Five Bells

An orchestral tone poem based on the poem by Kenneth Slessor

Five Bells was written during the summer of 2010 in response to a commission from the Arizona Band and Orchestra Directors Association for the 2011 Arizona All-State Orchestra. The work was intended for talented high school musicians, so I didn’t make too many concessions. I did try not to make the piece too difficult to put together as they only had a couple of days to rehearse. This caused me to stay away from complicated rhythms and intricate ensemble passages. But it never really was a problem, and they did a good job.

ships bellThe title, Five Bells, refers to a haunting poem by the Australian poet Kenneth Slessor. I was already into the piece when I noticed I was planning prominent use of five chime strokes at two different climaxes. So I googled “five bells” and found the poem. I was taken in by the poem’s story and imagery and decided to write the rest of the piece with the poem in mind.

Slessor, who was also a journalist, wrote the poem in memory of a colleague, an editorial cartoonist, who drowned after he jumped off a ferry in Sydney Bay and tried to race it to the dock, being swept away by the treacherous currents.   His colleague’s robust life and tragic death still haunted Slessor after nearly a decade. The poem, with its vivid and dramatic imagery, asks “Why do I keep thinking about you?” He has no answer. The five bells refer to marine time, the moment when his friend jumped off the ferry. It becomes a symbol of both the moment of death, and the incessant and indifferent passage of time, as opposed to how we perceive time emotionally.

Besides the chime strokes, the mood of the poem seemed to be sympathetic to the mood of the music, and everything fell into place. Near the end of the piece, there is an oblique but noticeable reference to Richard Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration. The reference is from the spot in the Strauss where the subject has died and is beginning his march to Judgment. In the context of the Slessor poem, however, the reference is meant to infer that those who are truly transformed by death are the living.

Slessor’s poem has reached “national treasure” status in Australia. Australian painter John Olsen painted Salute to Five Bells in the rear foyer of the Sydney Opera House, which is built out over Sydney Bay where Slessor’s poem is set.  The poem has also inspired a book of the same name by Gail Jones.  The poem is reproduced on a bannister in Kenneth Slessor Park in a Sydney suburb.

As I was considering whether or not to actually name the piece after the poem, I received word that a good friend of mine had been killed suddenly in a car accident. That event instilled the poem with personal emotional clarity, and convinced me that the title was both appropriate and fitting. It will, correspondingly, haunt me for quite a long time as well.

Glenn Stallcop:  Five Bells

 

Aperitif

A new work for chamber orchestra

Unlike many of the other works I have posted, this work for small orchestra was written within the last couple of months.  Most music I write has a practical purpose of some sort, for a person, group, event, or all of the above, but this piece was started almost on a lark.  The first sessions of working on a piece are always a little mysterious. I have different, sometimes conflicting visions of what I am going to do. For this piece, I let these early ideas also shape the instrumentation, trying to decide what sorts of textures and sounds I wanted to work with.

aperitifI originally thought I was going to write the piece for string orchestra, but I gradually started adding other instruments, until I ended up writing a work for a small chamber orchestra. I was determined to not use un-pitched percussion instruments as I wanted the piece to have a chamber music feel.  The piece has several “swirling” sections and I knew I needed a harp or piano in the mix.  Eventually I decided to use both piano and harp, plus a marimba. I felt I needed to spotlight these instruments to add a special flavor to the piece.  There are no doubles in the winds; they are all playing different instruments. This adds an a la carte character to the piece and heightens the chamber music aspect.

Aperitif is an adaptation of the first track of the piano solo album, Downhill, which will be released later this year (2019).  The album tries to display several examples of a collection of events that seem to flow from an initial trigger.  The series of events seem to flow as easily as a ball rolling downhill. Some triggers, such as an “aperitif,” are relatively harmless, while others, such as lies and arguments, are much less so.  The resulting events can always be slowed or stopped, but not without serious effort and reflection.

