Category Archives: Arts and Music

Jazz – Discipline and Spontaneity

“Most of us would say that inventing meaning while letting loose is the essence and promise of jazz.”
– Robert Christgau

From its origins in the African-American community of New Orleans in the late 19th century jazz has evolved into the premiere all-American art form, and has been labeled “America’s classical music.” By the 1920’s the genre had been embraced by the mainstream to such an extent that the Twenties and Thirties were declared “the Jazz Age” by author F. Scott Fitzgerald, and European composers including Stravinsky and Ravel incorporated jazz elements into their work.

Developing from roots in country blues, ragtime, field hollers, and spirituals, jazz music is notoriously difficult to define as it embraces many subgenres, among them Dixieland, swing, bebop, hard bop, cool jazz, free jazz, Afro-Cuban, modal jazz, jazz fusion, post-bop, and Latin jazz. However varied these styles, they do share some commonalities, chief among them an emphasis on live performance and on improvisation. Classical music performance is judged by fidelity to the written score and the composer’s intentions; by contrast jazz is more often characterized by interaction and collaboration in the moment. Less value is placed on the composer’s contribution and more on the individual musician’s interpretations of melodies, harmonies, and time signatures. Whereas classical music recordings strive to capture a definitive performance of a given work, jazz recordings document just one interpretation of a piece at a particular moment in time. Because of its improvisational nature no two jazz interpretations are alike, and there are no absolutes. It’s an art form that finds its purest expression in live performance, such as in the UC San Diego Jazz Camp’s Finale Concert.

UC San Diego Jazz Camp is an annual week-long intensive workshop for students aged 14 and older. Attendees are mentored by a distinguished faculty of music professionals and educators in a variety of jazz-related topics, including theory, composition, improvisation, critical listening, technology, performance practice, and ensemble performance. Students are grouped into ensembles under the tutelage of a faculty member, and rehearse standards and original compositions for the Camp’s Finale Concert before an audience of family, friends, and jazz aficionados. In the process student musicians are introduced to that combination of group interplay and individual expression, of discipline and spontaneity, that is unique to jazz.

Watch Finale Concert Highlights – UC San Diego Jazz Camp 2018

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Life-force

The title A Line Broken affirms the simple but profound truth that all things must eventually end, whether a piece of music, a concert, or a human life. One powerful expression of this reality is Courtney Bryan’s remarkable As Yet Unheard, a work for orchestra and chorus that commemorates Sandra Bland’s tragic death in police custody in 2013. Using the text of Sharan Strange’s poem, soprano Helga Davis speaks to us in Bland’s voice, prodding us to relive the circumstances of her death and to seek answers to painful questions too long unasked.

Bryan’s piece is perfectly complimented by Gabriel Faure’s luminous Requiem. The requiem has long been a popular form among composers, and celebrated practitioners of the genre include Mozart, Verdi, Brahms, Berlioz, and Britten. Unlike those of his fellow composers, Faure’s Requiem contains no Sturm und Drang, no thundering crescendos or rallying cries to the deceased. Rather, it’s a gentle, contemplative work, more of a meditation on transience than an exhortation. It contains most of the form’s familiar elements, including mixed chorus and soloists (in this instance baritone Jonathan Nussman and soprano Priti Gandhi), but they are employed in service of an effect that is uniquely Faure’s own. This piece has steadily gained in popularity and the final section, “In Paradisum,” is familiar to many from its use in several films, television programs, and commercials.

Asher Tobin Chodos’ adventurous arrangement of Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman places a quartet of jazz soloists within a symphonic context. Just as innovator Coleman sought to reframe jazz conventions in an idiosyncratic style, so Chodos’ arrangement seeks to reposition this 1959 work in a modern idiom, one that embraces and even expands upon the challenges of a composition that, in Chodos’ words, “occupies a middle ground between specificity and discrepancy.” Most importantly, this new take on a classic preserve the beauty and immediacy of Coleman’s original.

