From May 6 2012, to May 4 2013, Jesse Stacken composed, recorded, and posted a new solo piano composition every week for one year.
May 4, 2013
Final reflections on the weekly composition project:
I'm happy to report that I completed fifty-two compositions as I set out to do for the weekly composition project. It was a tremendous learning experience. I mainly learned about myself; thought patterns and issues that came up again and again. I feel I've done honest work here, and did not compromise as far as the quality goes. The fundamental rule I made was that I had to like the pieces I wrote. That doesn't mean I think they're all masterpieces. Some of them had short lives, others have been played again and again by all sorts of musicians. But I never completed one that I wasn't satisfied with compositionally. I came close a couple times, but in those cases I abandoned what I had and started something new, sometimes with little time to spare. What I did feel I had to compromise on was the quality of my performances on the recordings. As I wrote numerous times, it would have been nice to spend much more time practicing the pieces before recording them.
This project went through a slight mutation early on. When I began I had the idea that the tunes would have some kind of étude element to them. I had collected a list of compositional ideas that were étudish in nature -- things that would challenge me technically, or conceptually. I thought that the weekly requirement would be challenging if ideas didn't seem to happen organically. The last time I went through a period of intense composing was when I was a masters student at The Manhattan School of Music. At that time, the pieces were written as assignments that required me to use certain ideas or concepts, which gave me a clear objective and starting point. So I decided on the étude element mainly out of fear of getting stuck, and I began by using these ideas I had collected. However, the pieces seemed to flow relatively easily most of the time, and it eventually came to feel that I was attaching some sort of étude factor in an unnecessary or forced way. So I abandoned the requirement, though I occasionally consulted my list and used ideas from it after doing so.
I love the feeling of finishing a composition and knowing that next week I'll be finishing another even though the process is not always easy. Some of the pieces seemed to write themselves, others were a struggle beginning to end. Many were conceived easily, but were followed by the busywork-like task of getting them out of my head.
This project became an even more important part of my creative output than the weekly improvisation project and the daily improvisation project, probably because of the accessible nature of it. I think they were easier for people to check out, and consequently I got more feedback and then felt like putting more energy and focus into the project. It became an important part of my week, and it felt great to be putting stuff out there consistently, especially when my live performance calendar was light. It was nice to get feedback from all sorts of people, especially people who I didn't know were aware of me or the project. Thanks to all of you who checked it out.
As you can read in many of the posts, I was dealing with a lot of issues of trust, acceptance, opinions of peers and teachers etc. What it all comes down to is learning to trust my own inner voice at all times. Art must be made for the artist first. Honesty is perhaps the most important part of the work. I think I moved in that mental direction over the course of this project, and that's probably the biggest thing I got out of it myself.
Again, I've reached the one year mark and must decide what to do next. I've had a few ideas floating around in my head, and after much conteplation, I've decided to continue with a weekly composition for another year, for a couple reasons. One is that for the last month or so the pieces haven't come out that easily, and I feel that I'm at a bit of a crossroads, or on the cusp, or something like that. It kind of feels like I've explored everything I know (which of course isn't actually true), and that now I'm really searching. It's kind of like the feeling after improvising for an hour straight. "Okay, I've played all my shit, now what's going to happen?" That's often when the best stuff begins to happen. I've gone through a lot of compositional styles throughout the last year, and at this moment it seems both that I am free (from myself) to try anything, and that concepts and styles are beginning to combine easily. I feel like I'm on verge of pushing into some new areas, or conversely settling into a more consistent personal style.
I enjoyed the broadness of this project. The pieces ranged from technical études to 12-tone serial pieces, to rock/pop ballads. But at times I felt that I might learn more if I were to limit the concept in some way, and so I've decided to do just that for the next year.
There were a couple of pieces in the weekly composition project in which used the ideas of the French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). The first was Hidden Solitude from August 9 2012, which uses one of Messiaen's modes of limited transposition, the scale most of us know as the diminished scale or octatonic scale. I had studied the use of diminished scales for improvising over standards and jazz tunes, but I hadn't really taken the scale and created a piece by deriving all the melodic and harmonic material out of it. I found it very inspiring. Some of the harmony was new to me, or not considered useful before. But what inspired me the most was the new relationships between the chords that I was already familiar with.
The real idea for doing of whole year of Messiaen pieces came after I cracked open his book, The Technique of Musical Language. I didn't read much, but simply took another of his modes of limited transposition, one that I was completely unfamiliar with, and created the song Molt on December 6, 2012. The harmonic possiblities and relationships were even more mind-blowing to me, and was the moment when I thought that I could really explore his techniques for a much longer period of time. I felt like it opened me up and got me thinking in a different way.
So I had this idea bouncing around my head since early December, and to my frustration, I completely avoided using Messiaen's ideas for the remainder of the project, just in case I decided to go with it. I didn't want to use up any potential ideas if I was gong to attempt a whole year with them afterward.
I thank you for your support in reading and checking out the weekly composition project, and now I'd like to introduce you to the Messiaen Project.
For as simple as Introduction sounds, it was one that I labored over quite a bit. I found the starting idea fairly early in the week, but the rest of it was really stubborn. I had tried to extend the progression many times, but always felt that it wasn't right. Likewise, I started numerous melodies, but they all seemed wrong, until this simple quarter note idea came up this morning.
Growing up in the 1980s might have had something to do with this piece. With the right electric piano/synth sound it would be a pretty sweet introction for a Phil Collins tune.
There were a couple of recordings on rotation this week that inspired Negative Space. One was Masabumi Kikuchi, Thomas Morgan, and Paul Motion's Sunrise. The other was Sylvie Courvosier's solo piano record Signs and Epigrams. One thing that jumps out at me on both of these records is the remarkable use of space.
Well, it just so turns out that I have a fear of silence in my music. If you look through the scores from this project, you won't find a lot of rests. My fear first became evident to me when I was studying classical piano with Amy Gustafson a few years ago. We were playing a piece that had a couple of grand pauses. I had a lot of trouble with the silence in the pauses. I feared that the momentum of the music would be halted, or that the arc of the piece would be broken, and I find this problem to show up in almost every music situation I'm in. If it's a classical performance, I fear that the audience will think the piece is over and start clapping. I don't trust their ears, or trust that I could keep the momentum and/or intensity going with my body language. When I'm playing completely improvised music with others, I'm afraid that if there is silence, not only will the momentum be lost, but the piece might end before I'd like it to. It's really quite ridiculous.
