St. Olaf College | News

Visiting jazz composer will provide students with insight into his work

CavanaghDan300x450The work of composer Dan Cavanagh ’01 can been heard around the world, in venues ranging from Lincoln Center to the Bucharest International Jazz Festival.

And this week he’ll bring his talent back to the St. Olaf College campus. The St. Olaf Jazz Ensembles (Jazz I, II, and III) and the Percussion Ensemble have been rehearsing a selection of Cavanagh’s works in preparation for their spring concerts. The composer himself will work with the ensembles in the week prior to the performances. (Both jazz concerts will be streamed live and archived online.)

“It’s important for St. Olaf jazz and percussion students to work with an accomplished musician who got his start performing with the same ensembles they are in,” says St. Olaf Artist in Residence Dave Hagedorn, who conducts the jazz ensembles. “There is always something special to be learned by experiencing music with the person who originally created it. This is an immense help for interpretation and trying to realize the composer’s intentions.”

Cavanagh, the associate director of jazz studies and an associate professor of music at the University of Texas at Arlington, has garnered numerous awards for his jazz compositions. He has received an International Music Prize for Excellence in Composition, a First Music Commission from the New York Youth Symphony Jazz Band Classic program, and a featured performance at the International Jazz Composers Symposium. He is also an honorary fellow of the National Academy of Music.

He shares what drew him to jazz, what inspires him, and the artist he can’t get enough of right now.

Your compositions vary widely in genre and style. Where do you draw your inspiration?
My inspiration comes from many different places, and can be different depending on the piece. I read a great deal, and often I try to encapsulate ideas from those readings into my compositions. Much of my inspiration comes from other art, especially poetry.

Your music is fun to play. How do you achieve that?
I think a composition means nothing without the people who perform it, and without the people who listen to it. Because that is so important to me, I typically think about that quite a bit during the composition process. Duke Ellington was reported to think that individual lines in a composition needed to be as interesting to play as the melody, and that is an important consideration for me. I also think that a piece has an overall energetic shape that needs to come across for the performers and listeners, and so the pieces that are fun to play (and listen to) are the ones that have captured that energy in the right way.

What drew you to jazz?
I began taking piano lessons in kindergarten. I would always make up my own “compositions” when I was in grade school. My family moved from St. Paul to the suburbs (Woodbury) when I was in seventh grade; because of that I changed piano teachers. My new teacher ended up moving three months after I started with her, and she recommend I begin with a jazz piano teacher. It’s a great case of a teacher recognizing the strengths or interests of a student and steering them in the right direction.

What’s one of your favorite memories of having your pieces performed?
It was a very special experience to have my piece titled Joy Soup performed in the Allen Room at Lincoln Center, with huge windows overlooking Central Park in New York City around dusk. That piece was commissioned by the New York Youth Symphony Jazz Band Classic program and performed by them in 2006.

What is your go-to album or artist right now?
I just can’t seem to get enough of Dave Douglas. He is restless in his activity as a performer and composer, and I currently have two friends who are playing in his band, which is amazing. His album from last year, Be Still, is fantastic, and the same quintet just released a new album, Time Travel, which I’m really looking forward to getting to know.

You did a Radio Head piece for jazz ensemble. What other musical groups would you be interested in arranging?
Actually, I don’t really keep a list of pieces I’d like to arrange, and frankly I don’t spend much time listening to pop music. I have been really interested in bluegrass lately (there’s a really cool bluegrass album by Charlie Haden), and it would be fun to wrangle that kind of stuff into a big band context.