Friday, April 13, 2018

Ila Cantor's Encanto

Tracing a musical arc from the guitarist Charlie Christian to the charango, an Andean stringed instrument barely known in American music, Ila Cantor is a composer and performer of considerable range.  “The reason I play the guitar is because of Charlie Christian,” she told me in a conversation about Encanto, her new recording for the Maginus Project. 
Ila Cantor (photo by C. Goldwyn) 

Despite her deep connection to traditional jazz forms and musicians, Cantor’s personal expression is much harder to categorize.  “Even though I played standards when I first began performing, when I started composing, nothing at all like standards came out,” she says. But it is not so much a departure from jazz as it is an evolution in her view:  “I think the music I am composing now is its own thing, but the early influences are always there.”

The impetus for her new music is the quixotic Andean instrument called the charango, a probable descendant of the small Iberian stringed instrument known as the vihuela, once used to entertain Spanish Renaissance aristocracy.  Prior to the conquest of South America by Europeans, no stringed instruments existed on the continent.

Refined in the mountainous Andean regions of South America, indigenous Quechuas and Aymara developed the ten-string charango, most likely by copying the vihuela.  Historically the instrument was constructed from either wood or harvested from found materials like pumpkin shells, bull hides, and armadillo shells (quirquincho), which have been gradually phased out through conservation initiatives.

The non-linear aspect of how the charango is tuned — it follows a zigzag pattern with the central pair of strings tuned to both the highest and lowest pitched tones — creates a dynamic and novel platform for performance and composition.  After hearing the instrument for the first time, Cantor was hooked on its haunting timbre.  “I was so taken with it, I put down the guitar for a year and only practiced the charango,” she says.

In Cantor’s hands, the charango fulfills its mythical reputation.  The phrasing and articulation of her compositions sounds as if it emanated from within the body of the instrument itself.  Indeed, she invokes the birthing process as a metaphor for how the project came about.  “It needed to be recorded; for me this is music that comes from the heart,” she says.

Outside of South America, thanks in large part to innovative performers and composers like Cantor, the charango is evolving from its almost exclusive use in Andean ceremonial music to modern ensemble forms.  Cantor was also inspired to compose with her frequent collaborators in mind. The ensemble is comprised of Rob Reich (accordion,) Ben Goldberg (clarinet,) Todd Sickafoose (bass,) and Scott Amendola (drums.) In addition to the traditional rhythm support of the bass and drums, the inclusion of the clarinet and accordion in her recording provides a depth and richness of tone in an ensemble that is likely the first of its kind to be heard in the US.

The debut performance for the compositions came about through the support of the Bay Area-based nonprofit organization San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music .  About a year after the debut, Cantor met Phil Lewis, Executive Director for the Maginus Project, who became intrigued about how the project would take shape in recorded form.  For the Maginus Project, the opportunity to record an emerging artist like Cantor featuring an ancient instrument like the charango is doubly compelling and embodies its prevailing mission of preserving the legacy of lesser-known artists through recording.

Recording her new music is the beginning of the process for Cantor.  Although she loves vinyl recordings and has explored it previously as a medium for releasing her work, it is still prohibitively expensive.  She plans on printing CDs, and publicizing the release through social media.  “Everyone who hears the instrument falls in love with it.  The charango is its own ambassador.”

-Daniel Lilie, special contributor to the Maginus Project Blog

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Daryl Kojak, Composer

“I do it because I can’t help myself.” Composer Daryl Kojak keeps coming back to that phrase to characterize his creative process. As a master of the Great American Songbook, Kojak could be expected to be traversing this realm for his upcoming recording project for the Maginus Project. But Kojak’s genius lies in his ability to work in and create across different musical genres, and he has chosen the classical waltz for his next inspiration.

