Duo Chronicles iPhone/iPad app released!

It’s been a while since we’ve had news on the Duo Chronicles front, but today, I have an announcement that we’re pretty excited about: the Duo Chronicles iPhone/iPad app is available in the iTunes app store.

Writing an app has been a goal of mine since I got my first iPhone a few years ago, but I had never devoted the time to learn the new programming skills, partially because I didn’t have an idea for an app that I really wanted to make.

In December of last year, thinking that I was going to have a slow January (which didn’t turn out to be the case, slowing the timeline down a bit), I decided that making a Duo Chronicles app could be a fun learning experience and at the same time give our audience a new (and maybe more fun) way to browse our videos and sheet music.  It started as just an iPhone app, but I quickly realized that the project would be even better viewed on an iPad.  The version that ended up in the app store is a universal binary, which runs on any iOS device.  I think that the experience navigating through the videos in the app turned out really well — it’s fast, easy, and provides a great viewing experience for the videos and (especially in the iPad version) the sheet music.

Within the app, users can view our videos, read the descriptions, see the sheet music, share with friends through email and Facebook, mark videos as a favorite to come back to later, and on the iPad version, even view and post comments to our website.

The app is free, so please download a copy and explore our videos!

Week 52 – The Final Week

Well, we made it.  52 weeks later, we’ve put up a new video every single Tuesday.  Every week, a new arrangement, a new recording, a new video, and most of the time, a new composition altogether.

Most people’s reaction to me mentioning that we’re finishing the project is that they can’t believe it’s been a year already.  In some ways, I agree — it doesn’t seem like that long ago that Clay and I were first trying to figure out what we wanted to do with this series and how we wanted to make it happen.  On the other hand, I’ve learned so much, written so much, and spent so much time uploading and editing video that it really does seem like a year has gone by.

Now that we’re finishing up, I can already tell that I’m going to miss doing this.  Getting the chance to record new music this regularly has been a pleasure.  Learning how to play better as a duo has been a great learning experience — something that will carry through to other projects as well.  In fact, I think that there were plenty of lessons from this project that I’ll be putting to use later, whether they are technical things like how to best compress a video to make it look good on YouTube or more metaphysical things like musical interaction with just two voices.

For the last video, we decided that for the first time, instead of presenting a new piece, we wanted to bring back some of the music from past videos.  Each choice has a bit of a metaphorical reasoning.

Part I is a piece called Chrysalis, which was from week one of the project.  At that point, Clay and I had barely figured out what we were doing, especially in the technical sense.  The original was recorded with one camera, no sound equipment besides the mic on the camera, and the editing was done with iMovie.  We thought it would be fitting to go back and redo the piece with all of our technical and production advancements, as well as with a new musical direction.  If you really want to get metaphorical with the title, you could look at the project emerging from the chrysalis over time and growing.

Part II is Clay’s composition Always April.  Ever since we recorded it, I’ve felt like this piece well represents the musical goals of the project.  It’s certainly jazz-related, although not in a typical swing fashion.  It’s focused on a beautiful melody, with the type of chord changes that we both tend to gravitate towards when writing.  The title also seemed to fit for a piece about the middle section of a year-long project.

Finally, we transition into Part III — a composition of mine called One Foot Forward.  We chose this because of the upbeat energy the piece has, and once again, the metaphorical meaning of the title — we’re finishing this project, but we both have one foot forward into the next already.

Try to make it through all 10 minutes — we’re proud of the last installment that we’ve done.  If you’ve been watching since the beginning, you may enjoy seeing the different directions we take the pieces.  If you’re relatively new to the project, this should give a good glimpse into what we’ve done for the past year.

Thanks so much, new fans and old, for watching!

Week 50 – Common Roots

One of the reasons that the Duo Chronicles project has been so much fun for me is that Clay and I have similar approaches to playing jazz and similar influences that guided us to that approach.  “Common Roots,” for example, has a modern-gospel style, similar to something you might hear from Russell Ferrante and the Yellowjackets (the working title was “Ferrante-ish” while I was composing it).