Rounding out the program is Rand Steiger’s ingenious Template for Improvising Trumpeter & Orchestra. As noted by the title, this piece centers on the talents of virtuoso trumpeter Peter Evans in a performance that is largely (though not entirely) improvised in performance. Evans’ tones are manipulated at times by the composer through digital signal processing, in what amounts to another interdependent and improvised performance; indeed, the watchwords for the entire enterprise are exploration and collaboration.

In his program notes Conductor Steven Schick comments that “Music is the natural medium for life-force,” and in this concert’s seemingly disparate selections we hear that life-force in all of its manifestations.

Watch A Line Broken – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus.

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Celebrating Paper Theater

Paper theater (also called toy theater) is a form of miniature theater dating back to the early Victorian era. Paper theaters were often printed on posters and sold as kits at playhouses, opera houses, and vaudeville theaters, and proved to be an effective marketing tool. The kits were assembled at home and the plays performed for family members and guests, sometimes with live musical accompaniment and sound effects.

At the height of its popularity over 300 European theaters were selling kits, but paper theater saw a drastic decline in popularity in the late 19th century as realism began to dominate the dramatic arts, and again with the arrival of television. Thankfully, paper theater survived near-extinction and has enjoyed renewed popularity in recent years among puppeteers, writers, hobbyists, designers, educators, and filmmakers. Several publishers now offer replicas of famous paper theater kits as well as new models, and there are numerous international paper theater festivals throughout the Americas and Europe.

One such festival is presented yearly at the UC San Diego Library under the direction of staffer and “paper devotee” Scott Paulson. The Library’s Paper Theater Festival (billed as “The Smallest Show on Earth”) features examples of the form from Paulson’s personal collection, as well as performances of student-authored plays. The exhibition runs the gamut of paper theater history and formats, including posters, pop-ups, postcards, and souvenir books. Paulson attributes his interest in the medium to seeing Franco Zeffirelli’s autobiographical film “Tea with Mussolini,” which prominently features a paper theater performance. Others are drawn by paper theater’s tactile nature and by its value as an interactive educational toy, one that serves to stimulate a child’s creativity. A number of well-known figures were introduced to art by paper theater or have worked with the form, including Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Winston Churchill, Edward Gorey, Maurice Sendak, Ingmar Bergman, Terry Gilliam, Pablo Picasso, and Orson Welles, to name just a few.

Like these luminaries Paulson appreciates paper theater both as a fascinating link to theater history and as an art form in its own right, one that celebrates craftsmanship and beauty on an intimate scale. He inaugurated the annual Festival in order to share his enthusiasm and to encourage others – children especially – to step away from our technocratic age for a time and let their imaginations take the lead.

Watch Celebrating Paper Theater.

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Music Is Powerful

“I say I survived for a reason: to tell my story. I believe that…Music is powerful. It is the only thing that can speak into your mind, your heart and your soul without your permission.”
– Emmanuel Jal

The Second Sudanese Civil War from 1983 to 2005 was one of the longest and bloodiest civil wars on record, yet it barely registered in Western media. The war resulted in the deaths of roughly two million people and the repeated displacement of over four million others in southern Sudan alone, constituting one of history’s largest refugee crises. Among the atrocities committed during the war were slavery, rapes, mutilations, mass killings, and the forced enlistment of children as soldiers by all sides.

Emmanuel Jal was one such child soldier. Born in what is now South Sudan, Jal was a young child when the civil war broke out. After his father joined the rebel army (SPLA) and his mother was killed by loyalist soldiers, Jal joined the thousands of Sudanese children travelling to Ethiopia, hoping to escape the conflict and find education and opportunity. Along the way, however, many of the children, Jal included, were forcibly recruited by the SPLA and taken to military training camps where they were taught to kill, in Jal’s words, “mercilessly and efficiently.”

For the next several years Jal and his comrades fought with the SPLA, first in Ethiopia and then back in Sudan, until the fighting and deprivations became unbearable. Jal and some of his friends ran away, and for three months they were constantly on the move, stealing food and dodging roving patrols. Eventually Jal met a British aid worker who adopted him and smuggled him to Kenya, where he attended school. It was in the slums of Nairobi that Jal became a community activist. He also discovered hip-hop and the power of the spoken word; singing and rapping became a form of therapy to ease the pain of his experiences, and his life’s course was set. Over time Jal developed a unique form of hip-hop, seemingly conventional in form but layered with African beats and sung/chanted over African-inspired choruses.

