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INTERVIEW | Soprano Measha Brueggergosman-Lee And Composer Aaron Davis Talk About Zombie Blizzard

By Anya Wassenberg on February 23, 2024

L-R: Soprano Measha Brueggergosman-Lee; Composer Aaron Davis (Photos courtesy of the artists)
L-R: Soprano Measha Brueggergosman-Lee; Composer Aaron Davis (Photos courtesy of the artists)

Zombie Blizzard is a musical project that brings together the classically trained vocals of soprano Measha Brueggergosman-Lee, the words of renowned author Margaret Atwood, and both classical and jazz idioms in the music of composer Aaron Davis.

The album of concert arias includes performances by Davis’ trio (with George Koller on bass and Mark Mariash on drums), and the Hannaford Street Silver Band, and drops digitally on Leaf Music on March 1. On March 3, the album gets a live premiere at Toronto’s Jane Mallett Theatre

We spoke to Measha and Aaron about the album and project.

The Interview

Composer/musician Aaron Davis traces the project back to a concert that took place a few years ago pre-pandemic. It was the Christmas holiday show for the Hannaford Street Silver Band, and Measha was the featured vocalist. Aaron had arranged some of the music for the concert.

“It exceeded my expectations,” he said. He was fascinated by the flexibility of Hannaford, a classical horn ensemble, and its potential.

Davis’ background lies more in the realm of jazz. He was one of the co-founders and main composers for jazz-fusion band Manteca through the 1980s and into the 1990s. He’s also a founding member of the Holly Cole Trio. Jazz and Western classical music may have some commonalities, but don’t often meet in the middle.

“There’s a different way that people approach idioms,” Davis notes. That’s where he saw the difference. “The Hannafords really knocked it out of the park,” he adds.

The Music

Davis composed the music first for keyboard and voice, and then added the brass arrangement to it. “Measha has such an incredible range,” he notes. It meant they could choose from a variety of different keys. In Digging Up The Scythians, she kind of shocked me,” he says. Measha sang a tritone above what he thought would be possible. “I want this to be a real soprano [part].”

The end result is written for piano, string bass and drums, and then a 10-piece brass ensemble. The Hannaford Street Silver Band includes a broad range of instrumentation that Davis plays with in his music.

Although he was experienced at setting poetry to music, (his father Chandler Davis was a poet, among other things), Atwood’s writing posed some challenges. “This was the first time I’d been commissioned to do an entire cycle,” he says. With different layers of meaning in the poems, it called for a custom approach. “I had to approach it a little differently,” he explains, noting that rhyming lines were rare, and the pattern of the lines irregular. “Some of it flows like conversation. I adopted different strategies for different parts of the song cycle.”

Measha’s vocals are, at times, part of the rhythm section. At others, they float above the instrumental accompaniment.

Sections of the music are written in a style he calls “pretty vague”, i.e. leaving interpretation to the musicians, and includes polyrhythmic sections, even rhythmic breathing. “They were really comfortable with it.” He credits Hannaford’s Artistic Director David Pell for the ensemble’s versatility and technical skill.

It made for a great experience. “We really enjoyed ourselves.”

Measha calls the sound, which blends elements of both jazz and classical simply a combination of the components, being a “living legend” in Atwood, the talents of Aaron Davis, and the established musicality of the Hannafords.

The result is stylistically seamless, and defies the usual conventions. It incorporates a jazz trio and (large) horn section, but it’s not entirely jazz or classical. “But we’re calling them concert arias,” she says. “We’re not over or underselling or stating anything.”

Part of the impetus came from the pandemic, and the unexpected ways it affected artistic creation. “We were just making things up as we were going on,” she says. “I want to do things that make complete sense, but also completely baffle us.” She points out that composers Schumann and Schubert had a friendship, out of which the tradition of German Lieder was developed, and rose to become a popular vocal form.

Her own music practice takes her from her classical training to jazz and back. “I’m always thinking in the tradition of classical,” she adds. In Western music, jazz and classical have developed on separate lines. “But, it doesn’t have to be that way,” she says. “You have to be able to do all the things that we’ve separated culturally.”

Aaron points out that jazz greats like Herbie Hancock studied Stravinsky and Bartok. “I started researching the history of fourth chords,” he notes — chords which have become strongly associated with jazz. His research, though took him to Schoenberg before he adopted his 12-tone compositional style, Charles Ives, and other classical composers.

The Hannaford Street Silver Band in the studio (Photo courtesy of HSSB)
The Hannaford Street Silver Band in the studio (Photo courtesy of HSSB)

The Words

Atwood published Dearly, her first collection of poems in several years, in 2020. Much of it touches on what was then the impending death of her husband Graeme. It does, though, delve into other topics. The seven poems chosen for the album cover a range of emotions and ideas, including sexism and gender equality, and flashes of Atwood’s often ironic humour.

Measha is a friend of Margaret Atwood’s, and really loved the new book of poems. She calls it “dark and disturbing, and ironic, like a lot of Margaret Atwood’s poems are”. Even in writing about grief, the poems are both unsentimental and emotional at the same time.

It was Measha’s idea to create a song cycle around the poems, and have it commissioned by the Hannafords.

“I spent time with her and Graeme,” Measha says. It drew parallels to the passing of her father. “My father had gone to glory in 2019.”

The loss of a life partner, a closeness with her mother, a female spirit entering a state of maturity — these were themes she could relate to in the book. She calls being able to work with both the poet and the composer directly “empowering”.

When it came to the music, she knew she wanted Aaron. They are frequent collaborators, although this project is the first to involve all of the components together from start to finish. “I always wanted it to be Aaron. It feels complete, and yet it contains this freedom in it.”

“Seven is the number of completion,” Measha points out. It’s how they eventually decided on the form, a seven-song cycle. One of the poems is itself a collection of seven poems.

Calling the songs concert arias is another deliberate choice.

“It is important to me that it be classifiable, while also being something that sparks discussion and debate,” Aaron says. “I like that. I’m going to call it a thing, and then defy you to call it something else.”

  • You can pre-save the album from your streaming service of choice [HERE], and find more information and tickets for the Toronto show [HERE].

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