The Metronome Myth

Though I am a composer and pianist to many people, I have also spent my entire career as a double bassist in a major symphony orchestra, the Phoenix Symphony.  I cannot express what a joy it is to make music with so many wonderfully dedicated colleagues in such an intimate setting.  Though an orchestra may not seem intimate, in reality, it is the same as playing with one other person only times sixty, eighty, or a hundred.  True, an orchestra has a conductor, but, in the long run, a conductor is just another member of the orchestra.  The conductor’s job is to facilitate the performance by allowing the members by keep track of what is going on – sort of a musical version of a GPS program.  Of course, many conductors are marvelous and inspiring musicians, but many performers are marvelous and inspiring musicians as well.  It is the totality of the ensemble’s attention and inspiration that contributes to a memorable performance.

Playing together in a large group is not easy.  The presence of a conductor gives the impression that he or she “makes” everybody play together, but this is not so. A conductor “clarifies” what is happening in the music so that we don’t become disengaged from the present moment.  The actual placement in time of the beats in the music is determined by the performers as they listen to each other.  We all have a concept of a “steady beat,” but that concept within an ensemble is continually being altered by how individuals and groups of musicians are playing.

The essence of musicianship is the expression of emotion.  The intensity and release of an emotion is very precise.  Often that precision lies somewhat outside the pattern of continuous steady beats and is, therefore, expressed in some sort of rubato or some other sort of time stretching (or shrinking) mechanism.  In a disciplined ensemble, this sort of time manipulation is accounted for as it happens.  

Ensemble playing is a perfect example of theory vs. reality.  In theory, a tempo is intended to be steady (most of the time), but in reality, the tempo is created by the performers as they perform.  The tempo and rhythm does not control the performance, the performers control the tempo.  The tempo or rhythm is neither right or wrong by itself, but if you are not playing with any- or everybody else, you are wrong.

The metronome was invented in the early 1800’s to help performers learn to maintain a steady tempo.  It may be surprising that most students have trouble with this.  It also was designed to help composers be more precise in their designation of tempo.  Though it has useful applications for practicing or keeping complicated ensemble passages together, many times it is more trouble than it is worth.  Specifying the tempo of a musical work is also not as precise as one might think.  The tempo in a music work will vary depending on 1) the nature of what is being expressed and 2) the nature of the musical space it is being performed in.  This has been most notoriously shown in the music of Beethoven.  Beethoven had to judge the metronome marking by sight, as he could not hear the click.  But even more telling was that he only ever heard the music in his head, which did not have a lot of reverb time!

When you are playing by yourself, a metronome can be somewhat helpful in keeping your sense of tempo honest while practicing.  Most people not only slow down when playing difficult passages, but also speed up when playing easy passages.  The metronome helps guard against those tendencies.  But when playing with others, the tempo must be a mutually agreed upon affair.  The metronome’s tempo is not the “right” tempo, it is just something which is given as being “in the neighborhood.”

The “click track,” which started as the use of a metronome in recorded music, has become a staple of contemporary life in music.  It was of tremendous value in multi-track recording studios because it allows for different tracks of music to be recorded at different times, which was of great benefit to editing.  A click track also became very useful in syncing music with movies and video, as the click track could be synced with the video BEFORE the musicians recorded their parts.  Today click tracks are integral parts of most Broadway musicals; not only syncing the music, but also the lighting and scene changes!  

Performing live movie scores with the movie has become common in today’s orchestras.  Sometimes it is done with click tracks (and conductors) with the musicians wearing headphones.  This is a huge and expensive technical challenge.  You often can’t hear well through headphones, so for orchestral playing, they started using one-eared headphones quite a while ago.  But it is still difficult because the click track and the music are not always together.  You must, of course, be with the music.  Most shows I have done recently have a conductor listening to the click track.  This can be frightening for an uninitiated conductor, as the orchestra is often not with the click track.  The conductor can’t just follow the click track, because he could derail the orchestra, so he just adjusts and tries to get by.  This is not an occasional problem, this is a constant problem!

