ETHEL’s Documerica: Composer Chat w/ Ulysses Owens Jr.

Summer nears its end, but that’s not such bad news, because it means that ETHEL’s Documerica is on the horizon! Tickets go on sale Sept 3, so mark that in your calendars. This month, Ulysses Owens Jr. was nice enough to take some time out of his crazy touring schedule to answer a few questions for me about his process composing “The Simplicity of Life.”


TW: So this was your VERY FIRST composition for string quartet. How did you set about such a new endeavor? Did you listen to and study any particular pieces for inspiration or just go off of instinct?

UO: The first thing I did was contact a mentor of mine, Robert Sadin who is a great composer and arranger for strings, and I asked his advice about how to approach composing for strings. I had previously written some smaller pieces for strings while at Juilliard, so I wasn’t completely unfamiliar but had never written or full length piece or been commissioned to write something specifically for strings. The first I thing I did was start to listen to the Debussy Quartet, and Ravel Quartet, and a few of Mozart’s pieces. Once I started really listening and studying how the greats composed and the sound of string quartet, I started flushing out so of my own ideas. For each piece I would start with the melody line, and decide did I want the Violin, or Viola or Cello to carry the line .By the end of composing the 1st Movement I had developed my confidence, and then I would just keep following the inspiration that each photo rendered me musically.

TW:What are some of your favorite Jazz composers and Classical composers? Do you feel these two media can be coherently combined for good and not for evil?

UO: My favorite composers within the Jazz Idiom are Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Duke Pearson, Billy Childs, Charles Mingus and Quincy Jones. Classical Composers I love are Bach, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Mahler, and Handel. I think there have been multiple examples where Classical and Jazz have collaborated very successfully, and I have heard certain Jazz composers who have heavy Classical influences and vice versa. I think all music is connected, and it’s the industry that likes to keep the genres divided for the purpose of commercialization and capitalism. But all music reflects and merges within itself!

TW: What were the biggest challenges in writing for quartet and what aspect of it was the most fun? As a drummer, since you almost always add rhythm, was it strange to write knowing we wouldn’t have a drumset backing us up? We certainly loved having you play with us on some of our own tunes that normally don’t have the drums pushing us along- what a treat!

UO: The biggest challenge was writing for the requested length of time. Because in Jazz, most of the melodies unless they are large ensemble works are short pieces with limited musical form for room for the improvisatory element. Having to write something that had to be composed note for note for a continuous amount of time with no improvisation to extend the time was very challenging:) It wasn’t challenging at all writing without the drums in mind, because I have always been in love with strings for a long time so it was great to compose something that was different outside of my normal musical scenario.

When I perform within the rhythm section, as the drummer you are the engine, and yet you have to maintain a strong knowledge of harmony and melody. Because if you’re going to be the leader and helping other musicians how to navigate the music in the best way you have to be aware of every aspect of the music. I’m like a musical point guard, looking and setting up things and also maintaining the energy and flow of the music. Also as a drummer , you have to possess the biggest ears on the bandstand! Because you have to know everyone’s part plus yours. That’s why if there is a great drummer, the band will be great!

TW:For Documerica, you were asked to write from a place of inspiration based on the photo-archive. Which photos influenced you the most, and were your associations more literal or abstract?

UO:The photos that influenced me the most were the revival crusade truck, and the picture of the fisherman. Because these photos had so much character within them. You had the subject of the picture but within that it was so much depth in those photographs, and honestly my inspiration for the entire pieces came from those two photos. My associations started from a literal place, but they began to expand to a thematic approach.

TW:Normally, though structured, the music you play is largely improvised. How did it feel to be fully in control of all aspects of a piece?

UO: The big misnomer about Jazz is that it is largely improvised, but within jazz there are a variety of multiple musical contexts. You have Free jazz which is largely improvised, then trio, big band setting, which is more composed. Especially composers like Duke Ellington, and Clause Ogerman, etc. So for me, I felt composing something where every note counts, and the beauty of the compositions was not just the improvisatory element, but that the substance of the piece would come from the composer was great. It was a lot of pressure, but I am no stranger to pressure and welcomed the challenge as an opportunity to grow as a musician and new composer.

TW: You chose to write four short movements instead of one larger piece. Did you predetermine that you wanted to write shorter movements or is this something that happens for you organically during the process? How would you describe the character of each movement?

UO: I preferred the direction of writing in movements, because for me I had a lot of stylistic ideas that I wanted to express especially because the different photos took me to different places emotionally. So writing one large piece would wasn’t the most appropriate for how I wanted to express myself compositionally. Also writing for a quartet like ETHEL gives you a great deal of musical leverage and options. The group is so diverse and musically they have no boundaries, so I felt splitting it up into movements would be great for all involved to have a like of different sound pallets to work with.

The first movement for me in the introduction, and it emotionally and harmonically represents every aspect of the other 3 movements. It’s sort of a foreshadowing to me of all that is to come. The 2nd movement, really starts the journey to the rhythmic aspect of the piece, it’s the first “lift off”. The 3rd movement “Magical Quilt” is sort of an opportunity to really show the sentimental side of the photos that really moved me. In this movement I focused a lot on the quilting photographs which really displayed a visual part of American Culture that was very ancestral, and reverent. The last movement for me was the celebration. Before I wrote the first note, I said this last piece has to be a party. So it’s really special to me every time I get to hear the composition and even some rare moments when I get to perform with ETHEL are great too! ethel all
ETHEL at TEDxManhattan with special guests Ulysses Owens and Kaki King last February

The view from the rhythm section!