Jazz performer and new music composer Joe Garrison may be San Diego’s most enigmatic musician.
Joe Garrison is a musical survivalist. The 64-year-old jazz and new music composer has shaped his artistic life to favor more beginnings than ends. Like his hero, Igor Stravinsky, he’s learned that to reinvent himself by adapting to new musical ideas elicits in him the highest pleasure. He does so despite having been lured by the sirens of L.A. and New York. Staying put — all local artists know — can be detrimental to the ego. “If someone hears you’re from San Diego,” he says, “what they’re really telling you is, ‘Oh, you’re from San Diego.’” Ah, the embarrassment of being from here and stuck here forever.
Garrison’s not stuck — and he’s not going anywhere. Because the composer-arranger-conductor-occasional piano sideman is enormously happy, writing fat-chord jazz grooves with platefuls of improvised solos for a 19-piece orchestra, the Night People, also known as Society of Friends, and composing multi-part suites for crackerjack UCSD players.
During the past three years, he’s been more prolific than ever. A CD of jazz tunes, Veranda; an orchestral suite, The Book of Gratitude; and an ambitious new work premiered this September at UCSD’s Experimental Theater. Garrison’s “stuff” — he calls his through-composed forms “books,” his jazz originals “charts” — is quickly written, exactingly notated, worrisomely rehearsed, nimbly performed (alas, not enough times to garner wide appreciation), and unregrettably filed. On he goes, exhilarated by his still-fermenting musical gifts.
Getting this far in our corner of America by nursing his loves, jazz and new music, means his survival has lots of paradoxes.
There’s no commercial appeal to what Garrison writes. Still, his jazz band sells out most gigs whether in staid auditoria (Seaside Center for Spiritual Living) or jazz clubs (98 Bottles). The Night People orchestra has been appearing monthly; YouTube has several torrid videos of Garrison’s funk-thick grooves and his musicians’ incandescent soloing.
There’s no lucre in composing unless one writes pop tunes or for film. Garrison has scored two movies whose titles he won’t tell me — one a Mexican martial arts movie, the other a splatter film, music to stalk and mutilate females to. (“Do yourself and me a favor and don’t look them up.”) Professionally, he says, “There’s a million guys at UCLA film school who will starve to death for a chance” to score a movie. “Not me.” Instead, he developed a career as a piano tuner, giving him the freedom, and a modest living, to avoid wholesaling his musical soul.
Finally, there’s an inevitable isolation to his music, island-like in an archipelago of new-music composers. Yet, despite the solitude, Garrison attracts adventuresome performers, many from UCSD, that affable cabal of music research, electronic instruments, and the avant-garde.
Garrison is immediately likable. His persona combines the impishness of a small panda with the gravity of a Zen master. Plus, he’s a procurer — when he finds a musician he favors, he’ll ask for a date: Can we play together? Can I write something for you? One reason Night People ballooned to 19 members, he says, is that he couldn’t refuse the many superb jazz players in our midst.
Of late, he’s writing a “book” for himself and four cohorts, tapping their performerly exuberance. “You caught me at a good time,” he says during a couple hours of kitchen-table talk reflecting on his art’s life in his City Heights home. After soulful soliloquies on the Tao of composing and his passion for Monteverdi (“Have you ever heard ‘The Dance of the Ungrateful Ones’?”), it’s time for him and me to car-sprint to a rehearsal for his latest piece, “My New Home.”
325 15th Street, San Diego
In East Village on 15th Street is San Diego Space 4 Art, a cluster of live/work apartments for artists. Thirty-four artists nest in this half-block environ, including clarinetist Ariana Warren and electronics composer Chris Warren, who are (a married) part of Garrison’s five-member ensemble rehearsing this night. The others are Garrison, electric piano (the milky bong of the Fender Rhodes), Steve Solook, percussion (vibes, sleigh bells, drum kit, and cymbals), and Tiffany Du Mouchelle, dramatic soprano (high-voltage highs). The Warrens’ warren, maybe 1000 square feet, sports a loft bed, a skinny kitchen, and a practice room, with antique pianos, speakers, mics, music stands, floor cables, and opaque-windowed streetlight struggling to get in.