I did explore silence a bit in my daily and weekly improvisation projects, but it didn't often occur naturally. It was something I had to consciously include, and was usually decided moments before beginning a piece. And there was one bagatelle from my last record Bagatelles for Trio that explored silence. But again, it's something that I feel my music could use more of.
So hearing Masabumi and Sylvie make such magnificent use of space and not lose momentum inspired me to explore the idea a bit. I also decided to make the piece a serial composition with a row that was unnatural to me, much like I did on the piece Out of Mind from October 11. The row I constructed for Negative Space consisted of major seconds, major thirds, and major sixth intervals, which resulted in qualities that I was told to avoid in 20th century music theory class in college; namely intervallic structures that imply tonal centers or conventional harmony. This row had two major triad arpeggios and a diminished seventh chord arpeggio. These proved to be real pains in the ass, and I see why we're taught to avoid them. But I stuck with it and dealt with them by increasing the density of the harmony and exploring extremes of tessitura and dynamics, both of which are prominent on Sylvie's record.
Negative Space is really a launching pad for spacious improvisation. As I started doing takes, I realized that the concept is best explored in the improvisation itself, and that playing the written material after the improvisation as an out head seemed unnecessary.
Last week I listened to Dave Douglas and Michael Bates' A Noise From The Deep Podcast with guest Matt Mitchell. It was really inspiring to hear some clips of Matt's etudes and hear him talk about them. I've heard him play them live with Ches Smith at Korzo also. Matt's into writing things that really challenge him, and his etudes were definitely in mind when I started this project. As I wrote earlier, this project seemed to go in a different direction, as in not so etudish, but more exploring the variety of composition methods and styles. In the podcast Matt talks about one of the etudes in which he wrote 5 against 7, which means he plays 5 notes in one hand and 7 in the other in the same period of time. This inspired me to try something of this nature.
5 against 7 seemed too over my head, and I also wouldn't want to do exactly what Matt did, so I opted for 4 against 7, which is not all that uncommon. Several musicians I know would know exactly how to do that. But honestly I haven't been that interested in learning to play things like this myself. Although I love hearing people do it, I've always thought that I have other strengths that I should focus on developing, leaving this sort of thing for those who specialize in it.
However, the weekly composition project seemed like a good place to explore this stuff.
My peformance here is not great, but I'm happy to have taken it on and worked some stuff out. Classical pianists play a lot of 7 against 4 (and other combinations) in the pieces of Chopin. But in that context it's usually not calculated mathematically, and the pulse is treated with flexibility. In the jazz world, and perhaps in other kinds of music like Indian classical, it is usually calculated. At least I think it is. And I would say this is so because jazz in fundamentally a dance music, even if today it's just the bobbing of heads or tapping of feet.
So to figure out 4 against 7, I had to find the common denominator, which is 28. In 28 subdivisions, I could find out exactly where 4 regularly spaces notes would land. I then began learning to play that through some simple patterns on the piano. Finally, I just began to construct some measures. It was somewhat slow going, and it was one of those that felt fully conceived but just needed to be forced out. It is written is 7/4 and I feel the quarter note pulse in 7 when I play it. During the improvising I sometimes was feeling the 4 pulse, and the next step would be to write a piece in 4/4 with septuplets, and feel it in 4. But you know, one step at a time....
The title refers to the desired relationship among
musicians on the bandstand. I had a great time performing the other night with Brian Drye, Chris Tordini, and Jeff Davis at I-Beam in Brooklyn. It was one of those one-rehearsal gigs with a new combination of people. I often feel like we should be forming bands that play all the time and stop doing these one rehearsal, one time gigs. But this was great. It was fresh. There were risks taken. There was energy. I haven't listened back to the recording yet, but I'm pretty sure that we sounded like we've played together hundreds of times. It made me feel so happy to be part of the scene here. Although it is a huge scene, we all play together so often in various combinations, and it's almost like we're a huge ensemble. And everyone's music and style influences everyone else in the scene. The music is truly larger than any one of us. It is a very special place full of very special musicians and I'm honored to be here among them.
There is no way a piece like Intolerance would have come out of me three years ago. From 2004 to 2010 I wrote practically no swing tunes or and no dominant seventh chords. There have been several swing tunes in this project, and several dominant chords. This one is all dominants. It's interesting to me how the tide comes in and goes out, so to speak.
The title of this one has a double meaning. First it refers to my low alcohol tolerance. Most of the time one beer is enough. The
other meaning has to do with an article called Careers in Jazz by Bill Anschell that my friend Matt Merewitz shared with me a while back. Anschell writes about the reality of tons of jazz musicians flowing out of universities and what most of them end up doing to make ends meet given the state of the music industry. It's quite dark. I'm not even sure if I'd recommend reading it. But there was one thing that he wrote that stuck with me and has been swirling around in my head. He writes, " People who want to play jazz actually outnumber those who enjoy or even tolerate it, let alone pay to hear it." I thought his choice of words "even tolerate it" was funny. But I think it is actually true and we musicians forget that a lot. I remember when I worked in the produce department of the grocery store in my town when I was in high school. I was just getting into jazz and I used to listen to the jazz station while I worked in the back room. I remember one of my coworkers came by as it was playing and said, "Yeah, sometimes I like it. But most of the time I can't shut it off fast enough." Anschell's sentence reminded me of this and made me think about how
regular folks relate to this music. It actually has made me think a lot more about the accessability of my own music. I certainly don't mean to "dumb it down" by any means. Rather, I think much can be done in the presentation of the music, and also in the conviction with which an artist performs. I think that vagueness is the enemy, clarity is what is needed. Even if the music is very out, challenging, crazy, etc, if we do it with clarity and conviction, people can better relate to it.
My brother and sister-in-law are expecting their second child to be born soon. As this piece formed this week, it seemed to become a welcome song and/or lullaby for Baby Dos, as he or she has been referred to thus far. Of course the title could refer to Spring as well, and it's nice to think about the similarities of Spring and a new addition to the family. This is the season of rebirth-- a special time.
