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Glad To Have Done It, Glad To Have It Done

April 25, 2010

Will Mason ’10

Everyone getting a performance degree from the Conservatory has to give a junior recital (~35 minute long program) and a senior recital (evening-length). I think that for some this might be daunting, but I've been looking forward to it ever since I started here. There aren't many opportunities (here and in the real world, though mostly the latter) to program a concert of music you love with musicians you love to play with, so--at least for jazz majors and independent majors--a recital presents a unique chance to really show people what you're all about. I think that classical and historical performance majors work pretty closely with their teachers to design a program, but jazz majors by and large have complete leeway to do anything they want on their recital. (Notable exception: the senior clarinet recital I saw freshman year in which one of the pieces was an improvised duo between clarinet and a deep fryer.)

On Thursday I gave my junior recital for my independent major (read more about that here, but essentially a jazz major flavored by TIMARA, music theory, and composition classes). My friend, housemate, and fellow jazz drummer Noah shared the night with me, which is common practice for junior recitals. Despite my earlier admission that I'd been thinking about my recital for years, the program came together at the very last minute. This isn't because of procrastination, but because I kept doing more and more to get ready for rehearsals and, in doing so, wound up having all of my music finished with only two weeks to go. With music, as with most everything else I do, I go through a lot of drafts and produce a large volume of work that ends up going unused. (Don't even ask me how many half-written blog posts I have on my hard drive.) Deciding which compositions, and which arrangements of compositions, to play was agonizing. With two weeks to go I decided on a program of three original compositions, an Ornette Coleman tune ("Ramblin'"), and the Miles Davis (but probably Bill Evans) tune "Blue In Green."

One of the originals, "I Drink Your Milkshake," was written way back when that was a timely reference. Our performance of it is here:

I listen to as much metal as I do jazz, and when I write pieces I try to borrow elements from disparate genres. "Milkshake" is pretty short and simple: it's based around a simple chord progression that outlines an A-half diminished chord (and a bridge that sort of goes between B and D major), but with a lot of dissonant extensions in the melody and a herky-jerky rhythm that's in 4/4 but doesn't feel like it. The solo section is loose, and dissolves into chaos pretty rapidly. The instructions were for the "front line" instruments (two electric guitars + tenor sax) to start passing notes around until eventually there was just a cloud of noise. I really like noise.

Another original was an odd-metered drum and bass tune that I wrote in December. Even though I'm a drummer, I almost never write songs around drum beats or while drumming. I generally sit down with pen and paper, or at a piano, and see what I come up with. This means that when I do finish a piece, I then have to learn how to play it just like everyone else. So even though I composed it, everyone else in my recital band was comfortable playing this song before I was. Whoops.

The third piece I wrote was for electronics. Making music with computers is a big reason why I changed my major, but it remains a new thing for me and so I was really concerned about making sure that the piece came across well. One of the potential drawbacks of the aforementioned freedom afforded on a recital is that pieces can backfire easily. The piece that I originally intended on playing was essentially an amalgamation of samples that I thought sounded really cool on their own, but there was no structure to the piece at all. Five days before the recital I made the decision to scrap it, wrote a new piece (for electronics, violin, and drum set) on the spot, and rehearsed it twice with my friend Garrett. It ended up working out fine, neither superlative nor a train wreck. I'm glad I took the risk and put it on the program because it's not something that ever gets performed on a jazz recital, or in The Cat in the Cream (the campus venue where most folk and jazz concerts/recitals happen), and so I think it helped my program stand out a bit. It's also an honest representation of what interests me.

I learned a couple of important things putting all of this together. One is that I'm not a great drummer: I came to the instrument too late, with no formal instruction until I got to Oberlin, and there is simply no way to be competitive on the strengths of my technical facility alone. But I've been writing music since I was five years old, and have embraced that more since coming to Oberlin. Writing music lets me make the rules, in a sense, and it's increasingly becoming an inextricable part of who I am as a musician.

But more importantly, I was reminded of something I already knew, which is that I have managed to come into contact with some truly wonderful musicians and wonderful people while here. Everyone I performed with is someone whose musicianship I admire and respect, and they make me sound orders of magnitude better than I am whenever I play with them. And they'll all still be here when I do my senior recital in the fall...

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