Thanks so much, Juli, for having me on your fantastic blog! Hi, everyone! My name is Dana Jessen, and I am a bassoonist specializing in contemporary and improvised music. I’ve lived in several parts of the world and recently moved to Oberlin where my husband and I will be working for the Oberlin Conservatory of Music.I started playing bassoon in the 5th grade, which is unusual since most bassoonists start in middle or high school after switching over from another wind instrument. As a 5th grader, I really wanted to be different from everyone else in my class and one way of doing this was to surprise my teacher by declaring that I would choose the bassoon on “pick your instrument” day. Unfortunately, my hopes were shot down when she replied that I wasn’t allowed to play bassoon.Bummed that my plan didn’t work, I went home and told my Mom that I would most likely have to play my backup – cello. I grew up in the highly liberal town of Ann Arbor, and my mother was not happy with the fact that my public school teacher wouldn’t let me play my first choice of instrument (I later found out that my teacher only denied my request because she didn’t know how to play the bassoon). My mom had already contacted a private teacher and taken me to a few orchestra concerts – she even took me down to the orchestra pit after one of the shows to meet the bassoonists.That evening, my mom took me to an Ann Arbor public school board meeting where they open up questions to the public at the end. I was so embarrassed that I had come up with this idea, and now my mom was going to great lengths so that I could play the instrument I’d chosen. I kept telling her that it was no problem, I would just play cello. Nope. During the “public questions” period, she asked the school board if it were their policy to tell students they weren’t allowed to play the bassoon. 5th grade me = so embarrassed.Of course the board members couldn’t believe this had happened and explained that they actually needed more bassoon players. In the end, I borrowed one of the middle school’s bassoons and since it was too big for me to carry on my own, I had to strap it onto a luggage carrier and roll it to school. I was definitely different from everyone else in my class! Perhaps I hadn’t achieved the hipness that I was envisioning, but I had to stick with it since Mom had gone through all that trouble! I suppose it worked out in the end.I went to Michigan State University for the first two years of my undergrad, then transferred to Louisiana State University. I finished my bachelor’s degree in 2005 and was becoming much more aware of contemporary music, free-jazz, improvisation, and the avant-garde – all genres that were very new to me as a bassoonist. As an undergrad, I had had a very basic understanding of extended techniques and so began researching more on my own. I often found myself going to student or faculty recitals of other instruments, hearing a contemporary work that moved me, and later trying to find a similar piece in the bassoon repertoire; I had no success with the last. I was especially interested in finding chamber and solo pieces involving extended techniques and/or electronics, as well as minimalist and post-minimalist pieces for the bassoon. I was also drawn to the genuine raw emotion and expression of purely improvised music (for those unfamiliar with the term, I am NOT referring to jazz). The only problem was that the bassoon either didn’t exist in these styles of music, or the pieces that included bassoon were not nearly as exciting to me as other contemporary rep that had been written for wind, string or percussion instruments.
After my undergrad years, I went on to the New England Conservatory of Music (NEC) to pursue my Master’s degree and was very excited to find out that NEC had a Contemporary Improvisation (CI) department as well as several contemporary music specialists on faculty. I was officially a classical bassoon performance major, but was encouraged by the CI department to enroll in their ensembles. They were extremely supportive of my interest, as were the composition department and new music faculty. Unfortunately, I did not receive the same kind of support from the classical department and was often questioned about why I was spending so much time playing in these other groups. I usually just ignored these comments and continued to pursue classical, contemporary, and improvised music, occasionally feeling like I led a double life. Once I found myself playing a late-night Sun Ra concert complete with costumes, political innuendos, and guided improvisation; the next morning I was playing Haydn with a woodwind quintet at a very nice community event.
Midway through my Master’s program, I realized that I was no longer passionate about playing orchestral music, and I had absolutely no interest in the orchestral career model. I truly felt lost. It seemed as though the only career options were: A) get an orchestral job or B) find a teaching job. That was it. No other options. There was no C) get a job with a new music ensemble while playing improvised and electro acoustic music and earn enough to make a living… I went through a very difficult period when I thought I had chosen the wrong instrument. I seriously thought I should have played the clarinet or saxophone – I didn’t know any bassoonist playing the kind of music I was interested in.
While the CI department was pushing me to continue improvisation and new music, the classical department was looking down on me and considering my interest a waste of talent. I once had a colleague ask, “Dana, you are such a good bassoon player, why are you doing all this weird music? Why don’t you just take some orchestral auditions?” I didn’t know how to respond to him politely at the time and avoided a direct answer. I’ve thought a lot about his comment and simply don’t understand why, as a bassoonist, my artistic expectations lie solely in the orchestra. Furthermore, I didn’t want a career in something I wasn’t passionate about.
After graduation, I took a year off to consider my options. During this year I applied for several grants and was very fortunate to receive a Fulbright Fellowship to study in the Netherlands for a year. I studied privately with Alban Wesly, bassoonist and co-founder of the Calefax Quintet. Alban was an amazing teacher – extremely open minded and supportive, he certainly knew about creating a career outside of the orchestra, and he even improvised with me in lessons. We worked on a 60-minute program of contemporary music that I later used in the Gaudeamus International Interpreter’s competition. In addition to my lessons with Alban, I worked with several improvisers in Amsterdam and really put myself into the scene by getting together with as many people as I could, playing with them and talking with them. After my first year, I felt like I was just scratching the surface and really wanted to spend more time in Europe. I applied for, and was fortunate to receive, another grant called the HSP Huygens Fellowship to research improvised music in Holland for two more years. I really felt like Amsterdam was a good place for me at that time – there were so many musicians like me who played classical, contemporary, and improvised music. The boundaries between genres weren’t as strict as I felt they were in the U.S., and I didn’t always feel as if I had to explain myself to other musicians. I was also surrounded by some of the best contemporary and improvising musicians in the world, all of whom were very open to working with me.
During that time, I still felt disappointed with the contemporary music repertoire for bassoon. The dearth really bothered me and I was determined to do something about it. I had already commissioned several pieces of music in the past but felt we really needed a big name composer to write a bassoon piece. I was particularly interested in minimalist music and had arranged a work called the Low Quartet by Michael Gordon, co-founder of Bang on a Can. I contacted Michael about some upcoming performances of the piece and sent him a recording I had made. After several email communications, I asked if he would consider writing a new work for bassoon. He agreed, and I spent the next several years putting together the New Music Bassoon Fund, a consortium commissioning organization. I wrote an article for NewMusicBox about the entire commissioning process for this piece which you can Read here. The new work, Rushes, is an hour-long work for seven bassoons. I, along with six of my colleagues, recorded the piece last fall for an upcoming (2014) release on Cantaloupe Records.
Over the last few years, I’ve continued to play in new music ensembles, improvisation ensembles, and electro acoustic projects. Entrepreneurship is really the heart of my existence – there is no true job out there for me, I have to create my own. I’ve co-founded several projects and ensembles, and continue to work with composers to create new music for the bassoon. I’ve received grants from the MidAtlantic Arts Foundation, Netherland-America Foundation, and Meet the Composer Creative Connections Grant. I’ve been an artist in residence at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, Atlantic Center for the Arts, Omi International Musicians Residency, STEIM, and De Lindenberg Productiehuis. Details about my projects, audio clips, and upcoming concerts can be found through my website, www.danajessen.com.
Calefax Quintet: http://calefax.nl/home_en.asp?lang=en
Michael Gordon: http://michaelgordonmusic.com/
Bang on a Can: http://bangonacan.org/
New Music Bassoon Fund: http://danajessen.com/fund
NewMusicBox Commissioning Article: http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/commissioning-rushes/