There is a feeling of vulnerability surrounding New Life. First it was somewhat difficult to accept. I had the same feelings of doubt that I did for some of the other pieces, which I wrote about below. Thoughts returned: "Is this too simple for this project?" "Am I learning anything writing this piece?" "Is this pushing forward?" That last question is a big one. As an artist, I have been conditioned to look for innovation. In jazz, it seems that almost all the legends were the people who took the next step. It seems like my friends and I are always aiming to do new things, probably because we're attempting to follow in the footsteps of the legends. But I think that we must use caution with this because I think we can easily be dishonest if we is push too hard. My feeling at this time is that if one wants to find new things, he or she would be best off simply exploring the world (musical and other) and letting all things he or she likes influence the music. That's what I've tried to do more or less, although I must admit to trying to push too far at certain times.
I guess vulnerability fits with the title and the subject quite well. After all, new life, especially a new born baby is undoubtedly vulnerable. And the simplicity of the piece made me feel quite vulnerable playing it. There is no place to hide in this piece. It reminds me of playing Mozart in that way. All this talk of vulnerability reminds me of a great Ted Talk by Brene Brown.
For no particular reason, most of these weekly compositions have been simple short pieces with a form that I improvise over, much like traditional jazz tunes. Balancé runs contrary to these in form, which I guess could be viewed as a sort of rondo. I explored alternative forms extensively in Bagatelles For Trio. This piece could have fit well into the Bagatelles. It was enjoyable to play something like that again, although I wish I had more prep time. It would sound good fast. Someday.
This week was a little scary on the weekly composition front. It was the closest I've come to not having something I was happy with. I had been working with an idea all week, many different ways, but it just wasn't grabbing me. So on Friday morning, with a feeling desperation, I improvised an ascending minor 6th, and then another, and quickly I had found a new idea to work with. Leave it to the interval I tell you! The piece more or less was composed in that instant: a possibly humourous, slightly angular melody featuring the minor sixth interval over a fake stride left hand.
It was just a matter of getting it out on paper, and then a matter of learning it in time. Beat the clock. I think it turned out pretty well.
The title of Uncompromising has nothing to do with Valentine's Day, happily. Rather, it has to do with the structure of the piece and the composing process of it. I started out writing the top line in it's entirety, then decided to compose two more lines as counterpoint. I tried to have each line have it's own separate motifs and character, although I think they all serve the overall character of the piece. I did not allow myself to change the already written lines, as I added another. That's where "Uncompromising" comes from. The top line was easy to write, the bottom line (which came second) was slightly more difficult, and the the middle line was the hardest. In previous pieces I have allowed myself to change the other lines to help that third one find it's place. But I decided that I wanted to be true to the original line as I heard it to begin with, so I did not allow myself to change it.
The result is kind of interesting. The piece has harmony. I wouldn't call it atonal, but the harmony is largely non-functional. It seems that I've ended up with a piece that has these moments of familiarity - for example, the G chord in measure two, or the E minor chord in measure 10.
In between these moments, we're kind of in "la la land" harmonically. But hopefully the melodic ideas are strong enough to keep us from fully losing our minds. If you're so inclined, try playing each voice separately and see if you agree that the soprano line is the strongest, bass is second strongest, and alto is the weakest. I.e. the alto line alone is a little weird and if I were improvising it, my ear would not go where it goes. It would an interesting experiment to me to write another three voice piece and start with the alto or the bass voice
Keith Jarrett is one of my favorite pianists, mainly because to my ears he is very good at transmitting emotion into music. His playing has meaning for me. It's expressive. And that's really what I listen to music for. I want to hear a feeling come through, whether it's joyous, or angry, or a combination of emotions. The nuts and bolts of music that we get so involved with really don't matter. The simplest music has equal value as the most complex, as long as there's honest emotion behind it.
I had a classical music theory professor in college who, knowing I was a jazz pianist, asked me if I had any Keith Jarrett recordings that he could borrow. He had heard him on the radio. I lent him Whisper Not, which was the latest Keith Jarrett Trio release at the time. He listened to it, and reported to me that it was very good, but the he might be playing white key counterpoint, and that that should be noted. Years later another friend also relayed the same diagnosis by an acquantiance, that it sounds like Keith is only playing white keys. What this means is that he's using the major scale exclusively and not using chromaticism in his solo improvisations. Having listened to it a lot, playied along with it, and transcribed some, I've found it to be true that at times Keith is indeed sticking to major scale counterpoint. BUT, why does that need to be noted? It does not matter at all. The music is beautiful.
Occasionally this diagnosis has bothered me and gotten in my way. It's another one of those things that has stuck with me. "I had better not use only major scale counterpoint, because it's considered lame if I do...." This is a bunch of crap. Sometimes the major scale is what needs to come out. And it's based on the natural overtone series, is it not? It organized itself. It's natural for it to come out, and it's natural for humans to like it.
Gift is all Db major scale. Not one borrowed note, not one chromatic note. It serves as a reminder to me to allow myself to forget about all the music business junk I have to deal with, to forget about all the music theory and music education stuff that has been force fed to me, to forget about the opinions of other musicians, and just PLAY. And just let what is there come out. And be thankful that I hav e the opportunity to play and organize sounds, and hear great music. Music is a gift that must be cherished.
I've started a few of these unison pieces during this project, but have never been able to finish one. I usually feel the need to add another line or some chords or something. But I finally got one out.
Notice what a cold spell does to the piano. Cold weather -> Boiler running more -> much drier air in the basement -> out of tune piano. After the last cold spell the piano seemed to bounce back to a tolerable tuning. Got my fingers crossed this time.
