Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Writer's Block

"Have you ever had writer's block?"
"Who here has written four measures and then found themselves stuck?"
Jazz musician, Dave Douglas began his composition master class with these two questions.  Every hand in the room went up, and he immediately had a captive and engaged audience.

Dave shared the following points during his one hour composition lecture to the UConn music students.  Although intended for novice composers of music, much of what he presented could easily be applied to other creative disciplines.

1) Revision:

Approach writing with the mindset that everything can be revised and rewritten.  Don't begin with the notion that what you initially write down has to be perfect.  Tell yourself, “I am writing a draft; not a finished piece.”  It is liberating to think of everything as a first draft which can be fixed.  This takes the pressure off.

2) Community:

You don't have to be alone in confronting a blank page. Consider for whom you are writing.  Write for the people around you --- your friends, musical peers.  Talk to the individual for whom you are writing.  Ask him/her questions.  Find out what excites them.

3) Essence of Elements:

Boil down enormous ideas into "a simple essence".  Find elements that are transcribable.  Identify tangible aspects of musical information, such as:  form, time signature, instruments, melody, harmony, rhythm, density, bass lines, etc.  Ask questions.  Is the piece programmatic?  Will there be aspects of improvisation?

Remember that form is flexible.  Your first idea can end up being the middle of the piece.

4) Theme:

What are you writing about?  Perhaps it is something to challenge yourself, like an etude.  It could be about or in response to something as simple as an animal.  Characters from a movie or play can provide inspiration.  Try writing in the style of __________.

5) Deadlines:

Deadlines can be your friend.  They keep you moving.  They bring finality/conclusion to a project, rather than it being just an elusive, vague thought which floats around.   Create your own deadlines.  Schedule a rehearsal with friends to play your new music, even before it is written.

6) Environment:Consider where you write.  Sometimes a change of environment can spark your imagination.  Try writing music on a park bench or in the public library. Develop dictation and ear training skills so that you can write down your musical ideas away from your instrument.

[How do you get your work heard?  Enter competitions.  Book local gigs and gradually expand your radius, beginning with the next neighboring town.]

7) Distillation:

Fifteen page pieces aren't always effective.  Simple, distilled, suggestive works allow for maximum freedom and expression.  Aim to write pieces so clear, that they could be played well on the first reading.  Don't be bound to your initial ideas.  Pruning can be beneficial.

8) Graphic / Notation / Communication:

How effectively are you communicating your thoughts on paper?  Is standard notation the best way to express your musical ideas?  How else could you convey your ideas?  Research graphic scores and aleatoric composition.  Strive for clarity and ease of reading.  Reduced scores allow everyone to see the big picture of what is going on.

9) Ask Questions:

How could this piece be different?  Can more than one person solo / improvise at same time?  Does it have to stay at the same tempo?  Could the horns accompanying a bass solo? What if...?

10) Technical:

Study books about 12-tone composition.  Familiarize yourself with the work of modern, post-war composers.  Bartok and Stravinsky represent a wealth of inspiration.  When you are "stuck", try copying some Bartok string quartets by hand.  Read "the Technique of My Musical Language" by Olivier Messiaen.

Write for 15 minutes without a piano (away from your instrument), then play it.  One page limit.

At the end of the master class, Dave encouraged the students to form a composition club which meets weekly to read their pieces.  He even offered to visit at some point in the future to listen to their new pieces!  I understand that this club is now underway.  The students have asked me to provide them with a list of composition assignments, which I will be happy to do.  I plan to post these in my next blog entry.

You can read a detailed description of Dave Douglas' residency at UConn, in a blog written by UConn jazz saxophone student, Matt Baum.  Here is a link:  http://therightchanges.blogspot.com/2012/03/dave-douglas.html

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Arranging for the Westchester Jazz Orchestra

I was hoping that a real writer would review last Saturday's Westchester Jazz Orchestra concert.  Because nothing of the sort has surfaced, I will share my observations.  This clearly can't be read as an unbiased, objective review, as one of my arrangements was featured.  The program was entitled "the Music of Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles".  The following music was programmed:

Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing

Stevie Wonder, arranged for WJO by Tony Kadleck

Isn't She Lovely
Stevie Wonder, arranged by Bill Holman

Stevie Wonder, arranged for WJO by Tony Kadleck

Hit the Road Jack
Percy Mayfield, arranged for WJO by Earl MacDonald

---- intermission ----

America the Beautiful
Samuel A. Ward, arranged for WJO by Alan Broadbent

Too High
Stevie Wonder, arranged by WJO by Richard Sussman

Hoagy Carmichael, arranged by John Clayton

One Mint Julep
Rudolph Toombs, arranged by Billy Byers

It was clear after the first tune that the band was "on".  They were well rehearsed and sounded inspired.  All the soloists were impressive.  Real standouts were tenor saxophonists Ben Kono and Walt Weiskopf, trumpeters John Bailey and Marvin Stamm, trombonist Mike Christianson and pianist Allen Farnham.  As a pianist, I tend to be critical of my piano playing counterparts, but I have no beef to pick with Allen.  His playing was solid, mature and tasteful.  This was my first time hearing Walt Weiskopf live and did he ever impress!  Taste, style and chops all wrapped up into one.  I'd hire him in a second.

