Monday, January 7th, 2019
Written by Michael Cyrs.
On their 2015 album Dysnomia, Dawn of Midi created something for jazz, classical, and DIY fans alike. Simply arranged, the album never reaches outside its toolbox of piano, drums, and double bass. What makes it one of the most memorable jazz records of the decade, however, lies in its patchwork rhythms. Often bereft of a clear time signature, songs morph from section to section not from melodic cues, but from amorphous syncopation. Each member of the trio, with roots in India, Pakistan, and Morocco, takes on the role of percussionist, and the compositions unfold like the building of a bridge in fast motion, or the interlocking light patterns on a busy freeway.
What kind of mind does it take to compose such pieces? “My brain often doesn’t let me get from A to B without stopping at A.1 or A.2 along the way,” explains saxophonist and JFund awardee Shelley Washington. Although Dysnomia had a major impact on the New York classical scene that Washington is also a part of, it’s possible she’d never heard the record. But a quick assessment of the way she phrases her words and compositions uncovers a lot of similarities between the two. In the same way that Dawn of Midi transition from one section to another using only rhythm, Washington’s pieces move along at a syncopated pace. “I like collage work. I feel like my brain is a definite patchwork.”
Washington’s piece “Silk” is the best indicator of how her composing mind works. It was written for New York’s Bearthoven, an ensemble she’s been working with for some time. A unique intro to the track, the upright bass line begins very far from a 4/4 time signature. Shots of vibraphone sporadically arrive like the next square in the quilt is now being basted on. Piano enters with complex arpeggios that add texture without overwhelming the ear. Even with the addition of a full drumset, the piece maintains a dreamlike calm in its absence of common time measures and beats per minute.
Discussing how the piece came about, Washington speaks in a similar fashion to her compositions. Each line of dialogue gets further from the origin of the question, but it doesn’t sound like she’s dodging the question. You don’t get to hear about what was going through her mind when she wrote “Silk.” Instead, she paints a broader picture of how her mind generally works.
It’s harder for me to write when there’s too much musical input. I already have sensitivity issues. It’s more like conversations are hard for me. All the chatter just sounds like clucking to me. I can pick up on drums and rhythms because they’re consistent. “Swept away” is a very good way of putting it because I don’t often get to decide where my mind is going.
Washington is the first to admit that her mind wanders, similar to the way that her pieces flow seamlessly and quickly from one section to the next. Take her piece “BIG Talk” as an example. It’s not so much peering into her mind as it is peering into her experiences. “BIG Talk” is about catcalling and rape culture. There’s no room for triviality.
I did everything in my power to make the performer feel what I feel… I don’t want there to be any way for people to skirt around these issues. People try to weasel their way around it, but if you’re gonna play this piece, you have to think about this. A lot of my friends have to think about these things every day. It’s ridiculous that society is still working that way.
It’s not a difficult topic to discuss or compose music around, but Washington does both with grace. Perhaps a reflection of her history as a competitive swimmer in high school and college, “BIG Talk” takes a lot of breath support and athleticism to play. Performed on two baritone saxophones, which weigh about 12 pounds each, this is nine minutes of very muscular playing. “I wanted the saxophone to be on the edge. It would sound fine on cello or something else but that’s not really the point,” she explains. The large horn is capable of playing a low A, but this note requires engaging your whole hand. Stack repeating rhythms on top of those fingerings, and you’ve got a real workout.
It’s only natural that the piece acts this way. It takes significant endurance to play, which is precisely what female-identifying people need to navigate the male-dominated world. Washington not only composes to endure, but fires back when she can.
If I am catcalled and the sun is up, I will take time out of my day to yell back and give them a piece of my mind. I have smacked the crap out of strangers at bars… It’s this churning relentless cycle in the piece as well. You have to physically endure playing these super long threads.
Although “BIG Talk” has a mournful tonality in its middle-section, the end of the piece plays out in a major key, similar to the wistfulness of “Silk.” You can hear some release of the tension, like Washington is viewing society’s push towards gender equality more clearly with each day. “BIG Talk” follows the patchwork composition style as faithfully as her other pieces, but showcases her ability to communicate experiences better than much of her catalogue.
Also an endurance is Washington’s work schedule. She applied for JFund while she was looking to pursue her doctorate, and is now working on the JFund piece (and others) while attending Princeton’s five-year music composition PhD program. The program focuses on letting the students write instead of hang around a lecture hall. So, Washington is going to continue putting out music at a great pace. Princeton truly wants her to take this time to continue working, and JFund has been a catalyst for that process.
I’m super excited to keep working with Bearthoven. We went to a farm this summer and got to workshop the JFund piece – hanging out with them and chilling on a farm and eating stupidly good food. I wouldn’t have been able to do that without JFund. It’s the first and only, like, big award that I’ve ever gotten so that’s really exciting. I think the piece is gonna premiere next fall.