Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Non-Playlist for a Concert

Haven’t gotten to many concerts lately, but I think I’ll keep going with a few blog postings here about music anyway – a few random neuron firings, as I said above…

This first one is about a jazz symposium I attended at a high school in the Seattle area some months ago. Mostly it's just about music in general.

Due to the weird circumstances involved in this “concert”, this blog posting will be mostly a playlist of music that wasn’t played at the concert itself…

The reason I went in the first place was not to hear the music (though that would have been a good enough reason; some of the high school jazz bands sound nearly professional) but as a supervisor – I’m a teacher and once in a while they assign me to watch the grounds while there is some school event going on. Although this was not the school where I usually teach, the people who do the assigning must have known about my hobby of music, and offered me this one-day job. I took it.

Arriving early in the morning on Saturday, I let myself in with the key they’d given me, and in so doing set off a silent alarm. A custodian showed up about five minutes later, grumbling, and disabled it.

Playlist Item 1: Improvisation by me – The others who were running the symposium showed up, and I helped set up the facilities. Then, while there was nothing really to do while waiting for the students to come, I wandered off to the music rooms and practiced a little on the piano. There was one baby grand that was horrendously out of tune, but for some reason I started improvising on it anyway (maybe I wanted to hear some unintentional microtonality) and came up with a particularly beautiful jazz chord progression. More on that later.

Still waiting for things to start, I took out a book to read, and put on my iPod. “What are you listening to?” asked one of the others. I told her.

Playlist Item 2: Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony no. 4

We talked a little about symphonic music, and she commented that she like mixes of jazz and orchestral, i.e. Gershwin, and Ellington’s symphonic pieces. I asked her if she’d heard of William Grant Still.

Playlist Item 3: Grant Still: Symphony no. 2

“That’s really symphonic…” she commented. (…uh, that’s one reason it’s called “Symphony no. 2”. I didn’t say this, of course.)

Playlist Item 4: Miles Davis: Nefertiti – They were playing this on the big sound system in the theater while checking the sound. I like what Miles did by “reversing” the roles of the jazz ensemble and giving the “rhythm” to the (his) trumpet, and the “melody” to the piano, bass, and drums.

Then the members of the bands (all high school students) started wandering in, so I helped them check in. Then, once they started playing, the doors were shut. The theater was soundproof and I was supposed to remain outside. So the other supervisors and I started discussion various topics (local restaurants, movies we'd seen recently, politics, etc.). At lunchtime, they told me that there would be nothing to do until 2:00 when I could help set up a jam session for the high-schoolers, so I should hang around the lunch room in case they needed me to help with anything. I did, and found a couple of university music students there who were attending the symposium for the same reason I was. I played a game of billiards with one of them (I won), then (after asking if it would be okay) set up my iPod with speakers in a corner and turned it on.

Playlist Item 5: Dave Holland Big Band – great free improvisation, but got too intense while they were eating.

Playlist Item 6: Thelonious Monk: Rhythm-a-Ning (Live in Paris) – Gotta admire how he mixes dissonance, intended “clunkers”, and jagged angles with that flowing, swinging jazz feel…

Playlist Item 7: Debussy: Cello Sonata – One of the university students said, “I love Debussy! Do you think he (and the other impressionists) occupy a space between jazz and classical? The chord structures are jazz, and yet…”

Playlist Item 8: Ginny Landgraf and me: Irish Debussy (from my CD “PianoSphere”) – One of the students asked if I knew Debussy’s “Sunken Cathedral”, so I played this piece. Ginny and I originally made it up on accident. I was practicing some chords from “Sunken Cathedral” while Ginny was playing an Irish hymn on the kaen, and suddenly we realized that what we were playing worked nicely together.

Playlist Item 9: Minoru Miki (Ensemble Nipponia): Hanayagi (The Greening) – Such an impressionist piece for the koto!

Playlist Item 10: Toumani Diabate: New Ancient Strings – kora music, again, proves to be beautiful, tranquil, yet not boring/annoying background or “elevator” music.

Playlist Item 11: George Crumb: A Haunted Landscape – one can say this is the exact opposite of the Minoru Miki and the Toumani Diabate. To me it’s not all that “scary” sounding, just a collection of “special effects” over a deep drone, but some find it as frightening as a horror film. NOTE: I used to criticize Crumb for being “only” special effects. I’ve realized, though, after listening a few more times, that it’s not about special effects – like other experimental music, it’s primarily about sound itself, and the sounds of the sounds… Those sounds are handled in very interesting and beautiful ways, and there is always melodic and rhythmic interest lurking not too far below the surface.

Playlist Item 12: SoundScrolls I, by me, played by Ginny Landgraf (flute) and me on piano – the “SoundScrolls” are a set of pieces I did in the 1980’s (recorded in the 1990's), for various instrumentalists improvising on graphic scores: landscapes drawn or copied onto music paper. The result is more freeform, louder, and less contemplative than much of my recent work. I’m thinking of doing one or two more of these pieces, however (maybe one for Eye Music).

Playlist Item 13: Seawind: “Free” and “Morning Star” from “Light the Light” – Some (now) rather obscure Latin-jazz-pop-fusion, with one tune (“Free”) partially in 15/16 time. Was pretty popular when I was in college (I’m dating myself there) but maybe that was because there were a lot of students from Hawaii, where this band was from.

Playlist Item 14: Show-Ya – more (now) obscure pop-rock. Was pretty popular in Japan when I lived there for a couple of years in the late 1980’s. Like a lot of Japanese rock, it’s based on “classical” chording and sequences, without a trace of blues, and often it can sound as if it’s being “forced” from one genre to another. However, the singer does have a pretty voice and there are some notable melodies. “祈り” (A Prayer) also has some interesting poetry (which sounds tacky in English: “towards a sea of love” seems like a silly line but in Japanese it’s ai no umi e, which is nearly all vowels and flows around the tongue like a honeyed liquid).

After this, it was time for that jam session, so I went and helped move an upright piano from the music room to the cafeteria. Five high school students followed, and played blues as the others ate lunch. Their ensemble playing was right on, and some of the solos were amazingly skillful (though only one, a trumpet player, transcended from skill to art. Another Miles Davis in the making?)

Then it was time to go home. We all packed up; I put the piano back, put everything else away, and left. The high school music students had all gone but there was another group arriving; the robotics club. They had their own teachers with them. Along with setting up their mechanics and electronics, they assembled a big stereo system and played, appropriately, techno music. Nts nts nts nts nts. “We wanted the robots to feel at home,” commented a student.

Now – that chord progression I mentioned earlier. I was doing it in E, but it works just as well in C, and makes a set of chord changes for a roughly conventional jazz improvisation. It also contains references to Takemitsu’s “For Away”, which I was planning to do open-ended variations on for “Day Signals”, (#19 in the StormSound Cycle) – see my “StormSound Bugs” posting. So it looks like this is the answer for what to do with that rather difficult piece…

(This posting is Dec. 14, 2010; 161 days until the first performance of the complete StormSound Cycle.)

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