Scene at Berklee: Billy Childs and Kenny Werner

The two decorated composers talked about their different approaches to creativity and debated which chord sounds the most like hope.

March 2, 2020

Scene at Berklee presents snapshots and stories from the hundreds of clinics, workshops, performances, and other events that take place in our community year-round.

A recent master class with Grammy-winning jazz composer Billy Childs and fellow composer Kenny Werner, director of the Effortless Mastery Institute, showed in very clear terms that there is not just one way to handle the creative process.

Werner, for example, practices what he calls “random composition,” where he creates ideas without thinking too much about how they fit together, because, as he put it, “They’re all related because they came from the same first idea.” Childs, on the other hand, said, “I approach things very methodically,” comparing his process to chipping little pieces away slowly until the composition reveals itself. Werner wants to avoid anything that can feel laborious, saying, “If it starts to feel like a grind, I walk away.” “Sometimes I like the grind, the battle,” Childs immediately countered. In either method, both composers are working toward the shared goal of creating stories for the listener to inhabit. 

I think of music as a catalyst to make someone imagine an experience.

—Billy Childs, Ken Pullig Visiting Scholar in Jazz Studies

Childs, who has been on campus monthly to work with students as the inaugural Ken Pullig Visiting Scholar in Jazz Studies for the Harmony and Jazz Composition Department, spoke at length about music’s relationship to storytelling. “I think of music as a catalyst to make someone imagine an experience,” he said. But he also pointed out that everyone has their own story, that “the words love and hate can mean different things to different people.” The two composers teased this idea out, saying there are many ways to write music that would evoke the feeling of autumn, or the sensation of hope. “What chord equals hope?” Childs asked. And while most of their discussion revolved around how there isn’t just one right way to create, Werner thought about the question for three seconds, then offered definitively: “A sus-2 chord with a third underneath.”

Learn more: Develop diverse strategies for contemporary jazz composition in the Bachelor of Music in Jazz Composition program, studying with the likes of Childs, Werner, and a host of other faculty and composers at the top of their field.

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