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.

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.

Week 40 – Perimeter

In writing this composition, I decided not to write chord changes purposely. This gives the improviser the utmost freedom in a sense, hence the term “free jazz” or “avant-garde” which have been coined to describe this style. Without a harmonic structure the improviser must then create some shape on his/her own or by interacting with other musicians. Since the melody is comprised of mostly two-bar phrases, John made an interesting suggestion to improvise based off these phrases or two bar cells or cellular improvisation. By that I mean that the improviser is free to play these melodic fragments in any order or repeat them without rules. This shows the influence of twentieth-century classical music, but with the interaction aspect of jazz. This way of playing then defines the structure. We did three takes, all of which were quite different due to the open nature of the music, but the third one seemed to have the best interaction.

Week 39 – The Valley Below

Influence is all around us whether we are conscious of it or not. Ultimately what resonates with us comes out in how we express ourselves and in our art. Chances are if a thought or idea resonates with you, it probably does with someone else as well. I like to think of this as a kind of collective consciousness. I listen to music frequently while driving, as I suspect many people might do. Two CD’s that have been in the car lately (I don’t get around to changing them that often) are Brad Mehldau’s latest “Highway Rider” and a mix CD of Foo Fighters songs. So I was influenced by this music I’m sure when I wrote “The Valley Below” two days ago. Not because I want to sound like Brad Mehldau, but something in that music speaks to me and inspires me to find my own musical thoughts, exploring in a similar language.

i think John mentioned before that he too had drawn some inspiration from “Highway Rider,” in his animated video of his tune “Twenty Seven.”

“The Valley Below” also explores some of the ideas that are prominent to my musical thoughts. Namely the influence of pop music in terms of a musical “hook.”  Being that is an instrumental piece, there are no lyrics to evoke imagery. So in terms of musical form, taking four measure sections and changing and developing them to create a larger shape or arrangement. They are like characters in a musical short story.

Week 38 – The Island

The title for this weeks composition is a ode to the ending of the popular television show “Lost,” which is ending this month after six seasons. Much of the appeal of the show for me is not only the individual characters and their stories, but also the use of time as well. Flash-backs, flash-forwards and side-wise time elements are all part of the episodes. “The Island” is as much a character as anybody in the show. Does it represent good or bad? Or maybe a combination of both? i think that no clear conclusion can be reached, which makes it a little like music to me. It can be elusive, meaning different things at different times to different people. We still experience music or sound in linear fashion, but live in an increasing non-linear world. Perhaps a little like The Island?

Week 37 – Ritual

A ritual has an inherent shape or form built in. From this one can let the story unfold in this space. This space is the possibility of sound or rather one possibility at one given time. Improvising to me is like observing and observance is a ritual.

I really like the vibe John and I got on this take. In fact there was only one take so there were no others to choose from. One of the challenges of playing in the duo format is how to to fill out the space, in terms of texture and rhythm. I guess I liked the vibe because there was a natural flow between the melody and the solo improvisations, an arc of circular nature from beginning to the end.

Week 36 – Open Road, Closed Door

I wrote “Open Road, Closed Door” just a couple of weeks after moving from New York to Portland in November of ’07.  If I remember correctly, the first performance of the song was at the Portland Jazz Festival in February 2008 when I was featured at Darrell Grant’s young artist series at the Old Church.

The song looks complicated on paper — lots of changing time signatures and chord changes, but they all serve the purpose of supporting a rather simple melody — it’s not just complexity for the sake of complexity.  But, while the melody may sound simple, it’s a hard tune to play.

We stick to the stereotypical jazz form on this one — melody, solos, melody, with a vamp at the end — no overdubs, no through-composed sections.  While I definitely enjoy putting together the compositions where we push those boundaries, it’s also nice to get back to a more simple layout like this sometimes.

Week 35 – Another Noon

This week continues my trend of writing pieces that were influenced by specific writers or compositions.  “Another Noon” was heavily influenced by a piece called “Hi Noon” by Justin Morell, a guitarist that I’ve been playing with in the Damian Erskine Project.  Justin’s composition uses a set of drop-two voicings (I’m not going to go into the theory here, but the technique leads to chords that cover a wide range and have a fairly open sound to them) that sound rather melodic on their own, with another melody that seems to float on top of it.

For my composition, I employed the same technique of drop-two voicings with an additional melody, and then filled out some of the inside parts using a woodwind choir made up of flute, soprano sax, alto sax, and bass clarinet.  The result is a simple but lush harmonic foundation for the piece — so simple, that you might not even notice that it’s in 7/4 at first.

In the second half of the composition, the piano part gets rhythmically and harmonically more intense, while the woodwind parts turn to more long, held-out notes than the melodic phrases they were playing earlier.  On top of that, we added a second piano track that has no written part — it’s a sort of abstract solo on top of everything going on with the woodwind and piano ostinato figures.

Seventeen weeks to go and we still have plenty of ideas we’re looking forward to trying out.

Week 34 – Souvenirs of Memory

This week’s video was shot at the home of a friend who has a very nice Steinway piano and some colorful artwork. Location recording can be more tricky logistically, but having done this for a few weeks now everything went surprisingly smoothly.

There is a theme of dualism this composition. First the two alto saxophone tracks. Then in the solo section trading between the piano and alto. I relate this to idea of memory, whether long-term or short-term. How accurate is either really? is memory tied to experience? Does that change over time? Really depends on personal perspective I guess.

Music definitely triggers memory and vice versa. I have listened to a piece of music that I haven’t heard in a while and heard it quite differently. Maybe hearing new things. One thing is for sure, even though music is experienced in a linear-based timeframe, memory can be timeless or even fragmented jumping from place to place.

Have any of you listeners had experiences relating to music and memory?