November Artist Feature: Harris Eisenstadt

Harris Eisenstadt has been one of the most active figures on the New York creative music scene over the past decade, leading groups such as Canada Day, September Trio, and Golden State. As part of a generation in New York with great percussionist talent, Eisenstadt has distinguished himself both as a performer and a composer. He is well-known for writing music that maximizes connectivity between musicians, creating complex webs of kinetic musical energy. As a musician, he has an eye for precision while propelling his numerous ensembles along.

This coming weekend, November 23-24, Eisenstadt will premier a commissioned piece, Four Songs, for the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music at the Brooklyn Museum. The piece will be performed as part of a concert by the Brooklyn Conservatory Community Orchestra and the Maestrosities which also features Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Rossini’s William Tell Overture. Tickets for these family-oriented afternoon concerts are available online here or at the door.


This past weekend, I had the pleasure of talking with Harris about his plans for the orchestral performance, an upcoming research trip to Cuba to further his training in African diaspora drumming styles, and other future plans.

Cisco Bradley: How you were selected for the piece at Brooklyn Conservatory?

Harris Eisenstadt: Dorothy Savitch, head of the Music Partners Program at the Brooklyn Conservatory, commissioned me to write a piece for the Brooklyn Conservatory Community Orchestra (BCCO), which she conducts. I taught world drumming in schools through Music Partners from 2007-2010, and got to know Dorothy during those years. She’s a fantastic person, a great conductor, a tireless advocate and longtime force-for-good in music and education in New York. She knew some of my work also as a drummer/composer and bandleader, so she called at some point in early 2012 and asked if I’d be interested in collaborating. She raised the commission through a Kickstarter campaign in summer 2012 and I submitted the final score to her a year later.

CB: What were the parameters of the composition? How did you choose to approach it?

HE: The parameters were basically that I involve a bunch of student drummers from New York public schools in an orchestral piece along with the BCCO. How to go about that was totally up to me.

I decided to use as raw materials, songs and rhythms I’d learned from studying Ghanaian, Gambian, Senegalese, and Cuban music. I had to consider carefully how to address the varying levels of expertise between the students and orchestral musicians, as well as differing levels of expertise within a semi-professional orchestra. The piece is scored for 45 strings, 9 winds, 10 brass, 3 percussion, plus 7 student percussionists. I decided to have the adult percussionists double the student parts, which has helped reinforce the poly-rhythms in the hand drum parts. So there’s no orchestral percussion in the piece. It makes for quite an unusual experience for the orchestral musicians to have this big band-like sensation of a rhythm section setting the time as much as the conductor. It’s a real challenge for everyone to hold it together. The orchestra and the students are doing great jobs. There are also serious challenges as far as balancing dynamics between an orchestra and a bunch of hand drums. I’m really appreciative of everyone’s efforts!

It’s been thrilling to watch and listen to the piece come together slowly but surely. The orchestra has rehearsed five or six times. A couple Conservatory percussion faculty helped Dorothy select the students from Brooklyn middle and high schools back in September, and the students have been so dedicated to learning the parts… rehearsing every week for a couple months. Very inspiring! Things got really interesting last week (early November) when we had the first rehearsal with the students and orchestra. We had our second rehearsal last night and it’s starting to groove! We have one more rehearsal with everyone next Tuesday, then a run-through before the premiere at the Brooklyn Museum November 23. There’s a second performance November 24 at the Brooklyn Museum as well. We’re hoping the orchestra will perform the piece during spring 2014 as well in New York public schools.

CB: What new things did you aim to learn or explore during the compositional phases of this project?

