Contemporary Music Ensemble Collaborates with Jazz Master Henry Threadgill

January 10, 2019

Erich Burnett

Henry Threadgill
Photo credit: Pulitzer Board

World-premiere performance launches Cleveland Museum of Art’s new composers series Jan. 11; open rehearsal at Oberlin set for Jan. 10.

When the Cleveland Museum of Art got the green light to proceed with a series of new music commissions, the first composer it sought was Pulitzer Prize-winning jazzman Henry Threadgill.

The first collaborative partner it sought was Oberlin Conservatory.

On January 11, the first installment of the Creative Fusion Composers Series takes the stage of the museum’s Gartner Auditorium. It will serve as the world premiere of Threadgill’s Pathways, performed with his New York-based ensemble Zooid and the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble.

Henry Threadgill with CME
Threadgill working with CME and Zooid in Clonick Hall. (photo by Julie Gulenko '15)

Threadgill and Zooid spent a week in Oberlin working in daily rehearsals with CME and conductor Timothy Weiss. Their last on-campus session together is an open rehearsal in Clonick Hall that takes place at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, January 10. It is free and open to the public, with seating available for up to 40 guests.

The concept for Threadgill’s Oberlin collaboration was the brainchild of Tom Welsh, director of performing arts at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Though the museum has programmed musical performances for at least 100 years, it had not previously commissioned new works—a step Welsh considers integral to its status as a major contributor to the performing arts. That has changed with the first composer-centric Creative Fusion, the Cleveland Foundation’s 11-year-old initiative to bolster connections between artists and the community. In the coming months, six composers will collaborate with various community partners across northeast Ohio. Threadgill—and CME—are the first.

Welsh brought Threadgill to Cleveland in May 2018, to get to know the city and ultimately to mine inspiration for his commissioned work. During that visit, they also dropped in on a rehearsal with CME, which Welsh describes as “the preeminent new music ensemble in America.” Not coincidentally, conductor Weiss was a driving force behind the Grammy Award-winning, Oberlin-born International Contemporary Ensemble and Eighth Blackbird.

To Welsh, Threadgill’s Zooid and Weiss’ CME were a natural marriage.

“They are kind of like chamber music, but kind of not,” he says of Zooid, whose unconventional instrumentation—a hallmark of Threadgill’s music—includes a tuba. “They’re always improvising and flexing and changing right before your very eyes. To my mind, the only organization to do this sort of collaboration anywhere is CME. My secret hope was for this to be a match made in heaven, and I think that’s turned out to be true.”

Threadgill, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2016 for his album In for a Penny, In for a Pound, has been called “perhaps the most important jazz composer of his generation” by The New York Times. Such accolades notwithstanding, he is something of a musical chameleon whose complex yet accessible creations defy easy categorization.

For the classical musicians of CME, Threadgill’s emphasis on improvisation presented new challenges during their week together, which consisted of rehearsals lasting up to six hours daily.

“I use the German concept of ‘rehearse,’” Threadgill told Cleveland public radio station WCPN 90.3 FM in an interview leading up to the performance. “What we do in the United States is we have a rehearsal, and people play their music from left to right. If they did it right, they get up and they go home. The German word for ‘rehearse’ is explore, and that’s what we do when we rehearse.

“The students do what they want to do,” Threadgill continues. “I offer them an entry into the music that is based on improvisation. People look at the music and bring their own interpretation to it.”

The music in this case is Pathways, a reference to Lake Erie, which creates most of Ohio’s northern border. Threadgill, who frequently finds inspiration in nature (his last album was called Dirt…and More Dirt), was struck by man’s reliance on Lake Erie for transportation and the resurgence it has enjoyed in recent years.

Musically, Pathways was conceived as a sort of overture, the first piece in a two-part series; next up is a companion work called Passages.

“Henry said There’s gonna be improvising…are you OK with that?” recalls Lauren Anker, a fifth-year double-degree student majoring in horn performance and history. “And I’m like…suuuurre. So he did warn us about that!”

Anker and her fellow CME musicians admit that Threadgill’s jazz-informed approach can be disorienting at first, but that the members of Zooid immediately recognized that a little translation would be in order.

“Sometimes it feels like Henry is speaking a different language,” she says. “He has a really interesting interpretation of the music that’s definitely much more free than what I am accustomed to. In the improv sections, he really wants us to make music, and he wants us to converse with one another. It’s a kind of communication and music making that you really don’t see people thinking about, even in the contemporary world. Everybody has input, and everybody has a say in the music making, which is great.”

For more information about the January 10 open rehearsal at Oberlin, visit the online events calendar. Learn more about the January 11 performance at the museum at the CMA website.

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