Over three hours, “My New Home” searches for footing. Garrison tells me he’s enamored of Du Mouchelle’s upper range. He’s composed this 11-part suite — much of the text on his own frisky lines — to stir this soprano’s bel canto. It’s true: her voice has a rounded vivacity to it, not unlike Renee Fleming. As the group inches forward, the work’s structure feels out of reach, aimless. Du Mouchelle expresses what’s hovering: “We’re really looking for something that’s not quite here,” which is echoed by Solook: “It still has no intention as a group.”
Arianna, holding clarinet in one hand and leaning the thrice-larger bass clarinet on her shoulder, says she’s not worried. These floaty passages will meld in performance; the audience will help shape the work’s pauses and pacing and ground their timing. “We’ll be able to feel their energy direct us,” she offers, rubbing her thumbs and fingers together like money due. They move on.
Thus, in half-hour blocks, the five iron out the folds in this ethereal 50-minute piece. Much of it is meditative: dense, vapory sounds of vibes and cymbals and electronics from which the soprano’s exclamations burst through like sunbeams. In its quieter moments, which are more numerous, the effect is like walking through the Mojave desert at night, star-loud silences and audible thoughts. When I ask Garrison about this new work’s origin, he refers to his post-adolescent music education.
It began at UCSD in 1969 when he enrolled as a rock ’n’ roll guitarist in the early years of the school’s launch, a laboratory of new-music exploration, which, he says, “hasn’t ever changed.” Back then, the work composed at UCSD was “earth-shaking.” Oceans of strange vibrations, created on-the-spot, from innovators like Roger Reynolds, Robert Erickson, and Kenneth Gaburo. Much of it stung (still stings) the Brahms-coddled ears of the public. Such pieces involve performance art. A trombone player, dressed like an Army general, speaks a patriotic text into his mouthpiece. A pianist, after 20 hours of sensory deprivation, improvises before a live audience. An ensemble, augmented by a Moog synthesizer, live and on tape, dances with the machine’s blips and beeps.
While his parents’ turntable revolved to Mingus and the Modern Jazz Quartet, Garrison was seduced by electronic soundscapes and aleatoric music, “a combination of Terry Riley’s ‘In C,’ Morton Feldman, and Douglas Leedy’s ‘Entropical Paradise.’ Play music in any order for different durations — that sort of thing.” Next, he says, he shouldered the Minimalist suit, but “I got stuck there for a long-ass time.” Writing the simplest parts for himself (scale-avoidant, he notes, “the world will be fine if I quit practicing the piano”), he finally decided, “If I’m going to get my music played, then I’m going to have to play it.”
He says his current idiom is “more classical,” the harmonies “more jazz,” and the forms “a combination. I discovered that” in jazz or the avant-garde, “you could have a train wreck [while improvising] and then you could have a train wreck written in. So, I started exerting more control on the performers.” In short, he pushes his works “to arc,” tying complementary and contrastive sections together and generating “forward movement. My esthetic is classical. It moves forward. It tells a story.”
Harmonically, Garrison uses extended chords, those built on, and brightened by, fourths and fifths high above the root. The sound, which doesn’t resolve as traditional tonality does, is reminiscent of 1960s jazz, Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis. His melodies are blues-curved and, on occasion, loudly declamatory. Still, Garrison likes to linger in a groove or on a set of phrases. He likes to retard time. He likes to make space for the musicians to listen to each other. The question that bedevils many contemporary composers is how to write the loosest possible long form and create a listener’s contemplative interest so she’s less likely to reach for her cell phone.
Garrison notes that long ago he found music tough to write but only because he was under a teacher’s thumb. He heard, all too often, “You do it my way,” the Sinatra refrain. Composing “wasn’t hard,” he laughs, “once I got free of the teacher.” While he’s been writing for local jazz luminaries like Kamau Kenyatta on saxophone and Derick Cannon on trumpet, in Night People, or for the current group, he tells me that recently, listening to the La Jolla Symphony, he had a liberating thought: “I know these guys can play Stravinsky, so I started writing multi-meter stuff — and they just sight-read it, no big deal.”
