Neil Welch - April 13, 2014

LISTEN TO THIS SESSION!

Capital, for 6 musicians

  • Neil Welch, alto and tenor saxophones
  • Ivan Arteaga, alto saxophone and bass clarinet
  • Rachel DeShon, voice
  • Gregg Belisle-Chi, guitar 
  • Chris Icasiano, drum set
  • Greg Campbell, percussion 

Two months ago late at night while driving home, a very beautiful, almost ecclesiastical piece for string quartet was playing on the radio.  This was a night when my mind and spirit were eager to be filled with this sound at this moment.  Again and again, minute after minute, the piece moved between only two sections.  The composition was elegant, with a clear developmental process that made itself plainly known after only a minute of listening. 

The piece pivoted between a single drawn-out chord, free of time, and a lush harmonized melody played at an achingly slow tempo.  The sustained chord was always held for about the same amount of time at the same dynamic level.  But the extraordinary magic was held within the melody and its harmonization.  Each time the sustained chord finally broke free into this melody, the dynamic level and intensity of emotion would rise in the ensemble.  It went on like this, patiently building, each time receding back to the safe haven of the sustained chord, waiting to rise up again into the melody. 

I’ve set out so many times to write music that mirrored someone else’s work.  The piece was written by the great composer Arvo Part., and experiencing it at the right time and place had a lasting impact on me.  I wanted a taste of Part’s music from my own pen.  When I sat down to begin writing, I quickly recognized that I can’t write an Arvo Part composition, nor do I really want to.  In this composition I was really trying to express an experience.  What eventually took shape in the music of Capital were influences partially rooted in this Arvo Part experience, but also a sort of mosaic from other lasting experiences over the past couple of months—listening to music, reading and reflecting. These included: reading A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, Karl Marx by Peter Singer, re-listening over and over to the albums New York, Fall 1974 by Anthony Braxton,Reverend King by John Coltrane, and The Sun by Alice Coltrane, as well as my ongoing fascination with Roscoe Mitchell’s Nonaah.

The title Capital comes from my next project—reading Karl Marx’s epochal work of the same name.  Naming this composition after something I’ve yet to experience is a kind of preemptive homage to a future influence.

I’m joined tonight by an amazing musical cast that will debut this new composition with me.  I’m very grateful to Ivan, Rachel, Gregg, Chris and Greg for their time and energy.

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Brennan Carter - April 6, 2014

LISTEN TO THIS SESSION!

When I set out to compose the music for this session, I didn’t have any particular concept in mind other than I wanted to view my session as an opportunity to explore the group and sound Jarred Katz created in his last Racer Session this past January.  The group is the same and features Levi Gillis, Mark Hunter, Jarred Katz and myself.   One of the pieces I consider a loose continuation of his piece. 

As I was composing, my focus steered toward writing a lot of melodic fragments and variations on those melodies.  I wanted to write a ton of stuff and not spend that much time dwelling on each thing.  The goal is a sound and style that is natural, free/open, and not “over-rehearsed.”  Hopefully the melodic content will serve as a vehicle for the musicians to explore form and timbre, and provide opportunity for their individual styles to shine. 

In addition, we will also be playing “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” by Blind Willie Johnson.  This piece ties into the concept of strong melody, and the use of variation.  There are also slightly amorphous improvised sections in between reprises of the main melody.  I these sections would be fun to explore, and could allow the group to create a natural and open form.

Some ideas for the session:

1) Thing and variations

Start with a “thing,” and see what ways to can tweak or alter it throughout the course of the piece.  “Things” could be a melody, sound/texture, pitch, rhythm, pitch set…

2) Thing as a reprise

Again, come up with a melody, rhythm, pitch set, etc. and use that as a reprise.  State it, explore other things, come back to it, explore again…for as long as you like.

3)Telephone game

You probably all played this game as a kid.  One person whispers a sentence or two in the ear of another, and that person whispers it into someone else’s.  This process continues until it comes full circle and the message usually has changed a lot by the end.  So how this would work for the session:  player 1 plays for a minute or two while the player 2 listens.  Player 3 waits at the bar or outside where they can’t hear player 1 and steps in when player 2 starts playing.  Maybe all in all, we could have 5 players or so.   In general, the players will try to latch onto certain aspects of the previous player’s piece and natural variation will be inevitable. 

 

Eric Vanderbilt-Mathews - March 30, 2014

LISTEN TO THIS SESSION!

“Sloths”

Eric Vanderbilt-Mathews

Cow.Cow.Cow.Cacao.Cacao.Cow.Cacao.Caw.Caw.Caca.Caucous.Caucous.Cuss.Caucous.Cussed. Caucoused.Cussed.Custard.Cussed.Custard.Must.Must.Must.Mustered.Mustard.Mustard… Mustard.

The past four or so months I have experienced something new to me in the music world; writer’s block, or a lack of newness and inspiration, actually. I have suffered this before when trying to write prose or poetry in the English language, but I’ve somehow always had a constant source of musical inspiration. Up until recently. During this slump, I didn’t feel like practicing, composing, or having intelligent thoughts and conversation about music. Maybe the break was much needed, I don’t know.

Either way, when Gus Carns reintroduced me to Ligeti’s music a few weeks ago with “Lux Aeterna,” I was invigorated. Prior to this, I had been thinking about how our perspective colors our opinion of “things,” and how every being has their own unique way of viewing the world, and in particular, art. The Earth’s rotation is perhaps an overused example, but applicable nonetheless; to humans it is impossible to perceive this phenomenon with our immediate senses because we exist on it and are small in comparison. I also realized my attention span lessened the more I engaged myself in the ever-increasing electronic, upbeat, urban world of social media. Instant access to information had actually changed the way I “consumed” art, insofar as I now seemed more interested in sampling a bit of everything for short periods of time, rather than really pursuing an artist, song, album, or concept to the fruition it deserved.

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Thus, to push myself in the opposite direction, I decided to pursue a more patient approach with my compositions for this Racer Sessions, focusing on gradual changes and drawing from Ligeti’s micropolyphonic ideas and Escher’s graphic metamorphoses as aural and visual fuel for my fire. Joining me are Ray Larsen on trumpet and Greg Sinibaldi on tenor saxophone, I’ll be playing alto. When the minimalist composers wanted to make a piece of grand-scale that changes gradually, I noticed they often made use of large ensembles, string instruments, electronics, or reverb to make it easier to achieve a pad or trance-like sound. We will be playing in a trio setting with none of the above resources at hand. In fact, our instrumentation will be three wind instruments, which creates another potential “problem”: How does one deal with wind instruments and breathing when trying to create a pad-like atmosphere that undergoes gradual change over the course of several minutes? In this session and my composition I intend to address this problem.

Dio Jean-Baptiste - March 23, 2014

The Sun rises,
The Sun sets, 
The Sun rises,
The Sun sets,

The Sun rises,
The Sun sets, 

The Sun rises,
The Sun sets, 

To breath in,
Is to breath out,

To breath in,
Is to breath out,

To breath in,
Is to breath out,

To breath in,
Is to breath out,

To breath in,
Is to breath out,

And to wake each morning,
To live each day,
To be again,
Each moment that is lived,
Each moment that is being,

I live in repeat, 
And I love repeat,
If it was great once,
Can it be great again,
And greater still,

It can never be the same as yesterday,
For it is today that we live in,

To live in beautiful monotony,
The glory of the mundane,
I love repeat,

Need I say it again,
Need I say it again,
Need I say it again,
Need I say it again,

By Dio Jean-Baptiste

For the jam session: focus, intent, repetition, endurance, simplicity, growth.

Gregg Belisle-Chi, March 16, 2014

LISTEN TO THIS SESSION!

I’ll be opening this Sunday’s Racer Session with two pieces for solo guitar and one piece for guitar/vocal duet featuring Chelsea Crabtree.

The Tragedian

A character in the C.S. Lewis book The Great Divorce, the Tragedian is a puppet or an actor, a character of the person we’re not, who we hold onto tightly but who ends up pulling us around by a chain.

