Archive for the 'Composition' Category

It’s Gonna Rain

Contrary to my apparently no-so-deeply-held convictions against chord scales, I’ve started a YouTube lessons series on the very subject. I felt that I should at least explain some of the better ideas of chord scales, and preface the entire series with a massive disclaimer – no, they won’t make you t3h awesome shredlord. I also invented some handy jargon – “Heirarchy of Chord Sounds” – which I think I’ll be using a lot in the future as a theoretical tool and a teaching device. We’ll see how it goes over.

Chord Scale Series

Oh, this reminds me, I revamped the Lessons section on the website so it’s a little more streamlined and includes all of my YouTube lessons. Looking through it, I realized I have very little content for people with less experience, so I’ll try and get some more beginner type stuff up on the youtubez shortly. It’s hard, though, since there are so many great resources out there for beginning theory and performance out there. I quite frankly don’t know what else I would have to add! I’ll think of something, though.

On a related note…


In Bb…Who Owns It?

Recently I was hipped to another awesome interactive composition project (the last one I wrote about here), this great collaborative effort conceived/composed by Darren Solomen. Check it out.

Basically, people submitted YouTube videos of them noodling around in various capacities in Bb major. You can play the videos in any order and for any length of time, and it all works beautifully. The concept borrows heavily from Terry Riley, of course, but it’s been updated and integrated into Web 2.0 for the YouTube generation. It’s a great fun to listen to (or should I say…conduct to?), and equally as fun to noodle around on your own instrument to.

Which is precisely what I did…

I triggered the samples in real time and noodled some chords and basslines and stuff in and around it. Fun stuff. The question, though, is did I write the music for that video?

And if I did, can I make money off of it?

I recently became a YouTube partner, which means that I now have access to some of the ad revenue for ads placed on my videos. This is likely not going to be much considering how relatively few people watch my videos, but any amount of miscellaneous income as a freelance musician is welcome. When submitting my videos for revue for ad sharing, it’s imperative that I own and can prove I own the copyright and distribution rights for those videos otherwise YouTube will deny the claim and likely delete the video.

If I were to submit this video for ad sharing, what legal claim could I have that I wrote this music? Is it Darren Solomen’s? Likely not. He did not physically write, record or perform any of the music in the original in B flat videos, nor did he arrange the original videos in the order that I performed them in the video. I would think that he could be likened (in a court of law, at any rate) to the guy that sets up the sampler library in Garage Band. Is the music, then, the individual musicians who recorded the pieces of music? Closer to the truth, I think, but I was the one who arranged how the samples were triggered, and I was the one who gave “cohesion” to the samples by improvising my own part on the bass.

Of course, this legal speculation is wildly unfair. There is no legal opinion yet for something as nuanced as this. The best legal advice I have is from opinions written about sampling in hip hop, which is a completely different thing altogether. More importantly than the legal speculation, the idea that I could be making money off of the in B Flat project just by playing over the videos is somewhat off-putting to me. Considering how much time and careful aesthetic considerations go into recording my own original music, I would feel…cheapened by the fact that I’m making money off a piece of music conceived by somebody else and calling it my own simply by noodling a bass track over it. Yes, the concept isn’t the music, but for me, the concept/idea for the piece of music is the hard part. The execution comes from there. For this reason, I would never do it, but the question remains, do I own the music?

Besides, even if I wanted to enable the video for ad sharing, YouTube would never green-light it, no matter how carefully reasoned a response I gave. The second they smell controversy, they shut down whatever is causing it.

That’s a rant for another day.

Composition? There’s an app for that.

The New York Times website has an awesome editorial blog on composition called the Score, which I peruse from time to time to keep updated with the whole “art music/classical” thing (whatever that means). Recently composer Jason Freeman posted a blog entitled “Compose Your Own” about his new etudes for piano that are entirely interactive. There is a page that one can go to that lets the user (the audience of the piece, basically) mix and match musical fragments to create a piece of music. The fragments cannot be strung together randomly – there’s a specific (yet flexible) framework governing where a fragment can go. There are four separate etudes, each with their own framework designed for creating a specific musical mood or effect. Some fragments can repeat indefinitely, some can’t.

The concept is totally awesome, and really should be looked at closely by anybody in the classical world who has bemoaned classical music’s fall from the public eye (in other words, everybody for the past 50 years). Although the composer has the ultimate say in the general feeling of the piece (they write the fragments and the rules governing how the fragments progress), the audience now can make important aesthetic decisions in terms of form, structure and musical effect. In a way, it’s similar to how somebody can mix and match a collection of loops in Apple’s Garage Band. It’s an easy way to bring the thrill and joy of writing music to the masses in a way that’s fun, accessible and meaningful. The added bonus of sharing the final creation on social media sites just underscores how hip this whole project is.

If you read some of the comments on the blog, however, you’d get the impression that Freeman’s etudes somehow represent everything that’s wrong about society and the downfall of classical music. One person wrote:

If you consider “paint by numbers” to be creating a painting, I suppose you could consider rearranging these musical fragments to be “composing”. In a world in which we prize instant gratification above all else, isn’t it great that now even chimps and lab rats can be composers! If you truly want to “share the experience” of composing music, teach music composition to those who have the passion and dedication to work hard, and thus learn about music and themselves. The richness of their discoveries can never be shared by those who simply rearrange the puzzle pieces you have created for them.

Apparently, there’s a reason why classical music is quite nearly obsolete. People like this don’t seem to get it. Music is the universal language – everybody understands it and can relate to it on a very intimate level, but unlike any other language, there are precious few who can speak it (ie, perform it), and even fewer who can write it (compose).  These educated people clearly are NOT the intended audience for composition projects like Freeman’s. Instead, he tries to harness that latent muse that exists in anybody who has ever decided one day that they want to write some poetry, or a book, or paint a painting, or create a sculpture from household items, or go out and dance despite never having done so before. The untrained layman who might want to write a song or write a piece of music should only have the option of years of passionate and dedicated study of composition if you believe that the person who left the above comment is correct in their sentiment. With Freeman’s etudes, now that layman has the option of tinkering in aesthetics and sharing in the wonderful world that is musical composition.

Just as important as tapping this muse for the masses is in the way it’s presented. Integrating composition with social media seems like the next great frontier for art music and composition in general. Social media is all about networks and connections, and for somebody to apply compositional techniques in this way to the brave new world of Web 2.0 is exactly what art music and music in general needs to reach the masses. Understanding how the young and the hip consume media and how they might consume art music is something that precious few in the classical world have considered, even with all of their whining about how nobody listens to classical music. Innovative and exciting compositions and compositional concepts like Freeman’s are exactly what is needed.

I smell an iPhone app.

AHM – Music!

So if you were among the two people who have kept up with my blogging here, you would have read all about my attempts at creating a nifty new system of harmony (I, II, III, IV, etc). I ran out of steam when I realized a couple things. One, the kind of harmonic techniques I was using created way too dense a texture to really be useful except in small doses. At some point it all just “sounds like harmony.” Two, and more importantly, although the harmonies and harmonic techniques I was coming up with sounded cool, I couldn’t really connect with the music I was making with them. Perhaps I was approaching the theoretical concepts from too academic an angle, or maybe I was focused too much on the harmonic applications of the modes to see some of the other aspects. Basically, I got bored with it, and moved on to other things.

However, I did compose an etude on gradational modulation, and got the lovely Emma Boroson to read it down for me (she wants me to let everybody know that its just a rough read down, although it sounds pretty darn good for a reading recording) Here it is.

Meditation (Recording)

Meditation (Score)

It’s…interesting I guess? I took a rather liberal interpretation of the technical guidelines I established on what exactly constitutes gradational modulation. With four voices, it’s pretty impossible to create fully-fledged modal voicings, and so often the individual harmonies have to “represent” modes within the framework of the system. I personally like how this sounds far better than a constant barrage of thick harmony, and lets the harmonies “melt” into one another far more easily. You still get the impression of a lot of “harmony,” but its tempered, and other aspects of the composition can come through a lot more.

I was considering doing a full on analysis of all of the changes of chord/modes and the specifics with the voicings I chose, but I think that there’s enough actual music in this composition that I don’t need to go through all of that. Plus, I’m lazy, so there we go.

Anyway, hope you all enjoyed.



Exceptional Quality is Why Ticonderoga is the World’s Best Pencil!

I recently received word that I had been accepted into Manhattan School of Music’s graduate jazz composition program. This is probably the best program of its kind in the world (it’s a relatively new field in academia), with some of the best possible opportunities afforded to its students. Monthly score readings with jazz orchestras, private lessons with world-renowned composers (I’m hopefully to be studying with Jim McNeely, score!) and all sorts of awesome classes, I’d be in with the elite of the elite in one of the most prestigious Ivory Towers.

So I feel kind of bad that all I care about writing now is music like this.

Exceptional Quality is why Ticongeroga is the World’s Best Pencil

It’s actually a really involved piece of music – it’s serial (9-tone row), has a bunch of really complicated rhythmic concepts embedded within the concept, and was conceived as a blues. (I-VI-V-I chord progression, E-A-B-E, check it out) Yeah, that’s stretching, I know.

All that theoretical crap aside, I like it because for the most part its noise for the sake of noise. Noise is funny. Noise is annoying. Noise is obnoxious. Noise has balls. Noise is fun to play. Noise has passion. Noise has sweat. Noise has fire. The trick is figuring out how to contextualize it in way that it “makes sense.” Straight ahead jazz can only go so far with this, and free jazz often went too far. This attempt probably went too far as well, but it was an interesting juxtaposition – complicated prog-rock style rhythm and meter changes against pure noise. The 7/4 section almost sounds like Meshuggah, just with growly noisy saxophone in place of growled vocals.

So should I go tens of thousands of dollars in debt paying for an education that I would use to explore this side of music? Probably not. But it’s an idea I want to delve into at least a little bit more, with a little bit more rehearsal at the very least. Also, it’s really fun to make loud noises.

On a side note, here’s a video of that same session playing through a Mark Kilianski original. Its an insanely badass tune named Beef and Scrap metal that’s really fun to play. The audio is…a bit on the distorted side.

Jazz Composition of the Future!

“Dude, I figured out what’s wrong with the Jazz Composition department at Berklee,” alto sax player/composer Callum MacKenzie recently said to me while the two of us walked to a midnight jam session at the 150 building. I’ve spent the past weekend back in Boston playing for guitarist Mark Kilianski’s senior jazz composition portfolio recital at Berklee, and playing music far out on the left side of what any purist might call “jazz.” Loud, obnoxious, difficult, and ultimately hilarious, the music just “has to have a lot of ballsack,” Mark emphasized during the rehearsals. Sweet.

“Maria Schneider is what they consider modern music,” Callum continued, as we walked down Petersborough to the Fens. “Maria Schneider is great, dude, but she’s just doing the same thing Gil Evans did.”

It’s in the very nature of music academia to be behind the current trends and styles of the day, and that sort of thing is prevalent even at a place that pretends to be hip and contemporary as Berklee. In fact, most undergraduate programs in Jazz Composition at any other school in the county besides Berklee are centered around orchestration, arranging and composition for swing-era big band. It’s like if a “straight” Composition program focusing exclusively on Baroque and Classical era music. There has, in fact, been jazz since 1970, and contrary to Wynton Marsalis’ dictums on style, a lot of it has been really good.

My desire to study Jazz Composition at the graduate level largely is derived from a potentially unhealthy obsession with learning and knowledge. The question is, of course, whether or not the next Ivory Tower I starting paying tuition to share’s that same sentiment. Part of learning is understanding where music has come from, but equally if not more important is understanding where it’s going. I’ll give Berklee credit, they’re better than most places (jazz for them stops around 1990 instead of 1960), but that’s not quite enough for me. I need to study music that’s never stopped and that has no stylistic or chronological restrictions.

It seems then rather strange that I would want to go on and study within an institution who’s entire job is to restrict oneself to the study of previously codefied systems in music, or knowledge in general. I haven’t quite reconciled my love of studying and my distaste for stagnant knowledge devoid of passion or context. That might come once I’m back there again, in the throes of study and manic composition. I hope.

Until then, however, its pretty obvious that the composition and performance of new and truly unique forms of whatever that music “jazz” has become can’t come from people too instilled in the old method of writing, like those in academia. I don’t pretend to be able to write or play “truly unique forms of jazz” by any stretch, but that’s what I’m shooting for, and that’s what I hope to get at sometime in my life. There’s so much left to do and so much left to study. “Music is enough for a lifetime,” Rachmaninoff wrote, “but a lifetime isn’t enough for Music.”

Especially when you’re stuck writing swing arrangements.

Dissonance and the Modes

The more and more I go into studying AH scales (intro), the more I feel the need to categorize them…almost like a taxonomist. It’s not really necessary for composing, and I told myself that I’d keep most of this study oriented away from the abstract and theoretical, but I’m always curious why things sound the way that they do. There’s such a rich pallate of colors to chose from when you take into account all 28 AH modes, and so it’s nice to have a starting point. Gradational Modulation sought to give a framework for the 28 modes with regards to controlling the difference of sharps/flats between different chord/modes, as well as controlling root motion and brightness/darkness, but I still didn’t have a way to understand and quantify something I could intuit very easily – “modal dissonance.”

Dissonance can be subjective, of course, but it basically is why Dorian voicings are “stable” and Locrian bb7 voicings are “unstable.” This is something that everybody can understand and “feel,” but becomes hard to quantify when trying to create a ranking of modes for the purpose of a mechanical technique like Gradational Modulation. Now, mechanical techniques aren’t why I compose or how I compose at all, but they’re great for getting the material in your ear in a way that you can understand how the harmony “moves.”

I set about creating a ranking for every one of the 28 modes for stability based upon measuring the intervallic relationships of every note within the mode to the tonic. I created four categories to describe these relationships – “Perfect Consonance” (Perfect 4ths and 5ths), “Imperfect Consonance” (Major/Minor 3rds and 6ths), “Mild Dissonance” (Major 2nd, Minor 7th, Major 7th, Diminished/Augmented 4ths and 5ths) and “Harsh Dissonance” (Minor 2nd). The reason why the minor 2nd gets a category of its own is because when arranged in a voicing, it forms a minor 9 dissonance with the root – a traditionally “unacceptable” interval for arranging. All 28 modes have two imperfect consonances – the 3rd and 6th of the mode – so its the other three categories that we are interested in. Here’s a table with all of the data. Augmented and diminished mild dissonances such as augmented 2nds or diminished 7ths are notated with a plus sign.

Major Scale

Mode Perfect Consonance Mild Dissonance Harsh Dissonance
Ionian 2 2
Dorian 2 2
Phrygian 2 1 1
Lydian 1 3
Mixolydian 2 2
Aeolian 2 2
Locrian 1 2 1

Melodic Minor

Mode Perfect Consonance Mild Dissonance Harsh Dissonance
Ionian b3 2 2
Dorian b2 2 1 1
Lydian #5 4
Lydian b7 1 3
Mixolydian b6 2 2
Locrian nat. 2 1 3
Locrian b4 3 1

Harmonic Minor

Mode Perfect Consonance Mild Dissonance Harsh Dissonance
Aeolian nat. 7 2 2
Locrian nat. 6 1 2 1
Ionian #5 1 3
Dorian #4 1 3
Phrygian nat. 3 2 1 1
Lydian #2 1 3+
Locrian b4 bb7 3+ 1

