Artist Blog

Annie Booth: Poetry and Composition – Creating New Dimensions

The convergence of poetry and music is no new phenomenon – the power and imagery of poetry have, for centuries, inspired composers of all ilks in pursuit of great artistic expression. Some of my personal favorite musical pieces derived from poetry are actually of the modern era: Fred Hersch’s 2005 masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, based on the poetry of Walt Whitman and Maria Schneider’s 2014 Grammy-winning Winter Morning Walks, based on the poetry of American poet Ted Kooser. These outstanding works bring their respective poetry to life in fresh, original ways. They amplify the essence of the original poems while creating an entirely new dimension in which both the poetry and the music, the poet and the composer live. To me, they’re “desert-island” recordings and they’ve greatly inspired me to try my own hand at the time-honored format.

My door into the world of poetic composition has been the infamous 19th century French poet, Charles Baudelaire, and his collection of poetry, Les Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil) – perhaps an unlikely muse! But as an undergraduate student in jazz studies and French at the University of Colorado-Boulder a decade ago, I fell in love with Baudelaire’s beautifully dark poetry in my French literature classes and I began dreaming of a way to connect it to the work I was doing as a budding jazz composer.

This past May 2021, I recorded the entirety of my multi-movement chamber jazz piece, Flowers of Evil (premiered in 2018) and am looking forward towards its 2022 album release. The piece includes 8 of Baudelaire’s poems sung in both French and in English translation and is orchestrated for an 11-piece ensemble comprised of 4 horns, 2 strings, a 4-piece rhythm section, and a featured soprano, Kathryn Radakovich.

When I first began the process of setting Baudelaire’s poems a decade ago, I had no idea what I was doing. I still mostly don’t (in general!) but through the process of writing, orchestrating, and editing this large piece, I’ve developed a handful of strategies for setting poetry to music and other creative ways of using text as source material. I hope that they may help you find some inspiration to dive into a new poetic composition.

 

Starting Points for Poetry & Music (in no particular order)

I. Dig into the poem’s imagery and meaning. It might seem obvious, but creating personal connotations and connections to the poem aids its translation to music. I’ll read the poem several times over and over out loud, eventually recording myself reciting it. After listening back with eyes closed, meditating on the images and emotions I receive, I’ll jot down my own words about the poem. I’m not writing down any “musical” words or ideas just yet – I’m focusing solely on words, phrases, scenery that describe the poem. I might even draw these ideas and use color to help. This process leads me towards the beginning of the type of musical landscape/mood/groove/harmonic scheme this poem can inhabit.

II. Pick apart the structure of the poem. Dust off all of those high school vocab terms – iambic pentameter, metaphor, synecdoche, et al. But in all seriousness, paying close attention to a poem’s structure, syllabic counts, emphasized words, and rhyme schemes can help spark and shape its musical setting.

 

Take this poem, “La Vie Antérieure,” – one of Baudelaire’s most well-known – which I set as the last movement of my piece Flowers of Evil.

 

 

Even if you don’t speak French, you can probably notice that the rhyme scheme is ABBA for the first half (above the light blue line) with 4 line phrases and a very interesting ABB ABB in 3 line phrases for the second half, as indicated in the red (A) and yellow (B) lines.

Here’s an excerpt of a reduced vocal & piano score of my setting of La Vie Antérieure:

ABBA structure of the passage is highlighted in the corresponding yellow (A) and red (B) shades. Mimicking the poem’s rhyme scheme presented me with a unique melody I might not have been naturally drawn to. It was the starting point for me and proved to be an effective one. I created contour in the passage by bringing the second B phrase (mm. 58-62) up to the peak of the entire melody, an F5 on the word musique (which you can probably guess means “music” and was a little bit of cheeky text-painting).

In this case, the mimicked rhyme scheme phrases in the melody work in conjunction with the underlying harmony and rhythm, which were guided by the text’s meaning. I elected for a “rolling” arpeggiated accompaniment texture to match the poignantly descriptive text of nature – sea, sky, and sunset – and aimed to further create motion through the 6/8 meter and 6 bar phrasing.

 

III. Re-contextualize a poem and make it your own. I did this on several movements of Flowers of Evil. I took pretty big liberties with the flow and recitation of some of the poems while still aiming to maintain the big picture meaning and imagery. This idea also allowed me opportunities to be creative with the form of the movement and to allow space for improvisational sections. (A majority of the movements of Flowers of Evil feature sections for improvisation, either open or through-composed).

