Saturday, May 3, 2014

Final Reflections on the Messiaen Project.

The Messiaen Project has come to an end.  It is ever so bittersweet.  On hand I am relieved.  This project was a lot of work.  I was bound, at times shackled, by Messiaen's techniques.  There were many times when I really wanted to compose freely, but I resisted.  I achieved my goal of 52 pieces, and that feels good.

On the other hand, I am sad to be leaving this project.  It has been an important part of my artistic output, and an important part of my week.  It was constantly on my mind throughout the past year.  Finishing these projects is kind of like moving to a new town or something.  On to bigger and better things, but I will always look back on this period with fondness.

Last night I played a solo concert of some of the pieces at the Bloomingdale School of Music.  It was a wonderful night.  I felt connected to the music and the audience.  Some audience members sent me kind emails afterward, which was nice.  It's nice to know that I'm connecting to people in some way.  Chen Chu took some nice photos of me sharing the whale story (See Majesty October 10, 2013):

I always start these projects with certain expectations, and they often end up going differently than I first imagined.  I envisioned that this past year would be a period of intense study of Messiaen's music and writing.  After reading The Technique of My Musical Language from cover to cover at the beginning, I rarely looked at it again.  In fact I listened to no more than five minutes of Messiaen's music this whole year!  As I wrote in a few posts, I think listening to Messiaen would have made his sound too strong of an influence, and if I had been trying to imitate his sound, my pieces certainly would have been pale in comparison.  Also, I take pride in the fact that most of my pieces are quite unlike Messiaen's.  There's a reasons for that: genius versus regular guy.  But it's also a testament to the idea that we are all unique individuals.   No matter how rigid we structure ourselves, we all still have important, unique voices.  With all that said, I'm happy to report that I did develop a strong relationship with most of the modes.  More and more as the project progressed, I was hearing my way through the scale rather than following notes.

The taste in my mouth is that of gratitude.  These projects have become a more and more important part of my artistic output.  Thank you listeners and readers.  I'm so happy to be able to include you into my process.  It's personal, it's messy, it leaves me vulnerable, but I am glad I'm doing it.  Little by little, ever so slowly, I am able to present more and more of my true self to the world.  Someday I will be fully open, and that will be special.

Along those lines of sharing, I've written a lot about the effect the internet has had on me and us in this project.  This is an amazing time of sharing, and I'm thankful for it.   I've needed to make some personal adjustments of attitude and lifestyle in order to keep my focus and intentions in the right place.  And I've of course needed to keep in mind that the very nature of this project is dependent on the internet, and I take pride in my use of it in this way.

Well, the question is posed.  What is next?  As usual, I've had many ideas for what could come next throughout the course of the Messiaen Project.  I've settled on something a little different.  The wonderful weekly schedule of this project has it's positives and negatives.  It's good for keeping me on my toes and keeping me moving forward.  But I've been desiring something on a longer time scale.  Something that would allow me to work the kinks out of the content.  So I'd like to introduce to my next project which I'll call 12 Films With Music.  I'm looking forward to it very much.

Once again, I'd like to thank all of you who have checked out the Messiaen Project.  Thanks to you who have listened to the recordings, read the posts, or asked me how it's going.  You rule.  I think I'll go listen to the Vignt Regards now.

52.) Purple May 1, 2014

Well, this is the final piece of the project.  I'm filled with many emotions, but I'll save that for the final reflections post, which I will write immediately after this post.

Purple utilizes just one transposition of Messiaen's fourth mode.  I enjoyed constructing major seventh and minor seventh chords out of it.  The piece has a discernible melody, but still brings emphasis to the ringing of the piano, at least this was my intention.

Speaking of that, I would like to mention a little of what's been going on in my compositional mind for the last month or so.  If you've been an avid follower of my stuff (thanks!), you've read a lot about my dealing with outside influences.  Well this last month has been more about dealing with inside influences.  My piece, Soil, from April 5th, is very special to me.   It's something that I could write only after composing a weekly piece for almost two years.  It's a culmination of many things for me.    I have some really ridiculous ideas about that piece.  I keep having thoughts that it might be a moment of important realization.  It might be the pinnacle of everything I've ever written.  It might be a turning point.  It could be the moment in my work where everything came into focus.  It's my Rothko rectangles realization, or my Morton Feldman long and quiet repetitive pieces realization.  This is what I'm going to do from here on out!  These are scary thoughts to admit, actually.  Can I possibly know if it really is such an important piece at this time?  Can I really be this objective about my own work?  Am I crazy?  The piece is just a handful of measures, how can it be that important?  Well, part of me really wants to believe that Soil is one of those moments.  And I want it to be so badly, that I in a way forced myself to write the rest of the pieces in line with it.  It was not necessarily difficult to compose in this style - slow, repetitive, with an emphasis on the overtones of the piano, because I love it so much.  However, in regard to time, it was somewhat forced.  I had to push these ideas out, rather than let the emerge naturally.  I kept looking for something in line with Soil, but unique enough in itself to feel as important to me as Soil did.  None of the pieces afterward did that, although I like all of them.  If I'm going to write something that meets that criteria, I think it's going to have to emerge more naturally.  Soil really came out of nowhere in a way.  It just happened upon me.  If I chose to go forward with this style of writing, I think it will need to happen at a slower pace.

