A Little Improv

I’ve been doing improvisation all my life, really. Before I could even read music or understand the rules of theory, I would sit at the piano at home and “tell stories” with the keyboard. It drove my father crazy. Shortly thereafter I started taking piano lessons and for a few years learned nothing but Everyone Else’s music, but that didn’t last long.

While I was at Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts in high school, the jazz instructor took me into his studio. He gave me a sheet of paper with the F blues scale on it, sat down at his signature white baby grand piano, and said, “Now play!” I put the horn on my face and blew one note after the next. Doobee doobee doobee doo.

“Stop! Take some rests. Nobody likes a person who talks all the time and never says anything!”

My first improv lesson. Not bad.

I became emboldened and started improvising at the piano for real. Later on, as an organist, I really got into it, improvising all kinds of stuff–even short fugues and what have you. I loved trying to fit the form and length of an improv to the action of the church liturgy. It’s challenging, but also a guide. I often liked to time a dramatic shift right as the priest started swinging the thurible at the offertory. Not easy, but fun. I took a few more improv lessons. Some teachers prefer more planned-out structure than others. I responded best to the advice that Martin Baker, Director of Music at Westminster Cathedral, once gave in a masterclass: Sit down at the organ and see how bad you can make it sound. He compared it to the babbling of a baby before he or she learns to talk. It was brilliant advice, and liberating.

Improvising by yourself is challenging, but not half as challenging as improvising in a group. I was recently asked to play keyboard in a free improv trio at the opening night of Bok Bar in Philly with Matt Cohen on viola and composer Adam Vidiksis on drums, under the auspices of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. This was an exciting opportunity, but I was nervous.

Philly Skyline

The view of the Philly skyline from Bok Bar.

You see, I’ve done plenty of improvising in group settings when I play the trumpet in the rock band, The Robotrippers. My technique there is to get good and hammered and then just blend my whole being into the music.

“Alright, Mike, this next one’s in E.”

Christ. That’s F# for me. And that’s all I get, and I just go. I can remember neither song titles nor melodies. If I play a wrong note, I lean into it harder, making it sound more intentional. It works. It contributes to the existential angst of garage rock.

That won’t work when you’re the keyboard player.

Back to governor’s school: There was an improv seminar led by this super cool and nerdy professor who’s real name escapes me, but who as I recall was nicknamed The Scientist. We all sat in a group, various instruments, and just started playing–no game plan. I was on keys even though I got admitted to the school with my trumpet playing. Maybe that was the first mistake. Most of the other guys were jazz musicians–damn good ones. It was a lot of fun.

But I was having trouble. I kept changing the chord progression on these guys, and they didn’t like it one bit. Thing is, I could never remember the chord progression I had laid down! I felt like maybe I was put in a tight spot, though, since it was supposed to be FREE improv. But tell that to a jazz musician and see what kind of reaction you get!

This little episode is all I could remember as we got ready for the gig a few weeks ago. There was no rehearsal. Over some early evening beers we came up with a very loosely-configured set list. In my old age I was smart enough to avoid chord progressions altogether, though I did play some chords. Open fifths and modal melodies are your best friends. But I was still scared to death–a feeling that I have learned to love on stage. In my experience, the magic happens when your head is spinning and the only viable option is to just go for it. If you’re bored or even equanimous you’re at the wrong gig.

We started playing. I still used the Get Hammered technique, but not to the same degree. It went swimmingly, and that’s simply because we listened to each other, copying one another’s motifs, not unlike the way the vocal quartets in the Renaissance would mimic each other’s musica ficta choices.

I couldn’t possibly have had more fun in this glorious beer-induced mishmash that defied genre. When you improvise, you’re always one step from abject failure, and it’s an invigorating feeling. There’s no such thing as playing it safe, because even playing it safe can go wrong–by resulting in a piece that puts people to sleep. We’ve already got too much of that going on at concerts these days.

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Taking a Step Back to Take a Leap Forward

I started working with digital audio workstations about two years ago, and for the most part I’ve been learning as I go, feeling my way around, often not even sure how I got a particular sound. How do chefs remember what they do when they make experimental dishes? I could stand to learn some of that kind of recall. Flying blind is fun for a while but it can get old, and in any case it’s not always the most effective approach. I recently finished Mike Senior’s book Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio, a fantastic guide on how to make commercial grade recordings on a shoestring budget. I’ll review it more in detail sometime soon, but for now I just want to say that I took what I remembered from that book and applied it to a soundtrack I made from footage taken on Philadelphia’s Market-Frankford Line, the east-west artery that in many ways is the bloodline of this city.

