8 Questions for 828 Artists (Issue #1 - Jason DeCristofaro)

This is the first installment of a new series called "8 Questions for 828 Artists" that poses a set of emailed questions to an Asheville-based artist (musicians, painters, photographers, writers, sculptors, chefs, dancers, poets, actors, directors, etc.) and posts their answers for discussion. I will create eight questions customized for each of the people I "interview" but will allow the artists to answer in any way they see reasonable with as little editing as possible.

Jason DeCristofaro (b. 1988) is a multi-faceted educator/composer/performer based out of Asheville, North Carolina.  He is adjunct faculty at Brevard College and A-B Technical Community College and has presented at the Conference for the International Journal of Arts and Sciences (Harvard University), The Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy (Virginia Tech University), and Black Mountain College Museum (Asheville, NC).  Jason is also an internationally award-winning jazz vibraphonist (winner of the 2011 Percussive Arts Society/Yamaha Terry Gibbs Competition), a published composer with C. Alan Publications, a staff writer for Classical Voice of North Carolina (CVNC), and the founder and director of the Asheville Composer’s Concerts.  He holds a B.M. from Brevard College, a M.M. from UNC-School of the Arts, and is currently working towards his Doctorate in Music Education (Boston University) and Master in Liberal Arts (UNC-Asheville).

(1) AT: What are the elements of the Asheville music scene that you find most attractive?  

JDC: The diversity of music – there isn’t one genre that defines this city, and I love how musicians from different genres collaborate with such an open-minded and progressive attitude.  How many towns can boast several great jazz ensembles, singer-songwriters, Appalachian ensembles, world music ensembles, classical chamber groups and soloists, R&B groups, fusion acts, and a smoking Afro-beat band? 

(2) Who is a non-musical Asheville artist whose work you find exciting?

I am a big fan of dance, having had three years of classical ballet training.  Asheville Ballet is directed by the brilliant Ann Dunn, who always stages unique and inspiring productions.  Some standout dancers in her company include Fleming Lomax (whom I have collaborated with as a composer – one of the most dedicated artists I know and a flawless dancer) and Rebecca O’Quinn, who possesses exquisite poise and clarity in her movement.  There are many, many great visual artists in this town as well – Jason Rafferty is a fantastic painter, with an aptitude for vivid portraiture.  Billy Smith and Lillian Taria Few are also very talented artists whose work spans a variety of mediums and themes.  Also, Erin Jones paints some beautiful and provocative abstract works.

(3) How did you get into composing music?

I have actually been composing about as long as I have been playing.  I wrote little ditties as a kid at the keyboard – even when I wasn’t seriously studying music, and just doing it as an occasional hobby, I loved to play different ideas.  I began to compose a lot of R&B and folk-oriented tunes as a teenager, but it wasn’t until college that I really began to focus on composing.  During my undergraduate studies at Brevard College, I began to study musical scores in the library in-depth every week.  I studied everything from Beethoven and Schubert to Bartok and Debussy as well as more contemporary composers like Steve Reich and John Cage.  Thanks to the urging and support of my mentor Laura Franklin (who was a wonderful percussion teacher and amazing human being), I saw the first concert work I ever wrote become my first published composition before I graduated.  My freshman year, I did not see myself as a composer.  By the time I graduated, I had become so passionate composing that it became equal in focus to my goals as a performer and educator.  In graduate school, I continued to compose, focusing my attention towards a study of Medieval and Renaissance music, an area I had neglected in my undergraduate studies. 

Upon graduating, I returned to Asheville and began to write a variety of compositions, largely based on requests from local and regional performers and ensembles.  I have always been a pragmatic composer, only writing for musical individuals and groups whom I know would be interested in playing my works.  For this reason, the majority of my concert repertoire has been chamber works, often solo works, duos, and trios.  I am very fortunate to know so many wonderful performers who have executed brilliant renditions of many of my compositions.  I have also had the good fortune of having my works performed abroad in New Zealand, China, and Sweden, as well as regional organizations such as Asheville Ballet and The Symphony of the Mountains. 

A second side of my compositional background manifested itself in jazz composition.  At the same time I began to compose “classical” concert works, I began to write jazz compositions.  This coincided with my passion for jazz and improvisation.  During my undergraduate studies, I began to perform throughout the region as a jazz vibraphonist, so having original compositions during club dates and various shows offered a nice contrast to standards. 

For me, writing jazz music is a very different animal than writing concert works.  A 32-bar chart will often take as long as a concert work to write, and I am often amazed at the length of time and amount of trial-and-error it takes for me to construct a jazz chart I am satisfied with – as a listener, composer and an improviser.  The latter is especially significant, since I hope to compose both a melody and chord changes that will act as a springboard and source of inspiration for the improviser.  My jazz trio, consisting of two fantastic musicians, bassist Daniel Iannucci and drummer Micah Thomas, often performs these works in public performances with me.  A larger fusion ensemble, Liberated State, also plays my jazz repertoire.

(4) What do you want an audience to take away from one of your performances?

