Duet for wine glass and voice

My friend Rio came by today for a collaborative dance/music session. We discussed a salon idea I’ve been developing, and the possibility of artists in Philadelphia to have a place to workshop ideas and transform the arts scene. It can be isolating working on one’s art. I spend hours (days) recording music, and sometimes I don’t say a word to anyone in person for days. It would be inspiring to me to have a place where I can take my works in progress and receive feedback on them while ideas are forming. I’m very much interested in working with artists from other fields (dance and film in particular) and creating new artforms and combinations.

Towards the end of our improvisation session (mainly Rio dancing and me playing soprano sax, wine glass, and toy piano), we sat down to perform a duet for wine glass and voice. I have decided to call it “Gargle.” What inspired it was a spontaneous decision to gargle some of the water from the glass that I had to remove to raise its pitch. It made a great sound with the droning wine glasses looping in the background. Anyway, we sat down and let things happen.

While this is more experimental than something ‘performance-ready,’ I wanted to share it with you to show the kinds of sounds I’ve been working with.

Personally, this was a study for a Kate Bush song I’m working on. I spent the weekend playing wine glasses and arranging harmonies for them. The combination of droning glasses in fourths and fifths and furniture percussion was surprisingly primal, and something that I think will work well in a song about looking within yourself when nobody else can be there for you. Use the tools at hand.

Furniture and glasses

It has been a busy few months! I’ve managed to have an unending run of performances that have taken place at all kinds of venues. Philadelphia has been a great place for me to spread my wings. I’ll post more on that later.

I’ve been thinking a lot about rhythm. In the past, I’ve avoided unpitched sounds. I see a lot of percussive writing in pop music to be highly formulaic, and I was afraid I would go down a path that’s already well-trodden. But percussion can really add something special to a piece. Listen to someone like Kate Bush or Florence + the Machine, and the percussion propels the music straight to your soul.

So I’m working on an arrangement of ‘Love and Anger’ that is centered around unpitched percussion. I’m going to use my bed as a bass drum, bar stools for toms, a tambourine, and handclaps. I’m also interested in the possibilities of glasses as percussive and melodic instruments. Bowed glasses are perfect for the abundance of major 2nds in the piece, and glass struck with wooden chopsticks almost sound like a mandolin. So I really hope to feature a lot of those sounds, perhaps combined with a bass line on the Wurlitzer, unison toy piano with glasses, and saxophone chords.

It’s been a very creative time, and I hope at least some of you can come to hear me soon. I’ll be posting a calendar soon.

Cheers!

Electric (Piano) Counterpoint Performance

The past month has been incredibly rewarding and busy. I did my first live broadcast over ustream for Earth Hour, performed at the opening of the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History in Philadelphia, and continued work on an album I began back in December. On March 8th, I gave my debut recital as a solo artist at Rowan University. In addition to more traditional saxophone repertoire, I did a bit of pop minimalism, performing Marianne Faithfull’s Ballad of Lucy Jordan, Laurie Anderson’s The Dream Before, and my clarinet arrangement of Kate Bush’s This Woman’s Work.

In the middle of all that, I finished my recording of Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint for Wurlitzer electric piano right hand. The repetitive 16th notes proved difficult to keep even, due to the tendency for my thumb to strike the keys harder than my other fingers. For the video, I simply placed the camera directly on the keyboard. The repeated gestures create a kind of ‘dance’ that highlights the compositional process of the piece. I hope to perform the piece in public on the Wurlitzer, but I will probably end up using a sampled electric piano to avoid carrying my piano down a flight of stairs.

Here is the video.

