Artist Blog

Erica Seguine: The Power of Patience as a Composer, the Importance of Discernment and Trust, and the Gift of Perspective

I’m far from the poster child of patience. Blame it on having Sun in flighty Gemini and Moon in 1st degree of stubborn Aries. Blame it on childhood upbringing. Or surely there must be some Freudian or Jungian symbolism that must explain all my impatience and stubbornness away. Explain it anyway you wish: I’m a petulant and stubborn composer for whom nothing can come soon enough. And certainly if something doesn’t happen when expected it must be fodder for my Gemini Sun/Scorpio Ascendant energy to overthink things and brood and spiral into self-blame and self-loathing.

So when you start talking about recording a big band album with your partner (The Erica Seguine | Shan Baker Orchestra) in 2013 after already having the band together for two years and enough charts written for at least two albums, and then are actually releasing said album in 2023… you start to wonder if there’s some higher order forcing you to learn some life lesson. That, or your warped brain thinks that those same forces are secretly mocking you.

First the monstrous financial burden of recording an album sets you back one year. Then, when you start to win some cash awards for your work and realize that it *might* be financially feasible, your own brain goes into an extended and lovely tirade about questioning your own self-worth and sets you back another four years or so. Then, after trying all those different lettered therapies/alternative modalities/finding the right pharmaceutical concoction or lack of, you get back on the horse, and what follows is another year and a half where do your research, talk with your peers, and all that planning leading into the magical (and it truly was magical) day you step into the recording studio. And just as you think you will be editing and mixing your album and releasing it some point in the year 2020… well… 2020, no needed explanation.

Of course I took this all very gracefully without complaint and with a broad wide-toothed smile on my face. Well… stubbornness and impatience really don’t go well with grace.

I was resentful that we couldn’t find some definitive way to fund our album early on. I was resentful that I spent over four years in too tenuous of a mental state to go into the studio… and no therapy or medication seemed to be working. And when our first editing session was scheduled for March 2020, we initially decided to push it back a couple of months, then a couple more, then a couple more because we thought it would have been impossible and not the best result to edit and mix complex music with 21 musicians solely over phone calls (we eventually caved in and did all editing and mixing remotely in 2021, and it turned out beautifully thanks to Brian Montgomery’s genius work. Remote editing/mixing is possible but I wouldn’t say the ideal route to go, but the results are the same.) I felt resentful that after six years of already waiting, six years of watching my fellow peers that I respect so much releasing second and third albums and building their careers, all before us releasing our first, we had to wait another few years.

ReelSketch

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“Sometimes my sketching isn’t all that elaborate, in this case *just* a melody with one potential reharmonization. “Reel’s” birth came out of an impulse buy of a hammered dulcimer and then a further study of listening (and attempting to play) Celtic music.”

“Yielding is the function of the Way” is one of the verses of the Tao Te Ching. The idea of going with the flow of life and not going against the current. I alternatively try to embrace this and scoff at it. I am a huge believer that we can take our own steps manifest what we love despite what others may tell us to do or think of us (going “against” the flow), and it went a long way in the past (along with meeting plenty of amazing people along the way) to get me where I am today. So telling myself to “go with the flow” will sometimes stir a little rage in me. But it also so happens that being excessively stubborn will also pull me further away from my intuition, or more importantly, any joy of creating music.

That’s where discernment and trust both come in, two keys to developing patience. Discernment to know when “pushing against the flow” is actually going with your internal flow (and thus the right direction), and trust for when pushing is the wrong tactic but you can’t see at the time that waiting (or change in direction) is for a better purpose.

According to my experience, discernment can be developed by listening to your intuition. And by that, I mean asking if it comes from what feels like statement of fact (“yes I want to create this,” “it’s time,” “it would be interesting to try this”), or from a sense of fear or pressure (“I should be doing this,” “I have to do this,” “they are doing this, I should too,” “what I’m doing won’t be enough.”) By the way, all of this applies very much to the actual act of writing music too (or creating anything for that matter), not just preparing an album.

Trust comes when discernment says to not act from that place of fear, but there’s nothing to replace it at the moment (the dreaded “I don’t know” or “I don’t have an answer at this time.”) It means reaffirming what you do “know” to be true and knowing with your heart that things will align with your truth… you just can’t see it yet. Way easier said than done.

“Sometimes I start a piece or arrangement with verbal descriptions, or I may eventually sketch using words. In the case of my arrangement of Nurit Hirsh’s “Oseh Shalom,” one of the catalysts was a bunch of questions.”

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“Initial sketch of the reharmonization I created of “Oseh Shalom.” Note the lack of barlines, meter, or any true rhythmic values when sketching (using shaded note heads for shorter/moving notes and unshaded for sustained notes, with ties to help delineate chord changes over the same pitch/syllable.”