The events triggered by Aperitif take the form of social interactions among a group of friends over dinner.  The interactions become more and more personal, sometimes funny, sometimes heartfelt, while at other times being a bit more biting.  The music seems to evolve around certain personalities, one rather facilitating, another stronger and somewhat dismissive, one prone to being a little alarmist, and another one somewhat overly sentimental.  These acquaintances discuss things light-heartedly at first; gradually adding a little more humor and satire until someone becomes a little offended and things become a little uncomfortable. The conversation then begins to dissolve and ends with a promise to get together again.

The work is scored for piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, French horn, trumpet, bass trombone, marimba, piano, harp, and strings.  The work is more of a tone poem than an overture, but nevertheless is, not surprisingly, meant to be a concert opener, hopefully triggering wonderful things to follow.

 

Calypso Round – for orchestra

My only orchestral work that is influenced by Minimalism

In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Minimalism was the rage of Classical Music. It was the “rage” in both senses of the word, anger and an enthusiastic fad. I was curious about it, though not really tempted by it until I heard some of the later music of Steve Reich, which I found absolutely infectious. It was right about 1980 when I started to experiment with some minimalist ideas. I worked with these ideas for about 8-12 months before deciding to not pursue it any further, but by then I had written several pieces.

To me, I didn’t see Minimalism as a style, but as a novel and somewhat non-linear approach to musical organization. Those who saw minimalism as a style tended to emphasize the repetition, but I was more interested in the organization of the changes. Traditional musical structure is organized like a story, in sequential blocks. But music can have several different levels of activity going on at the same time. Though traditional music has this capacity as well, Minimalism’s use of repeated material allows these different levels to be very clearly defined. I was interested in using Minimalist techniques to create a large-scale hierarchical structure with different levels changing at different speeds. The idea is similar to how an Indonesian Gamelan works, with some instruments playing every eighth note while some larger gongs are playing only once every eight or sixteen bars. My interest in this aspect of Minimalism actually aligns me more with John Adams than Reich, Phillip Glass, or Terry Riley, but I didn’t hear any of Adams music until about six years later.

The work below was an early attempt at this technique and sounds quite Minimalist. Each instrument plays nested patterns of different lengths (cello 2 beats, viola 4 beats, Violin II 8 beats, and Violin I 16 beats). Pattern changes occur at the level of Violin I. Every 16 beats one of the four instruments changes its pattern. The changes are organized in a large-scale hierarchy like a Gamelan. If you were to listen all the way through, you would hear that the final collection of patterns is the same as the beginning.

String Quartet 1980

Calypso Round is one of my later works following this Minimalist path. I originally wrote the work for Flute, French Horn, Marimba, Harp, and Double Bass. I wrote a concert of chamber works with various combinations of these instruments, and Calypso Round was supposed to be the finale. I found, however, that the music I had written seemed to be very difficult. I cancelled my plans for this particular concert and massaged my approach so that it was more generalized and forgiving (and therefore easier), eventually writing a concert for two violins and double bass.

Though most of the other works I wrote for the original concert were eventually performed, Calypso Round remained unperformed for twenty years. It was partly due to the difficulty of the work and partly due to its unusual collection of instruments. In 1999, I decided to orchestrate the work and showed it to Robert Moody, the resident conductor with the Phoenix Symphony, who programmed it for the next year. (The original performance was done with some dancers from Ballet Arizona.)

The difference between Calypso Round and the String Quartet is that I liberate the musical material from the instruments in which it is introduced. The result is that some of the musical patterns are tossed between different instruments, often sounding like imitation, or even a round, hence the name. Since the patterns can sometimes occur in instruments of different registers, they lose their identity as “levels” of sound, becoming instead just musical ideas or motives. This makes the piece sound less like Minimalism and more like normal dance music. Eventually in my investigation into Minimalism, I started to add free material and variations to the patterns, which dissolved the effect even further. at which point I just absorbed what I had learned from the experiment and moved on to something else.

