Featured in the March 2018 edition of New on NAXOS for her recording of Michael Daugherty’s Trail of Tears with the Albany Symphony Orchestra, flutist Amy Porter has been praised by critics for her exceptional musical talent and passion for scholarship. This captivating performer was described by Carl Cunningham in the Houston Post as having “succeeded in avoiding all the overdone playing styles of the most famous flutists today.” In American Record Guide, flutist Christopher Chaffee wrote, “if you have not heard her playing, you should.” Porter “played with graceful poise,” noted Allan Kozinn in The New York Times. And Geraldine Freedman, writing in the Albany Gazette, commented, “Amy Porter showed that she’s not only very versatile but that she can do everything well. She chose a program that tested every aspect of her playing from a Baroque sensibility to using the instrument as a vehicle of sound effects, and she met each challenge with passion, skill and much musicality.”
Ellen Rowe, jazz pianist and composer, is currently Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation at the University of Michigan. She is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music, where she studied with Rayburn Wright and Bill Dobbins. Prior to her appointment in Michigan, she served as Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Connecticut. Her latest project, “Momentum – Portraits of Women In Motion”, featuring Ingrid Jensen, Tia Fuller, Marion Hayden and Allison Miller was released in the January of 2018. Also active as a clinician, she has given workshops and master classes at the Melbourne Conservatory, Hochshule fur Musik in Cologne, Grieg Academy in Bergen and the Royal Academy of Music in London, in addition to many appearances as a guest artist at festivals and Universities around the country.
What are all of the musical activities you do besides teaching?
I have a trio that I play with that has members that rotate in and out depending on availability. I also have a quartet and a quintet with Prof. Bishop, and we have several albums out including “Wishing Well” and “Courage Music”. My latest project is an all-women octet called “Momentum – Portraits of Women In Motion” with an album that was just released last year, and right now I’m trying to get that band booked as much as possible. I compose and I do a fair amount of arranging, so I’ve been doing a lot of commissions for junior high, high school, and college big bands. I have about 7 or 8 pieces published and I’m trying to grow that. I also do a lot of service-type stuff. I coordinate the Sisters in Jazz Collegiate Competition for the Jazz Education Network (JEN), I’m the education chair for International Society of Jazz Arrangers and Composers (ISJAC), and I’m on the board for the Southeastern Michigan Jazz Alliance.
Is that the main way you network?
Yes, especially when I first got out of college because it was a chance to meet people. Now I am involved mostly as a way to do service and help out the organizations.
What extra-musical skills have gotten you to where you are now?
Definitely being organized. Trying to juggle everything is super difficult, as many students know, and things like answering emails can seem trivial but are very important. Very soon after that comes having a sense of humor, and enjoying being around people. We call them “get-along skills” in the Jazz Department.
What was it like being a woman in jazz in your early years of college?
During that time, the awareness level was low, shall we say. I was almost the only woman in the jazz department at Eastman. I didn’t focus on that because I was just trying to do the work, but a lot of issues still came up. I had a graduate assistant director who would be fired today (if you could fire a graduate assistant) for the way he treated me. Issues of sexual harassment. Issues of not being taken seriously. I would be described as having “a lyrical, feminine style of playing,” in a derogatory way. And at the time I thought it was a failing on my part. There was also a time when I discovered I was being paid less than the guys in a band I was working with on the weekends.
Is this what inspired your latest project “Women in Motion”
Partly. The real genesis of the project is that people are always asking me what woman musicians inspire me. The truth is that while there are certainly were a few, it was more the women that I grew up idolizing in sports, politics, social justice, and environmental causes who really had an impact and inspired me to become who I wanted to be. And those women gave me the confidence to pursue what I wanted to do. I always want to pay tribute to the women jazz musicians who came before me, like Marian McPartland and Mary Lou Williams, but in addition there were all of these other women. It was very eye-opening for me to realize I am not who I am just because of women musicians, it’s because of this big, beautiful collection of women who have been powerful and inspiring. One example is Connecticut’s first woman governor, Ella Grasso, whom I campaigned for when I lived there. I look back and it was people like her who really inspired me. Other women I wrote tunes for on the album include First Lady Michele Obama, environmental advocates and animal rights activists Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall, distance runner Joan Benoit Samuelson, jazz pianists Geri Allen and Mary Lou Williams and my mother.
Is this record on a label?
Yes, it’s on Smokin’ Sleddog Records. It’s not a huge label, but they were very enthusiastic about having me and it’s a good partnership. Their main base is folk and blues, so jazz is new to them.
So you are doing a lot of the work yourself getting this music out there?
