Jazz in Siena

ItalyA visit to the jazz scene in Siena, Italy offers a view of music (and life) that is both expansive and intimate. 

By Guest Blogger Evan Vietorisz ’20 

Evan Vietorisz ’20, a guitarist and resident of Quincy House enrolled in the Harvard/NEC joint five-year AB/MM program for Jazz Performance and concentrating in Physics, was awarded an Artist Development Fellowship to attend the Siena Summer Jazz Workshop in Siena, Italy and the School for Improvisational Music Summer Workshop in Brooklyn, New York. He currently plays with the Harvard Jazz Band, an ensemble within the Undergraduate Combo Initiative, and the NEC Jazz Combo under the direction of Jason Moran. Vietorisz plans to pursue a career in music.

More to chew on than pizza
As I hauled my suitcase through the narrow, winding streets of Siena, Italy the evening before the Siena International Jazz Workshop was to begin, I paused to check that I was still on course for my apartment -- not that there was a conspicuous street sign to be found -- and to indulge in the vista provided by a break in the wall that surrounded the city. Perched atop a small mountain, Siena overlooks the Tuscan countryside in all directions, and as I went through the motions of checking my unhelpful map, my attention became

Evan and Arlo
Evan Vietorisz '20 and Arlo Sims '20 in Italy Photos courtesy the author.
fully directed at the picturesque scene before me, which as beginning to become bathed in the sunset.

My expectations for the workshop were, if anything, neutral. As was evidenced by the landscape in front of me -- as well as the sheer multiplicity of charming artisanal food shops and open-air happy hours to my left and right -- there was much to attract someone to Siena besides music. For this reason, I anticipated that the tone of the workshop would be rather relaxed, and that its classes would air on the side of standard, traditional practice. After all, for both students and teachers alike, the program likely represented at least a partial excuse to indulge in something of a vacation.

While this prediction was not, at least initially, incorrect, as the workshop began, I quickly noticed an intensity among the instructors and many of the students that pleased and surprised me. Neither the near-constant consumption of pizza and pasta nor the marked absence of anything resembling an air-conditioner seemed to dampen the energy in my classes and ensembles.

As the week progressed, I played and performed compositions that represented new challenges and new demands for my instrument and me. Many of them largely surpassed what I realized I had been expecting to find as a common musical ground in little old Siena. For one instructor,
Theo Bleckmann, I was given a part originally designed for Ben Monder, one of the most masterful guitarists active currently, which demanded certain chord textures and volume effects only possible on the guitar: a rare specimen in a music where guitarists often get a rushed photocopy of the pianist’s part. For another, Matt Mitchell, my ensemble and I had to quickly develop fluency in a series of angular, intricate phrases that functioned as scaffolding for free improvisation, some of which were in time signatures I had never explored before. (For the skeptical reader, ever played in 9/10? 23/32?)

This all to say that, as I capped my first week in the program with a performance of material that had exposed me to completely new colors, parameters, and challenges in music, I realized that amidst the surreal scenery and unlimited apertivos I had found myself interacting with new, difficult music that could have imbued even the dreariest place and group with energy and interest. My playing and thinking were broadening, and I was eager to continue to the program’s second week.

Letters to a young musician
One week into the jazz workshop, I was eager to begin studying with a new crop of ensemble and lesson instructors. The week before I had performed a variety of challenging pieces, and I was excited to see what my new teachers and peers would bring to our ensembles. In both we discussed what we would prepare during the week, and people brought forward ideas. Though all the suggestions seemed fine, it struck me that this second week’s material seemed significantly less challenging and outside of my regular playing, and I found myself -- out of mild disappointment and lingering exhaustion -- saddling up for what I imagined would be a more comfortable, less broadening week.

A view from the top of the central clocktower in 'Il Campo'
The view from the top of the central clocktower in Siena.
Though this was to an extent correct, it only was so tangibly. One afternoon after a rehearsal, my instructor -- a prominent saxophone player from New York -- and I were the last two packing our things. I recalled a comment I had overheard that morning in about his age, early forties, which had shocked me relative to how young he looked and how recently -- within a few years -- he had emerged in earnest as one of the biggest names in the New York scene.

Half in the interest of making small talk and half as a pointed question, I asked: “I heard today you’re in your forties; how did you get through all those years between finishing school and becoming such a big name?” Though he was quiet, he looked up from his things with a telling grin, indicating that he had something meaningful to say. “It’s about accepting that it’s a long arc to get to the place we’re all looking for. You can ask some of my former classmates teaching here right now; I wasn’t that good when I was coming out of school. Even through my late twenties and early thirties I was still disappointing myself. My level was just too low, and I would play sessions and gigs knowing that nobody would want to take my number afterwards. I had this book Letters to a Young Poet” -- his eyes actually began to get foggy -- “it was sort of my bible. It kept me in touch with what I love about music and allowed me to stay focused through years of negative feedback. Really this whole thing is about patience; there were plenty of great players in my class in college, but twenty years later I’m where I am because I was the last one standing.”

Never had I heard someone of such musical stature talk so openly about the experience of fighting his or her way to the top. I began to thank him for his candidness, and he calmly hushed me. “It’s just what I wish I’d heard at your age. I’m sure you’ll find yourself giving some kid the same spiel one day.”

Though our music was perhaps two or three times as easy that second week, I left thinking about music two or three times as differently.

Photos courtesy Evan Vietorisz '20.