It's quite interesting to me how I've needed to deal with my self in this regard.  It seems that I've managed to inspire myself to a questionable point.  Can I really take myself so seriously?  This is the same thing that I dealt with back in the Weekly Composition Project, when I would hear an inspiring performance by a colleague, and then unnaturally imitate it in the next several improvisation, usually to ill effect.  And now I've run into this problem with myself.  Life is cyclical, I guess.  How entertaining...I love observing the process!

Anyway, Purple gets it's title from the some of the most beautiful tulips in my neighborhood.  These things seem so happy it's Spring - holding their heads high and proud.  I've been walking past them every time I walk the dog.     

Thursday, April 24, 2014

51.) Centered April 22, 2014

The penultimate composition.  This week I heard about five seconds of a Morton Feldman piece.  I don't even remember which one it was.  But I immediately felt attracted to the sound of it.  It was a very dense, dissonant chord played by an orchestra at a very soft volume.  I immediately went to the piano and came up with the opening chord of this piece, and then looked for a Messiaen mode that this chord could be derived out of.  At first I decided to use mode seven, but later realized that it also fit into mode two and that every note I wanted to hear next was also in mode two.  Mode two is the good old octatonic scale.  

I take it as a good sign that I'm hearing some of these modes naturally.  My ear is preferring specific modes.   Anyway, after coming up with the melody of the first four measures, I had the idea that this could be constructed into a blues type form, and that's exactly what I did.  I experimented with changing the transposition of mode two for certain measures, but decided that the original transposition was sufficient.  

I'm beginning to feel all sorts of "end of the project" emotions.  Gratitude, relief, sadness.  I'll share more next week after finishing the last piece... that is if I actually can manage to get it done.

Oh, and I hope you enjoy the sound of the dryer in the background of the recording.  I do.  A little ambience never hurts anybody.  

Saturday, April 19, 2014

50.) Damp Sponge April 19, 2014

This week was a particularly fulfilling week for me.  It started with a concert on Monday night with John Yao's 17 Piece Instrument, which is what he calls his big band.  Tuesday night I led a quartet with some of my favorite musicians in the world, Tony Malaby, Sean Conly, and Tom Rainey.   We played to a packed house at Korzo in Brooklyn, then went into my favorite studio to record the following day.   We played tunes from my weekly composition project.  The session was a blast - super easy, fun, and inspiring.  The guys played amazingly.  Thursday and Friday I was back at the same studio recording with John Yao's band.  It was a blast.  What a privilege it was to spend a week creating and documenting music.  I'm very thankful.

This great week made it a bit of a challenge to compose for this project.  I had an idea I was working with all week, chipping away at it when I could.  However, this morning, the idea was still not satisfying me.  I had this concept of two ascending lines of two non-retrogradable rhythms that would  kind of go in and out of phase together.  Originally I wrote freely within two transpositions of Messiaen's fourth mode.  However I wasn't really feeling it and I realized it was because the lines were changing too much.  So I changed each line to repeat the same ascending sequence of pitches, and I changed the bottom staff to be in the same transposition as the top staff.  The sequences don't align with the rhythm patterns, which results in nice variations.  The pitches of the lines start farther apart, then come closer together, then go apart, then closer together again at the end.

The title comes from a metaphor introduced to me by Denny Waxman.  It deals with communication versus attraction.  A dry sponge cannot properly absorb the liquid of a spill.  First you must get it wet.  The dry sponge is very attracted to the spill.  It wants to clean it up.  But because it's dry it cannot communicate with the liquid, that is until one gets it wet.  Opposites attract, but extreme polar opposites cannot communicate.  Likewise, things or people that are near identical can communicate, but lack attraction.  This metaphor can be used to understand relationships between people, between groups of people, between a person and their environment, and much more.  For example, a quiet mannered pianist, composer, macrobiotic, gardener like me might be attracted to rowdy, steak-eating,  football fan, just because we are opposites.  His different way of life could arouse my curiosity.  But he and I could have difficulty communicating because we have so little in common.  It might take a mutual friend to facilitate communication between us.  That mutual friend is the one who dampens the sponge, so to speak.  What is needed is a balance of attraction and communication for people or things to get along and understand each other.

