This week, I have the honor of premiering an entire concert’s worth of new music that was written over the past two years. The project I embarked upon was to write for a jazz quintet, which is an instrumentation I am very used to, but with a string quartet, an instrumentation I am not used to.
I’m not sure if there was any specific impetus for this project. I’ve been into orchestral music for a very long time (I think the first CD I ever owned had Tchaikovsky’s ballet suites on it) but I cannot really point to any one thing that convinced me it was finally time to try this instrumentation. Early on I toyed with having a marimba in the group in place of piano, which was intriguing, but was maybe just one too many new things for a single group. In any case, I need to extend my deep thanks to Arts + Literature Laboratory in Madison for awarding me a grant in 2020 which made this project possible from a financial perspective.
What I want to do here is just write a little bit about the music I listened to as I prepared this project, and which taught me a bit about writing for strings. I still do not feel anywhere near an “expert” at string writing – when I had my first rehearsal with the string quartet I made sure to let them know to tell me if I had written anything impossibly stupid. For posterity’s sake, I got the basic guidelines for string writing from Kent Kennan and Donald Grantham’s book The Technique of Orchestration.
The first thing I did was listen to a whole bunch of classic string quartets, getting scores from IMSLP. It’s a cliché but I was especially into Beethoven’s late quartets, particularly opus 131. I liked the quartets by Debussy and Ravel, though maybe not as much as I thought I would. As I moved forward in the timeline, I found inspiration in quartets by Janáček, Ligeti, and Pärt. I listened to some orchestral music again specifically for string writing, and got a lot out of Saint-Saëns third symphony and Tchaikovsky’s sixth.
The music from the “classical” world that had the biggest effect were Steve Reich’s “Different Trains,” one of my all-time favorite pieces of music, and the string quartet (and non-string quartet) writing of Caroline Shaw. Both operate in harmonic universes that are extremely attractive to me, and their writing resonates in a way that not only moves me but I feel is relatively relatable to not only what I was trying to do but what I have done in the past (even though I’d never written for strings before). Shaw’s “Entr’acte” was especially helpful.
Beyond strict string quartet and orchestral music, I checked out a whole bunch of other music that had strings, ranging from things like Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now to Maria Schneider’s album with Dawn Upshaw (Winter Morning Walks), Terence Blanchard’s A Tale of God’s Will, and Hollywood soundtracks and music by Leonard Bernstein.
Some albums from the “jazz” world that were especially inspiring: Laura Jurd’s Landing Ground, Fabian Almazan’s Rhizome and, especially, Alcanza, and Billy Childs’ tribute to Laura Nyro, Map to the Treasure. I also found major inspiration in some amazing albums by friends of mine: Matt Ulery’s By a Little Light and In the Ivory, Cormac McCarthy’s Cottage Evolution, and Ike Sturm’s Jazz Mass. Additionally, it’s not a strings album, but I listened to a lot of Rob Clearfield’s album Islands at the time I started writing this music and its influence was present.
I consumed a lot more music beyond what’s listed here, but these are the things that stuck out when thinking about the process in retrospect. This was a long, drawn-out project: the earliest music was started in September of 2019. The grant came through in March/April of 2020, and the original plan to debut the music in late summer 2020 was scrapped due to, you know, that thing that has been happening. A couple of pieces I originally wrote and was ready to debut a year ago have been set aside, with whole new pieces taking their place. It’s been very fun, and I’ve learned a lot, but it’s been a long road.
Many thanks again to ALL, as well as the Madison Music Collective and Greater Madison Jazz Consortium. All three do wonderful things for Madison’s music community and helped to make the performance (this Friday, October 29, at 7pm at the UW Play Circle) possible – at no cost to you! Thanks especially to all the musicians (listed below) for bringing the music to life. See you all soon.
Paul Dietrich’s 5+4: A Jazz Chamber Music Project
Friday, October 29, 7pm
UW Union Theater Play Circle
Paul Dietrich – trumpet and compositions
Dustin Laurenzi – tenor saxophone and clarinet
Jason Kutz – piano
Brian Courage – bass
Jon Deitemyer – drums
The Willy Street Chamber Players
Paran Amirinazari – violin
Eleanor Bartsch – violin
Kaleigh Acord – viola
Lindsey Crabb – cello