Herb Pomeroy on Jazz Writing

Herb Pomeroy at BerkleeHerb Pomeroy directed jazz bands at MIT from 1963 to 1985. He was the founder of the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble, one of the first three collegiate bands from the USA to perform at the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival. He was a fine trumpeter and a great bandleader, but his largest legacy may be as a teacher at the Berklee College of Music. His line writing class at Berklee was legendary, and he gave a short synopsis of some of the key points of writing and orchestration in the first of his Music at MIT Oral History interviews on December 14, 1999. This happened when Forrest Larson asked a great follow-up question about some of the musical values that Herb had learned when studying at Schillinger House:

Well this fellow, Richard Bobbitt, who was the dean, he had studied with Stefan Wolpe. I hope my memory is accurate. Bobbitt learned from studying with Wolpe about voicing not through choosing notes because they are the root, the 3rd, the 5th, the 7th, the 9th, but making most – I don’t want to say all – most of the vertical structures structures that are created because of the intervallic relationship between the notes, not because they are a function… So, certain intervals – you know, there are consonances, there are dissonances. If we want to get richer, or we want to get darker, or we want to get brighter, the choice of interval between notes is more important than the function that the note is in the chord.

Which will also – I sort of based a whole course on this later on, when I started to teach – also will take away from the obviousness of the chords that have the root in the bass, from the chords that have the 3 – 7 tritone that announce “I am this chord” and there’s very little you can do about it. Instead of taking the notes because they are these very important – vitally important in certain areas of sound. But if you’re looking to broaden, whether you’re a classical composer or a jazz composer – this approach to intervallic choice of notes rather than function choice of notes I got originally from Bobbitt… I learned a great deal from this man about this, the intervallic approach to vertical writing as opposed to the function.

Even then I was saying to myself, “This is going to be valuable.” I tell you, so many students that I had at Berklee, and I don’t mean to wave the flag here, have come back to me – two, five, ten years after, not while they’re taking the course, after they’ve absorbed it – and said that this course was one of the most opening things that they studied in a school or classroom situation…

Most jazz ensembles – whether they be three or four horns and a rhythm section or a whole band – the instrumental sound is pretty similar. I don’t mean the harmonic sound. I don’t mean the style of the player’s vibrato. The purely instrumental sound when you hear whether it’s 4 horns in like an octet or you hear the 12, 13 horns of a full jazz orchestra – the instrumental sound, the layered effect of color of trumpets, color of trombones, color of saxes in this function kind of harmony that we’re talking about – is the same. Whether you listen to Basie of ’35, or you listen to Woody of ’54, or you kind of listen to Mel and Thad of ’85 – whichever of these bands. Nothing to do with rhythmic style, harmonic style, era – was it swing, was it bebop, was it whatever. This layered, as I call the layer-lit colors, each layer really separated from each other, not entwined like this getting a richer sound instrumentally, is the same.

Whereas if you use this non-function, this intervallic work, and put the instruments together so you rub color against color – put a reed between two brass, rather than put four brass and then four trombones and then five saxes, or maybe one or two overlapping – but I can hear a typical big band and it almost sounds like there are just the three primary colors, so to speak. I don’t hear any sense of rainbow effect going on there. So these are some of the things that I learned from these teachers which were not jazz tools, but they were music tools.

I knew then, and in hindsight I even thanked them even more. Because so many students – I mean, I’ve had many people who are professional writers in their home lands, directors of radio / TV studio bands, conductors of symphony groups who wanted to get into the jazz thing, leaders of big bands all over Europe, who came and studied at Berklee and would take this course. And I could watch, I could see in their faces while I was saying these things, I could see these looks, this opening. That was very gratifying, to know that you had…

I did not invent this, I merely organized the thinking. People say “oh, you created it.” No! Maybe that mathematical mind from back in my teens and all that allowed me to organize. When you teach as long as I did, and stand in front of the thousands and thousands, literally, hours I have stood in front of bands and rehearsed them, and developed an eye-ear relationship. I do not have a God-given eye-ear relationship; I have a developed eye-ear – see the score and hear it in my head. The number of hours that I was able to do that – and I feel very blessed with my own professional band, with the Berklee band, and with the MIT band, and then clinics all around the country and the world and all that – I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say it’s thousands of hours that I’ve stood there and heard it and seen it. It’s allowed me to perceive things about scoring techniques for jazz orchestras that I don’t think many people have had the opportunity to know.

The only person that I’ve been able to have a close association with who – we’ve talked about it some, but I just knew it from observing him – was Bob Brookmeyer. I think Brook has this same sort of ability, and he’s a marvelous writer.