Yes. It’s a lot of emailing, sometimes cold calling. There seem to be a lot of people who would love to have us but can’t quite afford it. If I had more time I would be writing grants to get some more funding. That’s probably one of the most stressful parts of my life right now; trying to get this band booked.
Did you always want to be an educator or did you want to be a performer? Or both?
Playing music was just always what I did. My parents both went to Juliard. My dad had perfect pitch, and I inherited it from him. He founded the school music program in my hometown. When I was getting ready for college, I knew I was going to go into music and I didn’t really consider doing anything else. I got into Eastman and followed the music education track.
Here’s something I think is important: A therapist once told me that she finds that many women are contingency oriented. For example, once I got into Eastman I followed along the path that was laid out for me. I took my classes and did my student teaching, and I was successful. But I never stopped to consider what it was that I would truly like to be doing, or what my true goals were. I got offers to do certain things and so I agreed to do them. I got offered to go play on a cruise ship, so I did that for a while. Then a part time job offer came up at the University of Connecticut, so I did that. Then my job at Michigan came up, and of course I was thrilled, and now I’m doing this. I’ve been very lucky because I’ve had great jobs and I’ve loved doing them. However, nobody was ever asking me, “what is it that you really want to do,” so I wasn’t asking myself that either. I’m not upset about the way things worked out, but I often wonder how things could have been different if I wasn’t locked into going from one contingency to another. For instance, it might have been amazing to be Joni Mitchell’s music director, for example. That might have truly been a career goal, but I never let myself dream about what my perfect job might entail and believed in myself enough to pursue it. I do look back and wonder why I didn’t ask myself what I truly wanted to do.
So tell us more about your running.
I’ve always been athletic. Around junior or senior year at Eastman I got really into running. I started running 3 or 4 miles at a time, then the mileage just kept increasing. I ran a 10k in grad school. Then when I got to Michigan, a drummer friend Pete Siers convinced me I should train for a marathon. The Detroit Marathon was my first marathon, and I’ve run a lot of marathons including New York, Boston, and Chicago. I also was doing some serious mountain climbing. Then I found trail running which has been the best discovery ever because it combines the two. Trail running is how I found ultra running. I’ve run four 50 milers and two 100Ks. I turned 60 last year so I decided to run a 100K to celebrate that.
It’s beyond fun. I really just try to stay healthy. The discipline aspect involved in running ties right into the discipline it takes to write music or practice. It’s also confidence building. And you’re also out in nature, so it provides incredible perspective.
What advice do you have for students today?
Be versatile. Everyone needs to have as many crayons in their box as they can. Everyone usually has one specialty that they’re drawn to, but in this day and age it’s important to have the flexibility to play or compose different kinds of music. Be entrepreneurial and find skills connected to your art that can provide for you as a viable source of income. I’m seeing people put together really interesting careers doing a variety of activities that might include teaching, singer-songwriter performing, writing music for Japanese anime, writing grants to start a musical collective, creating apps, etc. There’s so many ways to put together a career doing what you love. Finally, it is so important to be healthy. Take care of yourself emotionally and physically. It is critically important to be healthy so that we can express ourselves in a meaningful way and withstand the rigors of teaching, performing and travelling.
Rebekah Heller is a uniquely dynamic solo and collaborative artist. Called “an impressive solo bassoonist” by The New Yorker, she is fiercely committed to expanding the modern repertoire for the bassoon. Her debut solo album of world premiere recordings (featuring five new pieces written with and for her), 100 names, was called “pensive and potent” by The New York Times and her newly-released second album, METAFAGOTE (also entirely made 1up of pieces created with and for her), is receiving wide acclaim. As Artistic Director and bassoonist of the renowned International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), Rebekah performs all over the world. Not only is she committed to advancing the music of our time, she is deeply engaged in working with younger musicians to continue the ICE-y legacy of fearless exploration and deep collaboration. She is also a committed advocate, through platforms like ICEcommons (a free, crowdsourced index of newly composed music), for underrepresented voices and outrageous experimentation.
When you graduated from your undergraduate program, what were your goals and where did you see yourself headed?
I actually wasn’t so clear on that. I went to Oberlin Conservatory because they had a dual degree program, so I got both a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Bachelor of Music in Bassoon Performance. I really wasn’t sure where I wanted to go, what I wanted to do, or who I wanted to be in my life. I liked playing music, but I had a lot of other interests. I was at a crossroads. I was also broke (which many people are after college), so I auditioned for the Fellowship program at the University of Texas at Austin. That was a stipended program – a free masters program plus a stipend to work on things that were really interesting to me, such as commissioning a new piece with a professor, and doing research. I got that fellowship, and that’s a big reason why I decided to continue doing music.
