This Composing Life: Composer Jesse Alexander Brown

Composer Jesse Alexander Brown

One of the first pieces of 21st century classical/new music I heard performed live was Contemporaneous‘s performance of Jesse Alexander Brown’s Through the Motions. Up to that point, as a “new music” neophyte, I’d never heard a piece that included three mallet instruments (along with strings, piano, and flute). Through the Motions danced and shimmered; the flute floated over jewel-like rhythms with melodic grace. I thought, if this is what’s on offer in the world of current classical music, you can definitely count me in.

Brown started in the quiet Midwestern town of North Canton, Ohio, but has called many places home while developing his music over the past seven years: He began his studies as an English/Music major in Cleveland before moving to Annandale-on-Hudson, New York (Bard College) to concentrate on music. After three and a half years there, he moved to Hartford, Connecticut, for graduate studies at the Hartt School. He has had the great opportunity to work with such mentors as Robert Carl, Ken Steen, Kyle Gann, James Bagwell, Joan Tower, and Keith Fitch and with groups such as Foot in the Door, the American Symphony Orchestra, Contemporaneous, the Da Capo Chamber Players, and the Colorado Quartet.

Recent collaborations include creating the soundscape for the 2012 Hartt production of Hamlet, presenting in a master class with composer Thomas Pasatieri and premiering a new work with countertenor/composer, Steven Serpa. Brown’s music has been described as sparse/exposed, minimalist, and evocative, though he is always exploring new sounds as well as many new avenues of creation (most recently, electronic).

I reached out to Brown with some questions about his composing life, and here’s what he wrote back:

Q: You have a blog, Obsessive Composing Disorder, the name of which strikes me as mordant commentary on what it’s like to pursue a career as a composer. What led you to take the plunge?

It was all a rather gradual process for me: from playing the viola, transcribing music, teaching myself piano, arranging music, to finally writing my first piece. I suppose contrary to a lot of what we all read about composers then and now, I did not write at an “early” age, though at a certain point, it is all relative. The first of my music to be performed by other players was just before I was 18 years old, the end of my senior year in high school. I have never been more than an amateur player, but when I picked up a pencil and manuscript paper, I realized “I can do this,” and to me, it felt like something I could fully develop, unlike a performance career. I felt an electricity, thinking that I could create worlds through sound like the pop-ish composers I would listen to, such as Yoko Kanno or Nobuo Uematsu (it would be another year before I would hear Bartók or Carter for the first time). However, my musical training was rather limited up to that point, so when I applied to study it in college, I was placed as a conditional student, meaning I had to pass a performance jury to stay in the school. When I did not pass my jury, my stubbornness was provoked and I decided to pursue music, no matter what. I transferred to Bard and haven’t looked back since. Every day is its own struggle, but I cannot imagine my life without music. Górecki said it well: “If you can live without music for 2 or 3 days, then don’t write…It might be better to spend time with a girl or with a beer…If you cannot live without music, then write.”

Q: Tell us about an early musical memory that resonates for you today.

I forget how, but at some point, I got my hands on the video game Final Fantasy VI. This would have been around 1996, so about 10 years before I considered writing music. It was unbelievable to me, the amount of depth and emotion that the score brought to the story, which is epic and engrossing when considering the evolution and canon of game playing up to that point. At about midway, one of the characters, Celes, has to pass herself off as an opera singer to further the story. The music (“Aria di mezzo carattere”) is striking in its complexity and melody for a 16-bit game, considering that the only notable predecessor was Mario’s memorable 8-bit themes. Though I did not think about writing at this time, the moment I heard this music, I became motivated to learn to play it. It was the first time since picking up my instrument that I felt that driven to pursue a musical goal/identity. Coincidentally, it was about six years later that I was inspired to teach myself basic piano skills after playing Final Fantasy VII.

Q: In some recent compositions, you’re working with electronics, including the pieces Passacaille de l’eau (electronics/sampled sounds), A Drug Called Charlie Sheen (electronics/sampled voice), and And Let My Cry Come Unto Thee (string quartet, narrator, and electronics). What are the challenges (and rewards) specific to composing for electronics?

