Busted: Deanna Witkowski
Busted Halo talks with the jazz pianist-composer-vocalist about music and faith
I guess her influence on me hasn’t been a direct musical thing; I was just more amazed at her longevity and the breadth of the stylistic things she could do. Also the fact that she really fought for her music — I think that now there is this resurgence of interest in her — but while she was alive for a long time there was a lot of people seemingly getting more record deals and more success and so she formed her own record label. So she was a businesswoman too. And then when she was writing her sacred music, a lot of that was that she wanted stuff that the average person could sing. She started writing her first mass when she was teaching a music theory class at a Catholic high school in Pittsburgh and found that the kids were bored with the way she was teaching theory. So she started writing her first mass there to learn certain theory concepts. One of the things that I feel like I really try to do with my sacred music is that often, when I go to different churches, I work with music directors so they can take the congregational stuff I’ve written and introduce it to their choir or their congregation ahead of time, and try to get the people involved with singing as much as possible, so that it’s not just me coming in and doing my thing. It’s more of a unifying thing. Some of my pieces on the new CD were written for congregational singing. If you’re a music director you’re basically supposed to serve congregational song so that people can participate in that. Then there were other things that were definitely written for my group and that’s a different angle.
BH: We talk a lot at Busted Halo about making the connection between the sacred and the secular. Can you talk about why you don’t see a great wall between the sacred and the secular in terms of your own faith?
DW: I think for me, my experience with God comes from music and it is not necessarily music with any text in it. It can be when I’m sitting down and trying to compose something but more so when I’m playing with my small group like the trio or quartet and there is such intense listening going on since we have played together for years and years and years and years. That sort of sets the stage for moments when you are outside yourself. People don’t necessarily articulate that this is God’s presence coming through but for me it kind of is — it’s being in community and all working for one common thing which is to present music as purely as we can. For me it is similar to prayer when I am just trying to sit and listen to God. I think it is also because the thing that I have found more and more lately is that I love the guys in my band — we are just a community. So it is very much like church in a way.
When I’m doing the sacred music it’s easy because it all has text, so I’m really trying to think of ways to bring out the text — let’s say, like a mass setting or some kind of 19th century hymn text — and completely resetting it. That’s been a different experience, but I still feel like its God just having things come out in a different way. For example, for Protestants, I have one song on the CD of a hymn text called “Take My Life and Let It Be,” and everyone knows one tune that goes with that text — especially because many hymns are strophic (meaning every time you hear it there are regular four bar phrases and you know what’s coming.) I try and make it more unpredictable and in some way it makes people have a more emotional connection and a deeper connection with the music.
BH: I’m sure it’s near impossible to articulate but can you try to talk a little bit about those moments?
DW: I think sometimes there are things that are happening that everybody knows, like, for instance, this might not be a transcendant thing but I remember back in February my trio did a concert at my alma mater and some nights I’ll count off tempos that are totally, seemingly wrong, because I’m either tired or feeling adrenaline or whatever. That night we played the first cut on my CD and it was so slow, it was so slow that I thought it was going to fall apart. But what ended up happening was it was a completely different feel and it ended up making us stretch in different ways musically, and, after, my drummer said, “I felt like I was playing like Elvin Jones,” because we just all had to go in different directions. It opened it so that certain things happened that would not normally happen. Sometimes I feel the bassist or the drummer are being so supportive and I can go wherever I want and yet sometimes they do something that makes me do something and then all of a sudden we wind up with this “thing” that I could have never imagined. It is hard to describe and it doesn’t really last, and that’s the thing about music as opposed to painting because you can’t stand there and stare at it as time goes by.
BH: Can you talk about the parallels between moments like that on your spiritual journey and what brought you into the Catholic Church?
DW: Well for me the thing is that it’s all related to prayer. I was about to go on a weeklong silent retreat and I noticed when I go on these retreats I usually feel like I am experiencing God’s love in an intense way and almost in a physical way. This is part of the reason I became Catholic, because I never felt this growing up. I think it was just a divide between my brain and my soul. I knew God loves me and I knew God wants the best for me and of course I still struggle with these things but now, when I am in moments of prayer, I can look back and remember certain things. The second time I went on a silent retreat, the group of people I was with had a person who had drawn a chalk labyrinth. So I walked it a few times and there was this one day that I walked it and, on the way in, I felt like I should raise my hand. But my first thought was I am going to look stupid, but then I thought everyone is here for the same thing, so I just put my hand out and open. I had this thought or heard this thought that said, “Thank you Deanna, I will fill your hands.” I just started crying, and moments like that for me are just moments and they don’t last that long, but I know they are real and I know they are happening. It is intense and meaningful, and hopefully the challenge is to not have that be an isolated incident but to influence how I live and think. I like to read a lot and I don’t know exactly when it was, but it was about five or six years ago, I started to read all these books on prayer and most were written by Catholics and also some by mystics. I was reading Teresa of Ávila which I barely understand and St. John of the Cross.
BH: What attracted you to that?
DW: I don’t remember how I got into them in the beginning, but with Teresa of Ávila, there is this one taizé piece that uses just a small snippet of her text (which I can’t remember right now) and it was basically about not being afraid. I was looking, back in 2004 when I was commissioned by a women’s choir in Rochester, New York, to pick whatever I wanted. At first I was reading a bunch of Denise Levertov because I really like her poetry — she was actually a great American poet whose writing chronicled her spiritual journey in a way. She ended up becoming Christian and a lot of her stuff was about nature and finding God in nature — but I ended up using one of her poems for this commission, but in the meantime I was looking at all this other stuff and I remember looking at this taizé that set this Teresa of Ávila text and I got Interior Castle and I thought, this is very dense. In the book she describes prayer like the interior of a castle that has all these rooms and then you get to the center and you end up in union with God. I had been looking and came to that book because it was shorter as opposed to long prose, since I was looking for poetry more.
BH: Can you tell me a bit about your new CD, From This Place?
DW: The title track has a really specific story that I can remember. Back in 2007, I was asked to bring my quartet to a jazz vespers at St. Peter’s Church In New York, which is sort of unofficially known as being the “jazz church” — that is the only church in the whole country that I know of which has a jazz ministry. They have a music director just for the jazz ministry and a pastor just for the jazz ministry. I thought I would write something new for the day, and so I read through the lectionary readings and of course one of the readings was about Mary Magdalene going to the tomb, so I decided to focus on and meditate on what her emotional journey was like, from when she got up in the morning and had pictures in her head of the crucifixion and then going to the tomb and having the angels asking her why she was crying and actually having her respond — there is a whole section in there where she thinks, “Should I tell them this or this or this or this” — and then finally recognizing Christ and then running from there. So that was one of two pieces on there that I wrote the text as well as the music, and I think they go together on this one. It is sort of a big crescendo — like it starts out very dark and ends up at the moment when she recognizes Christ and there is this big explosion of freedom when it happens.
BH: Do you want to do another sacred record, or do you want to do something less inspired by sacred text?
DW: The project I have wanted to do for a while is a project of all Brazilian music and that is probably what is next, at least in my brain. When I was living in Chicago I worked with a jazz singer who did a lot of Brazilian stuff and, through that, when I moved here I studied with a Brazilian drummer for a couple of years. I got more and more into Brazilian culture and learned Portuguese and went to Brazil a couple of times and played, so it’s kind of a big part of my life so I want to do a project that reflects that.
The Deanna Witkowski Quartet will be performing in a sacred jazz double bill with Brenda Earle’s Sacred Voices Project on Thursday, September 10 at 8:30 p.m., at Cornelia Street Café in New York. Go to deannajazz.com or corneliastreetcafe.com for more information.
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