Electric Counterpoint

Steve Reich was truly revolutionary with his music. No classical composer harnesses the sounds of the city like he does in works like Come Out and Different Trains. The piece that first grabbed me was New York Counterpoint, for clarinet and pre-recorded clarinet ensemble. Before I ever listened to it, I recorded it in a version for saxophone ensemble. I saw it as an exercise in rhythm and precise articulation, and a perfect addition to my Christmas album for 2009. Sue Fancher did an excellent arrangement for saxophone quartet, but I started from scratch. I wanted to make a version for solo soprano and alto saxophone. I ended up with 10 background parts. Unfortunately, I do not own a tenor or baritone saxophone, so I had to use pitch shifting to record the lower parts on the higher saxes.

When I listen to it, it makes me think of winter in New York, with snow in the streets and people trudging through it to quickly get wherever they are going. It introduces a new way of listening to music. The endless streams of eighth notes make the rhythms disappear, directing the listener’s attention to the gradually shifting harmonies. The middle movement makes use of the upper register of the soprano saxophone, which is a relatively simple timbre that can be quite delicate. It is one of the most beautiful moments in all of contemporary music.

As soon as I heard Electric Counterpoint as performed by Pat Metheney, I decided it should be performed on the Wurlitzer electric piano. I’d never heard a better piece to highlight the Wurlitzer’s expressive strengths. Much like New York Counterpoint, it is divided into three movements: fast, slow, fast. The first utilizes repeated eighth notes and a rhythmic pattern that enters at the midway point. On the Wurlitzer, notes above C6 are barely amplified. This gives the first movement an orchestrated crescendo as the solo part descends in register.

The second movement highlights the celeste-like timbre produced at soft volumes in the upper octaves. The electric guitar sounds an octave lower than written, so the entire piece is higher on the electric piano. A difficulty with mixing is negotiating the excessive mid-to-upper frequencies. When the upper partials are multiplied by 16, it can produce listener fatigue. This is what I’m going to spend the next week adjusting!

All of Reich’s “Counterpoint” pieces (Cello, Vermont, New York, Electric) explore the sonic characteristics of the instruments involved, simply by its process. When a composition does that, it shows a respect for the performer and a profound understanding of the instruments. Adapting his music for other instruments requires the same respect and understanding of the original medium. New York Counterpoint gets a lot of its beauty and power from the register shifts in the original version. The clarinet is notorious for its multiple voices. Any credible arrangement has to highlight this phenomenon. With Electric Counterpoint, I learned how similar the Wurlitzer is to an electric guitar. Pure tone in the upper reaches, and a gritty texture in the lower registers.

I should have a finished recording by next week. Recording this piece has affected my approach to arranging pop songs. I think it would be great to utilize Reich’s eighth note streams to provide accompaniment to a song like “Shake It Out” by Florence + the Machine or “Which Will” by Nick Drake.

Modal Unravelling

I have been hard at work on my version of Björk’s “Unravel.” Like I said in the previous post, I was drawn to the unfolding of the mode over time. To draw this out, I added layers of my voice gradually outlining the two major chords in the piece (Bb6 and C6), with saxophones playing the mode at the start. Currently, there are no digital effects added. Instead of using reverb, I tracked each vocal part three times. For the second take, I used a Shure SM-58 and my standard M-Audio Nova simultaneously. I found the SM-58 to have a more ‘direct’ tone, which helped give the sound a little more definition.

These tracks will serve as the backbone of my arrangement. I’m still working on blending the alto sax and clarinet for the melody, and I plan on doing some modal improvisation after the first statement of the melody. I’m going to be away from home for the next week and a half, so the finish will have to wait. But I think it will be a nice companion piece to my “Unison” cover. Hmm…maybe they will bookend my next Christmas gift album?

Bjork’s Unravel

In anticipation of Björk’s new album coming out in October, I have been revisiting her albums. One song that sticks out to me is “Unravel” off of Homogenic. It is a companion piece to “Unison” in that they both use the same mode (Lydian) and basic chord progression (I-II-(vii)-I). While this is taken to a grand scale in “Unison,” Björk keeps it simple here.

