Igor Stravinsky, by George Grantham Bain Collection – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ggbain.32392. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/

This blog primarily serves as an electronic “business card” for myself as a composer/performer. At first, I talked about what I knew…teaching composition. But, then the damn pandemic hit (I called it the “damndemic”). As dreadful as this has been–and continues to be–my worklife as a musician was changed from life performance to studio only in order to provide the music my job required. I loved working in the wee hours in my studio and releasing the results as needed for my job (music director at Lakewood UCC). I posted those music videos here.

Then, thanks to the vaccine, I was able to return to live performance of a limited sort (socially distanced, fully masked, fully vaccinated participants). Then, suddenly, my need to provide studio music no longer existed. So now what? What intrinsic PURPOSE does my music have now that there’s no extrinsic need requiring it?

The picture at the top is of Igor Stravinsky. I was very, very lucky to attend, for my last two years of undergraduate study, the University of the Pacific Conservatory of Music in Stockton, California. My composition teacher was Standworth Beckler. If I was lucky to be at UoP I was even luckier to be Mr. Beckler’s student. Once a semester he offered to both grad and undergrad students a class based entirely on his own research. One such course was a his analyses of every piece Igor Stravinsky wrote! Every piece!

I took away a lot from his courses, and one thing I took away from his Stravinsky course was that Stravinsky seemed to be teaching himself how to compose throughout his life. That was the only explanation I could find that accounted for the wide, wide, wide range of styles he wrote in throughout his life. Stravinsky, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, and the Beatles all had that continual stylistic exploration in common! Perhaps it’s no coincidence I am as fond as I am of these composers.

It’s dawned on me, as I look back at my own life, including the present, that–although I’m not claiming to be a Stravinsky–when there is no external circumstance demanding a “product,” the underlying purpose of my music–why I compose–is to learn how to compose. The “product” is my learning. What people hear is just the “byproduct.” The real product is what happens within me and the growth of my skills.

It is freeing whenever I remember this. It doesn’t matter what others think. If they happen to like something, that’s nice, but their liking it doesn’t provide the purpose for me doing it in the first place. It’s what I learn how to do that’s important.

It’s not even vague things like “crafting a work of art” or something. With each piece my subconscious has things it (me) wants to learn how to do. In making the piece I discover (that’s a key word I think…I don’t “figure out,” I “discover,” it’s very much a non-verbal how-to) how to do that. The piece is just a result.

Curious how this lines up with what I spent my life doing as a profession: teaching others to compose. For me, it’s about learning, discovering. Down deep, that’s the intrinsic motivation for me. Extrinsic opportunity to show-and-tell is nice, but when I want to do something that “matters,” for me it’s learning how to compose.

Tailgate trombone

Feeling the urge to return to writing the occasional composition-teacher post! Some time ago I made a list of titles for posts I had ideas to write. Here’s one…

“Tailgate trombone” is a term that applies to a typical trombone part in “Dixieland” jazz or traditional jazz in tutti sections (tutti, Italian from Latin totus, “all,” is where everyone is playing at the same time). This “tailgate” part sort of follows its own course, outlining often descending chromatic lines inherent in the harmonic progression of the tune being improvised upon.

The reason for titling this post with that designation is that in “Dixieland” jazz or traditional jazz (I’ve never been absolutely sure to what extent those two styles are mutually exclusive) each instrument has a set role and melodic character that’s unchanging in the tutti sections.

Those are typically as follows:

  • trumpet plays embellished tune melody
  • clarinet plays arpeggiated harmonic structure
  • trombone plays tailgate part
  • tuba plays bass part
  • banjo plays harmony rhythmicized

Having these set roles in tutti sections helps clarify the texture, keeping everyone out of everyone else’s way while madly improvising in “le jazz hot.”

My purpose in raising this topic is that all too often, as useful as this device is, too many student composers do the same thing to their classical compositions, never allowing the parts of the texture to deviate from their set roles.

I do the same thing myself for certain reasons, especially when I’m wanting to create a static atmosphere.

For, that’s the danger: the music becomes static.

