Graduate composition student John Stetch released his 16th record, Ballads, an album of “quiet classics from the 1930's to the 1950's that never get louder than mezzo forte. Perfect for non-intrusive background ambience, but also for discerning listeners and tough critics of creative music. All tracks are complete takes with no editing.” Available on CD Baby, iTunes and Spotify.
Six School of Music students and alumni, including Eva Toncheva (BMus’18), violin; Madelynn Erickson, violin; Nina Weber, viola; Emily Richardson, flute; Carlos Savall-Guardiola, clarinet; and Lukas Hildebrandt (BMus’18), percussion, have been accepted to the 2018 National Youth Orchestra of Canada. This summer they embarked on an exciting Canada-European tour, with stops in Ontario and Quebec and in Germany and Scotland.
John Stetch has won the BC Canadian Music Centre’s Pentland Prize, a $1,000 scholarship awarded annually to a graduate composition student at UBC, SFU, or UVic. You can read more about Stetch and his unique synthesis of jazz and classical music here.
Mezzo soprano Simran Claire (BMus'18, current MMus student) has won a position with the Glimmerglass Ensemble and will begin performing with the ensemble in June 2019.
Members of the UBC Trumpet Ensemble — Dasa Silhova, Willy Wang, Matheus Moraes, Erica Binder, and Shira Adam — were selected to participate in the International Trumpet Guild of Miami, Florida in June. They travelled to San Antonio from May 27th to June 3rd, attending valuable workshops, lectures, masterclasses and concerts.
The UBC Opera Ensemble had a successful tour to the Czech Republic this past summer, where they performed Rossini’s Italian Girl in Algiers in Teplice, Decin and Jablonec. They returned to Vancouver in August to performed an evening of opera and operetta excerpts at Bard on the Beach. They were joined by members of the Vancouver Opera Orchestra.
Silverman Piano Concerto Competition winners Benjamin Hopkins, Evgenia Rabinovich, Ayunia Saputro and Aydan Con performed iconic concerto movements with the UBC Symphony Orchestra at the Chan Centre this September. Hopkins, the grand prize winner, performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, while Rabinovich, Saputro, and Con played movements by Beethoven and Mozart. Watch their peformances online.
At the 2018 BC Provincial Music Festival, BMus student Julia Johnstone won first place in the National Vocal Variety category and was the runner-up in the National Classical Voice category. MMus student Thomas Law was the runner-up in the National Woodwinds category, while BMus student Braden Eguia won Honourable Mention in the Senior Piano category.
PhD student Curtis Andrews and his world jazz ensemble, The Offering of Curtis Andrews, collaborated with legendary South Indian percussionist Trichy Sankaran this September. The concert, “A World of Rhythm,” presented music rooted in South Indian classical Carnatic music, with an exciting array of rhythmic exploration, improvisation and devotional compositions.
Six-time Juno nominee and graduate student John Stetch talks about his restless, path-breaking career, the excitement of re-envisioning classical music through a jazz lens, and his decision to return to school
Text by Tze Liew
Video by Colleen O’Connor
Over the past three decades, John Stetch has made a name for himself as one of Canada’s most innovative jazz pianists and composers. He has performed with contemporary greats such as Mark Turner and Chris Cheek and has recorded sixteen albums, including his most recent release, Ballads. Yet in the middle of a successful career that has earned him critical acclaim and half a dozen Juno Award nominations, he made the extraordinary decision to come to UBC to pursue an M.Mus in Composition.
“I wanted to get a Master’s because the nature of work and teaching [in music] has changed in many places, and often requires more than just a Bachelor’s degree. I knew I was going to be living in Vancouver, and I’d heard of UBC and its beautiful campus. There wasn’t really a jazz program around, so I thought a Composition Master’s would be a great fit, since I’ve been starting to write some classical chamber music, not just jazz,” he says.
