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.
TJG: So when you look back at these three collaborations, do you see three pretty different approaches, with mutual inspiration being the thing in common?
AB: I see different approaches in terms of the nitty-gritty, the patterns of collaboration, but in the bigger picture of our ongoing conversation as friends and colleagues, it feels like part of the same conversation, very integrated in that sense. If and when we do another project together, it would come as an extension of our friendship. We’ve known each other over twenty-five years, so our experiences are different yet parallel. Working in theater as a playwright alongside John’s career, I’ve seen that musicians work with the same glories and struggles, in terms of what it means to come up as an artist in this age. Our ongoing conversations, personal and artistic, will continue to influence what we do.
TJG: What are you excited about checking out in the show? Are you excited to relive certain things, eager to see how things hold up?
AB: Yes, to a couple of things. I’ll be there for all of the shows next weekend, and we recently revisited some lyrics to make sure things were working in terms of scansion and such. I’m very interested in the experience of observing what I was thinking when I wrote it, and hearing it again in a different part of my life. I wrote it in 2009, and in that year I was a resident and teaching fellow in Sewanee, Tennessee. I was away from New York, living in a house next to a small pond, it was rustic. Kind of spooky. My father had passed away about a year and a half before that, so that was new, and I was still working through it. The woman I was living with at the time, we’re now married, and we have a six-year-old daughter who will come hear the piece. That’s exciting for me. It was always an emotional piece, and I don’t know how those emotions will feel now. Seeing a piece revived is a way of connecting to one’s earlier self, to think about the time that’s passed. Eleven years is a long time.
TJG: So when you relive a work that you’ve created, you’re watching parts of your own life be performed, in a way? You’re hearing words that you wrote, and you’re thinking about where you were at the time, what was on your mind.
AB: That’s right. That’s an interesting way to put it, the idea that you’re remembering the experience of writing it and of hearing it, of living through it. It’s interesting to revisit something for one’s self.
TJG: Do you have a personal favorite moment of this piece?
AB: I’m flipping through the libretto right now. I love those performers so much, Miles and Gretchen, they’re extraordinary. I love when they come together at the end in a duet, that’s wonderful. “Heaven or Hell,” that piece always gets me emotionally, because it’s about mourning in some sense. It makes the world disappear at the end of the song. Their voices echo, the dance of their voices and the music, I find that to be very beautiful.
TJG: Are there moments of the piece that tend to surprise you when you encounter them?
AB: Miles is always surprising, because how he approaches the songs is so unusual. There’s a heartbreak in Gretchen’s voice, and when they sing, it kind of cracks through into something else. Those two have been in this piece since its beginning, and so I’m really looking forward to seeing them both again.
TJG: John, tell me about an aspect of The Ice Siren that you love. A favorite scene, a musical moment or lyrical passage, something you loved in 2009 and you still love now.
JE: I could come up with something, but let me try to answer in a way that feels more honest, in a way that addresses both what I love about working with Andy and about what’s problematic about these pieces. The pieces are best experienced in totality. Because they’re narrative, the individual sections have meaning against the other sections. It’s contrary to our Spotify-playlist-channel-surfing-mentality, so it’s unrealistic to imagine that someone should sit and listen to something for an uninterrupted hour, especially on a record these days. But that’s what it is. So, there are all of these moments that I love, but the goal is to make these individual moments into a complete narrative picture. I’ve also been interested in using languages for their musical impact, composing with different musical languages, and seeing no reason why each can’t be me. That asks a lot of the listener.
TJG: Can you get more specific about what you mean by using a musical language?
JE: Orchestration is such a huge part of it. This piece is essentially written out like classical music, and doesn’t lean so much towards the improvised. The kinds of improvisation that are in there are aleatoric, as might happen when classical musicians improvise. Texture, gesture. It’s hard to talk about musical language using words—there’s a kind of translation required—but thinking about consonance and dissonance, I move through things more fluidly that way, rather than thinking “I want this to be like Strauss, this will be like Schoenberg.”
There’s a low duet in the middle where Miles tries to convince Gretchen to show herself, because before that, she’s been the etherial voice of a deceased lover. He’s saying “I’ll love you no matter what you look like,” and she’s saying “No, your love isn’t real,” that kind of stuff. I opted to make that a paired-down atonal section in the way 20th-century classical music can be, without actually being serialist. It doesn’t have the intellectual rigor, but is meant to feel like it. It comes down to dissonance and its emotional impact. Music as a key for emotion: Dissonant language feels a certain way. Other things are more consonant, using sounds that you associate with 19th century classical music, triadic movement, things that aren’t so much in the jazz realm of altered, diminished chord modulation, passing dominants, all this type of harmonic language.
