On this week’s episode of Working, Isaac Butler spoke with Grammy-nominated jazz composer and arranger Miho Hazama. They discussed how the Japanese-born classical composer shifted her musical interests to jazz big bands, how she handles creative block, and what’s involved in “orchestrating” other people’s music. This partial transcript of their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Isaac Butler: You compose for your 13-piece big band using the piano, so when you’re writing for the saxophone player, you’re not picking up your own saxophone, and so on?
Miho Hazama: Correct.
How did you learn how to compose for instruments you don’t play?
I grew up learning classical piano, classical composition, and electric organ. An electric organ is something like a synthesizer in that you can play everything with keys and foot pedals. As a kid I learned to play symphonic music by myself. This melody is played by strings, so I’m going to program my right hand with the string sound. I’m going to program my left hand as the accompanying strings, plus brass, tuba, and contrabass. So without any score-reading education, I naturally got that orchestration sense by playing electric organ since I was 5 years old.
You do a lot of work as an arranger. Can you say a little more about what being an arranger entails?
Arranging jobs are very different from commissioned compositions. The original music already exists, and the client wants me to change it in a particular way. As an arranger, you’re following someone else’s instructions. I often get jobs to orchestrate things. Let’s say the writer sends me a piano chart with just a melody and a piano line, and then he wants me to change that into a piece for the orchestra. My job is to make parts so that the entire orchestra can read and then play the music without any questions.
So sometimes a client is just sending you the melody and you flesh everything out from that?
Yes. Or just a voicemail recording. They want to make sure it’s playable for the rest of the band.
They’ll literally call you and leave a voicemail where they scat-sing the melody, and you have to turn that into a fully fleshed-out piece of music?
Exactly. I’ll always remember one crazy gig. My boss was a free-jazz pianist back in Japan, Yosuke Yamashita. This was my very first gig, when I was around 20 years old. He asked me to orchestrate his piano concerto. That’s a big gig, and I was very nervous. But the first movement was really cool. He sent me a very specific chart with piano solo parts and a condensed score for the orchestra, and I was like, “OK, that’s cool.”
The second movement was a lead sheet with the melody and a chord progression. It was a beautiful ballad, and that was totally cool as well. The problem was when the third movement came. First of all, the sketch was not on the staves—there were no musical notes on paper. Instead, there were some notes saying something like, “There are three cats playing together.” OK! Next section: “Some weird monster, like a snake, walking around you.” The next one: “Another brassy monster coming toward you.” And the next section, “You are released in the middle of nowhere, in space, wondering what the heck I am doing.“
And was his expectation that you would turn that into normal sheet music?
Yes! Fortunately, the next day he sent some musical ideas. This could be a snake theme, this could be a cat theme, this could be a space theme. Basically, I had to create something new for the entire orchestra, and also for him as the pianist, to perform a third movement. We called this process a trip to each other’s brain, because I had to do to predict what was going on in his head.
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