Of Time and Memories

A musical journey through outer and inner time.

I’ve always had an interest in time, but now that more of it lies behind me than in front, I’ve come to savor its quirks and subtleties. Though time is often measured in ticks and tocks, it usually passes silently and unnoticed. “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” applies to time more than anything else. I’m still not sure I know what I had anyway.

of time and memories cover 1My new solo piano album ponders the nature of both time and memories. I have chosen three silent or nearly silent clocks and three groups of memories, but the album is really about the endless patient passing of time. It seems ironic that this notion, when portrayed properly, is often referred to as “timeless.” Memories, though caught in an ever expanding and receding universe of reality, can seem to be fixed, as if forever yesterday. Though the details can become blurred, they are always emotionally vivid. The truly memorable events are always just beyond our reach. They are like bench players, always ready to substitute for the real players that become increasingly tired or flawed. This duality of how time is and how it is remembered provides the tension for the whole album.

  1. Sundial. I can remember the first time I heard of a sundial, growing up in Seattle. “What use is something that only works when it’s sunny?” I thought. Now that I live in Arizona, it doesn’t bother me nearly as much. A sundial only works in the daytime, and it is different every day. That doesn’t make it unreliable; it makes it organic. It is tied to the motions of the earth and stars. Time is real, but it is not mechanical. It is punctuated by overlapping natural cycles, but is it in itself cyclical? Nobody knows.
  2. Old Flames. Considering my wife and I are approaching our fortieth wedding anniversary, these memories are very old indeed. Memories are most impactful, however, when they are new, and we always remember our first stirrings of passion. Of course, when we truly allow ourselves to remember, these thoughts are not always pleasant. Embarrassment, conflict, relationships embody more yin and yang than just about anything else. And after all, these are relationships that didn’t last.
  3. Hourglass. An hourglass measures a set amount of time. Then it measures it again. And again. It is good for timing a soft-boiled egg, or a Boggle game, or a fluoride rinse. But it is an illusion; there are no little bits of time, just as there are no little bits of space. The Eleventh Century Japanese Zen Monk Dogen had some very interesting things to say about time and cause and effect. He said that when a log burns; there is wood, then fire, then ash. The wood did not cause the fire, and the fire did not cause the ash. They are separate, and yet, all one thing. Time is a dimension, like space. It would be like watching a passing horse through a cardboard tube. First you would see the head, then the body, and then the tail. The head did not “cause” the tail; it is all one thing, but you experience it sequentially.
  4. Young Children. Memories of young children bring back oceans of love, joy, wonder, and pride. They also bring back anxiety and fatigue. Young children have boundless energy and are always more resourceful than you think possible. I was wondering why it didn’t occur to me that this would have been a good reason to have my children at a younger age! It was, however, worth every moment!
  5. Water Clock. Flowing water has been used to measure time for millennia. Ancient Persians would figure allotments of irrigation water by filling a ceramic vessel with water. As the gates were lifted, the irrigation officer would lift his finger from a small hole in the vessel. When the water had all flowed out, he closed the gate. The Greeks built a more elaborate mechanical water clock, the clepsydra, which measured time using a continuous water source. It had a refillable tank or could be run by a stream. The slow return of water to the sea is also a continuing metaphor for life itself.
  6. Old Friends. One of the other realities of aging is that you begin to outlive some of your friends. When I first heard Queen’s song, “Who Wants To Live Forever?” my first reaction was, “Not if it means I have to keep getting older!” At some point we all become memories. The longer I live, the greater the number of memories I acquire and, like an old computer, the smaller the space for new experiences. I’ve always tried to live in the present; certainly this is the healthiest way to be mentally. But I’m not convinced this is how we are programmed to age. Maybe the accumulation of memories gradually makes us more obsolete than wise. I suppose that depends on the society in which you live. At any rate, the memories of old friends, especially those friends who now only exist as memories, are some of the fondest.

I alternate tracks of time with tracks of memories, but really, they mingle freely throughout. And after an entire album of timeless contemplation, the end of the last track finally gives in to tick and tock, and runs down. Though time is silent and seemingly unending, our own lives are measured in breaths and heartbeats.

Released 10/30/2017 SMS Recordings (SMS018) © Copyright 2017 Glenn Stallcop

Introducing Suites from ‘Floating Leaves’ and ‘Night Drift’

The first two suites of transcriptions from my solo piano albums

I am now able to offer written transcriptions (sheet music)of selections from two of my solo piano albums, Floating Leaves and Night Drift. I transcribed most of Floating Leaves in the summer of 2016 and all of Night Drift this past summer (2017). Both suites have been transcribed using the “irrational” transcription method described in my last blog entry, “Transcribing My Piano Improvisations.”

