Mimi Rabson does it all as a musician. She plays violin, and electric violin, in just about every style imaginable. She’s a professor at the Berklee College of Music and has written books on violin method and arranging for strings. To top it off, she’s a noted composer, again across a range of styles. You can hear two of her latest compositions on the recent album “The JCA Orchestra: Live At The Berklee Performance Center.” The JCA is the Boston-Based Jazz Composers Alliance, which has been commissioning and performing original work for more than 35 years. Rabson spoke with GBH All Things Considered host Arun Rath. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Arun Rath: First, tell us a bit more about the Jazz Composers Alliance.
Mimi Rabson: There have always been roughly four or five composers since 1985 until now. I'm the newest one. I've been in for five or six years. And I'm very honored to be part of this organization. It's a thrill, Arun, to have musicians of that caliber play your music. It's really just so exciting, and I'm so honored to be part of it.
Rath: Let's talk about this music. The first track on the album, which is the first of your two compositions on here — I'm just nuts about this. It's called "Romanople." The title gives a sense pretty much right away that you're mixing things up — that smashes together Rome and Constantinople?
Rabson: Right. Rome and Constantinople. So, Romanople. Yes. A few years back, I found myself reading "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," Edward Gibbons —
Rath: As you do.
Rabson: As you do, yes. And I just fell into it. Really, it was enveloping me for a while. And I was really fascinated by the idea that this empire had two capitals, two centers of its existence that were in two such different places culturally, Rome and Constantinople. And I started to think, well, what would that mean if you lived in the Roman Empire and you were connected in this strange political way, and yet, culturally, what could you possibly have in common?
So the piece begins in Constantinople with a little dance tune played by the violin. That is a hopeful little folk tune, what we call odd-metered, which is very characteristic of music in that part of Eastern Europe. It starts out with this happy little dance tune, and the dance tune travels. There's a tapan accompaniment, which is a Bulgarian drum. So it's just violin and drum, an orchestration that I've always loved.
Rath: We should mention that this is not you playing violin [on this album].
Rabson: That's right. This is Helen Sherrah-Davies playing the violin. And in fact, Sherrah-Davies is the reason that I was able to become a composer with the JCA. She and Vassilis Stoyanov are playing the opening on violin and tapan respectively. And the melody travels to Rome, where it encounters a typical Italian brass band — again, a joyous sort of occasion. The melody is transmuted into what it might be like if it were in an Italian brass band. But then, as always happens when the word "empire" is floating around — the melody is conscripted into the Roman army and is, you know, it's very awful scenes of war. And there is a terrible war, and everyone dies at the end except the little melody that dances off to its next incarnation.
Rath: Tell us about the high school outreach ensemble and the work that you do, basically [arranging and conducting] music for young people that's interesting and playable.
Rabson: I'm so excited to talk about this. There are a lot of wonderful string programs in public schools. They are wonderful. I came up in one. I'm very grateful for my training. But they are geared towards a particular Western European classical slot, and I am very interested in all of the other kinds of music as well. I love that Western European classical music. I played it all my life, and it's wonderful. I'm very grateful to have been able to partake in it. But there are so many other wonderful kinds of music as well. So all of my life, I have really worked hard to try to find other kinds of music that I could play and participate in.
I played klezmer music for a long time with the Klezmer Conservatory Band. I played a lot of Eastern European folk music for folk dancing. That's kind of what fueled my initial thematic idea in Romanopal. I've played jazz, I've played funk, I've played blues. There is just so much wonderful music out there. And I have had to, for the most part, make that journey by myself, because there's not typically a way to study this music.
As a faculty member at Berklee, since I've been there, I've had an ensemble called the Funkestra in which the students bring in the tunes that they're listening to for fun. And I say, “We're going to play these tunes. This is the stuff you listen to for fun when you're hanging around. If you were a guitar player, a drummer, that would be the music you would be playing. So that's what we're going to do.”
And we learn the music by ear. We don't write anything down. We learn it as a group. We do the group arrangements like a garage band. We translate all the sounds that we hear on the original recording into things that we can do on our string instruments. I include some improvizational elements so people can experiment with that. And it is a lot of fun. And I have a list of maybe 200 tunes that we've done since I started at Berkeley that really span the range of all kinds of, I guess we call it now, music of our time.
A few years ago, I started thinking that there should be a program like this for high school students too. By the time you get to college, you have other things on your mind. When you're in high school is a good time to be exploring. So with the support of Berklee, I was able to start the Berklee Really Eclectic Orchestra, and it is open to string players in the greater Boston area.
It's mostly aimed towards high school students. But I've had a number of adults come through as well, and some middle school students as well. And it's the same plan. The students pick the repertoire. I usually pick one or two things at the beginning of the semester, but then they pick the repertoire.
And Arun, this has been such a great way for me to hear what's out there. These are my students who bring me tunes that I never would have thought to listen to. I never would have heard of if it hadn't been for them. So it works. It's great for me to find new repertoire. And I think it's very helpful for them to see, “Oh, look, you can do this on your instrument.” Even though you don't play an instrument that's in this band, you can still do that. And I think it's a really freeing experience for everybody to be able to participate in the thing that appeals to you.
So BREO, Berklee's Really Eclectic. Orchestra. We meet on Friday evenings. We have been remote since the pandemic, but we meet on Friday evenings, and we're open to anyone who can get there.