Lately I've been intrigued with the various methods of composition that I've been using. It's amazing how many different ways one can go about composing. Wintergreen is an experiment with serialism and pitch cells, or pitch sets. It was inspired by a conversation I had with my friend, the trumpet player, Eli Asher. I don't remember much about the conversation, but we were talking about pitch cells, or sets, as in a series of pitches that one could improvise with for example. I suddenly had the idea of creating a pitch set row. Essentially the pitch sets were 8 modes that I came up with, and within each mode I was allowed to use the pitches in any order, but the modes had to follow a predetermined succession. It sounds rather complicated in writing about it. Basically it was just an organizing priciple that helped narrow my choices as I composed. Interestingly, because the individual notes in each mode were allowed to happen in any order, I was usually able to find what my ear wanted. And oftena melody note that I was hearing next was in the next mode, and so in that case I decided to move onto the next one. Anyway, it's been enjoyable to use different means to compose.
At Thanksgiving, my friend, the great bassist, Thomas Morgan and I were talking about macrobiotics, as we do quite often when we are together. We both practice macrobiotics, which is a philosophy for balancing food and life by looking at it from a Yin and Yang perspective. Yin is expansive, while yang is contractive. and everything is somewhere in between, and changing from one to the other. The conversation moved along to music. Is music Yin or Yang? Certainly different music lies differently on the spectrum. Eventually we got to intervals. At first thought, dissonance seems yang and consonance seems yin, but on second thought, each interval seems to have its own yin and/or yang qualities. I concluded for myself, that 3rd and 6th are more yin, softer, mellower, more feminine perhaps. On the contrary, 4ths 5ths, and 2nds are more yang, harder, and more masculine. I suppose somebody else could have a different idea of the yinness and yangness of intervals, but these seem to work with how I hear them.
So as this piece developed, I had the idea to try to balance the yin and yang intervals between my hands. If my right had a more yin interval, my left should play a morre yang interval, and vice-versa. After awhile I began to search for more traditional sounds within this parameter, and Unique Principle is the result. I like the sound of it.
Night Light originated with an infatuation of an arpeggio that Shostakovich wrote in a prelude. I've had a couple students learn this prelude, and this chord always struck me as something special. I stole it note for note. In fact, it is the first thing in this piece (minus the high Eb melody note). I used his chord as a model and wrote some variations on the harmony. At first I had the idea of the piece only consisting of these arpeggios, but then a melody seemed natural and it was composed as I went.
The title refers to a great experience I had over the holidays. We were in Minnesota, and we had some nice winter weather there. It was cold! Really cold, and it felt great. The naturalist Jim Gilbert taught me in seveth grade that there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad dress. So if you dress for it, it's great. However, I don't think his teaching applie to some of the natural disasters we've experienced recently. Anyway, for a couple nights there was a full moon and very clear skies and my family and I took advantage of this and went for a moonlight cross country ski around the hayfield at Dream Acres. (See No. 19 for more about this hayfield.) The temperature was about 0ºF, or maybe 1 or 2 below zero. It happens in MN. The feeling of a frozen face brought back wonderful memories of childhood, and the bright moonlight on the snow was quite beautiful. Cross country skiing is also a good way to warm up in such weather. I think the feeling of this piece fits this memory.
With the change to 2013, I've been reflecting a lot these days, and I'm very happy to be doing this project. The music business is suffering in some ways, but this project continues to be more and more fulfilling. It's been a nice way to put my art out there, and keep moving ahead.
This week I cracked open the book The Technique of My Musical Language by Olivier Messiaen. Molt utilizes Messiaen's third mode of limited transposition. The title is an acronym for Modes of Limited Transposition, although I also like the implication of shedding to make room for new growth. I was not familiar with Messiaen's third mode, and it felt like I was opening a treasure chest of sounds. Many of these sounds are common and well-known. However, the relationship between sounds was presented differently to me. For example, the harmony in the first measure is essentially C-7 with GMaj7 superimposed. These two chords were derived out mode three, and most likely would never have thought of using them together if I hadn't been referencing this mode. I think I could spend a lot more time with this mode. I really enjoy the sound.
Last Saturday November 10th was a fun day. First I spent the afternoon playing with Kirk Knuffke and Bill Goodwin in Central Park as part of the Jazz and Colors Festival. It was a fantastic event featuring 30 bands spread throughout the park, all playing the same two sets of music.
Afterward I met my wife Akiko for dinner and a concert of the Pacifica Quartet. It was part of The People's Symphony concert series, and it was being held at the Fashion High School's Auditorium, not a particulalry flattering space. However, something wonderful happened at the concert. They had played a Haydn Quartet and a Shostakovich Quartet for the first half - amazingly I should add. For the second half they were playing Beethoven's String Quartet in A minor Op. 132. I was not familiar with this piece, or really with any of Beethoven's String Quartets.
I definitely am more familiar with many of them after a week of investigating them. Anyway, they were playing the third of five moments, the slow movement of the piece. It was incredibly beautiful. About two-thirds of the way through, the stage lights slowly faded to black and never came back on. The quartet finished the music with no noticable difficulties, amazingly. After the movement, the stage manager came out and spoke to the quartet, and then told the audience that they could not get the lights back on, and that they'd have to end the concert at that moment. I loved it. It meant that I could go home with the beautiful slow moment swirling in my head. And honestly, that's all I really want to hear anyway. Yes there are some fun and inspiring moments in the faster movements, but for me it's all about the slow movements.
Lights Out is the result of becoming obsessed with the third movement of the Beethoven String Quartet in A minor Op. 132 this week. What's interesting to me is how Beethoven combines polyphony and homophony into one movement. Listen to the piece and you'll hear what I mean. I don't think of Beethoven and a polyphonist like Bach. But he did write fugues and other polyphonic pieces, so it's wrong to overlook that side of his work.
It's funny how inspiration strikes at the least expected moments. I was expecting to be turned on more by the Shostakovich at this concert. It was great, and perhaps if the lights stayed on and they had finished the whole Beethoven Quartet, it would have been the Shostakovich that I would be writing about now. But here we are, and I'm so happy to be checking out these Beethoven quartets now. They popped into my life at the moment they needed to.
A technical note about this web page:
At a little more than halfway through the project, I have run out of Soundcloud space. Soundcloud is the site to which I upload the audio tracks so I can embed them here with these groovy wave form players. You can also join Soundcloud and follow me and others, and you'll see my new uploads whenever you log on - it's kind of like Facebook for audio content. Anyway, I'm out of space, and rather than pay a seemingly overpriced fee to get more space, I will start deleting the the Soundcloud files of the early recordings of the project and replacing them with an MP3 link, which I will put right before the PDF link. So nothing will be missing here as far as content goes, the old ones just won't look as cool as the new ones. Scroll down to No. 1) A Birthday Song to see.