Sheet music for both suites can be ordered from the American Composers Edition and for a while I am including a .pdf of the score with the download of the recording of the either suite from bandcamp.

FloatingLeaves NewCover 14MFloating Leaves was my fifth solo piano album. It was recorded sporadically during 2005-06 and was released in 2013. During that period of time my music was undergoing a shift in style and substance. It was the first album I recorded after I went “all in” on improvisation, and at the time I still wasn’t completely convinced. One of the favorite mantras I would focus on at the time, while improvising, was to imagine that I was floating in a glass sphere, being tossed this way and that on the ocean, in a river, or just floating on a lake. It was a way to channel my oscillating inner intensity into shifting musical gestures. It became a unifying theme for an album that was recorded over a fairly lengthy period of time. The idea also came from my readings in Chinese philosophy. The suite includes the album’s first five tracks, though not in the same order.

night drift coverNight Drift was my thirteenth solo piano album. It was recorded on one magical night in the fall of 2009 at my cabin in Ash Fork, AZ. The albums I recorded in 2008 and 2009 were all done alone in the woods at my cabin during several days of intense sessions. Normally, I am a morning person, but that day I went back and recorded for a while at night until I was actually starting to nod off! The music I recorded, which remains the only session I have done at night, is dreamier and more wistful than usual. It is hard to put my finger on what makes it that way, but I definitely feel it when I listen to it. Included in the suite are tracks 1, 2, 4, and 5.

Floating Leaves did not receive a review, but Night Drift received a nice review from Darren Rea at Review Graveyard.

Turns Out My Improvisation is Composition After All

Why I no longer call my music improvisation

For nearly two decades now I have been campaigning for the virtues of improvisation. Actually, I have been doing it most of my career, but since 1998 I have been putting my music where my mouth is and turning out albums of solo piano improvisation.

combo portrait2It is important to me that my music is created spontaneously, but for many others, it is of no consequence. Many musicians misunderstand what improvisation is, especially at the compositional level. Even such a creative icon as Miles Davis was quoted as saying he had “no idea” what Keith Jarrett was doing when he performed his solo improvisations. I have heard people say improvisation is “real-time composition” or, one of my favorites, “composition in motion,” but this is not really the case. Many people have said to me, “Well, at some point, all composition is improvisation.” Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Composition is about ideas. It is about the methodical construction of music directly from those ideas, whether the ideas are musical or non-musical. Sometimes the ideas are subtle and seemingly unimportant, sometimes they are the whole point of the music. The ideas can be motivic or harmonic, or they can be philosophical. They can be a self-driven process, or they can follow a script, film, play, or dance. They can be about social comment or be completely introverted. Or they can be all of the above. And all of these ideas guide the choice of musical material, how it is developed, and what happens to it. Emotion and expression come into play, of course, but they are nearly always part of the overall plan. Composers develop musical plans, structural plans, and emotional plans. It is the same with writing a book or creating a movie, it is about “constructing” a work of art. Naturally, there are many moments of inspiration, some of them you never hear, but mostly the process falls into the category of Edison’s “one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

But it also turns out that improvisation is difficult to define and almost impossible to discern. If a musician is not playing from music, he could be playing from memory, or he could be playing by ear. Even if he is improvising, how much of what he is doing is spontaneous and how much is planned or familiar. It is impossible to tell. I’ve heard that Louis Armstrong worked out and practiced his solos in advance. I have played with several jazz soloists who played the same or nearly the same solo every night. I’ve talked with other musicians who have said that even during free-improvisation sets, the group will, over time, revert to those things that have worked before. This was true for me as well when I tried to do free improvisation gigs early in my career. So the only real way to tell whether a performer is improvising and truly creating new music on the spot is to ask him!

Most people consider improvisation to be a technique of performance. Often the standard by which to judge the quality of an improvisation is to decide to what extent the music does not sound improvised. But this means that the improvisation must sound “familiar,” which has a tendency to be rather inhibiting. Many suggest that improvisation is merely “stream of consciousness,” and some I have heard certainly is. But good improvisation is no more stream-of-consciousness than meditation is sleeping. Improvisation takes intense concentration and focus.

