I was fourteen years old when I first played Gustaf Holst’s The Planets as a double bassist in the Seattle Youth Symphony. We were all excited to play a real masterpiece, and ended up playing pretty well. I didn’t know anything about Gustaf Holst, and Star Wars was over a decade in the future so it didn’t even sound familiar, but I loved the music and found it exhilarating. Little did I know that I would play it probably another 100+ times in my career.
There are a number of distinctive movements in the work, Mars and Jupiter being the most famous. Holst knew nothing about the planets themselves, they were just dots in the sky to him in 1915, but they were significant in Astrology which was his frame of reference for each planet’s character. (There seems to also be references to the Roman gods the planets were named after.) One of my favorites, partly because of the two exposed solos for the double bass section, is the movement about Saturn. He subtitles the movement, “The Bringer of Old Age.” It is a movement of mystery and beauty, and builds to major climax.
But Old Age is no longer a mystery to me. I’ve thought back upon that movement many times with amusement. I think about Richard Strauss composing Death and Transfiguration in his early 20’s and then quoting it rather ironically in his Four Last Songs which he wrote right before he died. Confronting one’s mortality certainly becomes a different subject from this viewpoint. I suppose you could find mystery in why we age at all, but the consequences of not aging would be dreadfully tragic. We age because of where we are going, and it makes perfect sense to me.
I have had a lot of fun with the titles of the tracks of this album, and there is a lot of really nice music here as well. Because of the cover, I’m tempted to say that the real bringer of old age is Photoshop, but in fact, time does an equally convincing job.
The Turning Point refers to that moment when you realize you are no longer young, or even young at heart. Passé. I decided once that aging isn’t so much a matter of not being able to function as it is a matter of slowly becoming obsolete. In Hindsight. Hindsight gives an older person perspective, lots of perspective. Golden Sunset. It would be nice, wouldn’t it.
Silver Lining. There are a surprising number of perks available for Seniors. I bought a $10 pass which gets me into any National Park for free for life! Since I live near the Grand Canyon, I’ve used it a few times. But I don’t think they are going to be losing a lot of money on the deal as time goes by! Tristan Is Older. I have a couple senior friends that have found romance in their later years. One even met his new wife online! Great passion often does not live to a ripe old age, and Tristan is a good example. The opera has actually developed a reputation of sorts as singers and even conductors have died during its performance! My Tristan is a bit more subdued, but a number of quotes show that the passion is still there. Wrinkles, In Time. My apologies to Madeleine L’Engle.
Fade To Blank. While performing with the Phoenix Symphony, I participated in a project involving Alzheimer’s patients. Alzheimer’s apparently attacks primarily the left side of the brain. Music, which affects the right side of the brain, can have remarkable effects on patients who otherwise seem quite advanced. It was very moving to see a patient all of a sudden light up at something we played. Music can trigger memories that are otherwise buried. One patient got up and asked another patient to dance, and I have never seen such a look of delight as that on the woman he asked!
There are certainly enough people in my life from whom, for one reason or another, I have gradually drifted apart. I think the entire existence of social media is based upon this fact. Most have come from mere distance, but some have definitely come from disagreement or decisions to take different paths.
But I would also like to discuss the decision to take a different path entirely, to veer off on a tangent, to take a decidedly marginal stance, or even to drop out completely. Divergence is a decision to accommodate loneliness. Going it alone is unfettered, but it is also aloof and antisocial.
The cover photograph is taken close to my home near Ash Fork, Arizona. The people living in this area are certainly independent, some to the point of being nearly hermits. However, I rarely come across anyone who is unsociable, in fact, most are outright friendly. But those people are certainly here. To be both unfriendly and isolated is to take independence to a real extreme and to risk real consequences. It is lonely, and very sad.
This album, then, deals with divergence, both every day and extreme.
An Occlusion is something which blocks the path or obstructs the flow. Many relationships have things or subjects which are deliberately avoided (no politics or religion!), but once breeched, the relationship can go in another direction. In Times Gone By refers to better times. The famous song that Sam plays in the movie Casablanca (which I often refer to) claims that some things, love being one of them, are always the same. That doesn’t seem to apply to people. To Agree to Disagree is the civilized way to deal with conflict, and to keep relationships intact. An Argument, however, is often what happens instead.
