Exploring the Bassoon’s Endless Potential with Dana Jessen

One thing that bassoonist Dana Jessen prides herself on is not feeling satisfied with the limitations of the instrument. A classically trained musician who forged her own path in contemporary music and improvisation, Jessen has enjoyed a wide-ranging career as a performer, teacher, and collaborator throughout North America and Europe. But the road to get there wasn’t always easy.

As a graduate student eager to expand beyond the boundaries of her classical training, she was frustrated to realize there were virtually no bassoonists pursuing a similar approach. At that point, “I truly felt that I had made the biggest mistake by not choosing another instrument, because there was nobody doing all the stuff that I wanted to do on the bassoon,” she said during a recent interview. So, how did Jessen eventually fulfill her artistic vision? She improvised.

Dana Jessen

Growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Jessen started playing the bassoon in fifth grade — earlier than most players. “I wanted to do something different from everyone else,” she said in an interview with Oberlin Conservatory Communications. “I thought it would be cool.”  Following a traditional route for a classical musician, she performed with youth orchestras throughout middle and high school. Then, in 2005 she earned a bachelor’s degree in bassoon performance from Louisiana State University. There, contemporary music piqued her curiosity, and soon her career ambitions began to change.

During her graduate studies at the New England Conservatory, she involved herself on her own time with the school’s contemporary improvisation department, frequently attending performances of free improv and similar styles. One of these concerts particularly inspired her due to the sheer passion of the performer’s playing. “There was this sort of visceral feeling they were evoking through their horn, like they were just putting their entire emotions and experiences into it in a really impactful way,” she said. “At that point I was like ‘Wow, that’s what I want to do.’”

Although the contemporary bassoon world has expanded greatly in the past ten to fifteen years, when Jessen graduated in 2007, both the dearth of compelling new repertoire for the bassoon and the lack of players she could look up to left her unsatisfied. Moreover, NEC’s classical studies department was less than enthusiastic about her decision to branch out. “They asked me, ‘Why are you wasting your time doing this kind of stuff?’ That was a dark moment in my artistic life.”

After graduation, Jessen took a year off to join the workforce, which reduced her involvement with music. However, after hearing good things about the improvisation scene in Amsterdam, she submitted a Fulbright proposal to study with bassoonist Alban Wesly. Her proposal was accepted, which she said was a “life-changing” turning point. “That totally flipped the switch for me.”

In Amsterdam, the thriving improvisation community welcomed her with open arms. She spent her first year studying with Wesly, a founding member of the Calefax Reed Quintet, who she said was “a huge supporter.” He started their first lesson by offering to improvise together, something none of Jessen’s teachers had ever done. “I felt like ‘Okay, I’m in the right place. He gets it, he understands.’”  

With the help of a Dutch government grant, she then spent another two years in the country participating in a program at ArtEZ University of Arts in the city of Arnhem. Her time there strengthened her commitment to pursuing improvisation. “None of my mentors there were bassoonists,” she said. “That was really beneficial for me, because they pushed me to explore my instrument beyond a bassoon player telling you to do this or that.”

That drive to dispel any preconceived notions about the instrument has become the core of Jessen’s musical mission. Though she treats her roles as a bassoonist and improviser equally, the unique characteristics of her instrument are critical to her work. In expanding her musical language, she gravitates towards the use of extended techniques — this can include multiphonics, making sounds using the double reed alone, and blowing air through the instrument, which creates a variety of percussive sounds. On her two solo albums, Carve (2017) and Winter Chapel (2020), she further broadened these sound worlds by involving electroacoustic elements. It’s clear that to Jessen, the possibilities are endless.

Jessen with Splinter Reeds

In addition to her improvisational work, Jessen is a frequent performer of contemporary classical music thanks to Splinter Reeds, the quintet she co-founded in 2013 with bass clarinetist Jeff Anderle. Praised for their “richness of color,” the San Francisco-based ensemble is one of only about 20 professional reed quintets worldwide. Committed to performing and commissioning new music, the group travels around the country for festival performances and institutional residencies — they have also released the albums Got Stung (2015) and Hypothetical Islands (2019). Although she and two other members moved away from the Bay Area not long after the group was founded, Jessen said that the distance is not an issue. “Since we’ve existed like that since the beginning, we have this way of working together that actually works very well.”

In 2014, Jessen became Oberlin Conservatory’s Director of Professional Development, a position she holds to this day. Though she generally keeps her musical activities and directorial responsibilities separate, her performing career is a positive influence on her students. “I’m able to relate to some of their worries and inquiries about performance,” she explained. “And I can be more transparent with students about my own experiences, which are very current — I understand what’s going on in the music world right now.”

Those two worlds combined further in 2018 when she assumed the added position of Associate Professor of Contemporary Music and Improvisation. The appointment was a “slowly growing phenomenon,” she explained, as multiple student groups had approached her over the years to coach their chamber ensembles. This new position made it easier for her to give coachings and also allowed her to conduct private readings. The first of those would later form the course proposal for “Approaches and Philosophies of Free Music,” a class which is now in its second year. “It’s been one of my favorite things to teach, and it’s been really rewarding,” she said.

When the pandemic hit, Jessen’s in-person performances stopped — a particular blow for her improvisation work, which thrives off of the energy of a live audience. However, thanks to projects recorded pre-pandemic, the past year saw the release of Winter Chapel described as “a remarkable album of disruptive beauty” — as well as her appearance on composer George Lewis’ portrait album Recombinant Trilogy. In the past two months, her projects have been slowly increasing, with an appearance at the virtual Meg Quigley Bassoon Symposium, a remote residency at Western Michigan University with Splinter Reeds, and a guest performance faculty position with the online 1:2:1 New Music Intensive.

Next up on her schedule is a duo improvisation performance with harpist Stephan Haluska at Cleveland’s Bop Stop on April 2. Though the concert will be live-streamed with no in-person audience, just being able to play together with another musician is exciting for Jessen. “This will be my very first in-person event since the pandemic, so it’s pretty exhilarating,” she said. “And Stephan is just phenomenal — he does some really beautiful work on the harp.”

As a well-rounded artist, Jessen knows the importance of finding inspiration outside of music, and lately she’s been finding that through books. “Part of what’s inspiring to me is the writing quality itself — it’s really beautiful and artistic,” she said, citing works by Carmen Maria Machado, Ursula Le Guin, and other female authors as some of her current favorites. Reading has been a grounding activity for her during the pandemic, particularly since reading the news in the morning has become increasingly stressful. “When I wake up and have my coffee, I’ll read my book, and I’ve found that’s a really nice way to start your day,” she said. “I think I’ll keep doing that even after the pandemic.”

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