Improvisation differs from composition in that it is spontaneous. It is not “about spontaneity” (an idea); it is truly spontaneous. So what difference does that make? Primarily it means that you are listening to an “experience” instead of a presentation. It means that the focus and depth of the music is happening right now, and has not been reflected upon, perfected, and polished. This much is clear enough, but how does that make the music itself different? I had only a partial idea until I started transcribing my improvisations many years ago. Improvisation, indeed, handles the music differently. Instead of the music being “deduced” from another musical idea, it evolves within itself. It uses material that is actually played rather than referring back to material that was chosen beforehand. The focus of the music changes as the music evolves. The improviser “discovers” his or her material, and memory is not always perfect. Ideas, musical or otherwise, are induced and synthesized from the actual music itself. This suggests a different philosophical concept of time, cause and effect, specifics, and abstracts, and it also suggests the idea that change, relation, and juxtaposition is more fundamental than any abstract idea. As a performer, improvisation appeals to me primarily as a vehicle for expression. Music that is conceived in real time is as honest as it gets.

In the sample below, (“Place of the Butterflies”, from my album Night Drift) listen to how each musical phrase draws upon the previous phrase and feeds the one that follows. In Japan, there is a form of oral poetry called “linked verse” in which new stanzas of poetry (such as haiku) are linked to the last stanza in some way.

Though how my music is created is very important to me, it does not mean that I am haphazard or casual about how I treat it. Though every single note is spontaneously conceived, that does not stop me from editing the MIDI files or adapting them to different piano samples. I don’t use the same sounds while recording that I do when I am mastering so I must adapt my MIDI files to the samples and to the response of my keyboard. But I not only edit for my equipment and software, I edit to make sure the music is exactly what I want. I am a composer, and this is my only shot at the material. This has involved me making two (or more) shorter pieces out of one longer one, starting at a more interesting spot than I did originally, or even making cuts within a take (cutting 10 seconds can make a world of difference). Though these techniques are all common in both classical and jazz recordings, I have drawn heat from many improvisation purists for using them. To me, it is not about the performance, it is about the music. But I have finally decided that instead of trying to change the world, maybe I should just try to get people to listen to the music for what it is, and not for how it was conceived. So I no longer am going to call my music improvisation.

The final tipping point in my decision came not from the improvisation or jazz world, but from Classical composition. New Classical Music now readily accepts music that only exists as a recording. Many composers put out recordings with electronics, samples, field recordings or samples from other composers, real world sounds, etc. Some composers write site-specific works, even site-specific operas, and the imagination for what is included in music these days is vast. Improvisation in New Classical Music, with certain limitations, has become rather commonplace. My concern about the acceptability of my piano improvisation within this genre has become almost silly.

I mentioned before that I have transcribed my improvisations and performed them live. I have also transcribed and adapted them for other instruments, including orchestra. At that point, these works can no longer be considered improvisations by any stretch of the imagination. I have also come across other works that have been conceived as strictly for recording but have also since been adapted for live performance. One of my favorites is Steve Reich’s Violin Phase (1967), which was originally done with two tape recorders playing the same violin melody on two slightly different length tape loops, but the piece has been adapted and is now often done live. Here are two versions, one done solo with a computer Steve Reich, Violin Phase (solo violin with computer), and a second done with four solo violins Steve Reich, Violin Phase (four solo violins).

Quail Song

The complicated social life and plaintive soulful cry of the Gambel’s Quail is the album’s inspiration

Though I grew up in the Pacific Northwest (Seattle), I have lived nearly my entire adult life in the Desert Southwest (Phoenix), having moved here to play in the Phoenix Symphony at the age of 23. Though it was a bit of a shock at first, I have grown to love the desert landscape, its stark but colorful silk-screen topography, no-nonsense flora and fauna, and Technicolor sunsets. Though you would not guess it at first, the Sonoran Desert is the second most diverse biome on the planet, next to only the Amazon Rain Forest. It is continually surprising and fascinating.

Quail Song cover 2Besides the cloudless skies and bottomless sunlight, one of the most notable characteristics of this part of the world is the birdlife. My first morning here I remember being bolted awake by the cacophony of birdsong that has greeted me every morning since. The number and variety is stunning, and it changes as you go from plain to canyon to mountainside to oasis.

One of my favorites is the Gambel’s Quail. They are almost always in small groups racing through the brush or along your fence, flying only if absolutely necessary and driving my cat nuts. They make many different sounds as they keep track of each other in the vegetation, but their “call”, usually by a solitary male, is a simple plaintive single note. The note droops or sighs slightly as if he is running out of breath. It is very distinctive and lonely. It is the sound of this album.

