Thoughts on the Way

Writings by composer and pianist Mark Isaacs

Category: Music process

Singing in Symphony

This article is also published in Limelight Magazine

My new Chamber Symphony came about through a process of instigation and collaboration.

It was made possible by Harry and Julie Johnson, avid music-lovers and concertgoers, who generously wished to commission a new work from me, without a specific idea of the forces to premiere it. I always need to know the destination of my writing, so I considered to whom I could put their proposal.

Some years ago, David Rowden, artistic director and clarinettist of the Omega Ensemble, had floated the idea of a collaboration. When I told David of the opportunity, he seized upon it immediately, telling me of a concert in July 2015 in which the Omega Ensemble would be performing a large chamber arrangement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, with guest artist soprano Jane Sheldon. Would I like to write the new work for the same concert?

I jumped at the idea, and this meant I had the opportunity to use the large chamber ensemble already engaged. Since Jane Sheldon was performing in the concert, I also was able to include her voice in the score, an opportunity impossible to resist.

The forces having been decided upon, I needed some further direction. Last year I had heard a wonderful Omega Ensemble concert that featured two chamber symphonies (by Arnold Schoenberg and John Adams). I myself had written my first (orchestral) symphony in 2013. These factors made the penny drop: I would write a chamber symphony!

My orchestral symphony was very traditional in structure, so the chamber symphony was a chance to look at the medium anew, as a “compression” of symphonic form: in length – only 16 minutes; in number of movements – only three; in instrumentation – 12 instruments, from which I strive to get something of the sound of a romantic orchestra; and in structure – the customary recapitulation of the opening theme is skipped over in the first movement and postponed until the finale, amongst other ways I found to knit things tightly together.

Some might say all this leanness makes it a divertimento, but given the cyclic recall of themes and the use of the voice in one movement – amongst other symphonic hallmarks – I consider it a symphony that structurally has as its kernel that “compression” idea – it really “gets on with it” and doesn’t hang about much at all!

I decided to eschew text and just use Jane’s wordless voice as a special feature in the middle movement, a Berceuse (cradle song).

I find a lot of my material as my fingers improvise at the piano, and I always strive for my music to be lyrically melodic, surprising, rhythmically interesting, colourfully orchestrated and contained within a satisfying formal structure. I happily stand on the shoulders of what I have learned from the giants of classical composition, but when my jazz experience pokes through in some way, I don’t resist it. I think all that is there, and more, in the Chamber Symphony.

Due to illness, Jane Sheldon was unable to sing at the work’s premiere, and she was replaced by Lee Abrahmsen. You can see and hear the premiere here.

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Vocalise for soprano and mixed chamber ensemble (2014)

This article is also published in Limelight Magazine

Though I live in Sydney, I’ve had a string of Brisbane-based projects over some years and that suits me just fine. Late last year, a few days after the premiere of my first symphony by the QSO, I attended a lovely meeting at the cafe of Queensland Performing Arts Centre with Tania Frazer, oboist and creative director with Southern Cross Soloists, and manager Jodie Rottle.

I was very happy to be commissioned to write for this distinguished ensemble, and the inclusion of soprano Margaret Schindler was an added dimension after eight years of writing purely instrumental works.

We settled on a short piece of 7 minutes duration (a good contrast after a thirty-minute symphony!). The world of concert commissions (unlike film/TV and theatre composition) involves being handed a blank canvas, the length of the work and its instrumentation being the only dictated elements. The music’s style, mood, texture, structure and a million other components are entirely at the discretion of the composer. It’s always a luxuriously generous invitation (if rather daunting when the going is tough!) to be asked to do something hopefully beautiful and inspiring in whatever manner you want. What a blessing!

There were some things to be immediately decided. First was what to do with the voice regarding text. One common approach is to hunt for poetry to set. I bypassed that completely in being inspired to write a “vocalise” – a work that uses wordless singing, the most famous example being by Rachmaninov. As a kind of homage, I titled my piece generically as “Vocalise”, just as he had.

Perhaps with such a model as Rachmaninov it was inevitable that I would write an unashamedly lyrical work, with long, expressive lines and very poignant harmonies. The continuous vocal melody is supported at the core by the piano while the wind and stringed instruments decorate the texture with countermelodies and reinforcing colours. In many ways chamber music is more challenging to arrange than orchestral as everything tends to be a solo and exposed; one does not have the “meat and potatoes” padding of a sectional sound to rest upon. Though cor anglais was an available doubling for oboist Tania Frazer, I decided to use cor anglais exclusively. Its poignancy and range were perfect for my purposes.

It was my vision that this work should be a luscious and haunting embroidery. It was a delight to construct it.

