Harris Eisenstadt: Full Steam Ahead
AAJ: François Houle 5 + 1 Genera (Songlines, 2012)
HE: The story behind this recording is crazy. Francois and Benoit Delbecq (the pianist in the band) were playing in Quebec City the night before the recording. They were scheduled to fly down to New York to record the morning of the session and Air Canada went on strike. They rented a car and drove 9-10 hours to New Jersey to the studio, got out of the car and we rehearsed as a group for the first time... then we recorded until 2:00 am. They got up at 5.00am and drove back to Montreal to fly back to Vancouver and Paris! All things considered, the music came out great. We toured the Canadian festivals this past summer and really took the music to another level. We have a couple gigs in New York this fall and hopefully some more stuff next year.
AAJ: In addition to a busy recording schedule, you have accepted a commission to write a community piece for the Brooklyn Conservatory orchestra. How will you compose music for both experienced musicians and kids?
HE: I'm not sure yet. When I get back from the current tour I have a meeting with the conductor of the orchestra, who has drawn up a letter of agreement. We'll fine tune it, sign off on it, and I'll get to work. First of all, it's the Brooklyn Conservatory Community Orchestra, so I have to ascertain the various playing levels within the orchestra. The student drummers will be, for the most part, beginners, so I have to address how technically demanding the material can be. The other thing is how to integrate beginner drummers into a piece for orchestra. This will be a challenge not only as far as the varying skill sets are concerned, but also as far as how to meaningfully integrate two very disparate sonic environments, both dynamically and material-wise. What I know I do not want to do is have it be orchestral passage-pause-students play some African Diaspora- derived drum line stuff-pause-go back to the orchestra. I want to avoid that kind of back-and-forth thing. There's a lot to think about. The premier is scheduled for fall 2013, so I have a year to figure it out.
AAJ: You teach at two State University of New York campuses. What do you aim to achieve through your teaching? Do you find teaching enriches or influences your compositions in any way? HE: I'm teaching mostly at one SUNY campus: the Maritime College in the Bronx. I teach three classes per semester as an adjunct professor. One great thing about being adjunct faculty at SUNY is that I get health benefits for my family and I. I'm adjunct at one other SUNY campus (Empire State College). I teach mostly independent studies there, usually online. At Maritime, I teach non-majors in the humanities department and can only offer one music class per semester, so I teach Western Music in the fall and World Music in the spring. The other two courses each semester are both Freshman English Composition. I was an English major, Music minor as an undergraduate, so it works out. I've also worked for several arts education organizations over the years in LA and New York as a teaching artist. Currently, I work for 92 Street Y and the Brooklyn Academy of Music in addition to my adjunct work at SUNY. I teach mostly drumming and world music for these organizations. They send me into NYC public schools, from elementary through high school.
As a teacher I aim to connect with my students, whether they are in kindergarten or college. I aim to instill a respect for, appreciation of and (if possible) a love for the arts- whether it's African rhythms with first-graders, literature in my freshman English classes, or music that my upperclassmen have never heard. I'm not sure that my teaching influences my compositions in any way, but it certainly enriches my life and contributes artistic inspiration.
AAJ: You recently premiered your first piece for orchestra, "Palimpsest," with the American Composers Orchestra. Which concepts did you explore and how different is it composing for an orchestra to your usual small group work?
HE: It was a wonderful experience. I felt very fortunate to sit in the audience as the orchestra rehearsed and then read my piece. That was the first major difference-not being involved as a performer. Even though the premise of the program was to see/hear how several different jazz composers integrated improvisation into orchestral composition, I didn't actually include any space for improvisation. We had very little rehearsal time and I wanted to make the most of the opportunity to write for some seriously high-level interpreters of notated music. So the nature of the ensemble and the parameters for rehearsal/performance were completely different than writing for jazz ensemble.
I titled the piece "Palimpsest" because I spent almost a year revising, writing then erasing, adding material and refining it, as one does with text on a palimpsest. The first draft of the piece was completed in September 2010 and the piece was read in summer 2011. So, from September to April (when I had to turn in the score and parts) I revised obsessively. That is completely different for me than preparing a book of music for an improvising group, in which an ensemble shapes the pieces in rehearsal and on the bandstand. The idea that materials from a palimpsest can be used again and again resonated with me because it's literally what happened. Many of the preliminary sketches (and even some of the final materials) ended up being morphed and used in different ways for other compositions since that orchestral work.