It has come to bother me, however, that the click track has become the absolute standard for nearly all music written today.  Of course, popular music for the last hundred years or so has had it’s own click track, namely the drummer.  You don’t mess with the drummer!  If the drummer rushes, you rush; it he slows down, you slow down.  This has been the truth forever in popular music.  The drummer is also usually playing loud enough that he can’t hear much of the rest of the group, so they follow him.  In an orchestra, the percussionists are part of the ensemble and are expected to play with everybody else.  It is significant that pop, rock, or jazz groups don’t have more than one drummer!

Click tracks also have a natural affinity with computers.  Computers now control nearly all the music you hear, whether in the media, recording, or live performance.  Almost all classical composers use a computer to write or at least copy their music as well.  Notation programs all produce recordings that have become more and more realistic. Everything in these programs defaults to a constant steady beat (usually m.m.=120), and as a result, almost all music shares that characteristic.  It is easier to write five against four than to change tempo.  The organic nature of accelerandos and ritards can be difficult to deal with in a digital workplace (the math isn’t that simple) so except for special circumstances, they are ignored.  The ebb and flow of tempo so common in something like an orchestra, or romantic music in general, is an obstruction for the computer.  So, as is so often the case, “the medium is the message,” and composers write for the computer instead of making the computer play like an ensemble!  The computer is a wonderful tool, but tools tend to be used in ways which are easy for the tool.  

When I record my own piano improvisations, I don’t use a click track.  I make tempo as fluid as everything else.  I do record in MIDI, however.  The standard MIDI recording interface is something which resembles an old time piano roll.  It has a graph-like representation of the metric grid rolling left to right and a piano keyboard represented up and down.  Pitches and note lengths are represented as horizontal bars; dynamics and other music elements are represented underneath.  There is no insistence upon using this metric grid, but it is used as a backdrop in any case.  Because I do not use the computer program’s grid, however, it does not know what my rhythm is.  It can’t listen to what I am playing and perceive the tempo or rhythm as a person can when playing in an ensemble.  Because of that, it cannot transcribe my music in any kind of intelligible fashion.  And my music does not survive very well being forced into the computers metrics; believe me, I have tried!  But I can transcribe it the old-fashioned way, by listening and writing it down, which is in itself an eye-opening experience.  (There are so many different ways of transcribing a rhythm when it is just a sound with no dominant pulse!)  

So where I am going with all this is that rhythm and tempo are like mathematics; they are useful tools but do not have any existence in themselves.  Their reality is a myth; and what a musician performs either by themselves or with their colleagues is the only true reality.  Rhythm and tempo are not standards to follow or by which to judge, they are suggestions which help communicate the important issues in the music, the emotional and aesthetic content.

Composing from Recorded Improvisations

For nearly twenty years, from the mid-1990’s to the mid-2010’s, nearly all of my creative efforts were focused on keyboard improvisation.  I considered my improvisation to be an extension of my composition, or rather a spontaneous compositional technique.  It was not so much my interest in abilities, as much as my interest in the compositional process and how my music unfolded which drove my pursuit.  As such, I never became very interested in performing.  I didn’t want to be a great improviser/performer; I wanted to create really good, personally authentic music!  A good performer plans and practices his or her performance.  This is not what interested me; I neither wanted to do anything twice, nor did I want to create a performing formula that would hamper, or “pre-form” my imagination.

However, it was after I developed my abilities to a certain level, that I realized spontaneous inspiration could only take me so far down the road to the music I wished to create.  Improvisation has its own ups and downs, its moments of inspired intensity as well as its lapses of concentration.  It comes with the territory.  In order to create better music, I needed to keenly edit the recordings.  And to create the music I wished, I was going to need to subject the music to some additional compositional technique. 

