Jesse Quebbeman-Turley is a drummer — when he enrolled in college and began his jazz studies major, his stated goal was “to play drums professionally.” What he didn’t expect was to become a composer. “Drummers don’t write songs” he laughs. “Composers are serious people, and I’m a drummer.” But since embracing his desire for composing, he hasn’t stopped.
Quebbeman-Turley has been drumming since he was 10 years old, when he began playing around on the set in his sister’s punk band. Then, after years of his begging, his parents bought him a drum set and signed him up for formal lessons. With a mother who studied music education and a father who studied piano performance, music was naturally a big part of his upbringing. “I’ve known I wanted to study music since I was 16,” says the drummer.” He played in concert band and jazz band at Timpview High School and also played in rock bands on the side. When he enrolled at BYU he was very focused on jazz drumming. He thought that was going to be his life. But somewhere deep in his subconscious was a dream to compose. “I knew a little bit about music theory, but I was intimidated by it,” he admits. “The idealization of the composer scared me.” He learned some basic skills for composition through his required courses and started writing some nonsensical jazz tunes. When he began private composition lessons with his professor, Christian Asplund, he started to realize maybe he could do this. Five months later, he wrote his first opera.
“Parking Lot for Hyacinths is about a city planner who’s trying to return the world to its natural state – kind of,” explains Quebbeman-Turley. He and friend Logan Hone wrote the music, auditioned singers and performed it, all within three months. They wrote the opera under the name of a company Quebbeman-Turley organized (along with Hone and Luke Swensen) specifically for that production: Deseret Experimental Opera Company. What is experimental opera? “It’s an open-ended term,” Hone explains. “There’s a sound element, a visual element, and a text. So some form or combination of those three, to us, is experimental opera.” It was performed in 2013 on August 9 and 10 in the Nelke Theatre at BYU. Both nights sold out. “After that I was like, ‘OK, I guess I can compose,’” Quebbeman-Turley says. “I’d written art songs, but this was definitely my first substantial piece.” With a newfound confidence for composing, Jesse Quebbeman-Turley’s ideas of what he could do with music reached beyond his stated goal of “playing drums professionally.” Operas became a passion for him. But one thing he knew for sure: he was no longer interested in writing a stage opera.
Taking the idea of “experimental opera” to heart, Quebbeman-Turley presented his second opera one week later, on his birthday. Based on an American folk tale, Why We Work was performed on bicycles. And if you wanted to see it, you had to follow the performers around on your own bicycle. “I was really interested in the sounds of the bike,” he says. “We had percussion instruments strapped to the bikes and we were drumming on the bikes.” He and Logan Hone actually rode a tandem bike. “So I found out if you ride a tandem, the person on the back can play an accordion,” he laughs. So he pedaled while Hone played the accordion. The performers followed a route in Provo by Day’s Market, and when the short opera ended, the ensemble picked up the next shift of audience members and did it again. It was so much fun he decided to make it a birthday tradition. “The reason I like to do the bike opera again and again is because it ends up being a pretty authentic representation of where I’m at musically,” he explains. “I write it really quickly and we learn it very fast; I can’t overthink it. That’s a thing that I like to do that a lot of composers don’t.” It makes sense that a jazz drummer turned composer would want to experiment with spontaneity and improvisation; to put stuff together really fast, if not on the spot.
New and experimental music can be heady sometimes, but Quebbeman-Turley and the Deseret Experimental Opera Company aren’t interested in being overly intellectual and harsh; they really want people to like what they do. He and his community of collaborators are interested in classical music being performed within the apparatus that usually supports indie or pop music. “I’m in several indie pop bands and a lot of those people are also in my new music ensembles. We perform these experimental operas at places like Kilby Court and we write new music that is more song-length rather than 45-minute new music pieces,” he says.
Exactly one year after his first opera, he experimented with another concept. For him, the stage opera was a logistical nightmare, but he envisioned an entire house with people performing chamber pieces in three acts in separate rooms. Throw in visual artists creating work and installations for the audience to interact with and logistics get exponentially more complicated. For this opera, Quebbeman-Turley collaborated with Natalie Wood, a visual artist. They called it The Museum Of. It was inspired by many things, but a large part of the visual component came from a visit they made to a museum in Los Angeles called the Museum of Jurassic Technology. “You’re not sure if anything in it is real or not,” says Quebbeman-Turley. “The goal is to invite the muses and inspire creative thought rather than portray accurate information.” Wood explains how the concept for the opera came about: “The initial idea was Jesse’s. He wanted to write an opera that was stretched across a gallery environment, where the audience members could experience the opera at their own pace, walking through how they pleased. It was both exciting and nerve-wracking because we were both stepping into unknown territory and we were uncertain if it would be a giant failure. But Jesse isn’t afraid of unknown territory. I think he really loves being in those kinds of places.”
