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Three Questions Before the First Night, by Carson Cooman

Michael Woods -- 'Places of Light'

Composer and jazz musician Michael Woods (born 1952) is a versatile presence on the American musical scene. Educated at Akron University (BA), Indiana University (MM), the Berklee College of Music, and the University of Oklahoma (DMA), he is currently Associate Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Studies at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, USA.

Woods is a widely commissioned composer and has written over five hundred musical works in a variety of idioms -- from jazz charts to orchestral works to gospel songs. Woods is also an accomplished string and electric bass and guitar performer. He frequently leads jazz ensembles, including the experimental Zoé Jazz Band, which he founded in 1980. Woods is also a member of the Omniverse Jazz Ensemble, and has been involved as bassist, composer, director, and arranger with countless famous jazz and classical musicians throughout his career including Lionel Hampton, Dave Brubeck, Josef Gingold, Dizzy Gillespie and many others.

Michael Woods
Michael Woods

The Albany Symphony Orchestra under the direction of David Alan Miller will première Woods's new orchestra work Places of Light on a three concert set entitled 'Spirtuals at the Holidays'. The programs will take place on 8 December (Saratoga Spring, New York), 9 December (Troy, New York), and 10 December 2005 (Pittsfield, Massachusetts). In addition to the Woods première, the program also includes seven settings of spirituals commissioned by leading American composers (sung by baritone Nathan Myers) and a performance of Beethoven's Symphony No 5.

OneCarson Cooman: You have an extensive background and long list of activities in the world of jazz performance, direction, and composition. When you sit down to write a fully-notated composition for symphony orchestra, as in the case of Places of Light, do you conceive of music material in any different way than when you are writing for a jazz ensemble?

Michael Woods: Yes, in as much as I realize that I will have to exert complete composer control. The piece won't involve the use of chord symbols, or any improvised voicings by keyboard, or any walking bass lines for the bass players, and there won't be anybody using their improvisation vocabulary to riff. Therefore I may have to sacrifice some of the spontaneity that I've come to use and love so often. But, at the same time, I gain the ability to create rising action with great precision -- because I can exert all types and form of composer control. So I try to make up for that lack of the typical spontaneity of the jazz ensemble with very precise articulations, colorations, creative arches and links, filling out premeditated types of forms and asymmetrical phrasings.

Sometimes I will write a piece of music that is completely written out and contains no immediately recognizable jazz influences. It's just a piece of classical chamber music.

There are, however, some jazz influences throughout Places of Light -- for one thing, the piece employs a trap set. There are places in it which get visceral and are influenced quite obviously by James Brown. Thus there are places where the jazz rhythm is not implied, it's right there in your face with the trap set. Then in other places the trap set is phased out, and the piece just becomes melodic classical music, just as if I had no jazz influence at all -- to be played with the same precision.

TwoCC: Does improvisation play a role in your compositional process?

MW: It plays a role only in this way. When I pick up my bass guitar and improvise, I'm actually 'composing' -- because if you give me a chord progression, and I pick up my instrument, and I'm riffing over the blues, all that I'm doing is eliminating the stage of writing the composition down on a piece of paper.

When I compose, I eliminate the stage where I'm riffing on my instrument -- but in my mind I'm always riffing. I'm just taking what I hear in my mind and writing it out, so that players who don't improvise can realize the contours and concepts that I conceive. I'm taking my own 'mental dictation'.

So, say I'm going to do a little be-bop version of 'God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen' [Woods then improvises vocally a be-bop version of this familiar Christmas carol.] If I want people to play it in the symphony orchestra, I must write all of that out in exact detail. I must bring my scoring experience to bear and notate out my improv riffs. So, even times in a written line, I try to lose as little as possible in the spontaneity of its conception.

ThreeCC: Your piece is being premièred on a set of concerts entitled 'Spirituals at the Holidays' and the focus of the event is on African-American music. In your case it is a piece by an African-American composer, and in the case of the spiritual arrangements, it is the work of composers from many different ethnic backgrounds, all approaching African-American source music. Did this performance context have an effect on your piece, or how you choose to connect musically to these ideas?

MW: Yes, very much so. First of all, I was one of the composers last year who made a spiritual arrangement. But I didn't write the opening piece like I did this year. I realize that the opening piece of the program must set a tone and subject for the ones that come later.

Most African-American people in church have grown up on gospel singing, and they're absolutely accustomed to lyrics. They're not as familiar with instrumental jazz. So, if a saxophone player walks in and riffs all over the place, not playing a melody they know, they might not receive it. But if he comes in playing a vocal melody for which they already know the words, they'd embrace him.

I call my piece Places of Light and the light to which it refers is that essence around someone's head like a halo. The light I'm talking about comes from the Hebrew word shekinah -- the glory and presence of God. When I explain that in the verbal program notes to the audience I think people will understand the connection I'm trying to make with an instrumental piece without lyrics. Even though there are no lyrics, I will hope that they will find a way to connect to the subject matter of the piece -- because it will relate to the experience they know.

I'm talking about heaven and that's where all the spirituals talk about going. So, my piece is a purely instrumental way to depict some of those same ideas. I'm asking people to reach further into the abstract than with the vocal pieces. But if I ask them to join me in my depiction of something mysterious and unearthly, I think they'll go with me.

I want people to understand that light can explode from the high drum! Don't always expect 'light' to be high floating woodwinds and high harmonics in the strings. Light is a by-product of hope, especially for people who need encouragement. Again, this is not just physical light, but illumination in the mind, spirit, and soul. When you become hopeful -- which is a great thing about the rhythm and blues music from the 1960s -- your power to project becomes so powerful that the straight line becomes syncopated. The energy just bursts out of it.

When we think of illumination and light, the typical images are of something high or something 'above' or colors that are light and rhythms that are slack or stagnant in order to convey that high expansive register. But when I look at light as a manifestation of inward vision and therefore hope, I think of syncopation. I think of heavier instruments driving at something -- procurement through desire. Pressing into something because you want it -- running towards that open window.

Copyright © 3 December 2005 Carson P Cooman, Rochester, NY, USA




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