Take, for example, the poem below, which is the final part of an 8-part larger poem of Baudelaire’s called Le Voyage. I used this last portion of the poem for the basis of the longest movement of Flowers of Evil (the studio version clocks in at about 9 minutes). It’s by far the movement with the least amount of text and the most amount of musical content.

 

In the first two lines, the narrator pleads to a sea captain-personified “death” to “lift the anchor.” (I told you it was dark poetry…) and this became musically translated into a dramatic introduction with a rubato solo piano sea-shanty ditty, low drones in the strings and bass clarinet, and the voice reciting the words in lieu of singing. Although the narrator keeps speaking to “death” in the remainder of the poem, I give the words a new context by making this portion of the poem a “song.” The remaining 6 lines (as indicated as the “body” here) are spread out over the course of the entire movement line-by-line and are sometimes separated by diverse groove feels and textures; the piece oscillates between a French waltz and a grungy half-time rock feel. Re-contextualizing a poem can allow you great creativity with form in this way.

 

IV. Using text as source material for instrumental pieces. I’ve of course been demonstrating techniques for setting poetry in a setting that includes a vocal line but it perhaps goes without saying that poetry can also be used as the inspiration and imagery for instrumental works (one of my all-time favorites is Ravel’s stunning Gaspard de la nuit – based on the poetry of Bertrand). Without strict words to set to music, you can double down on imagery and meaning while using the ideas presented in II. (the poem’s structure as guidance) and III. (re-contextualization of the poem) to start your compositional flow.

Lastly, I want to offer some other creative ways of using text to inspire your writing. You can make even the most banal text – like the instructions on the back of a product or an article of local news – imaginative by turning the text’s phrase structures into a musical phrase. I like to take a piece of such text and improvise over the phrase, recording myself playing it and listening back afterwards to hear if there’s anything there. I’ll do this same thing with poetry, too (I keep a copy of Rupi Kaur’s the sun and her flowers on top of my piano to easily access this process). It can be beautiful to know that an instrumental piece you wrote came from a poem, just as it can also be hilarious to know that an instrumental piece you wrote cam from the back of an “Annie’s Mac n’ Cheese” box. This tool works not only in a compositional practice but in an improvisational practice as well, fueling creativity and forcing us out of the tried-and-true musical paths we tend to take.

Poetry is such a vast and incredible art form and has the capacity to render us composers a bit more inspired, a bit more creative than we were before we interacted with it. If you haven’t done so, I hope you soon try your hand at setting a poem or writing a piece inspired by a poem. And if you’re already a veteran of poetic composition, keep reveling in and pursuing the creation of new dimensions.

 


About the Author:

Photo Credit: Kelly Maxwell

Annie Booth is a versatile and award-winning composer, arranger, and pianist based in Denver, CO. She composes for and performs in several projects she leads including the Annie Booth Trio, Sextet, and Big Band. Booth has received national recognition for her work from ASCAP (Young Jazz Composer Award, Phoebe Jacobs Prize), Downbeat Magazine, the Jazz Education Network (Young Composer Award), Chamber Music America, and ISJAC (COVID-19 Commission Relief Grant), among others. Booth holds Bachelors and Masters degrees in Music from the Thompson Jazz Studies Program at the University of Colorado. When she is not performing, traveling, or composing, Annie is an in-demand educator, on faculty at the Colorado Conservatory for the Jazz Arts (CCJA) and maintaining an active schedule as a guest clinician, artist, and adjudicator at jazz festivals and high school and university programs across the U.S. and Canada. You can learn more about Annie and her music at www.annieboothmusic.com.

Header Image Photo Credit: Kelly Maxwell

Artist Blog

JC Sanford: Arranging for Guest Artists

When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Northern Iowa, I was pretty impressed with my jazz director Bob Washut’s prowess at arranging original tunes by guest artists for our jazz band to play with them. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to do that myself, including tunes by/for Danilo Perez, Matt Wilson, Dominque Eade, and even Luciana Souza (a chart that has yet to be premiered due to the pandemic but will finally be heard in April 2022). Most recently, I arranged a tune by the great Steve Wilson to be performed by one of my jazz bands at St. Olaf College with Steve as our remote guest artist. I thought it might be useful to share a few of the techniques I use when I’m creating a new arrangement of this type, since hopefully this coming year and beyond we will be having many more guests join us all!

Generally speaking, I see charts like this as a transcription project as much as an arrangement. The reasons for this are twofold:

  1. I think it’s important in most cases to emulate the original recording of the tune as best as possible. This can make it much smoother when the guest joins your group for minimal rehearsal time right before your performance and they’re not trying to figure out complicated reworkings of the form and such.
  2. You can discover a lot of material throughout the original version that you can use as part of your arrangement.

