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Matt Roberts' Music Blog

Friday, August 5, 2011

Interview with Composer Andrew Downing

Andrew Downing is a double bass/cello player, composer and bandleader living in Toronto.  He graduated with a Bachelors in Music (Jazz Performance) from the University of Toronto in 1996, and more recently graduated from U of T's Masters in Music (again in jazz) program as well.
Andrew plays primarily in the creative jazz scene in Canada, but also performs classical chamber music, improvised music, folk and roots music and world music. He received a Juno Award, a West Coast Music Award  and The Grand Prix de Jazz with his former band The Great Uncles of the Revolution, as well as another Juno Award, a SOCAN award and a West Coast Music Award with Vancouver collaborators Zubot and Dawson.
As a composer, he has written pieces for Ensemble Meduse, Toca Loca, Runcible Spoon and the Urban Arts Brass Ensemble as well as many works for his own groups. Lately he has become interested in writing music for silent films in a "chamber-jazz" style.  This music is featured on his most recent CD, Silents.

To learn more about Andrew, and to hear samples of his most recent music, visit his website You might also want to check out the page for The Great Uncles of The Revolution.

The following is an interview I did with Andrew, as part of my ongoing "Composers' Process Project", where I interview a variety of composers about how they do what they do.

Matt Roberts: What mistakes do inexperienced composers make?

Andrew Downing: There are a couple of things.  They don't think about the total sound, in that they think about a particular melody, set of chords, or rhythm, without thinking about how they're all going to fit together. Further to that, they don't necessarily think about the instruments involved. Writing a melody that fits on a horn, or feels a certain way on an instrument is really important, and I think a lot of people go at it from the other direction, where they write something and then try to sort of shoe-horn it into what a certain instrument can play. It doesn't always make it easy for the instrumentalist, and ultimately the composition might not be as successful as it could be because of that.

MR: Obviously it takes a lot of experience to be familiar with so many instruments.

AD: That's very true. But there are a ton of books out there, and a ton of recordings, and a ton of people to ask, and an inquisitive person is always the better for it. The best way to learn is to talk to someone who plays an instrument.

Another thing that inexperienced composers do is they throw out a lot of stuff without fully checking it out. If they write something and it doesn't seem to work at first, they don't necessarily check it out to its fullest extent before moving on. If something comes out of your brain and your musical mind, there's a reason for it, and if you don't really check it out to as far as it could go, then you might have missed an opportunity to have something really sound like yourself.

MR: How have you grown as a composer?

AD: I once had a discussion about seven years ago about what the role of a working, band-leading jazz musician is. We all say "We're composers!", but really, if you talk to a classical composer and compare what a typical jazz composer and a typical classical composer does, they're very different things. At one point I decided "Well, I'm more of a 'writer of music' than a composer." I know it's just a semantic discussion but there is a lot that goes into the word composer.

One way that I've grown is in really thinking about instruments and making stuff for the instruments that work for the instruments and have a particular sound.  Knowing different chord voicings on a piano is a really important thing, but if you voice it out for a bunch of instruments, the timbre of each note is going to make the colour of the chord different. Learning how to manipulate that has been a big thing.

Another thing is checking out different styles of music. Not necessarily that I'm going to write something that sounds like Turkish music, or Country music, but I think checking out the aspects of a style of music and trying to take what I like from it and incorporate it into my own sound has been a big learning thing.

MR: What do you consider the most important principle(s) of good composition?

AD: Consistency.  By that I mean thought that goes into the details of a composition that makes it feels like itself.  Consistency could even be inconsistency. John Zorn, for example, has done a bunch of stuff where he will flip from one style to another, but the consistency with which he does that makes for a good composition. Even in people like Schnittke, who very obviously incorporates a bunch of styles into the music, what ends up happening is that there is a something in that music that feels consistent while he does that. I think thinking about consistency in every aspect of the music is important - how a form works, how chord colours work, and intervals, and all that kind of stuff, it all plays into how consistent a piece of music feels.

MR: Not that you need to always use the same voicing, but just that you have to consider how everything relates?

AD: Yeah, and if you're going to move from one chord to another, you realize that that move should be compensated for in some way.

MR: My answer to this question was "elegance" which maybe I mean in the same way as you mean "consistency". To me elegance means there is a central unifying idea, and even if the work of art may be on some level complex, in some way it is also the simplest way of conveying that idea.

