Dear Band

February 9, 2010 By Russell Scarbrough

Dear Band,

I wanted to let you know how much I appreciate the hard work you put into performing “Flex Time”, and giving a very very good premiere on Friday. The first performance of a piece is a stressful time, especially when I am out in the audience and not conducting. I know every note of it, how it’s “supposed to go”. And hearing it played in front of an audience for the first time is kind of like letting an animal you’ve raised go into the wild… “well, there he goes, he’s free.”

But I realize that that’s not your experience with the piece. “Flex Time”, of course, is difficult to play. Yes, it is in odd meters, and yes, the rhythms are tricky, and yes, the tempo is up. However, any group with enough time can get those things together, and you are a capable ensemble. What is really a challenge for a group such as yourselves is to find the spirit of the piece, the emotion it communicates and the energy that needs to come out of it. We talked about that a little in the times I was there to work with you. Sometimes you will hear people say things like “music is the universal language” or something like that. It’s not. Music is simply “language”, which can be misunderstood to some and incomprehensible to others. As you all continue to mature as musicians, you will discover this to be true. It is important not just to recite the words correctly and in the right order, but to actually communicate. And as humans, we communicate in very subtle and nuanced ways. Music is one of the few non-verbal, non-visual languages that can be rich enough to communicate the subtleties of human existence – emotions, desires, needs. As a composer, I try to be hyper-aware of this at all times when I write music. As a craftsman, I try to write so that the music can be played with as much intuitive expression as possible, so you can focus on actually executing the chart. But there is a large degree of overlap, that place where you as the performer must be artists and poets as well. I can’t write all of the emotional content of the piece. What I can’t write (and what you so clearly don’t hear in the midi sample of the piece I provided beforehand) is the expression that you, as ensemble and as soloists, must bring to the piece.

In jazz this is especially apparent because there is improvisation happening – there’s a rhythm section, there are long solos, and the interpretation of the ensemble is much more flexible and subject to change from performance to performance than in traditional art music. All these things have to be working together to make this kind of music come alive. And it is difficult… actually, it is incredible that it can happen at all – especially for a large group of musicians, and especially for a young group of musicians.

And this is what I heard in this group on Friday that is so moving to me… that as challenging as “Flex Time” is in a technical sense, the band was able to get at some of the “human-ness” of it. In the shimmering bookends, the peculiar melody, the contrapuntal transition, the floating time in the bass solo, there was life in all these things and others. Sure, it could always get deeper, more polished… you will always look to improve this. And you will, in the next performance, on the next piece, you’ll bring this musical experience with you. And so will I.

I also wanted to say that it was especially gratifying to hear my piece played after “Time For A Change”, a piece which I performed many times with Hank. I know he would be pleased that his music continues to be performed, especially by young musicians, with such enthusiasm.

My very best wishes to you all, and I hope to work with you again in the future.

Russell Scarbrough