Anyway, this idea has been resonating with me the last few weeks in many ways.  And in a way this piece exhibits these ideas also.  If you'll go with me here, you could see that the lines communicate better with one another as they come together in the middle and near the end.  Or is it the opposite?  I'll let you decide.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

49.) Patient Trees April 10, 2014

Patient Trees explores some similar ideas to that of Soil.  This time everything is constructed entirely out of Messiaen's second mode, also known as the octatonic scale.  It features a low minor ninth throughout.  The minor ninth is very dissonant, but in the extreme low register, as it appears here, the harshness is not so pronounced.  Instead it brings forth a weird overtone combination, which I wanted to play with.  The notes of the upper staff are mainly intended to highlight and shade the ringing of the minor ninth. It was not my intention to create such a dark sounding piece, but it is undoubtedly dark.  I guess when you're playing with minor ninths, you're playing with fire.  Sorry if the piece leaves you feeling totally hopeless.  

A couple years ago I read Neil Young's autobiography.  He talks a great deal about Pono, which is his project of creating a digital music format that does justice to the sound.  It appears to be close to public release, and I recently watched a promo video for it.  Neil gives quite a convincing argument.  He basically says that recorded music is not nourishing us like it used to because of it's poor quality.  Good quality has been missing in any consumer format after the LP, especially digital formats.  After some thought, I tend to agree with him.  I've never been picky about audio quality, mostly because many of the recordings I studied and listened to most were very old and not of good quality to begin with.   But I'm questioning our instant information society a lot these days, and this argument fits right in there.  We are obsessed with quantity today, perhaps because most of the stuff is low quality.  We have to eat way more just to feel an inkling of satisfaction.  Perhaps if I had less quantity and better quality I would feel more nourished by it, whatever it may be.  I've recently upgraded some of my digital music formats, choosing the highest quality download settings.  Although it's early to make the call, I could be getting more out of it.  In other areas of my life I've been making similar changes.  

Along those lines, I also experimented a bit with my Zoom recorder this week.  I recorded Patient Trees in the highest quality setting the machine offers.  The reason why I haven't done this in the past is because the files take up a lot of space, and they take a lot of time to move around on the computer and upload.  But maybe it's worth it.  Maybe you will get more out of this recording.  Maybe the unintended hopeless sound of this particular piece will start some kind of awful chain reaction of sadness.  Gee I hope not.  

This talk of quality versus quantity brings up another relevant idea here - that of an artist giving content away for free.  Many internet marketing gurus encourage us to give away a lot of content free of charge.  Many older musicians and music business people I know have a real problem with the idea of it.  Many younger musicians are giving things away left and right - some are not even passing a tip jar around at their DIY performances.  Since I've been making art (never before the digital age), I've always had the notion that my stuff needs to be everywhere - formerly every store, now every corner of the internet.  The more the better... quantity.  And these internet projects are no exception.  They started out lower profile.  But as they became more important to me, and more noticed, I've been more public with them.  The transparent nature of the projects means that some of the content is not going to be my best work.  Although I work hard to create something I feel proud of every week, I can't create fifty-two favorite pieces in a year.  I'm placing a great deal of value on the quantity of the work.  I think it's a legitimate criticism of what I'm doing.  But I'm just doing it.  These projects are mainly for my own growth and exploration.  I've just decided to include you in it, and use you for motivation and accountability.   

Some friends of mine, who I have tremendous respect for, are questioning the digital distribution of recordings, and so far have not put any content of their band online.  No digital downloads and not even youtube clips of performances.  The only promo videos are of them goofing around and contain little or no music.  They pressed only fifty copies of an LP that was only given only to the first fifty people to pay the cover at one of their live shows.  It's impossible to get your hands on unless you were at that show, or one of your friends was.  This kind of stuff runs quite contrary to the kind of marketing we're supposed to be doing these days, and it really baffled me at first.  But I've come around to thinking that it might be the answer.  Rise above the digital noise by avoiding it all together.  They've gotten a good local following based on word of mouth.  And of course the bottom line is that they totally deliver.  They put on a great show.  It's got me thinking.  Quality over quantity.

P.S., after I wrote this whole post, I realized while uploading my higher quality wav file to Soundcloud, that they probably obliterate it with some kind of untamed compression.  It might actually be lower it quality than it would be if I had uploaded an already compressed mp3.  I'll check it out.  Perhaps I'll swap it out the Soundcloud widget for a plain audio link.   

Saturday, April 5, 2014

48.) Soil April 2, 2014

This piece is special to me.  It is an accomplishment for me to write something this simple.  It feels like it's something I've been working up to.  It is very simple in concept, but complex in bringing to fruition.  Not in the writing of it - that was pretty easy actually.  Once the concept was formed, it was just a matter of fleshing it out.   It is complex for me in courage and self-trust.  Those of you who've followed these projects of mine have read a great deal about me learning to trust my inner voice and take the influences of others, positive and negative, in stride.  This is embodied in Soil, and I am pleased.   

The piece uses one transposition of Messiaen's third mode, the rest is pretty self-explanatory.  Enjoy.    