AD: Yeah, you're right. With jazz composers, I think of Duke Ellington as someone who was like that. His tunes sound like themselves.  In most of his and Billy Strayhorn's tunes there is something going on that defines them, even if you might hear them in the midst of improvising. It's noticeable. When you stand back when you're listening to something and experience it as a whole, I think that kind of consistency is noticeable.

MR: Have you ever experienced composer's block, if so, how did you deal with it, what do you think causes it?

AD: I'm not sure if I've really experienced that. There are times when I've had a tough time dealing with certain things that I want to finish. I think if you power through and try to work and get yourself frustrated, when you leave and then come back, all the things you were frustrated with before serve to make the composition come out. Even all the frustrating work you do on something is still going to be there when you come back to it. And even if it means that you discredited a bunch of things that you worked on, at least that what's you've done, and so when you come back you know what you don't like.  I think it helps to get things rolling to keep working, just to keep doing it and realize that not every day's worth of composition is going to be used, but it all serves the big purpose of getting something done.

AD: Another thing is leaving things blank.  Once with the silent film thing I had six minutes to fill, and I had a few stabs at it and it just wasn't working out, so I left it and moved on to the next part, and the stuff in the next part gave me some ideas for the part I was stuck on. So if you sort of have a map of what you're doing, you can move on and do what is after it, and that may give you a better perspective on the part you are having difficulty with.

MR: What do you find to be the greatest challenge of composition?

AD: Finishing a piece of music. There are two aspects of that that are difficult. One is letting it go. Every time I hear something I write, I want to change some things.  But finishing it, letting it go, and realizing that it is okay not to change the mistakes I've made, or the mistakes I believe I've made in my mind, allows me to move on and write something knew.

The other thing is to not be derivative. We compose music because we love music. I'm guilty of this - I write things in the style of other people. I don't consciously or academically try to do it, but I know that unconsciously I often have some composer in mind who informs everything that I do. And I think everybody does. Someone said "Good composers borrow, great composers steal." [ed. note: Stravinsky] And it totally makes sense. These days, Stravinsky is the big one that I listen to and in the last piece I wrote I thought "This sounds so much like a section from A Soldier's Tale." So I just put in a quote from it - "I may as well just admit it!" I do that the same with titling tunes - I title after the person from whom I've gotten the inspiration in some kind of cryptic way, but I like to admit "This is where this comes from." But that's a challenge to like what you're doing but know that it's based on someone else's thing.

MR: What is your compositional process? Does it have distinct phases? Do you follow a routine?

AD: The nuts-and-bolts are that I sit a piano, or in my case at home I have a Hohner Electra-piano and a pump organ.  The Electra-piano is a little more percussive than the pump organ, so if I'm thinking of something that might be for strings, I might use the pump organ, because it has that quality. Usually I write on paper, so I sketch out a bunch of ideas, and then I work them in computer.  I'll have different voices on the paper.  I write it all on a double staff, and I'll put little arrows to show where the voice leading is going to go.  And then I enter it into the computer, and sometimes I edit it in the computer. The thing I don't like to do too much is listen to things in the computer, because I think it gets deceptive, or at least it hinders my ability to use my imagination as much as I'd like to.

At the beginning of the process I like to think about form. If it is a tune, I think about the form of the tune, and what the improvising is going to be, and how the tune can have completeness in itself.  If I'm writing a longer piece of music, I think in a longer form.  I think about how I'm going to plan out an exposition, etc.  I don't always stick to it; sometimes the ideas warrant a different thing.  But I feel like if I have a map laid out that I can kind of plug things into, I get it done more easily.  Which is also why I like doing the silent film thing so much, because the form is laid out for you.

MR: Do you have a daily routine?

AD: No. The only thing is that I get my best work done when I have a whole day with nothing to do in front of me.  If I know I have a rehearsal at two o'clock in the afternoon, I find it hard to write music from ten until two.  I feel like my mind isn't clear enough.  But if I don't have anything until the next day, then I can work completely contentedly.

MR: Do you have any stratagems for composition?

AD: If I write something that I like, I will look at it from all angles. I will dissect and analyze, even if it is just a three-note motif. I'll find out everything I possibly can about it; I'll find out why I like it. It may be the intervals, it may be the rhythm, it may be the texture, it may be the stylistic stuff. Usually, other things will jump out if I just keep at it.  If I just play a three-note motif backwards, forwards, all together, really slowly, really quickly, in different octaves - if I just play it a whole bunch of times - I'm going to find some other stuff about it that I like.  And that also deals with the consistency thing - if something comes from something else, then it has a thread.  Even if the listener doesn't quite hear it, the thread is there.

