Rob Mosher on the 31 Chorales Project, Creative Challenges and the Beauty of Discovery

Canadian composer and performer Rob Mosher is never one to shy away from a challenge. In creating (and successfully completing) the 31 Chorales Project, the recipient of the 2009 ASCAP Young Composer Award shows his stuff through the creation of, yes, 31 Bach-style chorales in 31 days.

The 31 chorales have just been recorded by Mosher after what amounted to three months of “logistics and rehearsals.” The album is expected to be released in another month or two and the project will be finished.

I recently had a chance to talk to Mosher about the project and the exhilarating process behind creating 31 chorales in 31 days.

You’ve just completed the creation of 31 chorales in 31 days. Talk about what led you to this project and the reasons behind it.

For many years I’ve wanted to combine my musical and technological abilities. After being introduced to in the summer of 2010, their crowd-sourced fundraising model and open-minded approach to creative projects grabbed my attention, but I didn’t have anything at the time that fit. Months later, as a study I composed a Bach-style chorale and, after sharing it with a friend, he suggested I write a few more and record a CD. Kickstarter came to mind immediately and the project was formed.

As for the total of 31 chorales, I wanted to give myself a goal that I knew I could obtain, but that would still be challenging.

As you describe on your website, the 31 chorales are Bach-inspired. You discuss “discovering new harmonic approaches within yourself while deepening your connection to Bach’s form,” too. How does this sense of harmonic exploration influence your overall creative process?

Exploration and discovery are integral to every piece I compose. It’s not that I’m deliberately trying to create new sounds, rather I’m uncovering what sounds acceptable to me while at the same time stretching past what I’ve been comfortable with in the past.

What did you learn about yourself through the creation of these chorales?

Mainly that sleep, organization and a balanced lifestyle are critical to my health and long-term success. While not originally intended, I’ve undergone a huge transformation in how I prioritize my time and project myself. While the chorales themselves took a huge amount of time and energy to create, they’re almost an afterthought in the big picture.

Did the notion of creating an album out of these chorales change your approach in terms of composition?

Absolutely. Given I’m constantly seeking to expand myself, every one of my pieces (including these chorales) changes the way I approach composition. However, the intensity of this project has increased my compositional speed and matured my decision-making skills. My endurance and focus has also improved.

On your November 19 blog entry, you mention the idea of “embracing your jazz roots” and the “enigma around being a jazz-classical/third-stream/chamber-jazz musician.” Do you think this project effectively challenges that enigma and proves that the organic nature of music defies genres and territories?

I’ve never sought to intentionally challenge or defy any enigma, be it jazz, classical, or whatever it happens to be labeled. However, I acknowledge and agree that labels are needed in order to facilitate discussion. But at the end of the day music is music, and I don’t feel a difference. In the words of the great Miles Davis, “Good music is good no matter what kind of music it is.”

To more directly answer your question though, I acknowledge that this project will likely be perceived as chamber-jazz/classical-jazz/third stream. I hope that – if viewed with those glasses – it’s seen as a continuation of the rich lineage of this tradition. George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” (1935) is a fine example of combining jazz and opera; Gil Evan’s “Sketches of Spain” (1959–1960) combining jazz and classical instrumentation. While I haven’t aimed at their scale with my 31 Chorales project, the intention is the same.

Just to build on that: as a young composer and musician, how have you grown outside of your comfort zone with respect to your jazz chops?

When I was a teenager I disliked most classical music, and in college I couldn’t stand opera. I had this uninformed notion that jazz was free and classical was tight and rigid. Thankfully, after having a opportunity to hang with an amazing classical pianist for some time, I had my eyes opened up to classical’s subtle art of interpretation, and all of those assumptions quickly disappeared. I’ve been listening to classical music heavily since then.

Performance-wise, it was around that time that I started practicing classical music on soprano sax, most memorably Kreutzer’s violin studies and learning to circular breathe the eight-minute cello movement from Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time”. I was also fortunate enough to briefly study with the legendary cellist Shauna Rolston, who instilled some big performance and interpretation concepts in me – and is a really fun and positive person to be around.

