Artist Blog

Aaron Irwin: Journey of Our Own Design

Of the most difficult tasks musicians give themselves, writing about music, or specifically writing about their own music, surely must be held in equal esteem with tasks such as decoding health insurance, making small talk, and income taxes. Comedian Martin Mull is credited with the phrase, “writing about music is like dancing to architecture,” so welcome my friends as I put on my dancing shoes.

I like to think of artists as people who are on a journey, traveling through time in their own personal wilderness. Careful observation of the world in which they live and a lifetime of meticulous trial and error yields discoveries of new ideas within themselves.

For most, there is an early period of intense study where one learns the history, craft, and style of their artistic ancestors: the giants, big and small, who have traveled their own journeys before we arrived.

Some artists begin from rich landscapes of opportunity, full of inspiration and support. Others trickle along slowly to start and gain momentum with time like small streams that become rivers becoming bigger rivers, criss-crossing one another or joining for a time, and splitting again to travel somewhere new. As each artist moves through life, their river continuously collects bits of silt, sand, and stone that provide them with ideas, inspiration, and influences that eventually make them entirely unique from the many other rivers that surround them.

The next time you cross the Mississippi, the Hudson, or the Delaware, you might think of the grandness of these waterways as some of the giants of artistic achievement like Walt Whitman, Thelonious Monk, or Frida Kahlo. They all began, like all of us, from someplace small, eventually overflowing with energy to become mighty artists of influence in and after their lifetime.

For me, my own personal journey began probably like many of you, with unbridled passion for the music of the jazz masters from the 1940s through 1960s. My artistic river has continued to bend and twist in unexpected ways that I never could have foreseen from the outset. Although at times I feel my path has taken me far afield from these early influences, the prism through which I view the musical landscape today still reflects values formed as a child from study of these masters which include concepts of rhythm, sound, melody, harmony, and certainly many other nuanced facets of which I am not even aware.

One very meaningful area of discovery for me is in regard to the study of other artforms outside of music. The practice of studying artists of other mediums has provided for me a wealth of ideas and inspiration in helping me to better understand my own artform. Although I’m certainly not an expert in these other forms, the process of placing yourself in the shoes of artists in other mediums has helped me give language and perspective to what it is I am doing as an artist living in this time.

For example, the way in which poets write about the mechanics of poetry directly speaks to the way in which musicians and composers describe and analyze music. Descriptors such as rhythm, form, pace, texture, line, and tone all play a central role when talking about the building blocks of a poem. Understanding the mechanics of poetry has helped me more closely observe the structures in music and has thus helped me compose with more intention and thoughtfulness.

While I cannot describe exactly how a particular poem or poet has literally influenced my writing, I can say that the study, close reading, and practice of creating poetry has helped me become more observant and more awake to nuance, texture of language, and playfulness of rhythm. This has affected my own musical compositions and I find myself asking more from them because of this. Such questions as “what does this composition mean?” “What am I saying with this?”

Prior to working on my most recent album, Music for Sextet, I had been working on a series of pieces for a much smaller instrumentation composed for alto saxophone, guitar, and drums in which many compositional ideas for Music for Sextet first began. The music for this trio was written and performed over the course of two years and culminated in an album for Fresh Sound/New Talent entitled Wobegon released in 2018.

The music written for Wobegon was somewhat of a turning point for me in that I was beginning to experiment with letting go of harmonic devices that I felt I had too often leaned upon for much of my past music. I had increasingly been drawn toward music that blurred boundaries of styles (see this New Music Box article), and the continued process of discovery led me to further unexplored areas of composition that drew inspiration from contemporary classical music more than anything else I had written up until that time. I began exploring ways in which to balance some of the magic of modern classical music that I loved with elements from jazz which I was familiar with.

The successes I discovered working on these pieces inspired me to build new compositions containing an unusual instrumentation twice the size with a chamber music-like structure. And so in February of 2020, I recorded Music for Sextet for Innova Recordings, a culmination of my efforts to date. The music is written for two B-flat clarinets, trombone, horn, guitar, and bass.

