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Decade Zero, Dave Maric, Phronesis, Engines Orchestra - preview | reviews, news & interviews

Decade Zero, Dave Maric, Phronesis, Engines Orchestra - preview

Decade Zero, Dave Maric, Phronesis, Engines Orchestra - preview

Composer, conductor and star bassist on exploring the worlds between jazz and classical chamber music

Phronesis: Ivo Neame, Anton Eger and Jasper Høiby

Decade Zero is a new commission from acclaimed contemporary classical composer Dave Maric, receiving its world premiere this weekend at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival.

Maric has taken his inspiration from the work of stellar jazz trio Phronesis - bassist Jasper Høiby, drummer Anton Eger and pianist Ivo Neame - which he infuses throughout the new piece with both direct and indirect reference, so that Phronesis’ music is woven into an original score. With Phronesis best known for their lightning rhythmic shifts and jazz exploring the loops and textures of minimalism, and Maric for his brilliance across chamber, dance and electronic music, an event of remarkable originality is anticipated.

It will be performed by Phronesis, with an octet of wind and strings provided by the Engines Orchestra, a genre-busting ensemble conducted by arranger and saxophonist Phil Meadows. Decade Zero has been commissioned by three of the UK’s biggest jazz festivals: the premiere in Cheltenham will be followed by performances at the Manchester and London festivals later this year. I spoke to Maric (pictured below left), double bassist Jasper Høiby from Phronesis, and Phil Meadows, founder-conductor of the genre-crossing Engines Orchestra, about the genesis and commission of the piece.  

MATTHEW WRIGHT: This collaboration has been in the pipeline for five years. Where did the idea come from and how did it develop?

DAVE MARIC: I collaborated with Phronesis on a project in 2012 at the Southbank Centre with an ensemble called Sound Bank who were young mostly non-professional musicians and, together with a group of singers called Voice Lab, we created Phronesis arrangements combined with their original pieces which were all performed together with the trio. It was an unusual combination of instruments and that project sparked my curiosity about doing something similar in the future. Also, I was performing my piano concerto at the Cheltenham classical festival last year and had a conversation with Emily Jones, jazz festival manager, about this project. PRS for Music got involved, and eventually this commission was created. 

MW: This sounds like a really tight-knit collaboration between everyone involved. How have you found the experience and what have you learned from each other?

DM: I’ve tried to create mutual spaces which connect the music of Phronesis with my own. The connections are sometimes subliminal and sometimes obvious, and included are influences of the band as well as my own. It’s not pastiche, I’m not trying to copy what they do, it’s about a connection between worlds. I’m exploring some odd-metre rhythms and polyrhythms, but it’s not like a typical jazz ensemble with heads and solos, the structures are often more classical. There is both complexity and minimalism, with a lot of delicate interplay. There are also little fragments taken from the piece which are designed to bridge the tunes in Phronesis’ own set, though we’ve yet to determine if we have enough time in the concert to include them. 

Jasper Høiby: This has been the hardest piece I’ve ever had to learn. I’ve played in many very challenging bands over the years but that now seems like a walk in the park by comparison. It’s also lovely, musically joyous and fun, but simultaneously very subtle. Dave is a very sophisticated composer.

Phil Meadows: I’m very excited to be working with Dave and Phronesis. I’m a huge fan of both. We’ve already had sectional rehearsals with the winds and strings of the Engines Orchestra and feel really positive about the music we’re making. It’s going to be exciting to bring it all together in Cheltenham this week and I’m proud to be able to share the stage with such incredible musicians. We’re also extremely proud to have some of the best collaborative musicians in the UK featuring in the Engines Orchestra.

I had casually labeled one section Dance of the Donald

MW: Your world premiere is this week at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival, with performances also scheduled at London and Manchester jazz festivals later this year. What stands out about the piece? Will the different venues and occasions change the character of the piece?

JH: I’m sure it will develop, and we’ll find out where the potential for freedom lies, and where to respect the formal composition. It takes time with new work. When we play some of our old material, we've had luxury of looking at it from so many angles, deep down: not many bands play as much as we do. We’re doing as much homework as possible, so we don’t have to be looking at the score too much. Getting away from the notes as much as possible and internalising the music is the only thing that makes it easier to find the freedom within.

MW: You’ve spoken about the composition being influenced by contemporary events. There are plenty of disturbing events to choose from at the moment. Which ones had an influence and how is that felt in the piece?

Composer Dave MaricDM: The title, Decade Zero, comes from a paper about climate change by Friends of the Earth. There’s title little time left for action, given the carbon already emitted. The problem is rooted in economics, with a political dimension, and corporations getting away with murder. Those themes give the piece its drama, angst and reflectiveness. In terms of direct reference to the news, I had casually labeled one section Dance of the Donald, but that title didn’t make it to the final version.

JH: When performing with Phronesis I always try to make comments about what’s going on politically, what I agree and don’t agree with. It’s not always possible, but usually I use the mic to have that conversation when I’m performing live, and also make some kind of statement on record, as I did on the Fellow Creatures album [Høiby’s 2016 record featuring Laura Jurd and Mark Lockheart, in which tracks were named after themes from Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything]. I’m really glad Dave is so keen to make a statement too, but it’s good there’s no movement named after Donald Trump. He doesn’t deserve it.

DM: I noticed how Phronesis is politically motivated. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to work with them.

MW: Phronesis has just released The Behemoth, an album of arrangements by Julian Argüelles for the Frankfurt Radio Big Band. Was this a similar process? How much does the big band change the music?