Daryl Kojak
Daryl Kojak

Drawing insight from the 20 waltzes composed by Frederic Chopin, Kojak has composed twenty of his own, with the first two abstractly modeled after the great composer, and the remaining pieces moving into more contemporary harmonic and melodic realms. Kojak and Phil Lewis, Executive Director for the Maginus Project, have brought in the classical pianist Elizabeth Poole to perform the pieces for the recording.

No stranger to classical music -- or virtually any musical genre for that matter -- Kojak has been at his craft for decades. He is perhaps best known as musical director to New York's finest vocal talent, many of whom are Broadway, cabaret and jazz staples. Kojak also serves as a musical director and mentor for Michael Feinstein’s Great American Songbook Foundation, teaching and preserving the music for younger generations. As composer, Mr. Kojak has written extensively for stage, screen, and studio, and in 2000 released the well-received album of his semi-classical compositions for chamber ensemble, Notes From the Pilgrimage.

The Maginus Project chatted with Kojak to probe his composing methods and musical ideas in anticipation of his upcoming release.

MP:  Can you tell us a bit about how this project came together with Phil and the Maginus Project?

DK:  Sure.  For years I had been revisiting the waltz -- a long-neglected classical form -- and knew that some of my waltzes were inspired by Chopin. I decided to compile a print volume to see if it was feasible to publish. A bit into the project I was wondering who might have an interest in this music, and while speaking to Phil, he expressed an interest in seeing some of the scores. One thing led to another and Phil offered to sponsor a recording of the project. He introduced me to a very talented pianist -- Elizabeth Poole -- to record the pieces.

MP:  Would you consider the music an homage to Chopin or simply inspired by him?

DK:  It’s not really an homage, but is definitely inspired by Chopin; perhaps the first two waltzes are modeled after his in terms of feeling, but not in harmonic content. The rest are a melange of different influences, including Strauss, New Age, and some 20th century modernism.

MP:  Let’s stay on the topic of harmony and counterpoint -- what are your thoughts about harmonic structure when you compose?

DK:  With music from the Baroque era, there is a predominant linear quality about the music that must be followed, and sometimes that linear structure can be very strict, as with a fugue. The harmony tends to be a result of these moving lines. With Classical and Romantic era music, there is a different balance between melodic lines and harmonic structures. I think what is notable for me about composing in the Classical later genres, is that the melodies and the harmonies seem to come together all at once.

MP:  Is that different than when you are composing songs?

DK : It can be. I’m fascinated by harmony, and with songs, I find I can take some more liberties, starting with the melody and sometimes backfilling with harmony.

MP:  And with the songs, do you closely follow common 32-bar and related structures?

DK:  Yes and no. When I do I use them as a departure point since these forms are very accessible. I like to experiment with the bridge -- what used to be called the release -- to write songs in different ways.

MP: Listening to your piano technique, I can’t help but be curious about your most influential list -- please tell.

DK:  There are many, but Bill Evans would be one of my top, along with titans like Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea.  I was in a lounge in LA once speaking with an elegant African American woman who asked me who my favorite pianist was.  When I mentioned Bill Evans, she asked whether I knew the song Peri’s Scope.  I replied “of course,” and she coolly told me that she the song was dedicated to her, Peri Cousins.

MP:  That is a terrific story.  What wisdom then, in all your music travels, would you care to impart to the Maginus Project community?

DK:  For me, I enjoy studying music of all different genres. Music is informed by other music. Keep in mind that even with the titans -- Beethoven, Ella Fitzgerald, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Chick Corea -- as brilliant as their work is, their greatness drew from the many that came before them, all in little steps.

MP:  Daryl, thanks for spending time with us today, and we are looking forward to your waltz project.

DK:  Thank you and thanks to the Maginus Project for the wonderful opportunity.


