Dana Jessen, bassoonist, on commissioning Rushes
by Dana Jessen
As musicians, we frequently talk about the process of composing music. Most often we discuss the various methods a composer goes through to realize his or her work. Yet there is another facet of such an undertaking that often isn’t discussed—the performer’s side of commissioning a large-scale work. On September 15th, six colleagues and I gave the world premiere of Rushes, a new 60-minute composition for seven bassoons by Michael Gordon. As a specialist in contemporary music performance, I am familiar with the exhilaration that comes with presenting a world premiere. This particular concert, however, topped the scale. For me, this was not only the culmination of a week-long recording residency for a new album release on Cantaloupe Records, but also the culmination of three years of my life that were devoted to making this project happen. I would like to share my experiences and the incredible journey that led to this evening-length composition.
In 2008, I was beginning a new stage in my life. I was 25 years old, had just moved to Amsterdam on a Fulbright Fellowship, and was preparing for the Gaudeamus Young Interpreter’s Competition. I’m not a particularly competitive person, but I saw this as an opportunity to put together a new program of contemporary solo bassoon music. This was also a chance to find new compositions and to work up pieces that I had never performed before. Perhaps this will come as a glaringly obvious statement to most readers, but the bassoon is not known as a particularly strong force in new music. While we have a few notable works like Berio’s Sequenza XII and Gubaidulina’s Duo Sonata, the amount of contemporary bassoon repertoire doesn’t even come close to what exists for our percussion, piano, string, or even other wind instrument-playing colleagues. When I was creating this program back in 2008, I was struck by the lack of variety available to choose from and found myself wishing there were more notable works for bassoon, especially by American composers.
I have always been a fan of minimalist music. Most of my favorite composers fall into this category, among them Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Terry Riley, John Luther Adams, David Lang, and of course Michael Gordon. Unfortunately the only possibility as a bassoonist to perform music by these composers, other than a larger orchestral work, is to make an arrangement. So in 2008, I began working on Michael Gordon’s Low Quartet, a composition scored for any four low-sounding instruments. This piece was dedicated to Evan Ziporyn and can either be played in a version for four instrumentalists or for soloist with three pre-recorded parts. I wanted to create a solo program, so I opted for the second version. I spent several months arranging the score for bassoon, learning all four parts and finally recording the music. I recorded a fixed audio track to use in live performance and also made a complete recording of the piece.
I think it is very important for performers to let composers know what they are up to. This is one of the responsibilities that come with being a performer of new music. I felt timid about contacting Michael Gordon but thought that he should know about the bassoon arrangement and upcoming performances of the Low Quartet. After sending Michael an introductory email with this information, I wasn’t expecting to hear a response; mine would surely be another piece of fan mail in his busy life. To my surprise and delight, I received an email from Michael in which he thanked me for reaching out to him and responded enthusiastically to the new arrangement of the Low Quartet.
Before moving to Holland, I had some teachers and colleagues question my decision not to take the traditional orchestral route. Many of them didn’t understand my passion to perform contemporary, improvised, and electroacoustic music. Why should they? Most new music ensembles don’t have a bassoon and very few bassoonists can actually say that they make a living performing new music. Additionally, many bassoonists believe that the artistic role of the instrument lies solely within the orchestra. It’s no surprise that some of my teachers and colleagues encouraged me to focus more on orchestral excerpts and less on extended techniques. Somehow getting this email response from Michael inspired me to continue on this path of playing music that I was passionate about and reinforced my belief that this style of music does work on the bassoon.
Before I jumped straight into making the bassoon arrangement of New York Counterpoint or some other work, I kept having the same thought: I was tired of making arrangements and performing music originally written for another instrument. A large-scale work for the bassoon by a well-known composer would not only be a giant step for the bassoon community, but it would also create a greater awareness of our instrument in the new music community. I sent Michael Gordon another email asking if he had ever considered writing for the bassoon and if he was interested in a consortium commission to support a new work.
