Monday, August 20, 2012

The Drummer as Composer Part Two: Thoughts from Emma Lake

At the suggestion of a few readers I'm going to make the headline "The Drummer as Composer" a somewhat frequent column here at Four on the Floor. I often get a lot of questions about the music I've written/arranged and I'm thrilled that people are actually interested in what it is I'm trying to do in that regards. This column will feature various aspects and topics related to my journey as a composer and arranger who also happens to play the drums. I'm more than happy to share my music as well as my thoughts about the process of how I write music. Maybe I'll solicit a few interviews and comments from my fellow drumming composers out there as well.

I've written quite a bit of music over the years, some of which appears on my two albums "McCallum's Island" and "Sunalta". The music I've written so far mostly focuses on compositions for smaller groups ranging from trio and quintet to septet and octet, however recently I've started to write and arrange my music for big band and brass ensembles as well. There might even be a piece for strings in the works in the future as well and I'm also interested in writing some compositions for solo drum set.

I recently returned from the University of Saskatchewan's Kenderdine Campus located at Emma Lake in Northern Saskatchewan where I participated in a Jazz composers retreat organized by UofS professor/composer/arranger/trumpet player (and really nice guy!) Dean McNeill. This rustic camp was originally established in 1935 as an artist's retreat by Augustus Kenderdine and was intended to appeal to painters and other artists as a tranquil place to foster their craft. Even John Cage spent some time their in the 60s composing music for prepared piano! Fortunately for us, Jazz visionary Dean McNeill worked very hard to transform this normally quietly and serene spot into a meeting place for Jazz musicians and composers.

We spent five days playing new music for Jazz orchestra and heard daily lectures from several notable Canadian composers about their music, process and vision. In terms of the music and the presentations, the bar was set quite high from the first day. The whole vibe reminded very much of my experience attending workshops at the Banff Centre over the years, however this workshop brought together musicians and composers from  a wide range of experience, age and career paths. Plus, there really wasn't a student-teacher arrangement at all, instead Dean acted as a moderator and let things develop as they did within a very loose structure.

The participants in this retreat ranged from seasoned pros to recent university graduates and current students from the University of Saskatchewan. It was really great to learn from some of the more experienced composers/players/educators who attended as well as some of the more younger artists as well. I was really impressed with the playing, writing and enthusiasm from such people as Brett Balon, Jenelle Orcherton, Gent Laird, Paul Suchan and Graham Pritchard.

Over the course of the week we heard many fantastic lectures from the likes of:

David Braid
Paul Read
Christopher Smith
Jeff Preslaff
Dean McNeill
Mike Rud
Paul Suchan
Michelle Gregoire
Allan Gilliland

I also presented a session entitled "The Art of the Drum Chart" in which I discussed issues related to the mechanics of preparing a functional drum part for your drummer and the overall role and function of a drummer within a large ensemble.

The big band presented two concerts over the course of the week, performing works composed and arranged by members of the orchestra. One of the highlights for me was Allan Gilliand's arrangement of a piece written by singer/songwriter Eileen Laverty for full big band (written in basically a day!) Eileen is a very talented artist from Saskatoon (originally from Northern Ireland) who brought a very fresh musical perspective to the experience. I also really enjoyed a few jams with her and Mike Rud (it was very refreshing to play some quiet back beats with my brushes after driving the big band hard all day!)

Friday's concert finished off with a solo piano recital by David Braid, one of Canada's rising stars of Jazz piano, performed in the dining hall. David is an absolute creative force and he moved us all with numerous pieces which included a composition for prepared piano and a rousing tribute to Oscar Peterson. What a great way to end the week!

Overall the whole experience was great and very inspirational and informative. I'm always quite excited to get together with any group of creative people and come away with inspired ideas of my own afterwards. I am also always honored to spend time with such a group of dedicated and creative individuals. Often it's easy as a composer to hide away and do your own thing so opportunities like this are very important in terms of networking and in terms of widening one's creative perspective.

It was a wonderful way to spend the week and I certainly hope this retreat becomes a yearly event.


Here's one of the tunes I recently wrote this summer and workshopped during my week at Emma Lake:

This piece is still somewhat a work in progress (!) but it's loosely based on a set of harmonic changes that Montreal pianist Oliver Jones showed me while sitting together at a piano last spring in Calgary. I believe it's an old standard but I never caught the name of it and Oliver never actually played the melody for me either (!) I just liked the feeling of it and had Oliver teach it to me (in particular I like the fairly straight-forward changes in C major but with some interesting twists in the second ending...)

I wrote the tune as the title suggests, late one July afternoon. I always find that Sunday afternoons and evenings always have a particular vibe about them, something about bringing the week to a close and preparing for the week ahead.

I was hearing this piece played at a medium to slow waltz tempo and with a broken swing feel. It should all be pretty loose and laid back, nothing overly aggressive (except perhaps at rehearsal letter C and the repeated section at the end of the solo form. Those can be played with a little more push and groove as compared to the rest.)

Thank you to David Braid for his great insights with regards to this piece (David was kind enough to sit down with me one afternoon to play through my tunes and offer a few suggestions) and to Darren, Bill, Jenelle, Gent, Paul and Graham who workshopped this tune with me. 

It's always great to hear your music played!

1 comment: