Inspired by a John Zorn residency at the Stone

Feature image by Kathy Luu for Hello Bookcase

A memoir of Creative Music Large Ensemble works and groups

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JA: Your ‘Page of Madness: Suite for Improvisers’ is based on your original score for Teinosuke Kinugasa’s 1926 Japanese silent film, Kurutta Ippeji (A Page of Madness). What inspired you about this film to write your original score?

PJ: In 1998 I was commissioned by the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York to write the score for Page of Madness. I had not been aware of the film until then, and when they screened it for me, I was immediately struck by i) what a unique and unusual film it was, and ii) what a great opportunity it presented to do some thing different in film scoring.
The director, Teinosuke Kinugasa, who was described by Jasper Sharp in the web site Midnight Eye as, “the first director in Japan to realize his ambition of treating cinema as a distinct art form in its own right, divorced from the commercial concerns of the new mass-audience medium”, created a work that recalls to Western audiences the early works of German Expressionist silent film–some have called it ‘the Japanese Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’. It uses no title cards, and thus is told entirely in images, and was shot on location entirely in a mental asylum. While it has a narrative, it is very abstract in its presentation, and thus is one of the early works of the avant garde.

Page of Madness was my third silent film score, and after the mostly through-composed scores for The Unknown  (1927) and the Georges Méliès Project (1899-1909), I immediately saw Page of Madness as an opportunity to use greater elements of free improvisation and extended techniques that felt in harmony with the nature of the film. But I didn’t just want to ‘play free’ to the film (though I think that is another valid approach), so I created a score that combined largely chromatic written material with improvisation that was carefully scored to the film. We initially used synchronised stopwatches to stay in sync with the film while improvising; in more recent performances, I rely only on carefully notated visual cues to keep the score and the film in sync. While it still contains a lot of written material, it develops two ideas I’ve been working on for many years. One is to find new ways of combining written material and improvisation that inspire improvisers with unusual relationships between the two, and the second is to explore unusual relationships between music and film.

JA: You premiered your original piece in New York in 1998, and at the Sydney Film Festival in 2008. Tell us about those experiences.

PJ: The Walter Reade Theatre at Lincoln Center is one of the best acoustic spaces in New York, little known because it is almost always only used for film. As soon as I did an audio test, I saw it was a great opportunity and I hired Jon Rosenberg, the engineer who had recorded a number of my CDs in the 1990s, to come in and do a live recording of the premiere. We played entirely acoustically except for a small bass amp, and the performance just clicked, so I later released it as my CD recording of the score on my own label, Asynchronous Records.

The Australian premiere in 2008, presented by the Sydney Film Festival, was also a really exciting experience. The Festival really got behind the show, mentioned it in all of their promotional material, and even sponsored a press screening beforehand at the Sydney Opera House. Despite the fact that the State Theatre performance featured a highly unusual film with an unconventional score, we played to a very enthusiastic audience of 650, which confirms my belief that if less commercial music got more support and promotion, and was given some context, it could appeal to a much wider audience. I also had a wonderful band, featuring Lloyd Swanton and Chris Abrahams of the Necks, and vibraphonist Daryl Pratt.

JA: How then did you adapt the “Suite for Improvisers” from your original work?
PJ: I had never actually considered performing the music from Page of Madness without the film. My friend New York composer/musician Ed Tomney, after hearing the CD, said he would like to like to hear it performed live without the film, but I initially rejected the idea. However, when I was looking for some material to adapt for the finale of my residency at The Stone in 2015, I remembered his suggestion and it occurred to me that it could work if I reinvented the piece in a way that it would function on its own, without the film.

Video from the Original work

JA: You then premiered the adapted ‘Suite’ in New York in 2015. Tell us about this event.
PJ: When an artist is chosen by John Zorn to do a ‘residency’ at The Stone,  the venue of which he is artistic director in New York, that person is asked to perform 12 different sets over six days, two shows a night (it has recently been reduced to one set a night). The usual understanding is that it will function as a kind of career retrospective, and certainly with a wide variety of combinations.
For anyone, it is a huge undertaking, exciting and inspiring, but also inevitably challenging in its practical requirements: under the best circumstances, rehearsing, promoting and presenting a concert in New York City is daunting; doing 12 gigs in a week is overwhelming. My residency ranged from duos, including with the great Australian pianist Marc Hannaford who is living in New York, multi-instrumentalist Ned Rothenberg, and my long-time associate, pianist Joe Ruddick (who played in almost all of my post-Microscopic Septet bands and film scores), to various trios, quartets and quintets. Of course the Microscopic Septet was represented, but in a completely new context: this band known for its tight and complex jazz arrangements played an entirely improvised set. For the final set, I wanted to bring together as many as possible of the musicians from my week of gigs, and for this I needed a big piece that could accommodate large elements of improvisation, yet be a unified composition, and be able to be rehearsed in a single afternoon. It was for this purpose that I created Page of Madness: Suite for Improvisers.

