Summer Lessons

Summer can be a strange time for musicians. The situations we find ourselves in are usually the most relaxed (summer pops) or the most intense (chamber music festival) without very much of the usual in-between. Festivals of all kinds dominate the summer, and most of them invite musicians year to year with no future guarantees. We therefore scramble to network and impress our way to tangible "real life" advantage. Summer is not "real life" for a musician. That was doubly true for me and my early-summer festival (sadly concluded). The feeling of "alternative reality" was complete, for I was not only in a different country, thousands of miles from home, and thousands of feet higher in elevation: I was playing entirely different genres of music (most entirely new to me), I was composing and arranging pieces for public performance (also entirely new), and I was being musically stretched and challenged nearly to the breaking point!

The Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music was three tumultuous weeks of improvising. The first improvisation was simply figuring out what I was doing there. The Workshop is Banff's most selective program, and is truly international, with emerging and established professionals aged 18-40 attending in order to study with, jam with, and be inspired by a jaw-dropping revolving faculty. Some of the participants and faculty are straight-ahead jazzers, through and through. Some are drawn to the more experimental and avant-garde side of jazz. Some are drawn to the more experimental and avant-garde side of classical music. Some are so far outside of my previous experience that I don't even want to try to classify them, and some (workshop leader Dave Douglas, for example) are drawn to anything and everything. The one common thread was improvisation, but as I came to understand, that is a bit like saying the one common thread between a group of writers is "language," or the one common thread between a group of sculptors is "space:" true but at such a basic level as to be almost meaningless.

I am, at a basic level, a classical chamber musician. I interpret notes on a page with my mind and realize those interpretations with my body. What was I doing at a "jazz and creative music" workshop? I had applied to the Workshop on a whim after hearing Dave perform at NEC, using in my application stories and recordings of various ethnomusical collaborations I had taken part in, a bit of a jazz standard I had recorded for an earlier project, and a sample of chamber music playing. When I arrived and found so many world-class improvisers, I suddenly felt very much the black sheep. Who was I kidding? The Workshop is not really about learning (although a lot of learning takes place)... with such a high level of participants, the Workshop is about doing, and I had to figure out what I could do to contribute to the incredible music around me!


Initially I worked extensively with the saxophonist Oliver Lake. Oliver is a ferocious improviser who just blows you away with the feeling and authenticity behind his playing. Even though we played some of the most "jazzy" tunes of the summer, with Oliver no wrong note could disappoint him like a halfhearted phrase. Notes are inconsequential. Feelings and emotions are everything. This was also conveyed (in a completely different way) in conversations with the classical and klezmer clarinet guru David Krakauer and the club-touring classical cellist Matt Haimovitz. Having started down that path, and realizing some of the ways a rigorous classical training was helping me to contribute, the arrival of Mark Feldman showed me just how much is possible when improvising on the violin. My hypothesis, that the violin is, at some basic level, just not quite natural in improvisation, was blown out the window. Mark helped the small contingent of string players in the peculiar art of sounding good on strings. Nothing in the world, however, could have prepared me for the arrival of the Instant Composers Pool in the third week of the Workshop. I'm at a loss to describe the ICP orchestra, besides "ten crazy Dutch people." The music wasn't freely improvised; it was instantly composed. They might start playing one piece, spontaneously modulate to a different piece, and end up with the drummer throwing a cymbal on the floor. It was during a spontaneous Workshop-wide improvisation with the ICP that I lost my last inhibition, interjecting with a wild fiddle-inflected solo, and simultaneously connecting everything I had experienced at Banff back to "real life."

It's ALL improvisation. From Corelli to Tonasphernia 12. In the entire wide range of determinism, from the performer inventing everything all the way to the most painstakingly notated Boulez, when we actually perform, what we are doing is improvising - or should I say "instant composing?" I will have a good time this coming year trying to infect A Far Cry with some of this freedom-inspiring outlook!