An examination of the mind’s capacity for creativity and the world of music converged at Tuesday’s “Sketches of Miles: The Workshop” performance at the USC Brain and Creativity Institute. Hosted by the Thornton School of Music, the event was commissioned by the Institute and featured works from Bach to Miles Davis in an exploration of how two seemingly disparate genres of classical and jazz can come together to create something new and captivating. After the performance, the musicians — comprising violinist Etienne Gara, pianist Patrice Rushen, percussionist Ian Wurfl and bass player Edwin Livingston — had a conversation with the Thornton dean Robert Cutietta and the BCI director Antonio Damasio.
Classical pieces were combined with Miles Davis songs, or took inspiration from Davis’ style and process. There was also improvisation used at certain points. The ensemble performed three pieces before the panel discussion, then also surprised the audience after the discussion with a tribute to one of Davis’ arrangers that combined Debussy’s “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair” and George Gershwin’s “Summertime.”
Davis is a representative of the institute itself, as one of his paintings that he produced near the end of his life hangs in the lobby of the institute. Damasio explained how he wanted Gara to put together a program that brought together the classical and jazz styles, while still keeping Davis in mind.
The moderators were particularly interested in the the challenges of mixing the two different styles of music. Gara emphasized that while the styles may be different and musicians may react to music differently, all genres share a common theme of humanity.
“There’s no questions about what are the difficulties,” Gara said. “The only answer is how will I answer what you’re trying to tell me, and how will I pass the message that I want you so badly to understand.”
Imagery was also particularly important to their creative processes. Wurfl discussed all the preparation that went into the arranging of the pieces, before the musicians could even begin to think about how they played with one another.
“We printed out the score, and Etienne would describe every section of the song,” Wurfl said. “Like, ‘Here I want this to be like the sun is rising in the jungle in the morning’. Or ‘This piece is like Christmas time in Moscow but it’s like Tim Burton.’ So, that is how we started putting the music on the page, with images.”
As the panelists opened the discussion, a few audiences members chimed in during the discussion to reflect on their listening experiences. One described the difference of the two concerts that were going on simultaneously — the visual and auditory — and that she experienced the music much differently when she closed her eyes. Another felt that music was telling a story, as there were lilting elements in the compositions.
Thomas Mellan, a first-year graduate student majoring in pipe organ and composition, was impressed by the performers’ ability to combine the two genres, as he’d never heard something like it before.
“The assimilation is interesting,” Mellan said. “Here, their originality comes from combination.”
When asked what he hoped people would take away from this performance, Gara provided some advice for people with creative aspirations.
“There is no bad kind of failure, as long as you’re not deadly hurt,” Gara said. “There’s always something to learn from it. You should not know what is ahead. If it’s scary, you’re heading the right way.”
Overall, the workshop performance, “Sketches of Miles” served to reveal the power of togetherness, regardless of genre or musical background, in overcoming challenges and creating beauty. As Rushen put it, “The arts and creativity are what makes us human.”