Photo by Gaya Feldheim Schorr, courtesy of the artist.
An alumnus of the Berklee College of Music, drummer & composer Lesley Mok has built a conspicuous presence in New York’s community of young experimental improvisers. She’s a regular performer on Bushwick Public House’s Improvised Music Series, playing with peers like saxophonist Noah Becker and her collaborative trio Thworp.
Though Mok has appeared at The Jazz Gallery in bands led by Jasper Dutz and Nick Dunston, this Thursday, July 18, Mok makes her Gallery debut as a leader. For this performance, Mok convenes her working band The Living Collection, a sextet featuring saxophonists David Leon and Yuma Uesaka, trombonist Kalun Leung, pianist Sonya Belaya, and bassist Steve Williams. Jazz Speaks caught up with Mok by phone to talk about her music for the band, which explores both dense polyphony and stark contrast.
The Jazz Gallery: When did The Living Collection get started?
Lesley Mok: I started writing music for the band in August of last year, but we didn’t really get together as a group until December. I was curious about a lot of different compositional techniques, and I was listening to a lot of new music, so I had a particular sextet sound and a particular aesthetic in mind. When a gig opportunity came up in December, things took off.
Since then, we’ve done three gigs and each gig has been all new music, so it’s felt like three first gigs. The show at The Jazz Gallery will be a chance for us to revisit most of the things that I’ve written in the past six months, and a few new things. I’m excited to have the chance to play things a second time, let them sit and develop.
TJG: What are the some of the compositional methods and techniques that you’ve explored in your work for the band? Are there any particular composers whose work you’re responding to?
LM: There are a few composers who’ve influenced my writing. One is Henry Threadgill, particularly his band Zooid. It’s highly polyphonic music—each voice is its own independent melody but it’s still democratic and balanced. Another is Anthony Braxton. It’s not so much about his graphic scores or systems of notation, but more about the breadth of his music and how diverse it can be. His scores range from really broad to really specific, but I feel that they always bring out the strengths of each band member.
So the writing started as a response to these specific composers, but the more I experiment with the group, the more it’s becoming about the personalities in the band. Everyone has such a unique musical background, so part of the development is hearing what works with everyone’s natural tendencies, and writing in a way that enhances those tendencies. Sometimes, I can get to more clarity by writing less, which challenges my tendency to write a lot. I’ll have a specific idea or sound in mind, but what ends up becoming the composition is something entirely different. Learning to write for strong improvisers is a constant negotiation between what I envision for the band and how they might interpret my ideas. This newest batch of compositions is much more open. Some of the pieces are based on a single idea, like a set of intervals, or a rhythmic cell, or a gestural direction. The music is still really diverse, but it’s definitely becoming more open overall.
TJG: How much is this openness about letting the band members do their individual thing versus finding simpler ways to get the band to sound the way you want?
LM: I’ve learned with a lot of pieces that the sound I’m hearing can manifest itself within multiple aesthetics. When I listen to the Art Ensemble of Chicago or Sun Ra, it seems that its cacophony comes its band members simultaneously improvising in their own worlds, or playing in unison, but not directly responding to each other. I can’t really notate that, and for that kind of multiplicity, western notation isn’t that valuable.
For me, the compositional process also continues during the rehearsal process. Communicating certain things, or not communicating them, can really shape the composition. In my first pieces for the group, I would notate the start of an improvisation, like suggest a rhythm to begin with and allow them to take off from there. Now, I tend to give those directions through text, which helps me to communicate an idea more clearly while allowing the players to be themselves.