Week 51 – Long Way Home

I had been working with the elements of this weeks composition “Long Way Home” for a little while. I was hearing other elements besides piano and saxophone to fill out the arrangement. The programmed drum loop was created in a software application called Ableton Live which we played along with, kind of like playing with a drum machine albeit a little more intelligent. This is something I have been wanting explore a little bit more is combining electronics with acoustic instruments in a live setting. This requires thinking about the process much differently than the traditional one track at time in the recording studio way of doing things.
I often think of traveling when I hear music. A lot of my favorite music has that kind of quality to it. Home is a common concept to all of us, although it might mean different things specifically. Getting out of a familiar environment is good and can be inspiring, but arriving back home can comforting. Unfortunately that path is not always linear, hence the long way home.

I had been working with the elements of this weeks composition “Long Way Home” for a little while. I was hearing other elements besides piano and saxophone to fill out the arrangement. The programmed drum loop was created in a software application called Ableton Live which we played along with, kind of like playing with a drum machine albeit a little more intelligent. This is something I have been wanting explore a little bit more is combining electronics with acoustic instruments in a live setting. This requires thinking about the process much differently than the traditional one track at time in the recording studio way of doing things.
I often think of traveling when I hear music. A lot of my favorite music has that kind of quality to it. Home is a common concept to all of us, although it might mean different things specifically. Getting out of a familiar environment is good and can be inspiring, but arriving back home can comforting. Unfortunately that path is not always linear, hence the long way home.

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 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.

Special: Visual Animated Score for “Twenty Seven”

Most of the time, when I hear music, I have initial feelings about whether I like or dislike it and down the line (maybe next time I’m at a record store) that may influence my decision to buy or not buy the album.  A couple of weeks ago, I came across the EPK for Brad Mehldau’s newest album, titled “Highway Rider,” and hearing the music provoked a much more immediate reaction — I knew that I had to buy the album and listen to it immediately.  After buying and downloading the album from iTunes, I started digging around on Mehldau’s website and found an animated score for one of the songs.

This seemed like the perfect way to present the Duo Chronicles material.  We already provide videos and sheet music files, so why not combine the two?

After quite a bit of research and planning, I came up with what I thought would be the best method to create that sort of video using the tools at my disposal.  The final product was made with Finale 2010 (for the sheet music itself), Gimp (to edit the sheet music into separate image files), and Final Cut Express (to animate the image files and combine them with the audio track).

I chose to use the technique on “Twenty Seven,” a piece from a couple of weeks ago that was completely through composed, meaning that the score represented everything that was played — no improvisation to deal with.  “Twenty Seven” also had a few instruments (melodica, soprano sax, tenor sax, and piano), making the five-staff score more interesting to represent than just a piano/sax duet with only three staffs.

Without going into too much detail, the basic process for creation of the video was:

  • Create a score that fit on one page (about 110 inches long and 5 inches tall)
  • Cut the score horizontally to make separate files for each instrument
  • Cut those resulting files vertically to break up the piece into sections (the result was about 50 separate image files)
  • Line up the different sections of the score with the audio track in Final Cut and add animations

The amount of time that it took to create the project makes it prohibitive to do for each Duo Chronicles piece, but it’s definitely something we’d like to explore further for the occasional video.

Week 33 – Cascade

When I was thinking of possible titles for this piece of music, flow is a word that kept coming to mind. Flow, in how it relates to water and also the flow of information or knowledge. By definition the word cascade fits perfectly. One of the definitions for cascade is: “a small waterfall, typically one of several that fall in stages down a steep slope.”  I imagine this slope might be slippery as well. The flow of water is also linear, like a live music performance. There is no going back. Each decision leads to the next musical moment. The flow of water is a also seamless in a way that makes time seem irrelevant.

A four-part chorale-like section bookends this piece. I was imagining a 20th century version of a Bach chorale if you will. Instead of a vocal choir,  I orchestrated for soprano saxophone, flute, tenor saxophone and bass clarinet. John adeptly creates this woodwind choir through overdubbing. in fact, I think this is his Duo Chronicles debut on bass clarinet. Such a cool sound.

Week 31 – Twenty Seven

This piece is different than what we’ve done before.

As I mentioned in Week 28, some of the performances from Norwegian groups at the Portland Jazz Festival inspired me to explore different avenues and directions with my compositions for Duo Chronicles.  This meant finding both a different sonic palette to write for as well as different compositional forms and note choices.

This particular piece is heavily inspired by the Christian Wallumrod Ensemble, which played a set of through-composed music at the festival — not the usual melody, solo, melody forms that we’re so used to hearing in jazz.  My piece, “Twenty Seven,” much like a classical piece, is fully through-composed and is the first of the Duo Chronicles pieces to not include any improvisation, besides phrasing and inflections.

Sometimes, when writing a piece and trying to explore new sounds, it’s useful to have some sort of ‘rule’ that makes you break out of your normal box as a composer.  When I studied with Dick Oatts in New York, he was big on this idea.  In fact, on his record South Paw, I believe nearly every piece was originally written as an exercise with some sort of rule in mind.  For this piece, I decided to try to justify every note in the piece by being either a 3rd or a 9th away from the previous note or another note in the chord.  This, combined with the fact that it was week 27 of the project when I started writing it, lead to the title (9 x 3 = 27).