Since moving to New York eight years ago, I’ve focused more and more on composition and so my jazz improvisation approach has become far more compositional. So, opposed to thinking more about outlining chords as they pass by, I’ve become a more motific and melodic improviser. Sometimes I might focus in on what the bass player is doing and create a contrary line off of that. Bassist Dan Loomis and I connect really well over that.

Wayne Shorter is a musician who embodies all of the qualities I’m aiming for as a composer and performer. I’d love to meet him someday.

Talk a little about the Canadian jazz scene. It’s often overlooked, but there’s a lot of good stuff jammed in there, isn’t there?

Absolutely! After moving from Canada to the US in 2004, it didn’t take long for me to realize what I was missing. While there’s a rich and vibrant scene amongst all the generations there, my own generation in Toronto had been pushing forward it’s own musical ideals and agenda. While it would have been fun to have been there for the ride, the opportunity for me to transplant myself to New York presented itself and I have no regrets in taking in.

Among many of the amazing musicians in Canada, I’ll focus on the ones I had direct experiences with: drummer Barry Romberg has a variety of interesting projects and has a bold and creative drumming style; trumpeter Kevin Turcotte also has a variety of interesting projects and plays with incredible nuance.

My first encounter with your work was with Storytime’s The Tortoise. I really found it to be a journey to embark on, more than just a record you slap on. How does the recording of these chorales fit with what you’ve done on The Tortoise? Is there any continuity there or is this a “fresh start” entirely?

Thank you. To some ears there may be a sonic shift in terms of how Storytime, a 10-piece jazz/classical ensemble with drums, guitar and bass, will sound from a chamber quartet with soprano sax, trumpet, bass clarinet and tuba. But underneath those cosmetics is the same person striving for new ground from the same rooted place. So there’s bound to be different things happening but the methodology remains the same.

In the smaller picture, and since you’ve asked, I’ll share that the final two notes of the Storytime album match the starting two notes of the Chorales album. I’m on the fence as to whether this is good form or is a practice of over-thinking – it’s probably a combination of the two – but I feel it’s important to keep my eyes on the big and small picture.

Just to backtrack somewhat, what is Kickstarter and what does it mean to a young artist to have a resource like that available?

Kickstarter is game-changing resource for the entrepreneurial individual, be it musician, fashion designer, poet, etc… Anyone with an attractive, original idea and strong work ethic has access to a global venue to fund their project. I got to hang with Yancey Strickler, one of Kickstarter’s founders, and given what an interesting and kind person he is it’s easy to see why it’s become a roaring success. Anyone can submit and/or support a project at

With that in mind, how does today’s technological world influence your creative process? And the way you release albums?

For traditional composition, my creative process will likely remain the same regardless of technological progress. I compose by hearing something randomly from my head and then I work it out on the piano while writing it down on manuscript paper. But with all the technological advancements taking place, a new methodology has presented itself that facilitates new sounds and forms that are unrestricted by physical properties and limitations.

Composer (and a friend of mine) Will Redmond makes a relentless example of this concept, though I tend to take a softer approach. I see Canadian Composer Hugh Le Caine’s Dripsody (1955) and Hungarian-native György Ligeti’s Glissandi (1957) and Artikulation (1958) as monumental works in the advancement of electronic music. Though shortly after, Ligeti chose to return to acoustic-based music and created some of the most provocative music I’ve heard in my life, most notably Atmospheres (1961).

In terms of releasing music, I’ve been juggling several concepts for years. I don’t think any one person or record company has figured out the digital-release world yet, which on the positive side allows for experimentation and higher visibility for unsigned artists. But on the negative side there’s lots of room for failure.

Currently, my strategy is to release full-length albums as frequently as possible and to complement them with smaller single-track releases of a contrasting nature. As such, I’m about to release my first single “Trickle” for two classical acoustic guitars. It’s a stretch sonically from what I normally do and will likely be labeled as 20th century classical, akin to Steve Reich or Philip Glass. I wrote the piece in 2004, but it wasn’t until 2009 when I met Australian classical guitarist Rupert Boyd (c) that I knew I had found the right person for the job. He recorded both guitar parts in 2010 in an overdubbed studio performance and I’m delighted with his interpretation.

