Jesse Stacken is an amazing pianist, composer, and thinker. If you haven’t heard his CD “Bagatelles for Trio” I’d strongly recommend seeking it out. But more to the point for inaugurating this interview series, Jesse’s been composing one song a week based on the music and writings of Olivier Messiaen. You can listen to the exciting (and surprisingly varied) fruits of his labor over at his blog. We exchanged e-mails for a week; our conversation is below.

Will Mason: In prefacing your Messiaen Project, you wrote: “I aim to take his techniques and combine them with my own ideas to create something personal and perhaps even unique. I’m sure I will use the techniques abstractly at times, and other times they might go undetected.” And then you expressed this worry: “My other concern is that the narrowness of this project might have too strong of an influence on my total creative output. I’m not sure if this will happen or not, but I’m confident that it will balance out eventually. Also, I think Messiaen is a rare enough influence in the jazz world, so I’m not worried about it diminishing my individuality.”

This encapsulates one of the principal concerns that I think composers have been dealing with for the better part of the 20th century: the balance between system and intuition. It’s a false dichotomy — even a system as rigid as total serialism requires a significant degree of musical intuition in setting up the parameters — but it’s persistent, which means it must get at something integral to the psychic process of composing. Fundamentally, any composition is systematic in some way: sit down and hum a little melody, and what you’re actually doing is adhering to a system of tonal relations, of melodic schema omnipresent in western music, and so forth. I think the complex relationship between system and intuition is an especially widespread concern in the world of jazz, where so much of the culture stresses the importance of having a singular style both as a composer and performer. (Though of course this has always been true in classical composition as well.) You express some concern about sounding like Messiaen, but none of your pieces so far really do. There’s nothing inherent in the modes of limited transposition that effects a “Messiaen” vibe, just like there’s nothing about a blues scale that suggests Lester Young. Messiaen sounds like Messiaen because of his treatment of orchestration, instrumentation, motive, gesture — all these deeply musical factors that lie outside of the more “rigid” or technical aspects of his language. So I wonder what your thoughts are on all of that; why turn to conscious, foregrounded systems? What are you getting out of it? Do you feel like you’re compromising some part of your musical self, or cutting yourself off from traditionally identifiable elements of jazz in some way?

Jesse Stacken: I think that turning to conscious, foregrounded systems is helpful because it narrows my choices down a bit, and allows me to approach the task of beginning a new composition with some kind of direction. It’s true that none of these systems determine the total outcome of the piece, not even total serialism. And in total serialism there are choices made in the organization of the parameters that will dramatically effect the sound of it in the end. Something as simple as tempo can completely change the mood. Before I actually tried using serialism, I remember thinking that it was a cold, mathematical system that seemed to have nothing to do with self expression. But around 2004-2005 I began writing atonal aiming music (if you believe there is such a thing), and I found that Schoenberg’s twelve tone system was helpful by narrowing my pitch choices down a bit, and it most often suggested pitches that sounded great and fit the vibe of what I was going for. My first serial piece is called North Shore and it’s on my first record That That. Since then I’ve used the system many times and have usually enjoyed the process and the result.

Another reason to turn to such systems and the techniques of Messiaen in particular, is to push myself in new directions, both in process and outcome. Besides the enjoyment I get out of writing fifty-two pieces with Messiaen’s techniques, I hope and expect that it will add some new sounds and new understanding to my palette. I don’t feel like I’m compromising some part of my musical self, but perhaps accessing new parts of it, or forcing my own process through a filter of sorts. I’m using the techniques to find my sound via different routes.

At the moment, and in this project, I don’t feel like I’m cutting myself off from traditionally identifiable elements of jazz. At times in my life, notably after I finished my master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music, I felt like I needed to distance myself from straight ahead jazz and the jazz education world. I spent seven years in music school and I loved it. I was some what terrified of leaving it. I needed a clean breakup. I was looking for ways of distancing myself from it, trying to avoid the trendy sounds, and using things like serialism to do so. It was not necessarily natural to do that at the time – it often felt forced. Now I am open to those traditional sounds, and not trying to consciously avoid them, although in some sense what’s done is done – I don’t find them coming out too often. But I have found some pop and country sounds surfacing sometimes, and part of the exercise of a weekly project like this is to allow them to come to realization.

