An interview with STEVE LEHMAN

[Original English version]
I wish to thank Steve for being up to make this interview happen. It is interesting to hear about some of his concepts and also inspiring to meet artists like him willing to share their ideas. For those who know little about Steve Lehman here are few informations (via his website about his activity: Steve Lehman (1978) is a composer, performer, educator, and scholar who works across a broad spectrum of experimental musical idioms. Lehman’s pieces for large orchestra and chamber ensembles have been performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), So Percussion, Kammerensemble Neue Musik Berlin, The Jack String Quartet, members of the Argento and Wet Ink Ensembles, and by the pianist Marilyn Nonken. An alto and sopranino saxophonist, Lehman has performed and recorded nationally and internationally with his own ensembles and with those led by Anthony Braxton, Dave Burrell, Mark Dresser, Vijay Iyer, Oliver Lake, Meshell Ndegeocello, David Wessel, and High Priest of Anti-Pop Consortium. His recent electro-acoustic music has focused on the development of computer-driven models for improvisation, based in the Max/MSP programming environment. Lehman’s work has been favorably reviewed in Artforum, Downbeat Magazine, The New York Times, Newsweek, and The Wire, and on National Public Radio and the BBC. As a Fulbright scholar in France during the 2002-2003 academic year, Lehman began researching the reception of African-American experimental composers working in France during the 1970s. His article in the journal Critical Studies in Improvisation, “I Love You with an Asterisk: African-American Experimental Composers and the French Jazz Press, 1970-1980,” is based on his Fulbright research. He is currently working on a study of the overlapping histories of spectral music and contemporary improvisation. Lehman received his B.A. (2000) and M.A. in Composition (2002) from WesleyanUniversity where he studied under Anthony Braxton, Jay Hoggard, and Alvin Lucier, while concurrently working with Jackie McLean at the Hartt School of Music. He is currently a doctoral candidate in Music Composition at Columbia University, where he is a departmental fellow and studies under Tristan Murail and George Lewis. Lehman has taught undergraduate courses at Wesleyan University, theConservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris, New School University, and Columbia University, and has presented lectures at Amherst College, UC Berkeley, UC Irvine, CalArts, The Berklee School of Music, Cornish College of the Arts, The Royal Academy of Music in London, and IRCAM in Paris, where he was a 2011 composer-in-residence. His recording, Travail, Transformation & Flow (Pi 2009), was chosen as the #1 Jazz Album of the year by The New York Times.
Steve Lehman - Jazz Compas
C.M.: Can you describe the compositional techniques used in ”Travail, Transformation, and Flow” can you mention few of them?
S.L.: Sure, obviously there’s a lot to talk about there, I assume you’re most interested inthe techniques connected to spectral music, is that right?
C.M.: Yes, I’m interested in that but also how you combined these techniques with other things.
S.L.: Well…I think, the short answer would be to describe (you know, each composition is a little bit different) but the short answer would be that a lot of the work that I do with harmony on that album kind of looks at harmony from the point of view of frequency relationships as opposed to intervals of the musical scale. And you know, that’s an idea that I was able to think about more clearly as a result of, you know…kind of studying spectral music and working with Tristan Murail. In terms
of the work with rhythm on that album there’s a lot of use of different kind of, I guess there’s a lot of use of rhythmic structures that sort of explore different kinds of rhythmic thresholds (where it might sound like a rhythm is maybe speeding up or slowing down temporarily or it might sound like there’s two tempos going on at once or it might sound like the musical form being sort of fragmented than continuous) and that’s something that I’ve been working on also for a long time. But those ways of working with rhythm are also, you know…can be connected to especially the French spectral composers. In particular Gerard Grisey became really interested, kind of focused on this idea of luminal music or music that deals with thresholds, and kind of applied that to…you know, you see that in every aspect of his work not only in his work with harmony but his work with rhythm and his work with musical form. So that plays a part in that album as well, and then of course, you know…with each composition trying to think about the implication of all those ideas on improvisation. And sometimes it has to do with kind of thinking about chord changes or spectral chord changes or what that would mean, sometimes it has to deal with thinking about how to improvise with timbre and different kind of shapes as a soloist as an ensemble and you know that’s obviously a big part of that album as well and yeah, that’s probably the shortest answer I can give I guess…
C.M.: Yes, did you made a connection between the rhythmic layers in relation to the pitches, are there any frequency ratios that are transposed into rhythm?
