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 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 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 21 – Ice-Berg

For this week’s composition, Ice-Berg, I thought the clarinet would be a good choice. Luckily, John can play pretty much all of the instruments in the woodwind family. That is versatility for you.

A lot of the written music you see as a jazz musician is in the form of a lead sheet. A lead sheet usually contains the melody and a set of chord changes. The chord changes are also usually used for improvising as well as accompanying the melody. Chord changes could be thought of as musical shorthand, they give you a harmonic roadmap, but don’t necessarily spell out all the details. Sometimes it is difficult to really describe a chord voicing that I want, it is just easier to write out the notes. So if you take a look at the PDF for Ice-Berg you will see the chords written musically as well as the chord symbols. The second dilemma was that chords were pretty difficult to improvise over. Pretty chromatic. In this case I decided to play shapes over the harmony instead of worrying that every note fit every chord. Is there really such a thing as a wrong note? As long the note that follows makes sense to the previous one, does it matter? Music is not static like a painting. In taking that approach I also wanted the melody to always be played in order to provide some continuity. Basically to keep it from being too atonal sounding. The classic recording of Nefertiti by the Miles quintet of 1960’s basically play the melody chorus after chorus. The effect is a more subtle change than drastic.

What is interesting is what causes one to hear a sound as dissonant? In western music we have 12 individual notes, that are divided into octaves and repeated. Combinations of two notes form intervals, with three notes a triad and so on. Generally speaking the interval of a 5th is considered consonant while a minor 2nd dissonant. My harmonic approach is this tune was use dissonant and consonant intervals side by side. The music of twentieth-century composer Alban Berg made use of dissonance as well as the serial composition, the use of 12 tone rows. The line between harmony and atonality begins to disappear, or melt like an Ice-Berg. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.