Wednesday, October 30, 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
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
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
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
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.