Thursday, December 31, 2009

What do you wanna do with your life!?

There was a time, way back in the day, when MTV (Music Television) actually played music videos instead of constant re-runs of "The Real World", "Parental Control" or "MTV Cribs". Who cares about these pathetic people? Anyway, one of the classic videos was by a hair band named Twisted Sister. At the beginning of the video a boy of about 13 years of age is in his bedroom with his father spewing angry verbage at him, saliva flying everywhere. After mentioning something about carrying an M-16 in Vietnam the dad concludes his diatribe with the question "what do you wanna do with your life!?"

As I was in the early stages of this project I did a lot of listening to "Rite of Spring" and lots of following along with the score. Each part was quite different in melodic material, harmony, tempo, instrumentation and length. This would beg the question as to what I wanted to do with this part. Some parts are quite difficult to figure out what to do with in arranging it for a jazz band. Others a little more obviuos. Part two, "Dances Of The Young Girls" was painfully obvious. And the answer was the same as the one given by that 13 year old boy in the Twisted Sister video. "I wanna rock!!!!!"

Yeah, that's right, I wanna bang my head. The basses in the orchestra are sawing away, all powerful downstrokes, on these open fifths, the notes E and B, sounding much like an overdriven electric guitar slung down to the knees of some long haired, pimply face teenage boy rocking out in his parents basement. Well guess what? A jazz band has an electric guitar. And drums!! The French Horn punches get coverd by most of the horns like a second guitar punching in some crunchy power chords. A dancy little stacatto line by the English Horn is played by three saxes, playing it with more punch and some rhythmic variation making it more syncopated. The basic chord over the open fifths is an Eb 7(#9). Nice dissonance. The over that the bassons arpegiate a C major triad and an E minor triad. This is covered by tenor 2 and bari, again with a little rhythmic variation. The oboes play an almost fanfare type line. How much fanfare can an oboe produce. Enter 2 trumpets double by screaming guitar.

Now an eighth note part in the cellos in covered by trombone 3 & 4 and a triplet part in the violas is covered by trombone 1 & 2. The parts are typical string parts in that they play without break and the rhythm remains static. I not only syncopate the rhythm but I also turn it into a hemiola. Both parts play a three against four figure. The bass is covering the actual Stravinsky bass part and is also playing three against four. However, it doesn't really have anything to do with what the bones are doing. On top of that trumpets 1 and 2 cover an arpegiated line in the piccolos and A and Bb clarinets. The saxes are continuing the english horn part and this all stacks up into some serious rock and roll cacophony.

Now trumpets 1 & 2 play a high descending line and the whole band comes together for two punches and we are back to the intro vamp for four bars. And now ladies and gentlemen, the guitar solo. A screaming solo on Eb 7(#9)/E. Backgrounds used are figures from the piece. A bassoon line again for the saxes. And again the rhythm is changed. Little bleaps and blops in the piccolos are given to the trumpets and become more forceful. The solo climaxes with two fermattas on #9 chords. Then it's off into double time swing. A descending line is handed off through the sections as it descends further. The same english horn line from before appears and now the syncopation is changed slightly to make it a swing figure. The same strange bassoon arpegios are there two played by the tenors with a new alteration to include a change in placement using anticipation.

At this point in the score the first real melody of this part appears in the french horns. I give it at first to the trumpets. A swing version, but a singable melody. Finally. A few little odds and ends appear and the melody gets repeated. Here I give this line to the saxes 1-3. I do it in cannon form. The three parts stack well. Here another melody emerges in the C trumpets in two part harmony. This melody will appear again in part four. I score it for trumpets. Imagine that. Meanwhile, the bones are again playing a three over four type figure.

These melodies suddenly stop and the violas begin a tricky chromatic sixteenth note line. I'm in double time so the 16ths become 8ths. The line is too long without fro horns to play without a break so it gets handed back and forth between couplings of alto and tenor sax. Now the first "melody" gets screamed over a dominant pedal and we send the trombone off on a solo excursion. Typical background figures, sometimes relating to the piece, accent the last solo chorus. After this solo the band is in overdrive to the end. Couplings of saxes play a melody echoing back and forth. The bones play an E min 7 (b5) and D7 back and forth in swinging punches. These were french horn chords. The bari, piano and guitar cover a viola line, two different groups of four descending notes, which becomes very swinging. I just have to put in small breaks so the bari player can breathe. The oboes have a chromatic 16th note line that goes up and down over four beats, covering an interval of a minor sixth. This gets played and repeated by the trumpets. Trumpet 1 takes it up an octave every other time. The bass is playing a written line of quarter notes and the drums are swinging hard with a back beat at this point. The band is at a full romp.

