“Twelve” QUESTIONS / Dobrogosz

October 13 at 18:30 at the SGM Centro Congressi in Rome, Steve Dobrogosz and Coro Musicanova.
Details of the event are on our Facebook page.

American pianist and composer, he has just finished working on “a two hour rock ’n’ roll album” that adds to the list of reasons why it’s not easy to enclose in a single definition the music and the figure of Steve Dobrogosz. He graduated from the Berklee College of Music in Boston and, in 1978, at 22 years old, he moved to Stockholm, physically building a bridge between the homeland of jazz and the fervent Scandinavian jazz scene – we remember his intense collaboration with the wonderful Radka Toneff. But Stockholm is also a gem of European choral music and this soon influences the receptive composer who, on a solid classical basis, begins and continues to explore possibilities and choral sounds permeable to jazz and pop.

What were your first musical experiences?

Music on TV in the 50s, LPs my parents had in the house, toy instruments I attempted to play.

When did you start composing – and what or who were your early passions and influences?

The first song I remember writing, I was 6. I mostly soaked up mainstream pop (James Bond soundtracks were a favorite), started piano lessons, learned trumpet and guitar. My favorite composer then: Debussy. In my teens, I transcribed Elton John and Keith Jarrett, and became a big Beatles fan.

What do you personally consider to be incisive moments in your work and/or career?

For me, milestone moments are always the pieces where I feel my writing has reached a new level. I could list some, but they are not among the better known in my repertoire that people would recognize.

Can you give us a little more insight into how you compose – i.e. methods you use, how things come to you – perhaps something on the nuts and bolts you use to compose.

It always begins with a small molecule of an idea, a seed – maybe just two chords that “click” or a surprise melody note – that sparks my interest, feels like its own world, and says “please form me into an entire piece”, and can end up being anything from an Irish jig to a Requiem. Once that first spark is there, usually the rest follows quite naturally and quickly. Also, it always begins at the piano. I have tried composing from my head but the results are never as good. I seem to need physical contact with my instrument.

Composing and orchestration: self-taught. Theories and techniques are great tools, but it works best for me when it’s as intuitive as possible, and I’ll only pursue a piece if it’s fun working on. If there’s a “nut and bolt” I tend to be adept at, it’s called the “pivot-chord modulation”, but that’s for the nerds. ; )

Inspiration – this I haven’t figured out, nor do I try. The music comes (I’ve had blessedly few dry spells) and I make sure to write it down or record it. Better not to ask where it comes from…

Keith Jarrett once said that opening the door of jazz means shutting the door of composition, and vice versa. What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?

Being able to improvise with content is as rare as being able to compose with content. It depends entirely on who’s doing it, and whether they actually have anything worthwhile to say. A lot of the craft of improvisation is just a hands-on, fingertip knowledge of chord structure and scales, which any good composer must have to some degree in order to create. These categories tend to blend together for me, as I suspect they did in older times.

What was your relationship with choir music in the USA and how has it changed after moving to Sweden? 

My only exposure was hearing church choirs. Becoming a choral composer was nothing I’d planned on, but was asked to try by an esteemed choir in Stockholm (the St. Jacob’s Chamber Choir, Ed.), and the ball started rolling when the response was good. Sweden has an active choral scene, so it’s been a good base to work from in that regard.

As a jazz musician and composer, what are the main compositional challenges when it comes to choir music?

A lyric sung by a solo singer and the same lyric sung by a collective are two very different things. Words chosen for a choral work have to be believable in a group setting, so that’s the first challenge. Avoiding certain trends (choral clusters!) is something I keep in mind. Choral music that supposedly “swings” can be problematic because it easily sounds lightweight and theatrical, so I try to find ways around that. Otherwise, I’ve always found it very natural to write for voice, which is odd not being a singer myself.

We will soon perform MASS, perhaps your most performed composition, which is often referred to as “jazz” Mass, what do you think of this adjective?  

I don’t. There is no improvisation in the score. “Crossover” is a bit better, but why use an adjective at all? I wrote Mass from a clean slate and it is what it is. If I use a jazz-sounding chord in a piece (as Debussy often did) it’s because it happens to be the best harmonic choice. If there was anything way back in my mind when writing Mass, perhaps it was Jesus Christ Superstar, but people never hear that in the music.

Actually, the Agnus Dei section could be written out as a jazz ballad chart (actually, that’s a good idea…) but otherwise I don’t really hear why Mass can’t just be Mass without any adjectives.

It was 1991 and I was working with a young choir from outside Stockholm. They asked if I’d be interested in writing a longer piece for them, and I came back some months later with the first draft of Mass. At the time it consisted of hand-written SATB parts, no strings, and the piano part only as the chords in my head. In the next few years I revised some bars, added strings, and notated the piano as close as possible to how I’d been performing it.

In your Mass, which melodic and harmonic solutions belong to jazz language and which to the classical language?

I’ve internalized totally diverse music styles, so when I’m working on a phrase I don’t think “how can I make this sound classical, or jazz, or atonal, or folk music?” or whatever. I think “where is the most RIGHT place this melody wants to go?”, wherever that leads.

We will perform for the first time ever the Amen Magna, are there anecdotes on the inspiration or composition of this piece?

I was happy and honored to be asked to compose a new piece for Coro Musicanova for their anniversary. It was the first time composing for double choir, which was a welcome challenge. It took a while to find the right approach for the text, but once I decided on variations of “amen”, I had freedom to essentially write the melodies first and then set the text, though I usually work the opposite way around for choral music. I hope the atmosphere is celebratory as intended.

If a composer speaks with the voice of his or her own time, how do you try to meet this goal in your work?

Being “the voice of a generation” is not something any artist can consciously choose, I think. But I think this: you can create or you can react. If you are only reacting, for or against the current zeitgeist, you sacrifice part of your voice. For example, when I was starting out, to be eligible for the highest royalty for “serious” music, it was mandatory that it was atonal, or at least include atonality. I didn’t choose tonal music as a protest, but because singable songs were just what I’ve always heard inside. Paul McCartney was asked – what was the greatest reward he ever received as a songwriter, and he answered: walking down the street and hearing someone humming one of his tunes. It seems to me that for modern composers, acceptance in the industry usually comes at the high price of eliminating hummable, memorable melodies. So I don’t bother with it.

Finally, what music are you enjoying at the moment?

Actually, nothing. I’ve just put the final touch on a two hour rock ’n’ roll album, so that’s what I’ve been listening to for a while. I suspect my wife is now quite tired of my Little Richard solos.

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