As a composer, I was used to taking ideas which I had created on the keyboard and developing them into music for other instruments or groups of instruments.  When using improvisation, I would need to transcribe the recording, but creating a written composition is a much more transformative process.  Unlike improvisation, composition allows me to control timing and purpose in my music, and unlike improvisation, I know where I am going.  Composing takes the music out of time, giving the music dimension and balance.  It allows me to make obvious those things that are only hinted at during improvisation.  It also allows me to make edits, cuts, or changes to notes and chords that do not fit the compositional purpose, although I find that I do that a lot less often than I expected.

Composing from an improvisation is a different kind of compositional process, more inductive than deductive.  It is about discovering relationships and connecting ideas, rather than creating the ideas first and using them to construct a complementary artistic product.  It is about distilling, enhancing, and expanding what is there, instead developing a cohesive structure from smaller building blocks.

I feel that this process is inherently more relevant.  Music composition developed as a deductive process; think a Bach fugue or a Haydn motivic sonata movement.  It became a building process, an idea-driven creative process.  A mathematician or logician uses “deductive” reasoning to develop theorems or arguments using tools of the trade and given assumptions.  It is a powerful tool.  On the other hand, a scientist USES mathematics to try to explain what he has observed in the real world.  If a scientist has explained something correctly using mathematics, he should be able to PREDICT an event in the real world.  This combination of observation and directed mathematics is the essence of “inductive” reasoning. 

In my creative process, I use my spontaneous intuitive improvisation as my creative “reality.”  I then use my compositional training to show and enhance what I see and find in the improvisation.  Both methods create good composed music, but I like the fact that my methods draw upon music spontaneously created in real time. 

Just making music, however, is not all there is to composition!  A composer writes music for different combinations of instruments and for different occasions or purposes.  So in composing with improvisations, there is also a not insignificant element of adaptation!  In essence, the original improvisation becomes a sketch or first draft.  It changes and develops as the end product becomes clearer.  Although the compositional craft in working this way essentially remains the same, the starting point and the uses for that craft are considerably different.

Though my creative process is somewhat similar to the process of observation used by a scientist, that’s as far as it goes.  I am not interested in formulating a “theory” of how I put things together while I am improvising.  I am not interested in mimicking or recreating the improvisatory process using composition.  One of the most useful roles of science is when theory predicts the existence of things which we would normally not be looking for, such as black holes or dark matter.  Similarly, one of the more rewarding aspects of working with improvisations is when it leads me into ideas and textures that I had not thought of otherwise.  In my early years of composing, I did devise some processes that, I thought, mimicked how my improvisation unfolded.  But it turned out that the spontaneity was just not there.  Some of the pieces were pretty good, but not because of the process!  Creative formulas are just not creative!  A scientist, I think, would readily admit that science can only explain certain things, and cannot predict what is actually going to happen in the real world.  There are too many variables, and the universe is simply way too complicated and time sensitive.  Improvisation also is complicated and time sensitive.  There is no way to predict what spontaneous creativity is going to come up with.  Though it might be interesting and instructive, there wouldn’t be any fun in that anyway!

(For an example of composing using a recorded improvisation including composition(s) and the original improvisation, see my previous post Restless In Loops.)


A piano album of inquiry

Quandary cover

This is a peaceful but probing album broaching some of the larger questions; those questions you sometimes ponder when you don’t have enough to do. it doesn’t suggest any answers, or at least any simple answers. It only suggests that the world is just way too complex to worry much about. Humans may be having a significant effect upon it, but Nature will find a way through it. Of course, it may decide we don’t have a place in the solution, but that would be our fault.

I tend to welcome complexity in my music. One reason I prefer spontaneity as a compositional technique is that it seems to enhance and encourage diversity and complex relationships. Instead of creating complex music from simple generators, like say j. S. Bach, I start complex and try to develop the relationships that I find. I, personally, think that this is closer to how we must cope with the real world, which is neither simple or static. But I am a pretty low-key person, as a rule, and I don’t get tremendously worked up about it. Though that doesn’t stop me from thinking about it.