Another single in progress is “Limitations” for solo cello, composed for and performed by Israeli cellist Yoed Nir. He’s a fantastic musician who’s taken my piece to incredible heights.

What I didn’t realize is that the amount of work for a single-track release is almost the same for a full-length CD, so I might rethink my approach someday, but for now I’m going to rough it out.

Outside of the jazz and classical realms, who are some of your biggest musical influences?

Paul Simon is a major influence on me. He’s got an incredible voice, a subtle approach and very catchy, easy to follow compositional style, all without sacrificing any complexities within the forms and metaphors that he weaves underneath.

Heart has always been a favorite band of mine. They’ve got a hard-hitting yet passionate thing going on. And there’s no way anybody of any age, gender or political background could listen to “Barracuda” without feeling the need to air-guitar.

Jeff Buckley is an incredible talent and voice. His combination of passion, sensitivity and power are unique to him. “Hallelujah” made me a better person from his first breath.

Prince (or is it still “The Artist Formally Known as Prince?”) is completely unafraid to be himself. That, and his boldness and variety are things that I strive for everyday.

So with the creative process of the 31 chorales complete, is there a sense of relief? How did it go overall? Are you satisfied with the finished work?

Not even a second after I put my pencil down after the 31st chorale was complete I felt a huge wave of relief. But, at the risk of sounding cliche, I knew that in the big picture my work was just getting started.

I intentionally didn’t listen to the chorales for a few weeks after they were composed so that I could approach them with fresh, critical ears. As a composer, sometimes it’s easy to overlook the flaws in what I’ve created. Though I’m not presently a husband or father, I imagine this might be how some parents view their children. However, with composition the responsibility falls 100% on my shoulders to make the necessary adjustments.  But I’m delighted to say that I remain pleased with all 31 Chorales and only a few minor revisions were made prior to the recording session. A few compositional choices, like intentionally basing a melodic piece off of a non-melodic interval such as the tri-tone, may not be attempted again … or at least not for a while.

How did deadlines play a role in your creative process?

Duke Ellington said it best with “I don’t need time, I need a deadline”. I often struggled to find enough time to get all the work done with all the composing, note entry, blogging, fundraising… I even organized concerts in the middle of all this! I’ve since reconsidered how to balance my schedule should I encounter this many concurrent responsibilities in the future.

After the recording of this project, what’s on the horizon? Would you ever want to try something like this again?

Absolutely! I’ve got several other projects brewing including a modified string quartet with my soprano sax replacing second violin, a duo with classical guitar, jazz quartet, a duo with operatic soprano voice and several chamber pieces. All of which I’m composing for currently. Kickstarter would be an excellent launching pad for these projects, so hopefully they’ll approve the concept, and given the support for my 31 Chorales project I’m confident that there’ll be enough interested people out there to make a pledge. My blog will have more information over time about these projects.

You mentioned only getting about five hours or so of sleep a night during this project. How many double-doubles from Tim Hortons did you go through?

Ha – if only there were a Tim Hortons nearby! Last I heard there was one in Times Square, but that’s about a 30-minute subway ride for me from my house, or should i say “hoose”, as a Canadian.

While I managed to pull through the 31 days with limited sleep, I immediately had to switch gears to compose a Miniature Jazz Requiem for St. Peter’s Church in New York City. I only had seven days, and it took me about 80 hours to complete – afterwards I was out of commission for two days, and it took another month and a half to fully recover. That and the fact that December is one of the busiest months for musicians didn’t speed the process.

These experiences have enabled me to better estimate my compositional speed and endurance. I remain amazed at how much I’ve grown from the intensity of the work, so I’ll probably throw myself in the fire again in January 2012, which has historically been a slower month for me. Still lots of work being done in the meantime though.

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