Sunday, March 28, 2010

Next question, please.

Ever wonder what it's like to be the guy on the hot seat at a press conference? Or perhaps what it is like to sit down with Mike Wallace for a 60 Minutes interview. Maybe you've wondered what it would be like to take a seat in the easy chair next to David Letterman and have a friendly little chat. I had an experience this past week that was probably a cross between all three. And it turned out to be pretty fun.

First of all, I like questions. In general they tend to lead to the next thing, which then leads to more questions, which then lead to,.... well,.... you get it. Now, some questions simply look for a quantitative answer. "What's 2 + 2?". Some ask for information. "What happened at work today?". Some are rhetorical. "Do ya think?". (Said with sarcasm.) Some deal with trivial things. "Is there any of that pie left?". Others deal with deep issues. How about these three here? (That's not the deep question!) Where did we come from? What went wrong? How can it be fixed? Now, there's some questions deserving a whole other blog. I would love to write about that, but that's an issue for another time and place, don't you think?

Speaking of thinking, that's what I really liked about my experience this past week. I gave my first master class on my project of arranging Rite Of Spring for a jazz ensemble. The good people at The University of Maryland were kind enough to give me an evening to talk about it and play some musical examples for them. I talked about the usual issues of melody, harmony, rhythm, groove, etc. How to create solo space. I walked them through the Stravinsky score to part three and my score for the same part at the same time. That was a bit tedious as I wasn't as prepared as I could have been for that. None the less, I think it was beneficial once we listened to them both. But after that came the good part. The questions. All good. Some looking for straight forward information. Some about my own thoughts or feelings. And the really good ones that make me stop and think.

I wish I could remember more of them, but I'll address at least two of them here. One person asked how my own view of music has changed or how the music has changed me as a result of this experience. Wow. Hadn't really thought about that. And what is the answer? So, I started thinking out loud. Well, for one thing, I've changed my view on what I think about Rite of Spring. I used to think that it was a very dissonant, rhythmically abstract piece of music. I still think that, but I see that it is so much more. I remember listening to it and thinking, "My God, there is so much stuff in there". That was said as a reaction to being aurally overloaded. Now I listen and say, "Wow, there is so much stuff". Only now I say it with awe and appreciation. Sure, there aren't long melodies that flow through a piece, but there are melodies. Sometime very small ideas, but the piece is practically littered with them. But it takes repeated listening to find them or hear them. Yes there is dissonance, but the harmony is highly organized. The subtle variations in notes or harmonies as a fragment gets repeated is obviously well thought out. This is a piece which bears repeated listening and rewards the person that does so with new revelations each time. And what can I learn from that? How does that change my view of music? One thing becomes quite clear. There has got to be a lot of music out there that can't possibly be judged from just one listening. And I know we've all been guilty of that. Also, I think that perhaps I see new possibilities for what I can do with a piece of music. Specifically, what possibilities I have as a composer. Even as a composer of jazz music.

The second question was from someone who had been reading my blog. He even had stuff printed out and quoted from "Repent, The End Is Near". The question dealt with what I hope to accomplish with this piece in it's performance and presentation. He quoted the fact that I said I wanted to create an emotional impact from the music. And I'll add that what I wrote there goes not only for Rite Of Spring but anything I compose or arrange for big band. And that is that I want people to have an emotional experience from hearing the music. Not just a cheap thrill from high, fast and loud, but a deep and lasting experience. And the question was, "How do you know that you've accomplished this?". Another truly great question. How can I really know? I can know how hard I worked. I can know how hard I tried. I can know how I feel about my own work. But how do I know if I've succeeded in providing a deeply emotional experience for the listener, unless of course they actually come up to me and say so. Or, heaven forbid, they tell me they weren't moved by it. I think time will be at least part of the answer. Good music lasts. Cheap thrills don't. Sure, there is still a lot of mediocre to absolutely awful music that is still being played either live or over the airways 20, 30 40 or more years after it's release. But I have to believe that the vast majority of that is due to it's nostalgic appeal. We all like the music we grew up with. And we all think "it's better than the music these young people listen to nowadays". We associate it with good times in high school or college or other "coming of age" type events in our life. And the real meaning isn't in the music itself so much as the thoughts, emotions and memories it's connected to. My arrangement will never be on hit radio. It will never be the soundtrack of a person's life. If people continue to want to listen to this it will be because the music itself has some meaning. It will be because it touches something inside them. It somehow relates to the human condition. I feel this is one way to know if I have succeeded. And the sad part about that is, I'll probably never know how many people are still listening to this 10, 20 or 30 years down the road. (By the way, there is a plan to get this recorded so that people actually have the option to do this, should they so desire.) I do know this, if you aim for nothing, you are guaranteed to hit it. I'm aiming for emotional impact. Hopefully I'll not only hit it, but know that I did so.