-Daniel Lilie, special contributor to the Maginus Project Blog

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Exploring The Maginus Project

In probing the extraordinary realm of lesser known music in America, the Maginus Project seeks to unearth and record music that otherwise would be lost to posterity.  In this series of blog posts, we sit down with one of the Maginus Project’s founders, Phil Lewis, to dig a bit deeper into some of the organization’s musical and cultural precepts.  Prior to co-founding the Maginus Project, Phil studied composition at the Berklee School of Music in Boston and received his BA in ethnomusicology and jazz studies from UCLA.  He has written, performed, and recorded music for over 30 years.


Can you elaborate on the phrase “cultural significance” that is used in the Maginus Project’s mission statement?  


Sure.  Music in the US is not represented by a single cultural matrix, but is rather a tapestry of underlying subcultures.  The Maginus Project is concerned with music that lies outside the boundaries of commercial music.  Another way to look at it is that we are focused on music that record labels -- and I realize this is somewhat of an anachronistic term these days -- are not.  There's no question that a lot of commercially successful music is culturally significant, but its broad appeal makes it more appropriate for a recording model based on creating profit.  And while a small amount of jazz, classical, and other lesser known genres is being recorded, these forms are often prestige projects for labels -- they're not money-makers.  Recording industry profits are shrinking across the board, and the increased pressure is driving certain forms of music towards recording extinction.


Are there any developments in the recording industry that are relevant to what the Maginus Project is doing? What is the finished product for the musicians?


There is a lot of chatter among musicians and recording industry professionals about the increased accessibility and quality of tools available today at lower cost than a decade or two ago. The technology continues to develop.  But people forget that this also scales to the upper end of the recording spectrum.  And the fact that production costs are lower does not mean that truly high-quality recordings are within reach of the average working musician.  The fact is they are not.  As a result, a lot of really interesting and valuable music is going unrecorded.  At the Maginus Project, we are exclusively devoted to high-end recording; our goal is to meet the highest recording standards in the industry.


As far as the finished product is concerned, we release the masters to our sponsored artists; they become their exclusive property.  We leave it up to them to promote and distribute their work.  If budget is available for those activities, we may try to help with that, but it is not our focus.  We primarily look to sponsor projects where we believe the artist can effectively distribute and promote their recording.


Can we talk a bit about the notion of “preservation” when it comes to music?  Clearly the physical act of recording is key here, but is there a cultural meaning embedded here as well?


Well I think in the broadest sense, preserving means getting the music recorded and, at a minimum, registered with the Library of Congress.  And there is definitely a process of discovery involved.  One impetus for starting the Maginus Project was that in our many years of being in the music industry, we have been lucky enough to come across an incredible array of talent who simply have not been properly recorded due to financial constraints.  A great example of this is what I call the “Norman Symonds Syndrome.”  


Symonds was a great Canadian jazz guitarist who I had never heard of until I heard Wes Montgomery mention him in an old interview I was watching on YouTube.  I thought ‘I have to hear this guy,’ but when I began digging I found that virtually nothing of his has been properly recorded.  He died in obscurity, and this is a great loss to listeners and scholars.


It is of course worth noting that you and the advisory board are either currently working as musicians or have worked as musicians in the past.  Presumably this is a big advantage in assessing potential projects, but it can also present certain biases.  What are your thoughts here?


Although the Maginus Project Advisory Board currently includes several musicians that is by no means a criterion for serving on it.  More important is the ability to hear the music in its own unique cultural context and to discern its essential attributes.  We're currently in the process of expanding and diversifying our advisory board to include a broader range of perspectives and expertise.


I am a musician, and that does give me certain insights that would not be evident to a non-musician.  But non-musicians have different insights that I consider valuable and equally valid.  Different musical works offer their virtues to different listeners, and this is only revealed when considered from multiple perspectives.  Mozart’s music is a great example.  His work continues to be relevant because musicians, scholars, and audiences continue to find it inspiring, enlightening, and nourishing -- although perhaps for different reasons.  Imagine what it would be like if his music had been lost.  I think the world would be a much poorer place.