Of course, you can make some of this process easier for yourself if you’re able to choose a particular tune that lends itself to big band writing. Luckily in this case, I had options. As many of you know, Steve Wilson is a well-known versatile saxophonist/flautist, but he’s also a stellar composer, and his tune “Eye of the Beholder” is no exception. It seemed like a big band chart waiting to happen with a fully-voiced, contrapuntal introduction that contrasted the rest of the chart with both material and tempo, specific pre-composed piano and bass lines at times, a complex form with several different sections throughout, and a D.S. al Coda that is slightly varied from previous material, so there was a lot more to work with than if I had to start with a simple head-solos-head situation. I’m going to discuss three major areas of consideration I tend to use in this process that I used in arranging “Eye of the Beholder” (EOTB) for big band.

Where are places for obvious orchestration?

This is the most logical place to start. If you’ve transcribed any accompanying parts (or, in this case, have many of them already spelled out for you), you can just decide what horns or rhythm section instruments you’d like to use to orchestrate those existing pitches. In the lead sheet to EOTB, Steve already has a lot of these voicings written out, so it definitely saved me some time.




This gives you an opportunity to explore timbre quite a bit (sectional writing, cross-section mixing, mutes, woodwind doubles, etc.). In EOTB, Steve already employs a very interesting timbre by having Adam Cruz playing some steel pan on the recording, but I was lucky to have a vibraphonist in my group, so it seemed logical to emulate that sound with that instrument at times throughout the chart.

In one section of EOTB, Steve employs a pretty active bass counterline – a really great texture underneath the moving colorful chords above it. So I gave that to the bass in its first iteration, fortified by bari sax, giving it more presence without making it too heavy.




The upon its return later in the tune, I passed it off to the saxes moved the bass back to the original role of bass notes to fortify the harmonic structure there. Then I immediately followed that with a statement by vibes and piano, still keeping it present but less forceful so that it didn’t draw attention from the now-soloing Steve Wilson.




During a section of the tune, Steve implies moments of quasi-bitonality where his sustained melody slips in and out of conflict with the moving chords beneath it. I wasn’t sure how to handle this with so many additional players, but I decided to embrace and enhance the harmonic nebulousness of that section by creating more structural non-functional clusters.






Are there elements of the original that can be used in other places or in other contexts?

Frankly, this and the following topic are techniques I wish I had used more in this chart, though they’ve been larger elements of previous arrangements of this type of mine. Of course, as I said, a lot of material was sort of laid out for me in Steve’s original tune, so I suppose it wasn’t as necessary in this instance.

One thing that I tried to get a little more mileage out of was the captivating introduction that didn’t seem to make any obvious reappearances in the body of EOTB. So the first thing I did was to have the band play it twice, the first with rhythm section and Steve, similar to the original recording, and once more fully orchestrated with the rest of the horns.




Then I brought back fragments of the bass line of the intro in a couple different contexts through the trombones.


Are there aspects of solo improvisations that can be employed?

This is one I really wish I had done more of, especially given Steve’s incredibly developmental approach to his soloing on this. In the past, I’ve made entire soli sections out of the solo transcription (not a new concept at all, of course). One place I was able to apply a little bit of his improvisation was coming out of his final solo section where I put one of his solo lines into the band parts, gradually increasing the density of the line by adding instruments as it went, helping it to grow into the final climax of the chart.





These are just a few ideas of how to approach arranging a guest artist’s tune for your band. Again, I don’t feel this particular scenario is an opportunity to let my most inventive voice shine by constructing some massive re-composition based on themes of the original tune. There can be plenty of other situations where that would be more warranted. I just hope to write something that is smooth to put together with the guest, is familiar to them and any listener who was familiar with the original, with just some additional colors and material to enhance what already existed, which more times than not, is already hip enough and doesn’t need me messing with it!

 

Original version:

 

Watch the complete new arrangement:

Video Courtesy St. Olaf College. Used by Permission.
 


About the Author:

 

Photo by Asuka Kakitani

Trombonist/composer/conductor JC Sanford is a musician of rare breadth, deeply rooted in the traditions of Jazz and Classical music, yet constantly pushing at their boundaries. Equally at home in many roles, Sanford works regularly as a composer, performer, arranger and conductor.

A protégé of legendary composer and trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, he has performed with the likes of Danilo Pérez, Matt Wilson, Donny McCaslin, and George Schuller. He has been a member of several diverse NYC-based ensembles including the Andrew Rathbun Large Ensemble, Nathan Parker Smith’s prog-rock big band, Andrew Green’s film noir tribute Narrow Margin, British singer-songwriter Joy Askew’s New York Brass, and Joseph C. Phillips, Jr.’s jazz/new music hybrid Numinous.