Thursday, March 27, 2014

No. 47.) Adequate Charger March 26, 2014

When I began to work on the project this week, I was completely blank.  I had no idea what to do.  I sat down at the piano and let me fingers decide what to play.  The played the opening chord of this piece - a stack of perfect fourths going down from F.  This is a common jazz voicing that could represent an F6, Bb major 7, D minor 11, and even a few more chords.  It's something I play all the time in a jazz setting.  But as I played it this time, for some reason I listened to it more carefully.  I listened to the interaction of the notes with each other, and the overtones of the piano, which I've loved listening to and enjoyed considering in composition ever since I discovered the music of Morton Feldman.  

Now as I sat and enjoyed this sound this week, I had to figure out a way to create it within the Messiaen Project.  Similar to last week's piece, I discovered that I could construct this chord out of two transpositions of mode three, one transposition written in the upper staff, the other in the lower staff.  I discovered that three perfect fourth structures of three notes each could be constructed in each mode and I decided to play around with these.  They have a very hard sound to my ears.  I soon began adding other notes of the modes to shade the color of the chords.  This developed into a melody which I decided to play softly, in the background of these very loud, hard chords built of fourths and fifths.  The idea is that the melody shades the sound of the chords, and highlights different overtones. It is my hope that the listener finds themselves listening to the piano in a different way than usual - cluing into the overtones.  Ideally that would happen without reading this first.  There is a big difference in the sound of the recording verses sitting on the piano bench.  I hope that difference doesn't completely obliterate the idea.  

You're probably thinking that the title of this piece has something to do with an iPhone charger or something.  Well, not exactly.  In macrobiotics we are taught that the home should be a recharging station.  You come home an get refreshed.  This is done by creating a nice, natural environment, free of stress, with green plants and natural materials.  This proves to be trickier than one would think, especially for freelancers who work out of their homes.  The work is always there waiting to be done, even when it's relaxation and rejuvenation time.  Emails can be sent at any hour, which could be seen as another side effect of the amazing convenient internet.

Anyway, this week I found myself in need of an adequate recharging station.  I developed a sore throat, which for me will typically turn into a head cold.  This usually happens once a twice a winter for me.  So this week I knew I needed to lay low and not get stressed out, that the cold didn't get the best of me.  And I found that I was happily able to do this in our apartment.  Even while my wife went about her work, I was able to relax in the other room, and it's been lovely.  My health is improving and I haven't felt stressed.  This is an important realization for me, and I'm convinced that this sore throat happened so that I could learn that this apartment can be a relaxing place.  And I must say that I feel gratitude for both this minor illness and our apartment.  

In the aftermath of last week's post, which was read by many, I've had several conversations with friends and family, and I've reflected a great deal on how I was feeling.  It's sometimes easy to forget about what I've been given in this life.  I am thankful for all of you friends, family, and colleagues.  I'm thankful for music and the ability to express myself via the piano.  I'm thankful for the ups and downs that life brings.  I'm thankful for having an adequate recharging station when I need it.      

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

No. 46.) Over Rise March 18, 2014

Okay.  I am a glass half full kind of guy.  I like to think that I'm pretty good at maintaining a positive outlook on things.  But I seem to be coming across a lot of darkness lately and I feel the need to write about it a bit.  I need to let it out.  

As artists and musicians, we are met with many challenges.  They're good for us.  They're necessary.  But they can often really feel oppressing sometimes, no doubt.  Let me tell you a couple things I've experienced lately.  This week I listened to a podcast conversation with the great drummer Jim Black who moved to New York City in 1991.  He was talking about how after about the year 2000, it seemed that young musicians needed to go straight for teaching jobs right out of college.  Whereas more guys and gals of his generation were able to work together, develop bands, and have the opportunity to tour these bands.  I think he was talking mainly about finances.  New York City has just become a damn near impossible place to live for an artist.   It's just too expensive.  I was just reading the same thing in Brooklyn Magazine today.  This city is full of creative people, especially musicians, but we're all too busy trying to make rent by working day jobs or teaching.  The creative potential of the people here is insanely high, but we don't have time to work together because of our financial needs.  Artists are leaving the city fast.  My art has essentially become a habit.  I have to look at the books to see how much I can afford to play gigs and make records.  I don't even consider the possibility of taking a band on the road at this point.  I have some collective projects in the works that could develop that potential, but as for hiring musicians I love to play my compositions on a tour - it just doesn't seem possible to afford.  It's barely affordable to play a gig in town. 