MR: Where do your ideas come from, how do you generate new ideas?

AD: A lot of them come from other composers. A lot of my melodic ideas come from text - a poem, a line in a movie, or something someone says that has a certain rhythm and melody to it. Often I'll develop a new piece of melodic material with the idea of singing the thing the person said. Not in a complicated way, just naturally.  For example in the my most recent silent film composition, Maciste In Hell, most of the melodies come from the text in the film.  For example. there were two main themes. One of them was just "Bar-ba-ricc-i-a" [the name of the main antagonist].  The other one is from a line where our hero sees the prince and he says "Think of your innocent child."  Both of these themes are everywhere.

MR: What composers do you admire and why?

AD: Stravinsky is my number one at the moment.  There is a great deal of style in what he does.  He wrote a ragtime, he wrote a jazz piece - they all sound like him.  He takes little things from styles and put them in his own way. I really admire that. I think it's funny and I think it's quirky and weird, and it is also beautiful. I like his ideology of putting stuff together, and it is so well crafted, and it is also humorous, heavy and light at the same time. There's something about it. 

MR: I feel the same way about Bartok - his music comes across as being very serious, but I feel like really he is was just playing.

AD: I think Bartok's humor is in a different way.  It might also be an Eastern European thing. Shostakovich is very serious music, but I think a lot of his melodies and the ways he deals with them are quite playful. I enjoy laughing while I'm listening to his music. And I don't think it is wrong!  Prokofiev is another good example - he has tonnes of fun, weird stuff in his music.

MR: Are there any particular pieces of Stravinsky's that you admire?

AD: Solider's tale is my favourite one. There's so much I like about it, stylistically and compositionally. It was written for something else - a story - which is something I really like. Also, the instrumentation is so odd and cool.  I like the themes.

Another composer I really like is Bill Frisell. It's on a different level, but I sometimes get the same feeling listen to Bill Frisell's music. Stylistically it really comes from a certain place.  It's humorous.  He has such serious craft and serious way of playing behind everything he does - I don't mean serious as in somber, but it is very studied.  But it is so much fun, there is so much humor behind what he does.

MR: I sort of already jumped ahead to this, but what compositions do you admire, and why?

AD: Schnittke's third string quartet has a bunch of stuff in that is also derived from taking styles and thinking about styles.

MR: Why compose, what is the reward of composition? Is it pleasurable? What is the most pleasurable part?

AD: One of the big rewards is making something.  Like, you know when you were a kid, you liked making stuff - with clay or play-doh or whatever. That's one of the things about writing a piece I really love. When I hear a piece I wrote, I have pleasure from having made something, having constructed this thing out of just tools, things that I know.

I also really like the problem solving aspect of it. If I have to get from one place to another in a composition, to think about the tools that I have and finding a way to do it using my ear, and using theory, and other people's ideas to get from one place to another in a way that I like.

MR: Can you recommend any books, DVDs, etc?

AD: The Ernst Toch book [The Shaping Forces In Music] is kind of interesting.  He just talks about musical ideas as a composer. It's sort of about blowing apart the rules, or at least using the rules to find your own way to do things. It just talks about music in a very beautiful and open way.

MR: What composition are you most proud of and why?

AD: Well, currently, I'm most proud about my most recent composition! [A score for 7-piece chamber-jazz ensemble for the silent film, Maciste In Hell.]  Because it has all the stuff I'm most excited about recently.

MR: I feel the same way - my abilities are always increasing, so I always feel like my most impressive composition is one that I've done fairly recently. But is there any composition you can think back to where even though it might be more simple, you feel you just miraculously got it right some how?

AD: Yeah, there is one called "The King of America". It's a really simple tune.

MR: I like the title already!

AD: Well, I stole it from Elvis Costello. There is a rhythmic thing that happens in it that I stole from a tune from his record "The King of America."

MR: How would you like to develop as a composer in the future?

AD: I would like to be better about thinking about forms.

MR: Do you mean like having a sense of balance in the forms?

AD: Yeah, or at least letting things play out with a sense of patience. I feel like I'm good at writing things that are short, and things that are a vibe.  I feel like I'm good at writing a moment that feels like something, but if I were to work on doing something better, it would be to consider things better over the long form.

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