Organizing a consortium is one way of commissioning new music in the United States. With very little government support and a diminishing number of grants available to composers, consortiums are a great way to ensure that a commissioning fee is met. A group of individuals, often performers, contribute a specific monetary amount that collectively pays a composer’s commissioning fee. The amount of money that individuals contribute varies depending on the composer and the size of the consortium. Many consortiums give performance rights to the participants over a specified period of time. For example, an ensemble could have the rights to premiere a new work within one year of receiving the music. One of the benefits of consortiums is that anyone can be part of the same concurrent premiere. Additionally, the composer could potentially have simultaneous premieres of the same piece throughout different parts of the world. The idea of multiple premiere performances came into the spotlight in 1995 when John Harbison’s San Antonio sonata for alto saxophone received 43 premiere performances on the same day through the World-Wide Concurrent Premieres and Commissioning Fund. When I wrote to Michael Gordon, I suggested the idea of a consortium commission because I knew that I wouldn’t be able to support a commission alone and didn’t want to depend on a grant. I also wanted as many people involved as possible to give more exposure to this potential piece.
Michael first responded that he had never considered writing for the bassoon and that he had only written for the instrument in orchestral settings. That aside, he was thrilled with the idea of a bassoon consortium. We traded several emails back and forth discussing logistics and ideas. I can clearly recall one of these first emails in which Michael said, “We haven’t discussed a length yet. I’m really into hour-long pieces lately. Would that be all right?” I practically shouted an enthusiastic “Yes!” through my computer. Finally, after about a week of back-and-forth emails, Michael was on board to write an hour-long piece for the bassoon.
Once the exhilaration settled, it really began to sink in just how much work had to go into this. Michael’s fee was reasonable considering the length of the piece. It was clear, however, that I would have to put together a sizable consortium. I got in touch with colleagues who had organized consortiums in the past and asked for their advice. The most notable recommendations were to write individual emails to potential bassoonists, keep the participant fee low and team up with a fiscal sponsor. I researched fiscal sponsorship organizations that could act as an umbrella non-profit so that I wouldn’t have to process the monetary transactions from my personal bank account. A fiscal sponsor provides tax write offs to donors and opens the door for more grant opportunities that wouldn’t be possible without non-profit status. I created a name for the consortium, the New Music Bassoon Fund, and applied for fiscal sponsorship through a fantastic organization called Fractured Atlas. Once I was approved, I created a website and a contract for the potential participants. Then, I started sending the emails…
From October 2009 to December 2010, I sent out numerous emails a week trying to get people to join the consortium or contribute to the project. I wrote emails to bassoonists, emails to companies that supported the arts, emails to grant organizations, emails to anyone I could think of who would be interested in this commission. Sending out emails felt like a new part-time job. In these emails, I introduced the project with a bio of Michael Gordon, stressed the importance of supporting new music, and emphasized key elements that made this new piece different than other works for bassoon. I wrote personalized emails to hundreds of bassoonists, and then sent follow up emails. The bassoon community came back with a variety of responses. There were a fair number of enthusiasts who were just as thrilled as myself at the prospect of a new work by Michael Gordon. They joined the consortium right away. There were several people who didn’t want to spend money on a consortium and thanked me but passed on being part of this one. Some people didn’t respond at all. Other times it felt like pulling teeth trying to convince people that this commission was a good idea. Even after some of the negative responses, I kept sending out emails and contacting people. Several months after agreeing to write the piece, Michael decided to score the new work for seven bassoons. The unusual instrumentation surprised many people and unfortunately didn’t qualify us for many grants. At one point, Michael even told me that upon mentioning the commission to some of his friends, they thought he was crazy. Like every instrument, the bassoon has some negative stereotypes. I believe the only way to eliminate these stereotypes is to make music that doesn’t support them, and I honestly thought that this project could prove that. I believed that this new piece could show a different side of the bassoon that people weren’t used to hearing. The consortium was slowly growing in size, and I was happy to connect with other bassoonists who were excited about the commission. All of the participants contributed the same amount of money and maintain the rights to premiere the piece within one full year of receiving the music. The bassoonists consist of college professors, students, professional performers, and contemporary music enthusiasts. After a full year of regularly sending emails, follow-ups, and other efforts to gather participants, I had thirty bassoon players from the United States, Europe, and Canada participating in the consortium.