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“My questions in part explored themes of non-verbal communication as a form of healing. Chanting, toning, mantras. So I wanted everyone in the ensemble to experience that in one form or another in different sections of the arrangement. I came up with the idea to have our vocalist plus five instruments freely chant/play “Ya’aseh Shalom, ya’aseh Shalom, Shalom aleinu v’al kol Yisrael” (the third section of “Oseh Shalom”) as a sort of prayer while creating “enveloping pads/textures” underneath. The low condensed voicings are inspired by the second movement of Gorecki’s third symphony where the basses and cellos are divisi playing close-position seventh chords… it gives sort of a rumbling in your heart effect! I wanted to adapt that for the horns/low brass.”

Having to be patient, having to let a long time lapse since the earliest composition on the album (2011) and release (2023), having to watch the world go by while waiting- these all gave an unexpected gift: perspective.

It’s fascinating to watch how the same music, the same music we wrote 4-11 years ago and recorded three years ago, takes on a different context over the years between writing and sharing. Each composition/ arrangement of Shan’s and my music was originally a snippet of some facet of life- an impulse buy of a hammered dulcimer, a spiral into depression, an obsessive chase over mental illusions, a lucid dream, a morose blues that eventually transforms into a cautious message of hope, a reckoning with a complicated relationship with religion. Just before COVID they were a reflection of the internal world, the idea of bringing awareness to primarily darker states and that it’s ok to be (and we should be) honest about the taboo.

One thing I noticed over the pandemic was that a lot of what I had to wrestle with over a period of four and a half years of depression was coming out on a more universal scale during COVID only a couple of years later. A greater awareness of trauma and complications such as PTSD, grappling with loneliness and isolation, a questioning and reevaluation of life values, finding what centers us when the outside world is uncertain and cruel. As more of society was forced to face their own personal darkness as well as collective trauma over the last few years, my perspective of the same music became more of a journey of mental discovery and what healing can look like… realistic and messy healing, not some sort of Pollyannish magical moment where everything is ok and just like before trauma. There’s finally a sense of clarity to the storyline of our album- it just wasn’t ready yet to emerge. It needed time and we just couldn’t see it in 2013, in 2018, in 2020.

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“The first page could look like some melodramatic teenager’s diary OR another use of verbal descriptions to give a guideline to the musical story. Bottom half of page 2: the initial iteration of the theme of “Tangoing with Delusion.” Top line of page 3: the beginning of a “creepy-music-box” version of the Tangoing theme. Page 4: the “dejection” version of the theme. Top of page 2 and bottom of page 3: stuff that never made it into the piece… a composer shouldn’t be afraid to delete measures… sections… MINUTES of a piece if they find it strays from the essence of their composition or if they feel it should take a different turn.”

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“Verbal descriptions are not just for the composer, but can be used as “drama cues” for the soloists. I used the rest of the ensemble to enhance the different moods and to further “taunt” the soloists.”

My (admittedly by nature biased) suggestions to anyone who is reading this and is perhaps stuck in a somewhat similar creative and/or personal situation and trying to figure out what to do next:

• Get into a state that’s receptive and free of clutter. Traditional meditation may not be your means of getting there, though that’s what’s touted the most often (for what it’s worth, meditation has not been the most effective method personally for me). Maybe it’s after a period of intense exercising or even during it. Or after a period of focused creativity. Or time spent on a walk in nature. Whatever puts you in your happy place or at least a focused place.

• Propose a question. “What do I want to be doing with my life?” “What do I want to create?” “What seems interesting to do?” “Should I take on this project?” Or if a question doesn’t come to mind, even a hard honest statement can be a jumping point: “I’m stuck.” “I feel lost.” “I don’t know.” • After proposing the question or statement, just listen. Don’t try to solve it. Something will usually come up, even if it’s not what you want to hear.

• Listen to the content and discern. Is it a statement of fact?: “Continue to go forward (with whatever you’re doing).” “I want to take a break from big band writing and write for solo piano.” “The time is now (to record, to reach out to whoever, to write whatever).” “It would be so cool to incorporate elements of chant and mantras into a big band piece.” Or is it full of musts and shoulds with an extra helping of fear?: “I should be putting an album out now if I ever want to push my career forward.” “Composer X is doing this so I should too.” “I must write this way because this is what jazz is supposed to be or what a big band chart should sound like.”

• If it’s a fact, latch onto it with all your heart. If the writing (or all the other stuff that goes along with being a composer) gets tough later on, reconnect to that space and whatever statement came out of it, soak it in, and keep going. I have finished a couple of charts in this manner because I’ve reconnected to whatever idea drove me to write it in the first place. If people around you tell you to keep dreaming or scoff at what you’re doing, reconnect with that place; It’s stronger than any crap people tell you otherwise.

