Wednesday, March 31, 2010

So organic I forgot to count!

Sometimes I come up with a simple intuitive pattern and then wonder what in the world is the time signature. So organic I forgot to count! Such was the beginning of "Those Basinites". I came up with a nice noodly line which turned out to be in a confusingly slow 5/4. (More about the "confusingly slow" part later.) I improvised on that and variations thereof for a couple of days. What to do with it?
I could feel the incipient funkiness, but didn't think it would be apparent to anyone else without some major additions. "Aha!", I thought. "Write a bassline." Done. Oh boy, I love that bassline! The blood and guts of it showed the charming noodly line up to be an atmosphere rather than an actual melody. (Are you listening to the youtube link yet?)
A friend pointed out to me years ago that European-based music tends to be very goal/climax-oriented, where many other musics are more meditative, with less division between performer and listener. I'm definitely in the goal-seeking category. On the other hand, I have received kudos, AND conversely, not made it past the first listening round for grants, because of my tendency to write long, meditative build-ups. Always do go for the eventual explosion, though.
So, back to the charming noodly line - a problem, as I perceived it. I wrote a melody, expressly quite suitable for the trombone, since I was planning a concert with the excellent trombonist MJ Williams. And of course foreseeing the pugnacious vibrance of the eventual arrangement for Lyric Fury (my beloved eight-piece band of masters, which I hope you're listening to as we speak). The bassline turned out to be so chunkily engaging that it was almost a forest unto itself, with a brawling howler monkey scampering around in the trees. Huh? That is - loose, rowdy, and given to space and big leaps . And so space and spice also became the nature of the melody.
Melody and bassline totally erased the desire or even the need for the initial inspirational noodle chant. Which remains forsaken and absent from "Those Basinites" to this very day. Like a former girlfriend, who intro'd you to her best friend, now your wife? No, not that fraught. But still formerly intimately entwined and seeming essential.
Lots of excursions today! So, melody is written, still in that very slow 5/4. With sixteenth notes that swing. The sort of thing even gracious and respectable jazz musicians don't really want to read. I reconsidered and wrote it in a medium tempo 6/4 + 4/4, aka 10/4 (listen and count!). Eighth notes swing, and the basic beat is about a heartbeat long, instead of a long, slow breath. Lots easier to keep track of. It turns out to be quite readable in that rendition. Over the years I've realized that writing in a very readable form is much more important for the band members, than writing in the purest form in which I conceptualize the tune. (Let me know if this sentence makes sense.)
That's the birth of "Those Basinites". You want to know about the title? Pronounced like the receptacle, basin, plus -ites. Refers to the quirky and hardcore-wonderful inhabitants of the town Basin, Montana. Like the tune, I find them unusual, full of jolting space, and surprisingly funky, in the socio-musical meaning of the word.
Lyric Fury personnel in this live recording are: Cynthia Hilts-piano, Jack Walrath-trumpet, Lily White –tenor sax, Lisa Parrott-bari sax, Stafford Hunter-trombone, Marika Hughes-cello, Carlo DeRosa-bass, Scott Neumann-drums. Many thanks to the kind and excellent musicians!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Is it a bass or bamboo chimes?

