First, a Reflection
When the folks at Vic Firth told us about this new exchange, the four of us in So were excited to be involved. It seems like such a great way to get a conversation going on a variety of topics pertaining to what we do as percussionists. As I sat down to write my first offering from So Headquarters USA (in this case, a small hotel room in Burlington VT), I racked my brain for what exactly I had to offer.
As we’ve traveled to play concerts this year, we’ve been reminded that So is in it’s 10th year. It has made me think of what has happened over those past ten years. A lot has happened, a lot has changed, and a few things have remained the same since we started as grad school students.
Among the things that have stayed the same has been our approach to sound. It is kind of the essence of what we do in So. We attempt to stay fresh with this approach each time we rehearse and each time we approach a piece of music. We think about stick choices everyday. (What plastic mallet makes a funky sound high on the vibraphone? What stick makes a good sound on a flowerpot and a tom tom?) We think about instrument choices everyday too. (What type of drum sound works for this section? What type of cymbal works for this piece?)
But often times, the choices are even more fundamental. Composers that we’ve worked with since we started playing in 1999, as well as composers that have made huge contributions to the percussion group repertoire over the past 80 or so years, have given us as performers lots of input into the sound of their music. When I play Morton Feldman’s King of Denmark, I get to choose what wood sounds I want to play, what skin sounds, what cymbal sounds and even what “other” sounds. That is a huge contribution I get to make to the sound of the piece. This happens in lots of the music So plays – John Cage’s 3rd Construction and many of his other pieces, David Lang’s the so-called laws of nature, Dennis Desantis’s Shifty, Paul Lansky’s Threads. These kinds of choices come into play during the collaboration we have with a composer as the piece is written. We’ve most recently had the chance to hang out with Steve Mackey to come up with new sounds for a very quirky world he is creating in the new quartet he is writing for us. We have also had the chance to work with Dan Trueman to integrate some sounds we’ve been thinking about into the percussion quartet/laptop world he is writing for.
We’ve often thought that it would be great to program one of these pieces, like Shifty or David Lang’s Anvil Chorus, twice on the same show and play two very different versions. I think you could give the audience two different experiences through the same piece of music by approaching the instrument choices from different angles.
Thinking about new sounds, new ways to make sound and ways to find sounds that work together with other sounds is something we’ve been doing since the beginning.
Ourselves as Composers
But like I said, many things have changed. In 1999, we were a different crew. Tim Feeney, Todd Meehan, Doug Perkins and I were all in grad school at the Yale School of Music together. We were assigned to play some pretty serious chamber music. We didn’t improvise. We didn’t play “hand drums.” And we didn’t write our own music. Since 1999, all those things slowly changed. The group is now Eric Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski and me. We are called on to improvise often. We toured Xenakis’s djembe trio Okho for a couple of years. And we have embarked on a few projects of our own music. First, we made a CD/DVD of music I composed called Amid the Noise. Most recently, we’ve co-created an evening length work called Imaginary City.
When I first began to write music, I felt like I needed a crutch of sorts, some sort of jumping-off point. I was fascinated with patterns I found in language and took different words and phrases, filtering them through processes that I found interesting to make pieces. That was the way I wrote all the pieces on Amid the Noise, and I still find that way of working to be very interesting. Here are a few harmonies, words and numbers that I have used to make many pieces.
Here are 6 harmonies I have used often,
From low to high, in any octave, -- AECEF – AEBCG – GDBCG – GDCEF – FCCEF – FCBCG
Listen to them here in 2 different versions of June, one we recorded on the CD and one in concert at Glasslands in Brooklyn:
Here is a quote that I used to make many of the tracks on Amid the Noise. It is taken from a poem of the Japanese Haiku poet Basho. A wonderful teacher of improvisation, Ralph Alessi, would remind us of this truism when I was studying in my undergrad at the Eastman School of Music.
“Seek not to emulate the master, seek what the master sought.” – Basho
The letters of these words were translated into rhythms in this track White:
I used this number sequence in many of the tracks from the album as well:
4 4 2 7 3 6
4 4 3 6 6 –
The chords from September are played in these number groupings.
Check it out …
Often times So will take harmonies, word sequences, and number sequences like these and translate them to different rhythms, different structures and, as I mentioned earlier, different instruments.
If you are interested to create something using these chords or word/number sequences, go for it. Be as creative as you like to find ways to take these tools and make music from them. If you are looking for a starting point, I like to layer the harmonies over some type of rhythm or noise that is taken from the word/number sequence. Interesting rhythms can be found by taking the alternation of vowels and consonants, or other characteristics of these patterns. If you sit with it for a moment, I”ll bet you can discover something interesting.
If you come up with something you like, I’d love to hear it. You can email me an mp3 or an idea to firstname.lastname@example.org -- I’d love to include a few things you all come up with in my next posting.
Until then, enjoy the creative process.