Feint

An album about sly diversion.

feint is an action, usually aggressive, which is meant to divert one’s attention and hopefully cause a reaction.  This reaction is then taken advantage of by the initiator of the original action, often in unexpected ways.  It is a con, a diversion, and is meant to cause vulnerability.  It is cunning and not nice.  It is related to the word “feign”, which means to pretend, but not to the word “faint” which means to pass out or that which is barely perceived.  “Feint” is often used in a competitive athletic context, but can also be used in a general social context.

I am not a big fan of transformative ideas, or intellectualism in general.  I believe that people’s rationale and tactics don’t change very much.  Though mankind is capable of highly inventive cultural innovation, the basic humanity behind those innovations is the same as that which existed hundreds and thousands of years ago.  I am not saying that I think modern man is stupid.  On the contrary, I am just saying that the formula for humanity’s success was baked into our genes millennia ago, and is not going to change with new technology, opportunity, or political rights.  I read an article where the author asked, “When did it become an accepted business practice to con, lie, and deceive customers?”  When was it not?

There have been a number of archeological discoveries in recent years which shed light on the industry and inventiveness of Paleolithic and Neolithic man.  The so-called “Iceman” found in the Italian Alps in a remarkable state of preservation showed evidence of highly advanced skills with intimate knowledge of his environment.  A recent study of Neanderthals was able to isolate DNA from food caught behind the tartar on their teeth.  An individual with an abscessed tooth was found to have eaten plants known for their antibiotic and pain-killing properties.  This “caveman” was self medicating 50,000 years ago!  When you examine the cave paintings at Lascaux, France, you see not only the tremendous skill of the artists, but also how they used the idiosyncrasies of the cave wall medium with the same inventiveness that would be used by artists of today.  People have always been smart, cunning, creative, and opportunistic. 

Today, our continually evolving culture and technology make us susceptible to ever-evolving victimizing schemes.  Some are after money, but others are after attention, influence, power, or simply a distorted sense of justice.  The cleverness hides the fact that those responsible are merely responding to the same old basic human needs and impulses in new and creative ways.  This album showcases several examples, some of which are not so obvious.

Nuances de Noir (2022)

for flute, tenor saxophone, viola, and double bass

Nuances de Noir (2022) was written in response to a commission from the Telluride Chamber Music Association for a chamber music work for dance.  The violist, Danny DeSantis, was an old friend from my early years with the Phoenix Symphony with whom I shared a passion for improvisation.  We had performed and recorded improvisation together many times over the years.  

The unusual instrumentation, especially the inclusion of tenor saxophone and double bass, gave the ensemble a rather French flavor.  It also seemed loaded with mellow instruments, which caused me to include alto flute in the mix.  When I started working on the piece, the sound suggested to me the French Noir films of the 1950’s and 60’s, especially the jazz-inspired film scores of Martial Solal for Jean Luc Godard.  

It then occurred to me that the atmosphere which triggered the Noir genre (the Cold War and threat of nuclear annihilation) was actually quite similar to today, albeit with a number of different threats (climate, pandemic, political extremism, and now a war of aggression!).  Indeed, the present threats are even more insidious, especially climate.  I began to see the present as different shades of “noir,” and the idea for the piece was born.

Most of the piece is lively and rather nervous and builds to a frantic climax, but the piece ends slowly with a rather sad flute melody.  The idea is that anxiety has its own dangers and can lead to life-changing decisions.  The work is about eleven minutes in length and was first performed on March 27, 2022, in Telluride, Colorado.

Gyro

An Exploration of Spiral Motion

When I rededicated myself to the exploration of improvisation, which was about twenty-five years ago, I did it for the express purpose of purging intellectualism from my music.  My mind had reached the point where it tried to control every aspect of my composition, and I felt that it was really becoming a hindrance to expressiveness.  I tried to just play, listen and not control.  It was hard, and it took some patience, but after about nine or ten months I began to loosen up and just let it happen.  Later, when I decided to record what I was doing, I discovered that there were some things I did naturally to keep my music flowing and making sense.  

Since one of the aspects of music I was “forgetting” was a regular rhythm and meter, I found that I would instead create momentum using cyclic gestures.  New music I was creating was always presented with a sense of returning.  I am not talking about “form” as much as just musical syntax.  Continuous variation must make continuous reference back to the source  or, in other words, a variation is just an altered repetition.  And since what I was repeating has also been altered, there is continuous change.  This kind of motion feels circular, and since there is also forward motion, the motion is more like a spiral.