This track was chosen for this upgrade almost by accident. I had been slowly going through my soundtracks and individual sounds from them to send to DJ  Mr. Lokomot in the Bay Area, who hopes to use the raw materials in his own work at some point. I got to this recording of the MFL during that process and it was just trash–way too much train noise and background noise in the low register, and many of the automated train announcements were faint. You had to squint and furrow your brow to have a chance at hearing them. This wouldn’t do, so I figured I might as well put Mike Senior’s book to good use and clean this thing up.

Field recording is a little bit different than traditional musical recording, and in a lot of instances you can end up with a pile of terrible alternatives. It’s common, for instance, to have an unwanted background noise clouding up a sound file that also happens to be right in the frequency range of the material that you do want. EQ isn’t gonna solve that very much, though sometimes EQing a little, processing a little, and maybe even doubling the track, with one processed and the other unprocessed, might help. In addition to that, editing splices can be downright infuriating with this noisy footage, but usually it can be made to work with enough patience.

This track is a bit on the long side but it’s meant to convey the drudgery involved in riding the “El,” as it’s called–the often long duration of the trip, the noise, the chaos, the screaming children. It is a ready-made anxiety attack. I ride that line as infrequently as possible.

Here’s the old track:

 

Note: that’s a private link so people have to find it here and understand the context, i.e., why it sucks.

Here’s the new track, which I just finished earlier this week:

 

I can’t say this is perfect but it’s much better. The difference won’t hit you in the face, but the end result is at least a little more clear. See what you think.

Musique Concrete from the Wanamaker Organ

Musique concrete usually makes use of everyday sounds–automobiles, trains, ambient noises, machines, and other sources that would not be considered musical in the conventional sense. But there is another approach, too, one which I’m pretty sure Pierre Schaeffer discussed in his journals–that of using musical instruments themselves in unconventional ways to make musique concrete.

My full time job involves working in the repair shop of the Wanamaker Organ, the world’s largest functioning pipe organ.* I thought I would climb into the innards of this instrument and make a soundtrack out of it. Among other things, you will hear:

–the enormous winding system of the string division, along with several of its lowest notes on the diaphone stop, which speaks at 32′, i.e., two octaves below written pitch. I stood next to them as I worked the mechanism that played them. This created problems with the microphone but I decided to let it be for now. Lesson learned, though.

–a screwdriver banging on a wind reservoir

–a screwdriver being slid along a large spring connected to a hollow wind reservoir, which creates a sound not unlike a gong

–percussive noises from work being done in the organ shop

 

Notice that in the picture of the console included in the recording, I have Olivier Messiaen’s Le Banquet Celeste on the music rack. This is not inappropriate, since Messiaen was not only an admirably unapologetic composer of avant-garde organ music, but also a practitioner of musique concrete, who worked with Schaeffer, et al.

Interestingly enough, friends of mine who I’d have thought would enjoy some of my pop-influenced stuff more (much of my work has a “beat,” whether it’s established by a train or whatever) have enjoyed this one the most. I hope you enjoy it too.

*There is some argument these days about which pipe organ really is the largest in the world. It’s a bit like the debate about which skyscraper is the tallest: it depends on what you count, and how much each thing matters. These are largely stupid arguments, as the beauty of the sounds coming from the instruments matters far more.

Ringtone: Soundtrack for Synthesizer and Voice

A friend of mine and I were tinkering around with a synthesizer one day in the studio. He was making different kinds of sounds and going through all kinds of loops. We recorded the whole thing.

Later I sat down with the footage and thought it might make a good mantra-like track, so I cut it up, decided I wanted one word to go with it. Just one, repeated over and over again. It took me forever to decide which one.

It finally occurred to me to look up what words have recently been officially added to the dictionary. (I forget which one, whether it was Webster’s or whatever.) One of the new additions in 2017 was “ringtone.” It was perfect for this project. I hope you enjoy it.

William Byrd: the First Rock Musician

A former chorister of mine texted me the other day to let me know he’d be in a concert of William Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices, a work that we used to love performing together. I couldn’t get there in time, so I decided to pull out my earbuds, find a recording on Google Play, and walk home while reliving old memories.

Every time I hear this Mass, my spine tingles. It might be hard for some to imagine something so thoroughly religious to be so exciting, but Byrd was writing back before religion was countercultural, before radios, before anyone lower than a king or queen had regular access to professional music. For most people, church was the place to hear great music.

Byrd’s three Masses were written in the 1540’s—one for three voices, one for four, and one for five. The fewer the voices, the harder they are to perform. All of them are stunningly beautiful, but surprisingly, Byrd wasn’t writing these works for a great cathedral, but rather underground, illegal Catholic Masses in newly-Protestant England. These ceremonies would’ve been in someone’s house. I imagine it being similar to going to semi-illegal rock shows that lack the required municipal permits. Not that I would know anything about that.

