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The movement of the singers, stage hands and scenery was like watching the frames of a film. It reminded me of a Tai Chi class I once took. Moving as though space itself had body, weight, density, matter. We move through it frame by frame.

Nothing is harder than the repetition of one note. or a phrase. matching the tone, weight, balance, timbre. and then slightly changing the phrase one strand of hair at a time.

Music is architectural. It builds on itself. now 4-4; 4-5; 5-5; 5-6; 6-6. but what are numbers? 123123123123…they’re all 3’s and 2’s. the building blocks of time.

It’s not about the individual, though there were some who stood out – the vocal soloists, violin, tenor saxophone. It was about the whole, and taken from the perspective of the mezzanine balcony with lots of space around me was a transformative experience. It just wasn’t the same when I moved down to the orchestra for an hour. The distractions were too exhausting: people walking in and out, focussing on the individuals on the stage. It’s a different kind of theatre; one that could take in everything at once, building phrase by phrase, movement by movement, note by note.

atom by atom.

Einstein on the Beach.

 

 

 

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there’s a point in the creative process where it clicks.

where I find my way in.

and when I do I realize that it’s been right there all along.

I just hadn’t found the phrase, motif, chord or tiny fragment of an idea that opens the flood gates.

sometimes it takes weeks. sometimes days. sometimes years.

sometimes I need to put it away for a while.

but I think that it’s important to remember that if I hang in there I will eventually find it.

because that is what I’m looking for. I’m always searching for my way in.

***********

every new arrangement is born of this process

of trial and error of frustration of nearly giving up.

and I have to go through it in order to really appreciate when the germ of an idea just appears.

and I know it’s right because it’s so simple, so elegant and so deeply resonant.

and I feel like skipping around the room or whispering,

thank you.

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preamble.

part one:

what’s the difference between playing tunes and free improv?

nothing.

nothing?

nothing.

but surely…

 

part two:

they’re the same thing. same rules. tunes are free and free are tunes.

the only difference is that when you’re playing a tune the form is inherent.

when playing free the form is extrinsic. it’s still there. you just need to find it or allow it to find you.

 

part three:

look. it’s all about composition. even playing tunes is about composition.

not some rote play the head solo for a few choruses play the head. we’re done.

unless that’s intentional.

or you have 16 bars or 32 bars or whatever and a huge canvas to play with around inside, outside, through, over and beyond the tune.

 

part four:

free playing is composition, too.

it’s just a composition that reveals itself over time

and if the players are truly listening they’re on the lookout for it.

and by the way.

melody, rhythm, harmony, motifs, themes and variations, counterpoint

tonality (now there’s an idea) atonality

it all applies.

 

the gig.

okay. I admit it. I had a few ideas. But they were ideas of intent. Not actual melodic or harmonic ideas. The ideas occurred to me a few minutes before I was about to play. The ideas were kind of like guidelines that I wanted to share with my fellow musicians Mark Segger (drums) and Heather Segger (trombone). I said, let’s make things short. I mean get to an idea, play with it and end it. Then move on. Nothing meandering or aimless. Let’s listen for endings. Even if one part is simply one of us taking a solo, let’s be aware that that’s okay. I even had an idea that it could be like a suite. We could interrupt applause if we wanted to so that it didn’t get too broken up. The weird thing is, the audience got it. They only clapped once, but the next time we gave them breaks in the action, they didn’t clap. they knew. they were part of it.

It was part of Leftover Day Light at Somewhere There, the performance space of AIM (Association of Improvising Musicians) Toronto. It’s a series that goes on every Friday night featuring three groups (or solos) who play one set each. I asked Heather and Mark to join me. I had been playing some of my regular “jazz” gigs with Mark lately, so I thought it could really strengthen how we play “inside” if we did a completely “outside” gig together. I was curious about Heather, having heard wonderful comments about her playing. I also loved the idea of having a few trombone/vocal dialogues. I was attracted to the range, timbre and warmth of the trombone with vocals.

I came prepared. I brought my own mike and amp to sing through, even though I knew I primarily wanted to play the piano. I removed the entire bottom panel of the piano in order to get more volume. I had the advantage of having heard the piano in the first set and was determined to make it louder. I even brought my digital tape recorder to tape the performance, but, well, kind of forgot to hit the record button a second time, so it remained in standby mode. ugh. technology… or maybe it was just Friday the 13th.