Calypso Round is scored for a lavish orchestra – 2 Flutes, 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets, 2 Bassoons, 4 French Horns, 3 Trumpets, 2 Trombones, Bass Trombone, Tuba, Timpani, 3 Percussion (Mallet Instruments – Marimba, Xylophone, Glockenspiel) (Non-pitched Percussion Instruments – Quijada (Jawbone), Triangle, Timbale, Slapstick, Bell Plate) (Drum Set), Piano, Harp, and Strings. It is the only orchestra work I’ve written which includes a drum set, and I found it to be a lot of fun.

Calypso Round

A Wake At Night – for nine strings

An example of the breakthrough of NotePerformer

Procuring a reasonably good demo recording of the pieces I have written has always been a frustrating chore. Many good performances of my music have gone unrecorded, or badly recorded. The good recordings I have received I have treasured like gold, but many were obtained with strings attached that did not allow me to publish them online.

Composed music began moving to computer about thirty-plus years ago, and notation programs started including some sort of playback feature a few years later. It was a breakthrough to be able to hear what you wrote immediately, and it changed composing forever. But the actual sound of those playback tools has always been, in a word, atrocious!

This is no longer the case. Sibelius, Finale, and, now, Dorico have been improving the tolerability of their sounds for a decade or more, but the release of NotePerformer, an independent artificial-intelligence sample library designed to be used with written notation software, has finally crossed the line of believability. It is available for all three notation platforms. It is probably best suited for Sibelius, but I have been using it with Dorico which is the software I have come to prefer.

NotePerformer uses multiple iterations of solo sounds to create the sound of a section, instead of using a different sound. It randomly offsets the individual sounds to give the “halo” effect so characteristic of strings, for instance. The AI is built in to the interpretive/musicality aspect of the program, but if you don’t like what it does you can add instructions (i.e. – legato, detaché, etc.) to change its approach to the music. It reads articulations and most instructions (pizz, snap pizz, pont., marcato, etc.). Dorico does not read glissando/portamento indications as yet, though Sibelius does. Sibelius also maps several different brass mutes, while Dorico only offers straight mute.

As an example, I thought I would use a work I wrote for nine solo strings, (4 violins, 2 violas, 2 celli, and double bass). I wrote this piece in 1993 and I performed it with some of my colleagues from the Phoenix Symphony. But there was something wrong with the original recording and I couldn’t use it. None of the other performances have been recorded so I have had to present the work using a old MIDI recording. I hated it. MIDI recordings of strings have always been the most cringe-worthy. Strings have such a complicated sound with such richness and variety, reproducing them has been nearly hopeless. Not anymore. The NotePerformer performance below is maybe not equivalent to a live performance, but it is very realistic.

The piece, A Wake At Night, is derived from a long improvised melodic line. All of the other accompanying material is derived from that melodic line and surrounds the part of the melody it was derived from. The title has multiple meanings, but the primary one refers to this structure. The melodic line is the “boat” and the surrounding material is the “wake” which has been generated by the boat. At night the wake shimmers with phosphorescence, and thus it is a metaphor for the swirling material surrounding the melody, which is often more prominent than the original.

G. Stallcop: A Wake At Night (1993) – for nine strings

Just Add Water

JUST ADD WATER COVER1

Though I grew up in the misty entropy of Seattle, I have spent nearly all of my adult life in the Sonoran Desert of Southern Arizona. When I was growing up, water was taken for granted, abundant; in fact, there was too much of it most of the time. In the desert, I have come to love rainy days. When it rains, kids come out to play; in school they run to the windows.

Water in the desert is synonymous with life.