Byrd, though he maintained good relations with the crown, was a rebel, back when rebels could be something other than harmless entertainers. Musicologists have even speculated that his motets were frequently intended as double entendres, perhaps most famously the epic Vigilate, which emphasizes keeping watch for the master of the house—a Gospel quote but possibly also a reference to the king’s charges who went around raiding Catholic establishments.

That being said, Byrd was one of the first, if not the first, beneficiaries of copyright, a new privilege granted by the crown. Before this, there was no such legal category as intellectual property. This allowed him to make money on his published compositions, a rarer feat in those days than it is even now.

How he was able to play both sides like this escapes me, and maybe even historians too. He was even able to avoid the tax levied against those who failed to show up to the services of the state-sanctioned Church of England. One gathers he was a shrewd politician, not an image we tend to conjure up when thinking of many musicians. The volatility of those days cannot be emphasized enough. In his book The Stripping of the Altars, Eamon Duffy gives some sense of this, how government officials seized monasteries and religious paraphernalia, often destroying them. At the same time, those resistant to Protestantism frequently did the bare minimum to assure compliance, drawing a single line through a page, for instance, in order to technically liquidate it, but obviously preserving its usability. It is hard to envy Byrd’s position in the midst of this frenzy.

While the Reformation was raging in Northern Europe, the Catholic Church was doing its best to quell the exodus from its ranks. This effort, known as the Counterreformation, included not only the usual authoritarian tactics (Many statements of the Council of Trent read, “If any man says x, y, or z, let him be anathema.”), but also an appeal to the human appetite for beauty. Music was a part of this—think of the Gabrielis in Venice—but at the same time a concern for the clarity of the liturgical text called for simpler musical textures in which the words being sung could more easily be heard by the listeners.

Cardinal Charles Borromeo led the push for less ornate counterpoint. The debate was so intense at one point that there were even calls to ban polyphony from the church completely, not only because of its complex and artsy nature, but also because those ornery musicians were always hiding naughty secular themes in their work and pulling other such pranks. One thinks of the way Michelangelo depicted a well-known cardinal of that time roasting in hell in his famous Last Judgement painting in the Sistine Chapel.

Palestrina stepped into this panic against polyphony with his Missa Papae Marcelli II, which ingeniously wove two groups of homophonic textures in a semi-polyphonic way, not unlike the way Gabrieli’s brass choirs would play cori spezzati, i.e. against each other.  (Knud Jeppesen wrote a fantastic book, The Style of Palestrina and the Dissonance, that goes into the composer’s technique in great detail.) This not only made the text more audible; it also rescued the music from an unduly simple homophonic texture that was often the result of similar efforts in other areas—Byrd’s England, for instance. Palestrina was considered by many to have saved polyphony from the red pens of the Fathers of the Council of Trent. It probably helped that he named his Mass in honor of a pope, too—one who reigned for a mere three weeks and likely enjoyed the popularity that often comes with such a tragic fate.

But looking at Byrd’s Masses and motets for Catholic worship, he seems not to have gotten the memo, even though his own works for the Church of England take the clarity of the text into account, a concern the Protestants shared. A student of Thomas Tallis, who was himself a student of John Taverner, Byrd claims a contrapuntal freedom that might not have existed again until the Second Viennese School, when Arnold Schoenberg emancipated the dissonance and disregarded vertical, “harmonic,” considerations in deference to the development of each individual line on its own terms, not entirely unlike Medieval and early Renaissance polyphony. (Bach was the master synthesist of counterpoint and harmony, but that is a subject for another day.)

The English were known not only for introducing the third as a consonance—until the late Medieval or early Renaissance, it, like the tritone, was avoided—but also for their sweet dissonances—a product of vertical carelessness and playfulness, for example, the cross-relation, which is a prominent feature in Tallis.

While Byrd’s counterpoint was far from the melismatic tomes of Taverner, he was not shy about making music first and letting the words fall where they may.

Where he does “fall short” in floridity, he excels in tricky vivacious rhythms that suggest the people of the Renaissance were far better dancers than we are. I like to joke that he was the first rock musician. When I shared this thought once with a friend of mine, he countered that “Gesualdo was punk.” I’ll take it.

In some places Byrd’s music is homophonic–interestingly, for instance, at Et unam, sanctum, Catholicam…ecclesiam in the Credo. In others, he employs syllabic counterpoint, yet the listener feels jostled around by the text in each vocal part being in deliberate disagreement as to what beat it falls on. This would create as much confusion about the text for the listener as the long melismas of Taverner, likely violating the “Spirit of the Council” of Trent, and I’m totally ok with that.

