Sunday, April 2, 2017

Notes on some new solo piano music

I have been committing some new music for solo piano to recorded documentation. Eventually some of this will be a full album, a selection of which, Townsend Detective Agency, I covered in the previous post. 

It is hard for me to write about my process and the final result. I really enjoy thinking about music in both musical and philosophical terms and I remain, thankfully, most passionate about it. But as far as translating that into nonmusical terms is concerned isn't always easy.  The difficulty, if that is the correct formulation, consists in trying to clarify what was or is important in a particular musical project.

If I had to come up with a formula of my "hard listening" style it would go something like this: start with the formal and modern rigor of concert music, that is, longer forms. (I map out my scores with many sections. The instructions can be quite loose, involving improvisation, but the content for the improvisations can also be very strict.) Then, after the larger formal idea, I draw on an array of disparate languages from American popular music history. Finally I improvise over these frameworks much like an improviser taking choruses. But I always use lots of structure. Themes appear and reappear and develop. Speaking philosophically, I aim to create a kind of time travel in my artistic practice. My friend Amanda Williams Galvin spoke about coming to own one of her grandfather's button down shirts from many decades ago. My music is like that.  I want the listener to be reminded of, say, a hit song that would have been playing on a radio at the time when the grandfather had originally put on the shirt, and then for the listener to be jolted to yet another time period, perhaps thirty or forty years later.

The result is to violate the ordinary, linear sense of time, and to call into question and subvert the one-to-one association of a particular music with the time of that music's creation or popularity. I am also interested in durational or "slow" filmmaking (Andrei Tarkovsky, Chantal Akerman, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Abbas Kiaorstami, Frederick Wiseman) and applying some of those ideas to music making. I agree with Miles Davis that art, music and life are all about style.

A good example is my MTM piece. The attitude of the piece is very much like a classical piano work for the concert or recital hall. (Indeed all of my music is like that in a way). It is a piece a pianist is to perform in a concert setting, But the content of the work is partly gleamed from some of the most commercial gestures and stock arrangements found in the writing of background music over many decades. Thus, some of this content is not from the concert hall at all, but from film and television. To make matters more complicated, I approach them the way a jazz improviser would, with that kind of freedom and interest in a richer color palette than you would ever find in most commercial music.

Finally, the piece changes styles radically in a short compression of time. One example of this is the use of jagged and repetitive lines in the opening only to be followed by resting chords with greatest possible contrast. I have developed my own system of doing this over many years. One of the ways I am able to do this is through that tonality system I ranted about on my previous post. My concept of tonality combines modality as well as traditional harmonic relations with the free tonality found in a lot of music of the 1960s and 70s. In this piece I use very opposed and separable languages. On the one hand there is the open and "minimalist" (I hate that word and its connotations since it tells us so little ultimately about what is being done) use of suspended chords or punctuated chords you found in a lot of Broadway, film and television writing in the 60s and 70s. On the other hand there are traditional stock figures of dense harmonic sequences. I use these things simply because I really like them.  

Major influences for the particular projects are composers normally associated with what is considered commercial musicianship and arranging. I love the writing of Patrick Williams and Allyn Ferguson and Jack Elliott.

One inspiration for my recent work in general, not just MTM, was the score to a 1978 made for t.v. movie called  GUIDE TO THE MARRIED WOMAN, by Ferguson and Elliott. Of particular note is a long credit sequence, featuring a both comic and bittersweet visual montage of the passing time of a couple's early married life. But the audio is essentially a mini jazz suite for studio orchestra, with lots of motivic development and top flight playing from Los Angeles players like Bud Shank and Bill Watrous.

Though the following clip is not from that particular film (which appears commercially unavailable), the clip shows what Ferguson was like in the studio - leading a recording of one of his own compositions for the great Freddie Hubbard. Notice above all, the harmonic language which is a once simple and relatively uncluttered, non busy, and yet still filled with color and dramatic interest. The harmonies are similar to the kinds I described above.

Stephen Sondheim, Burt Bacharach, Henry Mancini, and Claus Ogerman are large influences. This is partly one of the reasons I utilize their languages. If I didn't like the languages I would not do it. It would be the greatest mistake for a listener to assume that I mean such references or influences as an ironic commentary or have any reservations about their work.  Indeed, I consider these kind of writers of the highest caliber and believe it to be only a function of fashion and sociology that they are not taken more seriously.  Now that is not to say that there aren't figures in the music that aren't "amusing" because they might feel or seem from a distant time but that is part of their charm and I purposely want to invoke similar feelings in my listeners.

And of course in keeping with my "hard listening" tag, these elements were critical in light or "easy listening" music in some earlier eras. I especially like to have very long sections with a minimum of harmonic change: again, a device that has been critical to so many forms of American popular music. Conversely, since one of my rules is that when I go in one particular direction for a time the music must therefore go in an opposite direction at a later time in the music, I always intersperse some colorful changes when before I have had stasis. It is built into the whole piece from the beginning.  I believe it is rare for any composer to change styles like this. The exception would be a composer who makes such change itself into their style.

Since this piece is called MTM and is in memory of the late Mary Tyler Moore, it also helps that some of this language would have been heard as the background to the projects in which she was employed as an actress.  During this piece I also break into an earlier stride feeling in rhythm and I can never resist an opportunity to bring out some bebop things, or some of the things that I gleamed from my studies with Stanley Cowell so long age in the late 1980s: the conceptualization of the piano as an orchestral instrument and the necessity of treating it accordingly.

I remember when reading John Adams' memoir Hallelujah Junction, being very inspired and feeling a sense of vindication by my personal commitment to tonality. I consider him a masterful composer. My music is not designed to be free of such influences as if the absence of said influences made for a purer artistic music; rather it is designed to be full of such influences. But one quote that stuck with me from that book was his insistence that every composer must find their own language  in which to work and stick with it or develop it. I took that to mean something like finding your calling. You have to choose the language and really commit to it and go all the way with it. I think it matters less what the language in question is, and matters more your love and faithfulness to that particular language when you write.