ripples of influence
Music Unbound
Image: Jordan McDonald

Music Unbound

From the time I began playing music, there was a clear line defined by almost every institution, private teacher, scholarship, competition, music festival, mouthpiece option, etude book, sound concept, etc. that let me know there was such a thing as jazz music and such a thing as classical music. And while they might rub elbows at moments in history, with outliers aplenty, they were always treated as two distinctly different art forms meant for two different audiences, two different history books, two different schools of music, two different grant applications, and two different concert venues. The rules were set, the groundwork laid. Pick a side and begin. It only occurred to me much later that in order to grow artistically, one needed to shed the dogma that brainwashed not only me, but many on both sides of the field.

As a musician, composer, and listener, I have been increasingly interested in music that has blurred these lines. Jazz composers have been fearless in their willingness to draw from outside sources. Whether it’s West African music, 20th-century classical music, Indian music, or American pop music, jazz music has always had an inclination to thwart traditions in favor of moving the music forward. This element excites me, in that it consistently connects to music of our time. I still marvel at the many phases of Miles and Coltrane, who in many ways set the high watermark for jazz artists to constantly search inward and discover what is new in music within themselves. They not only pushed the genre forward but set examples for jazz musicians after them to continue to change and evolve the music that reflects the world around them. Building upon this idea, jazz musicians and composers (two titles that interestingly enough are always linked) have steadily moved this music to what it is today. I am thinking of artists such as Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, Maria Schneider, Ornette Colman, Jimmy Guiffre, Carla Bley, and many others. With that said, listening to many modern classical composers today is as exhilarating as anything in the jazz realm. Upon hearing certain strains of modern classical composers, I often find myself with the same feeling of excitement as when listening to a modern jazz luminary, in part because I feel the creators are relating to the modern world in the way that it actually is rather than the way that it theoretically exists. They are often drawing from many other sources of music in the world that reflect who they are. This, to me, feels much in line with how jazz has forged ahead for the past 100 years.

Recently I had the great pleasure to speak with three leading voices in modern classical and jazz composition: Judd Greenstein, Amir ElSaffar, and John Hollenbeck. They had many fascinating ideas, but one thing that struck me right away was their willingness to speak about their music in broad terms—cognizant that the language that we use to speak about music often fails us but is necessary for us to move forward. No one, including myself, likes their music to be summed up in a quick two-word label, and I was hyper-aware of this when speaking with them. I would like to say that, before going forward, when I use broad terms like “modern classical” and “modern jazz” to describe music, it is only because they are the words I have, and hopefully you can be forgiving of the shortcomings these words offer.

To me, it appears that the landscape of modern classical and modern jazz music in many ways is the result of decades of drilling from opposite sides of a mountain and now, more than ever, we are meeting in an aesthetic middle. Within the past five or ten years, modern classical and modern jazz seem to not just be sharing a communion of styles, but also bridging this gap socially as well.

As Greenstein mentioned to me:

Going to a contemporary jazz concert or a contemporary classical music concert, you will see lots of people who you wouldn’t necessarily consider part of that “scene,” but everyone is listening to everyone now. The idea that you only go to the Village Vanguard if you are a “jazz” person doesn’t really apply anymore, because the kind of music that you hear there is extremely open and part of a bigger conversation about music that we are all having as a broader community of music.

You see that there is very little distinction between the way that jazz musicians operate now and the way that contemporary “classical” musicians and composers operate now. It’s not as simple today to say that there are the “jazz” fans and there are the “contemporary classical” fans. It’s much more messy today, and, I think much more interesting.

Considering this, the question I ask myself is: How are they connecting? What specifically about the actual music is being shared? In talking with Greenstein, he used the word “groove” to discuss his music. It’s a word that I wouldn’t normally associate with a classical composer, but then again, Judd is composing from a place of the here-and-now, and his music is a reflection of this. Before I go on, I want to mention that not everything Judd writes has the element of groove. He composes a vast amount of music that is quite varied and uses many techniques to convey emotion. I am only going to focus in on this one element for a minute because it speaks directly to my point. However, I was actually relieved to hear him use the word “groove,” because when I listen to pieces such as Greenstein’s Folk Music or Clearing, Dawn, Dance, what strikes me is that the way in which groove happens in the music is similar to what I hear in many modern jazz compositions. The composer notes:

[What] I am interested in is finding a groove that could almost go on forever, where the rhythm keeps revealing something new about itself and there is a sense of surprise when it starts over. And it is not just rhythmic, but usually a rhythmic element combined with a harmonic oscillation.