Quandary sets out to blaze a path of discovery and exploration. There are several moments of interest, intrigue, and beauty along the way. But it choses not to dwell on any of them for very long. Life is too short, and the world is too large. The questions remain unanswered, but Nature is both unconcerned and undeterred.

City Music – Phoenix Symphony Performance

A Phoenix Symphony (Tito Munoz, cond.) gave a stellar performance of my orchestra work City Music on Nov. 8, 9, & 10, 2019.  The recording below is from the Nov. 9th performance.  I wrote the work when I was 24, and after the premiere in 1976, I made several cuts and edits.  I continued to refine the edits with each successive performance until a performance in 1986, when I was finally satisfied enough to consider it the “final version.”  By this time, the parts and score, which were in manuscript of course, were in pretty bad shape.  I decided I needed to recopy the work.  Then I decided to wait until computer software became good enough.  Then I got really busy.  The work did not get recopied until about twenty years later.  This is the work’s first performance since I recopied it.

G. Stallcop – City Music – 1. Song          Phoenix Symphony, Tito Munoz, cond.

G. Stallcop – City Music – 2. Dance        Phoenix Symphony, Tito Munoz, cond.

Notes for City Music

City Music (1974) was my first major effort for orchestra, written just after I left college and took a position as a double bassist with the Phoenix Symphony. It was written as a gift and tribute to Vilem Sokol, legendary conductor of the Seattle Youth Symphony, to whom I owe the inspiration to pursue music as a career. It was first performed by the Seattle Youth Symphony, with Vilem Sokol conducting, in the Seattle Opera House, in May 1976.

Following a period of experimentation in college, I set out with this piece to consolidate what I had learned while attempting a more colloquial style. At the time, most orchestras were not performing “pops” concerts, but I felt that rock, blues, and fusion jazz had a lot to offer. This work was the result. With the exception of Bernstein, most readily accessible American music was either overtly Romantic or based on folk or country music. This work was based more on music from the city, hence the name. Though the work does show a marked influence of the blues, and a lavish use of idiomatic percussion, the end result is primarily orchestral.

The first movement, “Song”, paints an exotic and cosmopolitan picture of the city with its esoteric sophistication and elan. Essentially a set of variations, the movement features two lavish and virtuosic fast variations and an extended bluesy cadenza for solo violin. The second movement, “Dance”, characterizes the hustle, bustle, and mega-caffeinated reality of life in the city. Its popular rhythms, cast in the form of a rondo, come together for an extended coda which builds to a wild frenzy at the end.


The Art of the Flute and Inner Vocalizations

More solo improvisations for Coronatime

With lots of time on my hands, I have been surfing YouTube for solo improvisers who provide moving performances that speak to our present lives in isolation.  Today I am sharing two of them, Derek Charke and George Grant.

Flutist and composer Derek Charke teaches composition at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.  His flute and bass flute improvisations are inventive, very well sculpted and full of things that I didn’t know the flute could do.  His improvs are full of alternate and unusual fingerings, and embouchure tricks.  He also has his flutes constructed with open holes to accommodate easier pitch bending.  His bass flute work is particularly fascinating.  I have never seen a bass flute live!  He apparently is equipped with a pair of iron lungs, as well.

He has collected his recent improvs into one large video, which I have linked to below so you can binge listen like I did.  I was transfixed for about 45 minutes.  Enjoy!



George Grant is a Professor of Music Therapy at Utah State University. He specializes in vocal toning and throat singing.  He is no slouch on the hand drum either.  His music is something altogether different from that of Derek Charke.  As a music therapist, he emphasizes the healing and meditative aspects in his music.  The things he does with his voice in this improvisation are not easy, and they are presented with a real emotional honesty.  I love the simplicity of this music.  One of my composition teachers told me that it seemed to him that the most spiritual music was often extraordinarily simple.  I think he was right.