The first piece on Music for Sextet entitled The Teller and The Tale is a representation of some of the ideas I was experimenting with at the time. It was my intention to scale back much of the harmonic movement that I normally might use and instead attempt to build energy and interest using overlapping rhythms and textural melodies in the brass to keep the listener’s interest engaged continuously through the piece.

I also let go of the notion of keeping a strict form, preferring to let ideas wander in a free verse/through-composed fashion. The rhythmic complexity and harmonic information presented struck a balance between simple and complex ideas. I fought to maintain clarity in the overall musical statement to give the listener challenging but not overly complicated material. I hope you like the music and video I created for The Teller and the Tale:

I don’t recall when I learned of the scientist Leonard Hayflick’s striking contribution to the understanding of human cell growth and the de facto understanding of the limits of our mortality, but his discoveries spoke to me and warranted a composition dedicated to his groundbreaking discovery.

Simply put, Hayflick’s work established a finite number of times that a human cell could replicate before it stopped, thus proving a finite limit on human life. The potential to live forever was effectively disproven, counter to many in the field at the time who feverishly sought evidence for the human cell’s ability to divide ad infinitum thus allowing for immortality. The Hayflick Limit or Hayflick phenomenon is the number of times a human cell will divide before cell division stops.

In working on my piece, The Hayflick Limit, I was confronted with my own limits. The continuing process of editing and revision is something that continues to be a part of my writing process. I am sure that the musicians in the ensemble were overjoyed when I presented huge revisions to the music they had already worked so hard to parse, however for me, it is the only way that I have found I can improve. That is to “Try, Fail, Try Again, Fail Better.”

The Hayflick Limit was born from many false starts and revisions that sometimes took me forward two steps only to find myself three steps backwards, somewhere in the weeds. In the end, I think I can live with how this finally came together:

Lastly, in order to create anything new in music, I have come to recognize that the process often feels like wandering about in the dark, stumbling into random objects, bumping your foot, knocking over a lamp, and hoping someone will finally tell you that what you are doing is good enough. But in reality, no one can really tell you that what you are doing is good, great, or anything in between. The only person that can give you the approval that you are seeking for the work you’ve done is yourself.

With so many of us on a wheel of social media-driven content, it seems worth saying that we should endeavor to live lives of our own making and not through the lens of other people’s narratives. Let us strive to be unique and individual, each singing with a clear voice. Rather than seeking reward or the approval of others to validate what can only be validated by ourselves, our ambitions can instead reflect our own beauty of being. The reward comes through the process of work and practice. By this and this only, will we be able to conjure art that is meaningful and true to ourselves.

We can become rivers both big and small, all vitally important to the ecosystems of music, art, and humanity.


About the Author:

Saxophonist, multi-woodwind player, and composer Aaron Irwin is from Decatur, IL. Known as a lyrical alto saxophonist and a compelling original composer (Steve Futterman, The New Yorker), Irwin is a sought-after commodity in both the jazz and commercial worlds. His latest recording Music for Sextet was released on Innova Recordings in January of 2021. He has seven other recordings as a leader with various instrumentations. In addition to his own groups, Irwin has performed with many leading jazz voices in the New York jazz community including the Grammy-nominated Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Bob Sabin’s Tentet, The Mike Fahie Jazz Orchestra, the mixed wind group Weathervest, as well as pop performers Kristen Chenoweth, Rufus Wainwright, Josh Groban, Idina Menzel, and The Roots. Prior to the global pandemic shutdown, Irwin maintained a busy schedule as a freelance musician, performing in jazz clubs, concert halls, and Broadway theatres working with many of New York’s finest musicians and bands.

Irwin holds a bachelor’s degree in music from DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois and a master’s degree in music from the University of Miami in Miami, Florida. He is a dedicated educator with over 15 years of teaching experience and currently serves as an adjunct saxophone professor at Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland, and woodwind instructor at Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn, New York.

He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two cats.