He went on to add:

Rhythm is one of the more memorable elements of music. It is viscerally felt in the body and that makes it something that we remember. And when you combine that with melodic and harmonic gesture, you have a building block to the piece. These pieces can imply a lot of other directions and give you a solid footing on which to come back to, which is very important for me.

Here is an example that demonstrates how Greenstein makes use of a repeating ostinato figure that gives the piece a sense of “groove.”

Clearing, Dawn, Dance, Judd Greenstein

From the beginning of the piece, a repeating ostinato figure creates the groove over a mixed meter, inciting rhythmic interest and allowing for melodious elements to float over the top. Notice at the 1:43 mark how the initial ostinato drops out but the groove continues in the flute’s new pattern and is later expanded upon in several ways. When the original ostinato figure does return at about 7:03, there is a sense that the original groove has returned with greater significance. I could make a correlation to the “hero’s journey” here, but I’ll save that for another time. A second noteworthy element is the slower-moving harmonic motion compared to the complex rhythmic ideas which will be discussed later in this article.

Many jazz composers use a combination of mixed meter and repeating ostinato figures to toy with groove in a way that adds playfulness, a sometimes unsettled feel, and often gives momentum to the music’s expression. Two examples of this are seen in works by Amir ElSaffar and John Hollenbeck that, while they are different in material ways, use a rhythmic language that, to my ears, shares a similarity in creating groove.

Hijaz 21-8, Amir ElSaffar

This piece, like Clearing, Dawn, Dance, has many layers of repeating ostinato figures playing with and against each other, as well as shifting meter ideas that allow for greater rhythmic expression. Listen for the way in which the dotted quarter notes in the bass plays against the quarter notes in the melody to briefly give an unsettled feeling, only to ground us a few beats later when the bass and the melodies line up.

Arabic, John Hollenbeck

This example by John Hollenbeck uses repeating ostinato figures layered on top of one other. Take note of how the overlapping meters add complexity and interest yet also are not overly crowded; we feel at the same time a sense of security and grounding. Lastly take note of the harmonic movement as only one modality is used throughout.

The Moire Effect is a visual phenomenon that produces a sensation of movement by overlapping patterns. This phenomenon was used by minimalist composer Steve Reich in many of his pieces such as Clapping Music (1972) and It’s Gonna Rain (1965). The phasing effect was adapted in sound by taking unison rhythms, overlapping them, and then slightly shifting one or more rhythmic elements to produce a sensation of movement or change to the listener. Much more could be said about this effect, but the point that I want to make is that one can see the similarities in the ideas of the rhythmic concept behind all three of the above pieces that are rooted in 20th-century minimalist composition techniques.

It should not come as a surprise that modern jazz music has commonality with modern classical music. As Hollenbeck states:

From the very beginning, jazz was a mixture of African music and European music, so the influence on one another was happening at the beginning. Jazz musicians were open – and are still open – to everything, and one of those things was contemporary music.

Jazz composers have always been knowledgeable about European music and have really checked it out. It makes sense that this influence would affect the music they are creating.

Not all jazz musicians would agree with this, but one could say that a major component in jazz would be innovation, or this idea of looking forward trying to get at this thing that one can’t touch.

As previously alluded to, a closer look at many modern jazz and classical compositions will illuminate similarities in the way composers use harmony. This is an observation about a subset of music, and I know I am painting with a big brush here, however I would like to point to three more examples in which the rhythmic motion of the piece is complex but the harmonic movement is intentionally slow, which allows for the rhythmic statement to be more direct and prominent. I have included an arrangement of Hollenbeck’s rather than an original, primarily because of how much I love this arrangement and its direct relationship to my points. Hollenbeck’s arrangement is so much his own that I don’t see how you could listen to it and not hear his compositional fingerprints all over it.

The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress, Jimmy Webb (arr. John Hollenbeck)

Listen to how the slow movement of the chords in the beginning of the piece acts as a grounding element while a growing complexity of rhythm begins to occur—first in the flutes, guitar, mallets, drums, and bass, and evolves into the full ensemble. The slow and consistent harmonic movement keeps the listener tied to the earth while the rhythmic action is continuously surprising. It is only later in the piece when the rhythmic action is withdrawn that harmony evolves, becoming increasingly dense, creating a symphonic texture.