The arrangers all did terrific work.  Tony Kadleck's arranging was especially dazzling.  He's no lead trumpet lughead.  For him to play and write so well is a true testament to his musicianship.

I chuckled upon seeing Richard Sussman listed as one of the other commissioned arrangers.  His new jazz arranging textbook is currently on my beside table, and has been keeping me up late at night.  I enjoyed chatting with him briefly backstage after the show.

Here is my commissioned piece; an arrangement of "Hit the Road Jack":

I described the process of writing it in my last post, and received the comment that sharing insight into my process was insightful and appreciated.  At the risk of appearing slightly neurotic, I will expand on this, and provide a list of things I  am now considering tweaking, after having heard the recording a few times:
  • the trombones ending 2 consecutive phrases on an A flat bothers me at 0:30 and 0:33.  I will subtly change something here.
  • at 2:30 I might eliminate the trombone hits to create more "space".
  • I really missed the sax section in the ensemble passage at 2:53 through 3:21  Adding them to the brass will help to "fill up" the ensemble sound here.
  • 3:46 through 4:33 is somewhat problematic for me.  There are certain Count Basie charts where the rhythmic figures lay perfectly and you get a good feeling of ease and contentment from the rhythmic swing.  I didn't experience that joyful sensation in this instance.  I felt "on edge" during this portion of the chart.  There probably needs to be more space/"breathing room" here.
  •  I also want to achieve a more obvious, orchestrational color change when bouncing between sections in this same passage.
  • Looping the ending 3 times from 4:34 to 5:08 was Mike Holober's idea, which I liked very much.  I might orchestrate these repeats differently to achieve more contrast/interest.
So there you have it... additional insights into the mind of a slightly obsessive (aren't we all?), and very grateful jazz arranger.  It was truly a thrill to have my music performed by this terrific band.  As you can see, it was an experience from which I am continuing to learn and grow.  When I have revised the chart I will give a finalized version to the band in hopes that it's life has just begun.  I suppose that is every arranger's hope.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Hit The Road Jack

This week I have been feeling a bit like this character in the recent Geico commercial, who emerges from living under a rock. For the past couple of weeks I have been more or less “unplugged” and in seclusion, trying to complete a big band commission for the Westchester Jazz Orchestra. I finished the piece on Monday and will get to hear it performed tonight at the Irvington Town Theatre.

The concert is billed as “the music of Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles”. When the musical director, Mike Holober called, asking if I was interested in writing something and if I had a piece in mind, I naturally consulted my wife who is much more in tune with pop music than I am. She suggested, “Hit the Road Jack”, which I conveyed to Mike without really listening to the piece. As the deadline approached and other projects were completed, thereby creating time to write, I sat down and actually checked out the tune. I started to get nervous when I realized there was one, repetitive, 4-note bass line throughout, with no harmonic motion/variance to other key areas.

The task got even harder when I considered how I might manipulate and personalize the piece to make it my arrangement. It would be easy to turn it on its ear by doing something crazy like altering the bass line or time signature, but then something else dawned on me. The audience. People would be paying to hear their favorite Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder tunes, not my mutilation of one of their hits. I found myself paralyzed thinking about how I might satisfy both the audience and the progressive thinking band members who would have no interest in playing a stock, instrumental version of the original.

Surprisingly, it was jazz trumpeter, Dave Douglas that helped get unstuck. I shared my quandary with Dave while he was at UConn, doing a brief residency. He suggested that I write two short arrangements --- one where I “knocked it out of the ballpark”, catering to the audience (while remaining hip), and the other, where I presented my compositional response. This was enough to get me inspired and going. I ended up only completing phase one of his recommendation, but plan to follow through and complete a response at some point --- certainly before I ever consider recording the piece. I imagine calling it “...And Good Riddance”, but am open to suggestions.

In general, I’m happy with what I’ve written for tonight’s show. I think I created some allure by imposing some interesting twists and turns. Here is a MIDI audio file generated from my Finale music notation software, to give you the gist of how I manipulated the piece. You will have to imagine an open trumpet solo, drum fills, etc.

