Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Looking Forward, Looking Back

"Looking Forward, Looking Back" seemed like the perfect title for New Years' Eve, the day we look ahead to the New Year, while also spending some time in reflection.  This is the fifth and final post in my mini-series providing insight into my graphic, aleatoric compositions.

This piece is designed to tell a story about a crucial, life-changing decision.  The problem is, the decision is being made by someone other than yourself.  Two possible scenarios are:

  1. a wedding proposal where she says, "Give me a day or two and I'll get back to you."
  2. a job interview
Here's the score (click on it to enlarge it to full size):

And here is a live performance of it, featuring my band,  C.O.W. (the Creative Opportunity Workshop).  Note that all the trumpet parts are played by saxophone.  You might enjoy following along with the score while simultaneously watching the performance.

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 30, 2013

Jazz Meets Baseball

"Stealing Third" is a musical game inspired by the secret, encoded signals of a third base coach, who tells base runners to either "stay put" or "steal to third."

The game/piece requires a conductor and works well with a small group of musicians (probably no more than six players).  The conductor builds a piece using the signals below, in any order.  The various elements can and should be used more than once.

  • A clenched fist is used to get the attention of the players before giving an instruction.  The clenched fist is followed by...
    • a conducted "downbeat" indicating a contrast in texture during collective, group improvisation. (loud becomes soft, dense becomes sparse, etc.)
    • holding up 1, 2, 3 or 4 fingers and then pointing at specific players to cue an upcoming solo, duo, trio or quartet.  The players continue with the previous texture until a downbeat has been given.
    • a tug on the ear, which cues "cartoon sounds" (also known as, extended instrumental techniques). These could include playing a mouthpiece alone, tapping keys, closing the piano lid, blowing air through a horn, removing tubing from a brass instrument, etc.)  Upon the downbeat, the conductor quickly points at individuals who reveal their predetermined, unorthodox sounds.  The players must be "on their toes" and ready to react should they be pointed to next.  
    • touching his nose, signaling it is time to end the piece.  The players don't have to stop abruptly; rather, they end the piece organically.

[Click on the score to enlarge it to full size.]

Let's play ball!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

In Response To My Critics

I knew the gamble I would be taking by including some "free improvisation" on my new album. I anticipated that these tracks might not be as favorably received, but I wanted the CD to accurately represent the band's repertoire and it's original "raison d’être."  Initially this band ONLY played "far out", experimental pieces, which makes it somewhat ironic (albeit expected) that critics are saying pieces like Where Thinking Leaves Off "seem out of place among more engaging tunes."  Another reviewer offhandedly insulted me by saying Where Thinking Leaves Off was "appropriately titled" --- as if to infer that no thought went into the composition or performance.

Where Thinking Leaves Off was written after reading Søren Kierkegaard's "Fear and Trembling", and depicts the story of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac, told in the biblical book of Genesis (chapters 17:1 - 18:15, 21:1 - 7, 22:1 -18).   The title comes from a Kierkegaard quote, "faith begins where thinking leaves off."  Emotionally potent content saturates every scene, spanning Isaac's miraculous birth to geriatric parents, to Abraham nearly sacrificing his son on an alter. The contrasts, tensions and emotions make for a fertile improvisational playground.

Be assured, the hours of preparation that go into my graphic scores overshadow the effort it takes to write a brief album synopsis without reading the press release, liner notes, band description and other written materials prepared to coincide with the album's release.  This arrogant, misinformed trend in album criticism is disappointing and serious cause for concern.

That said, I had hoped each piece could stand on its own artistically, without an explanation. Maybe I was wrong.  Maybe I was expecting too much of my listeners; but then again, it's not as if I was inventing and introducing the free jazz idiom.  It's been around for 50 years, but appears to be just as polarizing now as at it's inception.

In no way does the negative response of a few critics make me think my explorations into graphic composition are artistically weak, unsound or invalid.  In fact, I'm rather proud of this work.

An audio player and the score for "Where Thinking Leaves Off" appear below.  See if you can follow along with the score.  (Saxophone replaces all the indicated trumpet parts.)