Throughout the process of composing this piece, I noticed that I had certain compositional habits. For one, I would hold onto the original motif for a while before letting it develop. I wanted the melody to be strong and identifiable, even through the atonal sections. Secondly, it was difficult for me to transition the piece into tonality. The first two bars were derived from a 12 tone row which, at first, I wanted to maintain throughout. However, the more I wrote the more I felt it needed to “resolve,” rather than stay amorphous and harmonically ambiguous. A challenge I would give myself after writing this piece would be to compose strictly using atonal methods and to explore implied harmony and implied resolutions, either using melodic or rhythmic devices.

Sabbaths X (1998)

This piece features vocalist Chelsea Crabtree. Originally I intended for all the music to be solo guitar. However, I realized that a lot of the music I write is inspired by literature or poetry. I decided to pay homage to Wendell Berry, one of my favorite poets and authors, by setting a selection of his words from his poem, Sabbaths X (1998), to music. Musically, this piece was inspired by Charles Ives and Theo Bleckmann. I really love the simplicity and the mystery of some of Charles Ives songs, a la Songs My Mother Taught Me or Serenity. Theo Bleckmann is an incredible vocalist and composer. At the time I was writing this piece I was listening to his solo and duo records (with Ben Monder) a lot.

The impetus of this piece was exploring the 5:2 polyrhythm and seeing if I could make the melody/harmony clear without it being too juxtaposed, as some polyrhythmic music can be. The piece begins solo guitar, wordless vocals enter, and then evolves into a second section where the lyrics begin.

The accompaniment is repetitious, probably to a fault, though I’m overall satisfied with the result. I wanted the focus to be on the vocals and lyrics, even if to the sacrifice of the accompaniment part. Chelsea did an amazing job interpreting this piece and I learned quite a bit about writing for vocals. Moving forward, I would challenge myself to simply write more for vocals and vocalists, to develop as a composer and think beyond my own instrument.

Fear and Trembling

Inspired by Søren Kierkegaard’s essay on the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac, an exploration on the anxiety and terror of Abraham, when “God tested [him] and said to him, take Isaac, your only son, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him as a burnt offering on the mountain that I shall show you.” As Abraham raises the knife, an Angel comes and stops him, directing him to instead slay a ram that was caught in a thicket nearby.

The piece is in three sections. The first is a 12 tone theme followed by variations, utilizing open strings to create a harp or piano effect. The meter, generally, is two bars of 12/8, one bar of 13/8, and another bar of 12/8. This was an attempt to “shift” or prevent the listener from settling into a “groove” or ostinato.

The second section is rubato, another 12 tone row played in several registers, retrograded, and another 12 tone row played simultaneously in the bass. I also explored several artificial harmonics, which are plentiful on the guitar.

The last section is in D major and is essentially an exercise in dexterity for the right hand, due to the quicker tempo and the repetition in the fingering. Fingerpicking on an amplified guitar can be difficult, especially when using open strings. For one, the notes ring out longer than on an acoustic guitar, so sustain can sometimes clutter the articulation, like playing a piano with the sustain pedal always down. Also, dynamics can be hard to control; on an acoustic guitar, to project louder you pull the string harder. On the electric guitar you more or less end up straining your right hand and everything ends up about the same volume. These were both challenges I came across, particularly in this section.

The Session:

I don’t expect people to have the same musical challenges that I do, but I think that in writing this music I came across several obstacles that everyone, at some point or another, can relate to. It would be great if we could attempt to tackle these obstacles together in the improvisations to follow.

To recap, here are several things to maybe think about as you’re improvising.

  1. Play with tonality and atonality. Be conscious of your melody, give it shape and form. Be conscious of how you’re reacting and responding to the other players, if they’re playing tonally and atonally.
  2. Know when you are soloing and accompanying. Creating a texture is also viable, but mindlessly “blowing” is not.
  3. Think compositionally. Not all improvisations need to follow the same form (ABA [soft-loud-soft] or AB [melodically dense- melodically thin.]) Your phrasing and your listening will shape the improvisation much more than your preconceived notion of how something should turn out.
  4. Challenge your facility on your instrument. This could be range, breath support, left hand/right hand, tempo, etc. It’s absolutely crucial to develop our ears, but there is a difference between “hearing it” and physically “doing it.”
  5. Make a list of things to work on after the session, go home and practice it. Repeat until you’re dead.

Gregg Belisle-Chi 3/11/14