The 30 Days Project: Day 20

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Another piece with sleep/dream-related theme today — I guess you could say I’m following that old writer’s dictum, “Write What You Know!” 😉

I heard one of the Ysaÿe solo violin sonatas on the radio this morning. It was around 6:30 a.m. while I was driving McDoc to work (the price we pay for only owning one car 😦 ). It was good music to listen to as the sun came up.

But that’s not the only reason it’s a good day to write for solo violin. Tomorrow I’ll be performing Fratres by Arvo Pärt with the violinist from the ensemble New Music Detroit as part of their 12-hour marathon concert, “Strange Beautiful Music.”

That reminds me… I’d better go practice! 🙂

Click play to listen:

Thanks for listening!


The 30 Days Project: Day 19

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Soooo tired!

I haven’t slept too well the past couple nights, and the past two days’ pieces were more time-consuming to get recorded than others. So I woke up feeling pretty wrung out this morning. Of course it’s nothing compared to what my poor sweet McDoc is going through working in OB-GYN… but that rotation ends tomorrow — woo hoo! And next month his schedule will just be a little bit crazy, as opposed to completely insane.

Two songs came into my head when I sat down at the piano this morning: The Beatles’ “I’m So Tired,” from The Beatles (a.k.a. the White Album), and “When the Hangover Strikes,” by Squeeze. My tiredness is not alcohol-related, though, I swear! But that song captures bluesy wooziness in a really humorous way — here’s my favorite bit from the lyrics:

When the hangover strikes
And I turn on the tap
But the water’s too loud…

Who among us hasn’t been there at one time or another? 😉

Today’s piece captures that languid, somnolent feeling pretty well, I think. It’s highly improvised, which is a stretch for me — I’m so used to reading off the music, I’m the total opposite of the old joke:

Q: How do you get a guitarist to stop playing?
A: Put a piece of sheet music in front of him!

…so it was really fun for me to give improvisation a go.

And I’ll be darned if this piece didn’t take less time to record than any of the others, while having the longest playing time by far. Music works in mysterious ways… 😉

Click play to listen:

Thanks for listening!

The 30 Days Project: Day 18

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When I lived in San Diego (which was until about 3 months ago!) I was attending a meditation group at a Zen Center there. Every month, the members of the center were asked to reflect on one of 10 precepts, or rules of personal conduct, which included such unimpeachable directions as “not leading a harmful life nor encouraging others to do so, ” and “not elevating myself and blaming others.” Good stuff.

I’m still on their email list, and today I got a message identifying the precept for this month:

Not being stingy. I will use all of the ingredients of my life. I will not foster a mind of poverty in myself or others.

“I will use all of the ingredients of my life” — what a wonderful instruction! As the shop steward of the American Federation of Time Wasters Local 47, it gave me much food for thought. The idea that not fulfilling your potential is an act of stinginess toward the people in your life can really transform your worldview. It has very much transformed mine over the course of the past 18 days! 🙂

I started wondering what a music of generosity would sound like. It’s tricky to try to translate concepts from words to music in any kind of direct or literal way — there is a danger of the music sounding prosaic or cliché, or as my undergrad composition teacher Andrew Imbrie used to say, “Mickey Mouse-y.” I thought of writing a piece that included all of the ingredients of my life… but, well, that’ll take more than one day (I should hope!).

I ended up writing something that I think just sounds very happy. And as for the generosity part, it turned out that one piano wasn’t enough. I started writing for two pianos, then two players on each piano — so that’s a total of 2 pianos, 4 players, 8 hands (‘course, all 8 hands are mine, through the magic of overdubbing!). It’s like a group hug! 😉

Click play to listen:

Thanks for listening!

The 30 Days Project: Day 17

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In 1912, our friend Arnold Schönberg wrote a piece called Pierrot Lunaire, for a soprano soloist and a small instrumental ensemble. It’s a bunch of songs on poems by Albert Giraud, only translated from French into German. As if that weren’t enough of a travesty, he also directed the soprano soloist to use a technique called Sprechstimme, which is like half-singing, half-speaking. It kind of goes against the way classical singers are trained, and ends up sounding similar to how your average shower singer really sounds, without knowing that s/he is doing some high-fallutin’ advanced music technique.

I took a friend of mine to hear a performance of this piece at U.C. Berkeley several years ago. He referred to it ever after as “that German appendectomy you made me sit through.” It’s a really cool piece though, if you can get over the oddness of it — I swear!

Anyway, the only reason I bring it up is, the particular set of instruments Schönberg chose has become a standard ensemble for composers to write for. It consists of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. Somewhere along the way somebody added percussion to the mix, and a weapon of mass destruction was born.

I’m not sure what possessed me to write for this ensemble today, because writing a piece in one day for one or two instruments is enough — six is just asking for trouble. But I guess I was feeling troubled today. The news has been bothering me… in spite of a recent event that should feel like an early Christmas present in my opinion, certain things are getting me down, like this stupid war and the hypocrisy of politicians of all stripes. So I wanted to write something that simulated beating your head against the wall, ’cause sometimes that’s what I feel like doing.