Whatever they want to take away from it – the beautiful thing about a live performance is that each audience member forges his/her own personal experience in relation to what is happening on stage.

(5) You can only take five albums to a desert island for the rest of your life: one of older classical music, one of newer classical music, one of jazz, one of rock/pop, and one wild card. What are the albums and why?

This is always the toughest question in the world.  There is so much music I couldn’t live without – but here goes!  For older classical music, I would have to say Gidon Kremer’s complete recordings of the Bach Violin Sonatas and Partitas.  Bach is my favorite composer and these works contain some of my favorite musical moments in the Western musical canon.  Plus, Kremer has that raw, visceral approach that instantly captivates you, regardless of the repertoire. 

Newer classical music – how new?  I am always uncertain how to classify “new” classical music.   A lot of people seem to think that anything written after the Romantic Era is new, which I never understood – it’s more than a century old!  How can that be new?  This is a tough one as well, because there is so much great music that has been written in the last 50 years.  I would have to say Stephen Drury’s rendition of Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated.  His recording is so dynamic, and captures the same intensity I heard in a live performance he gave of the work about seven years ago. 

Jazz – this is almost impossible.  Seriously – so many great artists.  At the moment I am typing this, I am really on a John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy kick, so my top pick would have to be the album Impressions, only because it features incredible solos by both musicians. 

Rock/Pop – does R&B qualify as pop?  If that’s the case then I am going to have to say The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.  I am a huge fan of the Neo-Soul movement that came about in the 1990’s, and I just love everything about her take on the genre.  Her musicianship, her passionately melismatic yet focused vocal style, her incredible rapping abilities and masterful word play, and the overall sound of those records, which I feel fuses the old school with newer global components, fusion of other genres, and a unique soundscape that only Lauryn Hill can achieve. 

Now for the wild card – I am assuming this spans several genres and isn’t necessarily easy to classify.  So my pick will have to be Bill Frisell’s East/West album.  Frisell is probably my favorite musician alive today, because he is incredibly unique.  Plus, he combines disparate musical elements in such a seamless fashion.  I especially love that he takes American folk music (Appalachian, old country songs, and roots music), music which, regardless of the mood I am in, always seems to resonate with me.  Maybe this has to do with the fact that my father was a folk guitarist and/or my being from East Tennessee.  Either way, a June Carter tune or Appalachian balladeer singing Shenandoah resonates with me deeply in a way that few other types of music do – and when Frisell takes this repertoire and transforms it through his wholly unique combination of pandiatonicism, impressionistic colors, and beautifully dissonant reharmonizations, it is some of my favorite stuff to listen to.

(6) If you could force every human being on the planet to listen to one YouTube video, what would it be? What should we be listening for?

I strongly do not believe in forcing anyone to do anything.  But if I could recommend one YouTube selection, one of my favorite videos of all time is the classic “jam session” film of Billie Holiday performing “Fine and Mellow” with Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Gerry Mulligan, and Roy Eldridge (among others).


(7) What excites you about the future of classical music? What directions do you see that are positive?

The most exciting thing about all music right now, classical or otherwise, is that we live in a pluralistic age.  Nothing is off limits musically, which is wonderful.  For the first time in history, I feel as if there is a level of freedom in musical communities which allows for a diversity of musical genres and works.  Today’s classical composer can write anything and everything, from brand new concept pieces to unabashedly tonal works. 

In a strange sense, I feel that it is impossible to push the envelope at this point.  That is not to say that there aren’t new musical works or musical concepts to be discovered and explored from this point forward.  What I do believe, however, is that it is no longer taboo or socially unacceptable to be totally honest as a musical artist.  The modern composer is totally liberated, in that they are free to go any direction they would like musically, and will not be silenced.  Unlike so many earlier progressive composers who were censored or ignored, today’s composer can find a venue for their music.  This is largely thanks to the democratic and economically equalizing power of the Internet, but it is also thanks to an increasing public attitude of “anything goes,” where all forms of musical expression are recognized as having value and artistic worth. 

In my own experience, I have seen how the contemporary audience reacts to new music.  When I founded Asheville Composer’s Concert three years ago as a way of promoting new music by local composers, I did not know what to expect regarding public reaction.  By the third annual concert in 2013, I came to realize that there is an audience for new music, with a packed house of more than 200 people responding with overwhelming enthusiasm towards the variety and originality of contemporary works.  People want something new and exciting, and I see a future in classical music where audiences will enjoy hearing the giants of the past alongside new composers. 

(8) Most important question: what's your favorite Asheville-area brewery?

The first easy question you have asked!  There are a ton of great breweries in this town, and (at the risk of sounding too “Ashevillian”), I love a well-crafted beer.  However, my pick is undoubtedly Southern Appalachian Brewery in Hendersonville.  The people are super friendly, they allow dogs at the brewery (and I love dogs, so that’s a huge bonus), they have a variety of musical genres, including jazz often, and their Summer Ale and Belgian Blonde Ale are some of the crispiest, most perfectly delicious crafted brews in western North Carolina.