My summer with superheroes at Banff

by Artist Development Fellow

EDITOR'S NOTE 3/1/2013: Congratulations to Kevin Sun '14, winner in the jazz category of the third annual Vandoren Emerging Artist Competition. Sun will perform at the Music For All National Festival in Indianapolis, receive a cash prize, Vandoren products and a trip to Paris, including a visit to Vandoren’s headquarters, to meet influential woodwind designers and consultants.

Kevin Sun ’14 is a Winthrop House resident concentrating in English who was awarded an Artist Development Fellowship to attend the Banff International Workshop for Jazz and Creative Music this summer. A tenor saxophone player in the Harvard Jazz Bands, Sun has participated in numerous Office for the Arts' Jazz Master in Residence concerts, sharing the stage with acclaimed composer/instrumentalists Roy Haynes, Benny Golson, Brian Lynch and Don Braden '85, among others, and was featured as composer and performer with the Princeton University Jazz Composers Collective on the CD "Onwards." His post-graduate plans are to move to New York City to pursue a career as a jazz performer, composer, and educator.

As it turns out, I ended up in paradisiacal Banff, Alberta this summer—to study jazz and creative improvisation—because a website wouldn’t work.

Back in January, the great composer, improviser and pianist Vijay Iyer was at Harvard to rehearse and attend the premiere of his commissioned work for Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, which has been in residence on campus for some time now. It was at a post-concert reception at a dimly-lit Chinese restaurant in Central Square that Vijay recommended I apply to Banff, a three-week-long musicians’ hangout in Canada (Vijay’s slated to take over the position of director for the program next year). He mentioned that the application deadline had been extended to Friday (this was on Monday night) because of some issues with the Banff Centre’s website. When I went home late that evening, I took a shower, took a deep breath and started typing away at my computer like a man possessed, asking for recommendations, preparing a résumé and getting my audition tape together.

In the end, things turned out fine, aside from the hectic scramble to get everything together and figure out how to mail something to Canada and whether it was worth it to pay extra for next day shipping. (I didn’t bother.)

And now, I’m here! To give an idea of what it’s like working with the incredible faculty: It’s sort of like if you attended superhero school and were being taught by the Avengers, except that every week the Avengers would be replaced by other teams of superheroes, e.g., the X-Men, the Justice League and the like. That’s how alternately inspiring and frighteningly great the faculty here is; the "students," many of whom are professional musicians in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, are equally inspiring, but perhaps less intimidating.

There’s definitely something in the water here, and it’s not iron: I’ve composed more and better music than I have the entire past school year, I’ve felt more optimistic and engaged with improvisation and creative music than I have in years, and I’ve probably eaten my weight in cheesecake and gluten-free vanilla/chocolate/assorted mousse thanks to Vistas, the fabulous buffet dining room at the Centre. I’ve jogged up a mountain, been in my first steam room, been to my first pub and bought my first-ever round of drinks--the legal drinking age in Alberta is 18—performed on-stage with Vijay Iyer, had my original music premiered in a club setting, improved my ping-pong top spin considerably, jogged down a mountain, been more alert for wandering elk than ever before, learned the meaning of the Irish phrase "how’s the craic," and played more difficult music than I’ve ever played in my life—variously in 21/8, 13/8, and all time signatures not 4/4.

Above all else, my experience at Banff thus far has been liberating. The irony that this sort of an experience is happening to me in Canada isn’t lost on me, but I’m truly grateful to have had the opportunity to open my eyes to new approaches to improvisation and composition and to discard dated preconceptions about how music is to be played. Jazz and creative music are alive and well, and I’m looking forward to trying to make my little contribution to the artistic community in the years to come.

Follow Kevin Sun's Banff escapades on his blog, A Horizontal Search.

[Caption: Kevin Sun '14 jamming on his sax. Photo: Karen Xiao]

[Caption: Kevin Sun at Banff. Photo: Julien Colarossiintimidating.]