The Gloria and Sanctus of the Mass for Four Voices illustrate Byrd’s rhythmic dynamism. Hear how in the Et in terra pax the voices are all dropping syllables on different beats. It’s as if one doesn’t know which way to turn one’s head. Pleni sunt caeli in the Sanctus, if it is not performed at a slovenly solemn tempo, gives Take Five a run for its money. Those complicated rhythms were always the diciest part of any performance of this piece I ever took part in, but it was always the most thrilling moment in the end.

In spite of all this, Byrd is not all edgy dissonance and tricky rhythms. Frequently a cyclic Mass is tied together from movement to movement by a recurring motif. Think of the descending cells that are the building blocks of the first movements of Beethoven 5 or Brahms 4, for instance. The Mass for Four Voices is no exception. The Kyrie and Agnus Dei are particularly related, and if there’s a more beautiful melody on earth I haven’t heard it. The Dona Nobis Pacem is riddled with dark, goosebump-inducing suspensions, giving the impression that, in the midst of asking for peace, Byrd’s commentary is more like, “Yeah, right,” not unlike a similar line in the Gloria of the Bach Mass in B Minor.

This exquisite, painful beauty described above is, I feel, another hallmark of rock music. It doesn’t quite descend to irony, but someone who loves Hurt by Kurt Cobain, for instance, is likely to love Byrd, too. Both men employed a similar knife’s edge kind of beauty. This is not to glibly claim that such disparate music sounds the same, but rather simply to point out certain similarities in approach that can make otherwise unlikely musical friendships.

In my experience people of all stripes have taken well to Byrd’s music, save for a few intellects I’ve known who are hampered by a circumscribed view of what “good Renaissance polyphony” should sound like. When I first met the guy who introduced me to Townes Van Zandt, we started trading playlists. He introduced me to his world, and I introduced him to mine. I included William Byrd in his homework.

A few weeks later I asked him if he’d gotten to my playlist.

“No, not really,” he said, “but I did listen to William Byrd. That sh*t’s f*ck*n’ beautiful.”

You better believe it is.

Power and Light: A soundtrack from Kansas City

About a month ago I visited Kansas City, MO and, as I always do, recorded some sounds while I was there.

 

I finally got to mixing this track in early January, and I wanted to get it done before I headed out of town again, so in my haste, I put it together, assured myself that I applied enough EQ, mixed it down, posted it on soundcloud, and called it complete.

That was a mistake.

When I got back to town, I sat down with Cubase again and figured out relatively quickly that the whole thing would be vastly improved by fiddling with the bass EQ in just about every channel. This took a lot of the background noise out of the track without sacrificing any of the richness of the sounds that I wanted to feature in the track.

In field recording, the bass range is often rife with useless noise (rumbles, wind) and wasted speaker power. A hi-pass filter will do a lot of the work for you, but often you have to go a step or two further. And, as I now know, you can’t do this right when you’re in a hurry. Ears don’t hear as well when they’re on the clock.

The above clip is the new and improved version. It features crosswalk signals and the streetcar from Kansas City’s Power and Light District. The building pictured above is the Power and Light Building. The track also features footage from the December 10 matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Oakland Raiders. I hope you enjoy it.

Miscellaneous Catch-Up

The holidays are always a difficult time to get things done, but I went and made things even harder for myself by making extra plans. In mid-December I visited Kansas City, where I took some sound footage which I’m currently mixing into a soundtrack that should be ready any day now.

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Above you can see the soundtrack in its infancy in Cubase. The studio isn’t heated, which makes for some interesting times with the temperature never getting above freezing.

Kansas City is a beautiful place. Lots of great architecture:

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In a few days, if the weather doesn’t totally mess with me, I’m taking off for San Diego, where I’m seeing Willie Nelson live with a friend of mine. I couldn’t get to him when he was in Philly, but why not take a few days and enjoy some decent weather in the dead of winter? Never seen Willie before; been looking forward to it for months.

And of course, I never visit a new place without taking sound footage. Every city has its own rhythms and characteristics. The public transit has different sounds, and even the police sirens are different. There’s always something. I’m interested to see what San Diego has to offer.

Under the Christmas tree was this year was Mike Senior’s Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio. I can’t wait to get into this and up my game with Digital Audio Workstations. There’s always something new to learn, especially since I’m relatively new to mixing. With any luck, now that the holidays are over, I can settle down and have a productive new year full of new sounds. And as soon as I have the time to rub two thoughts together in a row, the posting here will recommence with regularity.