All About A New Piece – Fierce Green

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My newest creation is a commission for the Vancouver Peace Choir, my choral alma mater. Writing for the Peace Choir was both my first writing opportunity and singing gig outside a university environment. It was a pretty big deal for me. When you leave school, the first thing that greets you is an immense gaping maw of, “WHAT DO I DO NOW?!”. Having the opportunity to write for a willing group was immeasurably valuable for my craft and creative momentum. For that, I owe them a great debt of gratitude so when they ask me to jump, I hold my breath and launch myself into orbit.

With this piece, I really wanted to honour the choir’s legacy of championing social justice causes while also making something the group would enjoy singing (Easy, right?). Past concerts have highlighted a litany of causes such as the plight of First Nations people, the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and the “It Gets Better” campaign.

Fierce Green is a sort of desperate response to human caused climate change. While I’m mostly buoyed by the incremental steps many of us take to reduce our ecological footprints I’m also incredibly frustrated, and sometimes embittered, by resistance to the most innocuous positive developments and jaw-dropping denial of a massive body of scientific evidence. I was especially hit hard by the recent American election; here we have one of the world’s largest industrial power houses now talking about bringing back coal, dismantling the EPA, and rolling back limits on vehicle emissions. It’s painful to watch.

Setting the scene is a poem by a relatively obscure Victorian poet (The place – not the time period!) named Denise Cammiade called, Vegetative Seasons:

Plants chisel skyward
lean shoots weave through soil, grasp air
Vein this new drug, sun.

Corn dreams tall. Orchard
scents baste the leafy noon.
Grass shears marimba.

Asters sprawl mauvely.
The cabbage crouch like broody
hens. Rain staples down.

Brittle stalks rehearse
a subtle sky. Whistle tunes
sieve the sucked year.

While I don’t necessarily think Denise had climate change in mind when she wrote this poem, there’s a two-faced quality to it that’s somehow embedded with echoes of it. It’s as lush and pastoral as a Beethoven pastoral scene, but it’s also parched and desperate in a way that makes the piece feel more part of my era than the old master’s.

Come listen!

Friday, May 26th – 8pm @ Peace Mennonite Church, Richmond

Saturday, May 27th – 8pm @ St James Anglican Church, Vancouver

On Doo-Wop, The Scourge Of Robots and Beyonce, and The Anacrusis

doowop

Doo-wop is a fascinating little inlet of American Music that was sort of absorbed and overcome by the popularity of guitar driven music. When Doo-wop was at its populist peak the most popular instrument wasn’t the guitar, it was the saxophone. If you go back to old recordings you’ll find that guitar solos are quite rare – the saxophone is usually the one stealing the limelight. But it didn’t take long for guitar to become the center of North American music and it’s only recently that it’s finally being displaced by robots and Beyonce.

The anacrusis is a forty dollar word for, “the pickup” which is a sixteen cent word for a note that precedes and leads into the first downbeat of a phrase (It’s the and of, “….and go!”). They’re everywhere. In big band music, the drummer plays a very important anacrusis in setting up big shots with a sharp crack (a rimshot) on their snare drum; the iconic “Da-da-da-DUMMMMM!” from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony has THREE NOTES in its anacrusis; and the gasp of the audience before their roar when an event flies off the rails is also an anacrusis of sorts.

In Doo-wop, you’ll somtimes hear a voluminous, “Yeah” from the bass singer that sounds like a herd of cattle passing a bicycle. This is Doo-wop’s own special anacrusis, and the inspiration for this blog post. In the example below – a famous and filthy song – you can hear a prolific example at 0:45

At 2:12 in this famous recording by the Monotones we have a unique take on the phenomenon that sounds more like a llama hurtling itself through an open window:

I’d love to have an explanation for where this phenomenon comes from but it seems to be one of those unexplained little quirks of the genre. The art form clearly has a cappella origins; perhaps with the addition of instruments, the bass singer’s duties were becoming more and more overtaken by their instrumental counterparts and the, “YEAH” was a vocal uprising in the unseen battle of the basses. In rehearsals leading up to the BIG SHOW, the singer would be quietly stewing, planning his attack, only to unleash a hellish fury in performance that left the audience and performers indifferent in the face of a looming saxophone solo.

