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Meet Nick Lavkulik, New Voices Composer in Residence

Meet Nick Lavkulik, the first Spectrum New Voices Composer in Residence! At just 19, Nick has already had an illustrious start to his career, and shows no sign of slowing down. Leading up to Early Expressions, our April 17th concert, Nick will mentor with Spectrum Artistic Advisor Daniel Jamieson to produce a work for piano quintet. We’re excited to work with him and look forward to hearing his new piece.

As many jazz musicians do these days, you also play an instrument. Have you always thought of yourself as a composer, or a guitarist? What drew you towards composition and when did you write your first piece of music?

In this stage of my development, I try think of myself as a guitarist. I feel as though my composing abilities out do my performance abilities, in terms of maturity and just capabilities overall. I want my compositions to be strong as well as my performance on the compositions. I need to figure out a balance that works for me. Even putting aside my composing abilities there is so much you can apply to composing through learning how to play an instrument. The fundamentals I have been learning to play over jazz standards have helped me so much. It goes so far into understanding how harmony works, motivic development, strengthening your first instincts and beyond.

I was drawn to composition at a pretty young age. I was more interested in the actual compositions more than the performances. I found the hook of a chorus more enticing than an improvised solo a lot of the time. I wrote my first piece when I was 13, and my first instrumental “jazz” tune when I was 15.

Tell me a little about the piece you are writing for Early Expressions. You’re writing for a theme; What sort of effect does that have on your creative process?

For this piece, it’s had varying levels of impact. In the beginning it took a long time to find a musical idea that I felt comfortable relating to the theme I chose; prehistoric illustrations of hands in caves. The idea I followed came right away; the relationship between art and the artist’s identity. It made me wonder if those early illustrations were interpreted as a reflection of the artist. They are after all an outline of a part of the artist themselves. Now the theme has evolved drastically incorporating multiple perspectives and competition…I think. Haha! I spent a lot of time thinking about how my piece related to the art piece but then I found myself compromising the musical direction I wanted it to go. It was in an attempt to be very clear with how it related so others could pick it up, if they were looking for it. Eventually I trusted my musical instincts, stopped thinking so much and I was much happier with it. I figured with the time I put into relating the piece to the handprints already it would naturally be reflected to some extent.

Tell me about one of the most exciting musical moments in your life.

In grade 12 I recorded my composition titled “B.E.T. On Yorke” with a bunch of extremely talented music students. It was the second instrumental jazz tune I wrote and it was one of those moments where when it came it together I thought “Whoa…I wrote this?” But to be clear, before B.E.T. on Yorke I was writing a lot of music with harmonic and rhythmic substance, it was just more in the rock vein. The reason why it ended up being more of a jazz tune was only because I heard it that way. It’s very similar to the modern new york sound. Nonetheless, it was such a thrill just to hear my music being played by such fantastic players. It totally brought it to life. The tune ended up winning a Downbeat Student Award, which was a huge surprise. When I write, the first priority is to make the piece enjoyable for myself as if I was a member of the audience listening. When I’m finished with a piece it never occurs to me that other people will like it all that much. I don’t think that’s a byproduct of being cynical or only following that priority of making sure I would like it. I believe it’s just because I ask for more input while I’m writing the piece as opposed when its done. My pieces are done when I’m happy with them, in which there seems to be a correlation with my most popular pieces. The input I get for my pieces is always positive and honest but obviously different than when the piece is done. I always take what I hear from other people say about my work in progress pieces seriously. I make a point to try and understand their perspective and see whether I should change the piece. Most of the time I do, largely because I ask the right people.

“…it was one of those moments where when it came it together I thought “Whoa…I wrote this?”

Nick, in one sentence tell me, what does your music sound like?

The emotional melodies of artists like Radiohead and Wayne Shorter mixed with the grooves of Jason Linder’s Now vs Now.

These days there is a lot of debate about what is jazz, what isn’t jazz, and where “jazz music” is headed in the future. What do you think the future has in store for jazz?

I believe jazz music in the future will be more geared to get people dancing, at least the more successful jazz. That’s what jazz was all about back when it was more popular. I think music generally will be integrated more as part of multi media projects. People have such an easy time accessing any type of music that its value on its own has diminished, especially in terms of financial worth. A new and increasingly popular revenue stream in music is apps. A few notable apps are Bjork’s Biophilia and Radiohead’s PolyFauna. But if music does end up becoming more acknowledged and appreciated I think other art forms will be as well.

Do you have any words of advice for other young aspiring jazz composers?

Focus on getting something on the page, working with it and at some point having the song completed. In order to do this you have to accept that it’s not going to be perfect. It’s much more effective in developing your composing abilities and compelling to keep writing with different songs and ideas. Early on I would work on the same song for months and never really getting anything done or learn that much. Working on the same composition for too long consistently can lead you to writing worse things than you were in the beginning as well as feeling worse. Your first instincts can be better than you think, they likely are after some experience. Also try to write something different than what you wrote before. When you are a young musician or composer you are in the position to absorb more information than any other time. This will allow you to develop ideas differently and likely in better ways. Developing an idea the same way every time isn’t the best in every context. Also you will write contrasting tunes in style, form, and direction. Lastly it will make it easier to collaborate with composers and instrumentations that are better with different approaches.

In an ideal world, tell me where you see yourself in 10 years? Dream big!

In an ideal world, right now I see myself writing and performing music that has a similar place to the Robert Glasper Experiment or Snarky Puppy, but something stylistically different. A stylistic difference between those projects and my ideal one is that I would be singing and writing lyrics as well. A difference in the place I hope to be in musically, is at some points creating music that is one aspect of a greater art piece as well as creating music for the primary action of the audience member is listening. Whether its film scoring, interactive media projects I’m very interested in experimenting how music can be involved in different settings.

- Ben Dietschi

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