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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Emra Islek, design by Nerissa Campbell

Photo by Emra Islek, design by Nerissa Campbell

Every Sunday, the man leaves roses for his dead lover. One spring afternoon, an ethereal voice lures him downward, into the crypt…

THE ICE SIREN, a jazz opera composed by John Ellis with libretto by Andy Bragen, had its premiere performances on The Jazz Gallery’s stage, back in late May, 2009, as part of our Large Ensemble Commissions Series. Now, over six years later, this haunting tale of a lover’s journey into a frozen world beneath a crypt returns to our stage as part of The Jazz Gallery’s 20th Anniversary Concert Series. The work, the second of three large-scale collaborations between Ellis and Bragen, has never been commercially recorded or released, so don’t miss your chance to hear this work performed live by a cast made up of almost entirely original members of the Dreamscapes Ensemble, including the vocal leads Gretchen Parlato and Miles Griffith.

We caught up with Ellis by phone to hear his thoughts upon revisiting this ambitious work, and to get more of a sense of what’s in store for those who dare to descend into the world of THE ICE SIREN.

The Jazz Gallery: Could you talk about the plot of Ice Siren and how you approached composing music for a more plot-driven narrative scenario?

John Ellis: This was the second collaboration I did with my playwright friend Andy Bragen, which grew out of the first one, which we called “Dreamscapes.” We were thinking about the relationship between words and music in the most general sense and how we could investigate that.

For “Dreamscapes,” I had him write 12-line dream scenarios, kind of like poems, and each was meant to be as a dream might be. I created an instrumentation that was meant to be cinematic and have a lot of emotional, compositional, and orchestral possibilities, and that included a string quartet, percussion, tuba, vibes, and marimba. That project was more like, “Here are the words, and then here is the music,” so the audience hears the words and then hears the music, and the music is supposed to conjure up a dream-like feeling.

It was a really cool process and I learned a lot; I don’t think it was totally successful from an execution standpoint, but from a conceptual standpoint it was good. So, from that, we said, “What if we take one dream and try to create an hour-long narrative story?” We decided to focus on nightmares.

Andy did a lot of research. He was up at night watching scary films, reading scary books, and we gravitated toward this combination of frightening and humorous, sort of inspired by Tim Burton and various people that deal with that idea: a little bit cartoonish, but still scary. The most natural next phase of words and music interacting was to make songs. We were writing independently, but he had the text first and I would try to write music to the words, which was a little counterintuitive. It was fun to do it that way; I think we discovered through MOBRO that, as a process, if you put words to music, it seems to work a little bit better.

TJG: Setting words to the music?

JE: It has to do with what comes first. If someone gives you some text and you’re going to write a song, you’re going to make the music for the lyrics you have already; music follows its own kind of logic, and words don’t necessarily have to. I mean, poetry is more similar, obviously, in terms of the flow, but we had a good time. This was a while back, so I have to think back, but we had a lot of fun.

The plot is essentially about a man visiting the crypt of his deceased lover, and he goes on a regular basis and, at some point—we imagine it being one of those above-ground crypts, maybe it’s in New Orleans or whatever—it’s kind of open and he takes a look in there, and there’s an elaborate world that he climbs down into and sees. There’s a frozen lake and there’s a moon, and he keeps hearing this voice and the voice is calling him, and he wonders if that’s the voice of his lover; he’s not sure. At some point they meet, and she questions his love for her, and they have this whole back and forth.

Not to spoil it too much, but he ends up being pulled down into the ice. And, as terrifying as that could be, that maybe is like true love. [laughs]

TJG: A dark metaphor.

JE: It’s not clear that it’s necessarily bad—maybe it’s a good thing.

TJG: In an interview with Jason Crane, you mentioned dividing orchestrating and composing during writing. Could you talk a bit about the approach and how it’s served you since then?

JE: It’s interesting for me to come back to this piece because we haven’t performed it in five years. We did a string rehearsal the other day, and I don’t really remember how I did some of it, but I do remember one of the things I learned from the “Dreamscapes” idea. I think this might be a relevant idea for any of us who interact with technology as we write music, but there are lots of little ways, if you’re using these programs and things, to get stuck in a kind of micro-mindset. In a way, I think these programs can lead us there,: “Well, what if I change this? Let me play it back? Cool, let me change that, let me change that.” So I was playing with a lot of details in orchestration, and it was easy to spin out and lose track of the big picture.