That single repeating note is a common call throughout these tracks. Though I cannot make a piano sigh, I do try to give it that timeless lonely quality that it has in the early morning or right before dusk. It appears in various contexts, sometimes subtle, sometimes overt. But, of course, the album itself is about everything else that is going on: the sprays of color, the dense thickets of chords, the emotional outbreaks, the blankets of calm . . . The quail song is just there to remind you that despite all the waves of volatility, life goes on unaffected.

Morning Song starts with a rather ominous introduction as the sun rises. The song makes its first appearance in call and response fashion with the other sounds of the morning. After another interlude, its call receives a much more desperate response and then the two mingle together as the desert wakes up.

Quail Run is about motion. There is something delightful about watching a quail family race along with a brood of chicks swarming underneath. It is tiny cauldron of boundless energy going in sixteen different directions at once. This track is about running, and parenthood, with an occasional quail song thrown it.

Empty Nest hits me closer to home. It begins with an extended slow, almost chorale-like section before gathering energy and moving on – as we must.

Covey Talk strikes me as rather domestic. There is much back and forth with some joking and some squabbling ending with a serious panic attack. But things settle down at the end as the quail song is heard and everything returns to normal.

Through the Underbrush finds the quail in probably its safest habitat. There is motion but things are more relaxed. The quail song is heard in the distance, and there is a flurry of activity before everything finally settles down for the night.

Left Alone On a Branch. When a quail is singing is just about the only time you ever see one by itself. The question: “Is the quail alone because it is singing?” or “Does the quail sing because it is alone?” I don’t know. Alone is alone; I’m not sure it matters.

Evening Song finds the quail singing accompanied by the colors of sunset, lulling the desert to sleep amid beauty and stillness.

Quail Song is my sixteenth album of solo piano improvisation and was released on July 15, 2017.

 

Bridge to Nowhere

An album of piano improvisation that explores the idea of spiritual awakening.

I first heard the term “Bridge to Nowhere” during the 2008 US Presidential election in reference to the planned bridge to Gravina Island in Ketchikan, Alaska, but the term has been coined for several bridges around the world. Some other famous examples are in Norway, Kyoto, Japan, and outside Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Mountains. The artwork for this album is from a photo of a derelict bridge that appeared out of the fog on a train ride I took up the White Pass outside of Skagway, Alaska.

Bridge To Nowhere cover copyI am using “Bridge to Nowhere” as a metaphor for spiritual awakening. The experience is described in the literature of several religions and is characterized by replacing one’s image of oneself (ego) with an acceptance of one’s experience as oneself. It is a realization that we are not separate from the world. It is us, and we are it.

But the experience changes nothing except one’s attitude. Everything is the same. As the Buddhist Ch’ing-yüan puts it:

Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters.

 I can’t say to have ever had this experience myself, but I have always been fascinated by what I have read about it. It is always described as a loss of self, or rather the loss of one’s image of oneself. It is sort of an intellectual and emotional suicide in order to accept the world as it is (or the world as God. depending on your viewpoint). It seems very risky. Mystical Christians have called it the “Dark Night of the Soul.”

My experience and link to understanding is through music. My music is spontaneous yet definitive. I am all the music I have played and experienced, but I also like to challenge myself creatively. It is not the same, but not different. “Not two, not one,” as the Buddhists would say.

The music in this album is more hopeful than hopeless. It is occasionally lonely, and even sometimes ominous, but is more interested in the journey than the outcome. The music is focused and detailed in a meandering sort of way. The world is beautiful, the bridge is beautiful, and nowhere is beautiful. Most of all, music is beautiful.

The tracks for this album were recorded in 2010 at my home in Phoenix, Arizona.

Of the Bells Bells Bells

My most recent album of piano improvisation reverberates through some literary terrain.

Of the Bells Bells Bells has a somewhat different and more complex history than most of my albums. For most of my albums, I have used tracks that were recorded at roughly the same time.   Sometimes, they were recorded within a day or two. In the case of Night Drift, they were recorded all on the same night. But for Of the Bells Bells Bells, I took tracks that were recorded more than a year apart.

of-the-bells-cover
Clicking on the album cover will take you to CD Baby where you can sample entire tracks.

One of the realities of improvisation is that once it’s played, it’s gone. If something I play is bad, luckily it’s gone; if something I play is good, well, it’s gone too. Good news, bad news. Dealing with this situation is one of the lessons of improvisation, and helps alleviate any stress that might surface about not knowing what you are going to play next. After a while, it becomes pretty easy to keep a low-key attitude, and that leaves me free to relax and play on the edge of my imagination.