Water in the desert is synonymous with life. Rainy El Nino winters, like the one just past, turn rocky slopes into green pastures full of wildflowers.   Normally dry streams and riverbeds are brimming with water, the banks teaming with life. I remember stopping on a dirt road to explore a dry riverbed north of Carefree, AZ. We walked about a half of a mile up the wash when we came upon a section with water in it. The little stream came out from under a rock and flowed for about 20 feet before diving back underground. I could step from one side to the other, but as I was watching the flowing water, I saw a fish slip out from one rock and scamper under another one. Then I saw another fish, and another. The wash had been dry for months! Did it get stuck here when the river dried up, or was it always here and stayed through the rushes of water that roared down the wash after it rained? Unanswered questions.

Some frogs and toads in Arizona (such as the Couch’s Spadefoot Toad) have evolved to dig into the mud as it dries up, and lie dormant for eleven months. During the first significant summer monsoon rain, usually in mid-July, they dig themselves out with a cacophonous roar, mate, lay eggs and then proceed to eat enough bugs to last them another 11 months before they dig another home in the mud and go back to sleep. The frogs’ awakening is something we wait for every year. What is it like to live such a life?

So this album is loosely organized around water and its role in life. Each track covers a significant amount of diverse musical territory. My music is exploratory but thoughtful. It is not meant to be calming, or exciting, or physically stimulating, it is an emotional journey. It is meant to be listened to, and not a background for visuals, dance, or daily life.

  1. Lighthouse.  The opening track derives its name from a repeated A-Ab passage in the center of the piece that seems to be a guiding light throughout the stormy surrounding music. The track also describes the loneliness of isolation and the beautiful serenity of a peaceful sea. For me it is all a metaphor for the creative life; peaceful at times, stormy at times, but always guided by the muse.
  2. Floating Spheres.  The title here refers to the balls of glass used by fisherman to float their nets. When I am improvising, I often visualize myself as floating in a glass ball on a sea of emotion, so these balls have extra meaning. The glass balls used by Japanese fishermen used to occasionally wash up on the shore when I was growing up in the Pacific Northwest. They were a prized possession and you could find them homes (or seafood restaurants). When I went to the beach I would always look for them, but I have never found one.
  3. Fragile.  This is about water in the philosophical sense. Water is fragile to the touch and gives way to almost everything, but can wear down the hardest stone. Its fragility is its strength. It is perfectly transparent and reflects beauty and ugliness equally, without judgment.
  4. Slippery Slope.  In a conditional world of transmogrified values and transient truths, we are all on a slippery slope.   Do we find a handhold and grab on for dear life or do we cast our fate to the wind? Maybe we should learn to ski or skate.
  5. Soggy Breadcrumbs.  Sometimes we stumble onto a clear and inviting path of another and are inspired to follow. But any path, no matter how fresh and well defined, eventually peters out, becomes soggy, or is eaten by hungry birds. All paths are eventually solitary.
  6. Sequenza No. 2.  When I am in a stretch of improvisational recording, which can last for several weeks, I don’t listen to any of the recordings until much later. This is so I can listen to them with fresh ears, without memory or intent to cloud my judgment. In the case of this last track, I actually play a track with the same material and general format as another track I had recorded about a week earlier – “Sequenza” from the album Hold That Thought. I was unaware of the relationship when I recorded it and only when putting the two albums together did I notice the similarity. I liked the first version, but I think this version is better.

These tracks were recorded at my home in Phoenix, Arizona.

Hold That Thought

Hold That Though cover2

 

Many of my albums have been organized around a specific idea, such as time, innocence, worry, recovery, or loss of self. This particular album focuses more on the ideas themselves. There are many different methods of composing spontaneously, even when not starting with any preconceived musical material or purpose. Aesthetic quality in spontaneity is achieved through depth of experience, and, as a rule, that is achieved through focused attention. It is similar to meditation, and just as there are many different ways to meditate, there are many different ways to proceed with an improvisation.