It’s not meant to be a complex song — it’s just meant to feel good.  While experimenting with complex harmonies, rhythms, and melodies can be fun for us to explore, it’s nice to occasionally play something that feels good without pushing into something esoteric just for the sake of complexity.

Week 49 – Aurora

“Aurora” is an attempt to do something new in the Duo Chronicles project — a way to use some techniques that we haven’t yet explored in the 48 previous tunes.

The song is based on a simple melody (in fact, the sheet music we used had the temporary title “Simple Melody”) with an equally simple harmonic underpinning.  If one wanted to analyze it from a jazz point of view, the form is derived from the blues, although you might not realize it without stretching your ears a bit.

The first track we recorded was acoustic piano and flute, but we layered on quite a few other instruments to fill out the sound, including piccolo, alto saxophone, bass clarinet, and electronic keyboard (playing a celeste type of sound).

If you listen carefully to the opening sound, when the screen fades to white, the chord that sounds like a synthesizer is actually a technique that Clay suggested that we record after we happened upon it by mistake while warming up.  The chord is actually made by recording the resonance inside the piano made by playing saxophone pointed towards the piano while holding down the sustain pedal.  It took quite a bit of audio editing to make it audible in the mix, but I think it was worth it for the interesting texture.

Week 47 – Up in the Air

This New Orleans-inspired piece is a blues of sorts (in the Kind-of-Blue sense) with a second-line type groove.  If I remember correctly, I wrote it just before a jam session, where I tried it out for the first time.  Despite the simple sounding melody and chord changes, it can be a challenge to keep together on the first performance because of a time signature change in the middle of the piece.  It makes perfect sense in context with the melody and the chord changes, but it can throw people for a loop the first time they read it.

Clay and I have been playing this song for a few years now, in a number of different formats, including in an acoustic combo (including with Clay’s group, the Upper Left trio), in an electric fusion group, and as a duo.  In fact, we played this song on our first appearance on a podcast, when I appeared on Strange Love Live for the first time.

For this performance, we rethought the form a bit, but all of the familiar elements are still there.

Week 45 – Affirmation

In the bebop era, it was a common practice to take a popular song and write a new melody over the familiar chord changes.  Charlie Parker wrote many of his tunes this way, including Donna Lee (the changes are from Indiana), Ornithology (on How High the Moon), and Koko (Cherokee).  For “Affirmation,” I chose to write my own “contrafact” (the technical name for a song written using this method) on a tune of Charlie Parker’s called Confirmation.

The primary motivation for playing a song like this was to have a bebop song that we could play as a clarinet and piano duet — I wanted a challenge for myself (clarinet has never been my strongest instrument, although it is the woodwind I started on) as well as a new color for the Duo Chronicles project.  It turned out simple and straightforward, but at the same time fun and exactly what I was going for.

Week 43 – Quadrivium

Quadrivium — from Latin, meaning “a crossroads.  A place where four roads meet

This composition is a modern choral of sorts, with four clarinet parts playing what might be more traditional sung in four part harmony, or played on an organ.  My inspiration came from the fabulous ECM recordings of saxophonist Jan Garbarek improvising over the top of the incredible four-part vocal group called the Hilliard Ensemble.  But, unlike their work, which sticks to very authentic early-music compositions, I chose to write a new piece with some modern twists thrown in.

Clay gets to play the part of Jan, using the melodica’s bright sound to cut through the darker sonority of the clarinets and bass clarinets below him.  Most of his part is improvised, with a short melodic hook that happens once in the middle and once at the end.

Week 42 – The Memory of Water

This is a special week for Duo Chronicles — not only do we have a regular duet video to present, we also have a video of a different performance of the same song featuring a spoken-word performance by writer Lynn Darroch.

“The Memory of Water” (the title is co-opted from Lynn’s story, featured in the other video), is divided into two distinct sections.  The first section has a melodic statement that repeats twice, each time through a different progression of chords.  The second section has what is called a “pedal point,” meaning a repeated common tone, usually in the low register.

When Clay and I set out to record the piece, we decided that the second section of the piece might fit will with some extended techniques.  In particular, Clay experiments with using different percussive effects on the piano, including an idea taken from modern classical “prepared piano” pieces that involve putting objects inside of the piano.  In this case, it was a piece of paper on top of the strings.