So this album is a celebration of this spiral motion.  The famous and delicious sandwich of the same name derives from the meat being roasted on a turning spit over a flame or coals.  Each track explores a different instance of circular motion.  

Samara is a winged seed, like a maple seed.  Growing up, we used to call them “helicopters” and would throw them up in the air and let them spiral back to earth.  Windmills has captured the imagination of writers for centuries, but it is the steady and taciturn movement that is portrayed here.  A dancer’s Pirouette, on the other hand, is a twirling flourish of a totally different sort.  Ultrasound takes me back to my wife Leslie’s first sixteen-week appointment, where my daughter’s incessant spinning in vitro left me in a state of heart-rending astonishment!  The slow, banded rotation of a Gas Giant is a model of patience and wisdom. Willow Branches in the wind become a crown of wooden bolas swinging amidst its wary winged residents.  Vertigo is what happens when you take all these spirals a little too seriously.

Divines

An album cultivating intuition

Something which continues to be a subject of fascination for me is the development of independent thought.  I find it intriguing to ponder the idea that independent conscious awareness is a relatively recent development.  Some neuropsychologists think it could have developed in the last 5-10,000 years, or even sooner.  It is theorized that the sudden intermingling of cultures spurred the need for independent thought.  Who am I? What do I think? What is right?  All of these types of questions only occur when a person encounters something that is truly different.

The development of Reason and thought as we know it dates from about 2500 years in Greece.  Reason became the foundation of Western Philosophy and ultimately the underpinning of Science.  Reason, in the form of the Mohists, also arose in China at about the same time (both occurred at times of great upheaval), but it is interesting that in China, the idea was ultimately rejected.  

Before Reason, the primary forms of decision making were 1) tradition, 2) visions (or dreams), and 3) divination.  When tradition worked, there was no conflict.  When it didn’t, they needed to find an answer some other way.  If there was a vision, dream, or some other form of direct inspiration, that was usually convincing enough.  But those methods don’t show up on demand, usually, so they were obliged to look elsewhere.  

Divination, in its various forms, showed up all over the world as another decision making possibility.  None of the methods of divination were designed to tell the truth, they were designed to help someone decide upon a course of action.  They were all sufficiently abstract enough that an individual could read into them the specifics of their problem, and use it as a guide to determine what it was they needed to do.  Divination has been surprisingly effective, witness its durability and survival to the present day.  With the help of an experienced interpreter, reader, etc., a person can often convince themselves of the course of action they need to take.

The forms and methods of divination are many.  Some methods, such as the I Ching, have serious philosophical underpinnings, while others, such as crystal ball readings, are more associated with charlatanism, showmanship, and con games.  But as a method for making important decisions, they have lasted for thousands of years.

I am interested in divination because it is a practical application of emotion and intuition.  I have found intuition to be a surprisingly valuable source of knowledge and inspiration.  It has become my primary musical methodology and definitive compositional device.  Emotion has been shown to be that which provides value when making a decision.  Reason is useless unless you can assign value to the propositions and statements being reasoned.  Value resolves conflict.  Emotion is also the language of music, and vice versa.

This album features six tracks representing six forms of divination.  There is no attempt to portray each form directly; their representation is fanciful and abstract.  Hopefully they are abstract enough, in fact, that the listener will find in them something of personal value and significance, maybe even something they could divine.

Fragile

An album pondering impermanence

Climate Change has made it quite evident that we can no longer take anything for granted.  Many pillars of our existence have been revealed as stages or facets of much broader processes.  We are finding that even such things as the Gulf Stream and the Greenland Ice Sheet turn out to be fragile.

When I first started to assemble this album, I meant to focus on those special things whose fleeting or tenuous existence seemed so delicate as to be improbable.  But as I thought about the subject, I asked myself, “What is it that makes something seem ‘fragile?’”  The answer seemed to be vulnerability, a set of narrow environmental tolerances, and a short life span.  This could be summed up by the term “impermanence,” which is a term that could be applied to just about anything.

To me, the world moves forward through the forces of creativity, on one hand, and death and decay, on the other.  Those two forces are forever linked.  The creative force causes or consumes the decaying forces, and the decaying forces leave a void which feeds the creative forces.  That which is created is impermanent, and impermanence relies upon creation.  All things are created fragile in that they are destined for decay.

A composer once said of my music that it always reminded him of Tai Chi in the way the music moves in and out, always creating a sense of balance.  I think that this very perceptive. My music is a continuous creative process, but each idea has a life of its own and is destined to decay.  These ideas, with their natural life cycles, in turn, stimulate the creation of new ideas which compliment, contrast, or enhance the original idea.  These new ideas have their own life cycles, etc.  There is a continuous process of creation, growth, and decay which propels the music forward.  The fact that music can do this, I feel, is one of its most enduring features.

