Friday, May 31, 2013

4.) Raison d'être May 31, 2013

Continued experimentation with a few of Messiaen's techniques.  The three voices are composed of three transpositions of the fifth mode of limited transposition.   Then there are three repetitions of this theme that make use of rhythmic augmentation, followed by a recapitulation of the original statement.  In each of the middle repetitions, I added the same amount of total value to each voice, so that the voices would stagger, and then line up together again at the end.  I'm not sure how crazy I am about the result, but I am satisfied with the experiment.

I put space for improvisation between each repetition, creating a rondo form of sorts.  I've done this before in other pieces and the challenge is to make it flow as a whole.  Sometimes this kind of form sounds chopped up, but it seemed natural to give it a try again here.  

Raison d'être means "Reason to Be", and that's something that I always seem to think about this time of year.  I think people generally use this phrase in reference to their muse.  I'm thinking about it in terms of my life's purpose.   Spring is a lovely time, but it can also hang you up the most.  Ever year I find myself wondering if I'm doing the right thing, and if I'm on the right path, probably because it seems difficult to work this time of year.   I'm ready to relax, ready to travel a bit, and I'm definitely ready for the ocean.  But nonetheless, forward I must go.  

Friday, May 24, 2013

3.) Corps sans gluten du Christ (May 23, 2013)

This piece sounds a little more like Messiaen.  After working through some different ideas and failing, I half-heartedly decided to allow this to happen.  Again it's not my intention to recreate Messiaen's music, but I think some imitation is acceptable, especially for a project such as this.

The piece exclusively uses the third transposition of Messiaen's third mode, which is very enjoyable.  On a worksheet I extracted many commonly used chords; major triads, minor triads, many varieties of seventh chords, and fourth structures.  What's remarkable is how these common chords relate to each other within this scale.  I enjoyed writing combinations of chords.  But it's interesting that although I only used this mode, many of the chords do not sound Messiaenic.  Some of them really do, others send a red flag up: This isn't Messiaen.

Also, in reading The Technique of My Music Language, I've learned a lot about Messiaen's melodic choices.  There is a chapter on melodic cadence.  In it he explains how the descending tritone and descending sixth are natural and useful.  I was not hearing these intervals much as I composed this piece, but the phrases in which I used them do sound more like Messiaen's phrases.  And I've noticed in listening to his music how often these intervals, especially the tritone, are used melodically.

For my improvisation I chose to stick with the same scale, which was not yet easy.  Hopefully throughout the course of the project, it will become easier and easier to improvise with the modes of limited transposition.

Last weekend I played a jazz church service with some friends of mine.  On the program it said that for communion the pastor's station will be gluten-free.  I found this interesting.  This was not a catholic church, but having been raised catholic, I couldn't help pondering the situation.  It becomes a little funny when you consider the transubstantiation idea.  So I thought since my piece kind of sounded like Messiaen on a off day, I could use a title that is a poor imitation of his also.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

2.) Tides (May 16, 2013)

This week I began a complete reading of Messiaen's book The Technique of My Musical Language.  It filled me with ideas I'm eager to try.  So far it's mainly dealt with rhythm, and I decided to use some of those techniques this week.  After a few failed attempts, I ended up with Tides, which is a superimposition of two non-retrogradable rhythm sequences.  The treble staff is a rhythm that is seventeen eighth notes in duration, while the bass staff rhythm is twenty eighth notes in total duration.  Therefore, they begin together, and then are staggered as the keep repeating.  It worked out that the piece needed to be forty two and a half measures long to allow all relationships between the two rhythms to occur.  Following that, the rhythms would line up as they did at the beginning.

The oddest things about the rhythm of Tides are the rests and the duration of the last notes of the phrases.  For example, beat three in the first measure would naturally be written as a quarter note followed by a single sixteenth rest on beat four.  It would make it easier to read and wouldn't be much different in sound.  But I decided to stay true to my rhythm sequences.

The pitch material of Tides also uses some of Messiaen's techniques.  The treble staff melody is composed of one of the transpositions of Messiaen's mode two, which is the diminished, or octotonic scale.  The bass staff is composed of one of the transpositions of Messiaen's mode one, which is the whole-tone scale.  He says that this mode should be avoided because of Debussy's extensive use of it.  However, he says it's tolerable when used alongside other modes and techniques, which is what I did.