A “road less traveled” doesn’t necessarily mean a road that is empty. A true divergence can be a world unto oneself, and quite lonely indeed. There is no-one to bounce things off of or to console you when things go south. You can only talk to yourself, Sempre Soliloquy. Leading a solitary life can also often lead to pondering the basic questions, over and over again. The Same Question broaches this, and is also a reference to Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question. When living alone, fantasy is often ones only diversion. Whether for artistic creativity, elaborate planning, or just better circumstances, a Nocturnal Fantasy is sometimes the only socialization available for those who are truly alone.
Early in my career, I tended to subscribe to the “1% Inspiration and 99% Perspiration” School of Creativity. I was eager to accumulate knowledge about music and thought this would lead to understanding how to use it. Even when I started to become fascinated about improvisation, I thought it was a matter of learning techniques and developing practice regimens which mastered their use. This, of course, did not hurt me, but it only allowed me to progress so far.
In mid-career, I began to feel stale and studied for a while with composer Chinary Ung. He challenged me to work on my non-musical creativity. He told how much of his inspiration, and some of his actual musical decision making, had emanated from dreams and/or visions. His teacher and mentor, George Crumb, had been the same way. I was aware of composers in history who had worked this way, but this was the first time I had come across it first hand.
I was stymied, but began to re-examine my approach through improvisation. I thought that if I could empty my mind of preconception and resist any focus on technique, I might be able to improvise by simply allowing the sound of what I am doing trigger my response. It was difficult, but promising, and after several months I began to get the hang of it. But the experience put me in a mental state that was unfamiliar, and it always took me a while to recover afterwards.
This album is an exploration of that rather delirious but often creative state of mind. It starts out with a nod to one of the first “delirious” composers, Hector Berlioz. Reveries and Passions are the titles of the two sections of the first movement Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. The whole work is based on an opium dream about the woman with whom he had become infatuated. Fever (not the classic jazz tune) is about the unusual dreams and delusions one can encounter while ill. The next track is an Elegy, and hints at the state we sometimes enter when faced with the sudden passing of someone we love. The Mysteria alludes to another composer whose delirium and unbridled creativity was inspired by mysticism – the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. The Chorale and Response is an imaginary dialog between the voice of institutionalized reason and the voice of untethered creativity.
The last three tracks are aimed at a more specific delirium of mental or cultural unbalance. This Should Be Mine explores the disturbed mental state that can occur when we are consumed with jealousy, especially when we consider it just. But What If . . . considers the curse of regret and the assigning of fault, especially that which is directed within. The last track deals with the cultural affectation of Compulsory Obsession. Whether political, intellectual, or just a manifestation of employment, the force-feeding of “accepted” ideas can cloud judgement and trigger irrational behavior or neglect.
Starting in the Summer of 2022, I will be releasing albums from my Piano Albums Project at the rate of one every six weeks. All the albums are now scheduled to be released by late 2025. I have included a listing of the albums, their record date, and their release date (or expected release date) at the end of this essay.
I have been releasing my piano albums for many years now, but I’ve never really addressed the entirety of the project, which is how I think of it. Just what exactly is this enormous Piano Album Project? The short answer is that it is a collection of fifty-seven albums of my piano improvisations recorded between 1996-2016. It has been the center of my creative life throughout the second half of my musical career. Each album is a complete work on its own, but many individual improvisations have also played important roles as blueprints for my written compositions. The long answer is more complicated.
In the beginning, I did not intend for the improvisations to be available commercially. The improvisations, which I recorded as MIDI files, were to be part of a process which used improvisation as a starting point for the creation of written compositions. Nearly every composition I have written after 1993 has used improvisation in this way, as both the origin of the musical material and a general suggestion of the musical structure of the written work.
Some of the resulting compositions can be heard or even traced clearly in the original improvisation and some cannot. It depends on the music, instrumentation, and the function of the piece being written. In some of the pieces, the improvisation has been greatly enhanced and expanded; in some, I have remained rather close to the original. I have found this method to allow me the most freedom and creativity while keeping in mind a general idea of where I am going. I also find improvisation to be the most direct path to my creative subconscious.