"Bunny" is a song based on the perambulations of a five-year-old. She's grown now, but the skittering energy of her childhood lives on. As a matter of fact, I have found that children from 0-6 years are very prone to enjoy and dance to this tune, even if their parents would much prefer to hear Billy Joel or Frank Sinatra. That's the nefarious recruitment technique of a dedicated jazzician and educator - get 'em hooked on the clear energy before they've had their listening edge blunted. (Please! No offense to Frankie and Billy. It's just another direction...) Did you sign up for a philosophy class here? Well, maybe.
Anyway, how did "Bunny" come into being? I was hanging out with this beautiful child named Bunny. And I was improvising with a nice little rhythmic groove slightly influenced by the reggae and calypso I was playing regularly at the time (although the tune doesn't sound like either of these). I didn't really intend to solidify the melody. Thought I'd just keep it as a nice white-note vibe with some particular rhythmic action. Ah, but I wanted to play it with other melodic instruments.
So, as I conceded to concreting (is this a real word?) the melody, a nice varied texture arose on the contrasting (B) section - a little dreamier, a little less rat-a-tat in the rhythm section. With very little effort and practically no harmonic activity whatsoever, the tune formed itself up out of a giggle and a little toe-tapping. Yes, the fruit of focus is one of the never-ending pleasures of a dedicated composer. That's really it for the melodic/rhythmic/harmonic composition of this piece. But what about color?
Where would this tune be without the ridiculously high double-stop bassline? Different, that's where, and possibly in a bad way. Various bass players have responded in various ways to the rigors of their part for "Bunny". The phrase "It's impossible" and/or "I can't play this". The look of a hostage as they go ahead and endure without comment. Or the pointed, "It'll sound a lot better an octave lower. It doesn't even sound like a bass up there." Aha! That statement helped. Forever after, I could tell them that the bass should sound like bamboo chimes in this case. And that I know it's painfully high and near-impossible to play. That relieves a lot of discomfort and tense expectation. And then the tune has this sweet, scratchy little hollow-wood channel running through it. Me like it!
There's something I learned from/about "Bunny" that has helped with many a tune on the bandstand. I always perform it just as head, improvisation, head - not much arrangement. ("Head" means the written melody and its accompaniment, for those of you unfamiliar with the lingo.) I learned to ask the band to start the improvisation with a similar feel to the head. Then we end up with immensely more interesting colors and textures, not to mention a lot more very desirable space. Otherwise we play the head and slam into a generic white-note jam, or what I would consider a featureless yet smokin' display of technique. Unfortunately, in my opinion, a lot of solos which burn unceasingly could easily be transposed onto practically any other tune, because they have no notable relation to the initial tune and no shaping or phrasing to them. That's okay, I guess. But why bother playing a particular tune, and moreover (the ego resounds) why bother composing at all, if you're just going to play the same "improvisation" on top of it that you would play on "I Got Rhythm" or "Watermelon Man"? Can you smell a pet peeve roasting here?
A more generous approach which I also embrace, is that if the composed portion interests you or moves you, think of the beautiful opportunity to expand and be influenced in a possibly transcendant dance of birthing music together with the composer. And we will all live happily ever after . Smile. Breathe.
This recording is from my CD "Second Story Breeze" with the venerable and magnificent musicians Ron McClure on bass and Jeff Williams on drums. Available at CDbaby and Itunes.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Songs In Two Keys of Life

That's one of the perks of being a piano player. When you get sick of practicing your scales, you can do two different ones at the same time. The possibilities are excellent! This is how "Sage & Lupine" came into being. Listen as you read.
Out in Montana, at or nearby the wonderful Montana Artists Refuge, I was playing the B scale with my left hand, and the A harmonic minor scale with my right. To make it sweeter on the ear, I started the A minor scale on D. (Do I need to put these sounds in here? Just for the record, it's a little bit of a learning curve over hear at Composer/Blogger Central. So please pardon the spackling on my virtual walls. And feel free to make suggestions or requests.) Anyway, you WILL hear the final result of this combo.
The sound of those two scales got my little harmonic happy glands hopping, and I decided to write out a bunch of six-note combinations, aka voicings. I decided they didn't have to be sounded all at once, but could come in lightly staggered. So then I had rather many of these charming little sklangelations, strahmbootskies, or what-have-you. Yes, interesting little fragments of sound, maybe forty or so. I picked several of them and arranged them in an order that allows the harmony a delicate and deliciously gradual increase of excitement.
Somewhere in there came the name. I saw a field of gray-green sage with dark purple stalks of lupine scattered through it (a rendition of it in the video). Ah, a lovely and unexpected balance of contrasts. For me, a perfect visual manifestation of the harmonies the two scaled evoked.
Long composer's pause then, I think. As in - a day or two. And then came melody on top. And then, as I am so fond, came yet another melody on top of that. The good news about mindlessly practicing the two scales at once, for some period of time before I started the piece, was that I had quite a nice harmonic fermentation already roaring in my mind. And so, tra-la, no striving or silly contrivances were necessary to easily finish the piece.
Luckily for me, and for you, I have this extraordinary band called
Lyric Fury. Composer's dream, these angels. You'll be hearing plenty about them! So they played it, and here is a sample. You'll hear the barest beginning of a solo by Lisa Parrott on the soprano sax. Yes, the soloist has a different set of chords from the rhythm section for improvisation. Same celestially dissonant pairing as the rest of the piece. You like?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Groundhog Day Is Over