The album begins with four special items, the first two of which are meaningful for me personally.  After an October in the Southwest Desert which saw the unusual arrival of two tropical storms, I came across a couple of Morning Glories!  I had never seen them in the desert before, and they were gone shortly thereafter.  The Desert Spring recalls a hike I took with my family up a dry wash in the Tonto National Forest.  We came upon a place where water bubbled up out of the ground.  The water ran down the wash as a foot-wide stream for twenty or thirty feet before diving back into the sand.  As we marveled at this unlikely event, I happened to see a small fish skitter from one rock to another.  I could hardly believe my eyes!  How could it survive?  How could it reproduce?  Life is such a mystery!

The next two tracks consider an Anemone and a Snowflake, before I turn to ideas.  Anemones are not as fragile as they look, but they look like they are doing Tai Chi with thirty arms!  Snowflakes are beautiful and don’t last very long.  They say that no two Snowflakes are alike, but I don’t think anybody has done a thorough analysis!  

Ideas are only pure in their abstract form.  In reality, they are fleeting and fragile events.  Plato thought that Concepts were the only true reality, and life was just an imperfect reflection or shadow.  But actually, it is the reverse which is true.  Reality is messy and in constant flux.  It is Concepts which are the simple approximations of fleeting moments.

The Weaving Princess and the Cowherd

for solo double bass with narration

I happened to be in Japan several years ago during the month of July visiting my daughter in the town of what is now Midori about 50 miles outside of Tokyo. During the time I was there we attended the local Hoshi Matsuri or Star Festival. I was taken by the quaintness and sweetness of the event, and how in the USA we did not have any holiday which remotely approached a celebration of love. The festival is based on the ancient Chinese tale of the Weaving Princess and the Cowherd, two stars, who, though in love, are only allowed to meet once a year.

In 2020, I was preparing a program for a chamber music concert at a planetarium on the campus of Embry Riddle University in Prescott, Arizona. Since they asked for a solo piece, I thought of doing my Six Miniatures for solo double bass from my collection Three Pieces for Double Bass (1984), which I have performed several times. I thought that since the concert was about the stars, it would be fun to work the piece around the story of the Japanese Star Festival. Though the concert was eventually cancelled because of the CoronaVirus Pandemic, I had worked the six small pieces around the story and liked it very much!

I have included the text in the score so a bassist could narrate the story by himself, or it can, of course, be narrated by a separate narrator. I originally wrote the Six Miniatures as example pieces for a series of school concerts I did with a string orchestra from the Phoenix Symphony. Each of the principals would play a little excerpt of a minute or less to showcase their instrument. I, of course, took that as a compositional challenge. They are, fittingly, like little musical haiku, short but succinct and complete.

Because the original concert was cancelled, I thought it would be a good idea to perform the work on video. I am doing both the narration and playing the bass.

 

Suite from “Existential Doubt” (2021)

for solo piano

This suite is taken from the album, Existential Doubt, which I released in April of 2021.  It transcribes and adapts the first, second, and fourth track.  The music is moody and probing.  There are questions, uncomfortable visions, and a fixation with a sense of dread.  The music is not apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic, but rather more worrisome than fatalist.

As long as I can remember, there has been real concern about the direction in which humanity is heading.  When I was young, the focus seemed to be on nuclear war and overpopulation.  Today, the concern seems to be more about climate change, which is maybe less immediate or glamorous, but no less apocalyptic.  Maybe this sort of doubt is somewhat endemic to the species, centering around the subject du jour.  I don’t know.  Civilization certainly brings compromises and stresses that were not as present in a more rural, peaceful, or stable lifestyle, and it has been doing so for thousands of years.

 Maybe it is just the added concern from the Covid pandemic, which is still raging, but the present level of real consternation over our future seems more widespread lately.  In this suite, I try to deal with this angst from both an intellectual and emotional point of view.  Though there are many who are convinced, or at least hopeful, that technology will bale us out of our present crisis, others are daring to look over the edge and imagine what it might be like on the other side.  The possibilities and emotional impact are not always pleasant, nevertheless we carry on, but hopefully we engender an enlightened sense of environmental commitment.. 

I am performing on the piano in the following videos.

The first movement is marked by worrisome probing. It’s aching unanswerable questions linger beyond the final bar.

The second movement is a moody scherzo of sorts, an oxymoron. It is an unsettling vision of life during upheaval. It also offers the hope of honoring relationships, a focusing of more important values.