This marks the half way point, or just past it. Time is flying. Time is a problem. Commiting to a weekly piece is challenging. Lately the challenge has been felt in the performance and recording of the pieces. As with many of the pieces, I would surely have liked to spend more time getting to know Perspective before recording it. But there's not much I can do about that now I guess.
These last couple of pieces have been rather "popish". Sometimes I feel like I need to have more restrictions. Here I am going from some experimental serial music, to pop tunes, to shuffles. I suppose it's all me, but it's somewhat against my insticts to present something so broad. I prefer to present clear concepts, which I believe I have done on my albums. I guess I need to remember that this project is first and foremost about exploring composition for myself, the audience is mainly for accountability. I also think that more constraints would push me further. If I'm only writing pop tunes for a year, I can be sure I'd learn a lot in the process. It's obviously too late to narrow my focus for this project, but I will keep this in mind for the future.
The recording of Like is in two parts. First is a live version of me playing it, very slowly. It is then immediately followed by the midi playback file. The reasons for this are probably obvious. I've written something too diffucult to learn well in one week, espeically when I've got someone's difficult big band music to learn for an upcoming gig! I didn't feel right about just posting the midi file, so I recorded a very slow version myself. I think the slow version has it's own vibe anyway, but I wanted to give you an idea of how I'm hearing this. Perhaps I will memorize it and really learn to play it at some point and repost it. But it brings up the point that in terms of compositional content, I don't want to be limited by my weekly timeframe or busy schedule.
The piece is constructed of a dimished scale row. I had the idea of creating a row that didn't have all twelve pitches, and as you may know from reading previous posts, I love dimished stuff. What was interesting is that the inversion and retrograde inversion of the row give one a different dimished scale. I suppose I would have realized this before hand if I had given it more thought.
This is actually the third piece that I've tried with this dimished row. I had started two others, but they weren't going anywhere for me. Then I had the idea of this wide ranging texture. Something like what I've heard Craig Taborn improvise. Then it seemed that this dimished row idea could work for it. I tried to imply three voices: One quite high, another in the middle, and one very low. This is what made it so hard to play. The voices come to the center for a short "B" section in the middle.
The title Open Hand refers to letting go of things. There is a double meaning here. One is that in order to play this piece well, one has to remain relaxed in the arms and hand. I can't say that I was totally successful in that regard, but it's a process I'm working on. I am impressed with some solo work by pianist Brad Mehldau in which he plays this sort of texture for long periods of time. He seems to have learned to stay relaxed. Here is a video of a concert by him that I've enjoyed.
The other meaning refers to letting go of thoughts, particularly about unfortunate things that happen. New York City is not an easy place to live. Sooner or later, you get hurt. It seems to happen to everyone from time to time.. And I think one needs to be able to let go of the anger and frustration that results in these unfortunate interactions. Yesterday a minor incident happened. I was bringing our trash cans in from the curb, and at the same time, a man was delivering advertisements door to door. These are extremely obnoxious plastic bags containing advertisements and coupons for grocery store chains, etc. They are
a horrible waste of paper and plastic, most of them go straight to the trash. Not environmentally friendly. So, this man stuck one of these things in our fence. I grabbed it, and told him that we don't want it. But he appeared not to hear me, so I repeated myself louder. Still no response. I began yelling just to get his attention, and it occured to me that he was just ignoring me. All I wanted to do was give it back to him, so he could deliver it to someone who would use it and not just throw it away (if such people exist), but he kept walking and ignored me. This was a frustrating experience. Clearly not the worst thing that's ever happened, but frustrating nonetheless. Many people would be able to say screw it, and forget about it. Let go of it. I'm working on this, but I'm not quite there. So yesterday I found myself reliving the experience several times throughout the day. Thinking bad thoughts about the situation. This is not the worst thing that's happened to me since I've been in New York. And I'm sure many of you readers could tell me far worse horror stories. But these little things add up, and becoming attached to them, even if only for a day, is what I want to avoid.
I enjoy the overtones that result from this kind of texture. Sometimes they ring out strong enough to make one think the notes are actually being played.
Out of Mind consists of some experimentation with serialism. The structure of the piece and the structure of the 12-tone row itself are both different than I have done before. If you want a better understanding of serial music before I get all nerdy on you, I suggest the wikepedia page on the subject.
I've used serialism in various ways, and more frequently during the past few years. In this kind of music, and other atonal or modern weird music, I've found that I favor certain intervals, namely
half-steps and tritones. I feel that they give the music a certain vibe and direction that I like. So as an excercise and challenge, I decided to contstruct a row that avoids half-steps and tritones. The construction of the row was not a problem, but making it into a piece was difficult. Previously, with serial writing that used rows with the said intervals, I found that the row was like a wise person suggesting the next note, which I usually found quite desireable. In this case, usually I found the suggested note undesireable. However, the following one or two notes (after the immediate next one) were often desireable. So it quickly became all about rhythm. I could hurry through undesireable notes by using short durations, and emphasize desireable notes by using long durations and placing them on beats which accented them. This is where the title comes from. I thought this way of composing was somewhat analagous with how we avoid uncomfortable or undesireable things life, while trying to hold on to the things we like.
The other way that this piece is different from other serial music I've written is that I first constructed the top line, then added the bottom line afterward, using the same row. So essentially, there are two rows happening at the same time. Previously, I would have written both parts simultaneously, dividing the row among the two lines. I believe that the latter is the way that most serial composers work, although to be honest, I've only studied a few scores. It's my thinking that I should take these ideas and principles and experiment with them in any way I can imagine. Thinking about it now, it probably would have been much easier to find desireable notes had I written both parts simultaneously. I would have been able to find my favorite intervals much easier that way.
I was planning on adding a third layer of just a few harmony notes in the top part. But after putting a few in, I wasn't happy with the sound, and decided to keep it to two lines.
