Design courtesy of the artists.
In 2009, the creative duo consisting of John Ellis and Andy Bragen premiered their second collaborative work, The Ice Siren, an hour-long composition with music by Ellis and a libretto by Bragen. Weaving layers of narrative and musical language together, The Ice Siren features vocalists Miles Griffith and Gretchen Parlato, plus a lush mixed chamber-jazz ensemble including Ellis on reeds. The large-scale work returns to The Jazz Gallery this month in celebration of its recording and release, Ellis’s tenth album as a leader. Following up on multiple prior interviews with this blog, and in anticipation of the pre-concert conversation with WBGO’s Simon Rentner, we again spoke with both Ellis and Bragen, diving inside their collaborative world and their nuanced approach to their creative work.
TJG: Do I have it right that you and John met at Hunter College in the late 90s?
Andy Bragen: Not exactly. John’s mother was up in New York for a year taking a graduate course at Hunter College. I was also taking a course up there, I was in my twenties at the time. She mentioned that her son John and his brother were living in Williamsburg and had just lost their place, and there was an opening at this crazy house I was living at in the East Village. His mother connected us: John moved into that house, and we became great friends.
John Ellis: Lately, our personal lives have intersected even more. I’d been on the list for Mitchell-Lama housing in the East Village for almost a decade. I got in about a year and a half ago, and it was because of him that I knew about it. So basically, my life with Andy has always had to do with housing [laughs]. When I first came to New York I moved into his house, this crazy house on 7th street, we all got kicked out. We became friends living in this falling-down house, and have since intersected over the years. When he got into Village View, when the list opened, he told me, and that was good fortune, because now that’s where I am.
AB: Now we live in the same complex in the East Village, one building over from each other. He’s one of my best friends, a lifelong friend. He’s an important part of my community and life. His family and my family, we’re very connected. In terms of collaboration, I think we will again. The timing is just so hard to make a big piece, but the last one we did was delightful, exciting. I hope we will in the future. In the meantime, it’s nice to revisit this work, especially with the record coming out.
TJG: At what point in your friendship did things become more collaborative?
AB: We’d always enjoyed each others’ work, and I was friends with a lot of his musical friends in those years. In general, I knew some of those folks. Our first thing was a commission from The Jazz Gallery in 2007-8 for Dreamscapes. He invited me to do that with him. With that, I wrote some poems, and he wrote music to them. It wasn’t quite as integrated. My father was dying or had just died at the time, so it was deeply connected to that. We got to talking: the Gallery commissioned John again, and this time he really brought me in with The Ice Siren. We were more fully integrated around a conversation, a concept, a whole piece.
TJG: Between the three collaborations–The Ice Siren, Dreamscapes, and MOBRO, you must have learned so much. If you were to start something new now, what would you now know about the first creative steps you might take together?
AB: Especially for The Ice Siren and MOBRO, we were always good at talking about process. Building a story together. With The Ice Siren, we talked a lot about mood, references, interests. We talked about Tim Burton, scary and funny, dreams and nightmares. I responded to some of those ideas with language. I wrote the words first, and we put music to it. MOBRO was more deeply integrated in a way. We had a theme–that garbage barge–then we looked at different sections and pulled them together in terms of moods and feelings, then got more specific. That one felt truly integrated. We sat down together for a week during a residency in New Mexico, and could really talk through what the piece could be.
Moving forward, if we were to do something, we would both be starting with a great familiarity with each others’ work. We would be starting from themes, and try to find a working style. There’s not one simple way to do anything. If we were a musical theater team, we might have a fixed way of working, but we tend to come together project by project, and try to discover what can work in terms of inspiring each other with what we’re thinking.
JE: Each of our projects has been different, yet somehow the same too. Mostly, we’ve been looking at intersection of language and music–the obvious thing to think about–but narrative too. Mostly, our collaborations have been through the Gallery, presenting a show of music, and inviting Andy to bring his expertise. Essentially, we’re making music first. It’s been enormously productive to collaborate with Andy, but we haven’t yet made a work of theater, something where the music serves the writing more. I’ve invited him into my world, in a way, but I haven’t been in his world. We could try to write a straight-up musical, or something theatrical like that.
The other crazy thing is that I never think of these works as finished. Even though it’s so old–we debuted it in 2009–The Ice Siren has really only happened three times: The premiere, the second performance plus recording, and now. Every time we do it, we get the musicians, it comes together, and what inevitably happens is that I want to make it better. Even though we already made a record, I’m still making adjustments to it. I re-learn the piece, which means I remember what I was thinking, which means I dig deeply into the score, which means I see things that feel glaringly wrong in my 2020 eyes compared to my 2009 eyes [laughs]. It’ll continue to be better than ever. I’m trying to make the presentation of the work better, clearer.