The third movement is about the inevitability of reckoning. None of this is going away, no matter what the diversion.

Suite from Existential Doubt is available from American Composers Edition at https://composers.com/composers/glenn-stallcop/suite-existential-doubt

The album “Existential Doubt” is available from BandCamp at https://glennstallcop.bandcamp.com/album/existential-doubt

Existential Doubt

A piano album concerning the uncertainty of our future –

This album has gone through some conceptual changes since it was first recorded.  The music is quite passionate, and at first I thought of it as romantic, though cautious and tentative.  But as the time of recording grew more distant, I started to see the music as not romantic at all.  It is passionate, yes, and there are moments that are quite tender.  But the overall feeling of the music is much more brooding than I initially realized.  Also the hesitancy and tentative nature is not just present, it is probably the most notable characteristic of the album.

As long as I can remember, there has been real concern about the direction in which humanity is heading.  When I was young, the focus seemed to be on nuclear war and overpopulation.  I remember there was actually a HIT song titled, “We’re On the Eve of Destruction!”  Today, the concern seems to be more about climate change, which is maybe less immediate or glamorous, but no less apocalyptic.  Maybe this sort of doubt is somewhat endemic to the species, centering around the subject du jour.  I don’t know.  Civilization certainly brings compromises and stresses that were not as present in a more rural, peaceful, or stable lifestyle, and it has been doing so for thousands of years.

Maybe it is just the added concern of the pandemic, but the present level of real consternation over our future seems more widespread lately.  In this album, I try to deal with this angst from both an intellectual and emotional point of view.  Though there are many who are convinced, or at least hopeful, that technology will bale us out of our present crisis, others are daring to look over the edge and imagine what it might be like on the other side.  The possibilities and emotional impact are not always pleasant, nevertheless we carry on, but hopefully we engender an enlightened sense of environmental commitment..  

Seven Little Duets

for two double basses

These duets were written in the summer of 1991 while performing at a festival in Flagstaff, Arizona.  I had written a set of concert duets a few years before and wanted to write a set of duets more suitable to the studio or to be played among friends.  I had always enjoyed playing duets with my colleagues, teachers, and students, and wanted to add something to that repertoire.

All the duets are short and can be played from a single part.  Six of the seven are written in binary form with two sets of repeats.  One of the enjoyable things to do with binary duets is to change parts at the repeat, and these duets are constructed so the players can do that.

There is no real emotional plan for these pieces other than to contrast moods.  They are meant to be played for enjoyment. With only a couple of adaptations, they could also be performed by two cellos, or cello and double bass.

The score video below uses sampled sounds. The videos do not take any of the repeats.

Seven Little Duets are available from American Composers Edition at https://composers.com/composers/glenn-stallcop/seven-little-duets-two-double-basses

Vision Quest (2002)

for double bass and piano

Vision Quest was written during the summer of 2002 as a work for myself to play.  I had not written a double bass work for several years, and I felt compelled to try to add a more serious work to the double bass solo repertoire.

Many of my works are taken from an improvisation to a greater or lesser degree.  This work was developed from a keyboard improvisation, however, it bears little resemblance to the original as the transformation has been extensive.  The original improvisation served as more of a springboard for the inspiration and the development of the piece.

The term “vision quest” is usually associated with Shamanism, and refers to a period of solitary fasting and chanting in the wilderness in search of a ‘defining” vision.  The work, however, is not particularly sectarian or partial to any particular religious tradition.  The work is meant to represent an ecstatic religious experience in a more abstract sense.  Neither is the music particularly Native American in character, though the ending “vision” section does bare a passing resemblance to the music associated with traditional Peyote ceremonies.

Vision Quest was awarded the David Walter Prize by the International Society of Bassists in their bi-annual composition contest for solo double bass.  It was premiered at the 2004 ISB Convention in Kalamazoo, MI, with Michael Cameron double bass, and Dianne Frazier Cross, piano.  For these videos, I am playing the double bass and Sherry Lenich is the pianist  in a performance at Pinnacle Presbyterian in Scottsdale in April, 2010.

The first movement, Ritual Incantation, portrays the period of singing, prayer, and meditation that begins the ritual.

After fasting and praying for a vision that will transform the subject’s spiritual identity, there is often a painful period in which the original identity is abandoned.  The second movement takes up this experience.

After the abandonment, the “empty vessel” invites a new spiritual presence to appear.  This is done with singing, dancing, and chanting ending in delirious rapture followed by the transforming vision.

Vision Quest (2002) is available from the American Composers Edition (composers.com) and may be ordered here