Photo by Michael Turcotte
K.K.: The Philharmonic Orchestra of the America’s PERCUSSION FEAST will feature your Garbage Concerto on June 6th with TAMBUCO as soloists. One can’t help but immediately wonder about the origin of the title. Can you tell us more about that?
J.J.: It all started one sunny summer day in 1992 when I evidently didn't have enough to do. I pulled a bunch of tin cans out of the recycling bin in my kitchen and said whimsically, "I could make music with this." Before long I had pulled out 27 cans and tried banging on them with drumsticks. I found that a lot of them sounded similar and some of them just didn't sound very good at all. So I arbitrarily narrowed down the selection to 5 distinct cans. Then I repeated this process with glass bottles and plastic containers by choosing five of each. I even used the recycling bin itself as a bass drum. Before long, I had a "consort" of garbage instruments. My father helped out by designing and building wooden stands for the instruments (out of second hand wood, of course).
I told Ottawa Symphony Orchestra conductor David Currie about my experiments and, by happy coincidence, the orchestra was looking for a piece with which to feature their percussionists in a concerto setting. I worked on the piece part time for four years and we successfully applied for a composition commission grant from the Laidlaw Foundation. I wore earplugs daily as I banged on the instruments trying to coax exciting rhythms from the not-particularly-beautiful sound of garbage. It is much easier to compose for professional percussion instruments such as vibraphone and marimba since one can exploit their beauty of sound. The premiere took place in 1996 in Ottawa, Canada at the National Arts Centre with David Currie conducting the OSO and its featured percussion players. The piece has since been recorded by BIS Records (CD-1052) and performed in Europe, Asia, Mexico and North America.
Your story as a composer is quite intriguing. I understand that you, as your bio states, have in a way “turned your back” to the avant-garde modernism that is preached to composition students in universities across the nation. What prompted the change?
When I was in university in the 1970s and early 80s, I was forced to write atonal "modern" music which was progressive and complex. Being a naive student fresh out of high school, I was puzzled by this since a lot of this music sounded ugly to me. I was informed that tonal composers such as Shostakovich, Prokovief, Dvorak, Tschaikovsky, Grieg and Sibelius (none of them German) were cheap, second rate composers and not worthy of study in music theory or orchestration classes. However, Webern's string quartet Op. 28 was studied at all three universities that I attended, as well as works by Schoenberg and Berg.
When I graduated from the University of California, San Diego with a Ph. D. in 1981, I was totally fed up with complex, atonal avant garde music that I was obligated to write and took a break from composition. The next year I composed a simple, tonal carillon piece called "Night Music" and with that I said goodbye to Modernism for good. I now regard the forced modernism in my university studies to be a sophisticated form of dumbing down and an example of camouflaged subversion of youth at a high intellectual level. This has only led young Americans astray to the point that a truly great symphony or truly great concerto has never been written in the USA. Sure, one can mention Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and Aaron Copland's 3rd Symphony, but that is minor stuff compared to what has arisen in small places such as Finland or the Czech Republic. The USA has excelled in other areas where such subversion is absent.
I assume it is safe to say that in many of your compositions you tap into ethnic-influenced music. Does this help make your music more accessible?
Folk and popular music styles are definitely accessible because they are spontaneously founded on psychoacoustically sound principles. Inaccessible pop or folk music simply flops. However, I believe that my music is suitable for human consumption before the addition of these external stylistic elements due to being psychoacoustically sound because of my desire to communicate with my fellow human beings. Fortunately I studied psychoacoustics, timbre studies and time perception to a some extent in university.
I’ve once heard a person say that Avant-Garde and serialistm in America in the 60’s and 70’s killed classical music. What can you say on that topic?
Nobody killed classical music. Little old ladies kept on listening to Tschaikovsky and Brahms while bearded university professors wrote transposed retrograde inversions or microtonal clusters which they believed would give them a ticket to future success. Now the future has arrived and it is evident that it was the professors and their victims/students who have committed artistic suicide by failing to communicate with their fellow human beings. They will be forgotten. In one hundred years, I believe that very little 20th century avant garde music will be known by the public and some of what will be known will be of curiosity value only. Probably some psychoacoustically sound works such as Lutoslawki's "Funeral Music" and Ligeti's sensuous "Atmospheres" will be performed from time to time.
I know that usually composers hate to label their music, but could you talk a bit about your style? I couldn’t help but hear some minimalistic influence?
I think that it is fair to call what I do postmodern. At the very least, I belong to the period that follows modernism. But I also enjoy mixing various international influences, pop rhythms and even humor - all of which are hallmarks of postmodernism. I have not been very enthusiastic about taking up minimalism because I find most of it boring and kind of pretentious. I like its directness and immediate sonic beauty but the form of the music does not satisfy me and does not lead to a truly satisfying listening experience in the long term.
Finally, my music is autobiographical because it fuses my European background/classical music side with my North American upbringing/teenage rock music side to produce a postmodern hybrid. I have seen Jimi Hendrix and Rostropovich live and can be influenced by both types of experience. In the Garbage Concerto we have the coming together of classical music's well thought out forms and the excitement of pop music rhythms.