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In conversation with Jonathan Werk

I met Jonathan Werk earlier this year at the Global Musicians Workshop 2018, held at Depauw University’s Music School in the USA, home of the 21st century Musician Initiative. Imagine 67 musicians, plus members of the incredible Silk Road Ensemble, coming together, connecting, sharing, breaking boundaries and creating new things together, in a dedicated time and space for a whole week. I found myself floating within the most creative, truthful and spontaneous musical activity I had ever been a part of. And Jonathan, as a fellow woodwind player was so enthusiastic about improvisation and jamming that I couldn't really help but be completely infected by this passion to play!

1. A few words describing your mood and where you are writing this now. Sitting at my desk in my Montreal apartment, with a pile of reed shavings to the side of my computer. Headphones in, listening to French dance music collecting ideas for an upcoming gig, but every few minutes I have to pause the music because I get sucked right in and it pulls my focus away from the writing.

2. Describe your work. I am a freelancing multi-style oboist. I am classically trained, but I am also heavily involved in traditional music, of multiple styles, including celtic, klezmer, and little snippets of experience with music from other parts of the world. A few interesting examples? Playing background music at a medieval costume roleplay banquet, or playing improvised music from animated graphical scores, for oboe, violin, and harmonica. The curiosity and desire to explore other styles defines me more than any particular genre. I am especially interested in music for dancing - I frequently play for Contradance, English country dance, and Balfolk (french traditional dance). In addition to oboe, I also play some folk wind instruments, including tin whistle, bombarde, and didgeridoo. My regular performances consist of a lot of chamber music and contemporary music, and as much traditional dance music as I can fit in.

3. Rant for a bit about your style and describe the sound worlds you love to create

Somewhere in life, I discovered that I could choose what music to play, instead of having it dictated to me, and I've never looked back. Recently, a friend called me a "chameleon" for being able to blend with anything. But it's not just about matching colours, it's also about adding them to my palette for use in new ways. I explore unfamiliar styles of music and experiment with edge-effects as the genres intersect. For example, because contradance is a big part of my life, I often create music that is rooted in that tradition and would function for a contradance, but it expands and travels to a new place, perhaps with dissonant harmonies, or unusual ornamentation, or different rhythmic inflections, or a new expressive language, or classical architecture, all informed by my different influences, while the dance form serves as an anchor and unifying force. I love jamming – there’s something special about the art of spontaneous creation. It’s improvisation, but not just soloing; we make an environment where music is created as a group. I find it to be a very satisfying alternative to composition. Silkroad Global Musician’s Workshop, where we met, was an incredible opportunity to explore creating music through jamming. One special thing about it is that you don’t need a common repertoire to fall back on when playing with musicians from such different backgrounds, and the resulting musical exploration is a wonderful way to share ourselves with others.

4. What's in a typical day? Each day has its own schedule, and sometimes a flurry of rehearsals or gigs will take over, and parts of my day get displaced or compacted. Early morning, I wake up to do some light exercise, and some chores and errands. Mid-morning I'll do my first warm-up practice session of the day. If I don't have rehearsals, I will spend some time on desk work (includes reed making, e-mails, paperwork, writing music, etc) followed by a second session of practicing. In the evening I frequently have a rehearsal or a show or a fun activity like a jam session, and if I don't, I'll be catching up on something that got displaced by other activities during the day (which happens often)Occasionally, I'll end a day by tying a reed, so I'll have a new blank the following day.

5. Where could I find you practising/rehearsing and do you have a particular routine? I do most of my practicing in my apartment, and rehearsals happen all over town in various studios or at colleagues' homes.

6. Is your work influenced by larger global issues and if so, how is this expressed, and how would you like audiences to respond? I see global and societal issues and I want to find ways for my work to be force for positive change; however, it can be difficult to find relevance. I campaign to open peoples’ minds to peer beyond the musical bubble they currently exist in while hoping to address issues of inequality or xenophobia. I think that by championing social dance as a way of building communities and forging connections between individuals, I am responding to a societal need for less interpersonal isolation.

