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.”