TJG: Do you think having the work out, in totality, in album form, does something new for the work and your perspective on it?
JE: Of course. Going through the process of recording is so informative. For so many reasons. There’s nothing like telling a group of musicians that you’re going to record something to get them to play it right [laughs]. Put something on a recording, and everyone’s ego kicks in. Including me, which means I want to make the music better. In the period between the performance and the recording, just a few weeks, I did another round of revisions. It’s worth it to keep improving.
Does having it out in the world change the life of the piece? I don’t know. Will other people hear it? Does that change it somehow? I don’t know. I’m pretty agnostic about this. This is my tenth record, so my sense that records have an impact that I can understand is hard for me to predict. I’m humbled every time, because I don’t know what’s going to resonate with people, how it’ll land or whatnot. One of the reasons I want to keep tweaking all the time is that with these hybrid things borrowed from classical music and jazz sensibilities, the biggest danger is that they don’t capture the greatness of what both jazz and classical music have to offer individually. I want to get better at this hybrid approach, because I think it’s one of the hardest things to do. It takes effort. It’s something to try, and I’m hard on the process.
TJG: You sound hard on it.
JE: I love it as a process, but to defend it as this amazing work–which is what you do when you’re selling something–is hard to do while feeling authentic. I think it might be! I truly hope people like it. But I want to be better. Over time, I get better.
TJG: Andy, I know you’re a teacher, and that you went to Brown for your MFA. A lot of students read this blog, so I’m curious, are there things in your education that gave you the tools, strategies, or perspectives to jump head-first into a project like this?
AB: I think my education allowed me to do things I wasn’t necessarily comfortable doing. There was always a playfulness to my being in graduate school at Brown. We might have had a class where we were trying to design a set or something, while a set designer might be trying to write. There was a “Why not try to do everything” mentality to it. Come into it with playfulness.
TJG: That feels like a tall order for students, so many of whom come into school trying to already be perfect and accomplished. Play can be scary.
AB: I agree. Moving forward, I hope that’s what keeps it interesting writing plays and librettos in different different genres. You have different tools, a different craft. As a teacher, I try to emphasize the ability to bring your skills and tools to a place of beginner’s mind.
TJG: John, what’s a tool that you bring to the table, something you value in yourself as a collaborator?
JE: I try to be brutally honest about what I’m doing. To be relentless. I don’t give up on an idea, and I try to continuously improve on it. I bear down on it. A big part of composing, for me, is “inventing the problem.” It’s critically important. You invent a problem, which becomes the framework for what the work is going to be. With Andy and I, we work together to invent a problem–the story, the narrative–and then the execution in this case is mostly writing the music. If you want to have music that represents a large range of emotions, you are inventing problems all the time, and solving them.
I think I have an openness to embracing the problem at hand: A lot of musicians come to a project and say “This is my thing, let me put my thing on it, I’m gonna bring my thing to this.” What if your thing is not what’s needed? What if your thing is the enemy? Especially in collaboration, what if your thing takes up too much space? How do you bring a sensitivity to what would make this thing the best? I like to think that I bring a flexibility to my work and my collaborations, and that I’m generating a body of work that, over a lifetime, will show that. In terms of creative work together, I think we’re due for our next thing, to try to figure out what it’s going to be.
The Jazz Gallery presents The Ice Siren as part of its 25th Anniversary Celebration on Friday, February 14, and Saturday, February 15, 2020. The work features music by John Ellis and a libretto by Andy Bragen. The ensemble features Miles Griffith & Gretchen Parlato on vocals, John Ellis on saxophone & clarinets, Marcus Rojas on tuba, Max Light on guitar, Chris Dingman on vibraphone, Richie Barshay on percussion, Mary Rowell & Skye Steele on violin, Beth Meyers on viola, Christopher Hoffman on cello, and JC Sanford as conductor. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $35 general admission ($25 for members), $45 reserved table seating ($35 for members) for each set. On Saturday, the first set will be preceded by a preconcert talk with WBGO’s Simon Rentner. Purchase tickets here.