I really wanted to write with time signatures other than 3/4, only because I had just written a polyphonic tune in 3/4, Sad Clown, a couple weeks ago. However, this one just wanted to be in three. I tried multiple times to start in another meter, but it wasn't happening. Perhaps the row also dictated that somehow?
I didn't include any improvisation in the recording this time. I just wasn't happy with the way things were coming out. It seems like some group improvisation would have been better. Or perhaps it wasn't coming out well because of the recent change in weather, which has affected the tuning of the piano a bit.
On the bright side, I only used of 55 seconds of my quickly evaporating soundcloud space.
I feel like I need to come clean on something. When I began this project, I had slight anxiety that there would be weeks in which I would not be able to get a piece started, because I wouldn't be able to find a starting point. Sometimes inspiration would not be found. So to deal with that potential problem, I had the idea that these weekly compositions would have some kind of conceptual etudish factor to them. However, getting started hasn't proven to be a problem yet. There have been weeks that haven't been easy, and there are many compositions that I've started and abandoned. But for the most part, things have been flowing. So quite often in my process I find myself with a composition that's forming nicely without some pre-determined concept. Then I feel obligated to add some kind of conceptual idea to make the piece fit with my plan. And I think that this can have a negative effect on the process. So my confession is that for the most part, I've dropped this idea of the pieces being etudes. Some of them do have a premeditated concept, but it's no longer required, and I no longer try to attach a concept or rule to a piece after it's started, unless I get stuck and need some help from one of these concepts.
This week's piece did actually grow out of a predetermined starting point, diminished harmony, once again. Allow me to nerdify. Voices consists of two vamps with major triads
in minor third relationships, which are derived out of two diminished scales. The melody was composed freely over these, without any requirements. At the start, I had the idea of sticking to diminished scale melody too, but once the chord vamps were constructed, I began hearing a lot of nice stuff over them. So I decided to let the melody be whatever it wanted.
The title Voices refers to all of the crap I hear in my head when I'm composing. Having studied composition at Manhattan School of Music, and having talked with friends and colleagues about composing, I'm filled with a bunch of "do's and don't's" which are pure poison. When my ear is telling me to do something, the last thing I want is for my brain to question it because it was something I was told to avoid at some point. Let me give you an example. Around 2003 and 2004 as I was finishing Manhattan School of Music and entering the "real world", some musicians who I looked up to, and still look up to, where viewing vamps in a negative light. (A vamp is a short chord progression that is repeated continuously. Most pop music today is made up of vamps.) Vamps were "out". If you were writing a vamp, you were lazy and not good. To this view, I should have said, "That's fine if that's how you feel. Go write some non-vamp music. All the best." Instead, being at a particularly vulnerable stage in my life, this opinion got firmly lodged in my head has been swirling around in it ever since. I cannot compose a vamp without remembering that vamps are lazy and out of fashion. Voices is unquestionably a vamp tune and so the title seemed appropriate.
There are many other examples of these sort of voices. Many of them come from the course "Composition for non-composition majors" at MSM taught be Ludmilla Uhlela. This was supposed to be one of the "heaviest" courses a jazz major could take at MSM, and at the time, and for many years later, I thought it was. But the class did fill my head with a lot of "do's and don't's". How I wish I could let go of these. When they pop up, I remind myself that they were helpful at the time, but that was then, and this is now. Perhaps composition is something that is really impossible to teach. Or perhaps one must have a different attitude towards the teaching of it and the opinions of others. What I'm striving for now it to let my ear and heart make the decisions and quiet the mind.
Vamps are fine to use. People connect with them. It's okay if this song sounds a lot like a certain popular jazz pianist.
A memory that I will never forget is from almost a year ago, last October. I had found a cheap airfare and decided to go to Dream Acres in southern Minnesota to help my brother and sister-in-law build their house. This was the first time that I had seen my neice, Adele for about ten months. She was just about to have her first birthday, and at that age a whole lot of development happens in a span of ten months. I had arrived in the evening and by the time I arrived at the farm, Adele had been sleeping for awhile. But I had to see her, so we quietly snuck upstairs and there she was, sleeping in child's pose, so peacefully. She was a little human being, with blonde hair. I watched her sleeping for just a few minutes, careful not to wake her. I will never forget this image. It's very interesting having a neice that I see periodically. Everytime we meet, she's grown and learned so much. It's like I meet a new person everytime, but not exactly because she's still Adele and we do have a relationship. It's fascinating and exciting to see how she's grown every time. Quietly is quite a simple piece. I guess it's like species one counterpoint, for those of you who've studied that stuff. Awhile ago, my friend and duo partner Kirk Knuffke lent me a book of Carla Bley short pieces. I've been checking them out extensively. I've been listening to Paul Bley play those tunes for years. They are fantastic. They have a vibe. They set improvisors off in a direction. What else is needed? Many of my weekly compositions have been supported by Carla's short pieces. Her many great sketches help to quiet my inner voice that says a piece that's only eight measures isn't long enough to be good.
When John Cage started studying with Arnold Shoenberg, Schoenberg told him that in order to be a composer, one needed to have a feeling for harmony. Cage replied saying that he had no feeling for harmony. Schoenberg said that in that case it would be very difficult for him.
I feel like I do have a feeling for harnony, although it's constantly changing. However, I know people who seem to have little or no feeling for harmony. It doesn't mean success or no success, as they and Cage have demonstrated.
Although this piece is quite skeletal, it has harmonic meaning to me. Even though it's more or less tonic and dominant harmony, I have a feeling for it. I'd say that recently I've been on more of a melodic trend - focusing on melody, or starting with melody.
But it feels good to be feeling the harmony of this piece.
The title Field of Grass refers to the hay fleld at Dream Acres farm in Wykoff, MN, where my brother, sister-in-law and niece live. They live on the north side of the field and have an amazing view for watching the change of seasons.
I recently spent a week in Minnesota, where I grew up. It was nice. This week, however was the first time during this project that I had trouble getting started. I had a piece finished, but it wasn't right. I wasn't completely satisfied. Paths is my third attempt, and it's basically a fugue, of all things. It's essentailly the exposition of a fugue, the development is improvised. I've always loved the structure of fugues.