Clock time, imaginary time and the Resurgence Band

This article is also published in Resonate magazine in an earlier 2010 form. This version is updated to 2013.

In December 2010 Mark Isaacs released the CD/DVD Aurora by his Resurgence Band. This was the third release in the “Resurgence” series which has defined his jazz output over the last five years and received international critical acclaim along with major awards or nominations. The Resurgence Band has toured extensively in Australia and Asia, including performing at the Tokyo Jazz Festival and recording a TV special for South Korean national television. Mark continues his career-long parallel involvement with composing music for the concert hall – he’s just completed a cello concerto for Julian Smiles and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra will be premiering another of his pieces early next year. He’s also recorded classical piano repertoire for ABC Classic FM. In this article he explains that the Resurgence project is a summation of all the varied things he does in music.

I’ve come to realise that my different activities in music – ostensibly revolving around the intersecting dichotomies of classical/jazz and composer/pianist  – at their fundament lie on a spectrum defined by their deployment of clock time versus imaginary time.

When composing, the imaginary time I inhabit means that I can write the third movement of my cello concerto before the first, I can take three weeks to compose three minutes of music and I can reverse the arrow of time and watch the music de-compose before my eyes as I screw up rejected pages. Being in imaginary time rather than clock time benefits particular areas of music-making: counterpoint, formal design and concoctions of instrumental colour come to mind. Creating music in real time as a performer – where that kind of non-linearity doesn’t apply – has its own strong cards, for example rhythmic and pitch subtleties that can’t be readily notated and all the opportunities arising from a much-sought-after reflective sensitivity to the present moment and space.  The role of improvisation in performance is simply a matter of degree –  all performers make decisions in real time so in that sense all are improvisers in some way and certainly the primary part of what they do unfolds in clock time, unlike composers. This kind of virtual time/clock time dynamic is similarly played out in terms of emphasis across the classical/jazz divide as well the composer/performer one.

There are other areas of focus in music-making where this clock distinction is borne out too. It’s inherent in the difference between a live and a studio recording. And it’s germane to the whole business of preparing music through practice and rehearsal and to the process of programming repertoire. In the recording studio, rehearsal studio, practice room – and when deciding on repertoire or drawing up a set list – the performer too can work within something like the imaginary time of the composer, honing a musical object (or objects) while outside the time-flow of their ultimate realisation.

A lot of my projects are at the extremes of this clock time/imaginary time spectrum. When I compose an orchestral work I have maximal imaginary time. When I perform an entirely extemporised solo piano recital the music’s realisation maps to the clock as fully as it ever could. These extremes can in turn be moderated: a studio recording of a series of solo piano extemporisations allows more imaginary time than the recital since takes can be discarded or re-ordered.

I enjoy all these polarities and increments for their own sake. I like going to the extremes or having a lopsided bias toward one end or the other at different times in my work. All the models instantly create a framework that has its own characteristic ethos and that’s a very liberating place to begin. The thing about the Resurgence project is that it seems to sit exactly at the centre and from there encompass the whole spectrum. Through-composition and free improvisation. The freest rubato and the tightest of pulse. Studio recording and live recording. Touring band and studio band. Intensely-rehearsed passages and unrehearsed passages. It’s all over the clock. Concomitantly it’s also my most varied project in terms of subsumed genres, containing elements of jazz, classical, R&B, soul, gospel, Latin, blues. ambient and rock. It’s simultaneously an acoustic and electric band both in instrumentation and soundworld. Its dynamic range is singularly wide, from passages revolving around nothing more than isolated monophonic high ppp solo piano notes to densely drawn electric guitar-driven rock.

The reason why the Resurgence project is so flexible is the skill-set of the players I chose – all able to improvise freely in a wide range of genres but also capable of executing and interpreting complex notated music  – and the nature of the instrumentation itself. Piano-based solos, duos and trios in jazz are great for spontaneous combustions in clock time but I have never been that interested in preparing the way by composing much for them. There’s the lack of instrumental variety and the fact that the piano is generally always the main voice. Part of my joy in composing is hearing other instrumentalists play my melodies and therefore in my solo piano jazz spots and the trios I have either improvised freely or interpreted the melodies of others.

In 1997 I formed a quartet and began to compose more seriously for it. The quartet recorded a CD On Reflection with guitarist James Muller as guest artist on one track only. I soon realised that the quintet format opened up many more possibilities by having both guitar and saxophone out the front. James Muller himself encapsulated the sort of freedom I was after: a consummate improviser who could also interpret a written melody or passage-work beautifully (all making for an enduring collaboration between us of nearly fifteen years and five recordings to date). In 2000 I released the quintet recording Closer internationally on Naxos with the On Reflection quartet plus James Muller. This quintet was really the forerunner to the Resurgence project, obviously in instrumentation but also in aesthetic. I realised that five players was the perfect fulcrum on the axis. Not only were smaller groups less conducive to imaginary-time pre-composition, but larger ensembles than five reduced opportunities for clock-time improvisational flexibility. The quintet was the sweet spot.

