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.

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.