Allegro

Ears Wide Open

Feature Interview

Volume 119, No. 3March, 2019

Interview by Bob Pawlo

Photo: Dennis Connors

Diane Moser, a member of Local 802 since 2000, literally does it all. She composes and performs around the world with jazz ensembles, orchestras, chamber groups, and dance and theatre companies, including her 17-piece Diane Moser’s Composers Big Band, her quintet and her Birdsong Trio, featuring flutist Anton Denner and bassist Ken Filiano. She has collaborated with Mark Dresser, Marty Ehrlich, Mark Helias, Gerry Hemingway, Howard Johnson, Oliver Lake, Judy Bady, Tina Marsh, Charles McPherson, Curtis Pagler, Diamanda Galas, Jim French, Yale Strom, poets Marilyn Mohr and Bill Zavatsky, the Cedar Rapids Symphony Orchestra, the Tri-City Symphony of Davenport, Iowa, the Drifters and many others.

Besides this, Moser has worked in musical theatre for many decades. She is the composer of the musical “2012: A Masque for the Millennium,” presented for the Women’s Work Series, and “The Adventures of Jazz Mom”  –  both produced at Luna Stage in Montclair, New Jersey. She also contributed to “Future Feminine: New Women for the 21st Century” with the Tunnel Vision Writer’s Project.

Moser composed the score for the award-winning film “Breaking Boundaries: The Art of Alex Masket,” and served as music supervisor and performer for a documentary on the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Her most recent score is for “Yellow Stars of Tolerance,” a film about a historic synagogue in the Normandy region of France.

Moser’s work as a composer and pianist for dance companies includes collaborations with the California Ballet, NYC Tapworks, Babs Case & Co., A. Ludwig Co., Brooklyn College, San Diego State University, Gus Solomons Jr. and Kenneth Rinker.

In addition to teaching privately, Moser is currently on the faculty at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she teaches in the MFA program for music composition. She also teaches composition and performance in the jazz program at the New School. She earned a master’s degree in jazz piano from the Manhattan School of Music, where she studied with Harold Danko and Jaki Byard.

In her career, Moser has won dozens of grants and awards, including fellowships to the MacDowell Colony and the Millay Arts Colony. Local 802’s Bob Pawlo recently sat down with Diane Moser to hear about her journey in music.

Bob Pawlo: Let me start with my usual opening question, because it opens so many doors. How did your path in music begin?

Diane Moser: Well, I grew up in Iowa, and started piano at age five. As a kid, I used to create these big epic songs on my piano about birds and trees and storms and all sorts of things that had to do with nature. I started learning new instruments as the years went on, so by the time I was in high school, I had studied guitar, clarinet, bass clarinet, alto sax, flute, trumpet and cornet. I was a good reader and I was gigging by the age of 14.

Bob Pawlo: What type of gigs did you do at such a young age?

Diane Moser: I played community events, fundraisers and lots of jazz gigs. I was very fortunate to have people in the Des Moines area who took me under their wing and showed me the ropes, so I made a lot of connections. Eventually, I went to college at the University of Iowa.

Bob Pawlo: What were some of the key things that you learned there?

Diane Moser: I really got involved with free improvisation and different ways of approaching music, like graphic scores. I loved the new music department, and they would let me come into the electronic music studio even though I wasn’t technically allowed since it was only for graduate students. There was so much music to explore and so many great musicians.

Bob Pawlo: Since this is Women’s History Month, can I ask you how you were perceived as an improvising musician who is also a woman, both growing up in Des Moines and later in college?

Diane Moser: In Des Moines, it was fine, because there were lots of women who were doing what I was doing and who would guide me and talk to me. Once I got to college, that changed a little bit, mostly from some of the male professors who were not really excited about women performers. But I never experienced any problems from my fellow musicians. This was the mid-1970s and the culture in Iowa City was very open and exploratory and accepting.

Bob Pawlo: That’s interesting to hear. So, after college, what did you do next?

Diane Moser: I went on the road with a band, and then I moved to San Diego. One of my fellow bandmates had moved there, and also one of our main mentors from University of Iowa, Will Parsons. We followed him, and eventually there were a lot of us from Iowa who ended up in San Diego. That’s also when I met Mark Dresser, the wonderful bassist who I still play with. In San Diego, Mark and I played in schools and colleges and parks through a grant from the local musicians’ union. There was a really vibrant scene. I would play some gigs that were real straight-ahead, and then I would play creative gigs with lots of free improv and performance art. We were working every day and night. I also worked for the California Ballet and the A. Ludwig Dance Company and got involved in theatre projects. I even directed musicals. It was a pretty wide open scene, and there were lots of opportunities.

Bob Pawlo: Sounds like San Diego was really great. So how did you end up in NYC?

Diane Moser: I just decided at some point that I wanted something else. I wanted to be in a place where there was even more going on. A friend of mine was moving to NYC, and I said, O.K., I think I’ll go too. My son was almost two at the time, and I moved to New York City as a single mom, which I wouldn’t recommend to anybody! But I knew my son would grow up hearing music, seeing art and experiencing all different kinds of cultures. We ended up in Brooklyn, and it only took me two days to get a job. I was hired as an accompanist for dance at Brooklyn College, and I also ended up working at Harbor Conservatory as a piano teacher. Then, through a random connection, I became the musical director for “backers’ shows.” These are musicals that hope to get to Broadway someday, and the writers and composers would perform them for producers and other backers. It was my job to rehearse the band and vocalists and put everything together. This worked for me because the gigs were short commitments and I wasn’t away from my son that much. And then at some point, word got out that I was a good vocal coach. So I got work as a music director for cabaret shows and I also worked at Brooklyn Children’s Museum as an onsite educator, which was really a blast. Working during the day was ideal for me. I would work at night, but only if I could bring my son or find someone to hang with him. I got lots of work, partly because I had something going for me: I was trained in a lot of different kinds of music, so I never thought of myself only as a jazz pianist. I could play with chamber music people. I could direct a choir. I could run a musical. I had started arranging when I was in junior high and that’s when I starting writing music. I could teach. So it all came together.