Early in my career, I found that when I re-imagined a piece, such as when I orchestrated a piano work, I was more imaginative than I was when creating the original. Working with improvisations seems to emphasize this trait. Some composers like to develop their compositions from small amounts of musical material, creating an integrated structure along the way. The danger of working from the bottom up like that is that the composer may create a beautiful structure that is not very musical. The kiss of death for a composer is to have a musician say their piece is “very interesting.”
An improvisation, on the other hand, is often quite musical, but not always very tightly structured, sometimes barely structured at all. I have found that I am more creative and inspired when trying to make structural sense out of something which is already musical than trying to squeeze some music out of something that makes perfect sense but is otherwise not very attractive.
Though I had been working on my improvisation to improve the intuitive quality of my composition, after about four or five years I began to notice that the improvisations themselves were becoming consistently pretty good. I began to entertain the idea that I might be able to release them as a recording. I had accumulated quite a few MIDI files and thought surely a few of them would make a good album.
I started to go through dozens of recordings, which I found pretty tedious. Over two or three months, I had narrowed it down to four tracks. Then I went through the process of finding a label that would release it, mastering it, pressing it, sending out press releases, the whole shebang. I released my first album, Dreamcatcher, in December of 1998. Many people liked it, even the critics, but many people did not have a clue what I was doing. I was generally happy with the reaction but I hardly sold any CD’s. I wasn’t sure what I thought about the whole experience and didn’t know what to do next. So I went back to my original plan of using improvisations in my composition.
I spent the next four years writing some major compositions, using improvisations: Millennial Opening (1999) for orchestra, String Quartet No. 2 (2000), Vision Quest (2002) for double bass and piano, and Meditation at Oyster River (2003), a cantata for soprano and orchestra (or piano) on poetry of Theodore Roethke. My composing and my job as a bassist with the Phoenix Symphony took up most of my time. I would improvise on the piano just for myself in my spare time. However, during a break in my symphony schedule in the spring of 2001, I sat down and did some recording again. I found that most of the takes were good and decided that five of them would make a good album. This was the album Snowmelt. I saved it for later and went back to my other projects.
In the summer of 2003, I was having trouble writing the Roethke cantata for my sister Eleanor Stallcop-Horrox. I decided that I would record some improvisations for a while to get the juices flowing. Finally, by mid-July I was able to put together a good plan for the cantata (using one of the improvisations) but when I returned to the recordings in 2004, I found there were two good albums there. They became Cricket Cages and Dandelion Seeds.
After that, recording in the summer when the symphony had a three-month break and I could seriously concentrate became my standard routine. I found that the nine months in between sessions allowed my music and playing to change enough to justify another round of recording. I would wait to do my initial editing until at least a year had passed. In fact, I wouldn’t even listen to the recordings after recording them. That way I could approach them with fresh ears.
After the cantata, I found that the compositional procedures I had used for adapting my improvisations into compositions were no longer working. My improvisation was improving to the point where my reworking was no longer improving the original. Some adjustment and adaptation seemed to be all that was needed. My compositions were becoming little more than transcriptions. I was unnerved by that, and found that I needed a few years to decide what direction to take. The result was that I now spent nearly all of my creative efforts on improvisation, recording, and editing.
Nearly every summer between the years 2005-2016 I spent from two to six weeks recording improvisation at the piano. I would edit recordings during the symphony season, as this was a much less intense procedure. I composed only a few pieces during this period. The most notable piece was Five Bells (2010), an orchestral tone poem on an Australian poem of the same name by Kenneth Slessor. This work was an edited improvisation that was transcribed, adapted, and orchestrated in response to a commission for the Arizona 2010 All-State Orchestra.
Though I would occasionally improvise in public, mostly as an example at concerts of my other written works, performing was never the purpose of my improvisation. I was focused on the creative aspect of what I was doing and not trying to put together a “show.” I have, however, transcribed and performed several suites from my recordings, transcribing them essentially the way I recorded them. This opened up another can of worms. When composing, you set up certain parameters in advance and then work within them, unless you change them. But in my improvisation, I play little more than note-to-note. I speed up, I slow down, I stretch, all of which would be considered interpretive techniques – except now they are the original. How do I transcribe that without being ridiculously complex. I spent way too much time trying to find or design a simplified notation that would account for all these rhythmic anomalies. In the end, none of unorthodox notations were either attractive or did the job.