The problem with Tides is the playing and recording of it.  This was not easy.  I'm not happy with my recording.  I'd like it to be faster and mistake free, and I failed to play all the rests accurately.  But again I ran out of time.  It will have to suffice.  I didn't improvise on this recording.  I figured it was enough without it.

I'm happy with the fact that although I used Messiaen's techniques for every aspect of this piece, it really doesn't sound like Messiaen.  I find that encouraging.  More experimentation with superimposed rhythms will no doubt be happening.  Hopefully something easier to play will result.

I leave you with a quote from The Technique of My Musical Language:

Let us think now of the hearer of our modal and rhythmic music; he will not have time at the concert to inspect the nontranspositions and the nonretrogradations, and, at that moment, these questions will not interest him further; to be charmed will be his only desire.   And that is precisely what will happen; in spite of himself he will submit to the strange charm of impossibilities : a certain effect of tonal ubiquity in the nontransposition, a certain unity of movement (where beginning and end are confused because identical) in the non retrogradation, all things which will lead him progressively to that sort of theological rainbow which the musical language, of which we seek edification and theory, attempts to be.

Saturday, May 11, 2013


(This photo links to a flash site.  If you're on a mobile device, visit the wikepedia page!)

Friday, May 10, 2013

1.) Scarebird (May 7, 2013)

The first Messiaen piece I ever seriously checked out was the Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps [The Quartet for the End of Time].  It's a beautiful piece.  The sixth movement Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes [Dance of Fury, for the Seven Trumpets], features the whole quartet playing in unison.   The rhythm of that movement jumps out to a jazz musician.  I think it was a good place to start.

Scarebird mimics the orchestration of Danse de la fureur, but not necessarily the rhythm.  It features all three transpositions of the diminished scale, arranged in a slightly altered twelve bar blues form.  The idea came in a flash.  It seemed natural to combine the three dimished scales with the blues form.

The title refers to a garden pest prevention technique that I found on the internet.  Birds were eating my pea seedlings faster than they could grow.  Someone suggested hanging some CDs in the area which dangle and blow in the breeze and supposedly scare the birds away.  I installed my scarebirds on Tuesday morning.  It's to early to say if they've been effective, but I'm feeling optimistic about it.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

From May 5th 2013 to May 6 2014 I, Jesse Stacken, will compose one solo piano composition each week, that will in some way make use of Olivier Messiaen's (1908-1992) compositional techniques.  Each week by Saturday evening I will post a recording, score, and any reflections I find appropriate here on this blog.  

This project is ultimately about myself.  Although I hope you check it out and enjoy it, I am doing it as a challenge to myself, and as an attempt to learn about Messiaen's techniques and learn to incorporate them into my own composition and improvisation.  I will use the free publisher known as the Internet for accountability, as I have done in my Daily Improvisation, Weekly Improvisation, and Weekly Composition Projects.  

I decided to use this blogging platform so that you who may be interested can subscribe and get updates easier, and so that I can to update it on the go if necessary.  

From what I've studied thus far, there are two main techniques that Messiaen developed extensively.  One being the use of what he called Modes of Limited Transposition, also known as symmetrical scales.  The clearest example of a mode of limited transposition is the whole tone scale which can only be transposed one time.  If you move the whole tone scale up a half step, you have all new pitches, but if you do that again, you end up with the same pitches you started with.  Therefor it is a mode of limited transposition.  The other more well-known mode of limited transposition is the diminished or octatonic scale.  And there are more.  

The other technique is that of non-retrogradable rhythms.  These are essentially palindromes--rhythms that read the same forward and backward.  To be honest, I'm less interested in this technique than in the modes of limited transposition, and it's less clear to me how Messiaen used it and why it was important to him.  But as the weeks wear on, I'm guessing that I'll be ready to explore it at some point.  

My intention is not to recreate Messiaen's music, or add to his work, which I have nowhere near the skills to do.  Rather 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 without any explanation of how I made use of them.

I will also use this project to study more about Messiaen's music and life.  

My biggest concern is the challenge of doing this every week for a year.   I fear that I will grow tired of the material, or begin repeating myself.  But it will probably be in these moments that the best things will happen. 

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.  

As in all of the Internet projects I've done, I'm sure new concerns will arise throughout the course of it, and I look forward to finding out what they are.  

If any of you have any suggestions of Messiaen recordings, books, or videos to check out, I'd love to hear them.  In the meantime, I'll get busy on the first piece.