HE: I had to find a way to make a piece that would work for an orchestra with mixed levels of skill and experience, and find a way for it to work with student  drummers who had very little drumming experience in addition to little or no experience working with a conductor and orchestra. I decided early on to make the piece very tonal, and honor the nature of the melodic and harmonic material I had drawn from. The experience of writing for non-professional musicians is not uncommon for composers who work with high school bands, wind ensembles and in other music education milieu, but most of my experience as a composer has been writing for ensembles of professional improvisers that I also play in. My first orchestral piece, Palimpsest, was read by the American Composers Orchestra as part of the first Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute in 2011, and that experience really forced me to address fundamental issues of orchestration that don’t necessarily apply in the same ways when writing for small groups of improvisers. Even though Four Songs sounds very little like Palimpsest, I tried to apply many of the same principles to Four Songs. I should say as well that I am very grateful to a fantastic composer and composition teacher, Douglas Gibson, who I brought the score to in the final weeks before I submitted it, for his invaluable suggestions and expertise.

CB: You are going to Cuba for a research trip in December. What are your plans for your time there? Is this part of a broader interest in music of the African diaspora?

HE: I was awarded a research grant from SUNY Maritime College (where I teach in the humanities department) to conduct research in Cuban folkloric music… drumming primarily, but also Cuban maritime music and folkloric culture. I’ll be there from December 26 – January 9. I’ve been completely fascinated by Africa and the Diaspora since falling under the spell of Ghanaian music as a graduate student at CalArts from 1999-2001. I’ve travelled to West Africa twice to conduct research, in 2003 and 2007. Both trips were about two months long. After returning each time I composed then recorded a book of music inspired first by Gambia and then Senegal: Jalolu (CIMP, 2003) and Guewel (Clean Feed, 2008). I’ll do the same after this Cuba trip and record sometime in 2014.

I’ll spend 10 days in Matanzas and 4 days in Havana. While in Matanzas, I’ll study with musicians from two of the best-known folkloric Cuban groups: Afrocuba de Matanzas and Los Munequitos de Matanzas. I’ll also conduct research with a babalawo (a priest of Afro-Cuban syncretic religions) and study Matanzas-style bata drumming with him. Matanzas style bata is quite different from Havana style. New York bata style (which I study with John Amira) is primarily built on the Havana style, so I’m really looking forward to getting the different perspective. In Havana I’ll stay with one of the great Havana rumberos, Raul Gonzalez Brito. Since it will just be a few days in Havana, I’ll probably end up just hanging and playing rumba with Raul primarily.

A couple people have been very helpful in setting me up with contacts in Matanzas and Havana, for which I’m very grateful.  Chuck Silverman is an L.A. based drummer and educator who has led research trips to Cuba for twenty years. He’s been a huge help with contacts in both cities. Eli Edelman, a percussion student who spent two months in Cuba recently, has been very helpful with Matanzas contacts. Eli’s perspective was particularly helpful as it confirmed what I guessed already; it is much easier, especially given the short amount of time I’ll be there, to accomplish more in a smaller city like Matanzas than in the capital. Interestingly, he described Matanzas teachers’ approaches as almost classical, in the sense that they show students fundamental rhythms and just a handful of variations for each rhythm, and move slowly and methodically through materials. Master drummers in Havana move quite quickly apparently, and play innumerable variations on basic rhythms. Matanzas is also the oldest and most influential hub of African culture in Cuba. People of African descent are everywhere in Cuba, of course, but direct links to African folkloric culture seem to be strongest in Matanzas. Also, lodging, meals, and lessons in Matanzas cost about half as much as they do in Havana, since it’s a much smaller city that doesn’t get many tourists. I had originally intended to split my time evenly between the two cities, but it seems the best use of my time is to focus my research primarily in Matanzas. I hope this trip will be the first of many as there is only so much I can get done in two weeks. Each time I returned from those two-month trips to West Africa I felt like I was just beginning to get a sense of how to work effectively in those cultures. Two weeks will barely scratch the surface in Cuba.

CB: From what parts of West or Central Africa did Cuba mainly inherit its drumming traditions?

HE: This is an immense question, actually, and best for me to refer English speakers to Ned Sublette’s seminal work Cuba and Its Music for in-depth explanation. The short answer is that Cuba’s Afro-Cuban drumming traditions are a complicated and fascinating mix of West African (Yoruba from central and western Nigeria and Carabali from present-day eastern Nigeria and western Cameroon) and Central African traditions (Kongo from what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo Brazzaville, and Angola).