Private Music Improvisation

Improvisation is the most appropriate one-on-one musical interface for Corona-times

Of the proliferation of home-recorded music being done these days, I find that I like the solo improvisation the best.  This is perhaps not surprising as I am very interested in improvisation anyway, but I think a good musician improvising captures the mood of the present very poignantly, while a written piece may or may not be appropriate. 

Over the course of music history, there have been thousands of pieces that were written for the home, particularly music for keyboard.  Before people had the luxury of listening to recorded music, the only way they could have music in their home was to 1) hire a musician, or 2) play it themselves.  Many of my favorite composers (C.P.E. Bach, Chopin, Grieg, Debussy, etc.) devoted a majority of their compositional efforts to “parlor music” as it was commonly known.  The interesting thing about this music is that it is not really intended for listeners.  The performer and the listener are one in the same.  The performer/listener, because he or she is already very engaged mentally, is considerably more focused than your average concert goer.  Much of the world’s chamber music was likewise composed, for amateurs getting together.  (Most of the rest was composed as background music for various social events!) There is not a lot of music of this sort written for solo instruments other than the piano or guitar, but the amount of “parlor” chamber music is huge.

Today, with so much music of all sorts so easily available through recording, this sort music is no longer very much played.  Sure, some of it, Chopin, Brahms, Debussy, and others, have become recital staples, but most of the rest is out of print and gathering dust.  I was so very fortunate to have inherited my piano teacher’s (Frits Scavenius) entire piano library.  His concert career spanned the 1910’s and 20’s, and a little into the 30’s.  He was said to have had the entire piano repertoire of Grieg committed to memory, and there is certainly a lot of it in his library.  But there is also reams and reams of music and composers I have never heard of, and it is all music of this type – shorter romantic pieces of average to above-average difficulty meant to be played at home.

But recorded music has changed the nature of the standard musical dialog. The role of the composer has diminished, while stature of the performance has grown in importance and become more personal and independent.  The dialog used to be between composer and listener, with the performer as interpreter or go-between.  Today, the composer, when he or she is different than the performer, has become more like source material than an artistic statement.  The performance is now the interface, and not the printed music, and it is much more efficiently direct and intimate.

With the performance becoming the key ingredient of the musical experience, it is probably inevitable that improvisation would play a key role.  Classical musicians are much more receptive to improvisation than they used to be, especially among string players.  Many musicians are still not comfortable performing free improvisation, but improvising within some sort of musical framework is becoming rather commonly acceptable.

Under present circumstances, however, nobody is performing either publicly or with anybody else.  So playing alone to a microphone is now the only option, and for those who improvise, it is becoming the method of choice.  I believe it is also the most expressive and accessible form of musical communication for these stressed times.

Check out the improvisation below by violinist Jennifer Curtis.  It is a short but moving eulogy for a 12-year-old Indian girl forced to relocate on foot because of the shut down.

Private Music

The intimate world of individual musical performance in the pandemic

With the world in the throws of public health lock-down, and public gatherings of any sort unthinkable, music has taken on special attention.  Concerts, big and small, are gone, and even rehearsals and casual musical gatherings are untenable.  But music survives and adapts.

As a composer, personal and orchestral musician, the uses and adaptations of music are of keen interest.  Traditionally, music has always found a place at public events, whether political, spiritual, or casual, and has provided the necessary special mood.  Music has also accompanied theatrical events, plays, opera, ballet, and even film before the music was incorporated into the film itself.  Music has also taken the stage by itself, with concerts of music from single musicians all the way up to symphonies of a thousand.

With all of the public uses of music shut down, however, the emphasis has shifted to music available in the home.  Music for public events becomes mood or background music for home activity.  Music for theater becomes music for video (even video games).  Concert music becomes personal listening.  The interesting thing about this transformation is that the music that has adapted to the home environment is different than its public cousins.