But I've experienced this getting stuck with composition problem before after travelling. I few years ago I was visiting my wife's parents in Denver, and I wrote a few tunes. It felt like music was flowing out of me fairly well. But then returning to NYC, I didn't like the peices at all. I think it has to do with the surroundings of NYC. There's just a vibe, and it permeates everything. It shows up a lot in composition for me. They say you are a product of your environment. Conversely, many of the things that I do in NYC, make little or no sense to me when I'm visiting family in the midwest.
A note about this performance: This piece is constructed entirely of a dimished scale, melody and chords. In this performance I decided to stick to the same scale during my improvisation. It's nice, but it's difficult for me to hear my way through the diminished scale. Yes we can all recite dimished patterns, and yes we pianists can see the scale on the keyboard and play around with it. But to actually hear it first - to hear a melodic line constructed of the diminished scale and then to execute it, is not that easy for me. Sometimes it happens, sometimes not. Listening back, it felt like it wasn't happening at times. But I'll live with it, and keep practicing.
I just returned from Randolph, VT where I was visiting the Lyra Summer Music Workshop. It is a three week intensive music camp for pianists and string players of any age. I really enjoyed the weather and scenery, and it was very inspiring to see the students working hard and improving a ton. It was equally inspiring to hang out with a couple of this years guest artists, Egyptian-American pianist Wael Farouk, and Icelandic-American violinist and member of the Pacifica String Quartet Sibbi Bernhardsson.
Sibbi performed an incredible concert with my wife Akiko Sasaki. I had the opportunity to watch them rehearse the program twice beforehand. It was amazing to see how Sibbi worked. One thing he talked a lot about was character. "We should change the character here...", etc. He talked about performing one composer's music (sorry I forget who) that seemed to change character every measure. I have of course heard the word character used to describe musical moments, but it's interesting to me that I've never really thought of that word in regard to my own music. Certainly my music has character, and changes of character. I think the Bagatelles for Trio are a filled with these - and in fact each one might represent a unique character. I think of the word "vibe" more often when describing my music, but I'd say that vibe would refer to a larger view, and character to smaller sections of the music.
Anyway, I have been playing with the idea of character changes, and perhaps character developement in my improvisations, and in this composition, aptly (or horribly) titled, Characters.
Lately these pieces have been conceived in the following way:
1.) There is no idea.
2.) I hear something, or think of something, and suddenly there is an idea, a concept. Usually at this point, the piece is actually written in my head, but with a few details that I need to
work out on paper or at the piano.
3.) I have to actually get it on paper, which is kind of the busy work part of it. Some editing and refining usually happens here. This step would be skipped during improvisations. This is the step in which I have wasted a lot of time in the past. I've found that for whatever reason, these days I've been pretty good about sticking to the task at hand and getting it done.
Because of equal temperment, thirds on the piano are out of tune. They're really pathetic, sad, and sorry. I didn't really like them for a long time. I had the idea to write a piece using thirds, and titling it Sad Thirds, Sorry Thirds, or something like that. But as I began to compose this, I started to grow attached to these thirds. I couldn't disrespect them with a title like that. I find that their weak intonation also makes them humble, honest, and a little sweet, and I really enjoyed them in unconventional sequence. There's something about them. I read an interview a few years ago with composer Ben Johnston, who is an advocate of just intonation, which is pretty amazing and fascinating. He said something to the effect that much of the corruption in the world is due to the fact that we've been listening to out of tune intervals due to equal temperment. I really like agreeing with that. But I have to say that these little weak thirds are like my children. I love them. They need some nurturing.
They're humble. They're learning. They're like a child's artwork.
I just finished a book by Charlotte Joko Beck called Nothing Special: Living Zen. It is transcriptions of talks that she gave to her Zen students. I think it took me almost a whole year to read. I cannot believe how accurately she describes the inner workings of our minds. The last talk was all about giving. She says that when you're truly practicing Zazen, it is all giving, and no getting. Somehow this theme seems to fit with these humble major thirds, so I titled the piece Give. I have a lot of sitting to do...
This one may look and sound like a cop out, like I didn't have time to do a real composition. But it's not. This is what I want. Last week I heard Andrew D'Angelo, Bill McHenry, Noah Garabedian, and Mike Pride play at the Shapeshifter Lab in Brooklyn. It was great music, mainly simple and perfect for inspiring improvisation. The tune that stood out for me was Bill McHenry's Blues in A. It's a very simply riff blues tune, nothing out of the ordinary. But what made this tune stand out to me was that the last 2 measures were empty, when typically this is where a blues head would resolve, or close. The space was super inspiring to me. It was kind of funny. It allowed the listener to fill something in for himself or herself. You can listen to Bill playing Blues in A with Andrew D'Angelo, Dwayne Eubanks, Ben Street, and Paul Motian at the Village Vanguard here. After hearing this tune, and contemplating it a bit, in a flash I thought of a very minimal blues head with phrases in odd places. After Bill Blues is what came out. I was going to try to compose another 12 measures of melody in a similar style - in effect making it a double blues, but quickly realized that a second chorus of melody would be better improvised.
I did have thoughts that this can't be enough to constitute a weekly composition - there's only a handful of notes here. But I'm an improviser. I play with improvisers. So a composition can be just a launching pad, even if it's very simple. And I've been feeling like too much music these days gets in the way of improving musicians. When we have to count crazy meters, etc, we're not relaxed enough for our best to come out. And playing After Bill Blues a few times, I found it to be quite inspiring - I didn't feel like playing the usual blues jazz stuff after this melody, and since the blues is an often-played form, I'll take that as a good sign. Also, the way it looks on the printed page is very cool - upward hills...
I feel like saying something about the titles of these pieces. At first I was going to call them WPC 1, WPC 2, etc, but then I decided to title the first one, and the others have followed suit. The titles are usually the last thing added, and usually they are annoying to think of. Often I'm sitting there trying to think of a title for several minutes before saving.