The first Resurgence release was a studio recording by a non-working band tackling the repertoire for the first time. James Muller and I travelled to Los Angeles and recorded Resurgence after one rehearsal with some heavyweight American players that we’d never played with before in that configuration. I formed the all-Australian Mark Isaacs Resurgence Band to tour in the wake of that release and immediately wrote a new repertoire for it so the Australian players wouldn’t feel they were substituting for the Americans on the same material. As this was a working band the material evolved on the road in the light of the performances.  I’d often make changes to the arrangements on the fly (sometimes literally, bringing these ideas up when our aeroplane seatbelts clicked in before takeoff). The second release Tell It Like It Is was diametrically different to Resurgence. A live concert recording by a working band tackling repertoire frequently performed previously. The third and most recent recording Aurora was yet another permutation. It was a studio recording by a working band playing frequently performed repertoire (and I also included a DVD of Tell It Like It Is with the release enabling instant comparisons of the live/studio dynamic).  To go something of the full circle I hope to take the Resurgence Band back into the recording studio but this time to tackle never-performed repertoire (in other words replicating the modus operandi of the original Australian-American recording but with a working band). [This subsequently occurred in December 2012 and the resulting CD Duende was released in 2013].

All of these permutations have their own characteristics and advantages both in what they offer and in indeed what they lack. Studio recordings go right out of clock time: on two tracks of Aurora James Muller recorded both acoustic and electric guitar tracks and on another track Matt Keegan overdubbed shaker against his saxophone. Touring the material can refine the arrangement and energise the performance but there’s something special about bringing unperformed new material into the studio – the restraint and concentration involved brings its own rewards. (Similarly, at times I’ve thought the very best rendition I’ve given of a particular classical piece was when I sight-read it for the first time, with all my antennae by necessity out for its every twist and turn and no chance of any kind of glibly familiar moves). The energy of a live recording is hard to replicate in a sustained way in a recording studio (though there can be very many glimpses of it) and releasing a studio recording after a live one (or indeed, together with it as I have done) can mean some critics and fans familiar with the live release hold it against you, apparently not feeling as I do that the extra polish and restraint of the studio has its own balancing beauty .

I think I have eschewed the traditional swing feel of jazz in the Resurgence project because the weight of tradition it carries did not serve my purpose in this instance. Similarly, in terms of the compositional frameworks I use in Resurgence (which in turn mandate passages of improvisation within them) I have strenuously found ways to vary – and indeed avoid – the traditional head-solos-head formal design that tends to accompany swing. I’ve also worked on the macro level of programming – both in recordings and performances – so that the individual pieces fit together as suites (and I even pay attention to how the key centres of each piece progress).

Between the Shores, Night Song: Part 1 and Good Tidings are wholly through-composed pieces that contain no improvised solos. The music that the saxophone and guitar play is entirely notated from beginning to end. The figurations of the accompaniments played by the piano, double bass and drumset are mostly improvised from a lead sheet containing the melody lines and chord symbols. This is analogous to a Baroque instrumentalist improvising accompanying figurations from a figured bass line. It’s an important distinction, not all improvisations are “solos” and the absence of the latter in these two pieces by Resurgence is very unusual in jazz.

I have also avoided solos per se by having a collective improvisation, as takes place in the coda of Bagatelle where concurrent solo lines are tossed around between the performers. In Emergence I experimented with having James Muller and Matt Keegan trading improvised solos of only 8-bars each (this is more customary in jazz when it involves trading with the drums).

I don’t avoid solos however, far from it, but I sometimes find other ways to break the paradigm. In Tell It Like It Is and For the Road all five members of the band solo but not in turn. An interlude consisting of a restatement of the head is interspersed between each solo in almost all cases. Call it my jazz take on rondo form if you will.

Another idea was to have three statements of the melody in turn, each by a different lead instrument adding its own colouration and dynamic posture to the mix. I did this in You Never Forget Love and Aurora. For some reason there seems to be an unwritten rule in jazz that you generally only get to hear a melody twice in a row. In Aurora the three melody statements are in different keys too, each a major third apart (and the solos are based a pedal tones also a major third apart). It’s surprising how little modulation is used in jazz, particularly instances of presenting the same material in a different key.