This romping feel reminded me of a recording by The Either/Orchestra of a Henry Threadgill composition called "The Hard Blues". On their version they come to a tight, hard ending. It cuts quick and short. However, it's a false ending. They come back in with no prep and end it again. Then once more. Perhaps a tip of the hat to Basie's "April In Paris" without the "One more once". I decide this is a good idea for this chart and have three false endings with varying lengths of silence before the music returns. The fouth time is a charm. (The real ending)

So, Twisted Sister just might dig this part. And if I ever do a video of Rite of Spring for MTV perhaps I'll spoof their video and have a little talking head of Igor pop up and shout, "I wanna rock!" But I'm not about to wear spandex.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Vacation

So, it has been 12 days since I've written in this blog. During that time I have received twelve drummers drumming, eleven pipers piping, ten lords a leaping.......FIVE GOLDEN RINGS. (Had to get to that part) Well, you get the picture. It's Christmas time, in fact, it is Christmas day, and I've been a bit busy. As usual, the gigging picks up a bit during the holidays with all the corporate parties and church gigs, including non-paying gigs at my own church. And then there's the holiday shopping and gatherings. And we got a wonderful snowfall last weekend. 18 inches to be exact. So I've spent a good deal of time with a shovel in my hand.

I wonder if Stravinsky ever had to shovel snow? In fact, I wonder many things about him, especially during the time that he was working on Rite Of Spring. Did he do any gigs? Did he have other writing projects that he was working on? What sort of family commitments did he have, if any? Was he teaching any private students? (I've been far too lazy and/or busy to reseach anything about Stravinsky's life.) Did he take a Christmas break? Did he even celebrate Christmas at all? Especially while writing such a "pagan" piece of music. Perhaps I'll do a little reading about his life after finishing the project. Anyway, these are all things that I have been dealing with as I continue this project. I teach saxophone students at Towson University. I teach woodwinds at Archbishop Curley High School in Baltimore. I teach at home. I gig. I have family commitments. I've been doing other writing. That's why I thought the two charts a month goal was pretty lofty. It gives me lots of time to miss my deadline and still be done in time. I'm very close to my schedule as I just finished and printed part 11 three days ago and part 12 I think will go quickly.

But back to Igor. What demands did he have on his time. Did he take time off from his writing. Did he find inspiration when he did other things. I have have had many of my best ideas come to mind while far away from the house and anything musical. Often while driving the car or even more often, while walking my dog in the woods is when I have got some of my best ideas and inspiration. For both original compositions and arrangements of other people's music. The recent snowstorm gave me lots of time to think while I was shoveling, though I can't say I really got any ideas this time. And the holidays have taken away available time to write. But in the end, I think this will be good. A little layoff from the writing often yields some fresh ideas. It seems to be the same with playing. It feels good again.

So, the holiday season is here and it has slowed me a bit. No big deal. I have lots of time between Christmas and my New Years Eve gig to get some Stravinsky and other writing in. As long as my wife doesn't have me scheduled otherwise. (She works for the school system so she's home, too!) And before you know it school is back in and the college semester starts and the students come and......... At least January is a slow gig month.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Who gets the bassoon solo?

As you might expect, I know quite a few musicians in both the jazz and classical worlds. Some pretty famous, others are doing well though not among the "elite" and others more your "day laborer" type like myself. I have had the opportunity to talk about this project with many of them. I've had nearly as many reactions to the news as peole I've shared it with. Some are amazed. Others amused. Some curious. Others just can't believe it. "You're doing what?" Most say they want to hear it and want to know when the performance is. Others are curoius as to whether it will be recorded. But there has been one question that has come up more than any other during my interactions with musicians. And that is "who gets the basson solo"?

This of course leads to the whole problem of choosing lines to be played. How will they be played, as written or altered to fit a "jazz style"? Will the key stay the same? What about form. How do I get inprovised solos in there? What parts get omitted. After all, there are forty some parts in the original score and I'm dealing with 17 players. Obviously the bassoon part up front needs to be played and at least introduced in it's original form. But by bar two of my score (middle of bar one of Stravinsky's score) I've already slightly altered the line and introduced jazz inflections. Bucket muted bones cover the french horn line which also has a slight rhythmic change. I use tenor and bari to play the clarinet parts, again with alteration. I also begin to introduce the sound of a rhythm section, adding drums with brushes creating a "wash"on the snare. The whole bassoon intro is cut a bit short and a true tempo starts after the first fermatta.

Now the altos play a flute melody line with a sixteenth note feel and the drums play time with the bass, piano and two bones playing a more "groove-like" version of bassoon parts as a bass line. Harmon muted trumpets play a stacatto oboe line and the tenor sax picks up a D clarinet melody. After a few bars chords are established for the first time using an implied harmony from the french horns. (I write an E major 7 #11) Here lies an ongoing problem. There is often an indication of one harmony or tonality from one section or group of instruments while another is implying something else. Sometimes a slight variation. Other times something vastly different. There are numerous times when the bass repetitively plays two notes a tritone apart. Which note is the "root"?

I decide here to also introduce the first improvisations by allowing the tenor to fill in some space with some ad libs. The tenor then plays a short melody leading in to an actual solo space. There is a crazy 32nd note line here in the bass clarinets that I change a little and give to the 2nd tenor and bari. With my tempo and feel it is a 16th note line and turns into something slightly funky. We are now in an E minor tonality. Minor is definitely in keeping with this piece.

