Artist Blog

John Korsrud: Introduction to Hocketing and Kenny Wheeler’s Last Work

Hocket Night in Canada

I’m truly flattered to be asked to contribute to the ISJAC blog. Thank you for inviting me. Even though I grew up in Vancouver BC, playing trumpet in lots of big bands, funk, and salsa bands, my compositional training was in classical new music, and my compositional goal and interest is to bridge the gap between these diverse influences. I’m very conscious of trying to create something unique, while being impactful, exciting, and entertaining. In my quest for finding freshness, I look for unusual harmonic approaches, unusual forms/grooves/genres, and so on.

One way to create melodic freshness is with the seldom-used (but easily applied) technique of hocketing. This method, similar to klangfarbenmelodie, is the simple dividing of a melody between two or more instruments. This can create musical texture, rhythmic interplay, and the illusion of counterpoint. Excellent examples of hocketting can be found in in this brief passage of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto #3 (1921), and in this section of Louis Andriessen’s De Staat (1976). An interesting variation is the micro-canon effect found in David Lang’s Sweet Air (1999) or Louis Andriessen’s Hout (1991). Here the melodies are repeated an eighth note or quarter note later by others. A great effect.

My jazz orchestra composition, Cruel Yet Fair (1995), uses lots of repetition, transposition, quasi-twelve tone composition, and hocketing. This piece works very well live, and drummers love playing it. The groove is based on an Afro 12/8 and a half-time 12/8 feel, similar to Tower of Power’s Good Credit. It is also influenced harmonically and rhythmically by Alberto’s Ginastera’s 2nd String Quartet (1958). Ginastera showed me how a twelve-tone type language could have a forward propulsion that up until then, no other composer was doing. His music had a drive, tension, and excitement I was looking for.

Cruel Yet Fair Example 1: The violin and piano play the melody two octaves apart. Generally, I concentrate on orchestration and instrumental colour first, composing material to fit that. Here, I wanted to hear trombones in the very bottom part of their range; the melody is divided equally amongst them. I chose the melodic pitches so that no trombone would have to have slide changes of more than a minor third, which would otherwise be awkward at this tempo. Hocketting sounds smoother and is easier to play if the motifs overlap slightly, and it also sounds better if someone is playing the full melody, as the piano and violin are doing here. I further hocket the electric bass and electric guitar into two fragments.

Cruel Yet Fair Example 2: The violin plays the twelve-tone-esque melody and I wanted to hear the trumpets in a nice comfortable, yet bright, range. The three trumpets divide the melody equally and we get a bit of a three-over-four effect when they overlap slightly with each other and land on the downbeat–this alignment helps with rhythmic accuracy. The tenor saxophone plays every second note of the melody, as do trombones 2 and 3. I avoid octave doublings when I can for a cleaner sound and I think this is the only octave doubling in the piece. Then the melody is fragmented again, played by the trombone in its most powerful, highest, and brightest range, doubled in unison by soprano and alto saxophone. It’s a nice strong effect.

At Letter H we revisit the introduction and the main theme. At Letter I, we modulate up a half step to inject an extra kick of energy for the soloist, and also to put the soloist in a friendlier key. Letter K is the breakdown and the beginning of the climax, which occurs at the Golden Mean. The final chord is a twelve-tone cluster voiced within one octave.


Iguana (1993)

Click to See Full Score (RECORDING STARTS ON PAGE 5)

My piece Iguana (1993) has a groove that is mostly hip-hop swing, and it uses lots of hocketing. The piece was composed in several small segments, or micro-compositions, with little thought to where they would end up in the larger piece. In the end, it was assembled in quasi-collage form. I often make several photocopies of the score, cut them up with scissors, and then rearrange until it makes sense. I remember spending weeks on this form until I was happy with it. Well-known collage-style pieces included Django Bates’ New York, New York (1998), and John Zorn’s Speedfreaks (1991). Collage style is almost always discouraged in pedagogy, as it is often seen as a cheap trick to get away from having to develop your material, and I suppose there is much truth to that. But I think, done properly, it can be dramatic and entertaining.

