Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Interview with Composer Jamie Keesecker

8:14 AM
He also plays the accordion
His mom is a pianist, he dabbles in jazz bass, and he chose the French horn in middle school band after falling in love with John Williams's Star Wars scores--eclecticism is Jamie Keesecker's musical bread and butter. As a Ph.D. candidate in composition at Duke and co-creator of the score for a new touring ballet with the Dance Theatre of Harlem,
the composer builds musical mosaics from elements of jazz, classical chamber music, and electronic sound. But as the leader of the Duke New Music Ensemble [dnme], he also creates opportunities for other composers, with the idea that music should be fun and every compositional style should have a place at the table. We sat down for coffee at Parker and Otis this week, and Jamie answered some questions for me about his time in Durham, his creative process, and his music.

When did you start composing?
There's not really an easily definable point for me. When I was very young, before I even started music lessons, I thought the idea of sheet music was really cool, and so I would sometimes write things out and then ask my mom to play them at the piano so I could see. I had no idea what I was doing, I just thought, you know, [I would] make some arbitrary notational decisions and then see what it sounds like. So she would play through something, and it never . . . [laughs] it was always kind of a disappointment at first. So I used to spend a lot of time at the keyboard and make up my own music that way, without necessarily writing it down. So then when I started to study music more seriously and learn how to read it, and learn a little bit of music theory, it was just natural to want to create with it.

Do you have any of those early sheet music artifacts?
[Laughs] No. Maybe . . . cause my mom has the type of piano bench that folds up and has all the music inside it. So somewhere in there there might be . . .

You should ask her. Someone could perform it the next time you're on a concert.
[Laughs] Yeah!

You've also studied composition at the University of Arizona and the University of Oregon. How is Duke different from other programs where you've studied?
It's a very small and pretty close knit world. We don't have that many graduate students; everyone knows everyone. But it's also . . . you know, occasionally at schools you'll get sort of a "sound" that emerges, and I wanna say that it's more diverse here than anywhere else that I've studied. At Duke, composers are just really free to experiment with whatever they want. Some of the composers here have done things--you know, I was talking about pop music--some people have done things that really take that idea and run with it, and they're supported by the faculty, which is nice because there are still places where you would sort of be laughed at for trying to do that.

Do you feel like you're part of any particular school or style of composition?
No. It's not quite like it used to be, where you had very polarized groups where you could sort of declare your affiliation with one or the other. But on the other hand, I think I can speak for several of my colleagues in saying that [our] generation of composers, we're definitely different from older generations of composers, and probably the biggest thing is that we're not afraid of pop music. Maybe that's kind of a loaded word, to say that previous generations were "afraid," but I have had composition teachers tell me that they were told by their teachers in no uncertain terms that they shouldn't waste their time listening to pop music. There might be a few people around today that still hold that view, but we've kind of grown up in this world where you hear it everywhere, at the grocery store, in the car, I mean it's constantly a part of our sonic world. Almost all of the young composers that I know, they tend to bring in some aspect of some sort of non-art music, I guess you could say, in various ways. And sometimes it's subtle and sometimes it's more overt. But it's almost like those distinctions don't matter so much.

Eclecticism is definitely a big theme in the work of a lot of young composers that I hear. Your piece at the yMusic concert was especially eclectic, even in that context. How do your diverse influences come together for you? How aware are you of where all of it is coming from when you're writing?
At least for myself, it's definitely not eclecticism for the sake of eclecticism. It's just bringing different sounds and sort of abstract musical processes together. In some ways it does just sort of come out. In my piece [for yMusic], I think there's certain rhythms that are kind of reminiscent of a jazz feel. They get fairly overt at times, and I think that I am somewhat aware of that; other things are probably a little bit more under the surface or that I just don't necessarily think about. There's a spectrum there.

Do you feel like you react against something when you compose?
I try not to be very ideological. As I'm getting older--because as a young composer you have so much that you could potentially worry about and freak yourself out about and then just end up with a blank page because you have so many decisions--I don't want to worry as much about stuff like that. I want to make something that I like, you know? I'm definitely not trying to necessarily stake out a territory and say, "this is gonna be . . . write a manifesto!" [laughs]

As an artist, how do you find the artsy atmosphere in Durham?
Well, it's great. Our concert last week was really well attended, and that's Durham for you. It's a town full of people who are intellectually curious and wanting to see and experience new things in art. but at the same time I don't necessarily--I only care so much about the audience when I'm in the process of creating something. I don't know. it doesn't necessarily factor in huge, but it's nice to know.

How much do you think about the audience when you're composing?
I do kind of feel like [there are] things about music that people have enjoyed over a countless number of years; there are certain basic tenets that never change and that, you know, extremely modernist music in some ways thought that it could abandon that . . . uh . . . [shakes head, laughs]

Like Milton Babbit, "Who Cares if You Listen?"
Right . . . Which is not to say that--there's certainly a time and a place for Milton Babbit, and I don't want to tell anyone that that music's wrong. But I guess, again, it sort of goes to the popular music kind of experience. For me, for my music, I feel like there should be some very basic things to enjoy that come from a tradition of enjoying music, whatever it is.

Have you expanded the types of ensembles & instruments you write for in the last few years?
Yeah! Mainly I've done a lot more with electronics and computers, in either performance or in some cases composition. And that's been something that I've really worked on since I came to Duke. I had done some dabbling before, and once I was here I decided that I wanted to take the plunge and totally immerse myself in computers and electronic music. And the faculty were very supportive and encouraging and helped me to do that. So that's what I've been doing quite a bit since then.

What has been a particularly proud moment for you as a composer?
Last summer I got involved in working on the music for a new ballet piece for Dance Theater of Harlem. They've actually been touring with this piece all this year. The premiere was last October in DC. I went to it to see this absolutely amazing ballet company put on the type of performance that they do, my music coming through the speakers . . . it's pretty amazing.

How does that process work? Does the music come first or does the choreography come first, or do they happen together?
That was actually a fascinating project to be involved in, because the process that we used, which was very . . . uh, you know, in the age of youtube, a very sort of recent possibility for it to work. [My co-composer, Thomas F. DeFrantz, and I] would work on some music and then send that to the dancers, and then the dancers would try some things and they'd send us some video, and it was kind of like this creative loop. You know, we're separated by distance, [but] we could do this. It would just sort of get refined from there.

What is this piece called? What's the story?
It's called past-carry-forward.  Leading up to the Harlem renaissance, it explores different avenues that Black people could take, migrating north, and the different ways they all ended up together. It's about how Harlem came together. They're still touring with it right now, and the New York premiere is next month.

For more info about Jamie Keesecker, visit his website. Stay tuned for more on [dnme]'s French cabaret-inspired concert, with one more show next Sunday 4/13.

About the author

I'm Andrea. Everything you need to know is here.