Unlike many of his American counterparts, Jal sees hip-hop as a powerful vehicle to lobby for social justice and political change in a positive manner, rather than as a method of pursuing street credibility. His raps and spoken word pieces emphasize unity and common humanity as motivators for young people and weapons in the fight against the scourges of ethnic and religious divisions, such as those that plague his homeland. This hopeful outlook, combined with his many humanitarian activities, dovetails neatly with the goals of UC San Diego’s Eleanor Roosevelt College, and marks Jal as a suitably inspirational figure to help celebrate the College’s 30th Anniversary.

His dynamic performance is by turns thought-provoking and uplifting, at times almost somber, but also leavened with humor and, yes, with fun. As Jal himself puts it, “Life without fun is no life at all,” a remarkable perspective from one who has suffered much but has refused to give in to bitterness or cynicism.

Watch From War Child to Global Citizen with Emmanuel Jal.

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Jazz Rules the World

Contributed by John Menier

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F. Scott Fitzgerald famously called the 1920s the “Jazz Age,” and recent inventions such as radio and phonograph records helped to spread the popularity of two quintessentially American musical genres, jazz and blues, across the country and beyond our borders. In 1926 a Paris-based music magazine began its review of recorded jazz with the observation that “Jazz truly rules the world,” and a growing number of influential European composers were jazz fans, including Hindemith, Milhaud, Weill, Honegger, and Poulenc. Maurice Ravel spent several happy nights with George Gershwin at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom listening to jazz, a testament to the music’s appeal.

For a time these foreign composers included jazz elements in some of their works, with varying degrees of success, but by the mid-1930s their ardor had cooled as new forms of modernism took hold on the Continent. It was left then to American musicians to continue nurturing the confluence of their native jazz and “serious” music that began in the early 1920s, and they did so brilliantly.

Three of the foremost practitioners of this hybrid form were George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, and Aaron Copland. Though they came from different backgrounds and training, and each developed a singular musical personality, they shared an interest in elevating the jazz/classical fusion from a novel experiment to a vibrant art form. They shared another quality, harder to quantify but nevertheless distinctive: their music was unmistakably American, with all that implies.

This characteristic is perhaps most evident in the Gershwin masterpieces on this program, “An American in Paris” and “Rhapsody in Blue.” In both pieces, the jazz/blues influences are on prominent display, as the music alternates in mood from contemplative to nostalgic to swaggering, and from Paris to Harlem. Gershwin insisted that both pieces are examples of sonata form, but whether sonata or tone poem or concerto or potpourri, it’s not important how it’s categorized. What matters is that this is fun music, as full of personality as anything you’re likely to hear.

It’s been said that Duke Ellington embodied the very soul of jazz. Ellington wrote some of the first extended jazz compositions to appear in the concert repertoire, and the two pieces on this program, “Mood Indigo” and “Solitude,” amply demonstrate his versatility and sophistication as a composer. Ellington was also an innovative, idiosyncratic orchestrator, and what became known as the “Ellington Sound” is a constant feature of his music – elusive, hard to define, harder still to imitate, but once heard, unmistakable.

Aaron Copland was a city boy who brought a certain polished urbanity to his work. After extensive studies in Paris Copland initially worked with then-voguish European styles, but gradually his native “Americanism” emerged and he established himself as the premiere American composer of his generation. “Quiet City” is a mood piece, a tone poem in miniature, originally written for a friend’s play. The play failed but the music lives on as a popular concert selection. The influence of jazz and/or blues is perhaps less overt in this haunting work than in the Gershwin and Ellington pieces, but it’s there in the tones and phrasings of the featured trumpet and oboe combined with the dotted rhythms of the string orchestra.

The program is rounded out with an exhilarating premiere work by Asher Tobin Chodos, “Concertino for Two Pianos and Orchestra.” Joining the composer on piano is Cecil Lytle, who also performs on “Mood Indigo,” “Solitude,” and “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Watch: Crossing the rue St. Paul – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus

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