Also I came across a post on Facebook of a video of the great composer Maria Schneider pleading to the US House or Representatives Judiciary Committee to fix the internet copyright laws.  She seemed to be on the verge of tears as she explained how most of her time now is spent trying to control what people illegally share on the internet instead of writing new material.  It's sad.  It seems to me that musicians of her generation, the same generation of Jim Black, had a taste of pre-internet, pre-financial crisis, pre 9/11(?) success.  They were able to afford to try stuff, and take bands on tour, and make money on those tours and from record sales.  It was never easy no doubt, but I get the feeling that it was justifiable.  Fans payed for art back then, and now although these artists have established themselves and they have big followings, people don't want to pay for their work anymore.  But the even sadder part is that most musicians of my generation have never had a taste of that kind of success, and we don't even consider it a possibility, unless we're putting our our first record and don't know any better.  We make records for the joy of it, and that is valuable and important.  We may sell some at gigs.  But you have to admit that the making a recording of any kind these days does not make much financial sense.  There is not financial justice in it.  I did not get into music for the money, but it would be nice to know that touring and record sales could eventually mean at least breaking even.  At this point it seems that I would need to throw an impossible amount of money into those activities for years before they could begin to become financially responsible.   And I'm beginning to think about the future - where I want to live for the rest of my life, starting a family, etc.  

Now it could be that I am just a pussy.  It could be that my output is not top of the line, that I'm not making music that people want to hear, or that I'm not succeeding in what I'm attempting artistically.  It could be that the universe is saying no.  You tried.  You failed.  To tell you the truth, I can dig that.  It's not easy to take, but I've come full circle with the notion that I play for myself.  I make music for myself.  I do it because it makes me feel good to put what I feel is beautiful out into the world.  And I'm not going to let these dark things get in the way of that.  Around the time I released Bagatelles for Trio, I think I let the business side of things take over a little too strongly.  It was getting in the way of the process of creation and expression.  What I've discovered is that I need to maintain a sense of wonder and awe in my musical world.  I need to keep the perspective of a learner and lover of music, so that when I go out to hear concerts by my colleagues who have had more widespread recognition I don't feel resentment toward them and I simply am able to love their work fully.  It's a privilege, honor, and inspiration to know these great musicians.  

The title of this week's piece refers to rising above all the darkness when I sit down at the piano.  Whether it's in performance or at home, especially at home actually.  Playing the piano and writing music is a gift.  It releases tension.  It's negative ionization.  It's an expression of gratitude, an expression of love.  It's amazing.  It's the best.  I will not let the darkness interfere with the sacred time I spend at the piano any longer.  

Over Rise is a special achievement in another way, because I succeeded in extracting major scale harmony out of Messiaen's modes in a way that wasn't compromising.  The piece uses three transpositions of Messiaen's third mode, a different one in each of the three voices.  Basically I was able to fill in the notes that were missing from the major scale with the other transpositions, if that makes any sense.  It doesn't really matter if you understand that.  What matters is that this piece makes me feel good.  If it makes me feel good, it's got a better chance at making you feel good.  If it makes you feel good, that is really awesome, although I have no expectations that it will do so.  

Interestingly, while working on the previous weekly composition project, I was often quite self-conscious of my major diatonic pieces, feeling like they weren't "hip" enough.  But here I am super happy that I managed to get it out of the Messiaen techniques, and I have no reservations about presenting it to you.  It feels good.  I'm thankful for this.         

Saturday, March 15, 2014

No. 45.) Fire March 13, 2014

Fire utilizes Messiaen's sixth mode of limited transposition in a free form structure.  As I worked, the idea of angularity developed.  This is contrasted with some chords that are derived out of the mode, mostly variations of dominant seventh chords.  There is also a contrasting slower section of just a few measures.  This one, like some of the other recent pieces, is closer to a transcription of an improvisation.  I didn't set up any form parameters or anything besides the choosing of the mode.   

Fire was fun to practice actually.  The angular phrases needed a lot of repetition, and even with the practice, they didn't come out perfectly every time.  I chose this take because I think the improvisation is good.    

The titles of the last three pieces are taken from the Five Transformations.  They are Tree, Fire, Soil, Metal, and Water.  Each transformation has it's own characteristics.  Tree energy moves upward, Fire is expansive, Soil moves downward, Metal is contractive, and Water is horizontal.   Each transformation helps one other transformation and is helped by another, and each is antagonistic with a couple other transformations too.  I've applied these terms as titles after the pieces have been finished, going with whichever one I feel is best represented by the vibe of the piece.  Fire is definitely the cheesiest one to use as a title at this point in history, so I chose the cheesiest picture I could find as well for my soundcloud file.  

Saturday, March 8, 2014

44.) Water March 5, 2014

This week I was inspired by a piece by Arvo Pärt titled My Heart's in the Highlands.  It's a beautiful repetitive minor thing.  So I set out to write something minorish and repetitive that fits the parameters of this project.  I used mode two, and first constructed the bassline which is a sixteen beat loop.  Over that I created a pattern that was fifteen beats.  The piece is sixty measures long, which allows for every combination to happen between these two voices.  Measure sixty-one would be the same as measure one, as far as the top and bottom voice are concerned.  After laying this out, I created a middle voice that enters in the seventeenth bar and superimposes an even rhythm of one and 3/4 beats.  This cycle is not completed by the end of the piece.  It would have taken an insane amount of time for them to realign again, so I just left it incomplete.