I met Michael Gordon for the first time in January 2010. He had invited me to his home to try out some ideas, ask questions about bassoon techniques, and record some sounds. Meeting and collaborating with composers is one of my favorite aspects of commissioning new music; it creates a unique relationship that makes the music even more meaningful as a performer. For our first meeting, Michael asked me to bring scores of 20th-century bassoon music. We spent a day going over these scores, listening to pieces, and trying out an assortment of techniques. He was especially intrigued with fast-articulated sixteenth notes, a technique that is constant throughout Rushes. It was a great meeting, complete with a bassoon and puppy duet with Michael’s very vocal dog. After that meeting, Michael and I got together a handful of times between New York City and Amsterdam. One notable meeting was in January 2011. Michael wanted to hear several bassoons together, so I gathered five bassoonists to meet and play in his home. At one point, Michael wanted to see how mobile we could be with our bassoons, so there was a fantastic moment when all five of us were walking around his living room, bending down and stretching upwards while sustaining our lowest note.
Over the following year, Michael sent different versions of the piece to look over. One of my first impressions of the score was that it looked like a percussion piece! There weren’t any obvious melodic or lyrical lines that are common in wind music. Instead, the bassoonists play continuous patterns and rhythms that lengthen and shorten over approximately one hour. The patterns are made collectively by the bassoonists with subtle changes and shifts in dynamics from one player to the next. For such a large-scale work, it is always helpful to have a second set of eyes looking through the score. I asked two bassoon colleagues to help out and give their own feedback on the writing. After several months of regular dialogue with Michael and feedback on the music, we received the final score to Rushes last spring. I put together a fantastic group of bassoonists—Jeffrey Lyman, Saxton Rose, Rachael Elliott, Lynn Hileman, Michael Harley, Maya Stone, and myself—to rehearse with Michael prior to releasing the score to the consortium in case he needed to make any changes. This group, now called the Rushes Ensemble, met and rehearsed for the first time this past June. After the initial run through of the piece, we were all incredibly moved. Score study and individual practice did not prepare me for the overwhelmingly beautiful sonorities that emerged collectively from the ensemble. The continuous shifting patterns and dynamics give the impression that the sound is traveling in space, which in fact, it is. I was struck by this cascading effect that sometimes felt like a pendulum swinging from one side of the ensemble to the other side.
In September, the Rushes Ensemble spent a week at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) in Troy, New York, rehearsing, recording, and ultimately premiering this amazing new work. After three years of organizing, planning, and preparing, it was well worth the effort. Rushes is a mesmerizing composition. We now have a new piece in our repertoire unlike anything else written for the bassoon. This November, the Rushes Ensemble will be touring the piece throughout parts of Europe and we are in the planning stages for a U.S. tour in 2013-14. There will also be other ensembles throughout the country organized by members of the consortium who will jointly premiere this new work.
This commission has helped me learn so many things, many of which can be applied to other aspects of life. First, if you are unhappy about something, change it. I was unhappy with the selection of contemporary bassoon repertoire, so I did something to change it. Secondly, don’t be afraid to ask. I didn’t know Michael Gordon before this project began. Rushes all started because of a blind email to one of my favorite composers. I had no idea how he would respond, but I went for it anyway. Lastly, keep going. No matter how many negative responses I received, I continued organizing, planning, applying for grants and sending emails. Not only was I passionate about playing Michael’s music, I also wanted to create awareness that the bassoon can be a strong force in contemporary music. Rushes is truly a turning point for the bassoon and I am so grateful for it.
Rushes was commissioned by the New Music Bassoon Commissioning Fund with generous support from the following bassoonists:
Bram van Sambeek
Jamie Leigh Sampson
Kristin Wolfe Jensen
Nadina Mackie Jackson
Peter Van Zandt Lane
Dana Jessen is a San Francisco-based bassoon soloist, chamber musician, improviser and composer. She lived in Amsterdam for three years as the recipient of a 2009-2011 HSP Huygens Fellowship and 2008-2009 J. William Fulbright Fellowship where she researched contemporary and improvised music. This fall she is touring with the Rushes Ensemble throughout the Netherlands and Belgium in addition to performing with the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players under the direction of Steven Schick.