I also really like music that sounds machine-like, only the machine isn’t functioning 100% properly — you can hear little glitches here and there (similar to the broken clock idea I talked about on Day 6). Very true-to-life, some days…

Click play to listen:

Thanks for listening!

The 30 Days Project: Day 16

The Peregrine Muse

I mentioned on Day 11 that I love the viola. But I have to confess that my affections are divided. I really can’t pick just one favorite instrument, any more than I could limit myself to one favorite composer or piece. But the cello ranks pretty high on my list, in close competition with the viola… depends on the day, and my mood…

There’s a voluminous, wonderful selection of solo cello music in the world, beginning with, of course, the Bach Cello Suites (Here’s a page where you can listen to them).

I wasn’t really thinking about Bach when I sat down to write today, though. Actually, I listened to some songs I wrote for cello and baritone voice awhile back. They’re very simple, but they’re some of my favorite pieces of mine, and I listen to them whenever I need a little bit of a Stuart Smalley moment. (I can’t post them right now, because I need to get the performers’ permission first… put that on the to-do list! 😉 )

I wanted to write something that just sort of went where it felt like going — something un-self-conscious. I was thinking of the word “peregrine,” which is a word I really like. Also the word “muse,” but not in the sense of an inspiring goddess — more in the verb sense, as in to meditate, contemplate, or ponder.

Click play to listen:

Thanks for listening!

The 30 Days Project: Day 15

There are a few of my favorite intervals…

A couple of days ago I talked about our friend Arnold Schönberg, and the musical ills he’s been blamed for — unfairly, in my view. It is true, though, that he was one of the first composers to get seriously into writing atonal music. Now, the word “atonal” is a slippery customer. People often use it to describe music or sounds that they simply don’t like. And, perhaps by correlation, people tend to assume that all atonal music is ugly. And I don’t mean just “Oh, that rug is interesting but it wouldn’t fit with the color scheme in my living room” ugly, but rapaciously, pro-actively, in-your-face communist-plot ugly. But “atonal” is actually a rather innocuous little musical term. It simply refers to music that is not in a major or minor key (or other diatonic scale-based mode — but don’t ask me to define all that unless you want to be here all day) in the traditional sense. It has other organizing principles. Or maybe no organizing principles (though the choice to eschew organizing principles is, in a sense, an organizing principle, now isn’t it? Just like when you were a teenager and boldly decided to be a non-conformist, and got mad at your parents when they observed that you were non-conforming in exactly the same way as all your friends). Either way, it means no offense, honest. Maybe a better word is non-tonal — sounds less confrontational, no?

Anyway, it can be difficult to know where to begin when you’ve decided to join the Cool Kids of Music Nerd-dom by writing music that is not tonal. And today I wanted to keep it simple, so I picked an interval to play with. Today’s program is brought to you by the major 3rd and the minor 6th! “Aha,” you say, “but you said an interval, not two intervals!” Very true. But guess what — do you know what you get when you turn a major 3rd upside down? That’s right, you get a minor 6th. Here’s an example, if you don’t believe me:

And that is really my only strict organizing principle in this piece — the rest of it was pretty intuitive. And hopefully not, you know, that bad kind of ugly.

One performance note: I’m finding it difficult to record a really nice, soft sound from my digital piano. You can always turn the volume down, of course, but there’s a specific sound that a “real” piano has — or rather, doesn’t have — when you play very very softly. There should be no hard “edge” at the beginning of a note or chord. If I had a grand piano I could do it. Did I mention that my birthday is coming up? 😉

Click play to listen:

Thanks for listening!

The 30 Days Project: Day 14

An online buddy of mine, the hilarious and award-winning blogger known as Bill in Portland Maine, listened to the piece for Day 6, and commented that it reminded him of the score for the film JFK. Taking a cue from the suspense movie reference, I’ve given that piece the title Mission: Asynchronous. Ah, music theory humor, I crack myself up, ho ho ho…

Anyway, when I was working on that piece, I really enjoyed playing around with the sound of the piano sustaining and decaying after playing a long series of notes up and down the keyboard. I made a note to myself to work with that some more. Today was the day!

As the piano sound decays it decreases in volume precipitously (hence the term… although the connotation of going rotten is interesting to contemplate too! 😛 ), which makes it challenging to create a continuous sound of any length with it. If you just loop it, you get a “bump” in the sound every time it starts over. So there was a lot of of overlapping and fading in and out involved in today’s piece. I think the cut-and-splice method of composing must be very similar to doing animation — it’s painstaking and time-intensive, and the results are usually pretty funny. Well, okay, that last thing maybe only applies to me. You can decide for yourself. 😀

I added some little melodic snippets, too, because I’m a hopeless romantic… 😉 If they sound familiar, it’s because they come from the end of Day 10’s piece. I’m nothing if not thrifty!

I think the piano decay sound is very ethereal and otherworldly. McDoc said it reminded him of the organ, particularly a French organ. In other words, we agree! 😉

McDoc thought the ProTools screen looked really cool, and asked me to post a screen shot of it. It is kinda neat-looking:


One last note: I think this piece is most effective when heard through a good pair of headphones. Unless you have awesome external speakers hooked up to your computer. I don’t. But my birthday is coming up — hint, hint! 🙂

Click play to listen:

Thanks for listening!

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