JC’s original works often defy labels such as ‘Jazz’ or ‘Classical’. While he originally built a reputation through big band writing, JC has forayed into many other areas – composing for solo piano, wind and brass formations and various mixed chamber ensembles. A founding member of the composers’ federation Pulse (with Darcy James Argue & Joseph C. Phillips, Jr.), JC was a member of the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop led by Jim McNeely and Mike Abene for 3 years and continued on as the contractor of the BMI/New York Orchestra for 13 more. His works have been performed by John Abercrombie, Lew Soloff, Dave Liebman, Danilo Perez, and a number of universities and high schools across the United States.

JC has appeared on over 30 recordings as a trombonist, conductor, composer, and producer. His 2014 debut CD with the JC Sanford Orchestra entitled Views from the Inside yielded international acclaim and was awarded a 2014 Aaron Copland Fund Recording Grant alongside organizations and ensembles such as the Seattle Symphony, Nonesuch Records, and American Composers Forum. He is also the leader of two small groups, the jazz quartet JC4 (who has two records out on Red Piano Records and Shifting Paradigm Records), and the chamber jazz trio Triocracy (also Shifting Paradigm Records). His new recording, Imminent Standards Trio, Vol. I, will be released on July 23, 2021.

JC is in high demand as a conductor of new original music. He conducts the thrice-Grammy-nominated John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, Joel Harrison’s Infinite Possibility, the Alan Ferber Nonet with Strings, the Frank Carlberg Large Ensemble, and the Alice Coltrane Orchestra featuring Ravi Coltrane, Jack DeJohnette, and Charlie Haden. He was the curator the “Size Matters” large ensemble series Brooklyn for 4 1/2 years, a unique weekly series that featured large ensembles that performed all original music.

Since returning to MN with his family in 2016, JC has performed as a trombonist in the Twin Cities area with JT and Chris Bates, Davu Seru, Anthony Cox, Babatunde Lea, Zacc Harris, Dave Hagedorn, Mike Lewis, and Laura Caviani. In 2017 co-founded the Twin Cities Jazz Composers’ Workshop alongside his wife and composer Asuka Kakitani. He is currently Visiting Professor of Jazz at St. Olaf College and Instructor of Low Brass at Carleton College. He received a 2018 McKnight Composer Fellowship and a 2019 MN State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant to record his quartet. In 2019, he was named Musical/Artistic Director of the JazzMN Orchestra. He is also the blog curator for the International Society of Jazz Arrangers and Composers. Learn more at jcsanford.com

 

About the Guest Artist:

 

Photo by John Abbott

Saxophonist Steve Wilson has brought his distinctive sound to more than 150 recordings and ensembles led by such celebrated artists as Chick Corea, Ron Carter, George Duke, Dave Holland, Michael Brecker, Dianne Reeves, Bill Bruford, Gerald Wilson, Joe Henderson, Charlie Byrd, Karrin Allyson, and Don Byron among many others.

Since his arrival in New York in 1987 Wilson emerged as first-call choice for veteran and emerging artists alike, prompting a New York Times profile “A Sideman’s Life”. Since 1997 he has been regularly cited in the Downbeat Magazine Critics and Readers Polls in the soprano and alto saxophone, and flute categories. He is currently a regular touring member of Grammy-winning ensembles led by Christian McBride, Maria Schneider, Billy Childs, and Buster Williams. His work in film includes being artistic consultant to Harvey Keitel for “Lulu On The Bridge” as well as being featured on the soundtrack.

With nine recordings under his name Wilson leads two acclaimed quartets – Wilsonian’s Grain as heard on “Live in New York: The Vanguard Sessions” on the Random Act label, and The Analog Band as heard “Sit Back, Relax” on the JMI label. He is one-half of two dynamic duos – with drummer Lewis Nash as heard on their recording “Duologue” on the MCG label, and also with pianist Bruce Barth that can be heard on their recording “Home” on the We Always Swing label.

A highly respected educator Wilson is professor of music and Director of Jazz Studies at City College of New York. He frequently conducts master classes and has been a visiting artist at Eastman School of Music, Michigan State University, University of Manitoba, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, University of Michigan, University of Maryland-College Park, and the University of Oregon among many other institutions.

Steve Wilson endorses Yamaha Saxophones, and Vandoren Reeds and Mouthpieces

Learn more at https://www.stevewilsonmusic.com/

JC’s Featured Photo Credit: Asuka Kakitani