Photo courtesy of the artist.
Caroline Davis is a true Renaissance woman: a singer, a storyteller, a saxophonist, a scholar, a teacher, and more. This Thursday she performs with her quintet at the Jazz Gallery; we spoke with her on the phone about her upcoming performances, and her new experiments in rhythm, neuron-tracking, and more.
The Jazz Gallery: You’ve performed with a quartet in the past. What prompted the transition to a quintet?
Caroline Davis: I really wanted to push myself to write for two melodic voices, with harmony behind it, which is kind of another step for me, in terms of my own composition. I wanted to add another voice. It’s really my own goal of adding another voice, and I like trumpet, I’ve always wanted to have a trumpet player in my band. I guess maybe it also comes from hearing Cannonball Adderly playing with his brother Nat Adderly in his quartet, hearing that sound. I had that sound in my head and wanted to incorporate that sound into my music.
TJG: And you’re a singer and a saxophonist too, in your bands, right?
CD: Yeah, but in this context I’m just going to be playing saxophone.
TJG: Can you talk a little bit about the way you incorporate history in your music? You’ve done some work featuring storytelling.
CD: The album I came out with in November was kind of an homage to this community in Chicago that mentored me. I wanted to know where they came from, and how they found influence when they were my age. So now those musicians who mentored me, they’re in their 50s, their later 50s, and I wanted to know what their stories were from my age standpoint. So that was the reason why I wrote that music.
Nowadays, though, I feel like some of the music I’m writing is coming from a different place. I can’t necessarily verbalize where that place is… I’ve written two new pieces for this show. Those two new pieces are more interested in rhythm, and transpositions between rhythms, metric modulations, and this way of superimposing a different meter on top of a standard 4/4. I’m more interested in rhythm these days. But I think there’s a longstanding history of people being interested in rhythm. I have been reading the composer, Elliot Carter, who cared a lot about rhythm, I read some of his works and looked at some of his music. Steve Coleman has always been a huge influence on me, historically, and I’ve been listening to his music for years now but trying to figure out what’s going on more specifically in his music. I’m trying to look a little deeper into the input I’ve had for years, so I guess you could say I’ve been incorporating history in that way, but it’s a little different than before.
TJG: With your rhythmic explorations, do you start by scoring it, or by feeling the rhythm you want and then figuring out how to notate it?
CD: The latter, feeling and then notating. Sometimes that takes a little longer than I’d like, but it feels more natural that way, feeling and then notating. I write it from there.
TJG: How do you feel your identities as a scholar and a performer interact?
CD: I always try to do a lot of research. Like going with that theme of rhythm– reading what people have written about rhythm; there’s a lot of scholars who have written about superimposition of polymeter in music theory journals, so I checked that out. I know how to look for articles that are relevant to the way I want to compose. Also, when I was in graduate school, I was taught that if I was interested in a scholar, I should contact them. I still do that these days; Steve Coleman for example, I contact him and ask him a lot of questions. Sometimes people are too busy to answer my questions, but sometimes they’ll take the time to answer. So those are a couple things that I was taught to do, and I still use those ways of being, and of getting in touch with people who I’m interested in.
In the future also I’m trying to incorporate this idea of the way music is represented in the brain, trying to represent that better. So that I can potentially write music that complements that. Our brains interpret music in certain ways, and it’s not the easiest to understand the ways that our brains interpret music, but I want to try to represent that in a piece of music. If our neurons respond to a pitch in the brain in a certain way, I want to see if I can try to write a piece of music that eventually describes how the brain interprets music. Something that musically represents the way it looks: I want to explain the way the brain interprets music through music. I’m trying to figure out a way to do that, but I’m still learning a lot more about neuron response.
I have a couple friends who are working on projects where they write music based on the response of the brain. A friend of mine has played a piece where they hook up electrodes to her scalp and she’s interacting with her brain; the sounds that are emanating from her brain– we can hook up a system that measures the response of the brain and turns that into sound, and then it powers that through a speaker, and she’s playing along with that, which is really cool. I’m really interested in that kind of thing—she had a really good time doing that piece.