"Groundhog Sunday Stroll" (click to listen) is a really fun tune. (Also, by the way, an award winner in one of those song competitions.) And a true story, as the author was able to decipher it. This one started from words. Or you could say it started from a transplanted Arizona woman sitting on a Central Park bench, wondering about things. One of the aspects I believe contributes most to my work as a composer, is the ability and desire to sit quietly and contemplate. Even on Groundhog Day, even in New York City.
So the lyrics arrived first, actually as a much less friendly rant than the end product of the song. Thank goodness for the willingness to edit! It was all written that afternoon, in and after the time in the park. The rambling quality of the poetry, and the realization that it was all pretty humorous and deserving of a wry smile at my own het-uppedness, generated the ambling somewhat sardonic nature of the harmonic action.
The melody and harmony first came from the words, and in complete interdependence with each other. And as the sections and the form became evident, the poetry/lyrics were transformed and edited, to create clearer idea development and further strengthen the form. I often work this way, letting the musical form and the content manipulate each other into pleasing coherence.
As the harmony goes, I consider the quirky little perambulations of most of the song quite nicely set off by the rather more controlled and predictable melodic and harmonic motion of the hook:
"A well-defined and ritual display
Of a well-defined and ritual life
Groundhog Sunday Stroll"

Is the relationship of the words and the slightly rigid aspect of the music evident? The composer wants to know.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Tree line creates melody!

Here's a tune that started off as a physical rendition of notes on the page forming the shape of the melody, "A ROCK'S LINE" (click to hear the tune). Huh? Here's the melody, written.
Here's an artists rendition of the scenery that inspired the line..

See the similarity of the shapes of the orange-ish line to the shape the notes make on the page? Yes, I actually wrote a song based on that sort of thing! Who knows why. I definitely enjoy writing from all different angles of the music.

So in this case, the melody came first. Then, and quickly I should say, the harmony started up. The driving rhythmic aspect of the harmonic content was doubtless influenced by the fact that it was a chilly early autumn day out there. The words and more of the melody and harmony developed naturally from the initial four measures (of the vocal portion on the recording).
Guess where the words came from?

"This is a rock's line, this is the line of a tree
How the mountain lays
This is what we call red on the mountains all green
In the blue haze
This is the snow falling motionless
On the first fall day..."

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Synesthesia and other sensitivities - friend or foe?

I'd say my synesthesia is mild, if it is in fact diagnosable. Fmaj7 chords are pink, Dbmaj7 chords are yellow. And then I experience a lot of undelineated but nonetheless evocative associations, such as those mentioned in my last post. I have never heard a tone associated with an oven of any color. ; ^ } One thing I like about synesthesia, is that it is considered mental illness by some, and a special and desirable attribute by others. Aha and behold! The well-documented and seldom understood tormented artist! Here's a relevant quote, not from a jazz composer: "It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society." -J. Krishnamurti
I think this does relate very strongly to the sensitivity of composers and other creating musicians. I believe the often short lifespan of the truly creative is directly related to the difficulty of living in the ongoing workaday insanity of earthlings, whilst living in an exquisitely sensitive and thoughtful mind.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

How "Love Song For a Mountain" harmony & line relates to the physical mountain

So there was the mountain, bare on top, above the tree line, reddish running to mauve, a bit indistinct through the distance haze of a Montana summer. Very simple lines, abrupt in the landscape, standing alone, yet still seeming almost to fade into the surrounding air by virtue of the pastel hues and the light haze.
I wrote the melody and harmony of "Love Song for a Mountain" all at one time. The words came much later (months!). The harmony is more reflective of the colors and diffuse light of the mountain. The melody is sparse, simple and yearning, in my mind a rendition of the stark but subdued presence and line of the mountain, and the gradations/lines caused by tree line, sky, etc.
Written in 3/4, the rhythm is pale and spacious, and once again, sparse.
As I write this, I hope that you enjoy synesthesia as much as I do! Have a listen and please feel free to expand the conversation.