

Me the next time I have to write for string quartet. (Pink Sherbet Photography, CC-A)
Me the next time I have to write for string quartet. (Pink Sherbet Photography, CC-A)

I wrote my Master’s Thesis for big band, and while it was never performed, it taught me (I think) most of the nuts and bolts of how to write big band music that, at the very least, lacks huge problems. I’ve played in big bands as long as I can remember – certainly longer than I’ve played in classical groups of any size. One of my greatest influences and idols, Maria Schneider, writes almost exclusively for jazz orchestra. After hundreds of hours of analysis, writing, and performance, I think I’ve got a good understanding of what makes this group tick.

Meanwhile, the “ghosts” of the big band don’t scare me the way those of, say, the orchestra might. Most of the big band music I really love is by living composers. Before I stack my music up against Tommy Dorsey’s or Glen Miller’s, I’ll stack it up against Maria Schneider, Jim McNeely, Darcy James Argue, Sherisse Rogers… and when you can imagine a ghost waking up this morning, hitting the snooze button and accidentally burning their toast, it’s somehow less intimidating.

But those aren’t the only ghosts in the house.

After all, I’m not writing for Duke Ellington, or Thad Jones, or any other big band legend. I’m writing for the jazz orchestra itself. It’s an ensemble whose sound was born from swing, Afro-Cuban, and other jazz traditions. It is, by necessity, different (maybe even less versatile) from classical groups who don’t embody the spirit of these traditions. This ensemble has an indelible jazz imprint upon it, and music that tries too hard to eschew it becomes just an awkward, by-rote presentation of shallow material, like a third-grader giving a speech to his class (see the Ebony Concerto, my nominee for worst Stravinsky piece ever).

This isn’t a classical ensemble. It’s a group of performers trained to improvise, working to find a unique voice and sound instead of working to be consummate masters of the orchestra rep; trained not to be the archetypal performer on their instruments but to be themselves. It’s a group which thrives on freedom to experiment and take chances with the music they’re given. Likewise, with too much restriction, the band loses its potential for spontaneity and improvisation without gaining anything else in color, tessitura, or technique, and will end up pale and suffocated (see the Ebony Concerto, my nominee for worst Stravinsky piece ever).

Which leaves me, the composer, to grapple with the question of what exactly my role is. How far can I stray away from the big band’s jazz roots into my classical training before the whole thing falls apart? Where’s the balance between compositional control and improvisatory freedom that’s honest to my voice? Is that balance honest to the big band’s abilities, or will it be overly constrictive and result in a tight-lipped failure?

It turns out the ghosts in my head this time aren’t the past greats of the genre this time. It’s the ghosts of the future that scare me. It’s the jazz musicians, at UM and beyond, who will see this piece and bring their own sound to it. My job as the composer is to honor and feature their unheard voices in the music – but how to do that within my own voice is a puzzling task with no simple solution.

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