Folk Music, Judd Greenstein

One can hear many of the same techniques in regard to use of rhythmic complexity and harmonic efficiency in this wonderful piece by Judd Greenstein that we found in The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress. Again, there is a complexity in the rhythm that sustains us throughout the piece against a comforting, slower movement of the harmony.

As Greenstein puts it:

When one is trying to be clear about rhythm, it can be hard if too many things are happening at once.

The reason I am drawn to simpler harmonic structures at times is because I am trying to not let the complication ruin the complexity of the piece. Doing so makes it so that one cannot draw connections and creates barriers to hearing different aspects of the pitch or rhythmic relationships that could be there if you chose a simpler harmonic structure. It’s kind of a funny thing that happens, that if you limit your pitch options, your rhythmic relations become more apparent.

I want to take a moment and single out Amir ElSaffar’s music and how unique and yet relevant it is to what I am talking about. ElSaffar has been exploring the traditions of Iraqi classical music and jazz for more than a decade. His approach to harmony has been informed by his years of study of not only jazz music, but also Arabic music and the maqam, which is a system of modes that has twenty-four notes per octave instead of the twelve notes in Western music. ElSaffar states:

There is this whole wide-open world that the maqam allows for that hasn’t really been explored. In traditional Arabic music, there is no harmonic movement that happens, which on one hand is kind of freeing because the melody takes on so much weight where you might be implying a certain tonic for a beat and half and then moving on to imply a different tonic just by the phrasing of the principle notes of the melody. So in that sense it does have the feeling that there is harmonic movement, and in one way it is, but it is due to the movement of the melody not the maqam.

What I have been interested in is how to extract chords from this phenomenon. What happens, for instance, when you are in the mode of D minor with a half flat second and the melody rests on the note F for a while? For a brief moment, this F feels tonicized. What happens if I build a chord around it? These harmonies that I have been experimenting with are actually reminiscent of modal harmonies in jazz, which is actually similar to the way maqams are built.

I am also trying to honor the integrity of the melody – creating the right texture that moves around it and is supportive, and not somehow taking away from it.

Jourjina over Three, Amir ElSaffar

I hope after listening that you can hear what I would call a conversation among styles regarding groove and harmonic movement between these pieces and these composers.

Lastly, another aspect I find interesting is that modern classical music has moved to an ensemble model that resembles many contemporary jazz ensembles. They are small groups of musicians, often unusual in instrumentation, independently funded, performing pieces that are composed by primarily living composers, many of whom are either part of the ensemble or somehow connected to the group, performing at venues that are eclectic in nature, often outside of the typical “jazz club” or “classical concert hall” to include art spaces and listening rooms.

I have a theory (that I can only back up with anecdotal evidence) that the model for a working classical musician has been slowly deteriorating for years. The odds of winning a tenured position in an orchestra are small, with many major and regional orchestras struggling to stay solvent. Fewer living wage job opportunities are available for classical musicians and yet the pool of highly skilled musicians is ever-growing as music schools around the county crank out more performers every year. It would only seem logical that musicians would form their own groups and begin writing and promoting their own music. It just so happens that jazz musicians have been doing this for many years. At some point when jazz music became more of an art music rather than functional music for dancing, musicians starting writing and performing for music’s sake, which is where I think many classical groups and musicians are finding themselves. More and more, they are making music that is independent, personal, and without regard for assimilating to a style or genre. It will be very exciting to see how these two styles of music continue to blur the lines and possibly eliminate any and all boundaries of style currently known. I asked Greenstein if he ever thought of using improvisation as an element in his music.

I haven’t found the space for it my own practice yet, but that doesn’t mean that I am averse to it. I became a composer because in this way I am a control freak and I have ideas about how things should be structured, which usually doesn’t leave a lot of room. What I think might happen is sometime within the next ten years, I will find a different way of practicing that involves more openness in this regard.

With so many composers blurring the lines of genre, a question arises regarding the implications of not only how we perceive but also teach music. Is the logic we have used to set up our music education system still viable and flexible enough to support where the evolution of music is taking us? I suspect the musicians, the composers, and the music they create will lead the way to providing answers.


NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

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