Tomorrow, on Saturday, March 9th, The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens will be hosting a Garden Concert featuring HEAR in NOW - a collaborative trio performing mostly original, jazz-laden, avant-classical compositions. The group consists of Mazz Swift on violin and vocals, Silvia Bolognesi on double bass and Tomeka Reid on cello. These three women, each wildly accomplished in their own right, come together to create and perform rule-breaking and genre-bending musical art. This is a show you won't want to miss! (find details about the event at the end of the article)
In anticipation of the concert, we chatted with Mazz Swift (also known as MazzMuse or MizMazz) and learned about her personal musical journey, what motivates her as an improvisational artist, the origins and development of HEAR in NOW, and why it's important to her to take on the responsibility of "shifting the focus" in classical music as a person of African descent.
Thank you for taking the time to chat with us! Please introduce yourself to the readers...
My name is Mazz Swift, and I'm a violinist, composer, singer and conductor. I'm a born and raised New Yorker, having grown up in Queens, and residing now in Brooklyn. I'm a classically trained violinist, having attended the Juilliard School of Music, but my interests have really brought me to many types of music. At some point in my development, I found myself very interested in discovering all the ways the violin has been used in the history of music, and am also still looking for new ways of incorporating the violin into everyday life for everyday people.
You have such a unique style. Beyond your classical Julliard training as a violinist, you're known for blending many genres of music including (but not limited to) classical, folk, jazz, rock and electronic. What inspires your one of a kind style blend and will you speak to the nature of working across and in between genres?
Good question! As I've sort of eluded to above, the violin (and instruments like it) are rather ubiquitous around the globe and through time - that's a real inspiration for me. As an instrument that I am very deeply connected to, the violin (and really MUSIC) acts as a portal: bringing me to a better understanding of the world around me. I've been able to collaborate with people and have music be the only common language between us (as was the case with the Hungarian gypsies I worked with in Budapest), been able to play the pain, longing and joy with musicians who hail from Ireland, Scotland and Cape Breton, party the Blues with musicians from New Orleans, explore the familiarities and differences between my own scales and embellishment and those of Indian classical musicians, and sit with musicians in the deep southern bush of Senegal and exchange rhythmic and melodic ideas with local musicians. Basically, music simultaneously brings me closer to others and closer to myself in a way that I am profoundly moved and humbled by, and for which I am always so grateful.
What goes through your mind when putting together different types of sounds and ideas? Do you follow a specific process or are you lead to follow a more free form and experimental method?
I am quite improvisational and experimental by nature but I do somewhat have a definable creative process, haha... It often begins with an idea. A notion. Sometimes the notion is mine (these things begin almost subconsciously and take a while to bubble up to the surface) and sometimes the notion is someone else's - they contact me and tell me their idea and then I brood on it for a while before even dreaming up a note. Then, several rounds of improvisation and transcription take place and then I start fleshing out the ideas. It's a bit like I write linearly - melodies and rhythms - first (sometimes I come up with a form but often I just freestyle it) and then I write vertically - harmony and counterpoint. Lately I've been leaving spaces open for the players to freely improvise. Or in the case where I am conducting, I leave space for conduction (Butch Morris's system of conducted improvisation, where a group of musicians is led by a conductor using a series of hand signals and gestures to create a cohesive improvised piece of music). I like to toggle back and forth between scripted, structured pre-crafted music and open, structured, crafted-in-the-moment music!
Are there any interesting dynamics to being an African-American violinist who includes Classical music in her repertoire?
I hope that the days are nearly gone where people find me to be an oddity. Perhaps it's more a hope than a truth. That said, I've been thinking a lot about composers and violinists of African descent: Florence Price (the first African American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer), Margaret Bonds (who set the beautiful words of poet Langston Hughes to music); HT Burleigh (African American composer who wrote for violin and was also one of the first to write down and arrange many so-called "Negro Spirituals" for choirs and opera singers, making it possible for people across the states to hear and know this music on a larger scale; and who befriended Antonin Dvorak and turned him on to the music of the enslaved and recently "freed" African American peoples, inspiring the New World Symphony and American String Quartet, among other pieces); Samuel Bridgetower, Afro-European friend to Beethoven who apparently stole Beethoven's girl and thus lost the dedication to him (or so the story goes) of the sonata that we now know and revere as the Kreisler Sonata; Coleridge Taylor Perkinson (who in the late 1970s wrote the incredible and way underplayed - in my opinion - "Blue/s Forms for Solo Violin") and was named after the British composer (also of African descent) Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who, in 1909, wrote one of my favorite ballads for violin and piano of all time (Ballade in C minor); Eddie South, who was a classical violinist who traveled to Hungary (like myself) and found so much in common with the gypsies he met and played with, that he incorporated that sound into his classical sound, along with this new thing that was budding in America called "Jazz"... I bring these people up to say that for as long as there has been what we know to be as "classical" music, you can bet there have been people of African descent playing it - we just don't know about them because history is written by the "conquerors". So part of my function, I feel, is to remind people that I am not actually unusual. I'm actually here to make visible what is there but just can't be seen. Like a Titus Kaphar painting, I'm here to "shift the focus".