The Maginus Project seeks to foster a community of musicians, recording resources, and the public through its nonprofit recording ventures.  We look forward to continuing the dialogue and will explore topics relating to musical culture in America in future posts.

-Daniel Lilie, special contributor to the Maginus Project Blog

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Welcome to the Maginus Project

Welcome friends.  My name is Phil Lewis, and I'd like to introduce you to the Maginus Project.

The Maginus Project is a non-profit musical organization devoted to the recording of culturally-significant music overlooked by the commercial recording industry.  As a co-founder, I find it a privilege to have the opportunity to explore the hidden realms of music that exist beyond the relatively narrow offerings provided by the commercial music industry.  Our abiding principle is: music that is not recorded is lost. While academic and non-profit music organizations and venues often provide support for music composition and performance, our mission is focused exclusively on recording.

While it is understandable that the commercial music recording industry must respond to market forces and deliver profits to investors, the sad result for society is that an extraordinary amount of wonderful and significant music is lost in the process.

It is into this void that we seek to fulfill our mission of preserving the legacy of extraordinary artists and their work through the production of meticulously-produced sound recordings.  In many respects the Maginus Project's efforts are similar to those of a commercial music production company, however we do not retain any commercial interest in the recordings we produce -- the artists we sponsor are free to distribute their work as they see fit.  

How The Maginus Project Works

The production of professional-quality recordings is expensive and time consuming. By decoupling financial and administrative constraints from the creative process, we seek to promote and ensure the legacy of important music that might otherwise fade from memory.   

My co-founder Catherine Goldwyn and I are musicians ourselves with extensive experience shepherding the creative process from conception through completion, and we believe that our sponsored artists should retain full creative control of their projects. By assisting performers with the administrative and financial aspects of their projects, we ensure that artists can fully focus on their craft and realize their creative vision.

Through its support for recorded music, the Maginus Project is building a community of artists, recordists, philanthropists and, of course, music lovers that we believe will benefit for many generations.

I look forward to sharing our stories with you, and look forward to our musical dialogue.

-Phil Lewis, Executive Director of the Maginus Project

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Sid Jacobs and the Contrapuntal Approach to Guitar

There is no such thing as a chord.” -Sid Jacobs

Thus began my musical re-education with Sid Jacobs, a prescient guitarist who is one of those extraordinary musicians with the capacity to draw from history and simultaneously inhabit a realm that is inventive and forward-thinking.  Sid was kind enough to spend some time describing his trademark contrapuntal guitar technique and to provide insight into the context and inspirational sources for his Maginus Project-sponsored recording currently tracking in Santa Monica, CA.

Sid’s new recording -- as yet untitled -- is being crafted under the aegis of the Maginus Project, and in many respects his approach to the guitar embodies the recondite musical treasure that the Maginus Project seeks to preserve through its sponsorship.  Sid is an educator, performer, and recording artist who is perhaps the leading proponent of a contrapuntal approach to the guitar.  And it was here that I had to pause and apologize for my limited technical knowledge of the guitar and ask just what constitutes “contrapuntal” guitar playing.

Expanding on the idea that there is no such thing as a chord, Sid notes that “a chord is what occurs when melodies intersect.  The great composer Henry Mancini once described it as melody and countermelody.”  Contrapuntalism, in Jacobs’ view, is also about the power of the individual note: “It’s amazing how a single note can change the character of a passage.”  With the guitar, given sufficient technical ability, more than one string can be played at a time within a given finger position, a physical advantage over, say, the bowing required to elicit sound from a violin or viola.  But even when there is just one line of melody being played, Jacobs notes that you can hear harmony in that line.  “Listen to the tune 'Autumn Leaves' and you’ll hear what I’m referring to.” Jacobs tells me.

