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Interview: Burnett Thompson

Tonight at Two Cities gallery, pianist/composer Burnett Thompson performs “The Sonnet Song Cycle”-- ten Sonnets set to music...
Last updated: 2015-11-09

Tonight at Two Cities gallery, pianist/composer Burnett Thompson performs “The Sonnet Song Cycle” -- ten of Shakespeare’s Sonnets set to a variety of musical styles, spanning Jazz and Viennese Song Form to Salsa and Rock to traditional Chinese forms.

This project and performance comes as part of Thompson’s larger work, “The Silent Shakespeare and the Sonnets” series, in which the composer incorporates different mediums – silent film portrayal of Shakespeare’s plays in the case of the Silent Shakespeare portion of that – in the presentation of musical pieces. The Silent Shakespeare and the Sonnets series has had performances at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Goethe Institute, the Shakespeare Theatre, and the National Arts Club in New York.

Tonight at Two Cities, he’s doing the Sonnets, translated into Mandarin and performed with Coco Zhao assuming vocal duties. This is really great stuff.

Here’s some preview video’s online of the general concept of the project. Click these.

Video 1
Video 2

In addition to Coco, Thompson is joined by some familiar faces from the local jazz community for this special one-off performance: Jin Ruowei, Wilson Chen, EJ Parker, and Chris Trzcinski.

Don’t miss. Hurry down there. No entry fee but call ahead to confirm your seat. Starts 7pm.

SmartShanghai talked to Thompson about the music of Shakespeare.


SmSh: Maybe to start with you could introduce The Sonnet Song Cycle.

Thompson: This is a setting of 10 of my favourite Sonnets to music and sung in a new Mandarin translation. They are written in jazz chart format, but they include numerous styles, including salsa, rock, jazz, traditional Chinese, and classic Viennese song form. My original intent was to have an opera vocalist sing them, accompanied by an improvising jazz ensemble...

SmSh: This performance is part of a larger construction -- Silent Shakespeare and the Sonnets – in which you’re scoring music to silent films of Shakespeare’s plays, as well as to vocal performances of his sonnets. What is it about Shakespeare that inspires you compose complimentary music?

Thompson: The Sonnets themselves are rhythmic, with alternating strong and weak beats, and actually easy to set to melody. The couplet is usually a real stinger, so it is a good moment for a clever or unusual musical moment. Shakespeare was a virtuoso of language and when we delve into his words, we are in a sort of candy store of thought, analogy, irony, perspective, humor, nastiness, pleasure and sorrow.

As with a big Wagner opera or Bruckner Symphony, the listener can just sit back and be amazed by the complexity and fresh insight that the author provides.

SmSh: How do you go about composing the music to the words? Can you give us some insight on the process of turning a textual inspiration into music? How much does free improvisation play into the performances?

Thompson: I sit at the piano to compose and it takes about one minute for me to get the idea for the song. It can then take 2 or 3 hours to get the melody, harmony and text organized. But the original melody flows out in a matter of seconds. I have been playing improvisational piano in public for most of my life, so the translation of text meaning into musical impulse is very natural and instantaneous, often without any reflection. The songs are setup as jazz charts, so each performance is quite different. Two of the pieces are written in traditional Chinese style, and I have written music for the erhu as part of the piece.

Sorrow, happiness, disgust, and desire rise out of the Sonnet texts, and I tend to turn on a dime with the changing directions of the poet. Almost all of the Sonnets feature improvisational sections, and the performers are given free rein. I always invite the best musicians I know to perform, and I am never disappointed in the results.

SmSh: How did you go about selecting the sonnets for The Sonnet Song Cycle? Where you looking for a diversity of themes to deal with or was there an inherent aesthetic inspiration coming from the texts themselves?

Thompson: Some of the Sonnets get under my skin, others do not. A single line can sometimes make the whole sonnet work as a musical pieces. The phrases, “I leave my love alone” or “Love’s fire heats water, water cools not love” make it easy for me to set a mood for the entire song. But I chose the ones that jumped out at me, that revealed some truth that I already suspected.

SmSh: The music genres of the pieces span as you say “traditional Chinese music, Salsa, Jazz, Rock, and Viennese song forms”. How are you matching genres to the Sonnets? Do you have a motivation to try to reach different genres according to a larger plan, or is it more of an organic circumstance in the compositions of the pieces?

Thompson: In all of my work, you might notice that I am a very distracted person. I can intersperse a Bach Fugue with Coltrane’s Giant Steps, or Beethoven opus 110 with Brubeck’s Take 5. It makes absolutely no difference to me, and my brain does not even have to change gears. So moving through the styles is natural for me, and furthermore, I always feel like it keeps the audience on their toes. Schubert’s Winterreise is a monument in the history of music, but it is a small subsection of the listening public that can grasp the musical import of the work. If he had included a mambo, he would have spoken to a wider audience. As the audience will hear, the various styles actually further reveal the depth of the poetry. The rock n roll sonnets really open up the text. They go right at the listener.