But I did use two different methods of transcription that were both effective. One was the traditional method which transcribed the music preserving the rhythmic relationships I perceived to be there. The other used traditional notation, but transcribed the rhythm against a rigid and unrelated fixed tempo grid.
When I record, the computer sets a default tempo. Since my music is very free, I ignore this tempo and don’t use a click track, but the computer still uses the tempo as a reference. When transcribing, I decided to try using this default as a tempo to notate the music AGAINST. It was like looking at a landscape through a grid of squares and then drawing a picture using graph paper! I had to make some small changes so the notation didn’t look ridiculous, but it surprised me and was actually quite successful. But it was really weird! I learned and performed a couple of the transcriptions, just to be sure, and found them to be very faithful to the ebb and flow of the original improvisation. Unfortunately, I had to completely unlearn and change how I thought about the music originally. All the rhythmic relationships were different. I decided that though it worked, it was not something I could live with permanently. (A couple of the suites are still notated this way, the suites from Floating Leaves and Night Drift)
Below is the opening to “Call of the Crossing” from the Suite from Bridge to Nowhere.The first example is traditional and shows the rhythmic relationships of the music. (This is the one I used.)
The second example uses the default tempo and shows the timing of how the selection of the improvisation was actually played.
Changing the relationships like that made me realize that I did indeed have set opinions about what those relationships were, despite the freedom of improvisation. So I finally ended up just notating them in the more conventional fashion, as I heard them and as I sensed the relationships. This was a more difficult procedure for me, but it was much more accessible for the performer. It also didn’t drive me nuts when I played them.
All during this time, the music business in general was going through a complete overhaul. My experience with my first CD seemed positive but wasteful. It cost several thousand dollars but wasn’t well marketed. By the mid-2000’s, it began to look like CD’s were on their way out, first with iPods and then cell phones. The whole music market had completely changed. In 2008, I found CD Baby, a digital distributor for independent artists, and I gradually started to distribute my albums online. Expenses were reduced to a fraction of the cost of physical CD’s and a lack of sales meant only a lack of royalties. I remember a composer friend having eight boxes of LP’s in his studio! Inventory can be a nightmare! Even CD Baby has stopped selling CD’s! Now they have stopped selling downloads too and only distribute and collect royalties. As time has elapsed, the process has become even more streamlined and cheaper. My early albums are still producing digital royalties and remain available. As of this writing, I have released 33 of 57 albums, and I can still park my car in the garage.
In 2005, as my summer routine picked up steam, I became more productive. By 2009, I was recording five or six albums each summer. In 2012, I recorded twelve. In 2015, I recorded fourteen. At the end of every cycle I was completely exhausted. I began to realize that there would come a point at which I could not do this anymore. That point arrived in the summer of 2016. I tried many different approaches, and was finally able to produce one final album, but I was done.
I retired from the orchestra in 2018 and have spent my time composing. I still compose using improvisations, and because of all the recording, I now have a backlog of nearly two full days of music from which to choose. I am also mastering and preparing the release of the remaining albums. As the experience of recording the albums begins to recede, I find they mean more to me than ever. When I passed my 72nd birthday this year, I realized that I had better speed up the release schedule of the remaining albums. I am in pretty good shape at present, but if the pandemic has taught me anything, it is that one’s health can change at any moment.
As I look back on the project now and all the music it has produced, I have some mixed feelings, but no regrets. Improvisation is such a right-brained process that it is hard for me to be analytical about it. The tracks that have the most plays seem random to me. I would have never guessed that those tracks had something special. I must choose tracks to transcribe or use in my compositions, but my reasons are personal and a drop in the bucket when compared to the preferences of today’s streaming market.
I look at all the music in these recordings and I can’t help but think about how J. S. Bach wrote five CYCLES of cantatas. A cycle is a multi-movement cantata for each Sunday and Holy Day of the year. He wrote FIVE of them, of which we have recovered about half. I have played or listened to probably less than one percent of them, and I am someone who has a fifty-year professional career and loves Bach! How can an average listener even conceive of what Bach has done?