While setting up I was talking to the audience about the recent concert I saw at the Vanguard. I thought about the ostinato bass line Geri Allen and Esperanza Spalding played on “Au Leu Cha” and it occurred to me that it would be a good place to begin our set. It was such a fun place to start, that I decided to end the set with it as well.

Here are some things I want to remember:

I love the concept of a suite

I love ostinatos. I’m going to use this one again.

trombone/voice. very cool

a good ending

 

postlude.

one thing leads to another.

A few months ago I had a lesson and breakfast with Sylvie Courvoisier. Over breakfast we talked about free improvisation and form. She spoke about her concept of form as though you start with a fork, move to the spoon and the knife, perhaps the plate. There is some relationship, development and exploration as you move from place to place and branch out slowly,  giving time for an idea to develop and simmer rather than all of a sudden being across the road in unrelated territory. (or worse – my comment – meandering in a sea of nothingness where everyone is afraid to make a move).

In my lesson with Sylvie, we talked a lot about tone, weight and dropping into the keys. Sylvie introduced me to the Taubman Technique and encouraged me to seek out Edna Golandsky. But that’s another blog entry…

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(here is a link to part 1, part 2 and part 3 of this thread)

It’s not so easy!

TIFF had given me a dvd of “Sherlock Jr.” to work with. I based all my tempos, transitions and themes on the speed of that dvd. When I came to the TIFF Bell Lightbox for my first rehearsal with the film, I was in for a shock. The film was way slower than the dvd I had been working with! Fortunately, they were able to speed up the film to a frame rate that was really close to the one I was used to! (phew)

My klezmer/jazz sextet performed “Sherlock Jr.” four times (in one day!) Everyone at the Bell Lightbox was fantastic to work with from the sound guys, the production people and the caterers (!!) Each time I walked into the theatre, someone would move my monitor out of the way and put it back in place after I sat down. I could get used to that!!

TIFF recorded all four performances and later gave me a hard drive. Chris Perkins then worked with the hard drive and the dvd to put it together. The timing was extremely challenging because of the frame rate differences between the film I played to and the dvd. Nevertheless, we got it pretty close – at least close enough to really capture a live performance, even though some of the pool balls move before you hear the drum shots…

Enjoy the film!!

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(here are the first and second parts to this thread)

How do you compose music for a silent film?

Here’s what I did:

I bought an ipad (16 gig WiFi- why pay more?) for traveling and learnt how to make an mp4 of the film using HandBrake. It’s an awesome program!!

I also bought a new red moleskin notebook in order to write down preliminary ideas and impressions while sitting on a plane to Barcelona.

I allowed myself to listen to the existing sound track (Club Foot Orchestra– fantastic!!!) only a couple of times primarily to note tempi, musical themes and where they changed and how the characters, settings and situations were reflected in the music. I thought about where these musical transitions worked for me, and how I would do it differently.

I called Andrew Downing for advice. Andrew is wonderful silent film composer, bass player and cellist. Andrew gave me some fantastic guidelines:

1. repeat bars are my best friend. That way, if the tempo in performance is a bit quicker than I had planned, it’s very easy to cue repeats and transitions.

2. every character not only has their own theme, but their themes can interact when they’re in scenes together. This is also a fantastic compositional tool.

I began a new manuscript notebook. Here’s what the first page looks like:

TIFF had requested klezmer music, so I had a delicious mandate!

bulgars (for fast chase scenes), chusidls (slow 4 to set up Buster), tangos (for love), doynas (slow improvised- for tragic scenes) … what fun!

I added a rag (with a few uneven bars) for my first chase scene, an early Duke Ellington inspired theme for Buster when he assumes the persona of the great detective, a samba for my final chase scene and left a few parts fairly open for structured free improvisation. After all, I decided to hire musicians who are also brilliant improvisers: Quinsin Nachoff (clarinet and sax), Aleksandar Gajic (violin), Milos Popovic (accordion), Rob Clutton (bass) and Nick Fraser (drums). I led them at the piano.