The introduction of a solo brings about another question that has to be answered throughout the entire work. What about backgrounds. Do I introduce my own ideas and material? Do I use variations on Stravinsky's part? Do I mix and match. My first background is use of material already in the score. There is an interesting triplet line in the flutes and english horn that I again change to sixteenth note feel. I slightly alter the harmony and score it with muted trumpets, flugelhorns and alto saxes. That is answered by my own part for the trombones.

As the tenor solo ends the score leads me to do something I wouldn't normaly do in a big band chart. The rhythm section comes in and out for a few one and two bar segments. The thin-ness of Stravinsky's score in those spots inspired this. Right after this the altos change to flute to cover a "unique" flute part from the score that leaps though octaves and slides in and out of the key. Again this line is altered. The rhythm section now is at it's most driving with a solid four to the bar. The flugels join the flutes with a line that continues to leap through the octaves. And now comes this obnoxious D clarinet part. High, dissonant notes popping out with a lot of force. I give this to the trumpets. After a few repititions the lead takes it up an octave and I alter it's ending into a blues based lick. Here the piece climaxes as the bassoon solo that returns is given to the entire ensemble with lots of paralellism in the horns and two seperate ascending bass lines.

Up to this point I have avoided all the string parts with the exception of looking to the basses for harmonic cues. Now the violins have a sixteenth note line of D flat, B flat, E flat, B flat. After the climax I use this over a mellow E flat minor groove. The tenor blows a little more here and the string line gets various permutations in the bones and then saxes leading up to a fermatta at the end.

The ending brings about yet another interesting dilema. Rite of Spring is a ballet and is played as a continous piece without breaks. The endings of most parts are less of an ending then they are a transition to the next part. What do I do about that? The answer varies from piece to piece but here that violin line gets slower and more drawn out with my variations and creates it's own natural ritard leading to the final chord. It ends up being a good mood setter for the larger work.

So, that's some of the nuts and bolts of how I got through the first part. Each piece presents it's own obstacles but getting through the first part helped me to set a "system" for dealing with the others. That system includes A LOT of deleting of parts and great liberty in how the lines are presented. And solos can be whatever I want, just like a jazz arranger does with "regular" jazz arranging. It was a great feeling to get the first piece done and an even better feeling to hear it played the first time and have my instincts be supported by the end product. And those instincts included giving that famous bassoon solo to the tenor sax.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Reading of part 5-10

So, this past Tuesday I brought six more completed arrangements in to Ft Meade to be read by The Jazz Ambassadors. They were kind enough to give me an entire two hour rehearsal to run the music. It was especially kind since they have rehearsals and a performance this weekend at The Kennedy Center as part of the Kennedy Center Honors that they needed to prepare for. They get to play with Dave Brubeck as he is one of the honorees. Not bad. However a little bird told me the chart that was provided for them on Take Five is not that good and that certain past or present Jazz Ambassador arrangers would have done better. (Just a little fodder there for the tabloids.)

The band played quite well as the music is rather difficult. Not necessarily from the standpoint of the player needing to be a virtuoso, but instead because it is difficult from a conceptual standpoint as well as the blend and balance needed to pull off the orchestration. I have an affection for writing across the band as it is. That is, not writing so much tutti material for one section but instead having one idea played together by members of different sections while another idea, or two or three is being played by other instrument combinations. Most "traditional" big band music is not written this way. Generally, saxes are all playing the same figure, whether unison or harmony. The same goes for the trumpets and the trombones. Sometimes the different sections play different parts, other times they have a tutti figure for all the horns. This type of writing makes it easy for the player to hear and play together with those that are playing the same figure. As I mentioned, I have a tendency to do things a bit different. And The Rite of Spring is written such that it is even easier for me to decide to go that direction. This means that, for instance, the second alto might be playing a melodic line with the guitar and two muted trumpets. Now the second alto, instead of listening to his lead player next to him, has to "find" the other players that are playing with him and blend and interpret the line with them. And so it goes for several other sets of instruments.

The Jazz Ambassadors have been playing my music long enough to know to expect that from me. However, these figures are a bit different. There is a different harmonic orientation as well as some different sorts of melodic material. Often there are notes or lines that make you uncertain if you played them right. Or, if you know you played them right, you wonder if they are written right. This is why one player commented on my Facebook page that the music is cool but also hard as @%@&*%!. I take that as a compliment.

So, besides being hard there were the usual few editing errors on my part. Two trumpet parts had a wrong note. That was a unison that was cut and pasted from one part to another. The same thing happened with a figure in the piano and guitar parts on another tune. And there was a small enharmonic inconsistency in the sax parts in one chart. That was the tune that drove me crazy trying to get the sharps and flats spelled out in the most readable manner. (Key signatures, or the lack thereof, are a whole other story with this piece!) And now I'm down to just four more charts. I've yet to get started on part 11 which puts me ever so slightly behind in my scheduled goal of a January 31 completion date. But that date also allows for finishing quite later and still being on time.

So, as I had mentioned in my first blog, I intend to write a bit about the nuts and bolts of what I have done with each part of Rite of Spring. And since I had a face to face request for that the other day, next time I will talk about the first part/chart. I don't know if I'll get through it in one sitting or if it will stretch to another writing. We shall see. It's kind of like writing the music, I just get going and who knows where it will come out in the end.