Towards the end of the piece, I abandoned the rule briefly — I decided that it was better to break the rule and have the piece sound the way that I wanted rather than stick to the rule and compromise the sound — after all, the goal of the rule was to inspire a new sound, which I had achieved at the beginning of the piece.

I know that Clay and I both have some new compositions coming up soon that explore different sounds and instruments (note the new melodica Clay’s playing in “Twenty Seven”).  We’re excited to share these new ideas with you.

Remember, you can always get our videos from iTunes in podcast format (HD quality, too):

Week 30 – Ides of March

The Ides of March refers to the 15th of March so I suppose we are a few weeks late with this one. Julius Caesar was killed on this day and was warned of his impending death, but didn’t take heed. I choose this title more in relation to the fact the Spring makes a brief appearance and then withdraws, but it is clear that a change of season is coming. The shape or form of this composition is a subtle rise throughout, culminating in a somewhat deceptive harmonic resolution in the end. Just because a piece of music starts on a minor chord doesn’t mean it can’t end on a major one.  The rain and wind may blow, but eventually must break, in its own cadence, its own time.

Week 24 – Second Chances

A few weeks ago, Clay and I used the last few minutes of a recording session to take a crack at a tune that I had just scribbled out a couple of days before.  The song didn’t have a title, systems were scratched out on the paper, and I didn’t really have a form in mind, but somehow we managed to put it together and get what I thought would be a pretty good recording of it.

Unfortunately, while listening back to the mixes, we realized that the piano mics had some distortion due to some radio interference, which made us worry that the tracks might be unusable.  But, Clay went to work with ProTools and came away with a track where the interference was barely audible.  I thought we were in the clear, but when I started editing the video, I realized that I only had video from one of the cameras.  That take clearly wasn’t meant to be.

So now, a few weeks later, we present what I’ve titled “Second Chances” — our second attempt at recording the song.  No radio interference this time.  Both cameras did their jobs.  If you look at the sheet music, though, you still see that system scribbled out.

Week 22 – Common Ground

The initial idea for “Common Ground” came pretty quickly and then details like form and instrumentation came together more slowly. A few things come to mind about this tune. One, is how ideas come about in the composing process. I have tried off and on to write away from an instrument altogether. Mostly unsuccessfully unfortunately. There are a couple of reasons why it might be good though. After playing an instrument for a while your hands tend to fall in certain patterns instead of relying on your ear to guide you. So without your instrument you have to really hear your ideas. Also when I’m writing for instruments other than the piano, it really helps to have some knowledge of that instrument’s range, sound etc… In that respect I’m glad I had the experience of playing the trumpet for many years in school bands. One definitely cannot play the trumpet without taking breaths or other woodwind instruments as well for that matter. In this tune I thought some kind of interplay between the soprano sax and flute might be interesting sound and it seemed to work pretty well orchestration-wise. Recently I was playing an instrument that I hadn’t played in a year or so, an old Wurlitzer electric piano. For some reason the sound and feel of the instrument drew out some of the musical ideas in this tune. I think sometimes a certain instrument can do that, not sure why. So perhaps this music wouldn’t have come about if I hadn’t been playing on the Wurlitzer? Hard to say.

Lately I’ve listening to music by the Brazilian guitarist/pianist Egberto Gismonti and I think some of that sound seeped in unconsciously. Also I was thinking about how Antonio Carlos Jobim develops his melodies and harmonic structures. Definitely one of my all time favorite composers. In fact when playing with jazz musicians and it comes time to play a Latin-type tune, most of the time a Jobim tune is suggested. I think there is a reason for that.

As for the title and its meaning? Well not sure if there is a definitive answer but, I am always trying to find a balance (musically and otherwise) between being tied to ideas and being open to unfamiliar ones or the ones that emerge unconsciously. This music seemed to reflect that to me.

Week 20 – Hard Times, Come Again No More

Stephen Foster is a composer of true Americana.  His songbook is filled with compositions known by Americans of all walks of life – songs like “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” and “Beautiful Dreamer.”

This week, I’ve arranged Foster’s “Hard Times, Come Again No More” for the Duo Chronicles project.  Although not as well-known as the songs I mentioned above, it’s still a very common song, especially in the folk circles.  For example, my favorite version was performed by James Taylor with Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Mark O’Connor.

For the Duo Chronicles version, I stretched the harmony, but not so much that the song is hidden – it’s just presented in a different light.  I also tried to stay true to the lyrics and mood of the song, which transitions between hopeful and dark imagery.  Here are Foster’s original lyrics:

Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh Hard times come again no more.
Chorus:
Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh hard times come again no more.
While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay,
There are frail forms fainting at the door;
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say
Oh hard times come again no more.
(Chorus)
There’s a pale drooping maiden who toils her life away,
With a worn heart whose better days are o’er:
Though her voice would be merry, ’tis sighing all the day,
Oh hard times come again no more.
(Chorus)
Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave,
Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore
Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave
Oh hard times come again no more.

This is our first departure from original material in the project besides the holiday songs – we’ll be back to original compositions next week.