Focused attention seems to be often mistaken for trance. Trance is where listening or some other experience occupies space in your mind but doesn’t demand your attention. If you are playing a repeated pattern, for instance, your attention can become detached from the process (mental auto-pilot) and your mind will actually wander sometimes. This is almost the antithesis of focused attention. I have had students, for instance, who have thought that the point of practicing is to reach a point where you are just listening to what you are doing and not thinking about it. Actually, the point of practice is to allow you think in ever-greater detail. Practice allows you to think about how you are going to play every single note!

When you are focusing, you must focus on something. When you are improvising, you are focusing on what you are playing, of course, but you are also creating and managing the direction of the music. This means that you are using the music you are hearing to create new music. You can repeat the “old” music, vary it in some way, or react to it with something either complementary or contrasting. With the piano, there is also the element of musical space and texture so that you have the option of moving things around from one hand to the other or varying the accompaniment, harmony, or context of the original idea.

This sort of spontaneous compositional methodology tends to result in musical pieces with certain characteristics, some of which occur on this album. The most commonly occurring structure is what I like to call the “Spring” and is related to the Linked Verse technique used in Japanese (group) oral poetry. It is where older material is always being varied and reacted to so that the music moves forward while referring back at the same time. Since the older material is being continually revised, the whole structure moves forward. The circling back is like a spiral, but because the whole thing moves forward it is more like a Spring. The first, third, and fifth track of Hold That Thought conform to this sort of structure while being completely different types of pieces.

  1. Prelude is also focused on melody, and is akin to a soliloquy or opera recitative with a minimal accompaniment. The melody emotes plaintively or with flourish but always refers back in linked verse fashion.
  2. Intermezzo is a complicated and varied track whose references to older material are interspersed with impetuous flourishes and extreme shifts of register. Older material does not mean vanilla.
  3. Rhapsody is also somewhat impetuous but is more like a sung epic poem with an ending more like Ulysses returning home rather than Caesar returning from Gaul.
  4. Sequenza developed a little differently. The material I begin with just happens to be simple, distinctive, and easily remembered. Its chromatic nature lends itself easily to variation and transposition, hence it becomes like a huge sequence. I use the term “sequenza” with apologies to Luciano Berio who used the title for a whole series of virtuosic solo works for different instruments. Instead of moving like a spring or spiral, the piece seems to move like a rogue planet that keeps swinging next to the sun and getting thrown off in a completely different direction.
  5. Emergence also focuses on a single melodic idea, and though the idea can be heard in the early portions of the piece, it doesn’t become prominent until about halfway through the piece. At that point, it is repeated and sequenced in a manner reminiscent of Richard Strauss. Hence, it is as though the musical idea was discovered in the middle of the piece, much like all of a sudden becoming attracted to someone you’ve been working with for quite a while.

All of these different approaches require focus and, of course, imagination to be effective. An improviser learns that sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But you try to choose the ones that work for an album.

This is my 22nd solo piano album and was recorded at my home in Phoenix, Arizona.

Grind

A solo piano album about work

Grind coverGrind is an album of piano tracks loosely organized around the concept of work. There are many different attitudes toward work, and many different types of work, as well. Personally, my attitude towards work is rather complex, as much of it is creative and totally absorbing, and all of it is artistic. For much of my life I have been a “workaholic,” but a lot of the time my work has been self-motivated.

For my entire career, my “employment” has been playing double bass for a major symphony orchestra. For some musicians, this constitutes a pinnacle position; some non-musicians do not consider this to be work at all. Actually a symphony orchestra job can be quite demanding, though the rewards can be great as well, and it is more physically taxing than one might expect. Even so, I’ve never worked more than about 25 hours per week on the job. This, however, does not take into account all the practicing I’ve done at home. You start to add everything up – rehearsals, concerts, practicing, six days per week, working mornings and nights, driving, travel – and it starts to sound a lot more like work. Most musicians also teach lessons, which can take up most of their remaining time. I have never done much teaching because I have filled my extra time with creating and performing my own music. As I said, it’s complicated.

