There's very little that Nick Jaina can't do. In addition to blowing our minds on a regular basis with his witty and wise blog posts here for Local Cut, he has his own brilliant musical career in full swing, including the August release of a brand new LP The Beanstalks That Have Brought Us Here Are Gone that features a variety of female voices (including Laura Gibson, Jolie Holland and Luzelena Mendoza) singing Jaina's songs.
When I ran into him at the Wooden Birds show on Friday at the Doug Fir Lounge, he surprised me with yet another facet of his polymath personality: he has composed the music for a series of ballets that are being performed in New York this year. Working with choreographer Kevin Draper and members of the New York City Ballet, Jaina and his Satellite Ensemble (that includes string players Nathan Langston and Amanda Lawrence) have created some gorgeous and emotionally-stirring instrumental backdrops to the onstage plies and arabesques.
Prior to the debut of these two new works this fall, Jaina is giving his fans in Portland a sneak preview of the music with a performance at the Alberta Rose Theatre this Thursday at 8 p.m. He and the Satellite Ensemble will perform the works "Progress" and "Epistasis", along with opening sets by Portland Opera's Hannah Penn accompanied by Trio Subtonic keyboardist Galen Clark, and Groovy Wallpaper, a group featuring Portland Cello Project member Skip Von Kuske.
To get Jaina on the record about this project, I caught up with him as he took a break from recording these works in the studio for this quick Q&A.
How did this project come to be?
My band played in this little town called Fremont, Michigan where we played in an art gallery that was a converted church. Because it was a small town with nothing much to do, we ended up hanging out there after hours and making up songs on piano. Kevin [Draper] who booked us there go the sense that night that we could do something like that. So about a year and a half ago, he sent me an e-mail saying that he wanted to produce this ballet and he wanted me to be the composer and musical director. I had never seen a ballet apart from the Nutcracker, but still I said yes. Since then Kevin has moved to New York, and happened to live across from a dancer with the New York City Ballet. So this whole thing kind of fell into place.
What kind of music did you end up writing for the ballet?
They wanted me because they wanted it to not sound like stuffy classical music. Basically they wanted "if Radiohead did a ballet" or something. From my perspective, the work is a more classical than anything I've ever done. If anyone in the classical world hears it, they think it sounds like indie rock; if anyone in the indie rock world hears it, they think it sounds classical. It's all instrumental - piano and strings - with a choral piece in the middle that we'll do a little bit of on Thursday that has lyrics and story.
What kind of story?
Kevin wrote these epic poems that dictated what everything was about in the ballet. So, I'm not really writing the lyrical content, I'm just the composer. The ballet has a loose sort of structure that follows the arc of a relationship. The middle part is based on a true story about a citizen astronaut in the '60s who wanted to parachute from higher up than anyone ever had. He talked people into giving him a space suit and flew up to 130,000 feet. He made three jumps and died from the third one. These are just signposts for the choral work about his life of trying to be an astronaut.
Was it challenging to try your hand at this kind of composing?
There's a benefit to not knowing what you should and shouldn't do. If someone says, "Write an indie rock song", I know that I can do this and I can't do this. For this, I didn't know what the rules are. You just write whatever you think works. I wanted this to sound sort of classical-ish but retain my own voice and have something in it that's moving to me. The second is more ambitious and modern and more dynamic. Most of the feedback I got...you think of ballet as being delicate and stuffy but all the notes I got were, "Make this crazier" or "find a way to push this to the extreme."
Do you have plans to do more work like this?
We're founding an arts collective and going through the fundraising and grants process, and trying to debut two new works a year. What we're doing on Thursday is a trilogy, the one we premiered last year, and the two new works for this year. We're talking about doing another ballet that's more of a story. I have this jazz opera that I wrote years ago about New Orleans that I'm hoping to stage. It's just a way to get funding to make these more ambitious works.