Steve Newcomb’s SNO in Manhattan

Interview by Miriam Zolin

Queensland piano player and composer Steve Newcomb has been studying at the Manhattan School of Music in New York since August 2010 (thanks in part to the American Australian Association – Dame Joan Sutherland Fund) and plans to complete his Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) studies there next year. He’ll be returning to the Queensland Conservatorium then to resume his teaching position. He emailed to tell us about his DMA recital on 7 December 2011 and while we’re unable to jump on a plane and head over to New York for the concert, we did catch up by Skype and have a quick chat with Steve about the music he’ll be presenting.
Miriam Zolin: So what are you specialising in, with your studies?

Steve Newcomb: Well, one of the reasons I chose this school is that they’ve always had a focus on developing the idea of like a composer player pedagogue all tied into one. It’s always been one of their big pushes. It was attractive to me. So I guess I’m taking composition lessons mainly but I’m playing as well. I’m able to work them both in together for everything that I do as far as my coursework and submissions are concerned.

MZ: Are there particular teachers at the school that helped with your decision to study there?

SN: Jim McNeely is there and has been there for a couple of years. When I auditioned for the place Jim was there and also Phil Markowitz, – a pianist and a great composer with a long association with Dave Liebman – and actually Dave Liebman is also there. Steve Wilson is also on faculty, and Garry Dial. There is a whole community of great people at the school. So yeah, all those things made it attractive to be there

MZ: Is this piece were talking about today one of the assessments for your course?

SN: Yes it’s one of the recitals I have to do. I’ve basically written a whole program of original compositions that I’ve then orchestrated. But this type of ensemble is one that I’ve been dreaming about probably since I started this course. Just the idea of trying to put together a group like this.

MZ: What’s the group called?

SN: It’s called SNO – the Steve Newcomb Orchestra

MZ: SNO, it sounds like a street drug, I’m sorry

SN: Yeah, I know…

MZ: [laughs] Might have some branding issues! I’ll leave that with you. Reading your email, I liked the idea that a lot of these pieces started as things you came up with, jamming with this trio that you’ve started up – with Sam Anning (bass) and Guilhem Flouzat (drums). Tell me about the trio.

SN: Well I’ve played with Sam in Australia. He’s a fantastic player. We both landed at the school at the same time too, so you just gravitate towards each other because you know each other. We got together every week, just for fun, to play and work things out. And things kind of grew from there. They often do with the things I write. I like to have the input of the players that I’m writing for. You know, just bring in little ideas and then things develop from that. A lot of what’s in this music has come from that.

Guilhem is not averse to playing polyrhythmic or more complicated rhythmic things. He has his own original projects and has released a really great CD in France. He likes hip hop as well, as much as everything else. I have similar tastes … I like those things to be there as well. And he’s also studying at the Manhattan School of Music

MZ: Can you talk me through the instrumentation of the ensemble?

SN: The core group of the ensemble is the piano, bass and drums, then the string section, which is a regular string quartet and harp… Then there are four wind instruments. I’ve got Matt Jodrell playing flugel and trumpet – he’s a soloist. and Jonah-Parzen Johnson on baritone sax. He also plays bass clarinet so I use that from time to time. And then I’ve got a French horn player – Alex Love – and a flautist who plays piccolo and alto flute – Jodie Rottle. I use them all in different ways through the pieces.

MZ: How do you use the harp?

SN: I wanted to get a bit more adventurous in the harp writing so instead of just glisses and bell notes I got together with a harp player and nutted a group of things out that are possible and just expanded the writing.

MZ: So what other things are possible?

SN: Well I guess people sort of tend to play it safe when it comes to modulating with keys or the pedal changes to change from one key to another. The chromatic scale is not the easiest thing to do on a harp. But as long as you understand those workings, you can be more adventurous with the harmonic writing. And also they can pretty much play the same sorts of arpeggiated lines that you can do on a piano. I attended a few harp concerts, spoke to harpists, borrowed some books from the library. I just started to see what was possible – harmonics, all sorts of stuff. It’s exciting.

MZ: Sounds intriguing. There’s a whole different texture you’ll be adding to the music. It sounds like the music overall is quite ‘airy’.

