Sonic Evolution: A Musical Migration

For local composer and pianist Wayne Horvitz, many roads have led to this milestone: the world premiere of Those Who Remain, a concerto featuring guitarist Bill Frisell, presented by the Seattle Symphony on its Sonic Evolution concert on October 29. With a musical style that defies labels of “jazz” or “classical,” and after decades of a globetrotting career that blurs boundaries between composing and improvising, the defining trait of Horvitz’s latest music is its deep roots in this land that he has made his home.

Born in New York City, Horvitz developed an early love of the West, traveling widely by car and by foot on family trips. He enrolled at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and his wanderlust led him to hitchhike and backpack around the Pacific Northwest.

Like so many young musicians, Horvitz moved to New York after graduating, and he found an apartment in Lower Manhattan, in the same building as composer-saxophonist John Zorn, another rising star of what came to be called the “downtown” jazz scene. The apartments were “dangerous and dirty and tiny,” Horvitz reminisced, “but they were cheap.”

In the 1980s Zorn developed a worldwide following for his genre-bending band, Naked City. Along with Horvitz on keyboards, the all-star group featured guitarist Bill Frisell, bass guitarist Fred Frith and drummer Joey Baron. When they weren’t touring together, three of the members — Horvitz, Frisell and Baron — were at that point neighbors in Hoboken, New Jersey, across the river from Manhattan. Horvitz and his wife, composer-singer Robin Holcomb, eventually wanted more space to raise a family, so they moved to Seattle in 1988 with their young daughter. Frisell and his family came for a summer visit, and they too were charmed by the Emerald City, prompting them to make the same move West.

Horvitz has embraced his adopted home of Seattle, and no one has done more to nurture the local scene of improvising composer-performers in the “downtown” mold. Besides his own work as a bandleader, he opened The Royal Room in Columbia City as a supportive venue for creative music from Seattle and beyond. Horvitz is doing for music what chefs like Tom Douglas are doing for dining: “Just like people are more interested in local food,” Horvitz noted, “that should be true of the arts as well.”

Meanwhile, Horvitz has undergone a musical migration of his own. When he moved to Seattle, he was primarily touring and performing in jazz clubs, as well as producing albums for Frisell and others. Lately, he has been increasingly drawn to projects that are more “classical” in nature, composing fully notated scores for conservatory-trained musicians. Since 1999 he has written string quartets, an oratorio and works for chamber orchestra. Those Who Remain is his first large-scale concerto, and it combines written material for the orchestra with a guitar part for Frisell that specifies exactly one note, the rest being improvised.

Horvitz found his inspiration for Those Who Remain in the writings of Richard Hugo, a poet who traveled the Pacific Northwest and chronicled its changing communities, from the White Center section of Seattle, where he was born, to Missoula, where he taught at the University of Montana. Horvitz has always been intrigued by “post-industrialized Western America, and these towns that were once so prosperous that fell by the wayside,” a theme that Hugo “captures brilliantly.”

To immerse himself in Hugo’s world, Horvitz went on a road trip through Montana, and he even stayed in the cabin frequented by Hugo and other writers. Most of Those Who Remain was composed during Horvitz’s residency at the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming, just miles from the town of Ten Sleep, referenced in the Hugo poem Three Stops to Ten Sleep — which Horvitz adopted as the title of his first movement.

Horvitz’s new composition, and the journeys that brought him to this juncture, reflect a larger theme of the region. “The migration to the West has always been about hope,” he emphasized, “for all these people coming to the land of opportunity.”

Lawrence, Jacob (1917–2000) © ARS, NY. The railroad stations were at times so over-packed with people leaving that special guards had to be called in to keep order. 1940–41. Panel 12 from The Migration Series. Tempera on gesso on composition board, 12 x 18" (30.5 x 45.7 cm). Gift of Mrs. David M. Levy.
The Museum of Modern Art
Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY
Reproduction, including downloading of Jacob Lawrence works is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express written permission of Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
© 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In the last century, those opportunities led millions of African Americans to leave the rural South in what has been dubbed the “Great Migration.” They flocked to northern and western cities including Seattle, which saw its African American population quadruple between 1940 and 1950.

The African American artist Jacob Lawrence was just 23 when he created his immortal Migration Series, a set of 60 panels telling the story of the ongoing Great Migration. Later Lawrence made his own westward transit, when he joined the faculty of the University of Washington, and he lived in Seattle until his death in 2000.

Composer Derek Bermel paid tribute to Lawrence with the 2006 composition Migration Series, a concerto for orchestra and jazz band, commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, led by Wynton Marsalis. Bermel is also a clarinetist and improviser, and his score sizzles with authentic jazz licks and rhythms.

This performance, co-presented by the Earshot Jazz Festival, pairs the Seattle Symphony with the big band from Seattle’s own Roosevelt High School, perennial favorites at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington Competition, also directed by Marsalis. Roosevelt and friendly local rival Garfield High School have racked up a combined seven wins in the national contest since 2002, prompting Marsalis to ask about Seattle, “What’s in the water?”

The wealth of local talent is no surprise to Seattleites, who do so much to support and nurture creative artists within the community. The Seattle-born singer Shaprece is a prime example, with her blend of classic soul and sizzling electronica. Her sophisticated songs already play like miniature symphonies, and they will reach new sonic dimensions in original arrangements for orchestra.

The driving motive for the Seattle Symphony’s Sonic Evolution series is to bring composers into dialogue with Seattle’s rich creative tradition, whether the inspiration comes from huge stars like Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain (as in past seasons) or cherished local artists like Richard Hugo and Jacob Lawrence. Horvitz and Shaprece represent two essential points on Seattle’s current musical map, and they are blazing paths for a new generation that is already in motion.  

By Aaron Grad

Tickets and more information here.

Posted on November 6, 2015