SmSh: Can you speak on your own influences – musically and literally (outside of Shakespeare) -- that inspire your own compositions?

Thompson: I was heavily influenced by my years in Vienna. I was exposed to both old school and the new Viennese school of Webern, Berg, et al. You do not live in Vienna long without hearing the local favourite, Anton Bruckner. His patient approach to harmony and form has always affected my writing and improvisation. I have never practiced jazz for five minutes in my entire life. Before a jazz performance, I play through the Mozart sonatas, Debussy, Brahms, Bach, Liszt, etc. to tune my brain and to connect my ears to my hands. I then feel very confident in my improvising. In jazz, I tend to listen to reed players like Ornette Coleman, Sonny Stitt, Bird…I rarely listen to piano players, except for Thelonius Monk.

SmSh: We understand you’re performing these pieces with Coco Zhao, and translated into Mandarin. How was the translation process? Was it difficult translating the meaning and nuances of Shakespeare’s sonnets into Mandarin?

Thompson:The translation is quite difficult, and quite prone to frequent editing. My good friend Janet Tan is the translator. She is an upper tier translator and interpreter in Washington, DC, and frequently works for events and people that are household names. She comes from a family steeped in the arts, and has taken this task very seriously. She amazingly transferred 16th century English into modern Chinese facing some very obvious obstacles. Many of Shakespeare’s words are unknown to us today, and even if we know the words, the sentence often makes no sense to the modern reader. The main issue though is the rhythm of the sentence.

The English is usually daDAHdaDAHda DAHdaDAHdaDAH .

To translate that rhythm into Chinese in a both accurate and poetic manner is a challenge I cannot begin to imagine. Fortunately, we have Coco Zhao to help with some of the adjustments of text to music.

SmSh: Can you give us a bit of background on your work in China? What sorts of performances, tours, and lectures have you been doing?

Thompson: In short, I began working with Ma Xiaohui, the great erhu player, in 1999. We performed in Washington at the Kennedy Center, at Carnegie Hall in New York, in Vancouver, Shanghai and Chengdu. We probably did 40 or so performances all together. The process of learning her repertoire, including Abing, Liu Tianhua, and other traditional melodies and styles, pushed me into the world of traditional Chinese music at the highest level.

The State Department ultimately asked me to conduct a tour of Chinese universities and conservatories, where I presented a lecture on parallels in the histories of American and Chinese music. I have worked with numerous traditional musicians throughout China and as you would guess, met many wonderful educators and prominent citizens of this great country. I have also offered my ‘Intro to Jazz Piano’ course to schools in Wuhan, Shenyang, Dalian, and Shanghai, and have been enthusiastically received. Working with Chinese students is a great joy, as I am sure you have heard before. They are extremely eager to learn -- a teacher’s dream.

SmSh: Since 1999, you’ve regularly produced performances in Washington DC for Shanghai-based Jazz musicians (Coco Zhao, Peng Fei, Theo Croker, Abraham Carmona, and Zhang Le). What’s the reception to these shows like in the States? Are you finding an audience for Chinese jazz musicians?

Thompson: All of these performers have been enthusiastically received. Coco was featured on NPR, he and Peng Fei performed at the Kennedy Center, Abraham Carmona drew an enormous response, and Zhang Le drew the attention of curators from the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress. Theo is already known in Washington, and he delighted the crowd there.

In general, the audiences are intrigued and enthusiastic. There is nothing like great talent when it comes to exposing the audience to a new art form, and all of these performers are very charismatic.

On the other hand, Chinese jazz musicians are not gaining access to the higher levels of the jazz market. That process is still in the future. Having spoken with the major venues, I am hearing that they do not believe their audiences are aware of a characteristic Chinese jazz style or tradition.

SmSh: What’s your overall impressions of Chinese jazz music? What does Chinese jazz music have to say to the rest of the jazz world?

Thompson: A wonderful feature of the Chinese musicians is their training. My colleagues here are often graduates of the Shanghai Conservatory, or other prominent music schools, and arrive on the jazz scene as masters of their craft. Our rehearsals are very quick since they are highly capable and very creative. And then there is the traditional Chinese component of the jazz here. This is my favourite part, and quite frankly, I wish the Chinese musicians would focus even more on their own cultural roots. In this world today, it is difficult to make a genuine contribution to the musical community.

But by focusing on traditional Chinese melody, style, culture, and instruments, I believe my colleagues stand to have a dramatic effect on the world jazz community.


“The Sonnet Song Cycle" is tonight at Two Cities Gallery.