With 'Labyrinth,' Billy Childs leads the Temple Univ. Studio Orchestra through a jazz-classical tangle
The perplexing, architecturally intricate designs of M.C. Escher might seem like an unlikely source of inspiration for a jazz composer. But they gave Billy Childs the core idea for his ambitious new piece, “Labyrinth.”
As the title suggests, “Labyrinth” unfolds as a kind of puzzle — complex, precise and disorienting, with many twists and turns. Childs wrote the piece as a commission for the Temple University Studio Orchestra, a convergence of Temple University’s Jazz Band and Symphony Orchestra. The Studio Orchestra premiered Childs’ piece at its 20th Annual Concert at the Kimmel Cultural Campus on March 31, in a concert that also featured works by Adolphus Hailstork and Igor Stravinsky.
Escher wasn’t the only source of inspiration for Childs’ new piece. “I started with an idea that I wanted motion,” he said in an interview after soundcheck in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. That impulse led him to Escher’s famous lithographs, with their bewildering mathematical designs. Childs — who mentioned Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book drawing parallels between math, art, and music — sought to translate the impossibility of Escher’s drawings into a musical canvas. He drew similar inspiration from the “stairs to nowhere” in Inception, the 2010 Christopher Nolan film.
If this sounds like a tricky path to follow, I can attest that it was, as a member of the Studio Orchestra’s saxophone section. But my fellow musicians and I had expert guidance. “The orchestra has good time,” Childs observed, “and I attribute that to the conductor, who’s really great.” As our conductor, José Luis Dominguez played a crucial role in merging the traditions of jazz and classical music. This wasn’t just a matter of different genre categories, as we learned firsthand.
In the weeks before premiering “Labyrinth,” the jazz band and orchestra rehearsed separately, where each group attempted to navigate the intricacies of the piece. The two groups met for the first time on a Tuesday afternoon, and quickly had to make adjustments.
Realizing that many musical phrases were mirrored in other parts of the ensemble, students were met with the challenge of matching each other, despite differences in our training and foundation. How would we navigate our idiomatic differences? Things such as crescendos, cutoffs, articulations, and dynamics are crucial to any style of music, but they find expression in distinct ways. It was a really interesting process to learn about how a classical musician would phrase or play a certain passage, versus how a jazz musician would play the same exact passage.
Childs offered some great advice about how to bridge the jazz/classical divide, something he’s done throughout his distinguished career: “I bridge it by knowing as much as I can about why I wrote the piece and what I meant by it before walking into the rehearsal.”
That intentionality came across loud and clear: “Labyrinth” is a beautifully intricate piece of music that travels seamlessly through sections of precise disorientation and lush beauty. It opens with a section of metric modulation — a musical phenomenon very difficult to execute, as the entire ensemble must be able to navigate the rhythmic changes as an unwavering unit.
The main melody is played by Terell Stafford and Dick Oatts, longtime professors in the Boyer College of Music and Dance. Stafford is featured first, with a fiery trumpet solo in which he goads the rhythm section to match his intensity. Then the piece builds, and transitions into a lush ballad. Dick Oatts begins playing the melody on alto saxophone, along with the strings. He then plays a gorgeous solo in this section in which he explores tonal centers and colorful harmonies.
“I love to be challenged,” Oatts said later, speaking by phone. Referring to “Labyrinth,” he added: “It made me play differently.” After the calm and beauty of Oatts’ solo concludes, the low brass and rhythm section repeatedly states a forceful and daunting phrase while Stafford and Oatts play intensely. Following a drum solo, the piece concludes by building from the opening section once again. Childs wanted to convey “the feeling of a Labyrinth, not knowing what the next turn is,” and he certainly did just that.
The Temple University Studio Orchestra will perform “Labyrinth” again on April 16, in a special concert at the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City. The program will also feature the world premiere of “Rainforests,” a Bill Cunliffe commission that will feature the Temple University Faculty Sextet: Stafford, Oatts, saxophonist Tim Warfield, pianist Bruce Barth, bassist Mike Boone, and drummer Justin Faulkner. Both pieces will then be recorded, and eventually released as an album. (The Faculty Sextet will also perform the title track from its current new release, Fly With the Wind.)
Speaking for myself and my fellow musicians, “Labyrinth” provided an incredible opportunity to exercise professionalism. Watching our own professors play, rehearse, and talk about music is an incredible look into the lessons that they teach us on a weekly basis. And playing this piece in particular encouraged the students to trust each other musically, something that Stafford always says is integral to music. “Labyrinth” prompted us to listen to each other no matter what, so that we could find our way through the maze together.