So, one master class is completed. I'll have another at Towson University as well as at Peabody Conservatory. It will be interesting to see what the people at these classes ask and what I'll have to think about regarding my own thoughts, feelings and assumptions. It should be interesting.

Well, that about takes care of today's blog. Next question, please.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Number 5 Is Alive!

OK, it's a pretty lame movie quote from a very mediocre movie, I admit. But what's not to like about Ally Sheedy. If I could just figure out how to use the line "nice software!". Gotta be just a little jealous of a robot who gets to watch Ally take a bath. But now I'm really going down a rabbit trail. Or perhaps the gutter. Anyway, on to part five, "Ritual Of The Rival Tribes".
I don't know what this ritual is, but it sure starts out with a bang. Tympani. Big loud tympani. Four different pitches spanning an octave and a fourth played on four different tympani. Interlocking eighth notes that pretty much drown out the other low voices. Well, I don't have tympani to work with, but I like the idea of those particular pitches. So I start out with those pitches in some low voices. Bari sax, bass drum, guitar, piano and bass. I elected to spread out the pitches even more. As the line returns to one of the middle pitches I drop it an octave. Now that original lick has a range just a whole step short of two octaves, all played as one descending line.
Now we are all the way to bar three. Here the bassoons and horns have a tutti figure that has some interesting harmony but is a bit hampered melodically and rhythmically. At least from a jazz perspective. A bar of 4/4 and a bar of 3/4 that starts out with a quarter note and all the rest is eighth notes. And the top part has a string of repeated pitches in the middle that just doesn't work as a jazz line. So I stole some notes from the inner lines and created a slightly altered melody. I wrote the quarter note on "one" with an eighth note anticipation. Then with the bar of 3/4 I place an eighth rest before the last two notes and change the last eighth to a quarter and presto change-o, now we have a jazz line. This line is scored in four part harmony for saxes 1-4. The same idea is repeated by the trumpets with a slight rhythmic variation in the rhythm of the first three notes. This is supported with some trombone punches underneath. All the while the rhythm section is playing stop time on a low pedal using a note found in the cellos and basses. Oh, by the way, I should note that for some strange reason I decided to take this piece up a fourth. As if it wasn't hard enough for me already dealing with alto and tenor cleffs and transposition for G flutes and D trumpets. Now I have an extra transposition to make on everything.
This line in the score that I have now "transmogrified" (Calvin & Hobbes is a much better source to quote) is thrown around several times by Stravinsky and I do the same and finish it off the last time by tagging some of the last notes twice, bringing all the horn sections together. Here Stravinsky kind of settles into a minor chord and I do the same and stretch it out for an eight bar section of swinging modal type walking and comping on an F min7 chord.
The opening horn line returns with a little variation. Now this line has a sequence of perfect fourth intervals. It is eighth notes and the different fourths appear consecutively, three in a row. The last fourth is followed by one more note, an eighth note on the beat. I move that last note by one eighth note to create syncopation. The way Stravinsky harmonized this couldn't necessarily be reduced to chord changes, but there were some implications that I ran with. This two bar lick has four chords moving under it that bring us from F minor to a G maj7 #11 chord. Here the high woodwinds have an answering line that I gave to the saxes, putting it over the G chord. Then we are right back to F minor for four bars. Here the tympani play a variation of their opening figure so I follow suit and give the pitches to the bones, again with the descending patter I used in bars one an two. The saxes pepeat their line here with a slight variation over the F minor. This is very dissonant.
Here Stravinsky introduces his one real fragment of melody in this piece. This is given to the trumpets in two part harmony, as per Igor. This is played over eight different chords in a three bar stretch, some chords getting one beat and others two. Stravinsky scores a shorter version of the fragment now down a third. I give this to the saxes and use the use three chords in a simlar harmonic pattern. All these changes are chords I have created using two or three notes from the original harmony. This lands on D minor. Now the eighth note idea from bar three reappears. I write it in a shortened version for trumpets, compressing it to one measure. I repeat it adding saxes and once more adding bones and completing the lick. All this is over a dominant chord that again brings us to D minor. Now we are again vamping in a cool style only now in D minor, not F minor.
