This interview with Harris Eisenstadt was conducted by email during November-December 2016.
Tony Reif: This music is often kind of leisurely, and maybe not as compositionally complex as some of your other records on Songlines, or is it?
Harris Eisenstadt: I’m not sure I can diagnose the exact level of compositional complexity across a pretty disparate forty-one minutes of music. But the anchoring sections of the piece, parts 1-6, perhaps resemble in their tendency to diatonicism some of the songs from Canada Day II.
TR: There’s certainly a wide range of textural/timbral combinations (tuba! banjo! and of course bassoon).
HE: The wide range of timbral combinations is at the heart of the recording, and is reflected in the color scheme and shape of David Foarde’s beautiful cover design.
TR: There’s a quirky (sometimes deadpan or riddling/questioning) sensibility in play.
HE: I’m not sure what you mean by deadpan or riddling/questioning sensibility. Could you clarify?
TR: It’s just a feeling I got from listening to the record that (for example) there might be a layer of correspondences between different sections and/or instrumental parts that I’m not really noticing yet, which pose a kind of musical riddle for the listener to decipher.
HE: Though nothing as overt as riddles are intended, I like the sound of “layers of correspondences.” There are re-occurring and constantly evolving relationships, not only between individual instruments, but between strategies for notated and improvised materials as well.
TR: And also, rather than staking a claim on the listener’s emotions – as jazz, whether avant or traditional, tends to do (viz. Canada Day) – this music seems to be operating on a more “abstract” plane – not necessarily intellectual, but more to do with a relatively dispassionate exploration of forms, interactions and so on. I’m not making a hard-and-fast distinction, because certainly there are more passionate passages in both the written and improvised sections, but it’s what I come away with.
HE: Seems to me that music without easily identifiable pulse (or tonality, or conventional musical texture, etc.) can often be perceived as dispassionate. How, then, can one stake a claim for emotional, passionate music-making without supplying the familiar signposts for directness and overt emotional appeal? Recent Developments offers a variety of musical/emotional settings that reflect the many ways in which communities interact; not only in varying numbers, but in interactions of varied emotional tenor.
TR: Rather than “deadpan”, would “lightly ironic” make more sense? I’m looking for a word that would work in counterpoint to the more overtly charged sections.
HE: I think both can apply. I would suggest that this music, though narrative-based, claims, through abstraction or subversion of expectations, no “program note” of intent. One listener’s deadpan is another’s lightly ironic is another’s dispassionate is another’s emotionally charged.
TR: Right. In any case, this music seems wrapped in the quirkiness that I’d say was part of your musical sensibility and approach in general, and which maybe comes out more here and in the first Golden State record than in Canada Day – though it’s certainly there too in many of the latter’s song titles as well as the written music and some of the improvisations.
HE: “Quirkiness” fits comfortably alongside “deadpan” and “lightly ironic,” to be sure. Perhaps the quirkiness of Canada Day is less evident, in how it meets – or does not meet – conventional expectations of what a jazz group sounds like, looks like, adheres to. I wonder if ensemble timbre and instrumentation contribute as much as melodic/harmonic/rhythmic texture to the ways in which musical sensibilities/approaches are perceived.
TR: They do contribute, and Canada Day is clearly a jazz group in part because of its instrumentation, but also because of the music’s structures and textures and the ways the tunes build. Whereas with Recent Developments the approach to form seems more on the anti-dramatic/non-narrative side; it has vamps and quite a bit of polyrhythmic/polyphonic interplay but few or no dramatic arcs, and the improvisations are not in “storytelling” mode in the usual jazz sense.
HE: Not totally clear what you mean by “not in the ‘storytelling’ mode.” Do you mean in the combination of small group textural explorations of notated materials in non-literal ways alongside the vamps from the anchoring sections I referred to above?
TR: Yes, “non-literal ways” seems to be another way of putting what I’m hearing.
HE: I guess literality is worthy of interrogation. There are certainly more and less literal ways that pre-conceived materials are interpreted on this record.
TR: As an analogy, think of the Big Bang vs. the former scientific concept of a steady-state universe without beginning or end. This music seems more like the latter than the former.
HE: Maybe so. I better get out some science texts to look into that! These are not subjects I have read enough about. Day 1 of grade nine physics kind of left me in the dust! Analogically I think I catch your drift; the music for the most part suggests a long-term doggedness, a ‘“steady” dissemination of sonic information across forty-plus minutes.
TR: It goes back to my feeling that the music has a lot of (explicit and implicit) structural relationships, and that those relationships are largely what it’s “about” rather than it being about dramatic arcs and narratives that create emotional responses.
HE: You’re right about the variety of relationships. I do feel like that’s what this music is “about” on macro and micro levels.
TR: And vamps too have their static aspect, if they’re not being used to drive the music and the soloists as is typical in conventional jazz. But maybe those things are all there too….
HE: There is certainly a narrative thread of fixed vamps/solo statements in Parts 1-6 of Recent Developments. And it’s true that exploding/exploded vamps appear less frequently than on, for instance, the first Golden State record, for example in a song like “Dogmatic in Any Case.” But they are there, less overt, perhaps, but there, for instance in the tuba part of track 6, “Interlude (Quartet).”
TR: I do find the music often puzzling, kind of oblique, and as I said abstract. Even the instrumental conversations seem less conversational than those on Golden State for example. Or the conversations are happening in an unusual dialect.
HE: Perhaps the shifting weights and textures suggest a dialect in which sometimes people speak to each other and sometimes alongside each other.