Similarly to working with any instrument for the first time, there is an inherent challenge at producing the particular sounds I have in my head—and there is near infinite possibility in the electronic world. Being a relatively young area, there is already a breadth of genres within electronics, such as musique concrète, ambient, sound collage, trance, etc. I feel that it is that very intense, sometimes paralyzing freedom that is the greatest reward. You can quite literally do anything you imagine. Of course, there is the limitation of equipment/software, but the tools in electronics can yield almost anything your imagination can devise. However, I do not think its strength resides in its ability to replace the performer or acoustic sound, quite the contrary. Though you can create a synthetic instrumental sound, that greatly limits the possibilities of electronic media. I think that one should use this medium to create one’s own personal and unique orchestra, not with violins, but perhaps sine waves, instead of percussion, freeway traffic or construction zones—the world is your instrument. When preparing the sounds for the incidental music to a recent production of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, I sampled percussion noises, countertenor vocals, midi keyboard, Tibetan bowls, and a harp. Though all of the sounds were basically natural, it was only through manipulation of their form/structure that I achieved the sounds I wanted—such as isolating frequencies in the bowls to create something reminiscent of the ringing you hear in your ears immediately following a loud noise.

Q: Who’s the composer you’d most like to meet and why? (Traveling back in time is, of course, permitted, but not required.)

That’s a very difficult question to answer. I know my short list would be Henryk Górecki, Charles Ives, and Gyorgy Ligeti. Each was brilliant, creating unique sounds and, in their own way, rebelling (not saying they were actually rebelling, but that they were contrary to the norm) against what was considered the proper or important music at the time. I suppose any artist who fits into such a category, like Debussy, Scelsi, Feldman, Cage, would be equally intriguing. If I must limit it to one, though, I think I will choose Charles Ives. I would say he was one of the first truly American sounds in art music and the sheer immensity in the opposition of his musical forces (i.e. String Quartet No. 2 and the Symphony No. 4) presents a powerful sense of individualism that I deeply respect and admire.

Q: Your current reading includes House of Leaves (Danielewski) and Still Life With Woodpecker (Robbins). (I particularly identify with your statement, “I had started both in the past, but never finished either. Crossing my fingers I finally will.”) Along with getting down to reading those books, what do you enjoy doing in your free time?

Over the past few years, I’ve become a fan of cooking and exercise. Though I don’t participate in any sports, I enjoy jogging and weight training; I find exercise to be very calming. With cooking, when I have the time, I enjoy looking up a new recipe to prepare–a short while back, I made shepherd’s pie for the first time and it turned out really well. I am also something of a minor film buff. A few of my favorites are Dark City, Stranger than Fiction, Oldboy, Princess Mononoke, Gattaca, and L’Eclisse. However, reading is a hobby I only just recently got back into due to the end of my studies; I have just started reading some Heidegger after it was referenced in “Leaves,” and am picking up Rand’s “Atlus Shrugged” again. It isn’t uncommon for me to read several books at a time. I have always found much of my inspiration in film and literature.

Q: If you could ask a question of yourself that I’ve not asked here, what would it be, and how would you answer it?

Why do you write?

In one of those rare moments, a brief answer suits me best: because I have something to say.


What’s new for Jesse Alexander Brown

Brown recently finished his graduate studies and is completing a new piece for large string orchestra called Stasis. It has received an informal reading, but is still awaiting its premiere. A few planned projects are a new piece for piano, a chamber work for saxophone, and perhaps some vocal music using text by American poet, John Ashbery.

Brown has also written a courageous and moving essay, Reconciling Identity, about what it’s like to be Jesse Alexander Brown: “[A]rt and life have always been said to resonate with and imitate each other, so for me, that means my art will demonstrate the conflict of identity that I have always felt.” You can read the complete essay by clicking here.

Brown can be found on Facebook by clicking here.


Listening List

With grateful thanks to Jesse Alexander Brown, here are three of his compositions:

Prelude, When We Dead Awaken

© Jesse Alexander Brown. Reproduced by kind permission.

In Absence of the God Machine

© Jesse Alexander Brown. Reproduced by kind permission.

A Drug Called Charlie Sheen

© Jesse Alexander Brown. Reproduced by kind permission.

To hear more of Jesse Alexander Brown’s music, click here.

