“It’s Taken Me My Whole Life…” — The Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra

Around 2006 I began thinking about rests.

I forget who, when speaking of Thelonious Monk, said, “Monk plays rests,” but the quote struck me vividly. Miles plays rests, too. So does Kumar Gandharva in a totally different idiom.

How could I compose a piece of music in which the improvisational element inhered in the act of not playing something, or, more accurately, playing a silence. How could I minimize the creativity involved in note choice and melodic sequence, and maximize the creativity involved in leaving spaces?

The process of composition involved many false starts; lots of scribbled notes, lots of discarded pages.

Eventually I settled on the approach used in “It’s Taken Me My Whole Life…”, which employs three separate levels at which musical omissions are available to improvisors.

At the lowest (background) level, participating players are assigned a pulse speed (8th note; quarter-note; dotted-quarter; half-note) and a small pitch set. Each player receives a different number (n); their assignment is to make a simple repeated pattern of n notes from the pitches in the set. They’re also given a second number which designates the number of notes which they can choose to replace with silences over the course of many iterations.

For example:

46733 46733 46733 467_3 4__3_ 46733 4____ _6_3_ 4_7_3 _6733 etc.

At the second (middle-ground) level, participating players are assigned a “mantra,” which is a simple cantus-type melody written in whole notes. The melody is derived from the Hindustani raga Bhairav, but the interval structures could be changed easily without affecting any other aspect of the piece. Each player involved in the “mantra” is also given a number representing the number of notes which they can choose to omit in repetitions of the line. A group of melodic players presenting the “mantra” would probably omit different notes, creating a dispersed “collective” version of the melody.

At the top (solo) level, the improvising soloists have their melodic lines completely written out: these notes in this sequence. They are instructed to play through what is essentially a modally-organized tone row while focusing on the number and length of silences to be inserted.

At this 2012 concert, Luther Gray and Ryan Edwards (drums & percussion respectively) took the closing portion of the piece and stretched out with a beautifully evocative duet.


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