Will you speak a bit about your electrical violin/loop pedal/singing performance abilities? How did that develop?
Well... I had just come out a long and wonderful collaboration with a dear friend (Brad Hammonds who now tours with his amazing brass band "Brass Against") - we had been drifting apart musically for a little while, I wanted to get more experimental, he wanted to go more mainstream. The tension of that made me kind of wary of collaboration but I wanted to make new music with more than the instrument in my hands and my voice - so I started experimenting with the looper. It became fodder for all the music I eventually brought to my rock band, MazzMuse, who I still perform with today. The simple setup I had really took me through 10 good years of exploration and music making! But the past couple of years I've been feeling like I want to explore further - with slightly more versatile (and admittedly more complicated) electronics - but also to get back to the violin in its "natural" form.
You've traveled around the planet as a Cultural Ambassador for the US Department of State. How did that experience impact you? What were some of the memorable moments from that experience?
Meeting people from other cultures, finding out what life is like for them on a daily basis, how they think about and make music, sharing in conversation and in musical exchange; all of it opened me up in a way that I will never truly be able to express in words. It is a profound thing to do and I'm lucky enough to have been able to do it. I encourage all who are interested in this kind of work to look for the avenues - they're out there. It's the stuff of healing.
You will be performing this weekend on March 9th at The Cummer with your trio, Hear in Now, along with Cellist and Composer, Tomeka Reid and Double Bassist, Silvia Bolognesi. Tell us the history of the trio - where and how did you meet and decide to collaborate? What's the story behind the name?
It's actually a pretty funny story how we came together - I like to say we are the NSync of the Improv world. [laughs] We were put together by an Italian promoter for a festival of women in jazz, WomaJazz in the north of Italy, who was looking for a band to headline the festival. He had seen each of us in different projects over the years at various festivals and thought it'd be great to bring us together. It turns out it was: We will be celebrating our 10-year anniversary at the end of this year! So, I flew in to Milan the day before the gig and jumped on a train to Modena, where Silvia picked me up and drove me to the little town where we were to play, Salsomaggiore Terme. We had never met but I think we were cautiously optimistic about each other as we chatted in the car. We went straight to the concert space and decided to play a little together, just some improv as a way of getting to know each other, then we ate dinner. Tomeka who was pursuing her doctorate at the time had, I believe, less than 24 hours free to be in Italy for the concert. She flew in the next day, on the day of the performance, (which also happened to be her birthday!), we went over some loose forms as a trio before the show, did the show with much improvisation and noise making (ie had a rocking good time) and then stayed up in her room afterwards listening to a recording of the show. It wasn't til that point that we realized we really had something. Our music made us chuckle when we listened back, and we all had had such a blast. So we decided to get together in January in New York City - they both flew in (Silvia from Tuscany, Tomeka from Chicago), we recorded a bunch and performed and then made a plan for the next time we would see each other... It is a long distance affair that is still going on 'til this day. Regarding the name, at that second meeting of us, we wanted something that reflected our improvisational nature. It really just kind of stuck before we could consider many other options, haha.
What's next for you?
There are some big things in the works that I can't officially announce yet but I encourage folks to get and stay in touch via social media (I'm @MazzMuse everywhere). But I can tell you that I'm working on a large scale work to be unveiled next year as well as a multi-year project that will include reimagined and original slave songs, freedom songs, songs of protest and songs of redemption - music for solo violin and that new electronic setup I referenced earlier.
What have you learned about yourself through your work and your art?
Hmm. Well I've certainly learned how to trust - improvisation is not for the meek, everything feels like a lie if it isn't done with intention, but it's so scary to get up and just GO, you know? I've learned how to listen. I've learned about personal power and about how to wield it responsibly. I've learned that people are more vulnerable than I think, that we are all fiercely protecting our soft spots. I've learned chosen family is a blessing and is also 100% necessary. I've learned that the practice of making a list on 4 or 5 things you are thankful for every single night is profoundly life changing. I've learned that I'm learning all the time... This is just where my mind is right now. Ask me tomorrow and you'll likely get a completely different answer!
See Mazz Swift and HEAR in NOW on Saturday, March 9th at The Cummer Museum. Click here for details.
We'd like to thank Mazz for her participation in this interview. We'd also like to thank you for reading.
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