I realized in this second iteration of our collaboration that it was actually better for me to divide the composition from the orchestration, so I stayed big picture as much as possible, I stayed in a notebook as much as possible; I tried to get the moods. We kind of knew in advance what was going to happen, so we divided it into events, and maybe loosely I knew Gretchen’s singing this line and Mile’s singing this line, I’ll like to feature these instruments in different ways, but mostly I was thinking, “What is the form of this? How many bars is it? What are the melodies? Are there countermelodies? What is the feeling of it? What is the rhythm of it? How long does it go?” Things that are kind of general and you sketch it out: “I have an intro, it’s going to go for this amount of time,” then I’ll have a placeholder, then you fill it in more and it’s a little bit more like problem solving.

For me, it’s much easier to get a lot done faster because you build out this big grid for it, more or less, and you have these big themes, [sings], and these parts that are coming around, so maybe I can use that here or use that in this other area. You’re thinking about the language you want to use: this one has a lot of relationships with keys that are major thirds apart, maybe minor keys a major third apart, you have a sense of that part of it.

But I’ve never been too good at approaching it from primarily a math frame of mind. Mostly I’m thinking about emotion, how it feels and playing with that, but the thing is that I quite intentionally chose this band: it’s like a string quartet meeting a playful version of a jazz quartet, where you have tuba instead of bass, percussion instead of drums, vibes instead of a piano, and there’s guitar. It has some of the similar functions, but there are all different sounds, plus the singers, so you have these little problems you’re solving in a way.

That time, I did it in three months, which is hard for me to imagine at the moment; I don’t think I’m capable of writing like that now [laughs], but I did sort of spend a month to write big picture stuff, then orchestrating, then editing and fixing up at the end. 

TJG: Looking back on it now, does anything jump out or surprise you as far as how you did certain things?

JE: I could see that I was really focused on the strings as the center of the process—partly because it was a fun, new challenge—so the string writing is significantly more involved than some of the writing for the other instruments. But you run up against all kinds of interesting things. For the type of stuff that I’ve done, this was probably the most carefully managed in the sense that most of the movements have minimal improvisation. It’s getting closer to something that you might call classical music—of course, that term is weird, too—but one of the advantages of jazz is that you hire people with big personalities and you create this environment for them to improvise together.

This has less of that than some of the other stuff I’ve done, and I do think it becomes one of the critical challenges: how you maintain the stuff you love about music in an improvised setting and yet get very specific about composition. It’s a continuing thing in my mind: as you get more detail-oriented in the compositional part of it, do you lose something that you like that comes from the improvisational part of it?

TJG: You mentioned Tim Burton earlier, and listening to the music earlier, there’s all this stuff, the slow contrapuntal stuff in “She Shows Her Face” but there’s also the oompah dance in the sixth movement, kind of humorous. Listening to the music, I was thinking of Tim Burton, even though I didn’t know whether he was an influence musically to any extent.

JE: I mean, I love Tim Burton, so he was an influence in some particular way, but when I’m writing, I’m thinking, “The tuba sounds good when it does this, maybe this will be funny to have this happen, this feels this way when it moves this way.” Even “She Shows Her Face,” it’s sort of playful serialism. It sounds atonal in a way, but I was just doing it intuitively; there isn’t any math in it.

It’s not rigorous in the sense of how people think of 20th century atonality. I was just looking for, “If their real love duet is in this kind of language, this kind of atonality, wouldn’t that be effective?” And I just wrote it like that. If someone knows a lot about that, I’m sure they’ll see that it’s not actually that, but it feels like that to me enough to get the effect across.

TJG: It makes a lot of sense to use that language to get this kind of cold sound.

JE: Yeah, and when you’re working with a playwright, you’re thinking about mood and narrative and what happens next. It’s supposed to feel this way, like, “What does cold feel like to me?” It’s like clarinet, vibes—those instruments and chords that are moving in a certain relationship to each other, things that are predictable, and unpredictable. The narrative part also: at what speed do the events unfold, and how do we shock and surprise in certain moments and hypnotize in certain moments?

John Ellis presents THE ICE SIREN, his second collaboration with Andy Bragen, at The Jazz Gallery on Friday, February 19th, and Saturday, February 20th, 2016. THE ICE SIREN features Gretchen Parlato and Miles Griffith on voice, Ellis on saxophone, clarinet, and bass clarinet, Mike Moreno on guitar, Chris Dingman on vibes, Marcus Rojas on tuba, Daniel Sadownick on percussion, Hiroko Taguchi on violin, Olivier Manchon on violin, Todd Low on viola, Christopher Hoffman on cello, and J.C. Sanford conducting. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. each night. $30 general admission ($20 for Members). Purchase tickets here.