Harmonic Major

Mode Perfect Consonance Mild Dissonance Harsh Dissonance
Ionian b6 2 2
Dorian b5 1 3
Phrygian b4 1 2 1
Lydian b3 1 3
Mixolydian b2 2 1 1
Lydian #2 #5 4+
Locrian bb7 1 2+ 1

The next step is to group modes with similar intervallic characteristics together. These are the six “grades of dissonance,” that relate the modes by degree of stability. Pardon the invented jargon, but I felt that it was more descriptive to tie a Greek mode to each grade of dissonance versus a number. The numbers next to the names refer to the number of perfect consonances, mild dissonances and harsh dissonances respectively.

I. Neutral Grade Dissonance (2,2,0)

Major Mode Ionian, Dorian, Mixolydian, Aeolian
Melodic Minor Mode Ionian b3, Mixolydian b6
Harmonic Minor Mode Aeolian nat. 7
Harmonic Major Mode Ionian b6

II. Lydian Grade Dissonance (1,3,0)

Major Mode Lydian
Melodic Minor Mode Lydian b7, Locrian nat. 2
Harmonic Minor Mode Ionian #5, Dorian #4, Lydian #2 (+)
Harmonic Major Mode Dorian b5, Lydian b3

III. Phrygian Grade Dissonance (2,1,1)

Major Mode Phrygian
Melodic Minor Mode Dorian b2
Harmonic Minor Mode Phrygian nat. 3
Harmonic Major Mode Mixolydian b2

IV. Locrian Grade Dissonance (1,2,1)

Major Mode Locrian
Melodic Minor Mode
Harmonic Minor Mode Locrian nat. 6
Harmonic Major Mode Phrygian b4, Locrian bb7 (+)

V. Super-Lydian Grade Dissonance (0,4,0)

Major Mode
Melodic Minor Mode Lydian #5
Harmonic Minor Mode
Harmonic Major Mode Lydian #2, #5 (+)

VI. Super-Locrian Grade Dissonance (0,3,1)

Major Mode
Melodic Minor Mode Locrian b4
Harmonic Minor Mode Locrian b4, bb7 (+)
Harmonic Major Mode

Now, these six grades of dissonance seem to explain rather clearly what my ear already tells me – Locrian b4 is less stable than Lydian, for example. However, what’s a little confusing is, for example, why Aeolian nat. 7 ends up ranked as stable as Aeolian, or why Dorian b5 is ranked as stable as Lydian. To me, modal voicings in the former cases sound definitively less stable.

The reason for this lies in their parent scales. If we measure the intervallic relationships between ALL notes to ALL other notes instead of just the root for each scale system, we end up with these numbers.

Scale Perfect Consonance Mild Dissonance Harsh Dissonance
Major 12 14 2
Melodic Minor 8 18 2
Harmonic Minor 8 17 (++) 3
Harmonic Major 8 17 (++) 3

We can see what we already probably knew. Modes of the major scale are the most stable since they have the ratio of perfect consonant relationships to harsh dissonant ones, followed by modes of the melodic minor scale, and followed then by the harmonic major and minor, which are equally stable/unstable. So, within each grade of dissonance there is another breakdown of intervallic relationships to explain why Ionian/Dorian/Mixolydian and Aeolian are more stable than Ionian b6, for example.

There’s a problem here, of course. All of this is supposed to explain the relative stability and instability of the modes specifically how they relate to modal voicings. It can only go so far. Ionian modal voicings can be extremely unstable, for example, when both the major 7th and perfect 4th (the diatonic tritone) are voiced, and selective use of notes from modes like Locrian b4 bb7 can make them seem relatively stable within context. These grades of dissonance are instead meant as a general guide for understanding what you probably already know by ear if you’ve tinkered with the sounds of the modes before. They’re not particularly useful with specific techniques like understanding Brightness was, but they’re still a nice conceptualization.

Anyway, by now I’ve hacked these modes to death in terms of theoretical categorization, I think its nigh time I write some more music. Expect some in the next blog.




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