While planning the 3 Questions for Toronto Composers series for Musical Toronto, I made sure to send an e-mail to composer and music educator Jason Doell to inquire whether he was interested in participating. My reason being that Doell’s music raises a lot of questions about beauty and boundaries in contemporary music: undoubtedly Doell writes music of extraordinary beauty, but that beauty seems to come with a price, which makes it intriguing beyond its initial surface. In pieces like “WARHEADS” for chamber ensemble, moments of fragmentary, scintillating orchestration are followed by periods of ponderous silence — almost as if the music has been erased or deleted from the score’s consciousness. These methods of discourse in Doell’s music give it a post-apocalyptic quality, like the memories of something lovely that has been irrevocably shattered. In other pieces like “Red Ensign” for mixed chamber ensemble, the silence is compressed and musical material fades in and out of memory, like something residual, collected or found rather than logicized into existence.
It is unsurprising that Doell is also involved with sound art and improvisation; his music seems to thrive on a spontaneous, meditative generation of sound and orchestration. Despite this air of spontaneity in his music, Doell’s answers show that careful planning, communication and exploring are what makes his compositions sing.
“…the dread and envy of them all” for woodwind quintet (from the upcoming album entitled Dominions) — commissioned and performed by Blythwood Winds (2016)
Our Lovèd Dominion Bless for piano six hands (from the upcoming album entitled Dominions) — commissioned and performed by junctQin keyboard collective (2015)
Red Ensign for mixed chamber ensemble — commissioned and performed by Continuum Contemporary Music for their 30th anniversary (2015)
1. How do you write your music?
Typically, the majority of my writing process is pen and paper. As a rule, I cross ideas out rather than erase them. My notes and drafts bare the scars of numerous corrections and re-imaginings. My work goes through distinct stages. During the researching/planning/sketching/drafting/revising/editing stages of my work, I put all my ideas down on paper. At each of the writing stages: I generate numerous lists of ‘to dos’ and ‘to don’ts’ in order to guide decision making and to avoid materials being used without intent; I produce multiple drafts of multiple ideas, which I put through multiple recombinatory processes; and I follow many potential outcomes that are ultimately not directly apparent in the final piece. I like to explore and bury myself in material.
Engraving is the only stage of my work done on the computer. I give each stage a fair amount of time to occupy my imagination, which isn’t to say that my process lacks moments of spontaneity. Some days require studious and deliberate efforts while other are guided by lightning bolts and squirrels.
This whole process starts from a set of musical questions that catalyze research, which pulls me toward more areas of inquiry inside and outside music.
2: When do you write your music?
Usually, I write music in the morning and go into the afternoon. I mostly only write during daylight hours. For large stretches of my year, this is a daily practice that occupies a fair portion of my days. When I can, I like to take breaks between projects and work in a musical situation that isn’t directly related to chamber music. I often need time to reboot.
3: In this age of plurality, composers are now pulling inspiration from many different places (pop music, world music, mathematics, visual art), not just the classical canon anymore. How valuable is the classical canon to you as a contemporary composer?
When I write, I reference canonized works alongside other materials during research periods. I steal ideas, tricks, tools, and methods from those who have come before and I let their ideas spark musical, conceptual, and artistic questions that become foundations for my exploration. However, the canon is not my sole point of reference, and often it is not even an important one. As a listener and a composer, I tend to gravitate towards music that falls in the cracks — music that is difficult to situate in any one context and openly draws from many different lines of thought.
I came to classical music later in life than most in our field. So, before (as well as since) studying classical music, my experiences with it ran along many different vectors. In my experience, classical music has been: the soundtrack to commercials, flatulent humour, cartoon music, computer science, a complicated component of ultraviolence, Nyan Cat, unpleasant design, samples used in hip hop, (and I’m sure I could think of many other ways that I’ve come to experience classical music) in addition to music on a concert program or for a training/education contexts. This is all to say, that I don’t personally place classical music (canonized or not) at the centre of what I do because I did not grow up experiencing it as a focal point. Instead, what I find interesting is what classical music can potentially signify and what emerges when those significations are overlaid, or interlaced into other contexts. Or even thinking about that the other way around (see Nyan Cat above).
Coming from an academic background, I have also read (albeit a long time ago now) many scholarly critiques of the classical canon (and canons of other disciplines) from musicologists to academics from other disciplines that often intersect with music.
For me, it seems that in the academy there is a tradition of critiquing the canon where important questions get asked (for example) about the relationship of the canon as a project, to systematic patriarchy, racism, and classism in broader cultural contexts. However, outside of academic institutions, my experience has been that critical interrogation is slow to surface. Often, I’ve experienced conversations about classical music getting reduced to “well, that is a great piece”.
Unfortunately, that only answers one question, and I think that as artists in this time, it is our responsibility to ask other questions – like: “Does the music we are programming reflect those who are making music in our communities? Does it reflect those who live in our communities?”; “how does this program, or my involvement in it, reinforce systemic oppression or limit access?”; “who benefits from my participation in this event, and who is hurt by my involvement?”; “who decides what is canonical and what values are represented in the decision to canonize a work?”; “what potentials are we ignoring or disabling?”; and on…
For more in our ongoing FIVE MINUTES series, see here.