Stetch is no stranger to change. Ambitious and experimental, he has always forged his own path, inventing new techniques and musical styles — for instance, fusing classical and jazz music in his compositions. Reinterpreting well-known classical works by Mozart, Bach and Chopin through the language of jazz, he is fearless in altering the chords and rhythms, adding new textures with techniques like plucking the inside of the piano to create exciting new renditions, while still keeping the originals recognizable.
“I have this instinct to want to play a little differently every day,” he says. “There are so many interesting possibilities. What if you double up the octaves? What if you play the scale down instead of up? Or change the ending completely?”
Stetch was inspired to play classical music, especially after listening to Glenn Gould playing Bach. Gould’s daring, percussive style pointed to interesting possibilities within the classical canon. But Stetch, a jazz musician, wasn’t sure how to approach the material at first.
“It was too strange to play Chopin in a jazz club,” he says. “So I ended up rearranging the classical pieces, making them my own style, and treating them as homages to the original composers. Now I can perform them in both jazz and classical contexts.”
Stetch has reworked pieces such as Mozart’s Sonata No. 13 in B-Flat, Chopin’s A-Flat Major Polonaise and Bach’s Italian Concerto, which he recently performed in a Wednesday Noon Hours concert. The Mozart Sonata is a bluegrass arrangement, inspired by a banjo concert he attended. The Chopin and Bach arrangements are jazz-influenced – in Chopin, he plays with odd rhythms to vary and contrast with the original; in Bach, he mixes time signatures to elongate or shorten the theme.
“Mozart and bluegrass were a perfect match. Bluegrass usually has a lot of fast notes, an obvious pulse, and the kind of tonic-dominant-subdominant chord progression that Mozart’s pieces [also] have,” he says.
For Stetch, the interaction between jazz and classical is a two-way street. While bringing jazz improvisation techniques to classical pieces, he also admires classical music for its emphasis on organisation, and tries to bring that into his jazz playing. “I’ve often heard complaints that jazz rambles on too much, that it’s too complicated and random. I don’t like that myself, so I try to keep my playing organized like classical pieces.”
For such an accomplished pianist, Stetch started piano relatively late, at age 18. He grew up learning clarinet and saxophone, and originally pursued studies in saxophone at the University of Alberta. There he was introduced to figures such as Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarett and Wynton Marsalis, and was struck by the beauty and the rhythmic and harmonic possibilities of the piano.
“I stopped saxophone and switched to piano. I was addicted to it, obsessed with the harmonies and sounds that can be gotten from chords.”
He went on to study piano at McGill University, and later moved to New York, where, with the help of a grant, he sustained himself as a musician for two years and became a pianist for Rufus Reid’s band.
“I worked really hard and even felt behind when I first arrived at NYC, playing with people my age who had been playing all their lives. But at age 26 I found a classical teacher who changed my life. Burton Hatheway, who is now 86, had to get me to forget everything I knew and start from the beginning. It was one of the hardest things I've ever been through — it took about five years to make progress and 10 for it to really sink in.”
While in New York, Stetch threw himself into the scene. He did so many gigs that he learned to be quick-minded and versatile – playing through unfamiliar standards, figuring out keys, working with singers and making sure the phrases flowed beautifully, all on the go. His improvisations didn’t always work out the way he wanted, though – there were always ups and downs.
“Sometimes they were magical performances, and sometimes I really disliked my own music. You’re your own worst critic, after all. But through the repeated formative experience of trying to improvise and having it fail so many times, the desire to make it better pushes you to find ways to improve.”
It was these heady experiences of failure and growth that made John the improvisational, forward-looking musician he is today — always changing, always evolving. Counterintuitive though it may seem, his decision to uproot and move across the country to study at UBC made perfect sense.
“It’s been a long time since I got feedback on my compositions, so I thought it’d be really neat to get honest feedback and criticism from people like Stephen Chatman, Dorothy Chang, and Keith Hamel, who’ve been listening critically to new music for decades,” he says. “It’s a special introduction to Vancouver, having this instant community of composers to work with.”