CB: To what extent do you anticipate that what you learned in your previous trips to West Africa will translate into what you are going to be doing in Cuba in terms of techniques, repertoire, style, etc?

HE: Hard to say. There will be some overall similarities – particularly to my experience in Gambia in 2003 with my teachers there, as the ten days in Matanzas will probably more closely resemble my experiences in small-town Gambia than big-city Dakar, Senegal. My Mandinka drumming teachers in Brikama, Gambia spoke no English and I spoke no Mandinka. Unfortunately, I don’t speak Spanish so I’ll pretty much be in the same boat with my teachers in Matanzas. This presents many challenges of course, but shouldn’t preclude a great deal of information being transmitted. Apparently it’s more common for younger generations to speak some English in Cuba these days, so hopefully I’ll find some translation help!

Sublette and others have noted that broadly speaking, Africans who came to North America were from “griot Africa,” that is, Islamic Africa, with a heavier emphasis on vocal and string musics, while Africans who came to Cuba (and Brazil) were primarily from “forest Africa,” that is, animist cultures with a heavier emphasis on percussion musics. This is also an immense topic (and lifelong fascination for me!), but I bring it up because the West African drum cultures that I studied in Africa – Gambian and Senegalese traditions – were from griot Africa, so to speak. Cuban bata, rumba, abakwa, and palo drumming traditions are all uniquely Cuban syncretic products of forest Africa, so even though Mandinka and Wolof drum traditions adhere to the continent-wide lead drum + support drums hierarchies, the specifics will be quite different.

CB: So, there were underlying differences in how music developed in west and central Africa that were largely influenced by religion? What impact did Christianity and European music have upon these traditions in a place like Cuba? Is it possible to dissect the fusion that has gone on?

HE: I must refer readers again to Sublette’s incredible work for a detailed explanation of how the differences from west and central African musics manifested in the new world. There are other texts that have addressed this as well, though many regarding Cuba are in Spanish. The works of Robert Farris Thompson are also invaluable sources of knowledge that address these questions in great detail and with incredibly sophisticated powers of deduction.

CB: Well, we will look forward to hearing about what you learn. What other projects do you have on the horizon?

HE: Golden State has some Canadian festival offers for next summers, and hopefully a Europe tour late October/early November 2014. A book of music inspired my trip to Cuba will be in the works as well to record in 2014. Ensemble and label TBA. Nate Wooley Quintet has a Europe tour March 12-23 2013, dates in Austria, Italy, Slovenia, Scandinavia, a.o. John Zorn asked me to do a week at the Stone in 2015. He asked me to pick any week, so I chose Sep 1-6, as my 40th birthday is September 4, 2015. I have never planned anything that far in advance before. It’s so far away I’m not even sure I could say that it’s technically on the horizon.

CB: Have you been developing some new material for Canada Day?

HE: I have been writing new material this fall for Canada Day’s fourth quintet record. We have some Europe dates November 2014 so hopefully a tour will fill in. I’m also looking at the possibilities of doing a couple New York residencies next spring/summer i.e. rehearse a couple times then play a few days in a row in town. I’d like to do this twice before going to Europe next fall… Hoping to have some dates nailed down soon.

CB: What new direction are you going with that group?

HE: As far as what new direction Canada Day is going in, I’m not sure yet. The materials I’ve been assembling so far all fit somehow within the framework of how pieces for Canada Day are usually put together…. lots of written materials and closely structured sequences of events with solo and group improvised spaces built into the compositions. I’m curious how my time in Cuba will influence the pieces that end up in the next Canada Day book, versus the pieces that end up in the book for a post-Cuba trip ensemble. Lots to sort out in the coming months!

Selected Discography

  • Harris Eisenstadt – Woodblock Prints (No Business, 2010)
  • Harris Eisenstadt – Guewel (Clean Feed, 2008)
  • Harris Eisenstadt Quintet – Jalolu (CIMP)
  • Harris Eisenstadt – Ahimsa Orchestra (Nine Winds)

Cisco BradleyNovember Artist Feature: Harris Eisenstadt

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