I've been trying to use titles from current events in my life. Most of the titles here refer to gardening. Microfauna refers to microorganisms that breakdown compost. Two Point Five refers to the amount of rain that fell one night last week. Cumulostratus refers to the cloudy weather at the time. Bloodmeal is an organic fertilizer. None of these titles had any influence on the music at all, and I don't think they are of importance to the listener's real perception of the music. But, there is one reason why I am glad that I'm titling these pieces, and that is that the titles themselves are somewhat of a diary. I'll someday look back to Hara Hachi Bu, and remember that during the period it was written, I was into (and struggling with) the practice of eating until only 80% full.
Two Point Five is an exploration of bluesy sounding lines using the diminished (aka octatonic) scale. Out of the dimished scale, one can derive a set of pitches identical to the blues scale minus the fourth scale degree. This blues scale without the fourth can be transposed up or down in minor thirds. The rest of the notes of the dimished scale can be used as more "out" sounding notes, although they seem to resonate well with the overall sound - at least to my ears. Most diminished scale use in jazz seems limited to creating more tension on dominant chords, or integrating chromaticism over a modal tune. I haven't heard anyone really exploring the bluesy side of it. If you know of an example of this, please let me know, I'd like to check it out. From my experience it's quite versitile. (Check out some diminished harmony on the tune Seeing Iris below.)
This one took some time. It was realized through some experimentation with serial techniques, mainly with regard to the rhythm. There are actually three rows happening at the same time: 1) a row of note values (rythmic durations) 2) a row of rest values, and 3) a row of harmonic intervals. What a mess, right? It would have been much easier to improvise something that sounded similar to this.
First I decided the note value row, followed by the rest value row. Then I created a generic rhythm map of the piece with no bar lines. When I wanted to write a note, the rhythmic value or duration was determined for me. When I wanted a rest, similarly the rhythmic value was determined for me. After this I added barlines, which was not the easiest task. It resulted in many more meter changes than I would naturally write. I actually had a rough draft written completely in 4/4, but it was quite rediculous because when the 16th and 8th note/rest values were used, suddendly everything was syncopated oddly, and there was a crazy amount of ties used.
The note value row is as follows: Dotted Quarter, Half, Eighth, Whole, Sixteenth, Quarter, Dotted Half.
The rest value row is as follows: Half, Eighth, Dotted Half, Quarter, Whole, Sixteenth, Dotted Quarter.
Finally I chose the pitch material which was a row of harmonic intervals. In the diads, one pitch was decided freely while the other had to adhere to the row for the order of intervals. I picked five intervals that I thought would give me a mix of consonance and dissonance while being specific enough to give the piece a certain character.
The interval row is as follows: Major 7th, Minor 6th, Major 9th, Major 6th, Minor 7th.
I used retrograde of all three rows once during the piece, and I occasionally repeated some of the durations and intervals. The intervals are written melodically in three instances.
After getting the notes on the page, I played through what I'd written and worked out some dynamics and articulation. I thought the piece was quite boring before I did this. Perhaps these elements just as important, if not more, than the rhythm and/or pitch in this sort of piece, and I can see why serial composers' scores are full of nit picky articulations and dynamics. I had the thought of using serialism for these elements too, but decided that enough was enough, and that I'd like to use the dynamics and articulation to apply some emotion of my (non-predetermined) choice.
At first thought, I'm not so sure this process was worth all the work. As I said earlier, an improvisation of something similar might have had the same effect. And I'm not sure a pulse comes across to a listener; I may as well have just written it simpler and rubato. But, I must admit that this process got me to new places. I've never used mixed meters to this extent. In fact, I'm willing to bet that I won't write another 7/16 measure for the rest of this composition project, unless I do more rhythmic serial writing. So in that regard, I guess I have to consider it a success. The title sounds a little cheesy, but it kind of makes sense, and it was a pretty cloudy week in Brooklyn.
All of the chords in Seeing Iris are constructed of the same diminished scale (with the exception of some of the melody notes which are not in the scale). As I was composing, I began to write out various chords, as to create a palatte to chose from, and the vast amount of possiblities quickly became clear. I feel like I've not even scratched the surface here, and that I could probably spend and entire year constructing chords from this same scale, and then perhaps I would have an idea of what's going on. No wonder Messiaen was able to compose hours and hours of music with this kind of harmony.
Starting the week of May 6, 2012, I will compose and record a compositional etude every week. I will post a recording and a PDF of the score here. By compositional etude, I mean a composition which starts with one or two predetermined musical concepts. I've been collecting these concepts, and they include certain scales, certain rhythmic structures, certain harmonies, etcetera. They will not necessarily be technichal etudes, although some of them may turn out to be technichally challenging. I will record them solo piano, although I plan on making use of them in various ensemble configurations. I expect most pieces to have, or inspire, improvised sections, but I am unsure at this time if I will include improvisation in the recordings, except in the case that improvisation is intricately woven into the composition, for which I will certainly include it.
Improvisation and composition are closely related. Improvisation is instant composition, with no editing. Composition may be looked at as improvisation slowed way down and sometimes edited. I will be taking some of the ideas I've discovered during the daily improvisation and extended improvisation projects along with other sources, and reworking them, refining them, and reordering them. Hopefully new ideas will also come about as I proceed.
Inspiration for this project comes from my time at the Manhattan School of Music, doing a master's degree in jazz piano performance. In that two year program there was a heavy emphasis on composition. There was always at least one composition deadline each week, often times two or even three. This led to a flow for me - after awhile, the compositions seemed to pour out of me. I hope that this will be the case with this project. I learned at MSM that composition could solidify my understanding of a musical concept very efficiently. While today many of the concepts I studied are not regularly part of my playing, I do recall many of them, mainly because I was asked to compose pieces using them.
With a weekly deadline, and the limited time I have these days, I do not expect every composition in this project to be a masterpiece. However, one advantage composition has over improvisation, is that I can always go back and edit. So if nothing else, I will end up with 52 compositions in progress - ideas on the page that I can rework and refine if needed.
I am concerned about the time I will need to commit to this project. Because of the choices involved in the process, composing can take a lot of time. Besides the composing itself, there is also the recording and creation of the score on the computer, which can also be tedious depending on the piece. But I am very excited to start turning out new compositions. I feel that the most difficult part - beginning - will be made easier because of the etude element of starting with one or two predetermined musical concepts.
I invite you to use these pieces WITH PERMISSION. Please ask, and please let me know what your intentions are.