Which brings him to a few philosophical nuggets: “Music’s like the Tao. If you can explain it, it’s not music.” I ask about composer influences. “You’re not going to believe this,” Garrison says, devoid of irony, “but I don’t listen to music.”
Out of principle?
“No. I hear music in my head. I don’t want to hear [other] music; I have no interest in it. It’s really weird. I’ve got to tell you, I don’t know why I’m a musician, because I don’t really care about music. I don’t listen to it. I don’t need to hear it. To me, music’s deeper than that. To me, it’s that whole thing about the Tao: the music is the result of something deeper than what you’re hearing.
“Do you mind if I stretch out?” When he and the group first rehearsed “My New House,” he says, what they played “was deeper than what I was hearing in my head as I wrote it. Because the ensemble embodied it.” He stops to refocus. “How does form come out of nothing? Because everything is already here and things come out of what appears to be nothing. They grow into something and they go away. That’s what happens. And music is the result. Isn’t that weird?”
New music is not the same as contemporary music, which has recently been performed and absorbed, nor is new music the innovations of the previous century, when composers let go of strict tonality and narrative expectation — we date the change to Ives’s madcap Americanisms in the 1910s and John Cage’s ocean-going indeterminacy in the 1950s. New music is unclassifiable, though it has one universally blistering tenet: Go boldly where others have yet to go — a task, after decades of Pierre Boulez and Kronos Quartet, tougher than ever to achieve.
Deep into rehearsal, score in my lap, I’m absorbing Garrison’s boldness. Much of the text is his devising. The big idea is “things coming into form, living, then going away.” The piece opens with a 17th-century pastoral poem by William Browne: “Welcome, welcome, now do I sing,” voiced by the soprano with a few effortless two-octave leaps.
From there, Garrison says, Du Mouchelle tries on different identities: “the Hindu heart sutra, a Catholic prayer, a bit of science fiction, and love.” By the end, she “doesn’t know any more [about herself] than when she started.” Along the journey, he juxtaposes languages (English, Hindu, and Latin) as much for the sound as the sense. The piece roams, its separate parts only semi-sticky. The opening section returns, a ritornello, yet slightly altered each time, like an abstract painting turned on its side.
Overall, Garrison says, he’s trying “to write music the way we actually think. The way I learned to write music is formal and classical with tertian harmony. But that’s not the way you think.” Garrison’s text echoes this: “Once born you’re in it. Once born in the world / Once born you’re really form.” He says this work is like “a pinball game, all over the place, but it’s held together by the ensemble.”
Ten days later this “held togetherness” emerges from a seamless performance of “My New Home” at UCSD’s Experimental Theater: I realize that Garrison’s compositional plan was to let the players, in a dozen rehearsals, temper the score. For Solook, Garrison wrote chords for vibes and rhythms for temple blocks. The percussionist tells me he added timbral variety — opera gongs, Chinese cymbal, snare and bass and tom, as well as five homemade tuned redwood slabs, called Simantra —“based on my sense of Joe’s musicality and the sounds he wanted.”
In two of the eleven sections, Chris Warren’s waves of electronic sound waft in, mixing the pre-recorded and the just-recorded live. His textures haunt the piece, a ghost harrow tilling its soil. Sometimes, Warren’s sonic floods are cinematic — banks of noise falling off a cliff. This, too, fits Garrison’s idea of reaching for being and nothingness.
Much of “My New Home” disappears into itself: the fatback piano or vibe chords ding-ding, hover a moment, and dissolve. In many of soprano Du Mouchelle’s phrases, the melodic line rushes to the top of her range, then leisurely descends on a bluesy scale that settles and sinks.
The final section, “The Girls of Spring,” asks for a kind of balletic joy from the players — a snare/cymbal groove; Garrison’s plagal chords, pinging and alternating minor and major ninths; lyrics whose tones emphasize internal rhymes: “blue summer rain makes the window clean” and “behind limestone walls cats hear them brawl”; bass clarinet bobbing lustily on Stravinskyesque syncopations; and the soprano riffing, “and we were / and you were / and I was,” flighty, Joni-Mitchell–like breathy raps, the ether snatching the lines away quicker than we can hold onto them, let alone make sense. Being here. Being gone.