April 29, 2016
Amanda Nagy
Max Bessesen Photo credit: Jennifer Manna

Double-degree student Max Bessesen will head to India this fall to study Carnatic music, or south Indian classical music, as a Beebe fellow.

Bessesen is majoring in law and society and jazz saxophone performance. A Downbeat award-winning performer, teacher, and composer, he is one-fourth of the contemporary jazz quartet Echoes, an ensemble that formed at Oberlin in January 2014. His primary instrument is alto saxophone, but he plays other saxophones, flute, and clarinet.

The Beebe fellowship provides an all-inclusive grant of $22,000 for travel and living expenses. The fund was established in 1932 at the bequest of Frank Huntington Beebe, a Boston philanthropist who was passionate about music. The purpose of the fund is to provide fellowships for gifted young musicians, generally performers and composers in classical disciplines, who wish to pursue advanced music study and performance abroad, usually in Europe.

A native of Denver, Colorado, Bessesen is humbled by the award. He says he was surprised to be accepted for the grant because he doesn’t fit the typical applicant description. “I think I was lucky to apply in a year that they were looking to diversify the types of proposals they fund.”

With the fellowship, he will spend eight months conducting an extensive study of Carnatic music primarily on saxophone but also through flute and percussion. He will train with Carnatic saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath, who is one of the first to incorporate the instrument into the tradition. He will also study at a community music center called Brhaddhvani Research and Training Center for Musics of the World, which specializes in teaching Carnatic music to international students in a classroom context (traditionally the music is taught aurally through an apprenticeship model).

His goals for the project are to “develop my understanding of Indian music, experience a culture that is wildly different than my own, and have a fun, meaningful experience that will deepen my music and my worldview.”

At Oberlin, Bessesen has been studying Carnatic music with Professor of Advanced Improvisation and Percussion Jamey Haddad. He has also been listening to and transcribing the music on his own. “Many of my jazz heroes have also studied Indian music, and I think that it has a great deal of relevance to modern jazz because it is one of the few classical traditions that has a current practice of improvisation.”

Bessesen says his music classes and relationships with students and faculty all helped define the direction for his project. “Most significant were my experiences in the PI (Performance and Improvisation) ensemble, and my conversations with visiting artist Steve Coleman who also attended Brhaddhvani.”

Upon returning to the United States, Bessesen plans to tour with Echoes and teach as a freelancer.

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