Iguana Example 1 (m. 61 to 68 [about 0:56]): I try to find grooves and harmonic approaches that are off the beaten path. Here I’m using a hip-hop swing/shuffle and kick/snare pattern. The kick pattern is doubled in the bass, trombones 3 and 4, and bari sax. The snare pattern is found in the violin and trumpets. The saxophones are playing a chromatic pattern in 5/8, voiced in semitone clusters. The bass part is a Bb pedal, but the violin and trumpets are in B major. The trombones are hocketting a slightly overlapping 4/4 pattern. Though this section is quite atonal, it works because it is rhythmically interesting and repetitive enough. I find atonality or dissonance ceases to sound dissonant if it’s presented in rhythmically interesting ways, like it can be in hip-hop, rap, percussion ensembles, etc. Oops, I just noticed a mistake in the score. The drum snare shot in m. 81 should be on beat 4.

Iguana Example 2 (m. 224 – 229 [about 5:01]): Here we have two simultaneous hocketings. One is in the trumpets and upper saxophones, each with their own hocketting patterns. The other, outlining the bass part, is in the trombones and lower saxophones, each group with their own pattern. You can hear the division of parts much clearer live than in this recording — though I did try to pan things as much as possible. Iguana’s climax—also unintentionally at the Golden Mean—is one long ascending hocket starting at m. 256.

One of my recent pieces is Force Majeure (2000) for small ensemble, created in collaboration with filmmaker Jenn Strom and photographer Laurence Rooney. We try to create stability and instability by using several meters, visually and musically, creating anxiety, then resolution. I have long been interested in adding visual and theatrical elements into composition. Not only is this part of the evolution of making powerful art, but it is also a way for us musicians and composers to get our music on platforms such as Youtube and other platforms.

The 2013 Kenny Wheeler Commission

In 2013 Hard Rubber Orchestra commissioned and recorded Kenny Wheeler’s last large work. I have included links below to audio and to a copy of the score for the suite’s opening movement.
I contacted Kenny Wheeler in late 2012 about a small commission. I had heard that though Mr. Wheeler was unable to play trumpet for physical reasons, he “was still keen to compose.” I asked Mr. Wheeler for a ten-minute piece, but a few months later, to my surprise, Kenny mailed us original, hand-written scores for five movements. The work premiered October 19, 2013. Mr. Wheeler would pass away about a year later and we would lose a musical giant, His influence on jazz composers around the world cannot be overstated.
We recorded the Suite for Hard Rubber Orchestra, featuring Norma Winstone, in 2016 for Justin Time Records, and it may also be found on Soundcloud.

I have included the score to Movement I:

Click for the Full Score


Darcy James Argue also provided some wonderful liner notes for the album.

Every new album of Kenny Wheeler big band music is a blessing. For a composer of such significance, recordings of his large-scale works have been frustratingly few and far between. Now that he has left us, such documents have become even more precious, particularly this one: the Suite for Hard Rubber Orchestra is Wheeler’s final music for large ensemble.

The idea of commissioning Kenny Wheeler to write for the Hard Rubber Orchestra came from Vancouver-based trombonist Hugh Fraser, a longtime Wheeler confederate. During his final years, the physical exertions of brass playing made it difficult for Kenny to perform, but he was still eager to express himself compositionally — a late-career echo of the circumstances behind his initial big band outing, Windmill Tilter, written while he was forced to take time away from the horn to recover from an impacted wisdom tooth.

And so it came to pass that HRO director John Korsrud approached Wheeler in January of 2013 with the idea of applying for commissioning support from the Canada Council for the Arts. But apparently Kenny had music in him that needed writing, and no intention of waiting for the Canada Council to give him the green light. Just three months later, Hard Rubber Orchestra HQ got a rather unexpected phone call from Kenny letting them know the music was complete and a parcel of handwritten score pages was enroute! (Fortunately, the grant was in fact approved.) The HRO premiered the music that fall, on October 19, 2013 in a performance at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University.