S.L.: No, there’s not like a numerical relationship between rhythm and harmony, it’s more what I mentioned earlier which was dealing with thresholds and kind of the ideaof musical elements being between two states in terms of harmony and rhythm, youknow…and since we perceive harmony in a very different way than we perceive rhythm, the way that you achieve a kind of feeling of being at the boundary or the threshold of something rhythmically it’s going to be very different than the way you do that with harmony. I think, it just depends, I think the idea of sort of using numerical relationships from harmony to build a rhythm or vice versa that might be an idea that’s more connected to sort of something like serial music where you use abstract numerical relationships to kind of build musical structures which can be really great, but I think that is kind of an idea that in some way contradicts some of the big ideas in spectral music just because it’s so much about human perception as opposed to sort of numerical abstraction, you know what I mean…
C.M.: My next question is related to form, how did you managed the time form wise?
S.L.: You know, I think what I try to do with the form of each piece is to have it, kind of embed each piece with a sense of directionality and like it’s really going somewhere and I’m not just adding sections you know because I need a new section because the music got boring or something like that so…you know there’s lot of different kind of ways to try and include those elements in music, in certain pieces, there’s a piece “No neighbourhood rough enough” where I do it in different ways part of it just through simple instrumentation and orchestration so I don’t use all 8 instruments in the ensemble until the very end of the piece. And in addition to that there is a kind of registral crescendo because I start with sort of low register instruments and gradually add higher and higher timbres over the course of the piece speaking in broad terms, and there is also a kind of rhythmic directionality because the piece starts at a kind of medium moderate tempo with sort of very brief interjections of a faster quadruple time tempo and over the course of the piece that double time or quadruple time rhythm becomes more and more predominant until it becomes the main kind of rhythm of the composition. So all of these things that’s just an example of trying to have some kind of progression and directionality in the way music plays over longer periods of time.
C.M.: Related to what you just said, can you say something about orchestration and the choice of instruments on the album ́Travail, Transformation, and Flow”?
S.L.: Yes sure, I think mostly the choice has to do with individual players most of them I have worked before quite a bit, that was the most important thing to find musicians that were interested in ideas similar to my own and excited about the direction of the music. In terms of the instrumentation mostly has to do with the individual musicians themselves and kind of finding people that you know…I worked with for a long time and share the same musical interest with me. And then I studied a long time with Jackie McLean and his music is kind of a big point of definition for me, the ensemble and the kind of general texture aren’t so different from what you would hear in an album of his were you know, Bobby Hutcherson is the only chordal instrument on vibraphone and in fact the album “Evolution” of Grachan Moncur has the same instrumentation as my octet album except that I have added tuba and tenor saxophone. And other than that, you know I guess it was important probably to have two bass register instruments – a tuba and a double bass – for probably obvious reasons in terms of how a lot of the harmonies are constructed and what else…? you know, and also having the vibraphone I think helps a lot even if it’s not able to play microtones, it is kind of this half acoustic – half electronic instrument, so I think that kind of helps give the harmony a sort of more distinctive quality as a result of using that particular instrument.
C.M.: What is your approach with microtones in writing music and improvisation?
S.L.: So, the basic answer to your questions about microtones is that I use 1/4 tones, as needed, to approximate the value of harmonic and inharmonic partials to create harmonies and then I will often derive „spectral chord changes” from the harmonies of a given piece. In „Echoes” for example, the soloist is asked to improvise using a scale comprised of harmonic 8-16 of E1 and C1, so in the case of E1 that gives: E, F#, G#, A 1/4 sharp, B, C 1/4 sharp, C 3/4 sharp, D# and E. For C1 it would be: C, D, E, F 1/4 sharp, G, G 3/4 sharp, A 1.4 sharp, B and C.
C.M.: Can you describe your learning experience with Murail?
S.L.: Well, I studied orchestration and computer music with him and also took private composition lesson with him for two years. He is an amazing orchestrator and has a very profound understanding of music perception and psycho-acoustics so
working with him helped me to clarify a lot of my own ideas about basing my own compositional decisions on the realities of music perception and that ended up having a meaningful impact on my work with improvisation as well.
C.M.: How about the activity you had at IRCAM?
S.L.: I was an artist-in-residence at IRCAM from June 2011 through September 2011. I was working mostly on computer-driven formats for improvisation with two researchers developing a system called OMax. There was some overlap with my work with Spectral Music but not much.
C.M.: About the research that I’m working on “Spectral Techniques in Composition and Improvisation” do you have any comments, ideas?
S.L.: I’m publishing an article on this topic in the next volume of “Arcana” which is published by John Zorn. It should be available in fall of 2012.
C.M.: Any suggestions about useful bibliography?
S.L.: There a good article by Joshua Fineberg called „Guide to the basic concepts and techniques of spectral music” and then of course looking at writings by composers like Murail and Grisey and interviews they’ve done and listening to their music (most of all not easy to find if you’re not connected to a major university and don’t have tons of dollars to spend). I’ve only found out about composers like Dumitrescu and Avram and Radulescu a few years ago so I’m still learning about their music. I will be interested to see how you integrate all of that stuff into your work.
Excerpt from “Spectral Techniques In Composition and Improvisation” by Catalin Milea
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