Music and the concept of a steady pulse are one of the great inventions in human history. It allows people to work TOGETHER. Working together involves synchronization and without music and dance, that would have never happened. My album, however, is about our personal relationship to work, rather than the work itself, and is more emotional than physical.

  1. Work Song. My music tends to not be very rhythmically steady, however, repetition and sequence are often major components. Then again, so is variation, and this usually doesn’t let me repeat an idea intact more than twice. I explained to a friend once that I tended to continually vary my ostinatos (repeated patterns), and he told me a varied ostinato was an oxymoron. The upshot is that I don’t often get into a “groove,” as the first thing I vary is often the rhythm. This track, however, does try hard to get “groovy” at times, and is about as close as I ever get to a work song. Just the same, “John Henry” it’s not.
  2. Outburst.  Of course, one of the common associations with work is stress. Even a workaholic does not like to have more to do than he or she can finish in the time available. The stress can mount and explode occasionally. That is what happens in this track. Of course, blowing up doesn’t help, and after the pressure is released, the work continues.
  3. Chorale.  A chorale is like a hymn, and is meant to be sung by the congregation. To me, hymn singing is a little like everybody doing the same work. Together. It doesn’t help that I’m such a bad singer. It is not something I am usually very thrilled about doing, but I often do it anyway. After all it’s short.
  4. Daydream.  Sometimes your mind wonders. This is especially true when I am doing creative work, as letting my mind wonder is part of the gig. I fall asleep at my desk more often than I care to admit. (My chair is pretty comfortable.) I’ve also occasionally fallen asleep at my piano. (Despite the fact it is really uncomfortable.) I even once nearly fell asleep while I was recording. (Check out “Drifting Off” from my album Night Drift.) I don’t recommend drifting off when somebody is paying you, however.
  5. Dew Point. Because this is the point (temperature) at which water condenses out of the air, I like to use it as a metaphor for creative inspiration. Sometimes ideas seem to appear out of nowhere. At other times, they don’t. I guess, sometimes, it is just not humid enough.
  6. Hard Knocks. The School of Hard Knocks can be an effective teacher, and usually involves as much work or more than any other form of education. That said, what inspired the title of this track was the series of repeated notes that take over the music about half way through. It sounds like somebody knocking, hard.
  7. Hunting For Faeries. I’ve always been intrigued by the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fascination with spiritualism, psychic research, and magical phenomena. How could the creator of Sherlock Holmes get sucked in by this stuff? But he spent a great deal of effort trying to prove their existence, and he is not the only person to work hard at something preposterous.
  8. Nocturne.  I have often worked deep into the night, though as I have aged I have gradually shifted to morning. But the nighttime can be magically quiet and full of imaginative promise. The swirling of ideas and myriad of possible relationships can keep me awake even when I need to be asleep. The magic does not always make it into the harsh light of day, but sometimes it does.
  9. Intermezzo.  We all have to take breaks. We all need to rest, if only for a bit. That doesn’t mean we can shut our mind off completely. Sometimes a distraction will allow our subconscious to work out the details of something important. Then we end up working through our break anyway.
  10. Chanson.  A chanson is a rather lyric-driven French art song dealing often with more serious subjects like conditions of the working class, and is usually rather free as it follows the rhythms of the French language. Of course, my chanson has no lyrics and isn’t about anything, but it is rather free anyway.
  11. Toccata.  This is a “touch piece” as opposed to a sonata or “sound piece.” It is usually distinguished by a technical display of some sort. In other words, it has lots of fast notes. I was tempted to call this track Prelude and Toccata because, though it starts with a splash, it slows down before really taking off. I didn’t start the piece thinking “toccata,” I discovered it along the way. The toccata section continues until I get tired. After all, it was a lot of work.

This album is my twenty-first solo piano album and was recorded at my home in Phoenix, Arizona.  It was released on September 7, 2018 by SMS Recordings.