Thursday, 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
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
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
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.