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  • Dean Thiessen

Hard Rubber Orchestra, Rickie Lee Jones, and Trees

Updated: Jun 21, 2021

I had the great privilege of being a part of a reading session for 'emerging composers' organized by the illustrious, Vancouver-based, Hard Rubber Orchestra New Music Society. I'm going to tell you about this ensemble, some of the best parts about this particular experience working with them, and of course, the piece of music I wrote.

The Hard Rubber Orchestra, for those of you not familiar, is a power-house new music ensemble under the direction of composer and trumpet play (and my composition teacher) John Korsrud. This band has racked up some serious accomplishments including European tours, national music awards and many live multi-media productions since its inception in 1990. They are constantly working with new composers and John never shies away from a challenge or a genre as made obvious by the impressive list of composers that have been commissioned.

I met John while studying at Capilano and, as my composition instructor, he quickly pushed me to develop my harmonic inclinations and tendencies into large works for big band and small chamber jazz groups. From then till now, I really do gratefully owe many of my real-world composition opportunities to John.

The latest initiative by the HRO was to engage with emerging composers and give us the opportunity to write music for a slightly smaller ten-piece version of the HRO made up of Vancouver best players. Besides getting 30 min of recording time with a such a high-caliber band we were also given private lessons with two of Canada's biggest and brightest voices in Jazz composition: Jill Townsend and Christine Jensen.

My first lesson prior to the reading session to prepare my piece was with Christine Jensen. Pinch me... Christine is a huge influential composer for both large jazz ensembles and smaller groups to me and to so many composers across the world. Her ability to write such captivating melodies that carry such huge weight while still sounding so spontaneous and natural is what first drew me to her when I first heard her album Treelines (2010).

My second lesson after the reading session to reflect on my piece and to considered revisions was with Jill Townsend. Wow... I am so grateful to be pretty close with Jill and I occasionally do some house / cat sitting for her and Bill. Besides a great friendship, her mentorship both as a composer and a band-leader is so valuable. The first music I heard from Jill was her debut album Tales of the Sea and this album is still a corner stone vision of what I try to accomplish in my own writing.

So I own a huge 'thank you' to all the people I just mentioned above. And now I'd like to walk you through the piece I composed for this reading session titled:

Where The Trees Are.

From the time the participating composers were announced to the reading session we all had a little over a month to write something. My writing process has never been described as fast but this time around I was pleasantly surprised that this piece took off quite well on its own. Prior to working on this I really hadn't written anything throughout covid besides a few smaller projects so I was grateful for such an important opportunity to dust off my writing chops.


Now a bit of a side-step is needed to tell you about some of the inspiration for this song. Rickie Lee Jones is an American singer-song writer who had has quite a big influence on my writing for a few years now. A piece of mine called Watermelon Sun that I wrote in 2018 was my first piece where I tried to implement some of Rickies' iconic sounds and sonorities. This piece is another of the same thread largely inspired by Rickies' song 'We Belong Together' off her 1981 album 'Pirates'.


Here are a few of my pencil drafts from the piece. I usually create these while improvising on the piano and having a pencil close by to quickly jot down the ideas as they come. If you listen through the recording you might be able to catch that some of these pencil sketches did make their way into the final version but alas, some did not.

An Analysis That No One Asked For

The opening piano introduction played by Jillian Lebeck was incredible. Let's just say I thought I knew what I wanted that opening section to sound like but the beautiful thing about jazz is that excellent musicians like Jillian whole-heartedly put themselves into the music and when that happens the outcome can even blow the composer away.

I came up with the big chord section first when I was first improvising around for this piece. This section happens 3 times in the whole piece: the first time is slower and more broad orchestral sounding, and the next two times are in-time with a sort of quasi-afro-cuban swing feel. The first one is a kind of subdominant minor resolution to a B-flat major which is more of a voice leading choice than a functional harmony choice. The second is a parallel resolution from the V chord (F7) to a more dissonant V chord (Fmaj7#5) and then lastly, a Lydian type resolution to the IV chord (E-flat major) which sets up a very satisfying plagal cadence (IV - I). Most of that you can see here on the score...

To contrast this large ensemble sound the initial melody is introduced as a piano and guitar duet. This melodic section is positioned more or less around D major to be a bright tonal contrast to the opening B-flat major section. Once the melody has been stated for the first and only time we dive back into the same chords as the opening section but, as I mentioned, this time they are in-time and while they're really not that much louder, they carry so much more energy.

The tenor saxophone soloist is my good friend from Capilano University, Ardeshir Pourkeramati. I felt so fortunate that Ardeshir was going to be a part of this band and when I was deciding which instrument was to be the soloist having Ardeshir in the band made that decision a bit easier. We only had 30 min in total with the band to rehearse and record the piece so I was trying to keep the entire composition at 4:45 long. So I really tried to use this solo section to not only give Ardeshir the space to be creative but to also show off a bit more if the band AND to reference the initial melody which at this point is almost a distant memory.

Then to put a bow on the whole piece we hear those big chords again after coming out through a short but exciting journey that Ardeshir has taken us on. On the final chord the rhythm section is playing a B-flat major triad and then the horns come in with an A major triad... Bbmaj7(#11#9)

The Meaning & Feeling

I've been quite nostalgic lately and missing home as so many of us are. There is a forest of poplar trees near my house in Sylvan Lake, AB. We walked through them weekly as a kid and whenever I visit home and walk through them it seems like nothing has changed in their stoic village. Trees always leave room for thought and they either listen or ignore but either way their company is appreciated. 'Sylvan' is french for wooded or 'where trees abound'.

Thank You!

A huge thank you to all the musicians:




and the production people:

Video. RYAN McCANN Audio Engineer / Mix. CHRIS HAAS

This project was produced by The Hard Rubber New Music Society

Thank you to to BC Arts Council, Canada Council for the Arts, Diane Kadota Arts Management and Levi Pease.

Special thank you to John Korsrud, Christine Jensen, and Jill Townsend for their expert guidance and support.

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