So who is going to listen to my albums? Why would they do it? All the music literature says, “Know your audience!” Oh, give me a break! Sometime last summer, I noticed that on Bandcamp someone was methodically listening to all of my albums in order. Most of my plays are always my more recent releases, but this person started at the beginning and was going through an album or more every day, listening to entire tracks. I wondered what he was thinking. I wanted to ask him questions. I remember sitting in a music library once and listening to all the works of Anton Webern in one day. There aren’t that many pieces and they are short, but that was still a few hours. That also was certainly enough Webern! I learned some things about him, but I didn’t listen to him again. There is something to be said for modern streaming that a person can find and listen to just about anything ever recorded, even the cantatas of Bach! I wonder whether Bach would be jealous? Somehow, I doubt it.
From a young age, I have been fascinated by what is in the sky. Not so much from a scientific point of view, though the space race started when I was in grade school, but always more from an artistic standpoint. The sky was always full of variety and subtlety, and was often the object of stunning beauty.
I grew up in the Pacific Northwest where the sky is often dismissed as boring and depressing. I found the constant cloud cover a continuously fascinating shifting palette of grays, and when the sky and sun broke through, it was often dramatic. The cloud cover is often part of the landscape, drifting through the trees or covering hills and other landmarks. I remember an artist, Mark Tobey, who was active in the Seattle area when I was growing up. His work seemed to epitomize the soft colors and subtle grays which typify the Northwest palette.
But then I moved to Arizona. I could go for weeks without seeing a cloud let alone any precipitation. Contrasts were stark. Colors were bold. Brown was substituted for gray. The clouds, when they came, were often dramatic with lightning, downpours and stunning rainbows. And there is always a glorious sunset! In the Southwest, I became more interested in the night sky, especially here in Northern Arizona where the sky is dark. The stars were always a novelty in the Northwest, as I could never see them. In Arizona, the constellations, galaxies and nebulae are on full display.
Cirrus clouds are those high wispy streaks that are often the firsts signs of an approaching front. They have a special delicate gentleness, like a baby’s curls. The “red sky in the morning” is the Sailor’s Warning. Red skies are common in high pressure areas because there is more dust. Hence, if it is in the east (at dawn) the high pressure is moving away, which means a low pressure area (storm) is moving in. Dust devils are little cyclones common to the desert when it is hot. The air is rising off the ground pretty quickly and can become organized into a whirlwind. They are fun to watch and usually harmless, but they can be strong and have knocked my car around on a number of occasions!
The Martyr refers to the fact that not everyone who looks up sees the sky. A Nebula is a visible cloud of hydrogen gas in the night sky which often is an area of star creation. They can have fanciful names such is the Oyster Nebula, Crab Nebula, or Horsehead Nebula. Shimmering Rainbows sometimes occur in the desert as thunderstorms, though violent, are rather compact. Rain and sun at the same time are common. The disturbed atmosphere can cause a rainbow to shimmer.
A “red sky at night” is the Sailor’s Delight, as the high pressure system is in the West. The aphorism is mentioned in the Bible, and is obviously confined to the Northern Hemisphere as in the other half of the globe the prevailing winds are reversed. I can’t remember seeing a Falling Star growing up in Seattle. In Arizona, I could see one every night. I have even seen a couple of large fireballs. But my conception of falling stars has been pleasantly altered forever since a read Neil Gaiman’s Stardust.
Personal adornment has been a part of human culture for millennia. The drawing on the cover is from a 2000 year old wall relief of Cleopatra. Hair beads aren’t exactly new. Certainly, the limits of personal alteration and ornamentation are only affected by possibility and imagination. My interest is not so much in the actual adornment as in the statement, or more specifically, in the need for a statement.
Institutions, schools and training facilities often try to limit personal statement, as an equalizer or attempt to limit stress, but people have fertile imaginations and always seem to find subtle ways to express themselves anyway. I have chosen several different adornments and explored their (possible) meanings. The music concerns itself not with the actual adornment but in the emotional possibilities surrounding the choice of such an adornment.