Most often after I post these pieces, I'll let it go for a few days, then I'll return and have a listen, after the piece has cleared out of me for a while.  It's a good way to have an objective perspective on what I'm doing here.  I'm really looking forward to doing that with this piece because I think I'll like it at that moment.  However, recording it was really not very fun to be honest.  I didn't want to practice this piece.  It's something that's difficult to focus on, but at the same time really requires intense focus.  I'm hoping I'll be happy with it.  It's a boring piece.  But as John Cage said (I can't remember if he was quoting DT Suzuki here or not...), "If something is boring for ten minutes, try it for twenty.  If something is boring for twenty minutes, try it for forty."   

Friday, February 28, 2014

43.) Tree February 27, 2014

Tree is another piece for which I was a little less methodical during the composition process.  I selected a single transposition of a mode, this time mode 3, and just went for it.  I didn't create any other structural guidelines.  The piece sounds improvisational in nature, similar to last week's piece.  It's fun to play.

I made use of a couple of less-than-usual piano techniques.  One is a delayed pedal, after a loud bass note.  This happens right at the beginning.  The damper doesn't finish muting the string before I apply the pedal.  The effect is kind of an "injured" sustain, with different overtones highlighted.  The other technique is the silent depressing of keys, which lifts the dampers without the note sounding.  These strings then vibrate sympathetically when I play other notes.  I worked with this idea a lot in the improvisation section of the recording.  

Thursday, February 20, 2014

42.) FrontBack February 20, 2014

I began the process of writing FrontBack with a little less organization that I've been using lately.  I simply started with a transposition of mode two and just went from there.  It felt pretty liberating actually, and I enjoy the openness of what resulted.  However, it's a little less natural for me to write in this way, because I usually like my pieces to be very simple, depicting one or two ideas clearly.  It's my feeling that pieces like that are good for improvisation because they suggest a clear direction.  Even the mood of this piece varies quite a bit.  But in recording, I don't think that made it difficult to choose my improvisation direction.  The ending of the piece suggests a point of departure, and the other moods in it were fun to explore after a while.    

The title comes from the Unifying Principle, the core of macrobiotic philosophy:

1.) Everything is a differentiation of infinite Oneness.
2.) Everything changes.
3.) All antagonisms are complementary.
4.) There is nothing identical.
5.) What has a front has a back.
6.) The bigger the front, the bigger the back.
7.) What has a beginning has an end.  

Saturday, February 15, 2014

41.) Gratitude February 13, 2014

Gratitude is a superimposition of two transpositions of Messiaen's third mode.  While searching around for a starting point this week, I was checking out what kinds of chords can be derived out of mode three, and I found that an augmented triad could be constructed on all scale degrees.  After discovering this, I had the idea of trying to use only augmented chords, but as I began, I found myself desiring a greater variety of chords.  I do use a lot of augmented chords and arpeggios, often with another note added.  

I also decided that I should once again make use of non-retrogradable rhythms.  Each measure features a non-retrogradable rhythm in the top staff.  At first, I scored it with time signatures, which were changing measure to measure.  Then I realized that they would be of no use to me as I played the piece, and that I was counting eighth notes in small units (three for a dotted quarter note, four for a half note, etc.) and would be completely ignoring the 13/8 marking at the beginning of the bar.  Messiaen writes about this in The Technique of My Musical Language, explaining how a composer is free to use time signatures or not when writing these rhythms.  I remember being puzzled by the missing time signatures in score of The Quartet For the End of Time, before reading The Technique.  In some instances, such as in Gratitude, time signatures are just not necessary, even when the meter is changing continually.  

The photo I used for the SoundCloud file is one of George Ohsawa, the founder of modern macrobiotics.  His writings are remarkable.  Check him out.   

Thursday, February 6, 2014

40.) Shin Do Fu Ji February 5, 2014

"Shin Do Fu Ji" means "one with nature", or "man and nature not two".  I spent a long weekend in Philadelphia at the Strengthening Health Institute studying macrobiotics with Denny Waxman.  It was a very inspiring weekend.  My wife Akiko and I will be spending about one weekend a month there this year, completing the Master Your Health program.  We're really looking forward to it.  Anyway "Shin Do Fu Ji" was one of the things we studied.  It's essentially a benefit that we humans as a group can attain if we live a natural way of life in accordance with the laws of nature.  I thought the phrase made a nice title.  

For this piece, I used Messiaen's second mode (the diminished scale), in a slightly different way.  One of the things I love about mode two is the combinations of triads that can be formed, particularly major triads.  So I made an organized list of all of the major triad combinations, in all the three transpositions:

Then, I decided to number the columns randomly (notated on the bottom).  I used the numbers as a sequence, like a row, freely choosing among the three transpositions.  In this way, I had three choices for each chord, and was free to use any inversion of those chords.  Most often, the melody guided my decisions.  After I had a nice piece of music, I decided to repeat it and ornament it with another layer.  The second layer follows the same formula.  