However, this all changes when it is time to record. Recording can become quite stressful because I can easily allow a judgmental attitude to creep in and divert my attention from what I am doing. I can’t fool myself; I know it’s not gone. Several years ago, I realized that I couldn’t record something and then go back and listen to it, as it would haunt me when I returned to record again. Unlike a Classical recording, I couldn’t go back and re-record it to play it better. And it’s not really about my playing anyway, it’s about the music. But the temptation is always there.

So I have developed a number of habits that allow me to continue to play recording sessions over the course of a few days or weeks. One of my recording habits is to play when I am not working. I need to be able to devote my full attention to it. My work schedule naturally has holes that I can use for this, but many of them are filled with other activities. So I have found that the least stressful time for me to record is during the summer, as I have about three months off. If I have a week or two during the season sometimes I will go to my cabin where I can be in seclusion, which has also worked, but usually I record in the summer.

I will record for a few days, or even weeks, but only about once a year. Recording is quite exhausting, and after a while I feel “played out.” I don’t listen to my takes for about a year afterward. I don’t want to be able to remember playing them. I need to make a fresh assessment. This is one reason why my albums were recorded a few years before I released them. The process takes some time.

On a whim I googled “five bells” and found a poem of the same name by an Australian poet, Kenneth Slessor

So when I was done editing tracks done in the fall of 2009, I had three good tracks left. In the summer of 2010, instead of recording, I had to work on a commission for an orchestral piece. I usually use an improvisation as the basis for my written pieces, and since I had these three good improvisations left over, I chose one of them as a model the orchestra piece. As I was transcribing and editing the music for the commission, I noticed that two climax points featured five bell-like strokes. On a whim, I googled “Five Bells” and found a poem of the same name by an Australian poet, Kenneth Slessor. The poem discusses time and memory in reference to the death of the poet’s friend. I had already noticed that the end of the piece made a passing reference to Richard Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration, so I gave the piece a tentative title, Five Bells (that stuck) and finished the piece with that in mind.

I didn’t get back to improvisation until late that fall with, for reasons mentioned above, mixed results. When I edited the tracks a year or two later, I realized that there were only two tracks of the first few sessions that I thought were worth keeping. Since those two tracks did not have any other good tracks recorded in close proximity, I decided to combine them with the three tracks from 2009.

About the same time, I discovered another poem, “The Bells” by Edgar Allan Poe, and thought it made a good outline for an album. (I’m not the only composer to think this, Sergei Rachmaninov wrote a choral symphony on a Russian adaptation of the same poem.) Poe wrote the poem about the times in our lives that are punctuated by church bells, other than when the bells are calling the congregation to worship or just keeping time. Three of the four sections deal with moments in individual lives: birth, marriage, and death. The other section deals with the times when bells were used to call the community to action, such as a fire, or flood, or even warfare (as in the 1812 Overture for instance). Poe arranges the sections so that each event is darker than the last, placing the call for action between marriage and death. The bells jingle and tinkle for a birth, while they moan and groan for a death.  I preferred to arrange my album around just the individual life events, so I have transformed Poe’s call to action into something more akin to work or vocation. Also I did not wish to dwell on the darker aspects of aging. Poe wrote the poem near the end of his life and was already infirm. He was already thinking a lot about that last bell.

I wanted to use the improvisation I had used for Five Bells, and work the title and program into the album plan. Poe had given me four stages of life; to that I added “Coming of Age.” The resulting improvisations are: “One Bell” about birth, “Two Bells” about coming of age, “Three Bells” about marriage, “Four Bells” about vocation, and “Five Bells” about death. I tried to choose the improvisation that best represented the subject matter.  The three earlier improvisations from 2009, each roughly ten minutes long, are the first, third, and fifth tracks. The second and fourth tracks, which are shorter, are from 2010.

One of the special features of Poe’s poem is his use of the sounds of his words, including the word “bell” itself, to give the sense of their ringing

One of the special features of Poe’s poem is his use of the sounds of his words, including the word “bell” itself, to give the sense of their ringing. The improvisations include many types of bell sounds themselves, which are a sound that I like and a sound that is very characteristic of the piano.

Of the Bells Bells Bells was released on Jan. 20, 2017, and is my fourteenth album of piano improvisation. It was recorded partly in Phoenix, AZ, and partly in my cabin outside of Ash Fork, AZ.