Dave Douglas, the trumpet playing composer, introduced me to the concept of graphic scores and aleatoric composition back in 2001 while I was a participant at the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music. I've done some further study since then, investigating the work of Earle Brown and R. Murray Schafer, among others, who utilized unconventional notation practices.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Gush - an avant-garde musical experiment

Today I am sharing my piece, "Gush" to further illustrate the concept of guided free improvisation.  Gush depicts the affects of adding various stimuli to a water-based ecosystem.  For it's debut performance it was scored for 3 saxes, 4 brass and rhythm section.  The entrance and exit of each instrument is variable and cued by the conductor or a designated member within the ensemble.

Although "Gush" was later recorded by my quartet, the Creative Opportunity Workshop, it didn't make it onto my "Mirror of the Mind" CD.  I decided to release a balanced cross-selection of our repertoire rather than focusing solely on avant-garde experiments (or arranged pop tunes or contemporary jazz compositions).

The following video was created by Ted Efremoff and Deborah Dancy, as part of a collaborative, cross-disciplinary suite entitled "Above the Surface of the Water", for I which composed the music.

Can you hear the school of minnows frolicking joyfully in the water?  How about the fisherman's hook interacting with the salmon?  The motor boat stirring things up?  The affect of pollutants on the fish and plant life?

Friday, December 27, 2013

Musical Masturbation

I have heard it said that free jazz is a lot like masturbation; it is self indulgent and should be done in private.  A few years ago I may have subscribed to this viewpoint, but I'm becoming more open minded.  I now see free improvisation as a legitimate and effective form of self expression.  But like any art form, it takes time to develop a level of proficiency (which facilitates the communication of plausible musical statements).

As a creative musician looking to stretch my imagination and further develop the intuitive side of my musicianship, I have found "playing free" to be beneficial.  I think it has made me a better composer and improviser in tonal settings.

The author of the Wikipedia article on Free Improvisation defines it as "improvised music without any rules beyond the logic or inclination of the musician(s) involved."  My compositional forays into free jazz tend to have some rules and guidelines, so as to steer the improvisors.

Here is a video of my band, the Creative Opportunity Workshop, playing a free piece I entitled, "Quaternary Triangulation":

The score is a set of instructions which looks like this:  (If you click on the image, it will expand to full size.)

The result is four, short, contrasting trios.  In the video, the suite unfolded as follows:
Mvt. #1:  cello (leader), accompanied by piano and percussion
Mvt. #2: piano (leader), accompanied by percussion and sax
Mvt. #3: percussion (leader), accompanied by sax and cello
Mvt. #4: sax (leader), accompanied by piano and cello

As an educator, I have found this exercise to be helpful in getting students to consider and execute elements of contrast: fast/slow, high/low registers, long/short articulations, dense/sparse, loud/soft, etc.  It doesn't hurt for professionals to be reminded of these devices either.

In an earlier blog post I touched on my experiences using "guided free improvisation" in educational settings.  I have provided a link, so I won't expound here, although I see tremendous untapped potential here.

Over the next few days I will share several more of my free compositions, so as to provide some insight into a style which is perhaps too easily dismissed by the uninitiated.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Miles Apart

Despite the joyousness of the season, there is always some sadness when we can't be reunited with ALL of our family members over the holidays. This song "Miles Apart" was written while thinking of the distance which separates my parents and my sister's family from my own. We live on opposite coasts.

The above video footage comes from my CD release concert which took place on Oct. 11th, 2013 at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts in Storrs, CT. The members of the band are Kris Allen - sax, Christopher Hoffman - cello, Rogerio Boccato - percussion, and me.

I was somewhat miffed when a recent reviewer wrote, "The genesis of “Miles Apart” is murky, and whether it is meant to convey distance, or an allusion to Miles Davis, no amount of listening will sort out." A quick reading of my online liner notes would give the answer and much more.  Detailed song descriptions for all the pieces on my latest CD appear on my website.  Perhaps in our postmodernist world research is now passé.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

CD Release Concert Footage

The CD release concert for my "Mirror of the Mind" recording took place back in October at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts in Storrs, CT.  Two of my students, Colin Walters and Mike O'Callaghan filmed it for me, but I haven't had time until recently to edit the video and put it into usable, bite-sized chunks.

Here is my song, "Bottom Feeders", featuring Kris Allen (alto sax), Christopher Hoffman (cello) and Rogerio Boccato (percussion).

If you're wondering about the title, I provided a full explanation on my website, at the following link:  http://www.earlmacdonald.com/mirror-of-the-mind/about-the-music.html