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  • Dean Thiessen

stranger friends ORCHESTRA debut!

If you are reading this it probably means that you have heard about the

STRANGER FRIENDS ORCHESTRA’s debut performance on May 14th << click for tickets. Despite working on all this music for the last 6ish years and rehearsing with this band for the past few months this is the first time I have written at length about this band, the people in it, where all of this music began and where I think it is headed.

If you want to know what got me excited about composition, and more specifically excited about big band composition, my wonderful friend Will Chernoff wrote a very thoughtful article about exactly that topic. You can read that 2min article here.

The music written for this band has been accumulating for the past 6 years. PLACES is a piece that I wrote in the final year of my degree. It has withstood the test of time after being slightly edited by an older and arguably wiser Dean in preparation for this performance. PLACES is my response to Maria Schneider’s ‘Pretty Road’ which was a groundbreaking musical discovery for me. In 2017 I started a paper stack of idea fragments and a few Sibelius files to attempt to breath life into an idea. But perhaps because I was a bit burnt out from finishing a degree, 2017 showed no musical fruit.

2018 was where I started making my post-grad steps into my own world of composition. I wrote 2 pieces for big band that year. The first was a piece called WATERMELON SUN. This inspiration was from a rather surprising origin: Rickie Lee Jones. More specifically the intro to her song ‘We Belong Together’ from her album Pirates. The file on my hard drive was created January 18th 2018 (a Tuesday) and I exported the parts for the first time on November 21st 2018 (a Wednesday): just shy of 10 months from start to finish. This piece was my first big step into composition after my degree and I remember vividly (Cindy can testify) the emotional rollercoaster this piece took me on as I weighed the value of my degree and what kind of voice I wanted to make for myself as a composer. And there were a few other personal and professional woes mixed in there as well. A few months into writing WATERMELON SUN I started another piece called YELLOW, which if you know me and the effect the colour yellow has on me, you can clearly see this as a call for help from the emotionally journey WATERMELON SUN was putting me through. YELLOW was, and still is, a raucous piece that was the best creative distraction to what I was trying to achieve with Watermelon Sun.

2019 was another pivot in how I approached composition. Watermelon Sun and Yellow had been two huge mountains that burnt me out creatively so I decided to start writing "less" music more often. This approach gave me 5 of the songs that would eventually be on my debut album, along with some others that have not been recorded. Writing with a smaller band in mind gave me the ability to not write a lot of music. I’ll explain: when you have a band of 14 - 17 people the composer has the ability to be quite exact with instructions and specific about very small details. Whereas, in the nature of smaller jazz combos, much can be left up to the interpretation of the band members. I needed this season to realize that music can still sound great (and even sound better) when I am not in control of every detail. ‘Music will be just fine without me’ is a phrase I often say to myself.

The next season of big band composition came courtesy of another unexpected icon: John Steinbeck. From 2016-2018ish I commuted 45 minutes both ways to a teaching position which gave me the opportunity to plow through much of Steinbeck’s most well-known works: Grapes of Wrath, In Dubious Battle, East Of Eden, Cannery Row, The Red Pony etc. There was something very special about Steinbeck’s writing that really connected with me. As a result, his novel SWEET THURSDAYS was the inspiration behind the first piece I wrote a tone poem for. This is the only Steinbeck fiction that you will ever laugh out loud to and without going into a big synopsis: A rag-tag team of village idiots with the purist of hearts and best intentions ruin absolutely everything. Next was John Steinbeck’s short story called 'The Flight' which inspired the piece THOU ART A FOOLISH CHICKEN.

Then Covid…. thankfully the woes of a musically deprived covid experience were quenched by none other than our friendly neighborhood big band genius (one of many) John Korsrud and the VCC Bigger Band. I got to write and play for this band for 2 whole years during the pandemic and wrote some music that I am really proud of. PURPLE, THE WAITING GAME, FOUR DAYS and FREDDY C was my output for that band which I have now arranged further for my Stranger Friends Orchestra.

But all this music is just ink on paper without an incredibly supportive, generous, and talented band. Thankfully, there is no shortage of people who fit that exact description in the Vancouver jazz pool. Brent Mah, John Nicholson, 'Uncle' Ardeshir Poukeramati, Sofia Avelino, Rory Hislop, Feven Kidane, Thad Bailey-Mai, Gregory Dent, Janine King, George McNally, Chris Fraser, Suin Park, Jen Kim, and Jamie Lee. I still get so excited when I see all these names side by side. I feel so fortunate to be able to entrust my music to such a beautiful and friendly group of people. Here's a pic from a recent rehearsal.

Where is this all going? That's a great question... compositionally I would love to continue to write more music around John Steinbeck stories and produce a Steinbeck Suite for Jazz Orchestra project. And, eventually, I'd love to record an album with this band. But for now I want to just play this music. So much of it has lived on paper and in my head for years and I just want to get it into the world. All of these future ideas rely on people like you who read really long blog posts and buy tickets to shows so we can have the money and support to pull these things off. If you are coming to the concert, I am so excited to see you there, and if you can't make it for any reason I hope to see you at the next one!

Thanks for reading and for your love and support.

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