In the area of counterpoint I often use written counter-melodies and in Night Song: Part 1 and Walk a Golden Mile I used canons between the guitar and saxophone. In the former case the canon is at the unison and the half-beat, a device I learned from the Goldberg Variations.

Another device I have used is to create effectively a three-movement work proceeding attacca (without a break). I did this with Night Song: Part 1/Night Song: Part 2/Angel and Good Tidings/Emergence/Threnody. Within these triptychs I like to introduce a bridging passage of freely extemporised solo piano (in the second set when it’s a live performance). I see the solo piano free improvisations as running the spectrum from the through-composed pieces, or from passages like the piano opening theme statement of Will-o’-the-wisp which is fully written out for both hands of the piano and indeed has a separate life as a classical piano solo.

My approach to writing the band’s material and rehearsing it has been a hybrid of my classical and jazz experiences. In terms of notation sometimes dynamics are on the page or otherwise the band’s use of dynamics arises spontaneously or might be subtly directed by me from the piano (as are the rubato passages). There are two areas in the relationship between a composer and an improvising jazz musician that have proved sensitive in the past. One is the ways in which one as composer provides a preset framework for improvised solos and the other is the question of verbal versus written direction of solos. Neither of these is contentious in classical music: you can write what you like and conductors, ensemble leaders and others give or share verbal directions as needed.

In the past I’ve found it odd that a jazz soloist will accept from me a highly complex harmonic structure to solo on without complaint and spend many hours practising how to negotiate the changes. That same musician may however think it an impingement of soloistic freedom to actually have total licence over the harmonic area throughout the solo via a pedal point but to be asked to follow a dynamic curve as the only given in the solo.  It seems incongruous as the former case of a harmonic minefield is in reality much more restrictive. However there is in jazz a firm tradition of soloists following the harmonic templates of others but not really any for dictates regarding dynamics (other than in written passages). In the Resurgence Band we worked that kind of thing out just fine. In Aurora Tim Firth’s drum solo ends with a pianissimo entry by guitar and sax and it was necessary for me to ask that his solo end softly to accommodate this (despite the drummer tradition of ending a solo by going out with a bang!).

Similarly, nobody in the Resurgence Band seems to take issue with verbal direction in place of written direction in rehearsal. In a previous band I had charted the bass player as doing an introductory solo based over C for a piece in C minor. He played in the Dorian mode and upon hearing it I realised that something based around the blues scale would set up the melody better. So I asked him to use the blues scale and he replied “I thought it was my solo!”. I know for a fact that had I written in the first place “Solo – C blues scale” on his part there would have been no issue at all. The problem was with the same instruction regarding a solo being issued verbally rather than in writing.  These apparent anomalies arise from different performance practice traditions.

There’s certainly an intersection of performance practice traditions in the Resurgence project along with all the other intersections arising from the compositions, modes of recording, ways of deploying material and band formation. It’s been I think one of the central achievements of my musical output and certainly my most substantial and concentrated opus in jazz to date.

Resurgence Discography 2007-2013

Mark Isaacs Resurgence (2007, ABC/Universal 476 6160)
Mark Isaacs, piano  James Muller, electric & acoustic guitar  Bob Sheppard or Steve Tavaglione, soprano, alto & tenor saxophones   Jay Anderson, bass  Vinnie Colaiuta, drums
Walk a Golden MileWaltz for MelanieThree Days of RainAffectionately YoursChaconneResurgencePentimentoHeal Thyself

Mark Isaacs Resurgence Band Tell It Like It Is (2009, ABC/Universal 270 3869)
Mark Isaacs, piano  James Muller, guitar  Matt Keegan, soprano & tenor saxophones  Brett Hirst, bass  Tim Firth, drums
MinskYou Never Forget Love Homecoming Night Song: Part 1Night Song: Part 2Angel Tell It Like It IsBetween the Shores

Mark Isaacs Resurgence Band Aurora (2010, Gracemusic/MGM GR003, includes Bonus DVD of Tell It Like It Is)
Mark Isaacs, piano  James Muller, electric & acoustic guitars  Matt Keegan, soprano & tenor saxophones, shaker  Brett Hirst, bass  Tim Firth, drums
Will-o’-the-wispGood TidingsEmergenceThrenodyFor the RoadBagatelleAurora

Resurgence Duende (2013, Gracemusic/MGM GR004)
Mark Isaacs, piano  James Muller, guitar  Matt Keegan, soprano & tenor saxophones  Brett Hirst, bass  Tim Firth, drums  Briana Cowlishaw, vocal
First Light – You Never Forget Love Duende The Beloved – Dolce – New Lives Gnosis – Duende (solo reprise) – You Never Forget Love (extended mix)