JA: For this Australian premier of the Suite For Improvisers, you have assembled an impressive ensemble of local musicians. Tell us more.
PJ: I have been incredibly fortunate in the musicians that I have had the opportunity to play with in Sydney. The first musician I met in Sydney was Lloyd Swanton, and through him I met the first Sydney musicians that I worked with, including Sandy Evans, Toby Hall, Alister Spence and others. Since then my network has expanded, but, as in New York, I have worked steadily on various projects with a lot of the same people. For the band for Page of Madness, while some important people were unavailable due to other professional commitments, I’ve been lucky to get many of those people, like Lloyd, Sandy, James Greening, Andrew Robson; others, like Jason Noble and Alex Silver I will be working with for the first time. A piece based on improvisation can only succeed with top flight musicians, and I’m so fortunate to have them here.

JA: How do the elements of improvisation and composition work together in this work?
PJ: Page of Madness contains a variety of types of written material: tonal, atonal, contrapuntal, polytonal. The main theme develops through several incarnations throughout the piece. Some of the improvisation is thematic, some is free but pitted against various types of background parts, some is completely free, but influenced by the music that precedes and follows it, some of it is modal. There are many different combinations of instruments. The first 5 minutes contains 35 different instrument combinations, all improvising. From section to section, not only the music changes, but also the relationship between the written material and the improvisations changes as well.

JA: What can the audience expect from this performance at the Sound Lounge at the Seymour Centre on Saturday 11 February?
PJ: I think they can expect to be surprised. They will certainly hear some wonderful soloists, some in a different context than they may have heard them before. They will hear some music that is simple and beautiful, and some that features some thorny counterpoint and explosive musical gestures. They will hear a film soundtrack without a film, and an orchestral big band composition featuring some of the most unique musicians I’ve met here in Sydney, who will lift it up beyond the notes written on the page and bring it to life. The reason I did my original recording of the Page of Madness score live is that to me there is no greater excitement than hearing terrific musicians creating new music live in the moment, responding to each other and to the score, and sharing it with a live audience.

pj-beckett-2_ukelelee_webPostscript: A memoir of Creative Music Large Ensemble works & groups
I had the good fortune to be a young aspiring creative musician in New York in the early 1970s. There were a lot of interesting things happening at that time in jazz/New Music (among other things): the early Philip Glass pieces ‘Music in Twelve Parts’ and ‘Music in Changing Parts’, the work of Lamont Young and Marianne Zazeela, Henry Flynt; I was able to see Captain Beefheart’s Troutmaskreplica-era Magic Band and Thelonious Monk was still performing. The Newport Jazz Festival had just moved to New York and I was able to see concerts featuring the premiere of Ornette Coleman’s ‘Skies of America Suite’, a Mingus Big Band, the early Weather Report and the MJQ. Gil Evans was still running a big band.

One thing that really inspired me was that in the 60s and into the 70s the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra was attempting to find new ways for creative music to reinvent financial and performance structures of the jazz business. Led by Carla Bley and Michael Mantler, they started the New Music Distribution Service to distribute new music, and formed their own label to release their own music and that of others. They held open rehearsals of large ensemble works, several of which I was able to attend, and I heard the live recording of Don Cherry’s ‘Relativity Suite’ at Columbia University. The piece that, to this day, for me, is the apex of creative large ensemble writing, was/is Carla Bley’s ‘Escalator Over The Hill’. Described as a ‘chronotransduction’, with lyrics by poet Paul Haines, EOTH combines screaming free jazz, rock, Kurt Weill-esque cabaret, Zappa-esque humor and soaring jazz performances, by a diverse band including Linda Ronstadt, Jack Bruce, Don Preston (Mother of Invention), Don Cherry, Gato Barbieri, John McLaughlin, Charlie Haden, Roswell Rudd and Paul Motian, among many others. In my mind this piece still sets the template for a truly creative large ensemble music. There have been many others including the ICP Orchestra, the AACM Big Band and the Globe Unity Orchestra, to name just a few.

In the 1980s, inspired by the JCO and some European large ensembles, Wayne Horvitz and Robin Holcomb formed the New York Composers Orchestra, as a ‘regular performing ensemble for composers wishing to write for a jazz instrumentation without being confined to traditional notions of jazz and big band styles’. The composers included Lenny Pickett, Marty Ehrlich, Anthony Braxton, Bobby Previte, Elliott Sharp, Robin Holcomb, Doug Wieselman, Butch Morris, Bob Nell, Wayne Horvitz and myself, and I was also a performing member of the original ensemble. Initial performances in New York included concerts at Roulette, The Greenwich House Music School, BAM, The Kitchen and the Knitting Factory. This group represented another attempt for musicians to pool their resources to give composers a chance to write new music for large ensembles. Others, such as the Jazz Composers Collective followed later, and one must not forget Australia’s Ten Part Invention.

The group performing Page of Madness: Suite for Improvisers is much smaller than most of these groups. But my memories of these  groups whose aim was to transcend the limits of traditional large ensemble writing for both jazz big band and orchestra, led me to create this hybrid of film music suite and creative music large ensemble, as an opportunity to work with some of my favorite musicians and let them stretch out once again.

PAGE OF MADNESS: SUITE FOR IMPROVISERS
Sat 11 February – Sound Lounge – Seymour Centre 9pm
www.phillipjohnston.com

This performance is part of SIMA’s Summer Jazz program 2017

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