Saturday, May 3, 2014

Final Reflections on the Messiaen Project.

The Messiaen Project has come to an end.  It is ever so bittersweet.  On hand I am relieved.  This project was a lot of work.  I was bound, at times shackled, by Messiaen's techniques.  There were many times when I really wanted to compose freely, but I resisted.  I achieved my goal of 52 pieces, and that feels good.

On the other hand, I am sad to be leaving this project.  It has been an important part of my artistic output, and an important part of my week.  It was constantly on my mind throughout the past year.  Finishing these projects is kind of like moving to a new town or something.  On to bigger and better things, but I will always look back on this period with fondness.

Last night I played a solo concert of some of the pieces at the Bloomingdale School of Music.  It was a wonderful night.  I felt connected to the music and the audience.  Some audience members sent me kind emails afterward, which was nice.  It's nice to know that I'm connecting to people in some way.  Chen Chu took some nice photos of me sharing the whale story (See Majesty October 10, 2013):

I always start these projects with certain expectations, and they often end up going differently than I first imagined.  I envisioned that this past year would be a period of intense study of Messiaen's music and writing.  After reading The Technique of My Musical Language from cover to cover at the beginning, I rarely looked at it again.  In fact I listened to no more than five minutes of Messiaen's music this whole year!  As I wrote in a few posts, I think listening to Messiaen would have made his sound too strong of an influence, and if I had been trying to imitate his sound, my pieces certainly would have been pale in comparison.  Also, I take pride in the fact that most of my pieces are quite unlike Messiaen's.  There's a reasons for that: genius versus regular guy.  But it's also a testament to the idea that we are all unique individuals.   No matter how rigid we structure ourselves, we all still have important, unique voices.  With all that said, I'm happy to report that I did develop a strong relationship with most of the modes.  More and more as the project progressed, I was hearing my way through the scale rather than following notes.

The taste in my mouth is that of gratitude.  These projects have become a more and more important part of my artistic output.  Thank you listeners and readers.  I'm so happy to be able to include you into my process.  It's personal, it's messy, it leaves me vulnerable, but I am glad I'm doing it.  Little by little, ever so slowly, I am able to present more and more of my true self to the world.  Someday I will be fully open, and that will be special.

Along those lines of sharing, I've written a lot about the effect the internet has had on me and us in this project.  This is an amazing time of sharing, and I'm thankful for it.   I've needed to make some personal adjustments of attitude and lifestyle in order to keep my focus and intentions in the right place.  And I've of course needed to keep in mind that the very nature of this project is dependent on the internet, and I take pride in my use of it in this way.

Well, the question is posed.  What is next?  As usual, I've had many ideas for what could come next throughout the course of the Messiaen Project.  I've settled on something a little different.  The wonderful weekly schedule of this project has it's positives and negatives.  It's good for keeping me on my toes and keeping me moving forward.  But I've been desiring something on a longer time scale.  Something that would allow me to work the kinks out of the content.  So I'd like to introduce to my next project which I'll call 12 Films With Music.  I'm looking forward to it very much.

Once again, I'd like to thank all of you who have checked out the Messiaen Project.  Thanks to you who have listened to the recordings, read the posts, or asked me how it's going.  You rule.  I think I'll go listen to the Vignt Regards now.

52.) Purple May 1, 2014

Well, this is the final piece of the project.  I'm filled with many emotions, but I'll save that for the final reflections post, which I will write immediately after this post.

Purple utilizes just one transposition of Messiaen's fourth mode.  I enjoyed constructing major seventh and minor seventh chords out of it.  The piece has a discernible melody, but still brings emphasis to the ringing of the piano, at least this was my intention.

Speaking of that, I would like to mention a little of what's been going on in my compositional mind for the last month or so.  If you've been an avid follower of my stuff (thanks!), you've read a lot about my dealing with outside influences.  Well this last month has been more about dealing with inside influences.  My piece, Soil, from April 5th, is very special to me.   It's something that I could write only after composing a weekly piece for almost two years.  It's a culmination of many things for me.    I have some really ridiculous ideas about that piece.  I keep having thoughts that it might be a moment of important realization.  It might be the pinnacle of everything I've ever written.  It might be a turning point.  It could be the moment in my work where everything came into focus.  It's my Rothko rectangles realization, or my Morton Feldman long and quiet repetitive pieces realization.  This is what I'm going to do from here on out!  These are scary thoughts to admit, actually.  Can I possibly know if it really is such an important piece at this time?  Can I really be this objective about my own work?  Am I crazy?  The piece is just a handful of measures, how can it be that important?  Well, part of me really wants to believe that Soil is one of those moments.  And I want it to be so badly, that I in a way forced myself to write the rest of the pieces in line with it.  It was not necessarily difficult to compose in this style - slow, repetitive, with an emphasis on the overtones of the piano, because I love it so much.  However, in regard to time, it was somewhat forced.  I had to push these ideas out, rather than let the emerge naturally.  I kept looking for something in line with Soil, but unique enough in itself to feel as important to me as Soil did.  None of the pieces afterward did that, although I like all of them.  If I'm going to write something that meets that criteria, I think it's going to have to emerge more naturally.  Soil really came out of nowhere in a way.  It just happened upon me.  If I chose to go forward with this style of writing, I think it will need to happen at a slower pace.

It's quite interesting to me how I've needed to deal with my self in this regard.  It seems that I've managed to inspire myself to a questionable point.  Can I really take myself so seriously?  This is the same thing that I dealt with back in the Weekly Composition Project, when I would hear an inspiring performance by a colleague, and then unnaturally imitate it in the next several improvisation, usually to ill effect.  And now I've run into this problem with myself.  Life is cyclical, I guess.  How entertaining...I love observing the process!

Anyway, Purple gets it's title from the some of the most beautiful tulips in my neighborhood.  These things seem so happy it's Spring - holding their heads high and proud.  I've been walking past them every time I walk the dog.     

Thursday, April 24, 2014

51.) Centered April 22, 2014

The penultimate composition.  This week I heard about five seconds of a Morton Feldman piece.  I don't even remember which one it was.  But I immediately felt attracted to the sound of it.  It was a very dense, dissonant chord played by an orchestra at a very soft volume.  I immediately went to the piano and came up with the opening chord of this piece, and then looked for a Messiaen mode that this chord could be derived out of.  At first I decided to use mode seven, but later realized that it also fit into mode two and that every note I wanted to hear next was also in mode two.  Mode two is the good old octatonic scale.  

I take it as a good sign that I'm hearing some of these modes naturally.  My ear is preferring specific modes.   Anyway, after coming up with the melody of the first four measures, I had the idea that this could be constructed into a blues type form, and that's exactly what I did.  I experimented with changing the transposition of mode two for certain measures, but decided that the original transposition was sufficient.  

I'm beginning to feel all sorts of "end of the project" emotions.  Gratitude, relief, sadness.  I'll share more next week after finishing the last piece... that is if I actually can manage to get it done.

Oh, and I hope you enjoy the sound of the dryer in the background of the recording.  I do.  A little ambience never hurts anybody.  

Saturday, April 19, 2014

50.) Damp Sponge April 19, 2014

This week was a particularly fulfilling week for me.  It started with a concert on Monday night with John Yao's 17 Piece Instrument, which is what he calls his big band.  Tuesday night I led a quartet with some of my favorite musicians in the world, Tony Malaby, Sean Conly, and Tom Rainey.   We played to a packed house at Korzo in Brooklyn, then went into my favorite studio to record the following day.   We played tunes from my weekly composition project.  The session was a blast - super easy, fun, and inspiring.  The guys played amazingly.  Thursday and Friday I was back at the same studio recording with John Yao's band.  It was a blast.  What a privilege it was to spend a week creating and documenting music.  I'm very thankful.

This great week made it a bit of a challenge to compose for this project.  I had an idea I was working with all week, chipping away at it when I could.  However, this morning, the idea was still not satisfying me.  I had this concept of two ascending lines of two non-retrogradable rhythms that would  kind of go in and out of phase together.  Originally I wrote freely within two transpositions of Messiaen's fourth mode.  However I wasn't really feeling it and I realized it was because the lines were changing too much.  So I changed each line to repeat the same ascending sequence of pitches, and I changed the bottom staff to be in the same transposition as the top staff.  The sequences don't align with the rhythm patterns, which results in nice variations.  The pitches of the lines start farther apart, then come closer together, then go apart, then closer together again at the end.

The title comes from a metaphor introduced to me by Denny Waxman.  It deals with communication versus attraction.  A dry sponge cannot properly absorb the liquid of a spill.  First you must get it wet.  The dry sponge is very attracted to the spill.  It wants to clean it up.  But because it's dry it cannot communicate with the liquid, that is until one gets it wet.  Opposites attract, but extreme polar opposites cannot communicate.  Likewise, things or people that are near identical can communicate, but lack attraction.  This metaphor can be used to understand relationships between people, between groups of people, between a person and their environment, and much more.  For example, a quiet mannered pianist, composer, macrobiotic, gardener like me might be attracted to rowdy, steak-eating,  football fan, just because we are opposites.  His different way of life could arouse my curiosity.  But he and I could have difficulty communicating because we have so little in common.  It might take a mutual friend to facilitate communication between us.  That mutual friend is the one who dampens the sponge, so to speak.  What is needed is a balance of attraction and communication for people or things to get along and understand each other.

Anyway, this idea has been resonating with me the last few weeks in many ways.  And in a way this piece exhibits these ideas also.  If you'll go with me here, you could see that the lines communicate better with one another as they come together in the middle and near the end.  Or is it the opposite?  I'll let you decide.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

49.) Patient Trees April 10, 2014

Patient Trees explores some similar ideas to that of Soil.  This time everything is constructed entirely out of Messiaen's second mode, also known as the octatonic scale.  It features a low minor ninth throughout.  The minor ninth is very dissonant, but in the extreme low register, as it appears here, the harshness is not so pronounced.  Instead it brings forth a weird overtone combination, which I wanted to play with.  The notes of the upper staff are mainly intended to highlight and shade the ringing of the minor ninth. It was not my intention to create such a dark sounding piece, but it is undoubtedly dark.  I guess when you're playing with minor ninths, you're playing with fire.  Sorry if the piece leaves you feeling totally hopeless.  

A couple years ago I read Neil Young's autobiography.  He talks a great deal about Pono, which is his project of creating a digital music format that does justice to the sound.  It appears to be close to public release, and I recently watched a promo video for it.  Neil gives quite a convincing argument.  He basically says that recorded music is not nourishing us like it used to because of it's poor quality.  Good quality has been missing in any consumer format after the LP, especially digital formats.  After some thought, I tend to agree with him.  I've never been picky about audio quality, mostly because many of the recordings I studied and listened to most were very old and not of good quality to begin with.   But I'm questioning our instant information society a lot these days, and this argument fits right in there.  We are obsessed with quantity today, perhaps because most of the stuff is low quality.  We have to eat way more just to feel an inkling of satisfaction.  Perhaps if I had less quantity and better quality I would feel more nourished by it, whatever it may be.  I've recently upgraded some of my digital music formats, choosing the highest quality download settings.  Although it's early to make the call, I could be getting more out of it.  In other areas of my life I've been making similar changes.  

Along those lines, I also experimented a bit with my Zoom recorder this week.  I recorded Patient Trees in the highest quality setting the machine offers.  The reason why I haven't done this in the past is because the files take up a lot of space, and they take a lot of time to move around on the computer and upload.  But maybe it's worth it.  Maybe you will get more out of this recording.  Maybe the unintended hopeless sound of this particular piece will start some kind of awful chain reaction of sadness.  Gee I hope not.  

This talk of quality versus quantity brings up another relevant idea here - that of an artist giving content away for free.  Many internet marketing gurus encourage us to give away a lot of content free of charge.  Many older musicians and music business people I know have a real problem with the idea of it.  Many younger musicians are giving things away left and right - some are not even passing a tip jar around at their DIY performances.  Since I've been making art (never before the digital age), I've always had the notion that my stuff needs to be everywhere - formerly every store, now every corner of the internet.  The more the better... quantity.  And these internet projects are no exception.  They started out lower profile.  But as they became more important to me, and more noticed, I've been more public with them.  The transparent nature of the projects means that some of the content is not going to be my best work.  Although I work hard to create something I feel proud of every week, I can't create fifty-two favorite pieces in a year.  I'm placing a great deal of value on the quantity of the work.  I think it's a legitimate criticism of what I'm doing.  But I'm just doing it.  These projects are mainly for my own growth and exploration.  I've just decided to include you in it, and use you for motivation and accountability.   

Some friends of mine, who I have tremendous respect for, are questioning the digital distribution of recordings, and so far have not put any content of their band online.  No digital downloads and not even youtube clips of performances.  The only promo videos are of them goofing around and contain little or no music.  They pressed only fifty copies of an LP that was only given only to the first fifty people to pay the cover at one of their live shows.  It's impossible to get your hands on unless you were at that show, or one of your friends was.  This kind of stuff runs quite contrary to the kind of marketing we're supposed to be doing these days, and it really baffled me at first.  But I've come around to thinking that it might be the answer.  Rise above the digital noise by avoiding it all together.  They've gotten a good local following based on word of mouth.  And of course the bottom line is that they totally deliver.  They put on a great show.  It's got me thinking.  Quality over quantity.

P.S., after I wrote this whole post, I realized while uploading my higher quality wav file to Soundcloud, that they probably obliterate it with some kind of untamed compression.  It might actually be lower it quality than it would be if I had uploaded an already compressed mp3.  I'll check it out.  Perhaps I'll swap it out the Soundcloud widget for a plain audio link.   

Saturday, April 5, 2014

48.) Soil April 2, 2014

This piece is special to me.  It is an accomplishment for me to write something this simple.  It feels like it's something I've been working up to.  It is very simple in concept, but complex in bringing to fruition.  Not in the writing of it - that was pretty easy actually.  Once the concept was formed, it was just a matter of fleshing it out.   It is complex for me in courage and self-trust.  Those of you who've followed these projects of mine have read a great deal about me learning to trust my inner voice and take the influences of others, positive and negative, in stride.  This is embodied in Soil, and I am pleased.   

The piece uses one transposition of Messiaen's third mode, the rest is pretty self-explanatory.  Enjoy.    

Thursday, March 27, 2014

No. 47.) Adequate Charger March 26, 2014

When I began to work on the project this week, I was completely blank.  I had no idea what to do.  I sat down at the piano and let me fingers decide what to play.  The played the opening chord of this piece - a stack of perfect fourths going down from F.  This is a common jazz voicing that could represent an F6, Bb major 7, D minor 11, and even a few more chords.  It's something I play all the time in a jazz setting.  But as I played it this time, for some reason I listened to it more carefully.  I listened to the interaction of the notes with each other, and the overtones of the piano, which I've loved listening to and enjoyed considering in composition ever since I discovered the music of Morton Feldman.  

Now as I sat and enjoyed this sound this week, I had to figure out a way to create it within the Messiaen Project.  Similar to last week's piece, I discovered that I could construct this chord out of two transpositions of mode three, one transposition written in the upper staff, the other in the lower staff.  I discovered that three perfect fourth structures of three notes each could be constructed in each mode and I decided to play around with these.  They have a very hard sound to my ears.  I soon began adding other notes of the modes to shade the color of the chords.  This developed into a melody which I decided to play softly, in the background of these very loud, hard chords built of fourths and fifths.  The idea is that the melody shades the sound of the chords, and highlights different overtones. It is my hope that the listener finds themselves listening to the piano in a different way than usual - cluing into the overtones.  Ideally that would happen without reading this first.  There is a big difference in the sound of the recording verses sitting on the piano bench.  I hope that difference doesn't completely obliterate the idea.  

You're probably thinking that the title of this piece has something to do with an iPhone charger or something.  Well, not exactly.  In macrobiotics we are taught that the home should be a recharging station.  You come home an get refreshed.  This is done by creating a nice, natural environment, free of stress, with green plants and natural materials.  This proves to be trickier than one would think, especially for freelancers who work out of their homes.  The work is always there waiting to be done, even when it's relaxation and rejuvenation time.  Emails can be sent at any hour, which could be seen as another side effect of the amazing convenient internet.

Anyway, this week I found myself in need of an adequate recharging station.  I developed a sore throat, which for me will typically turn into a head cold.  This usually happens once a twice a winter for me.  So this week I knew I needed to lay low and not get stressed out, that the cold didn't get the best of me.  And I found that I was happily able to do this in our apartment.  Even while my wife went about her work, I was able to relax in the other room, and it's been lovely.  My health is improving and I haven't felt stressed.  This is an important realization for me, and I'm convinced that this sore throat happened so that I could learn that this apartment can be a relaxing place.  And I must say that I feel gratitude for both this minor illness and our apartment.  

In the aftermath of last week's post, which was read by many, I've had several conversations with friends and family, and I've reflected a great deal on how I was feeling.  It's sometimes easy to forget about what I've been given in this life.  I am thankful for all of you friends, family, and colleagues.  I'm thankful for music and the ability to express myself via the piano.  I'm thankful for the ups and downs that life brings.  I'm thankful for having an adequate recharging station when I need it.