So I spent two years in Austin, then I moved to Chicago where I played in the Chicago Civic Orchestra and freelanced for a year. From there I got into the New World Symphony. I was on a very traditional orchestral track. I played with them from 2005 to 2008. That’s the time when I was flirting with the idea of moving to New York and playing with International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE). I had visited a few times in New York, but I didn’t have a lot of contacts there yet, so I wasn’t feeling ready to make the move. I won the job as Principal Bassoonist in the Jacksonville Symphony and played with them for one season. Getting a job in an orchestra really made it blatantly clear that that kind of job just didn’t suit me. It gave the courage to move to New York and be broke, bartend, and wait tables while I sought out the collaborators and the music that I wanted to make, which at the time was primarily with ICE.
Why did you decide to leave the orchestral world?
For me it felt really limiting being told on a weekly basis what I was going to play and how I was going to play it. The only agency you have in those situations is over your small piece of the puzzle. I was really interested in collaboration, playing the music of living composers, solo playing, and chamber music playing. It just wasn’t deeply fulfilling for me. I really wanted to be able to choose who I was playing with, what I was playing, and why. It became clear to me that I needed more agency, more excitement, and more connection with the music I was playing.
Do students need to move to New York to make a career in contemporary music?
There are audiences all over the country and all over the world who are hungry for new art and new music. I don’t think it is necessary to move to New York, or even a big city, but it is necessary to find that community and activate it and be active within it. I know a lot of young musicians who are starting new music ensembles in smaller cities across the country and are getting amazing responses from community members who are excited to see really relevant, new work being produced in their hometown. It’s really exciting what is popping up all over the country.
What are your current are your solo projects?
I am in the process of commissioning works for my upcoming album. This will be my third album, and it will be focused on bassoon ensemble as an instrument. My last album has a piece on it, Metafagote by Felipe Lara, for seven bassoons. It can be played live, or I pre-recorded all the tracks so I can play it as a soloist. I actually played that piece with University of Michigan students of Jeff Lyman’s studio during ICE’s residency in October 2018! It was a beautiful concert, and I realized it was a great way for students to dip their toe into the water of extended technique and experimental sound-making in the relative comfort and safety of the group. Not only that, the bassoon choir has an incredible sound. The overtones created by that many bassoons in one room is really strange; it almost sound electronic. I became almost obsessed with that sound, so I am commissioning a set of pieces for that ensemble. I’ll be doing a show to give the world premieres of all these pieces, and the album will come out next year!
What was it like creating your first two albums?
Each album was a slightly different process. Both were entirely made up of pieces written for me and in collaboration with me. They’re pieces that feel like belong to me just as much as the composer, which is really special and that’s what I love most about commissioning. Being able to record these works and memorialize them over time was really exciting.
It was also really scary! I remember listening to the final mixes of both albums, and feeling all of these fears and insecurities about releasing this thing into the world. I was worried about how differently I played those pieces now because my interpretations have evolved since recording them. I had to start thinking of these recordings as photographs – snapshots in time. Those recordings will always exist, but that doesn’t mean that’s the musician I am now. That part of the process was harder than I imagined it would be.
What advice do you have for current students?
Follow your gut. The safest thing you can do is to listen to that deepest part of you that tells you why – why you want to make music, why you want to choose this path. Follow that and let that be your leader, because that’s the only thing that matters in the end.
A graduate of the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, Michael Malis (b. 1988) is a composer, pianist, and music educator based in Detroit, MI. He performs as a jazz musician, composes for the concert stage, and contributes to multidisciplinary collaborations. In 2019 and 2018, his compositions were commissioned by organizations such as Chamber Music Society of Detroit, Detroit Chamber Winds & Strings, and the Great Lakes Music Festival. In 2017, he released an album of duets with saxophonist Marcus Elliot, entitled “Balance.” The album was praised by the Detroit Metro Times as “contemporary jazz of the highest order, a benchmark for where the genre can go.” He has been lauded for his scores for film and theater, which have garnered awards, critical acclaim, and have reached international audiences. He has shared the stage with such luminaries as Marcus Belgrave, Tyshawn Sorey, William Hooker, Jaribu Shahid, John Lindberg, Dave Douglas, A. Spencer Barefield, Ken Filiano, J.D. Allen, Andrew Bishop, Dennis Coffey, and Marion Hayden. He is currently adjunct faculty at DIME (Detroit Institute of Music Education) where he teaches piano and music theory.
