Artist Blog

Helen Sung: Finding My Voice Through Jazz Composition

As someone who started in classical music, composing wasn’t something I ever thought of doing – composers (like Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, and the rest) composed music, and pianists played the music they wrote, right? This notion started changing when I first became interested in jazz at the end of my undergraduate studies in classical piano performance. Then, getting the opportunity to attend the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz at the New England Conservatory was life changing in so many ways. Besides grappling with the playing and performance of jazz music, we were expected to write some too! The program’s musical director, legendary bassist Ron Carter, said something I’ll never forget: “To find your voice in this music, start writing your own music.” And that is what we did: whenever Mr. Carter came through the school every 2 weeks or so, we’d have to have a new composition ready. He would have our class play each student’s piece while he offered critique and suggestions to change this or that. By the time I graduated, I had also developed an interest in arranging. Fast forward 20+ years later, I am still exhilarated every time I write a “keeper.” Composing and arranging have become musical activities I enjoy almost as much as performing. People often ask about my compositional process – not an easy question to answer as each piece is its own journey, starting from different places and points of inspiration (a groove, a melodic phrase, a harmonic progression, words, a feeling, and more). For me, writing a composition is like painstakingly peeling away the layers of an onion to get to what is truly “my voice.” It requires me to make choices – like, do I use this note or that one, move this phrase here or there, should this chord be major or minor, what groove do I want to use – and to stand behind those choices.   Also, I have learned mainly by the doing – learned how to compose by composing, how to arrange by arranging – although I try to get lessons and pointers whenever I can. I like to repeat something the great composer/arranger Gil Goldstein said at a workshop – that, as composers, we hear music in our mind’s ear all the time, but every so often, musical “seeds” come by that are meant just for us; that when they enter the picture, we have to recognize them, take action, and bring them to fruition; otherwise they will pass us by, unrealized. I find his words extremely motivating, and it feels good to recall them at the end of this craziest of years with so many months of enforced dormancy and solitude. I am glad to start the New Year thinking and writing about composition – an act of creating, of making something. I’ll end with something Wayne Shorter said about composing, how sometimes he “sits at the piano all day, searching for the next chord.” Besides his visionary genius and incredible artistry, I also love the inevitability of his music – to my ears, every Wayne Shorter composition has been distilled to what it “had” to be, what each musical seed was meant to be. May the New Year find us all continuing to persevere, sharing the music and beauty we hear with our world.

Here is a musical timeline of sorts, arranged chronologically, of my journey as a composer thus far:

1) The Waiting Game – I wrote this piece right after I graduated from the Monk Institute and consider it my first “real” composition. I had a very practical reason for writing it: I was working on improvising over the ii half dim – V7 progression, and now looking back, I would call it “musical legos composition”. You can probably tell where some of the legos came from 🙂

2) Sungbird after Albeniz – this piece is an example of one of my first formal attempts to bring my jazz and classical worlds together in composition

3) H*Town – this was written for my hometown of Houston, TX, which has a clave all its own

3) Anthem For A New Day – here I am exploring different ways, and material, to solo over in a jazz composition

4) Stars On Second Avenue – a selection from Sung With Words, I wrote songs with lyrics for the first time (the words come from a poem of the same name by American poet Dana Gioia)


About the Author:

Helen Sung is an acclaimed pianist and composer. Born and raised in Houston, TX, she studied classical piano and violin and attended Houston’s acclaimed High School for the Performing & Visual Arts (HSPVA). Continuing her classical piano studies at the University of Texas at Austin, a chance meeting with jazz music caused an eventual course change: she went on to graduate from the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance (at the New England Conservatory) and win the Kennedy Center’s Mary Lou Williams Jazz Piano Competition.

Now based in New York City, Helen has worked with such luminaries as the late Clark Terry, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Wynton Marsalis (who named her as one of his “Who’s Got Next: Jazz Musicians to Watch”), MacArthur Fellows Regina Carter and Cecile McLorin Salvant, and Terri Lyne Carrington. Helen and her band have performed at major festivals/venues including Newport, Monterey, SFJAZZ, Disney Hall, and Carnegie Hall. Internationally, her “NuGenerations” Project toured southern Africa as a U.S. State Department Jazz Ambassador, and recent engagements include debuts at the London Jazz Festival, Jazz at Lincoln Center Shanghai, Blue Note Beijing, and the Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival. In addition, she currently performs with fine ensembles including the Mingus Big Band and McLorin Salvant’s Ogresse.

Helen followed her jazz chart-topping Concord Jazz release Anthem For A New Day with Sung With Words (2018), a collaborative project with the celebrated American poet Dana Gioia, made possible by winning a Chamber Music America/Doris Duke Foundation New Jazz Works grant. In 2020 she was awarded an NYC Women’s Fund grant, enabling her to begin work on Quartet²: a project combining her jazz quartet with a string quartet. Helen has also completed composition commissions for the Jazz Coalition’s Commission Fund program, the West Chester University Poetry Conference, North Coast Brewing Company, JazzReach, and a composition residency at Flushing Town Hall.

Inspired by her experience at the Monk Institute, she stays involved in music education through residencies and workshops, and also produced a Jazz Week program benefiting underserved youth in Camden, NJ. In 2017, the University of Texas College of Fine Arts awarded her its most prestigious honor – the E. William Doty Distinguished Alumna Award, and HSPVA inducted her into its Jazz Hall of Fame. She has served on the jazz faculties at the Berklee College of Music, the Juilliard School, and Columbia University, where she also was the inaugural jazz artist-in-residence at Columbia’s prestigious Zuckerman Institute in 2019. Helen was named a Steinway Artist in 2020.