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.


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 Bj√∂rk’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?