Two other eminent guitarists, Joe Diorio and the late Jimmy Wyble, came to the contrapuntal style of guitar playing and informed Jacobs’ approach to the instrument.  On the 2005 recording “It’s About Time” that he made with Diorio, there is perhaps a greater reliance on energized passage playing versus the focus on melody Jacobs refers to in the current Maginus Project recording.  Wyble’s diverse career had roots in the swing music from his native Texas, and he later enjoyed a long run with vibraphonist Red Norvo.  “Wyble was a master at two-line improvising.  It’s basically melody and countermelody that engages your imagination.” Jacobs says.

Although Jacobs has traversed a vast array of musical territory during his career, referencing composers as diverse as J.S. Bach and the aforementioned Henry Mancini, he believes that there is a thematic link to his work, including a comparatively experimental-sounding solo guitar project from several years back.  “This (current) project is more about melody versus pyrotechnics.  I wanted to keep the music at a medium tempo,” Jacobs said in reply to whether there was a particular focus for his new recording.  One observation Jacobs notes is that improvisation and a continuously evolving approach are fundamental to creativity.   “Improvisation will never die.  Education (about music) points you in an expressive direction. I tend to be an improviser in life as well.  It seems that when I explore there is always something better than I would have planned.”

As far as the Maginus Project is concerned, Jacobs is effusive: “I think it’s a beautiful thing.  I can’t think of a greater gift to humanity.”  For his Maginus Project recording at Apogee, Sid has brought in a supporting cast of talented musicians, but he is equally comfortable with performing as a soloist. He believes that playing solo draws out a meditative quality as opposed to the sociable aspect of ensemble playing, but that both formats are necessary for a musician.  In keeping with the improvisational theme, Jacobs believes that having an intuition for whether a recorded track feels right is a better approach to recording than laboring too much.  With the Maginus Project recording, Jacobs was delighted to have complete creative control, but glad to have (producer and Maginus Project director) Phil Lewis and others available to lend a critical ear if necessary.

But lest one thinks that Sid Jacobs is a gadfly untethered to the essence of musical theory and tradition, he recently affirmed his devotion to the pantheon of technical masters by replacing his Paul Hindemith texts that he had to abandon during a recent sojourn to India.  “I was planning on staying, but it didn’t work out he says.  I had all my books sent over and realized I couldn’t bring them back.  I just recently replaced my Hindemith books.”  

Distribution details for the new recording are still in the works.  “I’m not sure how to materialize the tracks.” he said.  But when this extraordinary music is debuted to the public, it will simply be a bonus.  The music has been preserved, and we are all that much luckier to have it.

-Daniel Lilie, special contributor to the Maginus Project Blog




Saturday, June 17, 2017

In the Studio with Sid Jacobs

In the studio with Sid Jacobs, Joe Labarbera, Phil Lewis, Brandon Duncan.

What a pleasure it was to spend two days in the studio last week with guitarist and Maginus Project sponsoree Sid Jacobs cutting tracks for his upcoming album. This new recording will showcase Sid's artistry in both ensemble and solo settings. On these dates Sid was accompanied by a first-class rhythm section consisting of legendary jazz drummer Joe Labarbera and the brilliant bassist Darek Oles.

One of the most unique and innovative guitarists in jazz today, Sid Jacobs plays in a unique contrapuntal style that is solidly anchored in the jazz heritage and yet completely fresh. It's a sound that is intimate, subtle, and arresting.

The band was well rehearsed and knocked out a dozen or so tunes in two days of tracking. Sid's choice of material was, as always, distinctive and included some beautiful and rarely-played numbers like the gorgeous Johnny Mandel composition "Where Do You Start," and "Stranger in Paradise," a 50s popular tune based on a theme by Russian Romantic composer Alexander Borodin. Also rendered were a few choice selections from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. All the material was deftly arranged for the trio by Mr. Jacobs and performed with the sensitivity and artfulness one would expect from seasoned masters of the idiom such as these.

