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.