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.

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