7. Tell us about a recent collaboration you’re proud of. One particular project that I'm proud of because it combined a few of my skill sets and interests was last winter when I recorded a few tracks to go on a singer-songwriter's CD. She was recording and producing the CD in Omaha, Nebraska; I wrote and recorded my parts for her from my home studio in Montreal. (Vintage Sepia, by Virginia Kathryn). I met Virginia at the Silkroad Global Musicians Workshop the previous summer and we were determined to work together despite the distance. A lot of the things that I want to do with music are still mostly unrealized. I hope that the best collaborations are still yet to come.

8. What do enjoy most about what you do? I enjoy most the feeling when my audience is touched by my musical contribution. I think of music as a gateway to someone's imagination, and I want them to have an imaginative experience that is more vivid and colourful than their daily life. When you play for dancers you get immediate feedback. When you are creating music on the spot with other musicians, you get immediate feedback. When you are performing to a quiet concert hall, you don't get that feedback - that doesn't mean they aren't engaged by the music, but you as a performer must put in some extra work to be certain that you are getting through to them.

9. Do you have any musical or life advice you would give to yourself this time five years ago, and that you would also like to share with young musicians? To myself: This path is right for you. Perservere. There are many other musicians like you; trust your instincts about the music you want to play, and you will find them.To others: The world of music is bigger than you know. It is bigger than your teacher knows. Don't let yourself be limited by artificially imposed boundaries. Explore new musical experiences with an open mind. Never be dismissive of music that is unfamiliar. 10. Who are your big 3 influences right now (musicians and/or non-musicians)? Louise Pellerin. She is an oboe professor in Switzerland who frequently teaches masterclasses in Quebec. She opened our minds with her creative teaching methods. She saw something in me that I hadn't seen yet (fantasy, imagination), and helped it emerge.Contradance music in general has been a big influence on me, through a number of different musicians. One in particular, Andrew VanNorstrand, has been responsible for more than a few of my lightbulb moments.Kristin Naigus ("Field of Reeds"). My first glimpse of a successful internet oboist. She has many cool recording projects and soundtrack covers. Currently, some of the top video game composers hire her as a soloist, as a result of the independent projects she has done. There are many brilliant oboists in the world, but the uniqueness of her work really inspired me when I first stumbled across it. While I could be fawning over recordings of world-famous oboists like Albrecht Mayer or Alex Klein (which I do, as well) Kristin Naigus’s work strikes a more personal note.

11. What are you continuing to learn as you develop as an artist? Every day I learn something new about playing the oboe or making reeds. Sometimes it's something that I already learned, but I learn to look at it in a new way. Every day I learn about new musicians whose work I admire and enjoy. As hard as I work to expand the sphere of my musical awareness, every day I become more and more aware just how much music there is that I have yet to encounter. 12. When you’re having a bad day/week/month, do you have any strategies you like to use personally, or people you like to turn to?

I occasionally hit streaks where I want to be a hermit and isolate myself from others. Take a walk. If it feels like I can't get out of my house, then I know that I will feel better if I do.My roommate had a picture up on the wall with the following quote: "When you're solitary be not idle; when you're idle, be not solitary" and I need that reminder sometimes.

13. What other hats during the week, if any? Sometimes I write arrangements and transcriptions of music on commission. I frequently volunteer in our local contradance group as an organizer, caller, and sound engineer. I currently do very little private teaching, but sometimes I perform in settings where I am acting as a mentor to other musicians.

14. How have you used social media in the past to invite audiences to explore your work? I am overdue to make either a facebook artist profile or an instagram or something similar. I have an active youtube channel with a big mix of things going up. Some of it is my own work, and some of it is videos of activities I am involved in.One of my concerns: a lot of social media posting is "look at me" and I don't like the idea of asking for attention so blatantly and transparently. I am hesitating because while I do want to share with others, I don't really want to bear the mantle of an attention-seeker. 15. When’s your next performance and how can we hear more about your work? I have a few dance performances coming up, Balfolk, Ceilidh, and a contradance, and playing an orchestra concert of film music. I will be performing in a concert of contemporary music, playing a graphical composition featuring oboe, violin, and harmonica. I occasionally post videos of my own musical creations on youtube (channel: OboeJdub). I recently posted a video of some irish jigs featuring multi-tracked oboe, foot percussion and some didgeridoo.

Photo credit: Backwards march at Klezkanada 2017. By David Weigens.

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