For those interested in the mechanics of arranging, here are some notes to document both the process and techniques I employed. [If I don’t take a moment to write this now, I will undoubtedly forget what was involved.]

I began by listening to many versions on YouTube. I researched not only renditions by Ray Charles, but by others as well. Surprisingly, with the exception of Tina Turner, no one has deviated too far from the original. A version by the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, albeit somewhat cheesy, provided a stop-time solo break idea. The Lennon Sisters’ version sparked an idea to have the trombones play a riff response to the bass line, although expanded. The motion picture rendition from “Ray” helped to solidify the essence of a heated, two-way conversation. I tried to depict this with sections of the ensemble conversing and responding to one another.

I chose to stick with a medium bright shuffle groove, reminiscent of something Thad Jones might do.

Because the bass line is so prominent in the original, I decided to play/experiment with it subtly in the introduction, middle development section and ending.

The melody was presented first in the saxes, in octaves, using some blues inflections.

The response was given to the trombones, again in octaves. In between there are some harmonized ensemble hits to create excitement and variety.

This led to big, harmonized, stop-time ensemble hits around which a trumpet solos. Unlike the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, I varied the rhythm of each hit to make it sound less commercial and more jazz-like. At this point I deviated from the repetitive harmonic progression, going to the IV chord, eventually descending by step, leading to an open minor blues. It seemed natural and would help to satisfy the improvisational urges and expectations of a progressive, soloing, modern jazz orchestra. Trombones were used in writing background figures.

For the lyric “Oh woman, Oh woman, don’t you treat me so mean…” I brought in the trumpet section, in unison, accompanied by harmonized trombones (in a manner similar to how a pianist’s right is accompanied by left hand rootless voicings.) The octave saxes returned for the recap of “hit the road Jack, and…”.

I knew a key change would be helpful if the piece were to be extended beyond the original’s 2 minutes and 20 seconds. The question was, would I take it up a half step, or would that be regarded as “too stock” and be perceived as a device geared to pander to the audience. I elected to go up a major third. The deal was sealed when I realized all of the common tones that existed between an Ab minor tonality and the G7 altered dominant chord used to get to C.

At this point in the chart I was becoming desperate to create some harmonic activity. To do this, I loaded it up with secondary dominants, working backwards from target chords. Because the lines were fairly active (primarily eighth notes), I used the 4-part Basie style of writing.

To contrast this, in the subsequent section I wrote a simple soli for the low register instruments, expanding the bass line figure. This was delegated to the bari sax, bass trombone, string bass, piano and guitar. Drums fill in the special holes.

The chart climaxes with an ensemble shout chorus, which is very loosely based on the melody. Some very intentional melodic and rhythmic liberties were taken. It then winds down by my distributing the melodic material around the band with combinations of sections: saxes/tbns, trpts/tbns, saxes/rhythm, trpts/saxes, etc.

The ending is similar to the intro, but concludes with an ascending line leading to one last statement of “take the road, Jack!”.

It never fails to amaze me how much time goes into conceiving and writing a big band chart. This arrangements represents almost two weeks of my life.  Hearing it performed live tonight by the excellent Westchester Jazz Orchestra should make it all worthwhile.

Westchester Jazz Orchestra
The Westchester Jazz Orchestra

Friday, April 13, 2012

SoundCloud experiment

This is my first experiment with SoundCloud. I've been looking for a way to post audio files on my blog and am hoping that this is a suitable format.

If it works, the posted music comes from ABOVE THE SURFACE OF THE WATER, a collaborative music and visual arts project by artist Deborah Dancy, videographer Ted Efremoff and myself.  "Convergence Zone" was the opening piece of music in a lengthy suite.  It was presented on Thursday 1/26/2012 in the Classroom Building of the UConn Storrs campus.  I believe I have some video footage of the concert, which I hope to post fairly soon.  It would be nice to show how the music corresponds and interacts with Deborah's beautiful, artistic images.

The band is the Hartford Jazz Society's New Directions Ensemble.  Kris Allen - alto sax, Frank Kozyra - tenor sax, Lauren Sevian - bari sax, Josh Evans and Jeff Holmes - trumpets, Sara Jacovino -  trombone, John Clark - French Horn, Gregg August - string bass, Ben Bilello - drums, and me... Earl MacDonald on Rhodes electric piano.

I counted the tempo off a bit slow and hear some things which will be revised before our next performance, which will likely be on August 13th in Hartford's Bushnell Park, as a part of the Jazz Society's Monday Night Jazz series.

I now have almost enough new material to consider doing an album, and am just starting to think about how and when this might happen.  I'll keep you posted.