It’s definitely true that as great a composer as Mozart utilizes static texture, sometimes called mono-textural music. But, it’s worth your effort to take something like a Mozart piano sonata that definitely falls into this category, and see how even he breaks the texture from one phrase or group of phrases to the next into contrasting textures of different characters.

Then, take a look at someone like Beethoven to see how even the seams between contrasting sections are disguised so you start with one texture and miraculously discover you’re in a different texture without noticing how you got there.

This is even more true with someone like Mahler!

Mono-texture isn’t “bad” and multi-textural “good.” The goal is to become adept at handling texture freely without being forced to being stuck when you don’t want to be.

Tabletop drummer

Not billiard balls, but balls nonetheless!
Not billiard balls, but balls nonetheless!

This post is a further exploration of one of the tricks mentioned in a grain of sand: coming up with a rhythmic idea devoid of any pitch content.

There is a legend, quite possibly not apocryphal, because the game of billiards was indeed one of his hobbies (another apparently being the collection of bathroom graffiti while on tours throughout Europe which he detailed in letters to his father), that Mozart would sometimes use the rhythmic pattern of the clicking of the balls in a break as the generation of rhythmic motives.

But, unless you’re a billiards or lawn bowling player (hmmm… shuffleboard would work too, wouldn’t it?!), you’ve undoubtably given into the urge to spontaneously tap out a rhythm on the tabletop of a diner while waiting for a 2 a.m. breakfast, or, possibly scat sing one like THIS. For this discussion, we’ll use my vocalized motive heard in that example.

The next step can be tough for someone without formal ear-training–but it’s doable with some effort and free software–and that’s turning that improvisation into written music notation. Either of those methods, however, depend on one basic skill: memory. Develop the skill of remembering exactly what you just improvised so you can repeat it exactly, over and over until you’ve sussed out the notation of the rhythm.

Developing this skill has other applications, too. There’s a technique used in certain types of pop vocals where the artist overdubs tracks with themselves singing in unison with what they sang before. I’ve heard pros who could do this matching every slight inflection and nuance of their first track’s performance for a 3 minute tune. Memory is a valuable skill.

Anyway, back to the task at hand.

Once you’re certain you’ve got your riff (motive) deeply embedded in your memory, you’re ready to write it down using the techniques you learned in Ear Training 101…or, if you prefer the software method, record it on your cell phone, then open the mp3 in your free Audacity software. I use Magix’s SoundForge Pro Mac 3, simply because I’ve used it for so long and my fingers do their thing without me having to think about it, but Audacity is great. Get it. It’s cross platform. And it’s FREE! Whichever audio editor you use, you’ll see your waveform, like this:

Screenshot 2018-04-03 10.27.42.png

Now, I bet you “patted your foot,” either mentally or physically, when you improvised your rhythm. Breaking down this procedure a little bit further, let try to identify where those “foot pats” are in the waveform.
Screenshot 2018-04-03 10.27.42 A

The red lines in the above example represent where I felt the beat to be for my riff. That tells us a little, but not everything we need to know. To get closer, try tapping your foot exactly twice as fast as you listen to the motive. The blue lines in the following example show where those would fall.
Screenshot 2018-04-03 10.27.42 B

We’re almost there! Now, suppose we subdivide each of those in half. The green lines in the next example represent those subdivisions.
Screenshot 2018-04-03 10.27.42 C

Patience, patience, patience…almost done, almost done.

Now, suppose that the distance between red lines is a quarter note, then the four subdivisions would each be sixteenth notes, wouldn’t they? Mapping that out using music notation it would be 2 sixteenth notes, then a long note starting on the last sixteenth of that beat, then another short note halfway through the next beat, followed by two more sixteenth notes on the beat (like the opening). Looks like this in music notation:
Screenshot 2018-04-03 11.03.33

OK…that’s enough for now. We’ll continue this exploration next post by adding pitches, harmony, orchestration, tempi, and dynamics in Tabletop drummer part 2. We’ll also take a peek in a 3rd part at how this motive could be explored even further by developing into throughout time.

Look forward to seeing you next time.