Special: The Memory of Water with Lynn Darroch

This is a special video project, featuring a collaboration with writer/journalist/musician Lynn Darroch, who has been following our project since the beginnings and has been kind enough to feature us on KMHD and in the Jazz Society of Oregon’s JazzScene magazine.  Lynn has been working on his own video projects, pairing his spoken-word pieces with jazz performances from artists such as Randy Porter, David Evans, Pere Soto, and others.

This particular video features a composition of mine from week 42 of our project, called “The Memory of Water.”  The piece was actually untitled until Lynn wrote the words to accompany it, at which point I co-opted the title for the song as well.  Clay and I would both like to thank Lynn for working with us on this piece.

Here’s what Lynn has to say about the piece:

When Clay and John asked to write a story to go with this composition, I immediately thought of water. And my desire to develop a magic realism suited to the Pacific Northwest. I also thought of singing whales, and though this story’s not about whales, what we know about them may well apply here …

Every year, when humpback whales gather off the Mexican coast, the males arrive singing. Early in the season, each whale’s song is short, simple and different from the others. But as time passes, they adjust; by season’s end, every whale is singing the same long, complex tune. The next year, each returns with only fragments of the previous song, but all leave singing in unison again, though the collective tune is slightly different every year.

Week 41 – Be Smart, Be Cool…

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been at Portland Center Stage as part of the orchestra for a production of the “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”  The show is a musical comedy, following a rather unusual group of children (as well as some audience volunteers) through a farcical spelling bee in which the word the students are challenged with is just as likely to be chosen because of its ridiculous definition as its difficulty to spell.

The score to the show is an uncommon combination of instruments, with myself on reeds (flute, clarinet, and alto saxophone), Liz Byrd on cello, Ben Wasson on percussion, Kurt Crowley on synthesizer, and our musical director, Rick Lewis, on piano.  Instead of playing from an orchestra pit below and in front of the stage, our orchestra instead plays behind the back wall of the stage (if Superman were in the audience with his X-ray vision, he’d see us performing behind the actors) with the music piped in through a sound system.

William Finn’s compositions for the show run the gamut from quirky themes that complement the comedy on stage, to powerful melodies that support the more emotional moments.  Unlike some musicals, where orchestras get bored quickly with ironically the often less-than-musical compostions, there’s always something new to find in Finn’s score, which I’ve been scouring to find bits and pieces to serve as inspirations for Duo Chronicles pieces.

The title for this piece is taken from the lyrics of a song in the show called “Woe is Me,” sung by a character who is pushed by her two dads to “be smart, be cool, be adult” and “be remarkably adroit in social situations.”  I toyed with other titles that didn’t sound as flippant, but in the end, it seemed like that line just worked best.  In the show, the cast breaks into a Stomp-inspired dance section in the middle of “Woe is Me,” where the 3-part vocals harmonies are accompanied by the percussion sounds made by clapping, stomping, and dancing on stage.  Something about 3-part vocal a cappella always gets me interested, so from the first time that I heard that section performed by the PCS cast, I knew I wanted to do something with it.

For the Duo Chronicles piece, I took that section and started altering it bit by bit.  The first change was the time signature — instead of being 4/4 like the piece in the show, our version is in 7/4.  The next, was the structure — we start with the “Be Smart, Be Cool” section, and the “Woe is Me ” hook happens in the middle.  The vocals have been replaced by three overdubbed saxophone parts.  Instead of the Stomp-inspired percussion, Clay and I use a couple tracks of clapping and a track of using storage boxes as percussion instruments.

Throughout the song, I tried to reference each of the distinct sections from Finn’s composition.  There are direct references in the piano part, the clarinet parts, and certainly the saxophone parts.  After all of the revisions and editing, making it fit the Duo Chronicles style, it ended up farther from Finn’s “Woe is Me” than I had intended originally, but only because Clay and I are putting our own spin on things.  Check out the sheet music from the link below.

Since I’m at Portland Center Stage doing this show eight times a week until the end of June, it wouldn’t surprise me if another Finn-inspired song makes its way into the Duo Chronicles songbook before we’re done.