Wheeler’s manuscript contained a work in five movements but in no particular order, leaving the sequencing up to the ensemble. On this recording, they are interspersed with improvisations featuring Brad Turner, whose searching, intervallic approach to the trumpet is deeply informed by Kenny’s profound contributions to the instrument. Brad’s duets with bassist André Lachance, pianist Chris Gestrin, and guitarist Ron Samworth represent the unpremeditated side of Kenny’s art, recalling the freely improvised passages he often included as palette-cleansers between orchestrated works in live performance.

The Suite itself is a focused distillation of the ingredients found in all of Wheeler’s music: yearning melodies, serpentine counterpoint, lovingly-framed symmetry, deceptive harmonic resolutions, flowingly mixed meters, dark full sonorities burnished to a lustrous bronze… and of course, the sound of the human voice. Wheeler’s longtime friend and collaborator, Norma Winstone, brings her timelessly ethereal sound to Kenny’s swan song, and you can hear in her voice the accumulated sense-memory of decades of shared moments.

While this music is quintessentially Kenny, it is also full of delightful surprises: among them, the uncharacteristically rustic simplicity of Movement I’s blowing changes, the fiendishly acrobatic voice-and-guitar countermelody underneath Mike Herriott’s bravura flugelhorn solo in Movement II, the breezy, Jobim-like insouciance of Movement III’s melodic permutations, the baroque filigrees in Movement IV that launch Campbell Ryga’s alto solo, and the deeply affecting moment when the austerity of Movement V’s parallel perfect intervals gives way to warm, welcoming thirds.

Kenny Wheeler left us in the fall of 2014, but he left us with a gem, lovingly performed and recorded by an ensemble of deeply devoted musicians.

— Darcy James Argue


Thank you very much to the ISJAC blog for inviting me. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have questions or comments. I hope this short blog was of interest to you.


About the Author:

John Korsrud is a composer and trumpeter living in Vancouver, Canada.

He is the leader and principal composer of the 18-piece Hard Rubber Orchestra, a jazz/ new music ensemble he formed in 1990. HRO has toured across Canada several times, to Europe, and released five CDs, most recently Iguana (2022), and Kenny Wheeler’s Suite for Hard Rubber Orchestra (2018). The orchestra has produced several multi-media shows, a television special and even a two new music ice shows including one for the 2010 Olympic Games. Hard Rubber Orchestra has commissioned over fifty Canadian composers from both jazz and classical backgrounds. Notable commissions include Kenny Wheeler, Darcy James Argue, Christine Jensen, Brad Turner, John Hollenbeck, Marianne Trudel, Giorgio Magnanensi, Keith Hamel, Linda Bouchard, Paul Dolden, Fred Stride, Hugh Fraser, and Rene Lussier.

John has been commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra, where he performed his “Come to the Dark Side” for Orchestra and Trumpet at Carnegie Hall. Other commissions include the Vancouver Symphony, CBC Radio Orchestra, Albany Symphony New Music Festival, and several Canadian and Dutch ensembles.

He is the recipient of the 2001 Canada Council Joseph S. Stauffer Prize, 2003 Civitella Ranieri Fellowship, the 2012 City of Vancouver’s Mayor’s Arts Award for Music, and the 2015 Canada Council Victor Martyn Lynch-Staunton Award. John was a frequent participant in programs at The Banff Centre between 1984 and 1994, and he studied composition with Louis Andriessen at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Amterdam from 1995 to 1997.

As a trumpet player, John has played with international improvisors George Lewis, Barry Guy, Han Bennink and Anthony Braxton, and performed at jazz festivals in Berlin, Havana, Amsterdam, Lisbon and Chicago.