Interview by Daniel Barbiero
Equally conversant with fully notated music as well as with the unmapped provinces of free improvisation, bassoonist Dana Jessen has become a motivating force in the effort to build a contemporary language and literature for the bassoon in solo, chamber and electroacoustic settings. She is the founder of Splinter Reeds, a new music reed quintet based in San Francisco and has performed internationally with the Ensemble Dal Niente, Anthony Braxton's Tri-Centric Orchestra, Han Bennick, Fred Lonberg-Holm and many others. She created the New Music Bassoon Fund to commission significant new works for the instrument, including the critically acclaimed, hour-long Rushes for seven bassoons by composer Michael Gordon. Currently, she is collaborating with composers Sam Pluta, Paula Matthusen, Kyle Bruckmann and Peter Swendsen on a set of pieces for solo bassoon and live electronics. Here, we talk about the challenges and rewards of realizing the potential of a versatile yet overlooked instrument, and the complementary relationship of improvisation and composition.
PSF: When I think of where the bassoon is right now, the analogy that immediately comes to mind is where the double bass was on the cusp of the 1960's--an instrument underdeveloped in relation to its potential. And yet, it's ready to take on greater salience as a solo instrument capable of a more expansive range--technically, expressively--than traditionally imagined.
DJ: I do agree that bassoon repertoire historically has not represented the full potential of the instrument. There have been a few major contemporary pieces by composers such as Sofia Gubaidulina and Luciano Berio that started to shift how we think of the instrument, and also a handful of players doing the same. The bassoon has lived with an unfortunate reputation as being humorous, or only being affiliated with roles such as the grandfather in Peter and the Wolf. It's very hard to change those assumptions! Fortunately, there are several bassoonists dedicated to showcasing the expansive potential of our instrument and its important role as a force in new music. I would agree that we are at a point now that the instrument is starting to be a strong presence in new music, with composers and performers recognizing the huge potential beyond what was traditionally imagined. This is, in part, due to the creativity and exploration from the performers themselves, and the collaborative nature of commissioning new works.
PSF: It does seem that collaboration between bassoonists and composers would be essential--after all, who knows the instrument better than the instrumentalist? And perhaps that's one way to generalize and disseminate an individual bassoonist's innovations, by having them written into a score.
DJ: Collaborative work is by far my preferred method of commissioning new composition. The music becomes much more personalized and special when the performer has a voice in the process. I also prefer pieces that are written for a specific person and not just for their instrument. I started to make this differentiation when I began improvising seriously. With improvised music, you are playing and interacting with individuals, not just the instrument in their hands. When that idea is applied to composition, creating material beyond the instrument itself and looking to the artist's creative voice, you are opening up much more potential and possibilities. To give an example in my own work: I will be releasing a solo album this Fall called Carve, which features four newly commissioned works for bassoon and electronics by Sam Pluta, Paula Matthusen, Peter V. Swendsen, and Kyle Bruckmann. When I started the project, I wanted to commission pieces not only for bassoon and electronics, but works that incorporate improvisation. More specifically, pieces that incorporate my own language and style as an improviser. The composers took this idea and applied it to their own compositional aesthetics. For each composer, the starting point of the pieces was improvisation- meeting and playing together, recording those sessions, then asking questions, experimenting with ideas and sounds, and pretty soon a composition begins to take shape. As a performer, the challenge was to interpret and improvise in a way that was true to my own language while maintaining the style of the composer's music, all of whom have very different sound worlds. For this particular album, I am also including short acoustic improvisations between each of the tracks that serve as interludes which connect the pieces back to the initial starting point: improvisation.
PSF: Composing from improvisations would seem to get to the heart of things in a way. Improvisation discloses something fundamental about the improviser--not only his or her store of perhaps latent musical skills and idiolect, but something more, say, a primary choice of his- or herself through sound at a given moment.
DJ: This is definitely true in my case. Improvisation is one of the primary forms of expression for me and it seems only natural to initiate collaborative work with composers through improvisations. I used to separate my musical worlds: improvisation and interpretation (classical and contemporary classical notated music) used to be two different hats that I wore. But, it is difficult to lead a musical double life and so I began to find ways to connect my worlds. This project, in particular, is a direct result of that work.
PSF: Some people might see improvisation and composition, or improvisation and interpretation, as opposites, but seen from another perspective they might appear complementary instead. As two moments in a series of reciprocal musical choices expressing an underlying sensibility, perhaps.
DJ: I view improvisation, composition, and interpretation as complementary entities. Each supports and informs the other. For many musicians, our formal training often separates composition and interpretation from improvisation. As a classically-trained bassoonist, improvisation was simply not part of the conversation. I was fortunate to discover a few high level improvised performances early on that fueled my curiosity for the genre. Improvisation is a difficult term to define, but ‘instant composition' has been a good descriptor that gets to the heart of what an improviser is doing. Improvisation played an essential role in discovering my artistic language, and from there the connections with composition and interpretation became very clear.
Dana's solo album Carve will be out this autumn on Innova. Also see http://www.danajessen.com/
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