 

 

 

Why Write When You Can Dance?

imagen_principal“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” is a deft phrase meant to evoke the futility in writing about music but more often retaliate against a critic who doesn’t like the sounds we make. The implication being, of course, that conveying the essence of music through words is as futile as conveying the essence of architecture through dance. For instance, what does Justin Timberlake really mean when he declares his intent to, “bring sexy back”? Could the song really be about where his sexy has gone and how we might form a committee to help bring it back? I argue that, much like a forty pound sword, the pen is only as mighty as the skill of the wielder allows.

Elvis Costello once said, “Writing about music… is a really stupid thing to want to do”. Opinions vary, but somewhere between some and many musicians view music journalism in a negative light. Frank Zappa once opined that rock (music) journalism was, “People who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read“. It’s likely due to an unavoidable adversarial relationship between the press and whatever they’re writing about as they aren’t bound to only write praise. In fact, they will often write noxiously critical things which leaves a crack under the door for resentment creep.

There also exists an exaltation of music that is somehow threatened by daring to try and capture it with words. For many of us, music is vapour; it is by its very nature, effusive. Writing about it somehow either misses the whole point or robs it of what makes it special. First of all, music doesn’t get robbed; musicians do. Second of all, most human beings are capable of having a very intense emotional connection to what they listen to. It’s inevitable that, sooner or later, someone from among us would have something profound to say about it.

Someone with a pen and a love of music, is a worthwhile ally to music creators. In fact, I would encourage all my fellow music creators to become their own best allies, come out with their pen swinging, and tell us about WHAT they do, WHY the do it, and WHEN it’s happening. It’s a lesson I’ve slowly been learning about my own creativity – YOU NEED TO TELL PEOPLE ABOUT WHAT YOU DO AND WHY YOU DO IT. Otherwise, how will they know?

In Defense All Things Swing

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When I was about half of whatever my current age is, I spent a lot of time listening to some very loud music. I liked my power chords chunky, my singers screamy, and my drummers bleeding from the forehead. Not much has changed; the exception being I now attend a larger variety of concerts compared to my younger self. I don’t think this is unique to me. My peers and I all grew up with their own music and are perpetually hungry for new experience. As we grow, so do our tastes. We are now regular attendees at a variety of venues because we find something memorable at each of them that can’t easily be encapsulated by only one experience.

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If you were to conjecture that I’ve become slightly more crotchety since I’ve reached the age of whatever my current age is, you’d be partially right. Though I do enjoy going to loud music concerts once in a while, I’ve come to despise the ritual of shouting, “WHAT?!”, “HEY!!”, or “WHAT DO YOU HAVE ON TAP?!” in nearly every attempt at conversation in these venues. It’s not necessarily that the music is TOO LOUD; the music is exactly as LOUD as it’s supposed to be. Part of the aesthetic of LOUD music is that it is supposed to be LOUD enough to close off all other aural avenues and offer only one path towards the stage and hopefully a memorable experience. This is a good thing. We, the audience, demand a LOUD presence on our stage and in our earbuds because it shuts down distraction and allows us to appreciate the full girth of the audio spectrum plumbing our listening orifices. This is wonderful – yet I can’t help but wish there was a space for a conversation to be had.

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This desire for LOUD extends to all styles of western music. This desire is present everywhere from the types of instruments musicians play to how we process our music for consumption. It began with stringed instruments switched from gut strings to wound metal. Eventually, we started plugging them into amplifiers as loud as a jet engine. Contemporary recording practices in all styles of music also began employing tricks to be MORE LOUD. If you load a recently recorded waveform for pretty much any piece of music of any style into some kind of audio software and look at the LOUDEST point in the music you will find a nearly perfect box where someone chopped off the audio peaks. By removing the few errant peaks at this loud passage, that are essentially a millisecond in duration, you’re able to uniformly bring the whole recording up in volume.

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Classical music has many baffling concert rituals. Notably among them is the one wherein the audience has a tacit agreement to not make any noise while the music is playing so as to better appreciate it for what it is. And, like with LOUD music, that’s a good thing! The point is not to shut down communication but to offer a unique space to give music the full breadth of our attention – just for a few hours – before we shuffle back to a world of diverse and constant stimuli. I am very hot and cold when it comes to the classical music listening experience. On one hand, I love that we have a space to allow music to be the main focus but I despise that this comes at the cost of behaving like human beings. It doesn’t feel natural to hold back my praise for the performance until the end of four movements. I sometimes yearn to have the courage to be more like the scientist who was famously ejected from a concert hall for trying to crowd surf through Handel’s Messiah.