I don’t know what kind of thoughts and things Gil Evans had in his head. I don’t know about Duke – I tried to find out from Duke, I played with the band and would question him. (Laughing) He’d be terrible – I’d say, if we were in a room and it was casual, I’d say “Duke, come here – on this tune, in the first two measures you do this”, and I’d play on the piano, “but I can’t figure out what you do in the next two measures.” And he’d say, “Oh, you’re doing it better than I could do it anyway” and just walk away. He wouldn’t show me anything!

Please note that I transcribed this interview excerpt. Any errors are mine, not the MIT Lewis Music Library’s. The library is working on officially transcribing the interviews. Hopefully the first transcripts will be available sometime next year.

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Music at MIT Oral History Project

MIT Lewis Music LibraryThis year marks the 10th anniversary of the remarkable Music at MIT Oral History Project at the MIT Lewis Music Library. For 10 years, Forrest Larson has been interviewing key players in the history of music at MIT. His interviews are meticulously prepared and conducted, so he elicits many wonderful revelations about music at MIT, the lives and careers of MIT musicians, and remarkable observations about many aspects of music making for both amateurs and professionals.

Music has been at MIT for most of the Institute’s existence, with a formal music program established in 1947. The Oral History Project includes interviews that cover music at MIT from the 1940s onward, including perspectives from faculty, staff, former students, and visiting artists.

I’ve listened to the interview with three musicians who were very important to me during my MIT student years: John Corley, conductor of the MIT Concert Band; Herb Pomeroy, conductor of the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble; and John Bavicchi, former MIT student and de-facto composer-in-residence for the MIT Concert Band during the last 30 years of John Corley’s tenure. With the permission of the Lewis Music Library, I will be excerpting and discussing some of the material from these interviews that I find especially relevant to music making today. I hope you enjoy these posts!

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Reicha Requiem at Stanford

Stanford Symphonic Chorus poster for Reicha Requiem concertInterested in hearing a rarely-performed large-scale choral work from the early 19th century? Here’s your chance to hear Anton Reicha’s Missa pro defunctis (Requiem). The Stanford Symphonic Chorus and Peninsula Symphony will be performing it this weekend, together with excerpts from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Performances are Friday, November 20 at 8:00 pm and Sunday, November 22 at 1:30 pm in Stanford Memorial Church. Stephen Sano will conduct the Reicha, and Mitchell Sardou Klein will conduct the Bach. Soloists include the fabulous Wendy Hillhouse, who we heard singing Henry Cowell last week. Tickets are available online or at the door.

This will be the premiere of a new performing edition of the Reicha prepared by Dr. Amy Goodman Weller for her Stanford Ph.D. dissertation. Reicha was a contemporary and friend of Beethoven. He is best known today for his wind quintets and his teaching of composers including Liszt and Berlioz. Reicha was a counterpoint professor, and this work is loaded with fugues. It concludes with a fabulous double fugue on “Cum sanctis” that Reicha used as an example of choral fugal writing in his Traité de haute composition musicale. That fugue is my favorite part of the work, with a highly syncopated Lacrimosa close behind. I’ll be singing in the tenor section, up front and center in the chorus.

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Henry Cowell: The Whole World of Music

Henry Cowell at Other Minds program coverI finally had a chance to attend an Other Minds concert: the first of a two-concert series devoted to the American composer Henry Cowell. Other Minds is one of the Bay Area’s great new music organizations, and for this concert they came down to the Peninsula. Henry Cowell was born and raised in Menlo Park, just a few miles from the Portola Valley concert venue.

The program covered chamber music from all eras of Cowell’s career: from the famous early piano pieces like The Tides of Manaunaun from 1912, through wonderful 1930s chamber works (Toccanta and the String Quartet No. 4 “United”), on to some late songs from the 1950s (Thou Art the Tree of Life and Spring Pools).

Sarah Cahill performed a set of six of Cowell’s solo piano pieces. This is Cowell’s best-known repertoire, and I knew many of these pieces from recordings, but I never had heard them live. What a treat to hear them in concert: the sensuality of the sound and the intricacy of the performance comes across so much better in a live performance.

As a singer, the absolute highlight of the program for me was the set of eight Cowell songs, superbly sung by mezzo-soprano Wendy Hillhouse with Josephine Gandolfi on piano. The set covered 5 decades worth of songs in a beautifully arranged sequence. It was great to hear how Ms. Hillhouse went to the Library of Congress with an early version of Finale loaded onto her PowerBook to transcribe 50 of Cowell’s 200+ songs from the manuscripts. She had been entranced by the music after singing some of the published songs at a Cabrillo Festival concert honoring Lou Harrison, but only a dozen or so of Cowell’s songs have been published. Harrison put her in touch with Cowell’s musical executor to access the unpublished songs during a year when she was singing with the opera in Washington, D.C.