For the most part, Buster told me what to do. Any time I got stuck, I watched Buster over and over again and asked him what he wanted. He taught me how to compose.

Buster was a genius. That is evident in every frame of this amazing film. I knew that my job was to write music that simply reflected the action, comedy, tragedy, zaniness and romance of the movie without getting in the way.

I feel very grateful to have been given this incredible project. Buster Keaton has enriched my life, and the time that I spent immersed in this film is a time I will always treasure.

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collective remembering.

collective forgetting.

the universal mind. the collective unconscious.

If you’re lucky, you can learn to recognize and identify that which you have forgotten. If you’re really lucky, you follow…

My body always knows long before my conscious mind tells me anything. The electric shock of recognition will start in my spine as my eyes fill with tears.

Forgotten Melodies came out of Nikolai Medtner’s Sonata Reminincenza. but it also came out of Maria Schneider’s Hang Gliding, and Shalom Secunda’s Dona Dona with a stop-over at Yiddish Summer Weimar in Germany. The seed of the idea came out of a spontaneous duet I heard at klezkanada played by Alan Bern on accordion and Christian Dawid on clarinet. It was heaven and earth and everything in between. And I recognized it at once. It was buried so deeply into my past that it preceded my birth. And it felt as though a vibrant and colorful path which I had never noticed before had suddenly come into view.

Forgotten Melodies is an exploration of Yiddish/Eastern European/klezmer music which I have arranged as contemporary jazz. I started the project a few years ago with Dona Dona and with a Canada Council grant to study with Marilyn Lerner, and on March 29 I will be presenting the collection in concert at the Four Seasons Centre for the Arts in Toronto. The repertoire includes some old Yiddish songs and melodies as well as original compositions inspired by klezmer/Yiddish music. I’ll be playing this music with my fantastic band: Mike Murley on soprano and tenor sax, George Koller on bass and Nick Fraser on drums.

I’ve recorded a couple of the selections on my upcoming CD, Two Kites. Here is a youtube video of Yam Lid/Lustige Chasidm/Balkan Bellabusta played in concert at La Belle Epoque and recorded by the CBC for “Canada Live”.

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“Like the very first title says, Sherlock Jr is a story about being able to do two things at once: move and entertain, dream and wake, negotiate between our real and our better selves – how we are all, in the end, projectionists and detectives. That art inflects life and vice versa is not a new statement, but a celebration of that fact perhaps bears repeating. Sherlock Jr is a testament to the imaginative impulse, the creative wish- the amount of ourselves that we put into the movies, and what the movies give back to us. For when the lights come up and we’re shoved rudely back into our misfit selves, we find we’re a little better off. Our ghostly flights sustain us. And then it’s time to kiss the girl.”

Edward McPherson, Buster Keaton – Tempest in a Flat Hat

(click to enlarge- Photos by Sonia Recchia/Wireimage for TIFF. This photo was taken at our performance of Sherlock Jr at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto)

a band within a band within a film within a film…

watching/playing, interacting/reading, composing/improvising, listening/creating

In a much broader sense, I have found that when two major projects overlap, particularly when one project is nearly finished and another is beginning, they both benefit. While I was composing the score for Sherlock Jr I was also in the final mixing stages of my CD project, Two Kites. It’s almost as though my creative imagination needed to take a day off here and there to think about something else and be engaged in a different type of brain activity in order to return with fresh ears and ideas. When Sherlock Jr was ending, my Halloween cabaret show, That Old Black Magic Cabaret, at the Young Centre for the Arts was looming, which I think really helped me get over post-show letdown. There simply wasn’t time.

Right now I’m putting the finishing touches on arrangements for my newest project, Forgotten Melodies. This project will have its world premiere at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre at the Four Seasons Centre for the Arts on March 29. Forgotten Melodies brings the exoticism of klezmer/Yiddish/Eastern European music to modern jazz. This project has also inspired me to be in serious practice mode. Right now, most of my days are spent writing, practicing, recording, listening to my playing, analyzing and refining my ideas.

At the same time, I’m also preparing for my Two Kites CD release on April 28. I signed off the final proof for the CD package this week! There are still tons of loose ends to think about for the release of the CD and for upcoming concerts for its promotion.

That’s all I can handle. Two things at once!

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