Will Mason: I wonder if you’d talk a little bit more about why you would pick Messiaen? He’s such an important figure in 20th century music but yours is one of the first projects I’ve heard that explicitly brings him into the jazz world. I find this strange in part because, having been trained in the French organ tradition, he was such a gifted improviser. On the one hand he often spoke derisively of jazz; but then there’s been an entire dissertation written examining the impact that jazz may have had on his compositions. And I remember Billy Hart once talked to me about Messiaen, and I wrote down what he said: “I remember when I was with Stan Getz in 1978, and he took me to a Messiaen concert, and Messiaen was in attendance. I knew that Tony Williams had turned Herbie Hancock on to Messiaen, but when I finally heard the Messiaen piano works, it sounded to me like someone was trying to imitate Herbie Hancock!”

He’s this very singular, Janus-like figure: his music sounds like no one else, and composers since Messiaen have no doubt taken great pains not to imitate him. But so much of what came before him artistically and so much of what happened to music during his long life are audible in his compositions. And I’d argue that much of what has happened in classical music composition since bears his influence. His music, like the best jazz, manages to be both prescient and part of a clear lineage.

Jesse Stacken: I’ll give you the classic cliché answer: Messiaen chose me. I was not actively looking to use a composer’s techniques for a year-long project, but the idea came to me midway through my previous weekly composition project.

To give you a brief history of these projects, I first spent a year recording and posting a daily improvisation. That project came about on a whim. I had gotten a new zoom recorder, and for no particular reason one day I turned it on and recorded an improvisation. I did the same a few days later, and then suddenly started wondering what would happen if I did that every day. And in order to stick to it, I decided to upload them onto my website. I had no intention of going for a year, or stopping after a year, but when that moment came it seemed natural to stop, although I didn’t want to stop. So I decided to do a weekly improvisation that had a time requirement of an hour or longer. This was inspired by some extended group improvisations that I had been doing with friends at the time. After a year of that, it again seemed time for a change, so I began the weekly composition project. It seemed like a logical next step. That project was very similar to The Messiaen Project, but without the techniques of Messiaen.

Midway through the weekly composition project, I cracked open Messiaen’s book “The Technique of My Musical Language” after playing a session with saxophonist Robin Verheyen, who is also a “Messiaen head.” He briefly showed me Messiaen’s third mode on the piano, which finally made me open that book, which I had had on the shelf for awhile. I went straight to the musical examples, pulled out the third mode and wrote Molt. The scale put me on a new planet, so to speak. There was a world of sound in it. I had the same feeling when I learned one of Messiaen’s Vignt Regards the previous year. After writing Molt, I felt that there was enough substance there to spend a year using Messiaen’s modes. Glancing through the Technique of My Musical Language confirmed that feeling. The ideas were simply there for the taking. And the bottom line was that I loved Messiaen’s music, which I had been seriously checking out for a few years.

The reasons why Messiaen’s music speaks to me are his melodicism and extended harmonies, especially the ones that have “wrong” sounding notes in them. He is avant-garde, but not usually abrasive. My favorite Messiaen pieces have an indisputable radiant quality to them. He manages to make dissonance sound like love. And the fact that Messiaen wrote about his techniques so thoroughly, and that I have easy access to some of those writings, helped him be a natural choice. I love Bartok’s music also, but somehow it seems like I’d have trouble finding enough specific techniques to borrow, and they’re not as clearly documented explained by the composer as far as I know.

The fact that Messiaen was a great improviser isn’t what draws me to him, although I have the utmost respect for it, and I particularly love the fact that his congregation at Trinity Church was exposed to his improvisations weekly. If he had been playing at my church when I was a kid, I’d still be going there! What’s interesting to me about Messiaen being an improviser, is that I too am essentially an improviser, and ninety-five percent or the pieces I write, including those written for this project, are only means of getting myself into various zones for improvisation. They are merely suggestions. They are perhaps incomplete without the improvising. They are the expositions and I improvise the developments. Most often I don’t require myself to stick to the chosen mode or modes of the piece during the improvisation, unless they are scales I have very well under my fingers and the tempo allows me to not fall on my face. But I’d like to think that I am intuitively elaborating on the sound of the modes as well as his rhythmic techniques. Perhaps after composing with his modes for a year, I will better be able to improvise with them also. After all, composition can be viewed as improvisation slowed down, and vice versa.

As far as the lack of jazz musicians using Messiaen’s techniques, I do know of some people are experimenting with them. Tyshawn Sorey and Sylvie Courvosier have explored Messiaen. Although I’m not sure how extensively they’ve studied the techniques, or how they’ve used them.

And I hear that one of my classmates at Manhattan School of Music, Adam Czerepinski, did his doctoral thesis on applying Messiaen’s techniques to jazz. I’ve yet to hunt him down for it, but I would really like to do check it out at some point. I’m sure there are many more too, but they’re probably not as open about it as I am being in this project. It’s sometimes tempting to keep it secretive, but all this Internet social media hoopla has gotten me into a sharing mood.