SN: Yes, I was surprised, because it’s 13 people and a big band is only three people more. The Vanguard Orchestra is only 16. But because of the instrumentation – the strings – it certainly doesn’t have the punch that a big band has. It’s different.

We will also have a vocalist – Kavita Shah – who is also at school here. Kavita sings lyrics on one song, written by Chris McNulty who is based in New York and a great friend. Kavita also sings wordless things for other pieces. It adds to the texture.

MZ: You said in your email that some of these musical ideas came about jamming with the trio. How does that jamming phase differ from what has to then happen to create a composed piece?

SN: One of the things I try to achieve with this is to have a flexible rhythm section sound … one of the records I’ve been listening to a lot recently is Wayne Shorter’s Alegria. I just love that sound and it seems like the rhythm section has this freedom; it is used in such a way that the texture is really varied. A lot of time in my writing I’ll have the bass drop out and have maybe the harp take over the bass role, or have the drums drop out and have other instruments in the group take over the rhythmic role. I am playing around with the flexibility of how they interact. But I did want to have a trio, that was able to play freely without the larger group as well. So we’re not locked into holding everything down…

With the strings, too, I’ve been experimenting with giving them a cell to improvise with; a group of notes to create a texture with. I’ve been using that a lot in all the pieces. There will be a line of notes above them but underneath they will be murmuring away; they’re contributing to the improv.

MZ: Because I’m not a musician, I’m not familiar with some of these ideas, but I think you’ve just explained the idea of a musical cell to me. When you’re talking about these groups of notes that you’re calling cells, I’m visualising a honeycomb and all these cells are like the cells in the comb and they all make up the whole but they all link somehow.

SN: Yes , so say if I give three notes to the cello and three notes to the viola they could actually be the same three notes but having them play them in any order they like, it creates a texture when they are all interacting with one another. I like those sounds.

MZ: Tell me about the dancer, I’m intrigued by what she’ll be doing and to something you said in the email about ” the great tradition of tap dancers who often visit the clubs and sit in, trading 4s’. What’s that all about?

SN: Yeah well I guess in America, even back to say, Ellington’s time, often his orchestra might have been playing in a club and there were dancers involved. If he was doing a show at the Cotton Club, people wouldn’t just go to see his orchestra, there would also be some variety acts, dancing or whatever And I’ve seen a few tap dancers here, who – seriously – can tap all the rhythms that the drums do and improvise it too. It’s amazing. I’ve seen a couple of collaborations with a drummer and a tap dancer and they kind of trade off each other; it’s like taking the African drum trade-off but transplanting it into a different world…

So the dancer I have coming in for the recital, the first time I saw her she was petty much improvising to a gig. So she’s comfortable with that and enjoys it. It’s a bit of a back and forth I guess, that she improvises to the music and the musicians can react to the dance as well.

MZ: When I hear that there’s a dancer involved, it makes me wonder if you’re writing to a narrative… which I know can be quite tricky because getting too attached to the idea of a linear narrative doesn’t always work in music… is there a story thread in this work you’re performing?

SN: I think my writing is quite often related to some sort of story but not explicit. It’s almost like a story with four layers to it sometimes. It’s just a way for me to extrapolate ideas. One thing Jim McNeely talks about in lessons a lot… he relates writing music to say a play or a movie. He says that when you have a movie, the characters enter and then the next scene it flashes back to something ten years ago and the next scene is a totally different topic… and music can be a lot like that. The narrative can move around in that way.

MZ: Can those of us who can’t come to the concert hear the music in any other way?

SN: It will be recorded on the night, but my goal is that I would really like to stage it in Australia down the track and possibly record it in the studio here next year. I’m working towards a general plan to make the SNO a regular thing that evolves, although maybe doesn’t get bigger. Maybe stay this size. It’s an interesting mix, at the moment.

I’m aiming to get it up on Sound Cloud once it’s done… The one thing I have on Sound Cloud at the moment has actually been rewritten for this larger group although what you hear gives you a good idea of the kinds of string things that I’m exploring.



If you are in the vicinity of Manhattan School of Music on 7 December 2011, you can also listen live at the free concert. See the event’s Facebook page for details.

Find out more about Steve Newcomb on his website: