Saturday, December 21, 2013

33.) Kamu December 20, 2013


Kamu features a couple of modes.  The upper staff is composed of the fifth mode of limited transposition.  This is the one I find most difficult to use.  But I enjoy this line.  Every 4 measure, I raised the line a diatonic step (diatonic for that mode).  Because this scale is made of half steps, and major thirds, raising the line results in drastically different intervals.  The lower staff chords are created out of a transposition of the 3rd mode, and each 4 bar section is a non-retrogradable rhythm.
Kamu is Japanese for "To Chew."

This will likely be the final post of 2013.  Thanks for checking out the project.  Happy Holidays.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

31.) Immaculate 7-11 December 13, 2013


Well, this is something different.  This piece uses two transpositions of Messiaen's fourth mode.  The chords really do not make full use of the mode at all.  Rather, I found a more conventional couple of chords, and got stuck on them.  I decided to go with them.  The sound is not at all what I imagined to be happening in this project, but I feel somewhat refreshed by it.  While recording it I realized how much it sounds like some of the extended vamps from the Keith Jarrett Trio Blue Note box set, which I listened to extensively years ago.  Life is circular I guess.

It takes some courage to post this because it's a different side of me, one that I don't show so often, and haven't shown at all in this project.  But it is a part of me.  Just because I've spent years now avoiding presenting this sort of thing, doesn't mean it's not there somewhere inside wanting to be let out from time to time.

The title really has nothing to do with the music this time.  Rather, it's just a phrase that my friend and colleague Kirk Knuffke coined the other day when referring to the new 7-11 that opened in the neighborhood.  There was a time in my life when the opening of a 7-11 would have excited the hell out of me.  When I played in the Disney College Band, I used to get a 44 ounce cherry slurpee every day.  My poor liver.  I can't believe I'm still alive.  Now I find the new 7-11 to be a bit of a drag.  Something much cooler could have opened there.  I would be happier with a local business of some kind.  But, hey, you can't win them all....

Saturday, December 7, 2013

30.) Reach December 6, 2013


This is the second edition of this piece.  At first the line was played slowly, and there was an additional line which utilized several Messiaen techniques superimposed underneath it.  It was a lot of work, but in the end I wasn't feeling it.  So I began to mess around with the top line alone, and realized that it was a lot of fun to play as a medium/up tempo blues.  The line is composed of three transpositions of Messiaen's sixth mode.  The tritone interval is blatantly over used, which is fun.  For my solo, I attempted to use the scales, but didn't hold myself to them rigidly.

The title refers to our perception as performing musicians.  We want to play for people, and it can be discouraging when you have light attendance at a concert.  But perhaps the energy we are putting out goes beyond the people in the room with us.  Perhaps it is only our limited viewpoint that says one must be in the room to experience art.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

29.) Temperance November 27, 2013


Upon looking for inspiration, I listened to a little of Messiaen's organ music.  In fact, I heard about 30 seconds of his Prélude pour orgue and that was enough to send me off.  The stuff is so great.  I took some of the opening chords, analyzed them, and concluded that they were derived from two transpositions of mode two.  So, I decided to do the same in my piece.

It started out with definite shifts between the two modes, the chords are of one or the other.  But as I worked on the melody, I found that the notes of one of the modes sounded irresistible over the chords of the other, and I indulged.  So the piece is a progression from shifting modes to simultaneous modes.  I have to admit I love that sound.

Today I had the day off from teaching, so I was able to work on this piece this afternoon - a different time than usual.  It's a dark rainy day today as I was yesterday, and I found myself crabby and barely able to stay awake while making the score.  After I finished, I had to title the piece so I could save it, which is most often when the title is added.  I was trying to think of a word to describe light protruding from the gloom, because I find these Messiaen chords so illuminating.  But nothing was coming.  Then in a flash I realized that I was crabby and tired because I over ate, and was reminded of Ben Franklin's Virtues that I have recently read about in his Autobiography.  I highly recommend that book.  Anyway, Temperance is the first of the virtues, which are followed in order.  Franklin says one must master Temperance before moving onto Silence, etc.  His description for Temperance reads, "Eat not to dullness, drink not to elevation."  So here I was feeling the effects of ignoring the first virtue.  And how fitting that this is the day before Thanksgiving, when most Americans will ignore it as well.  I will make a valiant attempt to not forget Ben Franklin's first virtue tomorrow.  I hope you have a great Thanksgiving.  I'm thankful that you've checked out this project.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

28.) Full Spectrum November 22, 2013

Full Spectrum is an experiment utilizing three or four of Messiaen's techniques.  I'm not sure I'm entirely happy with the outcome, but I'm glad that I am comfortable enough to experiment in front of you like this.

The explanation of what I did is going to get very heady - sorry for that.  There is one of Messiaen's modes that I have had trouble using.  It is his fifth mode, of which the first transposition is [C Db F F# G B C].  I find this mode very limited and restricting, probably because there are only six pitches in it.  But I wanted to make use of it, and I did so by creating a row out of these pitches.  But rather than construct melodies and chords out of the row, I used it as a guide to determine the root of the chord I used.  I used several transpositions of the row and it's inversion, retrograde, and retrograde inversion.

Then I created a row of chord qualities, choosing chords that are triads with added notes.  These qualities include a major triad with a raised fourth added, major triad with a lowered third, major triad with a lowered second, minor with a fourth, and minor with a natural seventh.  The row was a sequence of eleven of these qualities, a prime number.

Rhythmically, the piece has four symmetrical, non-retrogradable, sequences, the center of each phrase marked with a 3/8 measure with a dotted quarter note.  The sequences are further defined with a different pedal point under each.

I am happy with the concept, but I might like to hear it orchestrated for an ensemble of some kind.   Or I would like to have more time to practice it, getting the soprano voice to speak clearly.  My dissatisfaction with the result here is mainly due to the melody being lost.  It's difficult to bring out the melody when many of the chords have close intervals in the top of the structure.   I'll keep trying.


Saturday, November 16, 2013

27.) A Life November 14, 2013

This piece is composed of the second transposition of Messiaen's second mode, the octatonic scale.  I really enjoy the possibilities that the mode offers.  This time I kept the mode during my improvisation, save for a couple mistakes.  Improvising with these modes has gotten easier as they've gotten more familiar.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

26.) Rides November 7, 2013

Rides is a sixteen bar blues boogaloo, using all three transpositions of the octatonic scale.  I happened to find a version of this bassline while messing around, and I thought it could work nicely in a blues form.  And, the bassline happens to be a palindrome, and therefor a non-retrogradable rhythm.  I originally had the center note as a quarter note, in a 5/4 meter, but decided to add a dot to it, in order to create a phrase that has a prime number of beats.  So this piece utilizes three of Messiaen's techniques: modes of limited transposition, non-retrogradable rhythms, and prime numbers.  And what's best is that it really sounds nothing like Messiaen.  If fact I can feel him shaking his head in disgust.  Great!

It was difficult to compose the melody because the bassline was very damn fun to play on.  I continually found myself improvising for extended periods, while I was trying to get the melody down.  It's just a fun thing to play.   I enjoyed it.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

25.) Time Before Time October 31, 2013

Another "bebopish" line, this time over the chords to Time After Time by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne.   I intended to use a different mode for this one, but found again that mode three worked the best for this sort of thing.  In attempt to make the line oddly phrased, and just for the fun of it, I kept a trill-like idea throughout it.

A special treat this week is that you get to hear the piece with a trio.  I convinced bassist Adam Hopkins and drummer Martin Urbach to let me record them when they were over for a rehearsal yesterday.  It was a lot of fun for me to have some company for this recording.

If you're paying close attention, you've noticed that I posted two pieces this week.  This was done in order to make up for a missed week in August.  I finally had a piece ready early enough in the week that I thought I could complete another.  So I'm back on schedule now.  Should be pretty smooth sailing from here on out, as long as the holidays don't get in the way too badly.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

24.) I Like You October 28, 2013

I found myself once again listening to Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz, and Warne Marsh last weekend.  I love the strangeness of the lines they wrote.  So I thought why not try to use one of Messiaen's modes to compose a line over a standard progression.  I chose mode three and the progression of I Love You by Cole Porter.  I'm sure Cole Porter is rolling in his grave; I heard he hated jazz, and I'd guess he wouldn't appreciate the Messiaen forced upon his progression either.   I suppose I'm using the slightly altered jazz musician changes to boot.  Mode three has plenty of half steps which I thought could assist me in this endeavor, and it actually nicely accommodates F major and A major tonalities, which happen to be the two key centers of I Love You.

This was a nice departure from the other ways I've been using Messiaen's ideas.  I enjoyed it, and I may do another.  It's actually somewhat difficult to write in this style, trying to use strange phrasing.  The conventions of bebop keep pulling one back into the proverbial line.   Please pardon me if my playing is a little rough around the edges.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

23.) Sendak October 25, 2013


Up to this point, I had overlooked Messiaen's fourth mode.  It consists of two four note chromatic cells a minor third apart.  For example [C,Db,D,Eb,Gb,G,Ab,A].  The piece uses four transpositions of this mode.  The use of each scale concludes with the two major triads that can be derived out of the mode, which happen to be a tritone apart.   I enjoy the sound of that relationship and I explored it in my improvisation.

I recently heard a Fresh Air interview with author/illustrator Maurice Sendak from December 2011, which was very beautiful and inspiring.   I highly recommend you check it out.  Terry Gross asked some questions that really opened him up.  It's very emotional.  It's full of vulnerability, integrity, and truth.  It encourages me to keep on keeping on with honesty, to follow my path, to trust my own voice.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

22.) Three Quarter Moon

Three Quarter Moon is in 12/8 time, which I rarely write in.  Interestingly a line in this meter just started coming out when I sat down this week.  I welcome it.  The piece features three voices.  Each of the three voices uses one of the three different octatonic scales.  It starts with a dialogue between the upper two voices, until the lower voice enters with the duplet rhythm.  Then the voices are added one at a time, until all three are happening at once.  It sounds a little chaotic at the end, but it was a fun thing to learn.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

21.) Majesty October 10, 2013


The following was written a few days ago:

It's Tuesday October 8th at 4:53 pm.  I'm sitting on a bench on the upper west side of Manhattan cleaning the sand out of my ears.  Earlier in the day I was surfing at Rockaway Beach in the morning sunlight.  There were whales surfacing and feeding a ways out from shore, as there had been two or three weeks earlier an amazing sight.  Since the waves were not all that great, I decided to paddle out a ways to get a closer look at the whales.  After floating out there about 100 yards from shore for a bit, another surfer came out and asked how the view was from there.  He introduced himself as Van and suggested we paddle out to the whales.  We'll take care of each other he said.   We paddled probably 200 yards and then sat waiting while the offshore wind blew us out even further.  Before we knew it we were amidst a school of baitfish jumping out of the water like popping corn.  There was a whale a ways away directly in the morning sun glare, so it was hard to see.  But soon we saw the back of the whale arcing out of the water only about 50 feet away.  It appeared to be getting closer.  Then suddenly there was a disturbance among the baitfish.  They all jumped.  And immediately afterward the big floppy jaw of a whale came exploding out of the water.  It's giant elastic gullet filled with water and baitfish as it splashed back into the water. This sequence happened three more times.  The third time, the whale was only about 20 feet from us!  Van and I were shouting with joy.  It seemed surreal.  I was not afraid of the whale.  I guess there was a chance that it could have accidentally knocked us over, but I figured it could adequately see us and hear us losing our minds with happiness.  Amazingly, Van had a camera with him.  Who takes their camera out surfing?  He had it for a reason apparently.  I'm anxiously waiting him to email me some photos if they turned out.   I've probably checked my email 300 times this afternoon.  Anyway, the whale was moving down shore, and it being slightly freaky being about a half mile from shore, Van and I decided to paddle in.  I spent another hour or so riding waves.  Now I sit on a bench in the intersection of Broadway and 104th street in Manhattan contemplating the experience with a big grin on my face.  I'm not sure if Van is on the island right now, but in any case, I must be one of only one or two people out of 17 million (or whatever they say the daytime population of Manhattan is) on this island who swam with a school bus-sized whale this morning.   This is a day I will never forget.  I'm filled with happiness, wonder, and peace.  It's a great feeling to know that creatures of that immensity and beauty are living on this planet, and I feel honored to have had the opportunity to experience it so up close in the wild.   I must thank Van for suggesting we paddle out and take care of each other.   


Van did send me a photo that night.  A great shot.  After some internet research, I identified the whales as Humpbacks.  They can be fifty feet long and forty tons.  Amazing.  

Now I'm going to get overly analytical about titling and emotion in music.  I usually choose a title feeling a little unsure about it, mainly because I believe that instrumental music does not transfer SPECIFIC emotions from composer/performer to listener.  I believe more so that it transfers a broad range of generalized emotions to SOME listeners, and that it's a deeply personal experience.  What I hear emotionally is not what you hear emotionally, if indeed a performance or recording transfers any emotion to either of us at all.   I think of myself as an emotionally attached musician.  I have a feeling for harmony.  Certain chords express certain emotions for me, as do certain chord progressions and melodic ideas.  When I hear some of these, I get feelings that are really hard to describe, some more specific, some more vague.  Not everyone gets these feelings.  John Cage is someone who loved sound and its many possibilities, but he publicly stated that he had no feeling for harmony.  When I think of my musician friends, I think I can tell who feels harmony and who doesn't.  That's not a judgement on their musicality or character.  It's just an observation of variety.  Variety is good.  Obviously if Cage didn't have a feeling for harmony, it's not a flaw for a musician to be that way.  

Oftentimes what happens is that as a piece of music is being shaped, I begin to get a sense of the emotion of the piece, usually quite early in the process.  Sometimes I begin a piece with an idea that I feel good about, but can't find an emotional attachment to it; I can't find a feeling it expresses.  If no feeling arises eventually, which is rare, I will abandon the idea or at least set it aside for later.  Most of the time the feeling comes quite quickly, it helps me continue, and gets stronger and stronger as I work.   And most of the time an emotion from a recent experience will come up.  This week is a classic example of that.  Tuesday morning was a truly unforgettable, once in a lifetime experience for me.  I have been reliving the memory of it since it happened.  So it was natural that this feeling came up as I began the piece.  

So in titling and attaching or feeling emotions I feel both dissatisfied and satisfied.  Dissatisfied because a Cadd9 chord does not put you in the water with me and the whales.  Satisfied because music can speak to listeners in different ways, and perhaps it is the best just because of that.  I could be feeling one thing as a composer and performer, and you could interpret that feeling into something personally relevant for you.  Or if you're not an emotional listener, such as John Cage, you could be stimulated by the other qualities of the music.  Also, I think the fact that music can express vague emotions makes it all the more valuable.  Maybe that's why people love it so much.  Maybe it's the answer.    

I primarily listen to instrumental music.  In fact, when I listen to music with lyrics, the lyrics are the last thing I pay attention to.  It's usually only after many repeatedly listening that I start to pay attention to the words.  So for me, those songs usually have some personal feeling that I've associated with them before the feelings conveyed by the lyrics (if they exist) are acknowledged.  I wonder though if you emotional listeners who do listen to primarily vocal music and pay closest attention to the words have your own emotional reaction aside from the lyrics.  I'm guessing that the answer is most often yes.     

Finally, I would say that although my specific feeling might not be transferred to you the listener, the act of putting that feeling into my work is still valuable.  It's valuable because it helps me connect with the material, and stay connected to it after as it is played many times.  And sometimes the emotion will mutate into something else.  Or a new life experience will come about and sneak it's way into a piece that had a different emotion association to begin with.  As a listener I like to hear emotion being put into  the music.  It helps me connect and stay engaged.  

Majesty is crafted out of Messiaen's third mode, first transposition.  I gravitated toward the conventional chords in the scale, mostly majors.  But what is less conventional is the relationship between the chords.  The chords often move in thirds, and quite rapidly and unexpectedly from one tonal center to another.  I enjoy that sound, but it does make it challenging to improvise over, especially if one wants to play melodically.  

Saturday, October 5, 2013

20.) Roof Rain October 3, 2013

This piece is composed entirely of the first transposition of Messiaen's 2nd mode, aka the diminished or octatonic scale.  This scale happens to be the one I'm most familiar with, probably because it has a very convenient shape on the keyboard.  I combined this technique with the technique of added values.  Messiaen often added a dot to one note of a phrase which would otherwise have been rhythmically even.  In Roof Rain, this is done in the left hand part fairly clearly.  I thought it would be fun to improvise over.  I enjoyed it.

We're having a new roof put on the house, which consists of the old shingles and trim being torn off.  So for the past couple weeks there has been a fairly steady flow of debris falling off the house and landing in the yard.  It's a terrible mess, but there's really no way to avoid it.  We're looking forward to a leak-free roof and a clean yard.

Monday, September 30, 2013

A Conversation with Will Mason

This summer I got an email out of the blue from drummer/composer Will Mason about the Messiaen Project.  He was interested in a sort of written exchange about the project and other stuff.  What came out of it was this conversation we had via emails.  Below is the full conversation, copied and pasted with permission from Will's site.  I think we get into some nice stuff.  Thanks to Will! Enjoy.  
Jesse Stacken is an amazing pianist, composer, and thinker. If you haven’t heard his CD “Bagatelles for Trio” I’d strongly recommend seeking it out. But more to the point for inaugurating this interview series, Jesse’s been composing one song a week based on the music and writings of Olivier Messiaen. You can listen to the exciting (and surprisingly varied) fruits of his labor over at his blog. We exchanged e-mails for a week; our conversation is below.
Will Mason: In prefacing your Messiaen Project, you wrote: “I aim to take his techniques and combine them with my own ideas to create something personal and perhaps even unique. I’m sure I will use the techniques abstractly at times, and other times they might go undetected.” And then you expressed this worry: “My other concern is that the narrowness of this project might have too strong of an influence on my total creative output.  I’m not sure if this will happen or not, but I’m confident that it will balance out eventually.  Also, I think Messiaen is a rare enough influence in the jazz world, so I’m not worried about it diminishing my individuality.”
This encapsulates one of the principal concerns that I think composers have been dealing with for the better part of the 20th century: the balance between system and intuition. It’s a false dichotomy — even a system as rigid as total serialism requires a significant degree of musical intuition in setting up the parameters — but it’s persistent, which means it must get at something integral to the psychic process of composing. Fundamentally, any composition is systematic in some way: sit down and hum a little melody, and what you’re actually doing is adhering to a system of tonal relations, of melodic schema omnipresent in western music, and so forth. I think the complex relationship between system and intuition is an especially widespread concern in the world of jazz, where so much of the culture stresses the importance of having a singular style both as a composer and performer. (Though of course this has always been true in classical composition as well.) You express some concern about sounding like Messiaen, but none of your pieces so far really do. There’s nothing inherent in the modes of limited transposition that effects a “Messiaen” vibe, just like there’s nothing about a blues scale that suggests Lester Young. Messiaen sounds like Messiaen because of his treatment of orchestration, instrumentation, motive, gesture — all these deeply musical factors that lie outside of the more “rigid” or technical aspects of his language. So I wonder what your thoughts are on all of that; why turn to conscious, foregrounded systems? What are you getting out of it? Do you feel like you’re compromising some part of your musical self, or cutting yourself off from traditionally identifiable elements of jazz in some way?
Jesse Stacken: I think that turning to conscious, foregrounded systems is helpful because it narrows my choices down a bit, and allows me to approach the task of beginning a new composition with some kind of direction.  It’s true that none of these systems determine the total outcome of the piece, not even total serialism.  And in total serialism there are choices made in the organization of the parameters that will dramatically effect the sound of it in the end.  Something as simple as tempo can completely change the mood.  Before I actually tried using serialism, I remember thinking that it was a cold, mathematical system that seemed to have nothing to do with self expression.  But around 2004-2005 I began writing atonal aiming music (if you believe there is such a thing), and I found that Schoenberg’s twelve tone system was helpful by narrowing my pitch choices down a bit, and it most often suggested pitches that sounded great and fit the vibe of what I was going for.  My first serial piece is called North Shore and it’s on my first record That That.   Since then I’ve used the system many times and have usually enjoyed the process and the result.
Another reason to turn to such systems and the techniques of Messiaen in particular, is to push myself in new directions, both in process and outcome.  Besides the enjoyment I get out of writing fifty-two pieces with Messiaen’s techniques, I hope and expect that it will add some new sounds and new understanding to my palette.  I don’t feel like I’m compromising some part of my musical self, but perhaps accessing new parts of it, or forcing my own process through a filter of sorts.  I’m using the techniques to find my sound via different routes.
At the moment, and in this project, I don’t feel like I’m cutting myself off from traditionally identifiable elements of jazz.  At times in my life, notably after I finished my master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music, I felt like I needed to distance myself from straight ahead jazz and the jazz education world.  I spent seven years in music school and I loved it.   I was some what terrified of leaving it.  I needed a clean breakup.  I was looking for ways of distancing myself from it, trying to avoid the trendy sounds, and using things like serialism to do so.  It was not necessarily natural to do that at the time – it often felt forced.  Now I am open to those traditional sounds, and not trying to consciously avoid them, although in some sense what’s done is done – I don’t find them coming out too often.   But I have found some pop and country sounds surfacing sometimes, and part of the exercise of a weekly project like this is to allow them to come to realization.
Will Mason: I wonder if you’d talk a little bit more about why you would pick Messiaen? He’s such an important figure in 20th century music but yours is one of the first projects I’ve heard that explicitly brings him into the jazz world. I find this strange in part because, having been trained in the French organ tradition, he was such a gifted improviser. On the one hand he often spoke derisively of jazz; but then there’s been an entire dissertation written examining the impact that jazz may have had on his compositions. And I remember Billy Hart once talked to me about Messiaen, and I wrote down what he said: “I remember when I was with Stan Getz in 1978, and he took me to a Messiaen concert, and Messiaen was in attendance. I knew that Tony Williams had turned Herbie Hancock on to Messiaen, but when I finally heard the Messiaen piano works, it sounded to me like someone was trying to imitate Herbie Hancock!”
He’s this very singular, Janus-like figure: his music sounds like no one else, and composers since Messiaen have no doubt taken great pains not to imitate him. But so much of what came before him artistically and so much of what happened to music during his long life are audible in his compositions. And I’d argue that much of what has happened in classical music composition since bears his influence. His music, like the best jazz, manages to be both prescient and part of a clear lineage.
Jesse Stacken: I’ll give you the classic cliché answer: Messiaen chose me.  I was not actively looking to use a composer’s techniques for a year-long project, but the idea came to me midway through my previous weekly composition project.
To give you a brief history of these projects, I first spent a year recording and posting a daily improvisation.  That project came about on a whim.  I had gotten a new zoom recorder, and for no particular reason one day I turned it on and recorded an improvisation.   I did the same a few days later, and then suddenly started wondering what would happen if I did that every day.  And in order to stick to it, I decided to upload them onto my website.  I had no intention of going for a year, or stopping after a year, but when that moment came it seemed natural to stop, although I didn’t want to stop. So I decided to do a weekly improvisation that had a time requirement of an hour or longer.   This was inspired by some extended group improvisations that I had been doing with friends at the time.  After a year of that, it again seemed time for a change, so I began the weekly composition project.  It seemed like a logical next step. That project was very similar to The Messiaen Project, but without the techniques of Messiaen.
Midway through the weekly composition project, I cracked open Messiaen’s book “The Technique of My Musical Language” after playing a session with saxophonist Robin Verheyen, who is also a “Messiaen head.”  He briefly showed me Messiaen’s third mode on the piano, which finally made me open that book, which I had had on the shelf for awhile.  I went straight to the musical examples, pulled out the third mode and wrote Molt.  The scale put me on a new planet, so to speak.   There was a world of sound in it.  I had the same feeling when I learned one of Messiaen’s Vignt Regards the previous year.  After writing Molt, I felt that there was enough substance there to spend a year using Messiaen’s modes.  Glancing through the Technique of My Musical Language confirmed that feeling.  The ideas were simply there for the taking.  And the bottom line was that I loved Messiaen’s music, which I had been seriously checking out for a few years.
The reasons why Messiaen’s music speaks to me are his melodicism and extended harmonies, especially the ones that have “wrong” sounding notes in them.  He is avant-garde, but not usually abrasive.  My favorite Messiaen pieces have an indisputable radiant quality to them.  He manages to make dissonance sound like love.  And the fact that Messiaen wrote about his techniques so thoroughly, and that I have easy access to some of those writings, helped him be a natural choice.  I love Bartok’s music also, but somehow it seems like I’d have trouble finding enough specific techniques to borrow, and they’re not as clearly documented explained by the composer as far as I know.
The fact that Messiaen was a great improviser isn’t what draws me to him, although I have the utmost respect for it, and I particularly love the fact that his congregation at Trinity Church was exposed to his improvisations weekly.  If he had been playing at my church when I was a kid, I’d still be going there!  What’s interesting to me about Messiaen being an improviser, is that I too am essentially an improviser, and ninety-five percent or the pieces I write, including those written for this project, are only means of getting myself into various zones for improvisation.  They are merely suggestions.  They are perhaps incomplete without the improvising.  They are the expositions and I improvise the developments.  Most often I don’t require myself to stick to the chosen mode or modes of the piece during the improvisation, unless they are scales I have very well under my fingers and the tempo allows me to not fall on my face.  But I’d like to think that I am intuitively elaborating on the sound of the modes as well as his rhythmic techniques.  Perhaps  after composing with his modes for a year, I will better be able to improvise with them also.  After all, composition can be viewed as improvisation slowed down, and vice versa.
As far as the lack of jazz musicians using Messiaen’s techniques, I do know of some people are experimenting with them. Tyshawn Sorey and Sylvie Courvosier have explored Messiaen.  Although I’m not sure how extensively they’ve studied the techniques, or how they’ve used them.
And I hear that one of my classmates at Manhattan School of Music, Adam Czerepinski, did his doctoral thesis on applying Messiaen’s techniques to jazz.  I’ve yet to hunt him down for it, but I would really like to do check it out at some point.  I’m sure there are many more too, but they’re probably not as open about it as I am being in this project.  It’s sometimes tempting to keep it secretive, but all this Internet social media hoopla has gotten me into a sharing mood.
Will Mason: That’s really interesting to hear about your compositional attitude — that “ninety-five percent of the pieces I write, including those written for this project, are only means of getting myself into various zones for improvisation.” When I compose, I think of improvisation as one tool of many to use to get a desired effect: there are some things that can never happen in an improvisation, and there are so many things that could never be written down that happen in improvisation. For instance, the opening of my piece “Finn” is a lightly-directed free improv for about two minutes; by writing one sentence of instructions I feel like the band produces something that is both exactly what I imagined and yet worlds ahead of what I could have composed with determinate tools.
But for me the composed material generally is what I think of as the orienting material in my music, and I think that’s to some extent true in a lot of other modern jazz that I listen to. For instance, Tim Berne is a huge personal influence, and a lot of his music formally could be described as a series of notated scenes or moments connected by improvisation. The effect almost invariably is of exposition and development, or theme and variations, or stasis and transition, or tight-knit and loose-knit: the improvisation is connective tissue, necessarily a part of the music on the page and yet also capable of transcending it altogether. In Berne’s music the effect is magical; in “Sublime and Science Friction Live” the way the band drops in and out of improvised material still makes my jaw drop.
But you seem to be operating in a different but related way; that maybe the composed music is just a way of getting into a headspace for improvising. Like an outline on a notecard before giving a speech. All of this interests me because so far we’ve mostly been discussing improvisation from a composer/performer-oriented perspective; I think that for a listener much of this is moot. Obviously a serial head won’t produce serial solos–who could solo serially? who would want to?–but it may set up an aesthetic that carries into solos. Or, possibly more interestingly, a serial head may give way to lush, consonant soloing in a manner totally unprecedented by the head and totally divorced from the underlying compositional system. But it would still be nice to listen to! I suppose I don’t have a specific question for you about this, except to see what your thoughts are. I spend a lot of time thinking about the various possible effects of improvisation for composers and for listeners, and yet I have almost no solidified thoughts about it still…It will be one of the central concerns of this interview series, I hope.
As an interesting aside, I just found this 2011 blurb in Keyboardmag by Brian Charette, about using the modes of limited transposition in a jazz setting. I wonder what you think?
(Also, Bartok’s language has been really extensively documented by musicologists. It’s often dense reading but there’s lots of fertile material to be mined, for sure!)
Jesse Stacken: You say “the composed material generally is what I think of as the orienting material in my music.”  This to me is not much different than saying that I use the composed material to get me into a specific zone for improvisation.  I try to be sensitive to the effect that the composed material has on me or the other musicians who are playing the tune.  If the music creates some kind of structure that will easily enhance my improvising, I’m likely to play over that structure, keeping the form in the traditional jazz way.  If it becomes a struggle to keep the form, or navigate weird harmony or meters, I’m more likely to just play open after the composed material.  I have experimented with extended forms and solo sections in the past, but have found that lately I prefer the sound of great musicians playing over simple forms.  I don’t enjoy the sound of someone struggling or especially falling back in finger patterns just to keep up.  Interestingly, when I was doing my master’s degree at MSM, I did so much playing over complicated forms and odd meters that I found it more challenging to just play 4/4.  So I guess it’s a matter of conditioning.  But I would say that these days I don’t really give a shit about people being able to play overly complex music – I just want to hear some honest emotion, and I’m guessing that the general public would agree with me.
As for the Brian Charette article, I have no problem with it.  I’m happy to see someone making use of Messiaen’s modes.  It’s nice because it’s not standardized and it’s not taught it schools, so there’s a freshness there.  Anything that counters the effect of jazz schools producing thousands of jazz musicians that all sound the same is welcomed by me.
Will Mason: Interesting! I think you’re exactly right, that our two attitudes are closer than it may sound. And I think the idea of playing against a form or a meter that doesn’t easily lend itself to soloing is interesting too. Some of my favorite solos are very loose with regard to the meter and form — just this morning I stumbled on this video of Max Roach’s band, where Coleridge Perkinson sets up his solo with some really beautiful loose phrasing on top of the 5/4 vamp. But then I also think of Steve Lehman’s octet, where those forms are so complex and yet everyone seems to be really inside the form, and that of course sounds awesome too.
You mention some things about your time at MSM, which brings me to one of the last things I’d hoped to talk about: authenticity. I am constantly worried that my music will be seen as gimmicky, which is really another way of saying inauthentic. Obviously individuality and authenticity are time-honored elements of jazz, as is novelty (though I don’t think many musicians like to call their music “novel”). My own inclination towards certain compositional systems is in part to make my music sound less like what other musicians are doing, and yet I feel like there’s starting to be a compartmentalizing of this kind of music–ubergeek jazz, or something. I think it’s also closely tied to the prominence of conservatory training in jazz today, which you mentioned: most jazz musicians probably got their hands dirty with Babbitt and Stockhausen in a conservatory music theory class, and so a compositional language that bears the influence of European modernism generally also brandishes a certain kind of academic credential.
I fret about this a lot; do you? At a certain point it seems like there’s no use worrying about it; that we absorb the music we absorb and that all we can do is to compose and perform the music we’d most like to be playing. But sometimes that seems too naive…
The presence or absence of emotion, which you mentioned, also points towards a degree of authenticity, and maybe that’s the way out of this conundrum: be it simple or complex, just play from the gut. (My favorite performances of the “cold, austere” European Modernists are generally those that rock out the hardest.)
Jesse Stacken: I agree with you about hearing people like Steve Lehman’s Octet really getting inside and playing complex forms and meters so well.  I have a lot of respect for it.  But for my own music, I’m generally looking to keep things simple these days.  Now watch, the next piece I write will probably be all complex or something.
As for authenticity, I have shared your concerns about what others think about what we are doing.  The term “gimmicky” has never crossed my mind personally, but probably many similar thoughts have.  I wrote a lot about “what others think” in my weekly composition project.  In fact, I think the biggest benefit I got out of that project was moving in the direction of trusting myself more.  And for sure the happiest moments in that project and the Messiaen Project have been the times when I took a chance on being “unhip” or “uncool” and just allowing whatever my my little ear/heart desired to come out.  It’s all about being yourself.  After a certain amount of basic musical skill is developed, isn’t being yourself as a musician the most important thing?  And how many of us are really allowing that to happen?  We don’t love the masters because they were following the crowd and playing what was hip at the time, or because they were good at sounding like other musicians.   We love them because they were individuals.
However, being yourself might not get you immediate acclaim.  There are countless examples of artists who were not appreciated while they were alive doing their work.  In our instant gratification society nowadays, it’s harder than ever to trust yourself, especially if you’re swimming upstream so to speak.   Social media is set up for instant gratification (check to see how many people liked/favorited that last post every ten minutes for the rest of the day), and I think that aspect of it is extremely toxic for art.  It’s natural to want to be liked, but the popularity contest of especially Facebook puts that way too front and center.  A few months ago while composing, I caught myself wondering if that particular compositional choice would garner a lot of “likes” when I posted it.  Then I realized how messed up that was and that that thought was extremely toxic.  I was almost allowing somebody, who I perhaps don’t even know very well, influence my work with the potential of probably fast, unthoughtful judgement and a split second click of a button on a computer.  I was disturbed.  From that day on, I gave up “liking” and “favoriting” on social media sites.  I choose to comment instead.  I am grateful for the opportunity to share and connect through these sites and services, but the “like” bullshit which our society is now saturated with bothers me, and it probably makes being authentic an even bigger challenge.
In the past, I have also had the strong inclination to try to make my music sound less like the music of others.  But I’ve gotten over that a bit.  If I’m truly being myself, my music will sound like me, even if I require it to use the techniques of Messiaen.
It’s interesting what you say about students “getting their hands dirty with Stockhausen or Babbitt in a conservatory”.  I can see your concern about it, but I really don’t think it’s all that common.  If jazz majors are even required to take a classical music history course, it’s probably not very in depth.  And those students are probably way more concerned with learning Coltrane solos.  I know I was.  I didn’t really get into any of my classical influences until at least three to four years after finishing at MSM.  At the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, the great school at which I earned my bachelors degree, twentieth century music was not taken very seriously, at least by the students.   The attitude was, “Oh look how weird that Harry Partch was.  Now let’s get back to the Beethoven.”  Embarrassingly, I wasn’t really concerned with anything beyond Debussy or Stravinsky at that time.  I remember learning one of the later Microcosmos by Bartok in my freshmen year and really not liking it!  Now Bartok is one of my all time favorites.  Anyway, I’m not too concerned about European modernism being in jazz academia.  And even beyond that, I get the feeling that many professional jazz musicians in other smaller scenes (and many in NYC too) are still primarily concerned with II-V-I’s and bebop, and are happy to dedicate their lives to that, and that’s fine with me.
At the end of the day, I guess I try not to worry about what others think or what others are doing, and just be myself, with myself, experiencing the beauty of nature, and allowing what I love to be apart of the music I create.  It’s not always easy to do that, but a little struggle and discomfort is good.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

19.) Refresh September 24, 2013


This week I took a break from the modes of limited transposition and decided to focus on another technique that Messiaen used.  It was nice to take a break from the modes and take a different approach.  In The Technique of My Musical Language, Messiaen writes a lot about prime numbers, mainly in regard to phrase length - phrases with a total rhythmic length that is a prime number are preferred.

I decided to use primes in a different way here.  I constructed a sequence of intervals that used exclusively prime numbers, that was non-retrogradable, and that had a total number of thirteen intervals (also a prime number).  Basically, I had to use these intervals like a row, using each one before the next, following their order.  I didn't repeat the intervals within the sequence.   The sequence is the following: [-3,11,5,1,7,2,13,2,7,1,5,11,-3].  I made the thirds minor to avoid a diatonic situation.  All other intervals are major or perfect.

After I finished, I was looking up prime numbers on the internet, mainly to find a title for a piece.  I noticed on the Wikipedia that 1 is not considered a prime number.  My relationship to prime numbers mainly consists of them helping me with stage fright in public restrooms, so I wasn't really aware of this.  But my use of 1 turned out to be one of the most important decisions I made.  It really defined the character of the piece because it was realized with repeated notes.  It was actually annoying to deal with in the composing process, but, along with the juxtaposed perfect fifth, it gave the piece a specific vibe.

The title, Refresh, not only refers to a refreshing break from the modes of limited transposition, but also the September weather in New York City (it's the best), and the refreshment allowed by my recently acquired means of surfing into the cooler months (it's also the best).

Saturday, September 21, 2013

18.) Whales September 19, 2013


Thursday I was surfing with my buddy Justin Keller out at Rockaway Beach in Queens, NY.  The waves were okay.  Not the best, but still some fun rides.  Halfway through the session we spotted some unusually large animals surfacing about 150-200 yards out to sea.  At first we thought dolphins, which we have seen before.  But soon these creatures were jumping out of the water and they were clearly something bigger.  Some construction workers working on the boardwalk thought they were Humpback whales.  They were too far to accurately identify by my knowledge, but they were definitely whales.  They spent about 45 minutes surfacing, doing back flops, and spraying mist out of their blowholes.  It was truly an amazing sight, unforgettable.  All the surfers were cheering them on as they showed off.  I was so surprised to see whales this close to New York City.  It was the best.  I felt a connection to nature.  My cozy wetsuit was an imitation of the skin of these magnificent creatures and we were both playing in the sea.

So I had to somehow relate this to a composition.  I had already started the piece before we saw the whales, but decided that it had a "watery" enough sound to warrant a whale referencing title.  The piece is constructed of Messiaen's third mode.  First I extracted all the seventh chords I could out of the scale, then constructed a melody, and finally harmonized it with the chords.  At one point I was playing with the idea of having pedal tones underneath, but finally decided I liked it better with out.  For my improvisation I stayed within the scale.  It was a little tricky and you might hear me hesitating a bit, but halfway through I started thinking in blocks of these chords which I had used to construct the piece, and I think the improvisation opens up a bit then.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

17.) Filbert Street September 10, 2013

Filbert Street utilizes all six transpositions of Messiaen's sixth mode.  Each phrase, separated with a measure of rest, is written in a different transposition.   I also used non-retrogradable rhythms for this piece.  Each phrase is an extended palindrome.  Ironically, to create a non-retrogradable phrase such as these, one has to compose a phrase up to a certain point, and then actually retrograde the rhythm to finish it.  So the retrograde is what makes it non-retrogradable.  In The Technique of My Musical Language Messiaen explains his use of rhythmic pivot points.  Each non-retrogradable phrase has a center note at where the reflection takes place.  This ties in with his preference for phrases who's total rhythmic value is a prime number, such as a phrase equaling eleven eighth notes.  Conventional phrase lengths are typically in even numbers, and the use of prime numbers can create a sense openness, and get one away from the ubiquitous four-bar phrase.  I didn't actually concern myself with the prime numbers while I composed.  But afterward I noticed that all the phrases were actually prime in length, with the exception of the last one.

Filbert Street in San Francisco is one of the steepest streets in the world, and my wife and I had the pleasure of driving down it a few weeks ago.  It was scary and fun.  The hills of that city really give it a vibe.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

16.) Stuck Unstuck September 4, 2013


For this one I'm working with two transpositions of the second mode, which is the diminished or octatonic scale.  The right hand chords are derived from the second transposition, the left hand from the first.  An additional organizing parameter was used, in the area of intervals.  The left hand and right hand intervallic structures mirror each other.  This is different from Attraction (July 25) in that here the mirroring is not concerning the geography of the keyboard (if that makes any sense at all).

The combination of these two organizing parameters (the scales and the interval structures) limited my choices quite a bit.  As I worked, my process evolved into this: For each of the four bar sections, I first composed the melody, then filled in right hand harmony with mode two, second transposition.  Then I inverted the intervals and found appropriate notes for the left hand in mode two, first transposition.  What it came down to was choices between left hand structures that were a minor third apart.

For the improv sections, I decided to improvise with the two modes.  In the first open section my right hand continued with the second transposition, with the left hand continued with the first transposition.  In the second open section, I flipped the two.  It is quite sparse and simple, but I am improvising with polymodality, which felt like a good brain exercise.  

The title seems like a stupid reference to the composing process.  But I'm actually referencing my general feeling the last couple days.  This is a great time of year in NYC.  The weather cools a bit, the air seems clearer.  It reminds me of three memorable moves in my past.  One, moving to NYC (gulp) eleven years ago.  Two, moving to Brooklyn seven years ago. Three, moving downstairs in the same house in Brooklyn two years ago.  All three moves were exciting.  Late summer/early fall is the time when I'm sad to see summertime ending, but also looking forward to getting back into the routine and getting some work done.  It's bittersweet, and it can leave me feeling stuck and then unstuck quite rapidly.

Friday, August 30, 2013

15.) Doheny August 30, 2013


My wife and I just returned from a California trip.  It was basically a drive down Highway 1 from San Francisco to Los Angeles.  It was amazing.  The Pacific Ocean has magical powers.  It's unfathomable.  You'll surely be reading more about the trip on this blog in the future.  One of the highlights for me was an afternoon of surfing at Doheny State Beach in southern Orange County.  I went to this beach on recommendation of my buddy Justin Keller.  It was a special place.  Gentle waves and gentle surfers.  I've heard a lot about the angry territorial surfers of southern California and the strict etiquette followed at the heavily populated beaches.  As a relative beginner, I was looking for a place with a more relaxed vibe, and Doheny was perfect.   People were having a lot of fun, and were not concerned about dropping in.  (Dropping in is basically catching a wave that someone has already caught, often restricting their route options.) They were cheering each other on.  It was beautiful.  For me, surfing is about connecting with nature and having fun.  Doheny was the perfect place to experience both of those things.

So getting back to composing this week, I was naturally hearing something of major tonality, just to reflect the beauty of the trip.  So I went with Messiaen's seventh mode, which is essentially a chromatic scale minus two pitches.  I thought I would be able to extract the major tonality out of it.  In this case, I was in G major and the pitches I had to avoid were A and Eb.  It was especially challenging to avoid A - I was hearing it so often.  I was forced to find my way around it.  Just like avoiding surfers who were paddling out while I was riding a wave (if you allow me to be so corny).

Monday, August 12, 2013

15.) Brightness August 11, 2013

I squeezed this one in between travels.  Here we have two transposition of Messiaen's second mode, the beloved diminished or octatonic scale.  The top voice, which was composed in it's entirety before the lower voice was added, uses the first transposition.  It was composed without any rhythmic structure, but I consciously kept the opening ideas in mind as I worked.  The bottom voice uses the third transposition, and did have a preconceived rhythmic structure of short eighth note phrases separated by an eighth rest.  After every four measure or so one eighth note is added to the phrase length.  It is kind of obnoxious, but also gives the piece a particular vibe.

The title refers to how I'm feeling today.  My wife and I just spent five days in Philadelphia at the Strengthening Health Institute studying macrobiotics with Denny Waxman and Susan Waxman.  We learned a lot about the philosophies behind macrobiotics and also the practical applications of it.  We were served delicious food prepared with the best ingredients in the most careful and caring way.  This food and knowledge has left me feeling satisfied, inspired, clear-minded, and bright.  This piece was extremely easy to write because of the state of mental clarity I was in.  If you are interested in improving your life, I highly recommend checking out the Waxman's and the SHI.

I'm particularly thankful for that clarity as I only had a short time to get a composition written, notated, learned, recorded, and uploaded.  Unfortunately my upcoming travels will prohibit me from uploading a piece next week.  As I wrote earlier, I am committed to writing fifty-two pieces for this project, so with your grace, I will upload two pieces in one week in the near future as a make-up.  Happy August.  

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

14.) Misconnect August 4, 2013

Misconnect was formed out of a transposition of Messiaen's third mode.  It's very exciting for me to take a mode of his and see what chords can be formed from it.  Most modes render unconventional relationships between commonly used chords.  For this piece I used only major triads from that one transposition.  The triads available from this transposition of the third mode are F, Gb, A, Bb, Db, D.   We see that there are relationships that are more conventional; those in perfect fourths, F to Bb, Db to Gb, and A to D, and their inversions, D to A, Gb to Db, Bb to F.  But what's most appealing to me are the less conventional relationships; those based in major and minor thirds, F to A, Gb to A, etc.  Of course at this point in history triads moving in thirds is nothing new.  I remember studying a Brahms Symphony in college and discovering many tertiary harmonic relationships.  They also call to mind Bartok for me.  But what's interesting and enjoyable with the Messiaen technique is that these triads are all tied together with the mode.  They have a different relationship than they do in Brahms.  I feel encouraged to move between them and they're supported by the melodic use of the mode.  And it's all the more encouraging that the piece doesn't sound like a Messiaen piece.


Thursday, August 1, 2013

13.) Dialogues July 30, 2013

Dialogues is a two voice piece which utilizes Messiaen's fifth mode of limited transposition.  The upper voices uses one transposition [B C Db F Gb G], while the lower uses another [D Eb E Ab A Bb].  Combined they include every note of the chromatic scale.  The mode is interesting in theory, but using it was not very easy.  This one felt limiting, and I grew tired of my limited choices quickly.  I felt like I was overusing all of the pitches, always returning to the same ones.  Happily, the juxtaposition of two voices with two different transpositions seems to obscure that feeling in the final result.  Also, I welcome challenges like this and hope that by dealing with some of these limitations I will be pushed into new territory and grow as a composer and musician.

Rhythmically, Dialogues features a superimposition of structures.  The rhythm of the top voice repeats after five measures, while the rhythm of the bottom voice repeats after three.  The piece is fifteen measures in total because in that time all superimpositions are realized within those patterns.  The sixteenth measure would be rhythmically the same as the first.  

Thursday, July 25, 2013

12.) Attraction July 25, 2013

I was fooling around with some Messiaen modes trying to find ideas this week, when I noticed that a certain transposition of his third mode had a couple of mirror points on the piano.  The pitches of this mode are [D Eb F Gb G A Bb B Db D].  If one starts this scale on D and plays it in contrary motion, the right hand ascending while the left hand descends, the intervals are symmetrical and the hands mirror each other.  Later I discovered that certain transpositions of all Messiaen's modes actually have mirror points on the keyboard.

I thought it would be fun to compose a piece in which the hands mirror each other throughout.  It was interesting because often times I heard something I liked for one hand, but wasn't crazy about what the mirroring voice had to do.  I had to either change my original idea, or accept it and move on.   About halfway through composition process, I remembered that I haven't done much with non-retrogradable rhythms for awhile, and I thought that they would work out quite poetically with the mirroring idea.  So I simply used measure 15 as a mirror point and then retrograded the rhythm of the first 14 measures.  This also made for some interesting phrasing, especially in combination with the mirroring pitch structures.

I naturally gravitated toward one of few mirrored structures in the scale that had a strong tonality, that of G-flat major.  As it shaped up, it seemed that the piece became movement to and from G-flat major.  I enjoyed the experiment and wouldn't be surprised if I revisited the mirror idea before this project is concluded.

It feels good to be working at home again with my usual instrument and equipment.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

11.) Polaris July 15, 2013

This is the final post from the NY Summer Music Festival in Oneonta, NY.  I have enjoyed my time here, but as for the Messiaen Project, I am really looking forward to getting back to my usual set up in Brooklyn.  Waiting for me there is a better piano, better recording gear, and a computer that is much easier to use for this stuff.  However, I'm not in the clear yet.  Travel plans in August may mess with my schedule a bit. 

Polaris is more or less a reaction to the institutional surroundings I've been in for the past four weeks.   I think NYSMF is fantastic.  The jazz faculty I'm working with are amazing humans, players, and teachers.  I've learned a lot from them and it's been a joy working with them.  The students have also been great.  I've learned a lot from them too.  However, I do not find myself in the jazz education world very often.  I have some private jazz piano students, but one on one is a little different than functioning as part of a department.  The interesting thing is that I was extremely attached to the jazz education scene when I was in school.  I loved it both at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and the Manhattan School of Music.  But having been away from that scene for nine years, it's a bit of a shock to come back to it, even if it's just at a summer music festival.  

The most significant thing about that is that I feel having been away from institutional jazz programs has allowed me to develop my music in my own way.  Before I arrived here, I had a very free and open approach, mentally.  I felt like I was kind of off on a tangent - in my own musical world.  Maybe you hear otherwise in my work, and that's fine.  I'm really talking about where I was mentally.  Sure, I am influenced by my peers and many things - I don't live in a bubble - but I'm free to go as deep as I want in any direction.  In my scene at home anything goes.  I felt this mentality slipping away at times while here at NYSMF.  I was grasping to hold onto it.  The Messian Project was  my saving grace in that regard.  It kept me in touch with myself and my vision.  

In spending three weeks in the jazz education world of high fast loud, avoid notes, and guide tones, I felt the urge to write something as far away from that as possible.  I had been checking out Messiaen's Quatre études de rythme (Four Rhythm Studies), of which one, "Mode de valeurs et d'intensités" (Mode of Durations and Intensities) uses total serialism.  It's essentially a numerical order of not only pitches, but also rhythm, dynamics, articulation.  For my composition this week I was hearing something sparse and weird that would definitely challenge most of the people I'm surrounded by here at NYSMF.  Is it musical?  Is it music?  My answer to those questions is of course yes.  And my work as a composer is essentially to serve myself and my fellow musicians as improvisers.  So I decided I could get this sound with some experimenting with total serialism, and Polaris definitely got my into a different improvisational zone - one of sparseness, dissonance, and silence.

First I composed a row from Messiaen's sixth mode: E, B-flat, B, D, A-flat, C, G-flat, F.  I began to sketch the inversion of this row, as I would with a twelve-tone row, but I quickly discovered that the inversion yields a set of pitches that is not one of Messiaen's modes at all, so I decided to avoid all transpositions, retrogrades, and inversions of the row.  I felt that the original row would be sufficient anyway.  

Then I created a row of note values: Eighth, whole, quarter, dotted-quarter, half, dotted-half.  I avoided sixteenths for the sale of simplicity.  

Then I created a simple row of rest values: Quarter, eighth, half.  

Then I created a tessitura row.  I ordered the seven octaves of the piano.  I made sure my composition followed the following order of octaves on the piano: 3, 6, 5, 1, 7, 2, 4.

After the piece was finished I created a simple row of dynamics: ff, p, pp, f.   Every note got it's own dynamic marking.  I made a mistake with the dynamics right at the beginning.  I would have corrected this if I were using Sibelius, but I couldn't stomach it on Notion.  Besides I had already been practicing the piece when I discovered the error, and it so turned out that following these four dynamics was the most challenging part of learning this piece.  

I decided to allow myself to choose freely between notes and rests.  If I wanted a note, the value was determined for me, and if I wanted a rest,  the value was determined for me.  The other freedom was in choosing how many notes to play at one time.  These two freedoms factors were in fact plenty to work with.  The piece could have come out quite differently with different choices in these areas.  

Well, two and half more days of my time at NYSMF are left as I write this.  Last night was a definite highlight.  The jazz faculty did a concert with guest artist saxophonist Dick Oatts.  What a sound that guy has.  I learned a lot about intensity from him last night.  Every time he played he just took the rhythm section with him and off we went.  Incredible.  

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

10.) The Unknown July, 8, 2013

On June 8th, my wife and I hosted our tenth edition of the Beverley Concert Series.  The night was guest curated by our friend, colleague, and upstairs neighbor Marika Hughes.  It was a fantastic night.  We heard music from Dina Maccabee and the Arun Ramamurthy Trio.  Both sets were excellent.  

The Arun Ramamurthy Trio featured Arun on violin, Sameer Gupta on tabla, and Abhik Mukherjee on sitar.  They played a fusion of North Indian and South Indian classical music, and it really spoke to me.  I had heard snippets of this kind of music before, but never live in concert and never in as focused of an environment.  Arun explained some of what they were doing, which helped to make it accessible. I've since been listening to various recordings of Indian classical music during the last month.  

The Unknown is a simple imitation of such music.  Without really studying it, I've taken some ideas and tried to incorporate them into something personal, and find a way to make them fit the Messiaen project.  

I began by choosing a scale to work with, the second transposition of mode three.  I spent a few days improvising with the scale and then decided to find a pedal tone to imitate the drone of Indian Classical music.  Then I composed the line.  It's quite minimal, and I kept thinking about adding more, but soon realized that the line and the pedal point were plenty for inspiring improvisation.  It was enjoyable as it is.  The composition is seven measures, but the piece is seven minutes.  

Humbly speaking, I think there is something honest about this simplified, unanalyzed imitation. It's perhaps similar to a child learning something new, just going for it, playing with it, exploring.   I strive to have child-like sense of discovery as I go through the day, week, year, life.  

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

9.) Arc en ciel July 1, 2013

Week two of four up at the New York Summer Music Festival in Oneonta.  We've been having scattered showers all week up here and a few days ago we were treated to a beautiful double rainbow.  At that time the seed of Arc en ciel was already planted, but when it was time to title it, I wanted to reference the rainbow without being too boring and obvious, so why not head on over to google translate again.  

I do feel like the piece fits the title.  I has a degree of radiance, and it definitely copies some of Messiaen's sound.  I'm finding it very tempting to go there lately.  The piece is composed of two transpositions of mode two, which is the diminished scale, again.   I really don't think I'll ever get tired of that sound.  This time, we are entirely in the first transposition for the first three phrases.  The fourth phrase (after the melody enters) transitions us to the third transposition, and the final phrase brings us back to the first.  The melody and progression are repeated with some ornamental colors.  Anyone with synesthesia care to report if I represented the colors of the rainbow accurately?  It's probably a disturbing combination of colors.  

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

8.) Broken Vibe June 25, 2013

Greetings from the New York Summer Music Festival in Oneonta, NY.  I've managed to get something posted here, and actually quite early in the week.  Being a little paranoid with the uncertainty of my schedule, I decided to take advantage of the time I've had free and get to work.

Doing this without my usual setup was a bit frustrating, but I've made do.  As I suspected, the recording quality is not as good.  I'm recording directly into Soundcloud with my telephone.  And I'm making the scores on an iPad app called Notion.  They're on the right track with Notion, but there are many things that I can't get to look exactly how I would like.  And the only way I could figure out how to get it to google docs was to take a screen shot and upload a jpg.  Hopefully it's still readable.

Anyway, moving onto the music.  I went looking through Messiaen's modes to find one that could be manipulated into a bluesy sound, and I found that the blues scale is entirely represented in mode four with the exception of the fifth scale degree.  It was very interesting how badly I wanted to use that fifth degree when composing the melody.  But avoiding it probably pushed me into some new territory, and that's what this project is all about, so...good.

It's beautiful up here in Oneonta.  Clear clean air.  Quiet.  It's nice to spend some time on a real college campus again; makes me want to practice more.