I love that at a jazz concert, if someone plays something you like, you can whoop and clap your approval. It feels natural. It feels organic. It feels human. However, serious jazz listening also goes the way of classical music in that the ritual begins to take over the human experience: you play the head, you solo, clapping only happens after solos, and then you play the head again. This is a bit disappointing to me when it seems so obvious that the music is so obviously at its best when it’s adventurous, wild, and dangerous. But again, I realize that for what we sacrifice in our experience we also gain a lot. I am thankful that I have a space to go to that is so listening focused yet I somehow crave compromise.

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I started listening to jazz when I was in music school but I started getting into swing music in a big way about four or five years ago through the local swing dance scene. Swing dancing hooked me big time. This was a way of appreciating the concert experience in a way that I had not experienced before. I had always sort of danced but this style of dance was offering a unique framework for the improvisation to be a communal improvisatory project between two people instead of the solitary one I’d experienced up to this point. This mirrors the philosophy of the playing as well. Improvisation exists in all styles of music all around the world but relatively few have a paradigm of an improvising collective. In Jazz, you aren’t just playing a solo to be the star – you’re listening to everybody else in the band and trying to go somewhere together. In the dance, instead of being the star of your own dance epic, you’re also interacting with another human being with a personality, preferences, and flailing limbs.

I brought with me to these swing dances my concert hall listening experiences. I found that when I had danced myself to exhaustion I could be reinvigorated by taking a break and simply listening to what somebody was playing; having a hall of people swinging the daylights out of each other is very motivating for an improviser and you can hear it in their playing. I’ve picked out some surprisingly touching moments coming from the horns on those stages. I also found that if I wanted to I could have a conversation with my peers without having to shout over the bedlam in the hall. The music is LOUD enough for what it needs to be. This resulted in me still having the use of my vocal chords the next day and will probably save my hearing for my forthcoming old age. At these concerts I am free to dance madly, shout obscenely, listen intently, or ignore completely. I still go to the symphony and the opera. And my heart still belongs to the halls I flailed around in when I had a mohawk and wore spikes on my jacket. But I am thankful to have also discovered a space that meets my needs with such elegant simplicity. Swing it!

This Is Not Supposed To Be A Political Blog

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Last night, the United States elected to its highest office a xenophobic climate change denier who wants to roll back LGBTQ rights to marriage licenses and women’s rights to body autonomy.

I live on the west coast of North America which is one of the continent’s longest running belts of left leaning electorates. Election results like these are often a reality check for me. In my west coast bubble it is very easy to forget that there are millions of people out there who vehemently disagree with me on things that seem like a no-brainer (ie. What I mentioned above). And this is a problem I share with a lot of lefties – we are insulated. Especially with the help of social media. I’m especially guilty of this as most of what I read is non-conservative and I don’t have any family members to get into ugly political discussions with over thanksgiving dinner.

That isn’t to say I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about these issues – because I do. But I feel a sense of foreboding exhaustion at knowing that we are facing four more years of HARD push back against progress that may have been taken for granted.

And there’s still a part of me that wants to believe that this election result was just an angry outburst against the establishment rather than a rejection of the progress we’ve made. Or possibly even an ignorance of what progress we’ve made and how it could be undone and that people really aren’t as bad as this election makes them seem.But whatever I choose to believe, there is now potential for that damage to be done, making the argument moot.

It isn’t a happy go lucky day today. But I promise I’ll write something soothing to lighten the mood in here.

Assembling A Wind Quintet Is Like Binding Planks Of Sand

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I had recently written a string quartet and was gasping at how easy the process of getting it played was when a wind playing colleague rolled her eyes and let me in on a little secret: getting a group of winds to play together is not easy.

There are actual articulate reasons why it’s easier to put together a string quartet rather than a wind quintet but not all are equal. After all, the paroxysm that oboists are assholes is only true in some mumbledy-mum of mumbledy-mum cases.

Flute players are the best when you sit right next them. They are only second to clarinet players who practice and bassoons who exist. Speaking of which, they are nigh impossible to find. You’d have better luck finding a percussionist with lung capacity and training them from the ground up. The only downside to that approach is that as soon as they strike that sweet golden vein of competence they are whisked away to second chair in someone’s orchestra and are never heard from again.