JH: It was very different, in fact. Julian was free to choose songs from our back catalogue, which were already written. This is a new piece, it’s Dave’s world, that’s what makes it so exciting. With Julian’s arrangements I could play most of the big band stuff without music, because Julian stayed so true to the originals, and we could play the way we always play, and we didn’t have to look down at a score. He mainly added another layer of textures and colours to the excisting structures of our writing. With this piece I have to learn everything note by note. I’ve been working many many hours a day for the last two weeks.

MW: The character of Phronesis is so responsive and quick, with sudden changes of rhythm and tempo. Is it possible to have the same energy and elasticity in a big band?

DM: I’ve created open spaces to allow possibilities of structured and unstructured playing.  

JH: It’s something we still have to explore, so it’s great Dave is flexible. It’s actually very jazzy, even though he set out to escape the jazz label! What’s so cool is that he is so flexible, and interested in what’s going on. It’s fun finding those open bits where the music can be stretched with improvisation.

PM: I love Dave’s openness in allowing the music to grow and how engaged and interested he is in the process. As a composer he not only cares about the notes he’s written on the score, but how people are able to express themselves within his music. He cares about the whole thing, has been at all rehearsals and has worked with all of our musicians to make the music even more special. Sometimes you work with composers who say, “score’s in the post - see you at the premiere” so it’s great to be working closely with him to bring Decade Zero to reality. The audience are in for a real treat!

MW: Phil Meadows, you and Engines Orchestra (pictured below) have, like Phronesis, worked with small groups and big bands. How do you recreate that small-group intimacy with a big band?

Phil Meadows conducting the Engines OrchestraPM: It’s more about what doesn’t change than what does. When I have a saxophone in my hand I have my ears open so that I can listen, engage and interact with the musicians I am collaborating with. When it’s a baton instead this doesn’t change. I still have the same pair of ears, so listen in the same way. I guess it’s the interaction that changes as I have to direct emotion and shape through my hands rather than my sax but it’s still a role where the shaping of music is the most important thing. I’ve found through our projects with Ingrid Jensen and Femi Temowo that this jazz sensibility is a real help in bringing large ensemble music together.

MW: From Engines Orchestra, there will be four winds and four strings: flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon and string quartet. Why is that instrumentation important for the piece?

DM: Originally we wanted something bigger, but it was reduced in size for reasons of economy initially, though by shrinking the ensemble we can also make it tighter. Eight (plus three) is a good size to create epicness, tightness and intimacy. A string quartet can itself create massive textures. This ensemble sometimes has an almost 18th century classical sound, and sometimes a very contemporary one. As far as I know there’s nothing written for exactly this instrumentation and hardly any music even for this kind of wind quartet, so it’s both traditional and unusual at once. The strings and wind are a mirror-image of each other and they sound really great together. We will make it sound classical, contemporary and groovy, with elements of the past and present, including echoes of Bartok, Stravinsky and Steve Reich. Stravinsky’s Concertino for 12 Instruments is one of many influences, but there are far too many references and influences to mention here.  

PM: There’s a beautiful lightness that comes with writing because of the combination of string quartet, piano and wind. It’s such a nice juxtaposition allowing for both dark, brooding grooves and light, poignant minimalism. The string players are all seasoned Engines Orchestra performers, who have appeared in every project: LifeCycles, The Music Is the Feeling with Femi Temowo, and last year’s collaboration with Canadian trumpeter Ingrid Jensen. Knowing Phronesis’ music well, I’ve chosen players who specialise in contemporary and improvised music, both so they don’t freak out at the level of polyrhythm, and so that they can feel comfortable entering the world of Phronesis!

I can’t wait to see the look on people’s faces when they hear it

So we have an octet geared up to playing this music, with the capabilities to morph and change as music needs to. We discussed using trumpet, or French horn, or trombone, but then everything would have to be amplified. With this instrumentation the balance should be fine. The bassoonist, Lois Au - cousin of trombonist and arranger Calum Au - is a groover, a classical bassoonist who plays baritone sax, who can get stuck into this music.  

MW: Both Engines Orchestra and to some extent composer Dave Maric are known for working outside usual boundaries of musical genre. Is that something you’ve maintained here? Why is that important?

PM: It’s the way music is going. Genres are coming together. We bring together two things that wouldn’t normally be there. If you think about Phronesis and then imagine how will that sound with oboe or bassoon, it’s not something you would expect and we create the pocket of exploration to find out how that’s going to work. There’s a big quest to help the development of classical and orchestral musicians by giving them a kick in the backside through what we do. There’s still a stuffiness towards venturing into other genres in traditional ensembles. The long-term goal of the Engines Orchestra is to take influence from the Metrapole Orkest and to become a pioneer for creative collaborative music in the UK. The Metrapole Orkest team alongside their chief conductor Jules Buckley have been terrific in their support of what we’re doing and there are huge spaces for that kind of collaboration between genres in the UK. It’s something we’re less open to than other countries. 

MW: Will there be a recording?

PM: Radio 3’s Jazz Now are recording it, and we will put a couple of cameras up to see if there’s anything we can do. We have got some applications to see what else we can do. This piece needs to have more than three performances.

DM: Often new commissions are only played once. We will look at crowd-funding.

JH: We’d love to record it, but we need to pay people and the whole process requires some funds. We’d love to release it too. I can’t wait to see the look on people’s faces when they hear it.  

  • The premiere of Decade Zero takes place on Saturday 29 April, at 12.30pm, in Cheltenham Town Hall


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