Will Mason: That’s really interesting to hear about your compositional attitude — that “ninety-five percent of the pieces I write, including those written for this project, are only means of getting myself into various zones for improvisation.” When I compose, I think of improvisation as one tool of many to use to get a desired effect: there are some things that can never happen in an improvisation, and there are so many things that could never be written down that happen in improvisation. For instance, the opening of my piece “Finn” is a lightly-directed free improv for about two minutes; by writing one sentence of instructions I feel like the band produces something that is both exactly what I imagined and yet worlds ahead of what I could have composed with determinate tools.

But for me the composed material generally is what I think of as the orienting material in my music, and I think that’s to some extent true in a lot of other modern jazz that I listen to. For instance, Tim Berne is a huge personal influence, and a lot of his music formally could be described as a series of notated scenes or moments connected by improvisation. The effect almost invariably is of exposition and development, or theme and variations, or stasis and transition, or tight-knit and loose-knit: the improvisation is connective tissue, necessarily a part of the music on the page and yet also capable of transcending it altogether. In Berne’s music the effect is magical; in “Sublime and Science Friction Live” the way the band drops in and out of improvised material still makes my jaw drop.

But you seem to be operating in a different but related way; that maybe the composed music is just a way of getting into a headspace for improvising. Like an outline on a notecard before giving a speech. All of this interests me because so far we’ve mostly been discussing improvisation from a composer/performer-oriented perspective; I think that for a listener much of this is moot. Obviously a serial head won’t produce serial solos–who could solo serially? who would want to?–but it may set up an aesthetic that carries into solos. Or, possibly more interestingly, a serial head may give way to lush, consonant soloing in a manner totally unprecedented by the head and totally divorced from the underlying compositional system. But it would still be nice to listen to! I suppose I don’t have a specific question for you about this, except to see what your thoughts are. I spend a lot of time thinking about the various possible effects of improvisation for composers and for listeners, and yet I have almost no solidified thoughts about it still…It will be one of the central concerns of this interview series, I hope.

As an interesting aside, I just found this 2011 blurb in Keyboardmag by Brian Charette, about using the modes of limited transposition in a jazz setting. I wonder what you think?

(Also, Bartok’s language has been really extensively documented by musicologists. It’s often dense reading but there’s lots of fertile material to be mined, for sure!)

Jesse Stacken: You say “the composed material generally is what I think of as the orienting material in my music.” This to me is not much different than saying that I use the composed material to get me into a specific zone for improvisation. I try to be sensitive to the effect that the composed material has on me or the other musicians who are playing the tune. If the music creates some kind of structure that will easily enhance my improvising, I’m likely to play over that structure, keeping the form in the traditional jazz way. If it becomes a struggle to keep the form, or navigate weird harmony or meters, I’m more likely to just play open after the composed material. I have experimented with extended forms and solo sections in the past, but have found that lately I prefer the sound of great musicians playing over simple forms. I don’t enjoy the sound of someone struggling or especially falling back in finger patterns just to keep up. Interestingly, when I was doing my master’s degree at MSM, I did so much playing over complicated forms and odd meters that I found it more challenging to just play 4/4. So I guess it’s a matter of conditioning. But I would say that these days I don’t really give a shit about people being able to play overly complex music – I just want to hear some honest emotion, and I’m guessing that the general public would agree with me.

As for the Brian Charette article, I have no problem with it. I’m happy to see someone making use of Messiaen’s modes. It’s nice because it’s not standardized and it’s not taught it schools, so there’s a freshness there. Anything that counters the effect of jazz schools producing thousands of jazz musicians that all sound the same is welcomed by me.

Will Mason: Interesting! I think you’re exactly right, that our two attitudes are closer than it may sound. And I think the idea of playing against a form or a meter that doesn’t easily lend itself to soloing is interesting too. Some of my favorite solos are very loose with regard to the meter and form — just this morning I stumbled on this video of Max Roach’s band, where Coleridge Perkinson sets up his solo with some really beautiful loose phrasing on top of the 5/4 vamp. But then I also think of Steve Lehman’s octet, where those forms are so complex and yet everyone seems to be really inside the form, and that of course sounds awesome too.

