Aural Influences: Learning from What’s Not Written Down

The video of the piece below is an example of a piece that come from Composing Tip #3, below. The piece arose from the confluence of several experiences. At the time I was working on jazz guitar, and went to a three-day jazz workshop in Tübingen, Germany that was sponsored by the publisher Advance Music. It was a terrific workshop and I still remember (this was, oh, over twenty years ago) great talks and performances by Bill Dobbins, Dave Liebman, Rufus Reid, Bobby Watson, Steve Erquiaga (guitar), and others. What was most affecting, however, was not guitar. I had an hour free and wanted to fill it with something, so I signed up for Pamela Watson’s Gospel Choir. I am not a singer, but I can find pitches and read rhythms. I was the only native English speaker there – there were (real!) singers from Vienna, Berlin and other places. What astounded me was that, unlike me, they were not new to singing this style. When they started singing, it sounded like they had been born and raised in Mississippi. It was a real treat to masquerade as a singer and be among them. Pamela Watson was a terrific director. We sang some of her arrangements and I am here to tell you: it was probably the single most fun I have ever had making music of any sort, and that is saying something.

Not long after this, I got one of my first commissions – to write an encore-esque piece for a trombone quartet. I was still charged up from my Gospel Choir experience and decided to try to capture the spirit of it in notation. The result was “Gospel Time”, which was and remains one of the most popular of my compositions (it is standard repertoire in Europe, and practically unknown in the U.S.) – it has been performed by countless groups, recorded on many CDs, and is all over YouTube (try a search). It is not anything like a transcription of what a gospel choir would do; it is rather an evocation of the spirit and the joy of the experience. In the performance below, the group takes a lot of liberties – something I actively encourage. I like it when groups take my notes as a beginning, not an end, and add their own imaginations. There is no vocalizing in my version; this group decided to sing the notes at the beginning and the end, and there is some added stuff (applause near the end). Other groups (e.g. Slokar Quartet) have added drumset (no drums in the original). I am all for it – it makes a living piece of music rather than something dipped in plastic that never changes. In any case, this piece is an example of stealing, uh, learning from a style that is largely an aural tradition. Sometimes it’s all the stuff you can’t write down that can make a big difference.