Public event music, generally, tries to ramp people up, while private background music tries to wind people down.  Music for video is subtly different, generally being less grandiose, but generally provides the same function.  (Because the experience of watching a film is so engrossing, it strikes me that home video systems have done as much to become more like a movie theater experience as the art form has done in adapting to the small screen, which has also happened.)  Never-the-less, “grand” just doesn’t make it better on a video.  All music comes from the same speakers, and therefore, is perceived as equal.  Intimate music can be very effective in video.  A love scene doesn’t need to whip up the volume and the violins to get the message across.

Though professional interest has found me watching opera, ballet, and concerts in video, it is not because I find them more interesting.  As a rule, I find them to be rather awkward and inappropriate for the medium.  Large scale concerts are perhaps the most out of sync.  The larger the scale, (orchestra, chorus, etc.) the smaller the images become.  The big extravaganzas at the Olympics or the Super Bowl are the worst. The screen and the speakers never change.  The physical limitations of the medium inhibit the ability and intent of the composers and musicians to impress, and makes them concentrate on the emotional message they are trying to express.  A large ensemble actually has trouble communicating on a small screen, something it can do very well when the performance is live.  A good video producer understands this and usually shows an orchestra, for instance, as a series or shots of individual members, a full stage shot appearing only occasionally.  A Super Bowl-type event video will also concentrate on shots of the soloist and not the thousands of people performing behind them.

The special circumstances of the present lock-down have come to emphasize the private nature of individual communication.  And this has held true for music as well.  The internet has become a godsend for musicians and listeners alike.  Individual musicians, performing from their homes, have become the norm, casual, one-on-one, intimate.  Large-scale Zoom ensemble performances don’t really make it for me.  For one, they are not real.  You can’t play live in ensemble because of the delay (known as “latency”).  The takes have to be individually recorded and specially mixed.  Music teachers can’t even play at the same time with their students on Zoom or Skype.  The delay across a stage can be difficult, the delay online is impossible.  But also, “large scale” simply takes away the great advantages of the medium. 

Individual soloists can perform uninhibited, and I have already seen a number of wonderful examples.  Whether there is one person watching or millions, the experience is always personal.  Expression is everything, especially now.

Below is a performance of a friend of mine, cellist Sarah Walder, alone under lock-down, in the attic of her apartment in the Netherlands.  Simple.  Moving.



Downhill cover

The theme for the album Downhill evolved over time to be a collection of seemingly small things which trigger a whole series of events. Events flow from the original trigger like water flowing downhill. These series of events are not inevitable, but can only be altered or halted with great effort and purpose. Some of these events, such as Aperitif, are relatively harmless, but others such as lies and arguments are much less so.

The spontaneous nature of my music causes me to ponder the idea of cause and effect quite a bit. There are ideas about cause and effects out there that consider an act and its response as one single event. Sometimes, what we would normally consider a whole series of responses are taken as just one event, a natural tendency to want to even balance things out to achieve a state of hypothetical equilibrium.

I read once an explanation that claimed that the way we normally look at cause and effect was like looking at the world through a cardboard tube. If a horse walks past our field of vision, we would claim that the front of the horse caused the back of the horse, that the head caused the tail. However, in reality, the horse was just a single thing and we happened to see it in sequence rather than all at once. Many series of events are so closely tied to each other that they could really be considered to be one event.

Our modern society is based on competition, and tends to think of only harmful aggression as bad, and sometimes only if it is illegal. But all aggression, whether positive or negative, causes reciprocal behavior, and much of it is spiteful. These are the thoughts upon which I was meditating when I recorded this album. The music is not so much descriptive as it is reflective. There sometimes emerges a feeling of regret and helplessness at the snowballing consequences, but, occasionally, there also is excitement and hope when things turn for the better. Not all consequences are negative, and caution is not your ally when falling in love.

This album was recorded in my home in Phoenix, AZ.

Five Bells

An orchestral tone poem based on the poem by Kenneth Slessor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glenn Stallcop:  Five Bells



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.