• If it’s out of fear, first respect the fear. There’s a reason it’s there. There may be a kernel of truth in it (for example, any musician nowadays has to do a fair share of putting themselves out there, even if the act of doing it makes you want to throw up.) But listen deeper- is there anything else underlying the fear? Are you trying to write in a certain way because someone is telling you this is how it’s supposed to be or because what others are doing is getting acceptance? That usually means there’s something you actually want to create (that’s different from what you’re “supposed to” write) just under that surface of fear. Or perhaps underlying the fear is the dreaded “I don’t know” or “Not this time”… and there’s nothing there to “replace” it.

• In the case of the dreaded question mark/blankness, trust and patience are your biggest allies. See if there’s something deeper you can connect to: (“I still love music,” “I still love creating,” “Music heals me in a way nothing else can,” “I’m still meant to create”) and hold onto that while waiting. The timing just may not be right at this time. There may be something you need to go through… or maybe something the world needs to go through first. It doesn’t change those deeper statements despite the fact that the current day social media and fast paced stimuli may make you feel otherwise. If your internal compass says something, it will happen. Recording an album did happen for us… it just happened six years after we wanted to and will be released three years after we wanted to actually release it.

TireSwingBeginning

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“Several of my pieces, like “Tangoing with Delusion,” deal with themes of mental illness or struggle. “…and the Tire Swing Keeps Spinning…” is the pinnacle of this theme, alluding to the tire swing’s endless spinning/loss of groundedness to the ruminations of depression that eventually spiral the sufferer to an ever darker place. I wanted to create a piece that went from sounding like pure innocence at the beginning to the ending image of shattered glass/ sense of self suspended in the sky, via routes of rumination, heaviness/ moroseness, and rage. To show transformation, you need something consistent (something that will tie a composition together) to go through every step of the journey, and I used a 12-tone row as the glue for “Tire Swing.” The opening written piano solo is music-box-like, using primarily major and semi-consonant row/harmonic relationship (with some occasional notes, like the #5 that’s occurs in measure three of the sketch, hinting at more sinister motives to come.)”

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“The center of the piece, the “low point,” the heaviest and murkiest part is during the flugelhorn solo. It’s fairly subtle, but the row is lurking in the bass instruments.”

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“I often prefer my final ideas come intuitively/emotionally, and in the end of the day music is an emotional/ energetic experience. But until that “aha” moment comes there is nothing wrong with feeding the intellectual side of the brain for the intuitive brain to later pick up or leave as pleased. Mapping out all the main transformations (transposition, retrograde, inversion) was my way of flexing those “left brain” muscles! That’s what’s wonderful about creating music; it’s being in touch with the emotional/sensory experience with the challenge and excitement of solving a puzzle. The “rage” section (drum solo) used the original row, then immediately upon completion flipped on its inversion, and then flipped back to the original.”


About the Author:

Erica Seguine is a composer, conductor, and co-leader of the 21 musician Erica Seguine | Shan Baker Orchestra. “In terms of majestic sweep, cinematic scope and clever outside-the-box humor, it’s hard to think of a more interesting group in big band
jazz than the Erica Seguine | Shan Baker Orchestra” writes the New York Music Daily. Their upcoming debut album, “The New
Day Bends Light,” which will be released March 31, 2023, was produced by renowned composer and bandleader Darcy James
Argue, and deals with psychological themes of mental illness, struggle, and healing. Erica’s compositions have received many awards, including the 2013 BMI Foundation Charlie Parker Prize for Jazz Composition/2014 Manny Albam Commission, three ASCAP Foundation Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Awards, the 2014 ASCAP Foundation Johnny Mandel Prize for “Reel,” three ASCAP Plus Awards, and was a selected participant for the 2012 Metropole Orchestra Arranger’s Workshop.

Erica’s compositions and arrangements have been performed and/or commissioned by ensembles such as the Metropole Orchestra, the Symphonic Jazz Orchestra, the Danish Radio Big Band, New York Youth Symphony Jazz, the Brilliant Corners Large Ensemble, and many other professional and college jazz ensembles. She has also worked as a conductor with Meg Okura’s Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble, Remy Le Boeuf’s Assembly of Shadows, the D.O.M.E. Experience, the Joel Harrison Big Band, and is a resident conductor and composer with the Meetinghouse Jazz
Orchestra.

Erica is currently part of the core team and an event host with JazzComposersPresent.com, an invaluable resource which
features composer spotlights and listening sessions from many of the finest jazz composers of today. In 2019-2020 Erica was also a mentor with Women in Jazz Organization’s (WIJO) mentoring
program.

Learn more about Erica at www.ericaseguine.com or www.essbjo.com