At this point Stravinsky develops his melodic fragment and lets it flow some. I use the idea and play it over the D minor "cool" swing, interspersing it with the bones playing a variation of the tympani idea that ends in four part harmony. This section lasts eight bars. Here I continue in D minor and just take the first three notes of the fragemnt and toss them back and forth between the saxes and trumpets. Both sections play in harmony. Five part in saxes, four in trumpets. The bones start to play their idea again, this time as a three over four type figure. This climaxes with some tutti punches on a C7 alt chrod taking us back to our F minor cool.
After eight bars the bari sax takes off on a solo. All the chords used up to this point get used. The minor sections remain at eight bars for a modal feel. The places where harmony was moving fast gets slowed down a bit. The section with eight chords in three bars gets elongated with every chord getting twice what it had before. This adds up to a 34 bar solo section. The bari gets to blow throught this twice. The first time with just the rhythm section. The second chorus begins with backgrounds being added immediately. The initial figures are syncopated but legatto and scored lightly with bone, flugel and two saxes. The lines is handed off through the horns and builds quickly to a clustered voicing and fall before eight bars have passed. The backgrounds in the first half of the chorus are completely composed and not taken from the score. The second half backgrounds make use of the tympani figure, played more sparsely and the "melodic fragment", also abbreviated. Just before the end of the solo the saxes sneak in a line that appears in the bones in the original. This line comes in toward the end of the piece and actually carries over to part six. This introduction is a bit "early" in relation to the original.
As I come out of the bari solo I basically do a "cut and paste" of some of the material from before the solo. Perhaps this is a bit lazy, perhaps not. This material doesn't really get repeated in the original but I thought it was worth stating again after the solo. As I get to the end of the cut and paste I continue with the melodic fragment just a bit longer.
At this point I sort of pick up again with Stravinsky's score where I had left off before the bari solo. There is a figure here in cellos and basses that I latch on to. It is repeated over and over. A sixteenth triplet and eighth note together. I turn the triplet into a turn and make the figure four eighths and a quarter. This three beat pattern is now played back and forth between two different groupings of alto and tenor. Here Stravinsky also inroduces a few new ideas that are very terse and have a lot of rhythmic punch. I use the bones to cover the more linear ideas and the trumpets voiced fairly high for the punchier parts. The sax figure underneath provides a real driving swing as the bass pedals on quarter notes. At the end of this section high woodwinds and strings have a glissando type run. I use the trumpets to ascend to a big chord.
Now there is a release and the bass pedals a new note. The saxes play an even more deconstructed version of the "fragment", just used the first descending part of the line, only four notes. The brass then begin to support with some harmony as the saxes switch to pick up on the part they introduced at the very end of the bari sax solo. The harmony in the brass stretches a bit but it is all over a D pedal. It has implications of minor but does other things. This section releases into a swinging section of D min7 to G7, one bar each. The saxes lay out for two measures and then start their line again over what has become a very bluesy, swingy groove. After two more bars the bari begins improvising again, playing in a "Mulligan-esque" style. The saxes then step out of the way and let the bari and rhythm section go. The ending simply descends chromatically from the G to and F maj7 #11 chord amd the saxes play their little line one more time over the frematta.
So, number five is done. It has dissonance, strong rhythms, dense harmony, modal sections and bluesy sections and a bari solo. And the final sax melody will bring us into part six. But before we get to that I think I'll go watch an Ally Sheedy movie. Number 5 is alive!!!!!!