The “gallery environment” was actually Wood’s house. Quebbeman-Turley composed chamber pieces for each room. All three acts were 40 minutes with a 10 minute break. “Everyone was on the same clock and the pieces were timed to end at the same time a piece upstairs would start, and then some pieces started simultaneously,” he explains. “After the first act, people would switch rooms and then we’d start the second act with different pieces happening in different rooms. The third act, however, was just one long piece.” This “choose your own adventure” concept meant there was no way the audience would be able to see the entire opera, but that was of little importance. Quebbeman-Turley assembled a core group of musical performers that included his close friends, his BYU professor and mentor Christian Asplund, who played the viola, Laura Candland who sang, Nick Foster and Jason Rabb (collaborators from Salt Lake City) as well as others. “There was a lot of counterpoint – putting pieces up against each other, and playing off the spatial elements of the house,” says Quebbeman-Turley. “For some people it was an uncomfortable infiltration of a domestic space. There were no signs that said ‘Don’t come in.’ People would walk into the kitchen to hear the performers, but for some reason, no one would walk into the bathroom. The norms for the uses of the space and how that affected people was interesting.”
The libretto for The Museum Of was based on the personal belongings of an individual, and they used the same material as inspiration for the artists who would collaborate on this project. “We decided that the opera would be based off a single person’s life and that Jesse and I would investigate that person and provide photographs and documents for the artists to create work,” Natalie Wood explains. “I had a friend volunteer to be the subject so I went into her room and dug through all her personal belongings. I took photographs, scanned letters, cards, and journal entries. The documents were delivered to each artist and they had to create proposals for artwork based on her life. They were given full liberty to stretch the truth, fill in the gaps, insert themselves into the picture, etc.” They ended up with paintings, photo collages, installations, artifacts, collections and a sewing piece that required audience interaction. The artwork established the space as a museum and the audience would interact with it while no music was playing. The documents the artists used as inspiration were printed in a program that each guest received explaining the source of the artwork. The concept seems esoteric, but 100 people attended the performance last August—and that was capacity.
The operas are big projects, but Quebbeman-Turley has dozens of other projects in the works. Trying to pinpoint “what’s next” is near impossible because he likes to keep busy. He makes his money by playing jazz and pop drums. But to say “when he’s not doing this, he’s doing this” seems inaccurate because his goals and his projects are integrated — no matter how disparate they seem. Right now he’s composing, producing an indie album, and scoring a short film with another collaborator. He plays with Synthesis (BYU’s jazz band), along with several independent jazz and pop bands in Provo and Salt Lake City. He sees everything he does as being very integrated. “I’ll get so inspired by someone that I’ll want to put a band together or write a piece for them. I believe you are what you eat, musically. I listen a lot and I focus on finding what’s compelling to me. I’m always trying to find new things; I’m asking my friends what they’re listening to – that’s the stuff that’s rattling around my head. And then there’s the music I’m playing.”
Quebbeman-Turley can say one of his latest ventures will be realized at 12 Minutes Max at the Salt Lake City Library on Jan. 18th. He’ll perform a series of drum set solos that he commissioned some of his friends to write (Jason Rabb, Nathan Witham and maybe Stuart Wheeler). “There are very few – if any good composed drum set solos,” he says. “That hasn’t taken off as a form in new music maybe because people who aren’t drummers are intimidated to compose for the drum set. And then drummers don’t really write because they just improvise.”
You could say Jesse Quebbeman-Turley prefers the improvised life, but likes to play with structure. Like a true jazz musician, he goes with the flow and acts on impulse. He lives his life “as an indie band would.” He’s not interested in being the genius; he takes pleasure in collaborative work and thrives in the community-model of creativity. “I just want to write good music,” he says, “and then we’ll see what happens.” So far that’s worked pretty well.
Laura Durham works for KUED Channel-7 in the Creative Services Department, curating community engagement projects for both PBS and KUED productions that foster trust and value to the communities in Utah. She also produces Contact with Mary Dickson and Contact in the Community — a digital series featuring arts and culture groups in Utah. Prior to her work at KUED, Laura spent 15 years at the Utah Division of Arts & Museums in the visual arts program and later managing communications, branding, marketing, and public value projects for all arts and museums programming. She has served the Utah community in various capacities with her role as Vice President of the Salt Lake Gallery Association and Program Director for the Salt Lake Gallery Stroll. She lives in Salt Lake City, sings with Utah Chamber Artists, and loves to contribute to 15 Bytes as often as time allows.