Our friends at Apogee Electronics generously provided their state-of-the-art studio to the Maginus Project for these sessions. The facility, designed by famed audio engineer Bob Clearmountain, has a terrific live room and is outfitted with a vintage Neve console, a locker full of exotic mics, and of course the latest in Apogee's high-end A/D/A converters -- a perfect marriage of the classic and state-of-the-art. The sessions were expertly engineered by Sergio Ruelas with help from Brandon Duncan.

As a guitarist Sid Jacobs has dedicated his life to exploring and extending the instrument's role in jazz music. The result is unlike anything previously heard. This is thoughtful, evocative music that builds on the great American jazz tradition and adroitly explores its relevance to a 21st century state of being.

It was my great honor to be present to help capture this eloquent music as it was played, and it to ensure its preservation for future generations of listeners and scholars. This is what the Maginus Project is all about, recording extraordinary music that might otherwise be lost. I can't wait for you to hear it. Look for a general release this fall.

-Phil Lewis

Thursday, June 1, 2017

What is "Cultural Significance"?

Here at the Maginus Project we sponsor the recording of musical works which we consider to be "culturally significant." But what does that mean exactly? Since significance is always context dependent, how is it possible to make such an assessment? I'll attempt to answer these questions by first defining the context and then addressing the question of assessment.


WHAT IS "AMERICAN CULTURE"?
Since the Maginus Project is solely focused on recording the best of American music, the answer to our first question must be, "Within the context of American musical culture." But what exactly is American culture? The United States is a pluralistic and multicultural nation. This has been true since its inception although it has not always been acknowledged and, often, demonstrably ignored.

Cultures are defined by the values and ideals which are shared among individuals who comprise their populations. Although a majority of Americans might be said to share a few broad universal ideals such as freedom, equality, and the primacy of human rights, it is not, and has never been, possible to identify a single, monolithic American culture. Instead, "American culture" consists of a complex, diverse, yet intricately interwoven tapestry of subcultures.


These subcultures engage in a complex and -- at times -- paradoxical dialectic. They feed off each other, react to each other, cross-pollinate, and often ultimately coalesce. If such a thing as "American culture" exists, it is therefore a process and not an object.


Music has been said to be a map of culture but, as it is perennially dynamic, it is a map in constant motion. Music reflects and informs culture. It is both mirror and catalyst. Societies change, and are changed by, music.


It can therefore be said with certainty that there is no single definable American musical culture. Instead "American culture" is a container within which many diverse subcultures coexist at any given time -- the proverbial "melting pot."


ASSESSING SIGNIFICANCE
So if there is no single American culture and the cultural matrix itself is fluid, how then might it be possible to assess the significance of any particular musical work?

This is not an easy question to answer and no approach can ever be complete or satisfactory to everyone. At the Maginus Project we realize that a single set of standards cannot be applied and each work must be assessed within its own relevant context. We therefore draw on the knowledge and experience of recognized experts -- our Advisory Board -- on whom we rely for guidance. The Maginus Project Advisory Board represents a broad array of knowledge and expertise in many domains of music. Our Advisory Board members are recognized leaders in their fields and draw on their experiences to consider a work's merit within its own context.


The process generally works like this: After an initial evaluation, works submitted to us for consideration are referred to one or more members of our Advisory Board who are asked to bring their judgment and expertise to bear on the evaluation process. Criteria considered include the work's compositional strength and the performer's level of mastery within the context of the relevant musical idiom. Using these guidelines, the Advisory Board can then make a recommendation regarding sponsorship.


Other considerations may come into play as well. The likelihood that the work is at risk of being overlooked, unrecognized, marginalized, or lost is important. The artist's desire and ability to make the work available to a wide audience is important also, as is the potential benefit to the artist. Consideration of factors such as these helps us allocate limited resources in the most efficient way possible.


Wherever aesthetic considerations are in play, subjectivity has a role, and admittedly this process is as much art as science. However, the Maginus Project strives to focus our work on artists and works which represent the very best of contemporary American artistry in all its many musical forms.


-Phil Lewis