I think the sound is nice.  These are some of my favorite sounds that Messiaen used himself.  

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

39.) Two Suns January 27, 2014


Soundcloud came up with a nice new widget as you can see.  It's especially nice this week because of this great photo, which was taken by my brother Jake Stacken yesterday at his farm in southern Minnesota.  It shows a phenomenon called Perihelia.  Blowing snow gives the illusion of two suns.  Pretty amazing.  The temperature was -13 degrees Fahrenheit, with a -25 windchill.  That's winter.

Two Suns uses Messiaen's mode three over Rhythm Changes.  For you non-jazzers out there, "rhythm changes" refers to the chord progression of Gershwin's I Got Rhythm.  There is a tradition of jazz musicians writing lines over this progression.  Here's one to add.  At first I had thought of disguising the progression by not playing chords, which is why I didn't write them on the score.   But as I began learning to play it, I felt like it was nicer to play them.  On the bridge (measures 17 through 24), I cycled through all the transpositions of mode three.  The rest of the piece is all in the same transposition.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

38.) Wintering January 23, 2014


Wintering utilizes all four transpositions of Messiaen's third mode.  This structure was not predetermined when I began.  I decided to begin in one transposition of the mode, and when I got to the fifth measure, I was really hearing an F in the melody, which was not available to me in the mode I was using.  So I had to make a decision, do I stay in the transposition, or modulate so I can use an F, and I chose to modulate.   Then it made sense to work through the other transpositions of the mode in the same way.  This sort of decision making happens quite often.  A natural desire gives way to a structure, as I work.  This piece ended up with a quite a lot of dominant seventh chords.  Interestingly, just a few years ago I wouldn't have chosen them.  Now I'm ready for them I guess - they remind me of Debussy, one of my favorite composers.  To my ears Messiaen is an extension and expansion of Debussy.    

We have a real winter happening here this year.  I'm into it.  It keeps us humble.  

Friday, January 17, 2014

37.) Hugger January 14, 2014


Hugger is another attempt at using one of Messiaen's modes to create a bebop line over a standard progression.  This time I chose Gershwin's Embraceable You and mode four.  Mode four was more difficult to use than mode three, which I had used a couple times in this way.  But I think I've written a decent line with a lot of unusual choices.  Sometimes it's nice to play over a standard.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

36.) Thought Power January 8, 2014


The upper staff of Thought Power cycles through all the transpositions of Messiaen's fourth mode, changing each bar.  The lower staff is composed of the second mode, and is an increasing equal division of the measure.  It starts with a whole note, and adds a note until there are seven equal divisions, then it reduces until we are back to two.  (It's much easier to see this on the score, than for me to explain it.)

I enjoyed this concept of dividing the bar equally in increasing numbers, all played underneath a steady succession of 16th notes.  However, I knew it would be a problem to play, given the amount of time I had.  I must confess that I estimated the placement of the notes.  If I had the time, I could have calculated precisely where the notes should be placed with some math.  Instead I listened to the computer play the piece, and made some annotations as to the approximate placement of the notes.  I think this worked fairly well.  I'm not a machine, and I don't really want to play like one anyway.  I like this tempo, but a faster tempo would also be fun.  Give me a few weeks.    

I've been reading Play of Conciousness by Swami Muktananda, who was a guru in the Siddha Yoga tradition.  So I have been thinking a lot about meditation, mantra, and the mind, etc.  And the other morning I was walking the dog, and I walked by someone who was smoking a cigarette.  And wow did I ever have some less than pleasant thoughts for this fellow.  And I realized in that moment, that my reaction to this guy was the problem, not him, or even the fact that he was smoking.  It was me.  I took a harmless situation, and made it my problem, and he was just a dude smoking!  If I hadn't reacted to him in that way, I would have been at peace.  And I noticed that day, riding the subway and walking around NYC, how often I am making a problem for myself out of other people, and other things.  I don't think I'm the only person who navigates this city in this way.  What a terrible sickness!   We are prisoners.  I am now attempting to avoid those thoughts which make unnecessary problems out of nothing.  If I can't avoid them, I've written a mantra that I will repeat when I begin to have these thoughts.  Our state of mind is completely determined by our reactions and our thoughts.  Thought power!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

35.) White Light January 4, 2014


What did this guy do with a snow day you ask?  Get caught up on his composition project!  Man it would be nice to regularly have this much time to devote to this sort of thing.

White Light is what I would call a bastardization of Messiaen's modes.  He created them partially to get himself away from conventional harmony, and here I am forcing conventional harmony into them.  This actually has brought some thoughts on innovation to the surface.  First let me explain the piece.

It uses Messiaen's seventh mode, which is essentially a chromatic scale, minus two pitches.  A month or two ago, when playing around with the modes, I discovered that mode seven can be viewed as two major pentatonic scales a tritone a part.  In the case of White Light, the two pentatonic scales are C and G flat.  Pentatonic scales are very natural and are used melodically in an incredible variety of genres - blues, jazz, pop, funk, traditional asian music.  They are truly a world scale.  Check out this video of Bobby McFerrin demonstrating the universality of the pentatonic scale.