When you were at U-M, what program were you in?
I did a double major in Jazz Studies and English.
Were you involved in the classical side of the school at all?
Not really. I took piano lessons from a classical DMA student and took a couple composition classes, but generally speaking I wasn’t involved at all. That entire strand of what I am doing only came in the last 3-4 years. Of course I’ve always listened to and loved classical music, but I wasn’t involved in it until recently.
What inspired you to start playing and writing more classical music?
I think what it has come down to is that I’m interested in finding new sounds and following my ears. This is just where my ears have led me. When I decided to go back for my Masters at Wayne State University, I knew I didn’t want to go for a jazz degree. Not because I don’t love jazz, I mean, it’s the central area that I work in, but I wanted to treat it as an opportunity to do something that I’ve never done before, to really grow, and to find myself uncomfortable again. I had started to feel complacent in what I was doing so I needed something really different. That’s what drew me to being in a composition department, and being in composition opened me up to a whole lot of different things.
Were they receptive to you navigating between both genres?
Yeah. I was able to write whatever music I needed to write and do a lot of different work within the school. I even did a lot of work with the jazz department, including a trip to Japan with Chris Collins with a group from the Detroit Jazz Festival. A lot of the work that I was doing at WSU was focused on improvised music. Working at the border between composed and improvised music continues to define what I do. To be clear, I am by no means a classical pianist. I play a little bit at home for fun, but I would never do a recital of classical repertoire. That’s just not who I am. But I really respect people who can go both ways and I try to work with musicians on both sides of playing.
So when you were an undergraduate student at U-M, what did you see yourself doing for a career?
I wanted to play for a living. I wanted to be working as a jazz musician. I don’t know that I had the foresight to be thinking about a career. I was thinking only one to two years ahead, and I was thinking, I’m going to move to Detroit and I’m going to try really, really hard to work with older musicians, because I wanted the mentorship of older musicians. So that’s what I did. That period of time was when I really started discovering what it is I want to do and how I want to do it.
Is there anything that you are doing now that you never would have thought you would be doing for a living?
Yeah. For starters, I wouldn’t have thought that I’d be writing chamber music. That concept would have been totally foreign to 21-year-old Michael.
What would have also been surprising is that I’ve had to really learn how to relate to 6-year olds. I’ve had to get good at teaching young kids how to play piano and read music. My first gig out of college was teaching at a music school and I had around 40 students. I continue to do a lot of private teaching and I have a wide range of students. Some are adults getting back into playing, and some are serious musicians working on music theory skills, but other than that it’s mostly kids ages 5-15. I’ve also been able to do some really cool interdisciplinary work with theater and dance, which has felt really good and I’ve tried to do as much as I possibly can.
How did you get involved with interdisciplinary collaborations?
The first meaningful collaboration was with a theater company called Fratellanza. The founders, Paul Manganello and Jim Manganello are brothers and both U-M graduates. I’ve worked with Fratellanza on two shows and with Paul on another, which we just wrapped up at Cleveland Public Theatre back in April.
What else do you do as part of your career?
I spend a lot of time just gigging. Often times it is creative, and sometimes it’s not. For example, I play organ at a church and I also play weddings. But if you want to be a working musician, you have to be able to create your own opportunities. It can’t always come from the top down, sometimes it has to come from the bottom up. That DIY, entrepreneurial spirit is one of the hallmarks of the city of Detroit. I feel like every time I book a show under my own name, it has come from the mentality of me just getting out there, pounding the pavement and making it happen. You need to decide how important this is to you, and are you willing to put yourself on the line to make it happen.
How do you network?
Oh man. I feel like I’m bad at networking when I’m trying too hard at it, and always better when it’s happening organically. The best thing you can do is just be honest and genuine and be yourself. Doing things that are just good things to do that might not seem like networking can actually be the best networking, like showing up to people’s show, being a substitute for someone, or giving somebody a ride to the airport. Be the person that can show up for people. The music business is a people business, so you have to be a person that others want to be around. You have to make the people around you look good, feel good, and sound good. Just be a friend.
What is your advice to current SMTD students?
Get yourself financially literate as soon as you possibly can. In this business you are probably going to be self-employed, and self-employment means all the finance stuff gets even harder. And it continues to get harder as you make more money and you take on more responsibilities. It is never going to get easier, so start implementing systems that work for you as soon as possible. Money is a huge stressor, especially for people in our profession, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. That’s something that 31-year-old me wishes he could go back and tell 21-year-old me.
Malis is recording an EP of original music this fall. Look for a winter release date!