At the School of Music, Stetch is challenging himself to compose for instruments he has never worked with before, such as strings and brass.
“John is one of the most naturally and innately talented musicians I have worked with,” says Hamel. “He seems to have the ability to quickly absorb diverse musical styles, to understand the musical materials that comprise each style and to construct new works, which contain elements of the model but are uniquely personal. He understands composition as an act of communication between musicians and an audience, and he always writes with this foremost in his mind.”
Most recently, Stetch composed a piece for brass quintet for the ChanFare series performed by Thunderbird Brass this October at UBC’s Chan Centre. He will tour New York with his band Vulneraville in January.
Banner image by Takumi Hayashi/UBC School of Music
BONUS FOOTAGE: John Stetch on how to play the piano like a string instrument
Our semi-monthly Playlist column features music curated by our faculty, students, and staff around an interesting idea or theme. To celebrate the release of her excellent début, 17 Hoops, we asked singer/songwriter/pianist (and School of Music Communications Assistant) Colleen O'Connor to talk about music and "texture." You can listen to the tracks below via Spotify (if you have an account) or YouTube (if you don't). The full playlist is also available here.
By Colleen O'Connor
One of the features I love most about music is texture. Many of my favourite musicians use contrasting textures to create diverse musical landscapes that I find mesmerizing. Here are some of my favourites:
Bonobo, "Migration" from Migration
In "Migration," electronic layers are blended with piano and sparse percussion, which become more dense and varied in texture as the atmospheric work develops.
Arvo Pärt Silentium from Tabula Rasa
When I was studying composition, I found Minimalism particularly captivating. In this piece by Arvo Pärt, subtle, progressive alterations to repetitive melodic and harmonic patterns draw the listener's focus toward the changes. Plaintive strings coupled with the unsettling sound of the prepared piano creates an ambiance that is elegantly sad.
Bokanté, "Jou Ké Ouvè" from Strange Circles
The newly-minted group Bokanté was formed by Michael League of Snarky Puppy, and Malika Tirolien, who sings in French and Créole. Jou Ké Ouvè weaves a tapestry of blues and world fusion.
Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, iii. Intermezzo
The third movement of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2 begins with a heavy walking bass theme, punctuated by ominous horns, followed by sneaky, chromatic, descending triplets in the clarinets. The piano enters with thin chromatic flourishes, creating a stark contrast. I imagine a giant stomping and loping back into his castle after a night of carousing.
Bjork, "Stonemilker" from Vulnicura
Björk is an artist who creates masterful electroacoustic arrangements. Stonemilker combines electronic beats with lush strings and Björk's unique vocal tone.
John Stetch, "Zabava" from Green Grove / Ukrainianism
John Stetch recently came to the School of Music to study for a Master’s degree in composition. His piece Zabava is a masterclass on the different textures the piano can create. The piece employs a variety of techniques, including the strumming of the piano strings at the start of the piece, and the muting of the keys at the end.
Radiohead, "Decks Dark" from A Moon Shaped Pool
I'm drawn to the cascading sounds in Radiohead's Decks Dark — broken descending chords in the piano, gently oscillating electronic sounds in the upper register, and the choral effect of the layered vocals.
Aaron Diehl, Le tombeau de couperin iii. Forlane (Ravel) from The Bespoke Man's Narrative
Aaron Diehl re-imagines the Forlane from Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin in a jazz setting.
Super Pyramid, "Devoid"
The aesthetic of this piece includes a juxtaposition of smoky, ethereal vocals with crisp layers of Rhodes and Wurlitzer keyboards, electronic percussion, and other ambient acoustic sounds. The mixture creates a texture that I find both calming and intriguing.
Colleen O’Connor is Marketing and Communications Assistant for the School of Music. She holds a Diploma in Music Writing from MacEwan University and a Bachelor of Arts in Music degree from Portland State University. Colleen just released her first recording, 17 Hoops. Listen on Spotify or at colleensong.com/music.
Banner image by Colleen O'Connor.