TR: And even more than on Golden State, this music seems to straddle the line between a kind of avant chamber jazz and contemporary classical music that involves improvisation.
HE: I suppose what gives Golden State its line-straddling sonic character may be more the overt small group chamber-ish instrumentation (minus drumset, of course) than the compositional frameworks. But the writing for the first Golden State record did draw more explicitly from contemporary classical techniques than the second Golden State record. I conceived of the music for Recent Developments (like, in varied ways, my writing for earlier medium-sized ensembles) in bigger arcs: less a collection of short stories, more novelistic.
TR: I wonder if these maybe artificial distinctions around genre and style mean that much to you…
HE: I don’t think they’re necessarily artificial. To my ears, my writing all sounds like me (whether I want it to or not!), rather than moving seamlessly from one genre or style to another. I’ve never been very adept at creating music “in the style of,” so even where there are stylistic differences from project to project, or different formal approaches (i.e. short pieces versus longer suites), the differences are worth parsing for the sake of contextualizing alongside my earlier work.
TR: I’m curious about some of the ideas you were working with as you refined your initial sketches (which were created in 9 hours!).
HE: I focused mainly on revising the counterpoint. Most of the melodic and rhythmic material came rushing out in those nine hours. It took a couple months to try and balance the orchestrations, to spread the materials throughout the group to exploit as many instrumental textures as I could. John Raham also helped immensely during the mix to help bring out all of that detail in the orchestration.
TR: Did you already have the instrumentation and all the specific players in mind when you started composing?
HE: The instrumentation and personnel was set when I started composing, though at first Chris Hoffman was going to play cello. It ended up he was unable to make the dates, and I’d really enjoyed playing with Hank Roberts in informal sessions the previous year, so I asked Hank, and luckily he was free.
TR: When you started rehearsing the suite had you already decided what combinations you were going to use in the interludes, or did they grow out of the rehearsal process?
HE: The combinations for the interludes grew out of the rehearsal, performance and recording process. We premiered the piece June 15, 2016 at Shapeshifter without the interludes. I recorded the performance and listened closely several times before the recording four days later. I let what I’d heard percolate, and decided on the combinations when we went into the session that day.
TR: Did you record any other combinations that got edited out of the final sequence?
HE: There were two duets that I left off the final recording for reasons of balance. The instrumental combinations had already been amply represented.
TR: You’ve mentioned John Zorn, Dave Douglas and Henry Threadgill as possible inspirations for compositional strategies – can you relate this music to theirs in particular ways?
HE: I started working with Zorn this past year, playing ten tunes of his new Bagatelles book (of 300 tunes!) with Chris Dingman and Eivind Opsvik. It’s been inspiring to witness first-hand not only how prolific he is, but also his microscopic attention to detail. The Bagatelles are miniatures, yet they contain multitudes. Even though Recent Developments is long-form rather than short form, I wanted to honor that attention to detail in my revisions. I wanted to treat every line, whether main melody, counterpoint, rhythmic/harmonic underpinning, with the same meticulousness. I haven’t really kept up with Dave Douglas’s entire body of work, but I’ve always admired both his prolific output and his attention to lyricism. That may be the extent of the influence there. Threadgill remains a central source of inspiration as a composer, arranger, bandleader. His aggregates of unusual instrumentation and their rhythmic vitality continue to astonish.
TR: What about European improv?
HE: Though not a direct influence on the compositional form for this piece, there is certainly an ensemble tendency towards non-explicit textural development in the interludes that is reminiscent of European improvisation.
TR: Other interesting influences you’ve mentioned are Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, David Chase’s The Sopranos, and Beni Ourain-style rug-weaving by Berbers from the Atlas mountains of Morocco. Could you elaborate?
HE: For some reason in the process of conceiving this longer-form, mid-sized ensemble narrative I thought a lot about Jacobs’ still-prescient views of what was happening to New York City in the mid-20th century, as mixed-use, mixed-income, mixed-ethnicity neighborhoods were razed and low-income housing projects became ubiquitous. The music for Recent Developments takes inspiration from Jacobs’ ideas of community. I’ve been deeply immersed in re-watching David Chase’s often hilarious, often tragic drama “The Sopranos.” The main inspiration I draw is from its scope, its long-form arc. Earlier this year, I discovered Beni Ourain-style rugs and fell in love with their instantly-identifiable aesthetic. That is to say, I love each rug’s individuality and abstraction. No two rugs are the same; each design embraces abstraction alongside lyricism, simplicity and minimalism alongside textural complexity, and are often woven by mother and daughter together. They are each examples of communal creation, improvisational whimsy, and refined detail.
TR: And how does this music relate to earlier projects of yours involving larger ensembles such as Woodblock Prints?
HE: Woodblock Prints (2010) followed Fight or Flight (2003), The All Seeing Eye + Octets (2006), and then was followed by Canada Day Octet (2012). Each were explorations in long-form composition and unusual instrumentation. And each walked the line between small group conception and large ensemble ambition. Medium-sized ensembles (groups of, say, 7-10 instruments), present unique sets of compositional problems. They contain many more voices than a small group has to account for. But at the same time, you are not quite dealing in big, heaving blocks of sound – in sections of four and five like instruments, for example, as in big bands, or in orchestral sections with massed strings and complementary-sized winds and brass. Writing for a medium-sized ensemble is, in miniature, something like writing for chamber orchestra. Textures can be massed, but they can just as easily be quite thin. I wanted to explore all of the weights available in Recent Developments, and discovered again that the heaviest weight in a medium-sized group still has a sheerness, a level of exposed-ness, that is neither large nor small.