The whole program was filled with great music in fine performances. Cowell fans in San Francisco can hear the second concert of the series on Friday at the Presidio Chapel. Thanks to Charles Amirkhanian and Other Minds for bringing Cowell’s music back home to the Peninsula!

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Back From Puccini Country

A highlight of our recent vacation in Italy was the time we spent in Lucca and the surrounding area. Among its other charms, Lucca was the hometown of Giacomo Puccini, composer of several of the most popular operas of all time: La bohème, Madama Butterfly, Tosca, and many more.

The house where Puccini was born is a museum, but for now it is closed.

Puccini House in LuccaThere is a nice statue nearby. Lucca also has a lot of signs still up from the sesquicentennial of Puccini’s birth, letting you know of various sites important in Puccini’s life.

Puccini Statue in Lucca

Once Puccini had a couple of hits under his belt with Manon Lescaut and La bohème, he built a villa outside the city at Torre del Lago. He lived there until the last few years of his life. When a peat factory was built nearby, he moved to a newly built house a few miles away in Viareggio. The house in Torre del Lago is now a museum with a fine audio tour showing you through the rooms, the original furnishings, and plenty of Puccini memorabilia.

Puccini Villa in Torre del LagoThere’s a sculpture near this house as well, complete with cigarette, though not very visible in this shot.

Puccini Statue in Torre del LagoOne of our favorite restaurants in Lucca, Gli Orte di Via Elisa, has a Puccini-themed room.

The Puccini Room in a Lucca restaurant

All of this has really put me in the mood to see West Bay Opera‘s upcoming production of La bohème. The cast is all new to me, save for Eric Coyne as Benoit/Alcindoro – we sang together in Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights last year. The younger casts typical of West Bay productions, combined with the small house, really works to the advantage of this opera. The previous West Bay production had great chemistry! Check it out and hear why this is one of the top 5 most popular operas ever written.

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Dolet 5 for Finale Now Available

Dolet 5 for Finale, Recordare’s plug-in for reading and writing MusicXML files from the Finale music notation program, is now available. Dolet 5 for Finale adds support for Finale 2010, including the new chord features, the new percussion features, and the Broadway Copyist font family.

Dolet 5 for Finale also offers improved support for importing MusicXML files created from Sibelius 6. Some of the new and improved features in this area are import of feathered beams, jazz articulations, text in glissando lines, German/Scandinavian font styles, text on blank pages, and optimized systems.

There are over 30 new features in Dolet 5 for Finale compared to the previous version 4.8. While there are many new features even for Finale 2010 users, the plug-in excels at bringing the most accurate MusicXML import and export to a wide range of Finale versions: Finale 2000 and later on Windows, Finale 2007 and later on Intel Macs, and Finale 2004 and later on Power PC Macs.

Dolet 5 for Finale comes with a 10-day free trial, so check it out and see how much better you can now transfer files between Finale and other music programs!

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The Great Mahler 8

San Francisco Symphony Mahler 8th album coverAfter attending one of the San Francisco Symphony’s performances of the Mahler 8 last year, I posted: “If the magic of these performances makes it onto disc, this could be a Mahler 8 recording for the ages.”

Well, it did and it is. If you love Mahler you really want to get this recording. A piece as immense and physical as the Mahler 8 is particularly elusive to record. One problem is that if you get the impact of the extremes, you tend to flatten the details in the middle, or vice versa. I have heard several superb performances of large works that were being recorded for CD where somehow the recording lost an essential part of the performance magic. This disc meets the Mahler 8 challenge brilliantly.

The soloists are a dream team – the strongest group I have heard in this piece, sounding great both separately and together. They are topped off by the luxury casting of Laura Claycomb in the 2-line role of Mater gloriosa, way up in the stage right balcony. The chorus and orchestra sound exquisite. Part II in particular is amazing. In other performances it can be discursive and lose my interest at times. In this performance everything maintains a core energy and direction, and the time just flies by despite its length. This aspect of the performance really struck me both in the concert hall and in listening to the CD at home. Michael Tilson Thomas is extraordinary here.

The Adagio from Mahler’s 10th that starts the recording is another amazing performance. I wish I had been at one of the concerts where they recorded that, but you can’t hear them all.

Full disclosure: I have joined the Symphony Chorus for the 2009-2010 season, including a Mahler 2 with two of the same soloists. But last season I was just an audience member with some friends in the chorus.