8 thoughts on “This Composing Life: Composer Jesse Alexander Brown

  1. Britta

    Dear Sue,
    thank you for this very interesting interview and portrait! I liked your questions and his answers – as you know me by now a little bit: especially the last answer: “because I have something to say.”- great!
    I had to look up Charlie Sheen (now I found it – “„I am on a drug. It’s called Charlie Sheen. It’s not available. If you try it once, you will die. Your face will melt off and your children will weep over your exploded body.“ – well, speaking of tiger blood…) – and I think that Jesse Alexander Brown very vividly creates the different worlds of sheening deliriousnessly through drug abuse.

  2. Scott

    I’m listening to “Prelude When We Dead Awaken” as I read the interview. I like it. It’s chill. Kind of how I want to comeback. Gingerly,checking things out.
    I liked his interest in cooking and working out. Calming. I like this. Not always extreme and over the top. A nice mellow buzz. Shepherd’s pie is a classic.

  3. Jane and Lance Hattatt

    Hello Susan:
    We were most intrigued to see mention of the Hungarian influences of Bartók and Ligeti in the development of Brown’s composing career. His music clearly draws from a multitude of intriguing and varied sources which certainly makes it dynamic!

  4. shoreacres

    I did click on the essay, and was most interested to see his tagline: “Still trying to figure out if life imitates art or if it’s the other way around.” My answer, of course, is that it’s both. I think it takes a lot of living and a good bit of art to figure that out, but he’s got plenty of time.

    I was relieved to discover Shepherd’s Pie in the midst of all this. “A Drug Called Charlie Sheen” was making me nervous. I enjoyed the quotation from Górecki, too. I might even amend it into a paraphrase – “if you can’t live without words, write”.

    Very nicely done, and quite interesting!

  5. David

    I’d heard that video games encompassed a lot of musical creativity, so it’s interesting to hear of the impact on JAB.

    Gosh, the four pieces cover quite a range, don’t they. I quite like the naive tonalities of Through the Motions (lovely flute writing/playing) and Charlie Sheen (scary insistence), and three of the pieces certainly go on journeys, though I’m not sure I always grasp the trajectory.

  6. Suze

    ‘Similarly to working with any instrument for the first time, there is an inherent challenge at producing the particular sounds I have in my head’

    This captures so much.

  7. friko

    You are giving another young protegee a space to make himself known in the world beyond his educational institutions. You are a most generous sponsor. When I saw the photograph of JAB first I thought how very young he looks, barely out of his teens. Listening to ‘When We Dead Awaken’ convinced me that he must be quite a few years older now. Much of what he says goes over my head, I know nothing of video games and little of Charlie Sheen, but that only means that the world JAB lives in, the world of today, has left me behind. (Not so flattering for me! but wholly appropriate for him.)

    I wonder, how do you come across these emerging new masters of tomorrow?

  8. Susan Scheid Post author

    Britta: “because I have something to say” was a great response, wasn’t it? As for Charlie Sheen, I think you’re right that Brown caught the feel of that addled, drug-induced state in music very well.

    Scott: I’ve learned so many interesting things in doing this interview. I, too, was taken with the shepherd’s pie. Good old fashioned comfort food, but not simple to make. You’ve got to do it right. I like a lot what you say about Prelude: “Kind of how I want to come back.” You always have such fresh insights.

    Jane and Lance: Good spotting, the “Hungarian-ness” of the influences. It’s going to be interesting to hear in what direction Brown goes next.

    Shoreacres: Brown did a good job, I thought, of evoking in music the weirdness of Sheen’s actions and attempts to explain, and nervousness definitely seems right as a response. I love your paraphrase of Górecki, a truth for all creative arts, isn’t it?

    David: I am so far out of touch that I had no idea about the video games, so that was quite an education for me. I thought the flute in Through the Motions lovely, too, and it’s wonderful to be able to share that enjoyment with you.

    Suze: I thought that was quite an interesting statement, too. How boring life would be without those challenges, right?

    Friko: Contemporaneous has introduced me to so many wonderful composers (not to mention performers!) that it’s impossible to keep up. One of the real pleasures in listening to current classical/new music is that it’s possible get the perspective of the composer directly. I learn a lot from them.

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