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.