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.

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.