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Cabrillo 2009 Wrapup

When I started this blog, I was concerned that between work and gigs, I might not be able to update this as often as I would like. That was true enough – work has been very busy this past month. So here is a delayed version of my impressions of the 2009 Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz.

The two opening concerts of the first weekend were outstanding. I have heard lots of great pieces and performances at Cabrillo over the years, but the performance of Osvaldo Golijov’s Azul on Friday, August 7 was an all-time highlight. I had heard Golijov’s Ayre when Dawn Upshaw and company performed it as Stanford a while back. I liked it, but it didn’t knock me out. This revised version of Azul knocked me out.

Alisa Weilerstein was a phenomenal cello soloist – one of those players where the sound-to-soul connection seems particular direct. Besides the orchestra, she was accompanied by a halo of concerto grosso-like soloists – Cyro Baptista and Jamey Haddad on percussion, and Michael Ward-Bergeman on hyper-accordion. The four soloists really shone as a quartet in the Transit movement, a cadenza that kicks the already-high energy level of the piece into yet another gear. I will definitely be searching out Weilerstein for future performances.

Golijov made some interesting introductory comments about how a lot of classical music has horse-driven rhythms, and a lot of minimalist and other more populist 20th/21st-century music has motorcycle-driven rhythms. In contrast, his own piece has bird-based rhythms. If you’re thinking Messiaen, not quite – the rhythms invoked are those of wings and flight rather than birdsong. It was the type of insight into a composer’s thought process that I wish was shared more frequently and candidly in either program notes or pre-performance talks.

Australian composer Brett Dean had two pieces performed at Cabrillo on opening weekend, and it was great to be introduced to such a fine composing talent. Moments of Bliss was the concluding work on Saturday’s program, an orchestral suite that was written as part of the process of composing the opera Bliss. The opera was completed just a few weeks before Cabrillo and will be premiered in Sydney next year. The orchestral suite was a compelling listen in its own right. But since none of this is vocal music transcribed for orchestra (unlike, for example, the Doctor Atomic Symphony by John Adams), it does not give much insight into what type of opera this will be. Amphitheatre, a shorter work by Dean, made for a serious curtain-raiser on opening night. Both pieces were full of imagination, personality, and prominent contrabass clarinet parts. I look forward to hearing more of Dean’s music in the future.

Another Australian composer, Matthew Hindson, had the interesting task of providing the curtain-raiser for the Grateful Dead Symphony on Sunday. Rave-Elation (Schindowski Mix) brings the time-honored tradition of classical music adapting popular dance music into the techno era. (Or so the composer claims: the dance influence is self-evident, but I am no expert on techno music.) It was a fun piece which whetted my appetite to hear more of Hindson’s music. A good place to start is his Violin Concerto, recorded by Lara St. John and coupled with works by Corigliano and Liszt. Matthew has been a long-time Recordare customer and supporter of the MusicXML format, so it was great to be able to finally meet him and hear his music live at the festival.

The other pieces the first weekend were enjoyable as well. David Heath’s Rise from the Dark is one of those pieces whose secrets are unraveled gradually over the course of the work. It made me want to hear the piece again once it’s done so I could hear it in the context of what comes afterwards as well as what comes before. Alas, there’s no chance of that for a piece this long, and this was its world premiere. Hopefully it makes its way further into the world and onto a recording. Avner Dorman’s Spices, Perfumes, Toxins! was a double-percussion concerto featuring wonderful playing by the orchestra’s own Steve Hearn and Galen Lemmon. Enrico Chapela’s ínguesu made for a fun curtain-raiser on Saturday. Lee Johnson’s Dead Symphony No. 6 was aimed at a different demographic than me, so I hesitate to judge it. I must confess though that I preferred hearing Elvis Costello and the Sugarcanes break out a suprising rendition of the Dead’s “Friend of the Devil” at the Mountain Winery a week later.

The Saturday concert on the second weekend did not quite maintain the first weekend’s level of exhilaration. The concert concluded strongly with Magnus Lindberg’s Seht die Sonne, a rare chance to hear a second performance of a new piece so soon after the first, which we heard at the San Francisco Symphony last year. The Symphony’s co-commissioning of the piece with the Berlin Philharmonic was oddly omitted from the Cabrillo program notes. The opening James MacMillan work, three interludes from his opera The Sacrifice, made for an interesting beginning. But in between those works was a disappointing trumpet concerto by Joby Talbot. You know you are in trouble when the most interesting music in a trumpet concerto is an oboe melody.

Overall, the programming of this year’s festival was wondrous. Marin Alsop and the Festival Orchestra sounded better than ever together. I look forward to hearing what they come up with next summer!

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