I've been feeling like I just want to play country tunes lately, so I happily helped myself to these pentatonics, and found some other nice things, such as the D7 and Ab7 chords, in mode seven as well.   Generally speaking, the A sections of the piece are in C major and the B section is in G flat major.  The tricky part of this is that complete IV and V chords can't be constructed within the mode.  There were a number of times when the IV chord was begging to be used, and I had to avoid it.  In one sense this problem is nice, as my project is forcing me to go into different directions.  But in another sense, I might have created a better piece if I hadn't been following these pesky rules, and was instead being guided by my uninhibited instincts and preferences.  Therefor I don't think this piece is truly a good manifestation of the project, but I do like it, and sometimes a little contrast is needed to keep me sane.

Now onto innovation.  White Light is one of those pieces that I feel quite self-conscious about posting.  I think of these heroes of mine who are constantly pushing forward, and wonder if they would be displeased with this one because it's not pushing.  Being trained as a jazz musician, and being part of the more progressive faction of the scene in NYC, I've been bathed in this idea of innovation.  There's a constant emphasis on pushing forward and finding new sounds, and I have to wonder where that came from and if it's really a good thing.

In our scene, it's easy to lay the blame for many issues on jazz eduction.  However, in the case of innovation, I can't really see it to be at fault.  If anything jazz education encourages stylization - imitating the playing of master musicians.  But if you get out of school and enter the music world trying to follow in the footsteps of jazz giants, you can either copy their notes literaly, copy their career trajectories - most often as innovators, or by some grace forge some kind of new original path.  I think the later two result in a desire to be an innovator.  Don't copy Coltrane's music, but imitate his career by pushing forward, expanding, searching.  It could also be said that jazz is innovative by nature.  It's a melting pot of influences in any time period of its history.  But really, what art isn't just that?

Personally, I felt drawn to more avant-garde music after leaving school to a large degree out of fear.  I  didn't feel competent in playing straight-ahead jazz because I didn't think I had the necessary command of the harmony, melody, or even rhythm.  But playing dissonant weird music was something I could potentially do without requiring that command.  As I've matured, I've concluded that those elements are not what's most important.  Rather honesty is most important.  It's more important for me as a listener to hear someone truly connecting to the music, even if they lack "perfect" rhythm, or amazing harmonic language, or if the music isn't innovative.

I still love hearing new things, but not at the expense of honesty.  That's why I make it a rule to like what I compose.  Not all of my pieces are the best, but if by the end of the process I'm still not connecting to the piece, I'll abandon it.  And I really enjoy the feeling of connecting to listeners when I perform.   A key element of connecting to an audience, is connecting to the music yourself, especially if it's adventurous music.  I'm no longer feeling like everything I do needs to strive for innovation.

A few years ago I had a long conversation with drummer Vinnie Sperrazza about innovation.  He despises the word, saying it is only a marketing gimmick.  I couldn't fully understand his point of view at the time, but I wonder if he was going through a similar process as I'm going through now.  Perhaps he was freeing himself of this need to do constantly something brand new.

The bottom line for me is that honesty and love are the most important factors in the composing and performing of music.  If it's forward-looking, that's fine.  If it's not, that's fine too.  Just so that the composer and performer believe in it.

Friday, January 3, 2014

34.) Old Aristocracy January 2, 2014


Welcome to 2014.  I didn't compose last week because of the holidays.  One of these weeks I'll manage to get two pieces done.  52 is the goal, and I'm committed to getting there.

Old Aristocracy was composed rather quickly.  The idea kind of came bursting forth.  Later I realized that the idea was from Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C# minor, which I had listened to earlier in the week.  Do a comparison listening, and you can't miss the similarity.  Ironically, I've never been a huge Rachmaninoff fan.  To me his music has a "more is more" kind of flavor, and I'm usually drawn to the "less is more" stuff.  I don't deny his importance, but the overstated nature of his music is usually not my taste.  I'm sure he's got understated stuff is well....  I must admit though that his Prelude is sticking with me, especially since I – subconsciously at first – spun his idea into a piece.

Also ironically, I would have to say that Messiaen is also somewhat of a "more is more" composer.  Again there are exceptions to that statement, but a lot of his stuff is big and pretty flashy.  However I'm not bothered by it in his music because it almost always sounds like radiant light or something, and his modes have such a unique and fascinating flavor.  His music arouses my curiosity.

Anyway, Old Aristocracy uses two transpositions of the octatonic scale.  The upper staff chords are constructed of one, and the lower staff bass notes of another.  After composing with these modes for thirty-four weeks now, they are starting to come out more naturally, which is nice.  It was enjoyable to play kind of big and flashy on this recording.