Bob Pawlo: It certainly did! I also want to ask you about your fellowship in 2008 to the famous MacDowell Colony.

Diane Moser: When I was accepted at MacDowell, my plan was to work on my “Music of the Spheres” project, but after my first day there, I started recording and improvising to the sounds of bird songs. Our cottages were in the woods and I could hear the birds. It was like being five years old again, except now I was a grown-up with electronic equipment, and I had a way to record the birds and write music and formulate it. Doing this kind of thing is really about listening. Because of the fact that I was involved in creative music, free improvisation, avant-garde and jazz in general, I became a very deep listener. This was something I relied on when I was improvising with the birds, and it also helped me hear that the birds were singing back to me. They were communicating with me. Another thing that helped me is that when I was growing up in Iowa, I grew up around nature. We had a couple of dogs and I had a parakeet when I was little. Once you really listen, you realize that animals do communicate with you. You have to watch them and listen to them for a long time.

Bob Pawlo: Could you tell us about “Music of the Spheres”?

Diane Moser: Around 2003, I read about a black hole that had been discovered in the universe that vibrated at a B flat 57 octaves below middle C. I started reading Pythagoras and the ancient Greeks and the theory of “music of the spheres” – the vibrations of the planets and other celestial bodies, and the mathematical concepts of overtones and ratios in music. These ideas have influenced architects. They’ve influenced Isaac Newton. They’ve influenced Galileo. Some of these musical ratios were considered sacred. All of this really fascinated me. The musician and mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan, who started the International Order of Sufi, affirmed that everything has vibrations, and therefore everything is music. Even rocks have some sort of vibrations. They’re very low, but everything has a vibration level. So, when you start thinking about music in those terms, the whole world just opens up.

Bob Pawlo: That is all fascinating. On a related note, tell us about the environmental music gathering you attended last year in Darmstadt, Germany.

Diane Moser: Yes, I was invited to the Global Composition Conference, which was about sound, ecology and media. I spoke about bird songs and how musicians are in a unique position to inform the public about environmental awareness just through our music. There’s something about this that really interests the general public. The conversations that I have with audience members after a bird song concert or after they’ve listened to the CD are very different conversations than after I perform with my big band or quintet. People tell me about their birdwatching or their hiking or their knowledge of how the bird population is disappearing or what’s going on with the environment. They can identify the bird songs in my compositions. At my talk, there were all kinds of people there, like architects, urban planners, sociologists, music therapists, instrument makers and visual artists. Many of us there were inspired by the Canadian composer and environmentalist R. Murray Schafer. He was the one who popularized “acoustic ecology,” which is about the relationship between human beings, sound and the environment.  His idea is that the world is indeed one big symphony. It’s a global composition, and you can always hear something if you just try, whether you’re in nature or in the city. So, that kind of goes back to what Hazrat Inayat Khan was talking about, that everything has a vibration, and so therefore everything is music. It’s also what John Cage always talked about: there are never any silences and there’s always something going on. It just depends on how you look at it.

Bob Pawlo: That is incredible, and there’s so much more I want to ask about that, but I want to save time to ask you about your annual peace concerts.

Diane Moser: We started the peace concerts as a tribute to the journalist Daniel Pearl, who was killed in 2002 by terrorists in Pakistan. Daniel was also a cellist, and he took his cello with him to play with people every time he was on assignment. His family created a foundation in his name and they organize an annual series of tribute concerts. The concerts happen throughout the month of October, which is his birthday month – he has the same birthday as Thelonious Monk, by the way – and it is called Harmony for Humanity. There are musicians all over the world who participate, including our group. We are all trying to dedicate our music for peace. In October, you can go to www.DanielPearlMusicDays.org and see a list of concerts all over the world. It’s really phenomenal.

Bob Pawlo: I look forward to that. So, Diane to recap a little bit, you’ve been involved in almost every avenue of music that I can think of. What is it that you haven’t done that you look forward to?

Diane Moser: I would really love to collaborate with Bread and Puppet Theatre. If you haven’t seen them, it’s a puppet company that creates these incredible giant puppets for fun and for activism. The founder, Peter Schumann, says on their website: “The art of puppetry helps women, men and children alike to overcome the established order, the obsessive submission to its politics, and consequent brutalities.”

Bob Pawlo: You are unpredictable! I didn’t see that coming. Well, I wish we had more time, but the time has come to ask my final question. What advice would you have to musicians starting out their careers now?

Diane Moser: First, the basics. Start by making sure that you’re really proficient on your instrument. Make sure that your knowledge of theory and history is at a high level so you can go into any situation and understand what’s going on. But the main thing is to support one another. When your friends are gigging, go to their gigs. If you find out about any open rehearsals, go to those also. Playing and experiencing music with others is not only fulfilling but also a way to learn. Be open-minded, and try as many different things as you can, because the more skills you have, the more opportunity for work you have. And being a part of the musicians’ union is very important, because it helps us to support each other. The union is not just a place to rehearse, and it’s not just a place where we can gripe and vent our frustrations. Local 802 was very important to me in helping me to find a doctor to diagnose the stage four cancer I survived in 2009. (At the union, Bill Dennison and Todd Weeks were especially helpful.) If you really, really need some help, being a member of the union is a very excellent thing to do – and it’s not just Local 802. In other places I’ve lived, the musicians’ union was there for me, too. Being a member of the union is important as a group, but it’s also important for yourself.