You mention some things about your time at MSM, which brings me to one of the last things I’d hoped to talk about: authenticity. I am constantly worried that my music will be seen as gimmicky, which is really another way of saying inauthentic. Obviously individuality and authenticity are time-honored elements of jazz, as is novelty (though I don’t think many musicians like to call their music “novel”). My own inclination towards certain compositional systems is in part to make my music sound less like what other musicians are doing, and yet I feel like there’s starting to be a compartmentalizing of this kind of music–ubergeek jazz, or something. I think it’s also closely tied to the prominence of conservatory training in jazz today, which you mentioned: most jazz musicians probably got their hands dirty with Babbitt and Stockhausen in a conservatory music theory class, and so a compositional language that bears the influence of European modernism generally also brandishes a certain kind of academic credential.

I fret about this a lot; do you? At a certain point it seems like there’s no use worrying about it; that we absorb the music we absorb and that all we can do is to compose and perform the music we’d most like to be playing. But sometimes that seems too naive…

The presence or absence of emotion, which you mentioned, also points towards a degree of authenticity, and maybe that’s the way out of this conundrum: be it simple or complex, just play from the gut. (My favorite performances of the “cold, austere” European Modernists are generally those that rock out the hardest.)

Jesse Stacken: I agree with you about hearing people like Steve Lehman’s Octet really getting inside and playing complex forms and meters so well. I have a lot of respect for it. But for my own music, I’m generally looking to keep things simple these days. Now watch, the next piece I write will probably be all complex or something.

As for authenticity, I have shared your concerns about what others think about what we are doing. The term “gimmicky” has never crossed my mind personally, but probably many similar thoughts have. I wrote a lot about “what others think” in my weekly composition project. In fact, I think the biggest benefit I got out of that project was moving in the direction of trusting myself more. And for sure the happiest moments in that project and the Messiaen Project have been the times when I took a chance on being “unhip” or “uncool” and just allowing whatever my my little ear/heart desired to come out. It’s all about being yourself. After a certain amount of basic musical skill is developed, isn’t being yourself as a musician the most important thing? And how many of us are really allowing that to happen? We don’t love the masters because they were following the crowd and playing what was hip at the time, or because they were good at sounding like other musicians. We love them because they were individuals.

However, being yourself might not get you immediate acclaim. There are countless examples of artists who were not appreciated while they were alive doing their work. In our instant gratification society nowadays, it’s harder than ever to trust yourself, especially if you’re swimming upstream so to speak. Social media is set up for instant gratification (check to see how many people liked/favorited that last post every ten minutes for the rest of the day), and I think that aspect of it is extremely toxic for art. It’s natural to want to be liked, but the popularity contest of especially Facebook puts that way too front and center. A few months ago while composing, I caught myself wondering if that particular compositional choice would garner a lot of “likes” when I posted it. Then I realized how messed up that was and that that thought was extremely toxic. I was almost allowing somebody, who I perhaps don’t even know very well, influence my work with the potential of probably fast, unthoughtful judgement and a split second click of a button on a computer. I was disturbed. From that day on, I gave up “liking” and “favoriting” on social media sites. I choose to comment instead. I am grateful for the opportunity to share and connect through these sites and services, but the “like” bullshit which our society is now saturated with bothers me, and it probably makes being authentic an even bigger challenge.

In the past, I have also had the strong inclination to try to make my music sound less like the music of others. But I’ve gotten over that a bit. If I’m truly being myself, my music will sound like me, even if I require it to use the techniques of Messiaen.

It’s interesting what you say about students “getting their hands dirty with Stockhausen or Babbitt in a conservatory”. I can see your concern about it, but I really don’t think it’s all that common. If jazz majors are even required to take a classical music history course, it’s probably not very in depth. And those students are probably way more concerned with learning Coltrane solos. I know I was. I didn’t really get into any of my classical influences until at least three to four years after finishing at MSM. At the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, the great school at which I earned my bachelors degree, twentieth century music was not taken very seriously, at least by the students. The attitude was, “Oh look how weird that Harry Partch was. Now let’s get back to the Beethoven.” Embarrassingly, I wasn’t really concerned with anything beyond Debussy or Stravinsky at that time. I remember learning one of the later Microcosmos by Bartok in my freshmen year and really not liking it! Now Bartok is one of my all time favorites. Anyway, I’m not too concerned about European modernism being in jazz academia. And even beyond that, I get the feeling that many professional jazz musicians in other smaller scenes (and many in NYC too) are still primarily concerned with II-V-I’s and bebop, and are happy to dedicate their lives to that, and that’s fine with me.

At the end of the day, I guess I try not to worry about what others think or what others are doing, and just be myself, with myself, experiencing the beauty of nature, and allowing what I love to be apart of the music I create. It’s not always easy to do that, but a little struggle and discomfort is good.