Bling is a word I learned from a violinist when I asked her what was all the stuff hanging from her cell phone. Of course, my wife and daughter already knew what it was. It seemed to be just showy stuff, and could be any sort of busy jewelry or decoration. Sort of a plastic Baroque thing, I guess. There are a lot of people in the world.
For Your Hair. I think I am showing my age here. People used to give hair ornaments to little girls, or young women they were attracted to, as an act of affection.
Arm Band. This is used to show solidarity with someone or a cause. It often shows maybe a desire to make things right, but can also be a tribute to someone who has passed.
Tattoo. Tattoos are pretty permanent, and because of that, they were not commonwhen I was younger. They are generally used for personal tributes or memorials, but are also now used to express one’s beliefs and guiding principles. I am impressed by the quality of the artwork that has found its way into tattoos. But even an artistic statement is personal.
Black Veil. For me this is always associated with mourning.
White Lace. This can mean a lot of different things, especially in dreams. Most meanings seem to be associated with either money or sex, but tend to be a sign of pretension. This is not always the case, but symbolism can be fickle.
Face Paint. Face paint is used culturally all over the world for all kinds of different things, but in the West it seems to be mostly associated with aggression. Maybe painting your face helps to prepare for battle, I don’t know. But one thing is for sure, aggression doesn’t always work out so well.
Wedding Ring. This track is the most meaningful for me, and this is the only adornment listed here that I actually use. Nobody enters matrimony without at least a little trepidation, but the love that keeps it going is always the same.
Memento. I read a book in which the composer Max Bruch is taken at a young age by his father to Vienna to see an aging Beethoven. They arrive for their morning appointment only to find that Beethoven has died during the night. They ask to pay their respects and are let in. The young Max snips a wisp of Beethoven’s hair, and keeps it in a locket next to his heart for his entire life! A memento can be a very powerful thing in a person’s life.
Bouquet. I have often thought about bouquets like I have thought of Christmas trees. It’s nice to bring nature into your home, but why kill a tree. Bouquets are a much milder version of that, and a plant often has many flowers, but still I’d rather have plants. Generally, the idea seems to be to make things more cheery and spring-like. Bouquets are also given as congratulations, or are gifts of respect and/or affection. I suppose their effect has more to do with who is doing the giving.
Personal expression is also one of the primary reasons for being involved with any of the creative arts. I suppose one could say that I am virtually wearing all of these tracks as personal adornments. Hopefully, I am wearing them well.
I have been engraving my earlier works that were still in manuscript, but I decided to leave one as is just because manuscript was such an important part of composition when I became a composer. This manuscript for this work was copied after revisions so it is clean and clear. Making changes to manuscript could be a nightmare. Whenever I get nostalgic about manuscript, I just remember about cutting and pasting or having to redo whole pages!
TheSonata for piano has a long and varied history. I wrote the first movement in 1968, when I was eighteen. It was the first music I wrote in college at the North Carolina School of the Arts. I completely balked at writing another movement, however, and it remained unfinished for several years. I wrote the last movement in Seattle while still attending the University of Washington, before moving to Phoenix. I wanted to combine the two movements with the Introduction and Movement (1972) as the second movement and work all the movements into a piano concerto. But this never materialized, and upon reconsideration, the second movement did not seem to fit with the other two movements. So I replaced it with a second movement that was more appropriate stylistically, and left the work as a solo sonata.
Because the music was written at different times and places, each movement has a different approach. The first movement is a rather standard Neo-classical sonata movement. The last movement has a rondo-type structure and is similar to the inner movements of my set of songs, Rain, Rain (1973) or the last movement of City Music (1974). The second movement uses a structure that I most notably exploited in the piano work Jazz Crystals (1974). The Piano Sonata was first performed by Walter Cosand at Arizona State University on 12/1/1975.
Walter Cosand, piano - Arizona State University, Tempe AZ, 12/1/1975
1. Allegro con brio (11') starts at 00:07
2. Adagio con rubato (5') starts at 11:00
3. Allegro con spirito (6') starts at 16:00
Sheet music available from American Composers Edition https://composers.com/composers/glenn-stallcop/sonata-piano
A 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.
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, is 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.
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.
A 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.