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.

Recovery

An album examining impermanence and the process of healing

RecoveryThis album is about healing, it’s not intended to be able to heal. Music can be soothing, and many aspects of music can be therapeutic. I participated in a music therapy project a couple of years ago with Alzheimer’s patients, and learned first hand the kinds of effects music can bring to those suffering and struggling to maintain their basic humanity. But that is a different subject and not what this album is about.

By comparison, my musical intention is more mundane. It deals with everyday recovery from everyday loss by everyday people. Impermanence is a fact, but it is the fuel upon which life (and nonlife) sustains itself and moves on. Being attuned to the impermanence of beauty, happiness, and peace is a gift, and it teaches valuable lessons for dealing with ugliness, sorrow, and conflict.

  1. Song of Longing. Loss is difficult; it always leaves a hole that takes time to fill. Though it brings emptiness, it also brings a flood of memories that are often beautiful. Loss does not bring happiness, but the sorrow it brings is the result of happiness.
  2. 3am, Wide Awake. Recovery can make sleep difficult, even frightening. When I am awake in the middle of the night, it is more often from anticipation than reflection. But this is not the case with everyone, and for some, sleep brings no peace. That doesn’t mean they don’t get tired.
  3. Underwater. Recovering often seems like you can’t breathe.
  4. Death of a Bumblebee. (Apologies to Rimsky-Korsakov.) Living in the desert, most of my homes have had either a pool or, in one case, a fishpond. Bees come to the water for moisture, and sometimes they end up going for a swim. Not a good idea. I save them if I can.
  5. Just Not The Same. A friend told me this once after a terrifying event with one of their children. What we miss was sometimes not there to begin with. That doesn’t make it any easier.
  6. Just Suppose. Guilt.
  7. Sleeping Dragon. Sometimes the best we can do for a while is to put the dragon to sleep. We tiptoe around and try not to wake him up. Woe to those who wake him up for you.
  8. Sleeping Princess. Where there is a sleeping dragon, there is also usually a sleeping princess. We may try to ignore everything for a while, but closing up to sorrow and ugliness is also to ignore happiness and beauty. She can awaken too, and she is not always happy about being ignored.
  9. Confession. More guilt.
  10. Bounce.  The lessons of impermanence are patience and timing. Peaks and valleys are part of everything. On the way down, knowledge offers resilience, and we bounce instead of crash, usually.

The album was recorded at my home in Phoenix AZ in November 2010. It is Album #20 and was released on June 25, 2018 by SMS Recordings SMS021.

Waiting into the Night

An album exploring the tragedy of worry

Waiting into the Night coverThis album of spontaneously composed piano music follows the unfortunate trail of worry through several different situations. It is usually the worry and not the situations that make things uncomfortable. Whether obsession, jealousy, phobia, or guilt, the formula never seems to end well. Often tinged with love, wrought with fear, and infused with a distinct lack of self confidence, the reaction usually causes more pain than the original action.

The music is somber and often sad but not melodramatic. It also has a number of moments of elegance and beauty, as much of the subject matter it touches is meaningful. Personally, worry has not played an important role in my own life, but I have seen enough of it in my friends and loved ones to know its pain and consequences. I tend to worry more about my own abilities than the actions of others.

1. Obsession. The first track explores the poison of obsession. Though I tend to think most good musicians tend to be rather OCD anyway, a real obsession is cancerous. The track starts with some passionate sweeps of inquiry, but quickly becomes infatuated with a descending fourth and will not let it go.
2. Waiting Into the Night. The title track takes us through the daydreaming, insecurities, fears and anticipations of waiting alone. The longer you wait, the worse the result, which is often much worse than the reason you’re waiting.
3. All is Forgiven, Don’t Do It Again. This is probably the most volatile track of the set, but also has some of the most touching sequences. Love, when accompanied by fear, makes for some difficult moments.
4. Woulda Coulda Shoulda. Worry can also extend into the past. If only . . . It tends to make you feel that you have already doomed yourself to disaster. A healthy dose of the present is the only cure. “A journey of a thousand miles begins beneath your feet.”
5. The Monster Under the Bed. In a book of vignettes about music practicing, I remember a short image by Itzhak Perlman. He said those passages that you have not fully mastered are like monsters under the bed. They come out to get you at the worst possible time. The same could be said about any ignored problem.
6. Romance and Regret. Nothing is sadder than worrying when things go right! Falling in love is one of those moments.

This album was recorded at my home in Phoenix, Arizona in the autumn of 2010.

Magic Garden

An exploration of ageless innocence

Magic Garden coverMany times I have realized that my thoughts and hopes about life, happiness, my career, and many other things have turned out to be innocent fantasy. Innocence comes in many forms, from simple naivety to outright delusion. Sometimes the effect is inconsequential; sometimes it permeates the core of our existence. This album explores innocence through the metaphor of a magic garden. From the Garden of Eden to the “Primrose Path,” we have all been there! Quaint, surprising, enchanting, mysterious, even charming, this garden is an extravagant diversion for some, and a dangerous intoxication for others.

  1. Strolling. The joys of a garden are in the details. A big picture doesn’t do it. The opening track explores these little intricacies as it works its way in deeper and deeper. At the end, it realizes that it doesn’t know where it is.
  2. To the Right. Tracks 2 & 6 start in the same place but go in different directions. The piece actually works its way back to the opening chord several times in the interim, but it’s where it goes in between that is the most interesting.
  3. Intermezzo No. 1. What distinguishes this intermezzo is how it proceeds. It uses an idea from Japanese oral poetry called chained verse, where new verses (or in music, phrases) borrow something from the preceding verse (phrase) to create a new idea. This can make for subtle changes or wholesale shifts, depending on the idea and inspiration. The Japanese used to use haiku and other syllabic poetry forms, and would chain them together at parties, with a different person inventing each verse. It would be like taking turns singing improvised verses to “Frankie and Johnny,” and often just as racy.
  4. Oven Mitt. All pianists sometimes sound like they forgot to take their gloves off. On this track, it sounds like maybe I forgot to take off an oven mitt.
  5. Bluebells. Bluebells chime in a magic garden.
  6. To the Left. We return to where we started in Track No. 2, but it’s not the same. Awareness is not sin, but it does take the sheen off a little bit.
  7. You Can Never Return. Innocence, like ignorance, may indeed be bliss, but once it is revealed, it can never be reacquired. Paradise Lost is usually more instructive than harmful, however, and there are many other gardens to explore.

This album is a bit softer and gentler than some of my albums, and tends to be rather good-natured. It’s not that innocence doesn’t resort to delusional ranting every once in a while, but that doesn’t happen here. This album was recorded at my home in Phoenix during the fall of 2010.

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.