coralville, iowa | interviewed 2-18-2002
biographical sketch | artist's statement | interview clips
musical composition for natural horn in E♭ and piano
live recording by Jeffrey Agrell, horn, and Evan Mazunik, piano, November 30, 2001 | 9:18 minutes
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interview clips (mp3 audio & text)
I'm trying to in a way invent a kind of a new genre, and that is writing pieces for classical musicians that use those resources and that tradition, but that has room for improvisation in itat least optional improvisation.
By and large when you say improvise, improvisation, people think jazz. And what I'm trying to do is say, No, no, no, no, no. There's lots of ways to come up with improvisations that don't have to be intimidating either for the performer or the listener. Expression becomes lost or lifeless when you stick just to the notes, because all the energy goes into finding that one note, when energy could be going into expression as well. That doesn't mean you have to play sloppily, but there's this whole other world that's possible if you can get free of the page.
It was a way, an artistic way, of expressing my sorrow and other people's sorrow, and grief at these events that is very difficult to express any other way. I'm a writer, but I don't think I could do it writing. Words are too specific. I really respect people who have come up with something, a way to do that. I don't think I could have done it. But I could do it combining my interests in improvisation and in horn, and specifically the natural horn.
I think everybody has the same feelings; I'm no different than anyone else. But I had at that point the means to express it in a way that could help people deal with those feelings and find a kind of a closure and that's what art is supposed to do. It's supposed to take the raw emotions and send them to a higher plane, where you attain some edification, satisfaction, and transformation of those into something positive and higher.
I think every place, every country has advantages and disadvantages that I see. There's so many things about George Bush that just make me cringe, and make me want to just hide my head, or just wait till it's over. I shake my head in disbelief at so many things, but I'm still happy to be here, and part of this whole thing. I would never go back to that closed-minded, narrow society that is in Europe, although I think they've got some really good things going in certain ways.
There's this wonderful quote I got from an Italian baritone sax player. He was talking about Italy, but you could substitute in some ways America. He said, "In Italy, nothing works, but everything is possible; in Switzerland, everything works and nothing is possible." And America's kind of halfway between. Some things work very well, other things don't work at all, but there are a lot of things that are still possible here.
I think everyone should be involved in some kind of creative process. I think it's healthy for an individual, I think it's healthy for society. I think the tragedy in this society, in Western society in general, is that we're only consumers, we're not producers of it. I think television has been a terrible thing for that. It's such a terrible addiction that keeps us from interacting with each other and making simple things. Now we're not all going to be great artists, but we're all going to make art that means something to us, and inspires connection with people around us.
Do something, find out what your passion is, explore the different kinds of art, and do it. I don't care if it's a garage band, or wanting to be the new Yo-Yo Ma. A lot of art is sticking to it. And it's not important if you're a huge talent; it's just important to find a passion, stick to it, enjoy it, share it, pass it on. Let it enrich your life.
Jeffrey Agrell was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1948. He grew up mostly in the Twin Cities area, the oldest of three children.
He earned a B.A. at St. Olaf College and a Master of Music degree in horn performance from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He did further studies at the Institut de Hautes Etudes Musicales in Montreux (Switzerland) and at the Basel Conservatory.
He was a member of the U.S. Army Bands from 1970 to 1973 and was associate principal horn with the Lucerne (Switzerland) Symphony Orchestra from 1975 until 2000.
He began composing and arranging during his college years and played jazz guitar and electronic music in the 1980s. For the past decade he has had a steady stream of commissions from professional chamber music ensembles. His works have appeared on CD and have been broadcast nationally and internationally.
He is on the music faculty of the School of Music of the University of Iowa, where he teaches horn, directs the Horn Choir, coaches chamber music, and performs in the Iowa Brass Quintet. His current interest is nonjazz improvisation.
He lives in Coralville, Iowa, with his wife and daughter.
There are many tragedies that happen in the worldpersonal, national-wide, worldwideand artists are no different than nonartists in their feelings and emotions in response to these events. Some affect us more, some less. The difference is that artists possess the means to express their responses in a public way, a way that can be shared by a wider audience. A tragedy of the scale of September 11 is bound to stir more responses from the artistic community.
All artists' responses are individual, and most responses to this (or any other) tragedy are to some extent determined by the artist finding an appropriate means of expression with his/her medium. In the case of September Elegy, I had been working with the natural hornstrictly in a classical wayand also with types of improvisation. Somehow, the events of 9/11 provided a spark or catalyst to combine the two never-before-combined elements and led to improvising with the natural horn (it is very possible that I would not have the piece if I had not been playing some natural horn or if I had not been improvising. As I said, the artists' circumstances and current activities do play a part).
It was a kind of happy accident waiting to happen. Limitations of any kind are catnip to composers, and the natural horn's limitations lent themselves perfectly to the slow, intense expression required in this Elegy. A modern horn has a perfectly homogenized sound that is pretty, but tends to the bland in certain respects. The natural horn is very idiosyncratic and requires 'extended techniques' just to play a major or minor scale. Some of the notes (of the overtone series) sound out of tune to modern ears. So the limitations made the piece easier to construct and to play than vice-versa. September Elegy uses these special tonal characteristics of this instrument to express the inexpressible and thus give a voice to sorrow and grief, hopefully providing some catharsis and closure as well.
The improvisation aspect is also important. As classical musicians, we spend a great deal of effort trying to 1. get the notes, all the notes 2. follow the roadmap of composer's instructionshow loud, how fast, how long, etc. The improvisation required here is not 'free' in the sense of chaoticthe kind of improv that I have been working on simply means composing on the spotmaking sure that there is unity and variety, that the line makes sense and relates to the mood of the piece. But the performer is free to choose within these guidelines, and shape the line according to his feelings as well as his intellect. Different things work at different times; your 'chops' are different at different times; ditto feelings, and sometimes you happen upon something in playing that bears deeper investigation.
Last and certainly not least is the interaction with the piano. I am privileged to have had an extraordinary collaborator in Evan MazunikI am always astonished at his rich musical portrayal, and am always buoyed along on the wave of his artistry.