The song’s intro is a gradual unfolding of the harmonic material. It begins with the tonic (C) moving to the second scale step (D). The vocal improvisations introduce the other notes of the scale: D-E-D-C-B; D-E-F#-G. The final note (A) comes from the synth pad after the first vocal run.

The melody hovers around the fifth of the mode (G), which lends it a “floating” quality. As this is the root of the related major scale, it is also established as a strong tonal center. Without the accompaniment, one would think the song to be set in G major; those pesky C major chords keep it from going that way, though. It’s almost as if a melody originally composed in G major was grafted onto a chord progression in C Lydian.

I’m thinking of creating an instrumental version that accentuates the song’s process of ‘unraveling’ a tonality. If I use different instruments in the same range, I think I can bring out the tension between the Lydian mode and the major scale. It might be a time to mess around with Match EQ in Logic. It’s possible to blend their harmonic content to make a saxophone sound a little more like a clarinet, for instance.

“Unravel” is one of Björk’s most beautiful songs, one that reminds us that love is a process, not something you obtain and automatically have forever.

This Woman’s Work

When I read that Kate Bush was revisiting “This Woman’s Work” for hew new album Director’s Cut, I was inspired to create my own interpretation of this masterpiece of a song. It is a paean to parenthood that explores how relationships change over time, and how individuals change within that relationship. The intricate harmonic progression lends itself well to an instrumental version.

I chose to arrange it for clarinet choir for the textural possibilities of the different registers. The throaty lower register contrasts well with the clear tones of the clarion notes. The arrangement started with the first motif you hear (G-Bb-Eb-G-A); the chord inversions add instability to the harmonic structure, something that gives the song additional drama. Most of the new melodic material came from that motif. As the song continues, clarinets are added until there are six. After the climax, all but one line drop out.

Recording and production presented a few difficulties for me, since I had never recorded a clarinet before. The sound of the fingers closing the tone holes is a percussive effect that can be obtrusive if the mic is placed too close to the lower joint of the instrument. I found that placing the condenser mic at an angle above the sixth finger roughly six inches away captured the woody quality of the clarinet’s tone perfectly.


Statement of Purpose

This is a blog devoted to my musical endeavors. I intend to have a separate blog devoted to issues in librarianship.

I am a trained classical saxophonist; however, my musical background also includes jazz and pop idioms on a variety of woodwinds and keyboards. In the music I make now, I combine these idioms to create a style of music that could be called ‘minimal pop.’ I think pop music has a lot more in common with modern classical music than it may seem at first glance. Minimalism often features repeated patterns (loops) with shifting sonic textures; pop often has a repeated bass pattern with different instruments adding material in a second verse or the repetition of a chorus. Many artists straddle different forms of music: Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Joni Mitchell, Björk, Sufjan Stevens…

I intend to document the process of creating and arranging music as well as the end product. My bedroom studio setup includes:

  • Apple MacBook
  • Apple Logic Studio
  • Zone Mobius looping plug-in
  • Behringer FCB1010 MIDI foot controller
  • AKAI eie Pro audio 96/24 audio interface
  • M-Audio Nova condenser mic
  • M-Audio Keystation 88es MIDI controller
  • Stylophone
  • AKAI Pro LPD8 MIDI pad controller
  • AKAI Pro MPKmini MIDI controller
  • Alto saxophone
  • Soprano saxophone
  • Oboe
  • Clarinet
  • Wurlitzer electric piano

I also sing (with some vocal percussion on occasion). Most of my projects involve arranging pop songs, but I am also working on composing original music and perfecting live looping improvisation. I have been learning about music production as I go. I have made 4 albums by now (gifts for friends and family), and each one has raised the bar on production quality. I have learned that performance is only one part of music. You have to also deliver that performance in the best form possible.

I am interested in collaborating with other musicians that have a willingness to experiment with combining sounds in new ways. Drop me a comment or send me a message if you like what you hear, or if you have any suggestions!

Mark