Interview | Steve Lehman

On Friday, March 11, Ars Nova Workshop’s three-day Composer Portrait: Fieldwork series begins. Following interviews with drummer Tyshawn Sorey and pianist Vijay Iyer earlier this week, today we share a conversation with saxophonist Steve Lehman. Lehman’s 2009 recording Travail, Transformation, and Flow was praised for creating a dialogue between spectral harmony and jazz - the daring work rightfully earned a spot on numerous critical year-end lists, including the top position in New York Times’ Best Jazz Albums category – and proved the young composer's deep appreciation for GZA’s Liquid Swords. He has worked with innovative artists such as Anthony Braxton and Dave Burrell, written pieces for large orchestra and chamber ensemble that have been performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble and Kammerensemble Neue Musik Berlin, and, as an educator, taught at Wesleyan University, Columbia University, and The Royal Academy of Music in London. Following Saturday’s presentation of Fieldwork in trio, on Sunday, Lehman’s Nos Revi Nella will be performed by JACK Quartet.

You’ve said before that it’s the social aspect of making music that engages you most: who is playing is more foundational than the notes or structures created. What’s unique about the who of Fieldwork?

Fieldwork is a perfect example of that idea of "figuring out personnel" as a crucial compositional step. Both Tyshawn and Vijay have an incredibly unique perspective on performance and composition. So, as a result, every piece I bring to the group ends up being transformed in a lot of crucial ways. Even more than that, I think all three of us make a conscious effort to conceive of music for Fieldwork in a way where it can only really be executed and brought to life by this specific group of individuals. 

On 2009’s Travail, Transformation and Flow you explored spectral harmony as a compositional approach. The album closes with a version of “Living in the World Today” by Wu Tang Clan’s GZA, and the song before that, “No Neighborhood Rough Enough,” is a nod to GZA's song “Gold.” How did GZA’s compositions lend themselves to spectralism?

Spectral music and spectral techniques represent a vast collection of ideas about harmony and orchestration and about composition in general. I suppose it's safe to say that I feel a really deep connection to a lot of the ideas associated with spectral music. And, if nothing else, it's a way of thinking about harmony that doesn't contradict the kind of work I like to do with rhythm and improvisational structures; ideally, all those musical elements end up working together and reinforcing each other. As far as GZA and the album Liquid Swords, I'm not sure if it makes sense to draw such a direct homology. I love that album and have continued to come back to it since I first checked it out in 1995 and I've learned a lot from it. Certainly, RZA's control of timbre and his ability to fuse and orchestrate recorded sound could be viewed as connected to the major preoccupations of spectral music, in some way. And then, in the way that GZA delivers lyrics, and in the overall sound world of that album, there are some remarkable and powerful ideas about rhythm that I've tried to absorb over the years.    

On Sunday night, JACK Quartet will be performing your piece Nos Revi Nella, which aims to “explore the psychology of musical time and its connection to musical meaning.” Can you elaborate on this connection and how it’s specifically articulated in the work?

Basically, among other things, that piece makes use of a lot of different compositional techniques that are intended to transform a listener's perception of musical time. But I'm only really interested in those techniques if they create some kind of musical meaning: something that I can relate to and feel a very deep connection to as a listener. Nos Revi Nella makes frequent use of things like expressive timing, compound meter, rubato phrasing, and rapidly changing tempi. And my hope is that this fairly specific structuring of the work makes the music more personal and more unique. And, as a result, more meaningful.

How do you think Composer Portrait: Fieldwork is important for the trio and also the larger narratives of contemporary music?

It's a really nice extended showcase for us. Young creative musicians are almost never provided with the opportunity to showcase so many different sides of their creative output. It's a major event when Ornette Coleman or Wynton Marsalis gets to have their chamber music performed by an internationally recognized new music ensemble. But for a young creative musician it's almost unheard of. And to have that kind of first-class showcase for a long-standing collective of young musicians, like Fieldwork, is even more rare and unique. Hopefully, this will be the kind of platform that's made available to young musicians on a much more regular basis. And there are so many brilliant ones out there in New York City and Philly alone!

To learn more about Steve Lehman and Fieldwork, please see the event pages on our website, where you can also choose between two ticket options: $12 for single events and $30 for a 3-Concert Pass. Below is a summary of the events, all of which will take place at Old City's Christ Church Neighborhood House Theatre (20 North American Street).

Composer Portrait: Fieldwork
March 11, 2011, 8pm | Tyshawn Sorey’s For Kathy Change
March 12, 2011, 8pm | Fieldwork
March 13, 2011, 6pm | Free Public Discussion with Fieldwork + The New York Times’ Nate Chinen
March 13, 2011, 8pm | An evening of chamber works by Vijay Iyer and Steve Lehman performed by JACK Quartet

Composer Portrait: Fieldwork has been supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage through the Philadelphia Music Project with support from Chamber Music America’s Presenting Jazz Program, funded through the generosity of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.