Living a musical life: Beating the drum with Jesse Stewart

Jesse Stewart in action. Photo: Hasi Eldib

When Jesse Stewart says he’s got a few things on the go, you have to choke back a chuckle at the understatement. The guy has TONS on the go.

He’s a music professor at Carleton and an adjunct visual arts professor at uOttawa. He is a busy performer who is involved in several different ventures including Stretch Orchestra with the youngest and “tallest” of the legendary Dave Brubeck’s sons, Matt, and Kevin Breit. He’s also in a trio with the New York bassist William Parker and baritone saxophonist David Mott. He works regularly with the Ottawa Dance Directive and Propeller Dance. And he’s an in-demand solo performer. Take a deep breath now and contemplate that list because there is more. He’s a composer, an instrument maker, a technological innovator, a trained sculptor, a visual and sound artist and a writer.

A lot of Stewart’s music would be classified as jazz, he says, but really what does that mean. He pretty much has exploded that category. So where do you start when you want to tackle his musical profile. Let Jesse decide.

He started with dance.

“I have been doing a fair bit of work with a couple of dance groups, one is Propeller Dance,” he said in an interview.

He created the music for the company’s first full-length dance called Living the (un)Desirable Life performed last June at GCTC. He’s done other pieces with them.

He performed live in this work. “It’s helpful. If a section runs little longer I can adjust and it doesn’t need to be as tightly scripted.”

It is in this work that Stewart also shows his technological skill and innovation. One of pieces he created for Propeller combined electronics and acoustic percussion. He ran some software on iPads that he had positioned “in space. This is software that some friends and I have been developing that translates movement into sound.

“Part of music was generated by the movement of the dancers in the space. Then I added some water phone, some singing bowls.

In another piece the instrument was a wheelchair “which,” he says, “is a challenge to come up with interesting material for 30 minutes.

It was mostly percussive, he said. At one point he took the wheels off and spun them. He also held them in one hand and played the spokes with a bow. It created an ethereal sound, he says.

With the Ottawa Dance Directive, he has played a single snare drum and he has employed multiple turntables in another piece.

“Each dance piece is very different. Yvonne (Coutts, the artistic director of ODD) and I are working on one now where I play an instrument made of stone.

“It’s like a marimba. I built it 20 years ago now. It’s unlike a regular marimba because its microtonal. Instead of 12 tones per octave, like a piano, it has 48 tones per octave. I typically select out a subset of pitches to approximate a tuning.”

Stewart is not just banging on rocks to make noise though. He is thoughtful in his music.

He started, he says, with a metal pail and “pots and pans and stuff like that. I still do that from time to time. Then I got a drum set and that’s what I consider home base musically speaking.

“But a lot of what I do has been about sonic exploration. I have extended that sensibility into working with found objects like stone and ice, canoe paddles, saw blades” whatever catches his fancy including “digital controllers.”

A big area of focus for Stewart now, he says, is doing what some people have described as community music.

That means making music in an inclusive way.

“It means inviting an audience to participate with me. I’ve done a lot of work with people who have never played music before or who have various forms of disability. These days that is where most of my time and energy goes.”

This summer he spent time in Kansas working with a group of musicians with various physical disabilities.

“It’s something I really enjoy doing. I would say I have tried to have a somewhat unified approach within a diverse field of activity.”

He knows that the arts can be health giving. Last year, Stewart was involved in a project where he made music with a group of seniors with Alzheimers and other forms of dementia. Twice a week they made music together then they did a performance at National Arts Centre.

“That was one of the most beautiful experiences of my career.”

Teaching is an extension of community, he believes.

At Carleton, he was hired to teach composition but his subject list has grown.

“I also teach jazz history and a course called music and social justice. I teach another course in music and visual culture. We talk about the connections between painting and sculpture and music historically. And we talk about things such as synesthesia which is defined as a mixing of senses, one of most common is associating colours with numbers and letters or a musical note.

Many composers and musicians have had that form of synthesis, Stewart says. One of most famous was the French composer and organist Olivier Messiaen. One of my mentors, the jazz drummer Elvin Jones had it too.

The medical community has historically framed this condition as a neurological disorder but increasingly people are recognizing it as a creative gift, Stewart says.

One thing he has just started to teach is drumming at Carleton.

“A couple of years ago, I was approached by young woman who was a drummer and she said she was thinking about coming to Carleton if I could teach her the drums. It was not something I had done at Carleton before. I agreed to it.” The young woman enrolled and has three years to go.

Stewart grew up in Oshawa, Ontario where one of his grandfathers worked for company that made windshields for GM cars.

In a way, the fabricator in Jesse Stewart makes some sense when you know this about his relative.

One of the bigger surprises, though, is the fact that someone so well known for making music is an adjunct professor of visual art at uOttawa.

“My training was in sculpture, including in stone sculpture, as well as in sound art.”

In fact when the new Ottawa Art Gallery opens (expected in December), he will have a piece in their inaugural group exhibition.

It will be a video piece, he says, in which sound figures prominently. He’s also got a place in what will be called the Firestone Reverb series. He will be first person to do one of those when the gallery reopens.

It’s early days, he says, “but I’m thinking I will work with selected pieces of the Group of Seven with a musical component.”

Stewart is in a unique position to gauge the music scene in Ottawa. He’s definitely bullish.

“I’ve been here nine years and the overall level of musicianship is higher today. We definitely see that at Carleton among the  students coming and graduating. There is a greater diversity of things going on that is uniformly of a higher calibre.

“There is so much happening here and people don’t know it.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.