French Horn is like a unicorn of unicorns. You know they exist because they leave little puddles of moisture everywhere but to actually see one – let alone harpoon one and get it to sit next to you – is about as easy as dividing seventeen by Thursday.

It feels good to be informed!

Patrick Stewart Bakes A Cake

 

This is really great – almost too great – maybe it’s as though Alexander The Great had an unfortunately determined fling with Peter The Great and their lovechild went on to found a chain of unremarkable bed and breakfasts.

We – and by that I mean four people who aren’t myself but still somehow get through the day – just wrapped up a weekend of gnarly tango music with a side of my own string quartet, Patrick Stewart Bakes A Cake. If you’ve bothered to read this far, you probably didn’t realize that you skipped on past the recording at the top of the page.

It’s up there. Go have a listen and don’t come back!

 

 

New Places To Find My Music – The CMC

When I first heard of the Canadian Music Centre I was probably too young to be anything more than dubiously impressed. The CMC offers a litany of services which include the archival, copying, and lending to consumers and creators of written-down-music (They call it concert music but I still have vocabulary issues with that term – a subject for a longer and more confusing post). Myself being part of one of the first generations to think of the internet as a physical appendage, I was skeptical of what the CMC could do for me that I couldn’t do with a laser printer and a domain name. Surely the most able person to steward my catalogue music was myself, I thought. How could I expect another human to absorb this thankless task?

I was in attendance at the VSO’s second annual New Music Festival when my thinking was flipped on its tuckus. Maestro Bramwell Tovey was describing his experience of coming to Canada for the first time and trying to act on a desire to program Canadian music in his concerts. As a new migrant, there was a knowledge deficit to fill. Where to go? The Gap? Stephen Harper’s record collection? The answer was his local chapter of the CMC.

For a composer hungry to promote his music, there’s a vociferous forehead slapping directness to the Maestro’s tale. If there is an organization out there willing to work for and with me then it’s my own obliqueness that prevents me with accepting the favour. So with that, I’ve recently joined the ranks of CMC’s Associate Composers. Soon you’ll be able to browse, borrow, and bogart my scores from various locations across Canada. Fly my pretties!

In other news…

On Saturday, September 3rd at 2pm, the Vandelay Quartet will be performing my string quartet, Patrick Stewart Bakes A Cake at the Carnegie Community Center here in Vancouver (401 Main Street). It is being presented as part of a concert series, “Musically Yours”; a three-concert series that gives the residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood the opportunity to experience and connect with live music in an intimate setting in their own neighbourhood – for free. I’ve become immensely proud of this piece of music. It’s like a perfect butterfly net that caught all the colours I hoped to catch and instead of imprisoning them, did the exact opposite.

On September 9th, 10th, and 11th at 7:30pm Vox Humana Chamber Choir will be performing my setting of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star at the Dominion Astrophysical observatory in Victoria. It promises to be a stunning event as the choir will be performing a celestial themed program under the stars of the observatory.

Hope to see you there somewhere!

 

 

Where The Moon Goes

Where The Moon Goes is a piece written for choir, cello, and harp and was premiered this past spring by the Laudate Singers, Rebecca Wenham (cello), and Heidi Krutzen (harp). The music was written by myself and the text is based off of a poem by Genevieve MacKay entitled, A Childish Fear.

Genevieve’s poem appealed to me because I felt that it really captured something that I hunger to have in my composed music. For that, I am very grateful she consented to this collaboration. In her own words:

One of the things I remember most distinctly about being a child is the sense I had of wonder and possibility. When you’re constantly finding out new things about the world and how it works, it’s no stretch to believe, on waking in the middle of the night, that the giant glowing object on your bedroom floor is the moon, coming for an unexpected visit.

My favourite concert experiences are the ones where I felt like the sky was the limit and the roof of the hall was going to blow open at any moment to accommodate. I think this may be the reason for my attraction to setting nursery rhymes and comedic texts to music. The sense of wonder that Genevieve alludes to is something that stands in direct opposition to jadedness and that’s something I’d like to have not just in my music, but in my life in general.

A Childish Fear, by Genevieve MacKay

Last night, the moon
fell through my window.
I don’t know why. It’s not
supposed to do that.

It glowed so bright,
there at the end of my
bed. I was afraid until
I fell asleep.

I thought it meant
something bad, but
when I woke up this
morning the moon
was gone,

and someone
had left me
a big, white
balloon.